4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.Numbers 21:4–9
At the end of the Donald Trump presidency, still in the middle of the pandemic, we live in a deeply broken world. Even though there is hope since the election of President Biden, we are a nation in crisis.
When everything is broken, and not even our illusions of wholeness work anymore, what do we do? Perhaps we have to lose our illusions to know what we really need and long for, like the Israelites on their desert journey.
They had just escaped from the terrors of Egypt, and as Moses walked them out triumphantly, he quite literally walked them out of their illusion. Egypt had been everything but wholeness, yet somehow, they had aligned themselves with the misery of living as slaves. As the desert journey wore on, they began to romanticize the place they had fled; by any measure, this seemed far worse than where they had been.
Now they were walking into nowhere, and they had trouble seeing where they were going; they were afraid. They growled and complained against Moses and his God; they wanted back what they had had. Even though they had been enslaved by the Egyptians, they preferred the safety of slavery to the terrors of the journey. Our mothers and fathers in the faith were scared. In Numbers 21 we read:
. . . the people became impatient on the way. [They] spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”Numbers 21:4b–5
When the Israelites became irritable and cross with Moses, God made them pay attention: “. . . the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died” (verse 6). All of a sudden, the Israelites knew they were being held accountable for their actions. As the terror over the biting serpents grew, God had Moses make a copper image of a serpent; from then on someone had to carry the copper serpent ahead of the crowd, as a warning sign but also as a sign of God’s power to save and heal.
People who looked upon this image of terror didn’t die, but lived. You can see the connections with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, tempting Adam and Eve to use their access to God to do what is irresponsible. The serpent became a suitable instrument of divine reprimand, but also of healing. When the Israelites looked upon the serpent image, they were reminded of their holiness, their wholeness in the eyes of God, and their obligations toward God.
As any good parent, God sets limits and expects those limits to be respected. God holds us accountable for our actions, and when we act without regard for the rules, there are consequences. The serpent on the pole reminded the Israelites of this basic truth, that holiness will be achieved by living our humanity with responsibility.
Mystics the world over speak of the human ego as a force that is necessary, but one that needs to be curbed when it gets out of control. Jews believe that this is best done by following the values and way of life set down in the Torah. Christians teach that this is done by orienting their lives by the true life that is already among us. Buddhists teach that this can be achieved by becoming enlightened.
During this season of Lent the pandemic gives us quite a taste of the Exodus journey of our mothers and fathers in the faith. Even though there are signs of hope (the vaccine being one of them), we are like those walking around in the wilderness without having much hope or orientation. Many of us are tired, exhausted and irritable. Even though we have just reached 500,000 Covid-related deaths, the magnitude of this crisis has a numbing effect. We keep walking the desert because there’s nothing else to do . . .
In a situation like this, what do we do to find wholeness? Lent calls us to rely on bizarre images. On the image of a serpent that is every bit as frightening as the bites real snakes are capable of. On the image of a bleeding savior carrying his cross, an image that early on made Christians the laughing stock of Rome. How can the People of God be guided by images of terror, like the cross and the serpent? Buddhists suggest that using images will chase our ego away, as they are not rational. I believe Jesus used his parables for this same purpose: to throw off the human ego and send it back into its bounds.
When it comes to wholeness, our ego is in the way. Because the ego actively instigates against anything we do and think and say that will connect us with God, the universe and others, it constantly builds up our lives and importance here on earth, it makes us self-centered and wants to keep us that way. Life that lasts, eternal life, cannot be had as long as we cling to this temporary one here on earth. Only when we live in such a way that we are in the world but not of it, will we become whole human beings. Zen Buddhists call that wholesome state enlightenment, mystics like Rumi call it divine drunkenness, and the Bible calls it shalom.
Shalom is often translated with “peace,” but it is so much more. Shalom is God’s dream of an end to all our tendencies to division, hostility, fear, and misery. Shalom is the substance of the biblical vision of one community embracing all creation. The word shalom incorporates love, loyalty, truth, grace, salvation, justice, blessing, righteousness, enlightenment, happiness and wholeness. Shalom is always around us, if only we knew where to look for it; for all its horrors, the world is not ultimately a horror show. As Jesus told his disciples throughout his ministry, the world has the kingdom buried in it like a treasure buried in a field, like leaven working in dough, like a seed germinating in the earth, like whatever it was in the heart of the Prodigal Son that finally brought him home.
When I am fragmented and in pieces, disjointed and all over the place, full of doom and gloom, misery and anger, it is likely because I am giving my ego too much power. We need to learn to detach, and to distance ourselves from the desires of our ego. How do you do that, detach yourself from your ego? Try to avoid all competition and comparison; when you witness the good action of another, don’t get envious, but encourage yourself to follow their example; when you hear that someone else made a mistake, don’t gloat, but remember not to make the same mistake. Censure yourself, never another person. Do not discuss right and wrong if you can help it.
Love with compassion, forgiveness, pardon and mercy, in giving away what is most dear to you. If you do all these things, your ego will lose power and you will realize that you have more time and energy for pursuing your inner life, the life that can’t die.
One day one of Malcolm X daughters came to visit my hospital; when the time came for asking questions, one man with a very angry face asked the daughter of Malcolm X, “Why aren’t you more angry, given everything you’ve been through?” He seemed to be accusing her of not being angry enough. She answered, “I don’t know about you, Sir, but my father taught me to let go of the things that get you down, and hold on to the things that lift you up.” This is how God loves, this is how we are to love: holding on to things that lift us up.
When the Book of Genesis says that we are made in the image of God, and when Saint Paul says the deepest undercurrent of all creation is moving toward what he calls mature humanhood, it seems clear what scripture suggests: that all human beings carry inside a vision of wholeness, of shalom. Our task is to learn to live in shalom. I believe that, as Chip Roush has put it, “at our living core, we are wholeness and transfiguring love”.
We live in shalom when our love begins to “transfigure” the disfigured world in which we live. One Christian leader who actively works on shalom is Pastor William Barber II, President and Senior Lecturer at Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. In a New York Times interview this past December, he stated,
You have to stand up and say that systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, denial of health care, the war economy and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism are interlocking injustices that require us as people of faith to challenge them. . . . let’s acknowledge that democracy is hard, and we’ve always had to battle. Having said that, it is also important that we ask, Where does healing come? What doesn’t heal us is conversations about left versus right.Pastor William Barber II
Even though being flooded with news of death and dying can numb us, I believe that one way out of the numbness is getting together to hold on to things that lift us up, to learn shalom. Pastor Barber and his movement are one place to start, but our local congregations are too.