Friday, April 23, 2010

Did You Get the Chance to Dance Along the Light of Day?

The earth is full; there is enough and to spare.

I'm walking on Sunday evening, into a beautiful spring sunset with blossoms exploding around us, with Friend. She wants to know what to do that will make her happy. To be more particular, she wants somebody to tell her what will make her happy. She proclaims to the pink-tinged sky: "Just tell me what to do, and I'll do it. Just tell me what to do. I'm very obedient. It will be done in an instant." I start laughing, "I wish it worked like that. Somebody comes and tells us what to do that makes us happy."

She's at that point we all get to, those of us who are very good box-checkers, those of us who love to fill in forms. (Mine might have been the first census form to have been filled out, but I waited until April 1, so that I could accurately report who actually stayed in the house that day. Wouldn't want to file a false document with the federal government). Graduate from high school with honors. Check. Attend best college you can, preferably on scholarship and in another country. Check. Get graduate degree. Check. Get married to athlete who makes you laugh. Check. Have children. Check. Pottytrain children. Check. Get children to first grade where day becomes your own again. Check. Option A: Develop career and get lots of awards. Check. Option B: Remain at home and create brilliant pianists, soccer players, singers and prayers out of said children, plus master art of digital scrapbooking. Option C: Options A and B. Check, check, check.

Then, one day, about fifteen years down the road, you wake up one morning and think, "Is this it? Is this it for the rest of my life? Is this what I get to do, everyday for the rest of my life?" You look at the body sleeping next to you, in its slack, morning-eyed sleepiness, and think, "Are you it for the rest of my life?" It's round about this point that some women have another baby, because that's another venture to start on, something that breaks up the monotony. Men, I've noticed, buy younger models—of either sports cars or wives, or both.

Friend—who doesn't want another baby and can't afford a sports car and can't marry a wife in this state—breaks out in a frustrated utterance, "I didn't realize that 'endure to the end' was going to be fifty years long. Somehow I feel robbed. Like I worked really hard to get here and I'm not anywhere. I just want to be told what to do next. And there is no next." I'm laughing as we head down the hill: "Well, there is a next. But there are no more boxes. So, now, scary as it may seem, you get to decide what's next. It's utterly and completely your choice." She wails, "But I want to be told what to do next. I'm very good at that. I don't want to have to work it out. That's frightening. "


Exodus 32 is normally boiled down to silly children of Israel lose their heads while Moses is gone and go on idol-making rampage which results in Moses and the Lord getting really upset. Moral of story is obviously that we should not make "golden calves" in our own lives. (Just received change of assignment in church which means I now have to teach Old Testament to adults. Bear with me on the OT references while I settle in). But, I'm not so sure about this obvious message. Again, the "why" gets lost in the "what."

Here's another way to look at it: A people, in slavery for 470 years, are liberated. There's a certain psychological comfort, or at least certainty, in slavery. You don't have to decide what to do, what to wear, when to work, what to eat, and when to sleep. While you might chafe against the restrictions, there is also no opportunity to go horribly wrong of your own free will and choice. So, imagine the "growing up" that needs to go on in a person's mind to be able to go from "slave" or "child" to independent, free thinking adult. As I read through Exodus, I appreciated how the children of Israel are tutored in steps by a patient, understanding parent God.

First, he requires them to work out how much manna it is they really need, each "according to his eating." This is a little bit of independent thinking. "And no, don't hoard it. If you do, it will stink. Okay, now it's stinking. So, work out a better amount tomorrow." After a few days, they get it. They understand that this manna will appear in the morning, and melt in the hot afternoon sun. And, if there's any left over by night, it will turn rancid and wormy in the morning. They understand that their responsibility is to gather it and correctly calculate the amount. Even still, a few, myself included, not willing to trust that there will be nothing on the seventh day, or perhaps wanting fresh manna instead of baked, go out on the Sabbath morning, and there's none. Our appearance to look for manna when we've been told there won't be any gets a warning. So, they're learning to figure out how to be obedient without the immediate consequence of a lash or a deprivation.

Then Moses learns how to lead. The only leader of any weight that Moses has seen is Pharaoh, a centralized, powerful figure to whom the entire Egyptian people look. So, when it comes time to fight Amalek, Moses becomes just that kind of leader. He parks himself at the top of a hill and raises his arms. As long as Moses raises his arms, the battle goes in their favor. When he gets tired and lowers his arms, the battle turns against them. Why didn't Moses choose to hold up a flag on a stick? Far easier to hold and to handle. Perhaps because he thought he had to be the center of his people's focus. (Or maybe to provide us with an easily packaged moral imperative about the necessity of supporting your leaders.) But, with the aid of his trusty lieutenants holding up his weary arms, the Israelites win the battle. Still, Moses is the central figure and they look to a leader to give them confidence and direction. Their leader, however, needs to learn that he cannot take everything upon himself and so Jethro wisely tells him to cut out the all-day answering of questions and concerns. Delegate to capable leaders and take yourself out of the middle of things.

Together, the children of Israel and Moses develop small steps of independence. God, in chapter 19, decides to make them his covenant people. He asks them to purify themselves in anticipation of the making of the covenant. They take three days to purify, and then, in return, they get lightning, thunder, fire and clouds as the Lord reveals himself to Moses and makes the covenant with the him and his people. Once again, they interact with their God through their leader and they get instant reward in the form of visible signs of divine power. Then they get instructions for living, in the form of the tablets of stone and they get instructions for worship, in the form of how to build the Tabernacle. They promise, the entire audience, "All that the Lord has said we will do, and be obedient."

So, fast forward to the crucial moments before the making of the golden calf. Moses has left to talk again with the Lord. Aaron is left in charge of the camp. Their leader, to whom they have looked for manna, for water, for battle commands, for divine law, for intercession with the Lord, has gone. There is no-one to look to. There's no smoke, no fire, no thunder or lightning. It's almost as if God and Moses conspired to leave these children alone for a time to see what they will do in the absence of power and authority. What steps will they take on their own?

What do they do in the space provided by the Lord in which to prove themselves? They panic. They return to their default setting. I know they have all they need to see them through this time of separation—tablets of Commandments, lists of worship instructions, and a personal commitment to carry these out. But sometimes those don't feel like enough. Sometimes, you want your hand held. Moses' absence was too much to bear, the space and silence created by his leaving too much to contemplate. So, "when they saw that Moses was delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron and said unto him, 'Up, make us gods which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, . . . we wot not what is become of him."

To a people so used to being led, to being shown, to being provided for, to having their manna and quail set out before them, they found themselves unaccountably, horribly alone. There was no one to tell them what to do, no one to tell them just exactly how to be happy. So, they make a leader for themselves, out of gold, in the shape of a calf. It comforts them—at least until Moses gets back into camp and reads them the riot act. I suppose it was then the penny dropped that perhaps the golden calf was exactly the kind of graven image prohibited by their new set of life rules. That was something they probably hadn't realized. It was one of those ideas that look better on paper than in execution. After all, all they wanted was a god to lead them, just like they had always had. They didn't realize that those really detailed instructions they had been given over the past months/years were designed for exactly this moment, to allow them to lead themselves.

I feel for the children of Israel. I recognize their good impulses. They don't suddenly get a wild hair and decide, "Yes, Moses is gone. Let's play." They actually want to worship something. They want a visible leader, somebody they can turn to. And, in their fledgling faith, they do just about everything right: they approach Aaron, the leader in Moses' absence, and ask for a visible god; the women offer up their golden jewelry, sacrificing their own belongings; their leader makes the calf for them and proclaims a feast day unto the Lord; they build an altar of earth in front of it, just as instructed in Exodus 20:24; they come early in the day and offer up their burnt offerings and bring their peace offerings. Just about everything is done right, except for the one prohibition that they were told three times: don't make any graven images, in particular, don't make any golden or silver images. Just don't. And they still do.

Why is it that they couldn't remember this one small detail?

Because when we are left alone for the first time to actually choose for ourselves the life we will lead, sometimes we freeze. We don't actually know how to choose for ourselves. We don't know what to choose. We're used to that undercurrent of authority showing us what our choices "should" be. It's hard to choose something when there are no more boxes telling us what to chose. When there is no obvious "should" i.e., when there's just space and time to fill, we flounder. Into this space, sometimes we pour more boxes of our own making, perhaps a golden calf or two, just because we're used to boxes. That this tends to lead to a life lived under the pressure of false imperatives is problematic. But, the familiarity of that approach can be comfortably numbing. At some point though, just like the children of Israel, there will come a time when we are left alone, with the Lord's devices, to fashion a life of our own choosing, a life that is of our own free will and choice.


My lovely Friend has all the education, career, husband and children she needs. What now? This was the question she asked herself and her husband during one of those frankly honest, even-toned, perspective-altering, kitchen table conversations a few weeks ago. Start again? Because in ten years, if she threw this set of husband, children, and kitchen table in, she would be back in the same position she is in now, with a new husband, new children, and a new kitchen table. And, in all honesty, it was this particular man she wanted to share the journey with and these particular children she would like to see through to the end.

Which brought us at the middle of the walk, as we rounded the irrigation canal, to the nature of this journey and the massive space between the last box and the last breath. I asked her, "What story do you want to tell? In twenty years, what is your story going to be?"

In my particular space, I told her I would like to hike the Appalachian trail (even better if Bill Bryson were chugging along with me); learn how to drive a big rig; oil paint; live in New York City or London or Sydney or Florence; spend every afternoon I possibly could watching my children play sports; see how tall the trees I'm going to plant next month in our new orchard will grow; go to Scotland with my beautiful sisters to find my presently unknown but I am sure equally short-legged, well-endowed second cousins in Firth; take my children to live where they are the theological and perhaps racial and linguistic minority; hike the Grand Canyon and ride the Colorado River out; attend the U.S. Open in New York in September and the next World Cup; buy a kayak and use it during the summers on the mountain reservoirs; track down an ocean and plonk myself next to it for as long as I can every year; earn my lifelong membership in the Fancy Skirt Tennis Club, and have that mentioned in my obituary along with the Lovely Ladies Luncheon Book Club; go to every funeral I can for those people I've shared this journey with; notice need and find ways to fill it; sit in grey-haired, raucous conversation with my brothers and sisters as often as we can and hopefully belt out Christmas carols every year at the top of our slightly off-key voices (mine the worst), Paul on the piano, Laura on the guitar, Angus on the drums; see the magic of my children and my brothers' and sisters' children unfold before my teary eyes; continue to love this man I've lain next to for nigh on twenty years; maybe write a book if I can muster up the energy; and the list goes on.

"But, what if that doesn't happen? What if you can't find a publisher for your book? What if you get mugged on the trail? Or shot in the New York subway like Brian Watkins?"

"I don't care. It's my story. I get to try writing it. It's my space. I get to try filling it. I start by thinking about what I would like to go in it."

Title: From "Drops of Jupiter" by Train.


  1. I had a big, long list of things I wanted to do when I became an empty-nester, and had time for myself again--and then life did another curve, and I realized I will probably never have an empty nest (due to my youngest child's neurological disabilities, not because I will have "boomerang children"!)

    Serious Rethink of Plan.

    So now, I have started on the most important things--the things that fill my soul. I have a stamp in my passport (and my passport picture has a very manic "I get to go to another country" smile!). I have learned not one, but several hobbies that feed my creativity in a very fundamental way. I have started my novel. I am excited to see what this next phase brings--but I know it won't be dull!

  2. my favorite thinkers are those who apply the scriptures to our lives. Please continue to do that...and so sweet to give the children of Israel a break...boy does history hammer them! I had not thought of why Moses held his arms up the way he did. I like that idea...of course we do everything by our own history. But the softening of the situation would be those around him supporting him. I like that idea...thank you.
    I loved teaching the old is such a wonderful puzzle sometimes...but my purpose was to always find the Savior. Kind of a "Where's Waldo" deal. And He was always there.
    Thank you also for reminding me of what I want to do in my life. Am I letting life go by? I certainly am not doing any of the fun things I thought I would kayaking, no hiking...just work and worry... so thank you

  3. Nine months ago our family moved out of the U.S.--husband is in foreign service. My stepchildren are in college or mid-upper teens, and the U.S. government has graciously given us a full-time maid/cook/gardener while we're here (I think it's the State Department's way of trying to ensure that we'll stay out here for the entire tour. It's working. In fact, I recently told my husband I'd love it if he'd "extend" his tour--housework was never my forte). So for the first time in my adult life I have what I have often longed for...*time*...

    Interestingly, when we first moved here and I had all of this time on my hands, I experienced a bit of a depression for a few months. Not having to be in any particular place, at a particular time, "doing" something, put me into a funk. Be careful what you wish for, I guess...

    I had a similar conversation with a close friend here yesterday: what do we do with this gift--this time that we have longed for and now have in abundance? Family history, finally read all of the books I've got on my shelves, catch up on journal-writing, learn a new language/culture, start a cool blog, join a board or charity group,start a second career, finally learn to sew, play the piano more, go to the gym, immerse myself in scripture study/callings/dog rescue? For the record, I've actually tried all of these things over the last several months...keeping busy was such a habit. But recently I'm stepping back from the busyness and trying to breathe a bit--adjust myself to a new rhythm, and just listen. It's hard--I keep wanting to join, do, start something new. But I am enjoying this experience. I'm trying to get past the checklist mentality and simplify things. In the quietness I'm coming back to the Savior in a way that I've not done for a long time. In prayer I'm asking that I use wisely this gift. I agree with you Tessa that we all, in some way or another, reach a point where we're allowed the opportunity of choosing for ourselves what we'll do with our time, talents, and all that we possess. The level of accountability for what we do with this degree of choice available to us is daunting.

    Sometimes I wonder what we'll all be "doing" in the eternities. It seems that we'll have a lot of time and choices available to us--maybe this gift of time and choice that you write about is a taste of things to come. You got me thinking this morning. Now I'm going for a walk...

  4. To Jennifer, I have often had this thought, the Savior never ran from village to village....he stayed until the blind could see, the deaf could hear, the lame could walk...until the sinners were forgiven.
    We are too busy...but it's not too late, not too late to read all of our books on the shelf, start a blog, and as you said, breath...

  5. I am frequently grateful that I can't see the future. I can cope with whatever trials I have to--but I would never be able to handle knowing that they are coming!

    My dear little sister posted on her blog today "Lastly, it has been brought home to me that life is meant to be lived IN the moment, and regardless of what the future holds, enjoy what you have when you have it! As of a year ago, I would have been crushed and bewildered had I known where I am today. I don’t know where I will be in a year, but that is ok. I will enjoy where I am right now, and deal with tomorrow when it happens."

    I do know that occasionally in life we come to "in between" periods. Between a mission and marriage, or between college and work or... whatever. Sometimes they are a natural outgrowth of "finishing the checklist"--Get home from mission, finish college, date worthy people, but none of them are "the one". Sometimes they come from cataclysmic events--death, divorce, heartbreak. Either way, they can be a time to regroup and redirect ourselves into becoming more what we want to be.

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