• Caren

promises promises

10/29/12

Sometimes you do what God tells you to do and things get worse.

The voice is easily misheard. Only to people in the Bible does God speak clearly. The rest of us are left improvising our ability to hear, hoping for events to confirm what we had already committed to believe. We listen so hard that we hear our own pulses. We listen so hard that we hear vibrations within our bodies, buzzing like crowds of voices in our ears.

Moses, however, received explicit instructions, was given miracles to wield with his own shepherd hands--physical proof of a spiritual event. This was no interpretable dream. God spoke, Moses obeyed, and the Israelites were further than ever from freedom.

“Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.” (Exodus 5:22-23)

Were you not paying attention, or were you just being cruel?

We know that the story wasn’t over--plagues would follow, the Red Sea, manna, pillars of fire, and eventually, the promised land. But no one can expect Moses to have known that. What he witnessed was increased suffering, and sometimes that felt too much like betrayal.

Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees/ And looks to that alone;/ Laughs at impossibilities/ and cries, ‘It shall be done!’ (Charles Wesley)

It could be called faith to insist that it was all part of the plan. God, a benevolent uncle who has hidden our presents for the pleasure of watching us find them. He said He would, so He will. But look at our prayer lists, and see how they grow. Look at these people. See how they suffer. Look at me. See how I haven’t changed, see how there is bitterness where there should have been clarity. These days, to say “It shall be done” seems unforgivably obtuse.

“God isn’t love. God is arbitrary,” we cry. Fending off this conclusion for so long has taken a great deal of willpower (“Why so downcast, oh my soul? WHY SO DOWNCAST??”), and we grow tired. He can love or hate, He can harden or He can save, but you never know which it will be and there is not much you can do about it anyway. Poor Esau. Pity Cain. God is God and we, most emphatically, are not.

“Remember who I am,” God replied to Moses. “I don’t make promises lightly.” (Exodus 6:2-5, roughly)

If you walk up to a Chuck Close portrait, you’ll see that it is composed of thousands of individual abstract paintings. Something that looks meaningless, like a squashed blue doughnut with an orange rim, will end up being the edge of a hairline, a shadow under the throat, or a tooth. Moses was planted firmly at the center of his own inscrutable square of history. No denouement for him, not even in death. Judges succeeded Moses, then kings, and with them came wars, exile, and the usual rape and murder and tragedy trotting predictably alongside. The so-called children of God weaned their offspring on promises while trudging through wildernesses of smudgy puddles and colored dots. Modern-day Christians and Jews do the same. The scriptures are rife with promises, fodder for years to come. And yet we run, growing weary. We walk, growing faint. It quickly becomes not a question of which side has collected the most evidence, or the best evidence, but rather, which evidence we allow to move us.

The birth of Christ, God in sandals, Calvary. Lions and panthers in a sandy arena, the daily news, the genocides, the regimes and the revolutions. The squares and dots and waves pile on and not one of us can take a step back to see whether the bigger picture is a picture at all. The cynics and the just-you-waits and the militantly optimistic take turns sneering at one another, swapping sides, each of us in our own way decoding messages that were never fully there. Meanwhile, the only one big enough to take a step back remains silent, at times quietly shedding light, at times strumming on our emotions ‘til we buzz.

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