Thursday, April 14, 2016

Leaving Egypt: Time to Get Growing (Part Two)

There is a story I heard once about a boy who was afraid to climb the stairs at his family's new house after they moved.

Where on earth do kids get these fears from? It's a silly fear, all things considered, but what are you going to do? People enjoy what they enjoy, and they're afraid of what they're afraid of. Still, it's a problem. So the boy's father makes him an offer: “Climb up to the first step, and jump off. I'll catch you.”

Now the boy is young, maybe only 3 years old. He's in awe of his father. Compared to the boy himself, the father is a large and powerful presence, someone who fills the room just by being there. He can be overwhelming and stern, but at the same time there is a tireless joy that undergirds the father's entire personality. It's more than a little perplexing; but the boy loves him, and so he agrees.

The first jump is more of a step than a leap, but the father is true to his word. He catches the boy before his foot touches the floor, almost before he even has had time to realize that his feet have left the first step. The boy smiles, and his father lifts him up onto the second step.

“Now,” says his father, “jump off the second step. I'll catch you.”

The boy is nervous. This step is ten inches off the floor, but his father is standing there, eyes full of encouragement, his arms stretched out. The boy takes a breath, closes his eyes and does it.

This time there's a moment of fear, but it's mixed with the exhilaration that comes from free fall. The boy feels his father's strong hands close on him, and maybe he even hears his dad make a whooshing nose like an airplane as his father swings him back up and puts him on the third step.

“Do it again!” the father says, and the boy laughs. “I'll catch you.”

Each time the boy jumps, his fear recedes amid a rush of excitement. It's a wonderful game they're playing, and by the time they have finished the fifth step, the boy's fears are forgotten. The stairs are no longer monstrous. They're exciting, wonderful, fun! Laughing with abandon, he needs no encouragement to climb to the sixth step all by himself.

“Now,” says his father, arms crossed in front of him. “Jump.”

The boy doesn't even hesitate. He is a bird in flight as he leaps off the stairs and into empty space, arms upraised. And then, the unthinkable happens. His father doesn't catch him. He doesn't even move. Instead, his father watches as the son lands on the wooden floor at the foot of the stairs with a loud thump. As the boy begins to cry, he sees on his father's face an emotion we can only describe as ironic satisfaction.

“There,” says the father. “That'll teach you.”

I'll admit that the first time I heard this story it left me bewildered. What kind of man plays a practical joke like that on his kids? It's just cruel. But of course, like all good stories, this one has layers that you have to think about before you can understand it.

The key here is the last line: “That'll teach you.” What's the lesson being imparted here, that you shouldn't trust anyone, not even your parents? That's a pretty sick and cynical lesson. It's not much better if we say that the lesson is that we should listen to our fears and avoid stairs. It's obvious that the father loves the boy, given that he spends so much time playing with the boy and teaching him not to be afraid. With that in mind, it stands to reason that the intended lesson is more nuanced than our immediate reaction would allow.

At the very minimum, one obvious lesson is that it's still stupid (and risky) to play on the stairs. Another is that sometimes the people you depend on will fail you, and that even though your father has been watching out for you, you won't always be able to count on him like you would like to.

And of course there is the obvious interpretation that this isn't a story about the mean things fathers do to their kids at all. It's a story about God, and the journey of faith that the Israelite people have had over history, beginning with the period right after God freed them from slavery.

In Christianity we often think of redemption as a fixed point in our lives. In some denominations this comes at the moment of baptism, when a priest prays over an infant and that child is cleansed of original sin. In other churches it comes later, with a personal prayer of repentance and commitment to following Jesus.

Regardless of how this act of redemption occurs, it's an accepted truth within Christianity that we are born out of harmony with God and need to be restored to that perfect peace. You can view it as something like passing through a wicket gate. One minute you're standing before the gate, groaning beneath the heavy weight tied to your back like sin. Then you step through the gate, kneel at the Cross, and the burden falls from your back. There will be dangers along the road and you'll have to pass through Vanity Fair, but in times to come, you can point back to that moment and know something real happened, and that you're now walking on the king's highway as a loyal subject.

Here's the thing, though. Redemption isn't a single event. It's a journey. Setting people free is only the first part of God's plan. It's not enough to be free if the first thing you want to do with your freedom is to want to return to Egypt. God's goal all along was to get Israel, a people who had lived as slaves in Egypt for 400 years, to cross the desert and enter the Promised Land.

In order to do this, God has to show the Israelites that there is nothing to fear. So when Pharaoh pursues the people and threatens to trap them by the Red Sea, God gets them to take a leap of faith and then destroys the Egyptian army. When the people grow hungry and fearful of starving, he sends them manna and quail. Then it's water. He even has them set aside a sabbath day for rest and relaxation. His goal throughout this process is the same as the goal of the storied father: He wants his son to overcome his fear and to learn to trust.

But just as the father in the story needs his son to rely on himself on the stairs, God has bigger plans for Israel than simply bailing them out with a miracle every time there is trouble. God wants his people to maintain a relationship with him, as adults

Redemption isn't just a single point in our lives. It's about growing up, becoming self-sustaining, and reaching the point that we can enter the family business.

The people are going to need the Torah.

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Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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