From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. – Exodus 17:1a
In this morning’s lesson in Exodus the Israelites are travelling “by stages” through the wilderness. This morning’s lesson reminds us of how it is we tend to make progress in the spiritual life: just as the Israelites traveled by stages through the wilderness and on to the Promised Land, so do we tend to travel by stages in our spiritual lives. Though at times we seem to make great gains in the spiritual life, deepening our relationship with Jesus Christ exponentially and in a short time, growth in God tends to be very slow, very incremental. In fact, there may be many times – seasons, perhaps lasting years – that we are “camped” and seem to be making no progress. This seeming lack of forward movement is all part of the journey, for we travel “by stages” in our journey to God.
This morning, there are three things I want to say about journeying “by stages.”
First, what do we want in regards to our spiritual life? Do we want God? When I say “want” I don’t mean “want” like in, say, soccer, where the player who wants the ball tends to get the ball. Or I remember when I was learning to surf, my buddy who was teaching me saying to me, “You’ve got to want the wave.” But by “want” I mean “want” as in a relationship, like: “I really want to be with you,” or, “I want to spend time with you.” Or, simply, “I want you.” Spiritual growth is not about accomplishment, like if we only try hard enough we could get the ball or catch that wave or make growth in God happen. The spiritual life is about a relationship, a relationship that – if we wish to make progress – it helps to want God.
And I understand if somebody doesn’t want God. Relationships are not easy, and they take time. But if we are to make progress in the spiritual life, it helps to want a relationship with God. For if we want a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, then the Spirit has room to move within us and can quicken our hearts desire. Rest assured, as much as we want a relationship with Jesus, Jesus wants a relationship with us, and the Spirit will do its utmost to make that relationship happen.
If you don’t wish for a deeper relationship with Jesus, tell him! I pass along the story of one of my Jesuit colleagues who, shortly before making his life profession, was walking in the woods in Maine, enjoying the beautiful day, the sunlight streaming through the leaves, the burbling of the brook next to the path, and saying to Jesus, “Jesus, I really want to give my life to you.” “Do you really?” came the response. After a moment of thought, my colleague replied, “No, I guess I don’t, really…” He sensed Jesus say to him, “Good. I can work with that.” Be honest! If you don’t want a deeper relationship with Jesus, tell him! He can take it. If you do want a deeper relationship, tell him that, too.
Second, if we want God, it helps to show up. It’s hard to maintain, much less develop, a relationship when no time is put into that relationship. If we want to develop my relationship with our spouse – or with our kids or our parents or our siblings or our neighbors – it helps to show up and put in some time. Because the journeys of these relationships are “in stages,” we may not always be aware that these relationships are deepening and growing – deepening tends to be very incremental – but if we are showing up, these relationships will, over time, develop and strengthen.
And by “showing up” I also mean being available. I am perfectly capable of “showing up” to a meeting at the diocese, for example, but not really being present. Or I come home for dinner and am seated with the family, but my mind is thinking about work. (I suspect I’m not alone in this!) If I wish to develop my relationships, it helps to show up and… be available.
If we wish for our relationship with Jesus to grow and develop, we might set aside time – as we’ve done this morning – to come and worship on Sunday morning. We might set aside time – as many of us are doing through the spiritual practices group – to read the scriptures from the Daily Office, or to do a regular “examination of conscience,” or to do centering prayer or to read from the lives of the saints. We might – as do many of us here at Trinity – make time in our schedules to volunteer at the Food Pantry or to cook a meal for the Salvation Army or Saturday / Sunday Bread. All we are doing is showing up and doing our best to be available – to set aside our agendas, to let the Spirit in, to let God work within us to show us how much God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us.
Lastly, we often make the most progress in the spiritual life when things are going “wrong.” As Richard Rohr writes in his book, Falling Upward, “We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.” Consider at the Israelites in the wilderness, how often they did it “wrong” – not listening to God, seeking their own will, doing things their own way. And yet, those 40 years in the wilderness were extremely formative for the Hebrews. As they were about to enter the Promised Land, Moses could look back on those years and say:
The clothes on your back did not wear out and your feet did not swell these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so the Lord your God disciplines you.
When we fall short, when we mess up, when things go poorly for us, it could be that God – as he was doing for the Israelites in the wilderness – is disciplining us, preparing to bring us to a better place, a Promised Land, where our relationship with Jesus will be deepened and where we can walk more intimately with the Lord.
To quote again from Richard Rohr:
Some kind of falling [is necessary for continued spiritual development.] Normally a job, fortune, or reputation has to be lost, a death has to be suffered, a house has to be flooded, or a disease has to be endured.
Our progress in the spiritual life will inevitably involve setbacks, but as we are honest in what we want in our relationship with God, as we are faithful in showing up, God can use these setbacks to deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ, who himself “went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified.”
I wonder, what do you want in your relationship with God. And are you willing to tell Him? Depending on what you want, are you willing to show up, to put in the time that that relationship takes? And when we experience setbacks, I wonder if we might be able to see the setbacks not as obstacles but as opportunities that God may be using to train us, to discipline us, to help to bring us out of the “wilderness” and into a rich land where we might better see how much God loves us, how much God cares for us, and how much God wants to be in intimate relationship with us, for the rest of our lives.