2011-04-18

Not Waiting for the Bread to Rise (Passover 2)

Exodus 12: 21–34:
Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them: ‘Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you: “What do you mean by this observance?” You shall say: “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.”’ And the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites went and did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron. At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians. And there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. Then he [Pharaoh] summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said: ‘Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord, as you said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!’ The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said: ‘We shall all be dead.’ So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders.
When you have a chance for freedom, when that opening appears: Go! Don’t wait around for your bread to rise.

Even under the worst of conditions, there is some leavening in the loaf. What, give that up? Surrender plans for a nice, hot yeasty loaf and make do with the blandest unsalted crackers, all for the sake of an unknown world? Give up what you know in order to wander in the desert for 40 years of hardship?

Yes.

Giving up risen bread is the least of it. The status quo has fierce armies to enforce its way. It’s scary out there. Days after leaving Egypt, the Israelites see Pharaoh’s army advancing on them. They cry out to Moses:
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. (Ex 14: 11-12)
Powerful resources are arrayed against you to enforce the old way. And you don’t have the resources you need to support the new way. You will run out of all bread, leavened or not, run out of meat, face starvation. A few weeks after leaving Egypt, the people moan again to Moses:
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. (Ex. 16: 3)
The path to freedom is risky and uncertain.

Let us take a closer look at that story. The Passover story in Exodus appears to account for the origin of rituals: the paschal lamb, the unleavened bread, the consecration of the firstborn. Bible scholars suppose that the story probably took shape around pre-existing rituals – that in at least some ways the rituals account for the story more than the story accounts for the rituals. It is impossible to know “how much of the narrative draws upon authentic experience and how much of it developed over time in relation to existing customs” (Carol Meyers, Exodus, 2005, 92).

Whatever it’s source, we have this problematic story. “The intentional destruction of innocent life in God’s slaying of the firstborn has long troubled readers of this narrative. What kind of deity was it, whose deed could benefit one group at the expense of others? Already in the early postbiblical period, rabbinic commentators sought ways to rationalize such a horrific act” (Carol Meyers, Exodus, 2005, 93). Today we can read it as literary device rather than literal history. Even so, here’s this tragic slaughter of Egyptian firstborns.

For me, the story makes particularly poignant the ruling question: What is mine to do?

There is so much suffering. How much do I devote to the work of my liberation so that I’ll be free to be more effective in bringing myself to the suffering? How much do I just try to work with the chains I’ve got, dragging them with me though they hamper and slow me?

Put yourself in the Israelites’ position. You hear that a plague is coming, and to protect yourself, you put lamb’s blood on your doorway. Should you also be protecting your neighbors? Pharaoh got the same warning you did. He hardened his heart and disregarded it. Perhaps Pharaoh represents all the Egyptians. Let’s say you did tell your Egyptian neighbors to put lamb’s blood on their doorway, and they just wouldn’t do it. Now they’ve lost their child, and their grief is overwhelming. Can you help? They’re telling you to just leave – which happens to be what you’ve always wanted.

What is yours to do? Work out with diligence your liberation. Compassion for others must manifest as the work of your liberation. Otherwise, what is at work isn't so much compassion as as moral obligations that can distract us from the liberation work. Freeing ourselves will release a much greater and more whole compassion through you to others.

Let me illustrate what I’m talking about. My friend, call her Gloria, is an activist. I agree with Gloria in the qualified way that Tevye assents to Perchik. You may remember that in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Perchik, the young radical, proclaims, “In this world it is the rich who are the criminals. Someday their wealth will be ours.”

The older Tevye’s qualified assent is: “That would be nice. If they would agree, I would agree.” Tevye sympathizes with the goal of a fairer distribution of wealth, yet he frames that goal within a recognition of the rights and personhood of all, including the wealthy.

Gloria has anger about some of our government’s actions and inactions. I have anger about some of that, too. When I have responded best – which isn’t always -- I have noticed the anger, named it, made a decision about what to do with it. Gloria’s anger takes her straight to blaming, and the anger just builds on itself. Those people in that other party are evil, corrupt, willfully blind. Some of that party’s supporters are simply dupes – who are duped by the evil and corrupt others.

Gloria is working for good. The legislation she advocates would, I also believe, increase fairness and reduce suffering. With Gloria, the conversation quickly goes to condemnation. At first I tried to bring some light to what might be the universal need motivating these supposedly evil others. Everybody wants food, air, water, shelter; exercise and rest; security and autonomy; affirmation, respect, trust, creativity, beauty, harmony. I thought if we could identify which, among the needs we all have, were motivating these others, then we could relate to them a little better, even if we still thought that their strategies for meeting the needs weren’t very skillful.

However, my strategy for identifying what might be sympathetic common ground wasn’t working. Then I remembered: it is often the case that anger outward is a projection of anger inward, that negative self-judgments manifest as negative other-judgments. When I point the finger at someone else, there are three pointing back at me.

Gloria said, "Those people have no respect for other people."

So I asked, "Have there been times when you didn’t respect others as much as you wish you had?" Yes, there had indeed been times. Personal stories of regret and shame began pouring out. Now I was hearing about Gloria, instead of denunciations of people who weren’t in the room. That was a more fruitful conversation, for a while. Eventually, we reached the point where the self-blame was as stymieing as the other-blame had been.

I’m hopeful that Gloria and I might be able to identify the universal motivators that were behind some her acknowledgedly unskillful strategies. That that might be a ground for self-forgiveness -- which might be a ground of forgiveness toward those in the other political party. I’m hopeful, in other words, for the possibilities of Gloria’s liberation. Freedom will make her a more effective activist – and certainly one who enjoys life more. She wants to address human suffering through building collective action. Yet these objectives can be a distraction from doing the work for her own liberation. What is it the flight attendants always tell us? "Secure your own oxygen mask before attempting to assist others." That's something we need to know before we can fly.

The Exodus story shows a people becoming liberated, against a backdrop of massive loss: every firstborn. “There was not a house without someone dead.” What kind of God would do that? The kind that is the way the world is. There is massive suffering. It is more than you or I can fix. Our own freedom lets us bring presence and compassion to those who suffer. It's appropriate to be horrified by the mass death of Egyptians. At the same time, the Israelites' best possible response was to go ahead and get out of there. Under those unusual circumstances, that's what was theirs to do.

In the Exodus story we see that the path to freedom has two stages: the sudden exhilarating dash out the gate, followed by the slow tedium and hardship for 40 years of wilderness, lost, going in circles, getting nowhere, not to mention the lengthy and toilsome process of building a new city once the promised land finally is reached. We won't reach freedom unless we are ready to move quickly to seize an opportunity. If we delay, wait for the bread to rise, the chance may pass. Or, more likely, since there's always something in our pipeline that we're tempted to want to see through before departing, we may never get around to breaking free. Please understand the urgency of the call to freedom. Don't wait around, putting it off. Go! Now!

After making that first initial exciting break with the past, then comes the long and arduous sojourn in the desert.

I got a call about a month ago from a director of a rehab facility for people in recovery from substance abuse. She asked me about our the labyrinth that we have on our Fellowship grounds. Would it be all right to bring over a group to walk our labyrinth? Would I be available to talk about it with them and guide the experience? Yes, and yes, I said. The appointment was made, and last Friday (Apr 15), the group came.

There were fifty of them: men and women, rebuilding their lives, wrestling with demons that I can only imagine. Somehow, summoning courage that they wouldn’t have known they had, they made a break with their past lives, a sudden and dramatic exit from the comforts of slavery and addiction. They now face the slow part – the rest of their lives, really – the wilderness to traverse, a new life of freedom to build. We went out and gathered by the labyrinth. I stood on a bench to address them.

The labyrinth is not a maze, it has only one path. Its lesson is let go of your need to control, trust the path, keep going. One foot in front of the other.

You must go into your center. You must find what is there. And: you cannot stay there. You must return out to the world, bring the true self you have found back to the encounter. “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you,” says Yeshua, in the Gospel of Thomas. “If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” This was a group that knows a lot about what will destroy them.

Both journeys, the in and the out, are circuitous and winding and terribly inefficient. Notice the temptations. It is so easy to cheat, to step over the rows of rocks, to walk straight in. The labyrinth’s lesson is that path and destination are intertwined, they define each other. The destination isn’t the destination unless it reached by the needful path. Like Hebrews in the wilderness, you go around and around – often winding further, by any objective measure, from your destination rather than closer.

When you get to the center, I said, hang out there as long as you feel like it, then head back. Folks heading back and folks still heading in will encounter each other. This, too, is a lesson: we encounter people who are heading in an opposite direction from us, who we could bump heads with, who might seem to be heading in a wrong direction, but there is only one path. We go in and we go out, and if you are in a going-out phase and pass by someone in a going-in phase, rest assured your positions will soon be reversed. Practice the gentle grace of letting others by. And notice that, doing this, you may have to take one step off your path. Others can knock you off your path, but never very far, and it is always a simple matter to step back on.

I instructed them to hold their hands in front of their waist; to notice the rhythm of their breathing, and synchronize it with their steps: in-2-3-4, out-2-3-4. It helps the mind quiet, so the path can take over. Then I stood by the entrance with my watch, and sent them in at five-second intervals. And I went last, walking the labyrinth, as I have many times before, though never with a group, let alone such a large one.

Afterwards we went over to the Fellowship sanctuary to debrief about the experience. Most of them had something to say. I heard from them how they valued the experience, how they took to its lessons – though some acknowledged they had been skeptical and dubious. Some spoke of how, yes, their need to control had to be tamed, and how good that felt. They spoke of how the path was not always clear – the layer of leaves has gotten thick – but they let themselves trust the person in front of them, and how good it felt to trust and follow.

One spoke of noticing how a few of their fellows had stepped over the rocks and taken shortcuts. He wrestled with judging them for that – but he said he knew that the judging voice was about him, not about them. I mentioned the little proverb, "whenever you point the finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back you," -- they all knew that one already very well.

They were so wise. I was moved and touched to be among them. It was clear to me how much they have learned from the hard work they have done – because one walk through the labyrinth will not teach such lessons except to those who have done much to prepare themselves to think and see and understand that way.

We all have our addictions. Whenever and wherever an enjoyment – an enjoyment that you can relish if it comes, and move on, with unperturbed equanimity, if it doesn’t – turns into an attachment that you gotta have, and will be perturbed if you don’t get – then that’s where the addictive tendency has entered the picture.

What are your addictions? What is the Pharaoh that holds you in bondage in the land of Egypt? Freedom is ever the half-won blessing. Its unfinished work lies before every one of us. As they say in the recovery community: You can be consumed by your addiction -- or you can be recovering: Recovering – never recovered. Freedom is never complete. New chains appear. Old chains return. And their constraints are often so comfortable, for a while.

One other lesson of the Passover story: Not one Hebrew ever walked out of Egypt alone. Nor could any have survived the wilderness alone. Freedom is a collective enterprise. We need each other to be free. Yes, there is necessary work only you can do. There is other necessary work only we can do -- together. Then take courage, friends. You are not alone.