You know the old story about the man who bought a mule, right? Well, it seems that one day there was a mule for sale, cheap! So, Sam thought, “why not? I could use some help around the far.” So, Sam bought the mule. Now, the seller told him that the mule understood English, so, he would do whatever he was ordered to do. The problem was, however, when Sam tried to get the mule to go forward and he just stood there. Sam couldn’t get him to move, at all, nothing. So, he turned to the original owner and said, “You lied to me, this animal doesn’t understand a word I say.” Well, the seller looked at the mule, looked at Sam, and then picked up a two-by-four and hit the mule right in the head with it. Then he said, “go forward.” The mule did it. Sam was shocked and said, “why on earth did you do that?” The seller looked at the mule, and he looked at Sam, then he smiled and said, “Well, sometimes you just have to do something dramatic to get their attention.”
We are creatures of habit. We like things to remain the same, stable, predictable, under control. And when a change is introduced, I think we’re like that old mule sometimes, we need a wake-up call. Because as you already know, life is constantly changing. It’s anything but predictable. And anybody who’s ever tried to control the events and circumstances of their life can tell you that it’s a prescription for insanity! You know what they say, “If you want to hear God laugh, just share your plans.”
Now, sometimes our discomfort with change leads us to make some irrational decisions. I read this week that one of the ways that we deal with the ever-changing quality of life is by living life in the past-tense. By that, the author meant we look back with great fondness to a time when everything was just way we liked it. And we hold onto that ideal image as a sort of security blanket when life in the present becomes overwhelming. Of course, if we really went back to that point in time, we’d realize that not everything was just like we remembered it. But in retrospect, it’s easy to see the past with rose-colored glasses.
Now, the same thing is true of our faith. We can get stuck in the past when it comes to our faith. It may be a past part of our life, or it may be a distant past, like biblical times. Either way, we tend to idealize the past, thinking that it must have been easier to have faith in that time. But when we do that, I wonder if our faith doesn’t get stuck in the past. I wonder if we have a hard time really bringing our faith into the present time with all its challenges.
I think that was at least a part of what was going on with the people of Israel in our lessons for today. The people addressed by the prophet Isaiah may have been on their way back from exile in Babylon, which was a long and dangerous journey through a desolate wilderness. These days, we can romanticize the idea of going “into the wild,” but in biblical times the wilderness was a place that was feared. It was a place of unknown dangers and scarce food and water. You could die in the wilderness.[i] The prophet called them to take their faith in the God who brought the people of the past safely out of Egypt and bring that faith with them on their present journey through the wilderness. The same God who made “a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” promised to do something brand new: he would make a “way in the wilderness”. God promised to bring them safely through their dangerous journey, and the prophet called them to bring their faith in the God of the past into the present situation that they feared so much.[ii]
Now, it’s also possible, perhaps even more likely, that the prophet was addressing people who had already made the journey back to Jerusalem, and instead of finding the home they remembered and loved, what they found was an abandoned city in ruins. Having made their dangerous journey, they found themselves in even more danger. The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah tell us how dangerous it was for the people who worked to rebuild the ruined city. Rather than the safety of home, they found themselves under attack from enemies who had taken control of the land in their absence.[iii]
But what does all this have to do with Lent?
Well, in this Season of Introspection, on the journey inward, and as we attempt to create a time and a space to just be with God daily, a deep and lasting “change” is required. And that change of mind and heart isn’t possible unless we, like the Israelites of old, bring our faith in the God into the present situations of our lives and in our world. And, I know, this kind of connecting our historical faith with the issues of this world can be complicated, confusing, maybe even a little bit scary. But we cannot let fear overcome us. Do you know that phrase Jesus uses more than any other in the gospels? “Fear not.” And there’s a good reason for that. Fear is the opposite of faith. Fear paralyses us while faith frees us. Fear keeps us in the darkness while faith exposes us to the Light. And fear wants to keep the status quo, at any cost, while faith invites us to step into the future.
My friends, we cannot deny that there are many challenges that we face in our world today. Global climate change, violence, on-going wars and genocide just to name a few. And the loudest voices in our society continue spew racially-charged and hate-filled rhetoric, dividing this nation rather than attempting to do the hard work of uniting us. And there’s our personal situations: loneliness, illness, grieving a loss or disappointment. All of these things can cause us to recoil in fear and dream of past days when things were different. And believe me, I can understand that. But I also believe with every fabric of my being, that God loves each of us. And in that love, there is hope, there is healing and restoration; there is new growth.
I would like to leave you today with a very hope-filled poem that I shared with the As Time Goes By group this week. It’s called Wild Geese by Mary Oliver.
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting over and over announcing your place in the family of things.[iv]
My friends, as we continue on this journey may you come to realize that you too have a place in the “family of all things”. And that you’re beloved, cherished, and interconnected with all of life by and through a loving Creator. And no matter what challenges you may face, no matter what change is coming down the pike, you don’t have to face them alone. You don’t have to be mired in fear, because in the end, “the world offers itself to your imagination.” In my mind, that’s finally the nature of faith; that’s finally the nature of God.
God is doing a new thing. Let us grow and be glad in it!
Amen and amen.
[i] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 73.
[ii] Ibid. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 72, where he warns that a “retreat from the hostile unknown to the comfort of the familiar,” if it becomes a “permanent posture, becomes spiritual escapism.”
[iv] Wild Geese from Dream Work published by Atlantic Monthly Press © Mary Oliver