Bible: The past that guides the future

Feb 4, 2019 by

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We don’t often have the chance to witness mass religious festivals of a kind seen regularly in some parts of the world. They are unforgettable: the Muslim hajj, the Easter throngs in southern Africa or the multitude flocking the banks of the Yamuna at Kumbh Mela in India.

Jonathan Larson

Jonathan Larson

The scale of these gatherings is in the millions of adherents. It is to the ears of such an assembly — of a kind glimpsed by John in Revelation — that the cry of the psalmist is raised, summoning all clans and nations (66:4) to a mighty act, a roar of adulation in acknowledgement of heaven’s works.

And what are these works? Psalms 66 and 91 both find the answer in divine acts of deliverance. A specific story is evoked, when a future is snatched from the pitiless jaws of yesterday. Chariots and horses are turned to flotsam as a liberated people pass through sea and river to find spacious ground in Canaan (66:12).

There might have been any number of other stories to set as centerpiece for a people. Here we witness the power of human choice, imagination and leadership in the selection of a story worthy of destiny.

This — the Exodus — becomes the defining story, beyond all other spectacle, beyond all the trials along the way (66:10-12). To have secured that story as the center pole of tabernacle, culture, reflection and practice is a gift beyond telling.

For the rest of its life as a people, Israel will be happily haunted by that story — even in its straying. Not only does it set the community on an expectant, upward path (66:8) but it allows individuals to see their personal lives as the ground and gift of liberty (66:16), worthy of timbrel and dance (Ex. 15:20-21). Worthy of the covenant bonds of love.

The shaft of light illuminating and drawing into the present that experience of deliverance is then turned on to the unknown future (Psalm 91). It’s as though we ponder the path ahead (verses 11-13) from under the very eaves of that sheltering story (1-2, 9-10). The path, we know, holds its twists and surprises, its darkness, withering heat and peril.

Then the story itself begins to speak: It reminds us that the power of God to rescue, whatever the menace, is undiminished.

How are we to understand this assertion, when we, ourselves, have witnessed the suffering and loss of many who stand in the shelter of those epic eaves? (Read the reports of Congolese Anabaptists who have laid down their lives in the bloodletting of the Kasai region.)

This question, which vexes faith, defying resolution, drives to the depths of spirituality and of pilgrim journey. A brief story may help.

I was once traveling in the border country between India and northwest Myanmar, there taken in by the Catholic principal of a mountain school. At breakfast, he recounted an incident.

An enraged parent had accosted him at home over his child’s failing grades. This he did while brandishing a rifle, insisting that his child’s marks should be changed. The principal replied that this would make a mockery of the school’s integrity. The parent then escalated the conflict by firing a round into the office floor.

When the dust cleared, the principal said calmly, “There is nothing of any significance you can take from me with your rifle. Everything that matters has been secured by Jesus’ cross and resurrection.”

Nonplussed, the parent turned on his heel and strode away. The principal led me into his office pointing to the telltale pockmark that punctuated the story.

Yes, that deliverance may be physical, but it will always have secured everything that matters.

Now writing and leading retreats, Jonathan Larson of Atlanta has wandered the globe as storyteller, service worker, teacher and pastor. He blogs on the spirituality of travel at jonathanlarsonblog.com.


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