by Jill Baker.
The wilderness has been much on my mind recently, following a ‘Disciple’ Bible study meeting in our home where we looked afresh at the Exodus story. As we smiled ruefully at the tendency of the Israelites to complain and moan, especially at their leaders, it dawned on us that much of this behaviour was triggered by fear. Fear often leads to anger; perhaps we all have experienced the apparently unwarranted sharp comment from an elderly relative or the inexplicably aggressive behaviour of a teenager which, when explored more deeply, can be discovered to originate in fear of some kind.
So when (in Exodus 4:11-12) the Israelites say, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’ or (in Exodus 16:2) ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger’ perhaps what they are really saying is, ‘in slavery we had regular meals and knew what we had to do all day and how to live; now we have left those safe structures behind – we don’t know where we are going, we don’t know how to find food and be nourished and we are very, very frightened.’
The day following this bible study I attended the ‘God for all’ event in Methodist Central Hall Westminster, and as I listened to testimonies, engaged in conversations, reflected on the Evangelism and Growth strategy and prayed for the Methodist Church in Britain, it felt like a kind of déjà vu. Running through so much of what I heard – from the platform and around tables, in both the good news stories and in the anxieties – I picked up the same wavelength of fear and anxiety. As I reflected on the churches I know well and those I have visited over the past few years I could identify similar symptoms, with perhaps the same cause… Is there a sense that many of our congregations, many of our ministers, many of our lay leaders are (at some level) in slavery – to schedules, to the plan, to property challenges, to fund-raising, to keeping the show on the road? This is not intended to be a criticism – it is simply where many of us are. For us, as for the Israelites in Egypt, times have changed and in the place where life was once lived freely and joyfully we now find ourselves in bondage and drained of energy.
But what is the alternative? For the Israelites it was to leave almost everything which was familiar, to grab quickly only those things which they could carry easily, and to run – to run into the night, into the unknown, following Moses in a journey beset with difficulties and dangers. No wonder they were afraid.
Are we also called to escape and to try our hand in an uncertain wilderness? Do we need to choose the wilderness? If so, we need to recognise just how scary that prospect is. Our lives in church, in circuit, in district, around the connexion have been ordered in a certain way – we may not always think it’s the best way, but it is a familiar way, a predictable way and, like the nourishment in slavery rations, it has kept us alive… just. If we were to leave all that behind, we too might say, ‘we don’t know where we are going, we don’t know how to find food and be nourished and we are very, very frightened.’
If any of this is in any way an accurate representation of where we are as a Methodist denomination today, then the first thing we need to do is to recognise the fear (as Moses does in Exodus 13:14 when he answers the complaints, ‘Do not be afraid’). I write this a few days before travelling to Israel/Palestine on pilgrimage; our itinerary will include a short time in the Judean wilderness and I will look with new eyes on the fearful landscape around, and pray for courage to choose wilderness rather than slavery wherever I can.