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Bishop's Monday Message: Between a rock and a hard place

Posted: September 21 2020 at 08:48 AM

En Español

Have you ever felt caught between a rock and a hard place? 

The Israelites were definitely caught between a rock and a hard place as they are attempting to escape the oppression of slavery and Pharaoh. I would encourage you to read the story in Exodus 14. But you may know it.

The Israelites are finally breaking free from Egypt and running pell-mell out into the desert thinking they were well beyond the grasp of Pharaoh when the Red Sea loomed ahead of them. Behind them, they could hear the hoofbeats of the soldiers’ chariot horses. Which way to go? Which way to face?

I wouldn’t think they had a choice, really. Would they really go back into slavery? Well, evidently that was an option. They complained to Moses in no small plaintive voice, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?” 

This was just the beginning of a wilderness—full of complaints against God and Moses because there’s nothing easy or comfortable about being uncertain. The wilderness was 40 years of uncertainty: uncertainty about tomorrow’s food or water; uncertainty about where they were really going and whether they’d get there; uncertainty about whether Moses would ever come down from Mt. Sinai. Often we make poor choices in our uncertainty and the Israelites were no exception. In their uncertainty, they made a golden calf to give them comfort. So after their dramatic exodus from Egypt, they came to the Red Sea only to be faced with what they thought were the options: slavery or plunge into the Red Sea.

They were caught between a rock and a hard place.

In the uncertainty of our times, I find we feel caught between a rock and a hard place:

  • Churches longing to return to what has been, even as they know it wasn’t sustainable before, but now are afraid to go forward into the terrifying unknown and unfamiliar.
  • Clergy trained for Egypt and catapulted into guiding people into and across the Red Sea.
  • Communities trying to maintain a sense of cohesion when those events and gatherings that normally provide cohesion aren’t possible and, in fact, can be super-spreader events.
  • A nation that is already so polarized that even an illness and how to keep from getting ill creates more hostility and division.
  • Workplaces of all kinds, including schools, trying to figure out how to provide needed services in a safe and effective way.
  • After 6 months, recognizing that it’s a risk to gather as families, friends, churches or any other group, but that we can’t go without social interaction forever. How do we balance the risks? How do we adequately protect ourselves and our loved ones?

Are you living between a rock and a hard place?

A few years ago we used a respected church consultant, Rev. Susan Beaumont, to train some of us in adaptive leadership. She was in the process of writing a book and so she told us about it. She said that it’s about the church in liminality. 

“Liminality” is a word from the Latin, meaning “threshold.” It’s a time of being betwixt and between, acknowledging that what has been is dying away or disappearing, but what will yet be is not yet clear. 

Elsewhere I have read that a liminal time is like “God’s waiting room,” where we are parked, maybe preparing and earnestly seeking what yet shall be. In God’s waiting room, there is no certainty about what the future will be even as we recognize that we can’t go back to the past. Normal is not before us! 

But I have to say that I think the word “liminal” just sounds too soft and kind of mystical almost “wooey-wooey.” Nothing feels soft or mystical or “wooey-wooey” to me right now in this time of uncertainty. It has more of the feel of being caught between a rock and a hard place like the Israelites up against the wall of the Red Sea with little time to make decisions with few choices.  

But the story reminds us that God doesn’t leave us alone to deal with life when we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. The text says that God instructed Moses to lift up his staff and stretch out his hand over the sea and to be assured that the sea will divide.  

Remember Moses’ staff? It was given to Moses as a sign that God’s power and presence would be with him when he went to tell both the Hebrews and Pharaoh that God was leading the people out of slavery. God is still trying to convince Moses to take on the task. So God asks Moses what is in his hand. It was his staff. His staff was practically an extension of his hand or arm.  

Moses had probably used that same staff to kill the Egyptian soldier. He probably used it to threaten the men who were harassing the women at the well; one of whom he came to marry. Now God was asking Moses to throw it on the ground. And it became a snake. God asked Moses to pick it up…by the tail (no less). And he did. He learned that God was with him and helped him do far more than he could ever imagine. God is with us when we’re caught between the rock and the hard place. God provides a way where there is no way…if we are open to it.

The passage goes on to say that an angel of God went before the Israelites; then it says that the pillar of cloud was guiding them; then it says it was the Lord in the cloud. I love that in just a verse or two we find God’s presence and power in three ways. Never try to limit (or for that matter guess) how God is going to show up to help—with all your hard work, or in spite of you, or even in the most surprising, unexpected way or people. The point of the story really is that God shows up to give help and strength. God didn’t leave them caught between a rock and a hard place.

But Moses also learned that this staff—his symbol of divine presence—can be misused if we’re not careful. Moses used it to strike the rock to get water instead of speaking to the rock as God commanded him. It was the action that kept Moses from the Promised Land. 

Leading in uncertain times, when everyone is anxious (including ourselves in the church) it’s easy to misuse our voice, our influence, and our tempers for that matter. Not seeing people face to face for months on end can take away our natural inclination to tone down our words and not insist on super-spreading our anger and frustration on everyone else—all in the context of a church meeting or Bible study or some other gathering where there are anxious people wanting to simply know that God is with them. As a result, we can harm people spiritually and emotionally—people who trusted us. 

The people, guided by God and Moses, risked entering the Red Sea as its waters parted. Some say it was a shallow body that the winds blew open and they were able to cross while the chariots sunk down in the mud. But whatever it was, it was Moses’ trust in God (even if he was scared to death), and as a result of that trust, they emerged out of the waters—like the waters of our baptism—into a new life. 

“Caught between a rock and a hard place” isn’t easy or comfortable, but trust that God is with you and trust that when we risk doing a new thing, even a scary thing, we will find that way when we thought there was no way!

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