This coming Saturday, I will be leading what I call a “Spiritual Autobiography Workshop”, in which we will reflect on our stories, where we’ve come from, where we are right now, where we’re going, and where in the midst of it all is God? Part of the motivation for holding this is that sense of regret that always seems to arise when one of our members dies, and we realize how much of their stories we hadn’t known or heard when they were still among us.
But it is also important for us to listen deeply to our own stories to discern the meaning that might otherwise be missed.
The figure of Moses looms larger than any other human being in the Old Testament. His story is a fascinating one, and he provides something of a model in regard to listening to the stories of our lives.
There is an aspect of his story that is often overlooked, and that is that Moses didn’t really fit in — that much of his life was spent as an outsider.
You probably know the story of how he was born to a Hebrew mother during a time when Pharaoh was intent on destroying all the Hebrew baby boys, and how ironically, he survived by being left in a basket in the reeds of the Nile where Pharaoh’s daughter found him. His childhood was spent not among his own people, but as a son of Pharaoh, in the midst of wealth, comfort and educational opportunities unknown to his own people. His mother, however, regularly visited him, and through her Moses maintained an identity with his birth people, and yet it was not the easy connection that comes from actually growing up sharing in a peoples’ life.
Moses had grown up a very privileged Egyptian, and yet his mother’s ongoing presence made it impossible for him to embrace his Egyptian identity.
We are told that as a young man Moses would wander out from behind the palace walls, evidently drawn by a desire for contact with his roots — the people of his flesh and blood. On one of these trips he witnessed first hand the oppression of his birth people — he saw an Egyptian guard beating a Hebrew slave. Rage arose within Moses, and, believing no one was watching, he killed the Egyptian.
The very next day Moses was once more wandering among his birth people when he came upon two Hebrews fighting. He attempted to break up the fight, but his efforts to play the role of peacemaker for his people was rejected, as one of the combatants reveals the fact that his murder of the Egyptian had been witnessed.
And so Moses flees. Why does he flee? He flees in part because he is afraid that he will be punished by Pharaoh for the murder he has committed. But on a deeper level, he flees because he feels as though he just doesn’t belong. Moses knows he is not truly an Egyptian, but an identity as a Hebrew evades him as well. The desire that stirred within his heart to be of help to his oppressed people was met with rebuke.
And so feeling like an outsider, he takes flight, hoping to put this all behind him, to start over, to create a new life — a life free from the past. Perhaps you know something of this same desire in yourself.
For a good while Moses seems to succeed at doing exactly this. He wins himself a wife, and undertakes a career as a shepherd in his father-in-law’s sheep herding business. He has a son. Life is good, relatively speaking, free of conflict, quiet, peaceful. A little boring perhaps. He is a man without a past, or so he tries to convince himself.
And then one day as he is going about his job, he turns aside to investigate a mystery — a bush burning that is not consumed — and for the first time in his life God speaks directly to him.
Life is full of paradox — full of seemingly contradictory truths that are held together in tension. And here is one of those great paradoxes:
On the one hand, life is only truly lived in the present moment. The present is all we have. If we can’t be in the present — if we are trapped in the past, or in the future — we will miss the gift of the present.
On the other hand, every human life involves a story, and it is not possible to be fully rooted in the present unless we appreciate the story of where we’ve come from and where we are going.
Moses has been attempting to live his life as though his past prior to meeting his wife does not exist.
When God addresses Moses, the very first thing God does is claim Moses’ attention for the present moment. “Take off your sandals, for the ground you are standing on is holy ground.”
But the second thing of which God speaks is the past, specifically, placing Moses life in the context of a particular past in which God has been present: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” This is your lineage; these are your roots.
The man who preferred to think of himself as a someone without a past is suddenly drawn up into a story in which God has been very much present to a particular human family. God has heard the cries of his people, and God is taking action in the present to deliver them.
God also references a future: a direction, a goal, an unshakeable hope. God will bring the Hebrew people out of their bondage to Pharaoh, and lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey.
Suddenly, the present is charged in a way that it had not been before, for it now is rooted in a definite past and a definite future. Moses quickly discovers he has an essential role to play in this story, bridging the past to the future.
In order to truly embrace the present moment, it is necessary to understand the context.
Now, prior to his encounter with the burning bush, Moses had been understanding his life in recent years primarily in terms of a quest for comfort and the avoidance of suffering. What’s life about? Nothing more than avoiding pain, and finding comfort. And as such, Moses expressed what is perhaps the most conscious human theme.
As God speaks, however, it quickly becomes clear that the comfort and the absence of suffering that Moses has recently known are about to go out the window, and his initial response is to question the calling. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
And yet there is this irony. The personal history he has been avoiding it turns out makes him the ideal person for the job. As one who has grown up in Pharaoh’s court, he knows how Pharaoh thinks — he knows how to talk to Pharaoh. And yet through his mother, he knows the Israelites. His story has made him the bridge between the two cultures.
Eventually Moses embraces his calling. It is isn’t easy, in fact it will be quite hard. But it is a life with a depth of purpose and meaning that he would not have known otherwise.
Victor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist who survived a Nazi prison camp, and wrote a book about his experience and the psychological and philosophical theory he developed in the midst of that experience.
Quoting Nietzsche, Frankl declared that “He who as a why, can endure any how.” Which is to say, the great quest of life is about finding the meaning in the suffering that comes to us in our personal story.
In the context of the concentration camp, Frankl saw that it was essential to find a meaning in the suffering, otherwise, it was clear to him, he would lose the will to live. And so he found meaning on various levels: he was enduring this suffering in order to one day to be reunited with his beloved wife. He was enduring this horror for the sake of his fellow prisoners, that he might be an encouragement to them where they were tempted to give up. And finally, he was enduring this outrageous fortune in order to claim what he called the final freedom — the one thing his guards couldn’t take from him — the ability to choose his attitude towards the situation in which he found himself.
In other words, the experience of the present is profoundly impacted by the way we understand the context — the story we tell of where we’ve come from and where we’re going.
To get at this idea, consider the following: Let’s say you’ve been saving money in your mattress at home, and you’ve managed to save up a significant nest egg — a couple of thousand dollars.
Now imagine two different scenarios: In one, a thief breaks into your house, finds the cash you’ve stored in your mattress, and steals it away.
Here’s another scenario. An elderly friend comes over to your house. She is crying. Her daughter living in Louisana has just called and told her mother that her house and everything in it has been washed away by a hurricane. The daughter and her infant child are now homeless and penniless. Your friend is besides herself in worry for her daughter and grandchild. Living on social security herself, she has no money herself to send them.
Moved by your desire to help, you say to your friend, “Listen, I’ve saved up a couple of thousand dollars. I have it right here. Take it — wire it to your daughter so she can get baby food and diapers and a safe place to stay.” Your friend breaks into tears of gratitude, moved by the unexpected love you have shown her. She leaves with the money.
Now notice this, at the end of both scenarios, your situation in the present moment is, objectively speaking, the same. You are without your hard-earned savings. It’s gone. Your back to living from pay check to pay check.
There is a profound difference, however between the two scenarios in how you experience this “going without.“ In one context the suffering has meaning — a higher purpose has been served by your suffering. In the other you can identify no such meaning or purpose.
Another person, two scenarios. In one, the person has an accident in which he loses a kidney. In the other, the same person chooses to donate a kidney to a person who will die if they don’t receive a healthy kidney.
Again, at the end of both scenarios the objective situation is the same: The person is down to only one healthy kidney.
The experience, however, is quite different based upon the context in which the missing kidney is understood.
Part of what I’m getting at here is simply the fact that a life based upon nothing more than the desire to find comfort and avoid pain is a life that has no roots — a life that can’t hold up. We need a larger sense of purpose and meaning, and that larger meaning and purpose is written into our personal and collective stories, if only we are willing to listen deeply.
God takes our personal stories and invites us to find ourselves in God’s great story, and in saying “yes” to this invitation, the present moment becomes charged in a way that it could not otherwise be.
On a grand scale, when I ponder the discoveries of cosmologists and physicists about the origins of the universe, I am all the more awestruck by the present moment in which I find myself. Specifically, the universe has been around something like 14 billion years, and yet we human beings have only been here for a tiny, tiny fraction of that time. One way to hear this is as one very, very long “back story” to the appearance of rational, self-reflective, universe-conscious beings — in the language of the Bible, creatures who are made in the image and likeness of God. When I ponder the 14 billion years that were the necessary buildup to you and me being here, well, I find the present moment all the more awesome. I hear God say once more, “Take off your sandals, for the ground upon which you stand is holy ground.”