Let no one tell you that following in the footsteps of the Lord is easy. During Lent, we were reminded all the time of the need to go forth, reminded all the time that our lives too easily become prisons – albeit cosy ones. Yet God does not make this an easy choice.
It must have been tough being Moses. Discovered by Pharoah’s daughter in the bulrushes, brought up as a prince in the Pharoah’s household – it would have been so tempting to have lived as a favoured child, ignoring the fact that the country that had adopted him had become a prison for his Jewish countrymen.
But Moses became the man he was destined to be. The Exodus story tells of the cataclysmic consequences of Moses confrontation with Pharoah, in which he commands him to ‘Let my people go’. Pharoah is not pleased, and instead of allowing the Jews to prepare a feast to their God in the wilderness, they are condemned to make bricks without straw. Then, when eventually they do go, it is the wilderness – a sea of sand – that awaits them.
The Psalms are not exactly encouraging about sticking one’s neck out either – ‘If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?… The wicked walk on every side when the vilest men are exalted…’
And in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says: ‘Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves…’
No words of comfort until the very end: ‘Ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake, but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.’
And yet – as if we know that our lives depend on it – fearful, mistrustful, doubting and generally faint-hearted – we go. The desire to seek out our God overcomes our fear.
When I was little, I had a picture on my wall of a small boy alone in a sailing ship. The prayer beneath it was: ‘Oh God, I am sailing on thy wide, wide sea. Please guard my little ship for me.’ And that image – of the sea as a metaphor for our journey through the storms of life – has endured for me as a constant reminder, not just of what God requires of us but of what we must ask of ourselves.
I once stood with a Spanish historian on the sea front in Cadiz, while he spoke about Columbus setting out for the New World. ‘You see,’ he said, ‘he knew the winds and the tides would take them out. But he had no idea whether they could ever get back.’ The sheer danger of it comes vividly to life in Joaquin Miller’s poem:
Behind him lay the grey Azores,
Behind the gates of Hercules;
Before him not the ghost of shores,
Before him only shoreless seas.
The good mate said: ‘Now we must pray,
For lo! The very stars are gone.
Brave Admiral, speak; what shall we say?’
‘Why, say, ‘Sail on! Sail on! And on!’
Such words load us with a longing for what we cannot know except through our hearts and souls, and for what we will never find if we play it too safe. Falling in love in human terms is invariably a step into the unknown ; why are we surprised that the steps needed find God are so much larger? We’re used to having things proved to us nowadays. We’re not used to taking things on trust.
I’ve always been a fan of the scientist Michael Faraday who said that that the most dangerous people in the world were those who were convinced they were right.
The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, deals with that:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the Spring
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plough,
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
In other words:
We are called to say yes
To this God who reaches out
And asks us to share
His crazy dream of love…
In the wake of Bishop Michael Curry’s paeon to love at the Royal Wedding, saying ‘Yes’ is the least we can do. And when we feel so stricken and inadequate that we can hardly take another step, we have the words of St Augustine to reassure us:
‘And behold, you are near and deliver us from our wretched Wanderings… You comfort us and say: “Run, I will carry you, and I will lead you to the end; and there also I will carry you.”’
A prayer of Sir Francis Drake:
Disturb us, O Lord, when we are too well-pleased with ourselves. When our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little, because we sailed too close to the shore. Stir us, O Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture into wider seas where storms show thy mastery, where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.