I was asked last week to give the reflection at our school's "Wednesday Worship," and since it was an autobiographical reflection about my academic journey, I thought I would share it with you as well.*******************************
When I was asked last week to reflect autobiographically about my academic and faith journeys, I thought it would be pretty straightforward. Afterall, I have been thinking a lot about this recently in preparing applications, and journey, as a metaphor, is fairly rich. Or is it? Before beginning, I want to be careful to qualify my growing understanding of "journey" as a metaphor, both because I believe it is on the verge of becoming too trite and overused, and because I am coming to a deeper understanding of it.
"Journey" has always connoted to me an active movement from A to B, but with the added benefit of also appreciating the in between, the "getting there". I feel like this is a far too simplistic understanding, however, that needs further unpacking and qualification, since I have been growing, recently to a more richer understanding of journey that is not nearly so active (in its traditional sense). This more difficult understanding of "journey" which is maturing in me, puts emphasis on the meaning-laden pauses, the patient waiting, the sinuous detours, and the attentiveness to the surroundings that you can only get by stopping. I want to be careful to say that this understanding of journey is active, though it may not be physically so. The reflective work that is necessary in these pauses is significant and should not be minimized. I say this is a more difficult understanding of journey for me because, for those of you who know me-I am very concerned with the "getting there," and have been of the mind that any hesitation or sidetrack should be seen as a result of my fallenness or my inability, and therefore minimized or suppressed.
I suppose this understanding of pauses as sinful comes in part from a simplistic reading of the exodus-that the wandering in the desert was purely a result of Israel's sinfulness. If they had only been less whiny, better listeners, more obedient-they would have been enjoying the milk and honey so much sooner! I think now, however, that the exodus-spanning several books of the Older Testament-can be better appreciated as a meaning-filled pause, an encouragement to not be so worried about "getting there" that one misses the significance of "being here."
One such passage from the Exodus story is particularly striking in this regard-it comes just after the Israelites fled Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, saw their captors drown, and had a party on the banks. I can imagine that they have an unbelievable amount of momentum for their journey-a kind of "what are we waiting for, let's get to the Promised Land" attitude. But no. Right after "the horse and its rider God has hurled into the sea" comes this story:
Exodus 15: 22-27
"Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place was called Marah.) So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, "What are we to drink?" Then Moses cried out to the Lord and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. There the Lord made a decree and a law for them, and there he tested them. He said, "If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord you God and do right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals you." Then they came to Elim, where there were 70 palm trees and they camped there near the water." (NIV translation)
Instead of moving right into the promised land, the Israelites had to wait. God was to test them, it says, though it wasn't specified whether this was just for this moment, or whether it could encompass the entire desert wandering (or even more!). But God would also heal and provide for them. This was to be a meaningful pause, a patient waiting-taking time to appreciate the "being here." This passage comes to me as such a gem-right in the middle of the desert at the beginning of their journey to the promised land, God provides the Israelites with Elim-the place of large trees. The desert isn't just something that is to be hurried through to get to the other side-the Israelites had a lot of growing to do as God's people before they got there. While not always pleasant (could these large trees be on a white sandy beach instead of in the middle of the desert?!), God still promised to provide for them in the waiting.
What I find especially striking and a bit ironic about this biblical waiting, is how it coincides with one of my own meaningful pauses. After college graduation, full of momentum (escaping Trinity Christian College; crossing the graduation stage; having a big party... doesn't this sound familiar?), I found myself in a humbling period of extended unemployment, with no promising possibilities in my field of teaching. I wanted to go to graduate school, but it wasn't the right time. I found myself needing to wait, though I wasn't patient about it, and at the time, it didn't seem very meaningful. Interestingly, I found myself, like the Israelites, at Elim. Though not quite the picture of palm trees and waterfront property that the Bible makes out, this was Chicago, afterall-it was a job. My time at Elim was very much still a time in the desert, though there was a providence in that desert that I could hardly see as anything but graciousness. It is striking to me looking back, how I interpreted ironically the water and the palm trees that was on Elim Christian Schools' sign. This was no picnic year for me. But maybe it was the year of reflection that I needed in order to get ready for the next step. I have consistently resisted calling this year of working with boys with autism a "year off," as is typical language for people in graduate school who don't go "straight through." However, I am still in the process of truly appreciating my year in Elim, in finding the meaning in the pause, in being grateful for the "being there."
I feel so painfully slow in learning my lessons. Before fully comprehending the meaningful pause that was my literal Elim, another, figurative one is upon me. While I am still in school, and there has been no pausing to speak of in recent history-the uncertainties of the coming year are looming large. Elim Christian School is miles behind me, but I am once again in a place where I must wait patiently upon decisions and live faithfully in the "being here." I am not yet ready to go on to the next step in my educational journey-that is for a time that is yet beyond me, maybe next fall and maybe later than that. Right now I must do all that I can to take advantage of these moments of reflection that PhD applications have been granting me, and continue till completion the journey already before me.
Forced or chosen-there are numerous opportunities in our daily lives to benefit from meaningful pauses. I am still learning to rest in God's providing and the assurance of God's testing. Will it be in my current "Elim" that I rest in the shade of the palm trees near the water? Or will I miss this meaning-filled pause on my journey? Will you?