One of the Scripture lessons on the last Sunday we met for worship (March 15) was Exodus 17, but we didn’t do much with it since I focused on the Gospel lesson that day. I have revisited that passage because the Hebrew slaves’ 40 years of wandering in the wilderness is such an instructive passage in Interim Ministry training. It represents a classic study of the complex dynamics of periods of transition and uncertainty.
It starts with the people’s grievance against Moses: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (17:3). Lack of water added to their already stressful time. Times of high anxiety are hard on everyone: Leaders struggle with not knowing what to do. Moses prayer shows his desperation: “What shall I do with this people? They are ready to stone me” (v. 4).
People express their frustration and discontent in many ways. The Israelite history recorded that Moses renamed the place where this took place as Massah (testing) and Meribah (dissatisfaction/quarrel), “because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not’” (v.7).
Individuals’ anxiety reflect the anxiety of a system, and it doesn’t matter if the group is a family unit, an organization (like a church), or even an entire nation. Systems do not like disruption. When the stability of any association is compromised, the instinctive reaction is to regain equilibrium. But when that is pursued at any cost, that leads to bad decisions. In the Exodus account, the first manifestation was to blame the leader (Moses could see himself becoming the scapegoat). Very often we see expressed a desire to return to the way things were before the disruption. In the book of Numbers the people expressed a strong craving and wept when they remembered their past lives in Egypt: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic, but now our strength is dried up” (Numbers 11:4, 5). It’s interesting how the past is often remembered in such “rosy” ways (somehow the people forgot how terribly they had been treated as slaves!).
The longing to return to the way things were is very strong. Sometimes it involves denial of the circumstances that brought about the disruption. We try to remain optimistic by focusing on the “light at the end of the tunnel.” In our current predicament, I am hearing that “we will come out of this much stronger.” While I respect the sentiment, I’m afraid that such an outcome is not guaranteed. What we can say with certainty is that when we come out of this, we will be different, and the new normal will be different.
The disruptions to our way of life are serious. The risks are high. What is being asked of all of us is costly. Our frustrations are real. But what we have learned to expect from periods of transition and uncertainty is that they can help to define who we are – or would most want to be. During these times we identify what is truly important and what needs to be preserved. If in the process, we can discard false memories and narratives, failed patterns and negative characteristics, we may be able to work from our best selves, strengthen relationships and ground our faith on the Rock that never fails. Then the time in the wilderness may turn out to be a surprisingly valuable experience.