Wilderness – Stone – Water: a creative exploration for those present Exodus 17:1-7, by Ellie Elia, student and ministry candidate at United Theological College, shared during an outdoor worship service on Wednesday September 24.
Is the cup is half full or half empty? I think those who know me will say that most of the time, I am a ‘cup half full’ sort of person. In fact Andrew, my husband is constantly complaining that I leave half-empty cups of tea around the house as if I am some how offended by the sight of them.
The Israelites are suffering from a chronic case of ‘half empty cup’ syndrome. After their dramatic liberation from slavery, the miraculous provision of meat and manna in the desert, they are now crying out like a pack of pessimistic whingers, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst? Give us water to drink!”
Could it be that life appears differently in the wilderness, those wild places in our lives where there is no place to hide, where the light illuminates our every inadequacy, every crack in our protective armour, a place that reveals our unfulfilled needs, heightened feelings of fear, abandonment and betrayal. Perhaps what is most frightening is that these wilderness places are essential for faith formation.
There are of course different wilderness stories. Sue Kaldor talks about the wilderness as a place where you rediscover your utter dependance on God. A frightening and awe inspiring place that brings clarity and new resources.
How curious it is then that Moses names this place after the Israelites quarrelling and testing of God. You would think it would be called ‘the place where God brought Water from the Rock’. Why remember the people’s frustrations, their anger, distrust and disunity?!
Now we are going to do a little visualisation and I know that for some of you this may be a little trip into the wilderness.
Close your eyes, take a deep breath – in your mind’s eye imagine yourself as a cup – allow the image of this cup to form in your imagination – take notice of the details, what size – shape – colour – patterns – texture. Are you old or new, can you see any chips, cracks or stains – are you well used – well loved or something else? In this moment of silence take the time to have a good honest look at your cup – and let it tell you its hidden story. Now imagine yourself placing this cup in a safe place which you can return to it later if you wish to. And then when you are ready – open your eyes.
I realised that I have just asked the esteemed theologian Dr Ben Myers to imagine himself as a cup! But perhaps even for Ben, and especially for those of us walking through the wilderness of assignments, seemingly endless processes of self assessment – progress interviews, JNC conversations, Synod preparations, journal articles – all the very important work of our lives, we would do well to creatively consider what your imaginary cup may be revealing to you about God. How might your cup be inviting you to remember how God is at work? Not in your functionality or effectiveness, not even in your strengths or beauty, but rather in your imperfections, in your conscious choice to be vulnerable.
Now don’t get me wrong, I wish God’s life giving water were on tap, or that if we must journey into the wilderness, for God’s sake, give our leaders a map with clearly marked directions and an estimated time of arrival. But that is not the God we have. We have a God who formed a people over generations of wandering in the wilderness. We have a God who drives us into the wilderness, those dangerous places were we feel small, fragile and unprepared.
The people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses. So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.
When a few of us first dreamt up what a Uniting Women Conference would look like, we imagined a place were women from diverse backgrounds, theologically, culturally and socially, could come together and listen to each other, learning from the deeper story of God revealed in one another’s lives. A promised land, were all were welcome, fed and blessed. Little did we know that this would involve a journey into the wilderness. Little did I know that I would be leading 503 women into a space were I could not protect them from the terrifying truth of a different story.
I learnt something about leadership and love standing there in front of those women. I learnt that for each woman to be have an authentic voice, I had to let go of control and the need to please people.
There is a deep temptation for leaders to try and control the story, even a story of inclusion and welcome, but to actually live that story, requires vulnerability, intimacy and trust. We often talk about safe spaces in our church – and there is good reason for this. But we also need to recognise that there is not really a safe space in the life of the church. What makes one person safe, accepted and welcomed, may make another person unsafe, threatened and rejected.
At the conference I heard conflicting stories, conflicting theologies and ideologies and I remember, as one of the leaders, feeling incredibly vulnerable, that at any moment a stone might be thrown at me in anger, hurt or frustration. But I also remember feeling that it was this same vulnerability that gave me the power to hold together this immense diversity and to invite others to practise generous self restraint and to receive each other’s story as a gift.
Henri Nouwen writes: “The long powerful history of the church is the history of a people ever and again tempted to choice power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being a led. Those who resist temptation – give us hope. One thing is clear to me; the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love”
Nadia Bolz-Weber, our Uniting Women speaker, said that she always wanted to appear strong and powerful, and when you are six foot and covered in tattoos like her I can’t imagine that’s very hard. But what she said was that as a preacher, a teacher and a pastoral carer, she found that her power came from intentionally confronting those things that make her vulnerable. She said without vulnerability, she had no power to speak.
What does the practice of vulnerability look like? Well, perhaps arising out of today’s reading it involves, naming the stones we may be carrying. Or remembering the pain and resentment of stones once thrown at us – or confessing that our church leaders have become easy targets. Or maybe years of protecting ourselves or others has given us a strong, defensiveness arm, but we don’t know how to let go of the stones we are carrying.
I invite you to take hold of a stone, a symbolic witness to your own story.In the silence, let us reflect on the stones we are carrying, those parts of us that threaten intimacy and the giving and receiving of love.
The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.”
It’s perhaps no surprise that water forms the landscape for so much of our faith: the crossing rivers the calming of seas its absence in a desert its presence in a flood water baptises blesses drowns refreshes. It holds our story of faith.
The Prophet Isaiah said, see, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wastelands…to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself, that they may proclaim my praise. ( Isaiah 43:18-21)