Have you ever had a time in your life when you just couldn’t see a clear path forward? Maybe there was a big change going on and you were trying to adjust, but having trouble picturing your next steps. Or something unexpected might have happened—a job transfer, a sudden illness, a change in priorities—and you found yourself in a new place, not quite sure where to go from there.
This idea of life as a journey seems to resonate with many of us, because we have a lifelong sense of who we are, who we were, and the hope of who we will one day be. There’s continuity to our experience. We see our stories as having begun somewhere—most likely with us as infants in the arms of our parents—and then winding through all sorts of adventures and misadventures, joys and sorrows, mistakes and successes—bringing us across innumerable hills and valleys to these pews right here today. Life has been rich and full. We’ve done a lot, felt a lot, faced, mastered, and enjoyed a lot across the years. Along the way, our understanding of life has deepened, our knowing of ourselves has broadened, and our belief in and reliance on God has hopefully grown ever stronger.
But no matter how long we’ve lived, life has an uncanny knack for presenting us with puzzles to solve—some painful, some not. We each, at any time in our lives, may find ourselves looking out across our own personal Red Sea, with no clue what to do next or what direction to turn.
In our Old Testament reading this morning, the children of Israel were truly in an untenable position. Even though God through Moses had successfully freed them from bondage in Egypt, Pharoah hadn’t given up quite so easily. Once the Israelites had packed up their belongings and started on the long journey home, Pharoah had a change of heart and ordered his armies to pursue them. They were quickly gaining on the large group and would soon have them trapped at the edge of the Red Sea.
The anxious people had been following Moses’ lead, hoping against hope that freedom and a better life—in a land of milk and honey—would in fact be possible for them. And even that felt like a pipe dream. How did they know where they were headed? They worried about so many things. About their safety and security, about basic things like food and water. How would they and their children survive this long journey? Their trust wavered. Moses’ go-to answer to allay their fears was always the same: trust God.
But now the situation was even more dire than ever. Over their shoulders, they could see the cloud of dust from Pharoah’s army, gaining on them. In answer to the great feeling of panic sweeping through the people, Moses urges once again, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.” He tells the frightened people that all they need to do is keep still. God will do it all.
And poor Moses—he is getting pressure from every side. Even God chides him, saying, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” God tells Moses all he has to do is lift up his staff, stretch out his hand over the sea and it will divide. And the people will be able to cross safely on dry ground.
I can’t even imagine what Moses would have been feeling in that moment, with Pharoah’s army fast approaching, the panicked people blaming him, and even God sounding a bit miffed. How did he lift his arm and point his staff, with even the tiniest flicker of faith? Did he believe this crazy thing was even possible? The only solution God offered was a miracle that would defy the laws of nature, bend gravity, and demonstrate that all matter—the physical world and all it contains—was subject to God’s command, not just at the time of creation but now, in the living world. Moses must have been shaking in his sandals, but he did what was asked of him. Maybe he was just willing to try. He extended his arm, pointed the staff…and you know the rest of the story. What God said proved true. The people, incredulous, crossed over safely. And as Pharoah’s army pursued them, the walls of the sea closed in. And just like that, their pursuers were no more.
Whatever Red Sea we may be facing—an illness we’re trying our best to manage, financial worries, a heartbreaking loss, family conflicts—we feel increased pressure when we’re pursued by things like self-criticism, self-doubt, and self-judgment. When we criticize ourselves, we add to our own stress and make it harder to find peace. And our panicked inner voices only make matters worse. Look at the mess you’ve created! they say. Now what are you going to do?!
This is precisely when, like Moses, we need to ask God for help, turning with whatever calm we can muster toward the still peace of God’s presence within. Especially when our outer circumstances feel most urgent, we need to take a breath, say a prayer, and let ourselves listen to God. And when even the tiniest little flicker of an idea comes into that stillness, we need to put that inspiration into action—even if we can’t see how it will help–and proceed as way opens.
“Proceed as way opens” is an old Quaker phrase and when I searched for its origins, all I came up with was a definition that was included in a dictionary that was once produced by Friends United Press. “As way opens,” the dictionary says, “is in accordance with specific promptings of the Spirit, as the will of God becomes known, taking one step at a time as it becomes clear what to do.’
In Brent Bill’s book, Sacred Compass,” he writes that “to proceed as way opens means to wait for guidance, to avoid hasty judgment or action, to wait for future circumstances to help solve a problem. [It is] the spiritual guidance which may come in a time of seeking or entirely unexpectedly, bringing suggestion for previously unforeseen action.” Waiting for that God-inspired inner nudge to tell us what our next step should be.
When we are struggling with something and not sure about the best way to go—many things can get in our way as we’re trying to make sense of the whole situation. Our emotions get kicked up, we’re anxious about how things will turn out, we may have limiting or blaming ideas about who or what caused the problem in the first place. Especially when things are difficult, we want to resolve them quickly. We want answers. Waiting is hard. Sitting in stillness, listening for God’s leading—maybe waiting and listening a long time—seems next to impossible when we’re feeling anxious. It’s human nature to want to resolve our discomfort by grasping at answers, any answers—even bad answers—as long as we can get them now.
But the phrase “proceed as way opens” reminds us that we’re not the ones running the show. The whole situation—the Red Sea, Pharoah’s army, and all—is unfolding as it needs to as part of God’s bigger story. God is working not only in our individual lives but in all lives and even independently of the lives all around us. There is a force in life working for our good, if we can be patient and receptive enough to let it do its perfect work. Proceeding as way opens means we move in harmony with life, in tune with right timing and order. We pay attention to what is going on within and around us, and we stay awake and aware of our situation, watching for God to move and act, arranging the circumstance so the best outcome can emerge.
Friends sometimes use the word seasoning to refer to this kind of God-focused waiting. There is a kind of peaceful gratitude that comes when we trust God this way, remembering that God has the whole circumstance in hand and that as God works and circumstances ripen, way will open in the perfect way.
It’s interesting to note that in Tibetan Buddhism, there is a concept that is comparable to this idea among Friends. The word tashi is used to say that everything that is unfolding—whether it brings happiness or pain—is a blessing. Everything is right and appropriate in every moment, arising as it should. Tashi. You’ve also heard me mention the Hebrew word Dayenu. This also has that same feeling of thanks, of blessing, for whatever comes, whatever’s here. If God had split the sea for us, and not taken us through on dry land,” the people sing at Passover, “Dayenu, it would have been enough!
In our New Testament reading, James—the brother of Jesus—offers us practical ways to increase our trust and reliance on God while we’re waiting on way to open. He first says to be slow to anger—with ourselves and with one another—because “anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” He urges us to get rid of anything that gets in the way of our spiritual growth and encourages us to “be doers of the word and not hearers” only. When we act on the leadings we hear within–trusting our God-inspired nudges–when we accept that the perfect law of God’s love is leading us, our actions are blessed. The way will open and we will cross our Red Sea—whatever it may be—on dry land. And whatever was pursuing us—our own unkind thoughts or outer pressures—they will be no more, just like that, covered by the waves of God’s grace.
In closing, I’d like to share a beautiful quote from English Quaker Gordon Matthews. This is a passage that was included in the 1987 Quaker Faith & Practice of Britain Yearly Meeting. He writes,
How can we walk with a smile into the dark? We must learn to put our trust in God and the leadings of the Spirit. How many of us are truly led by the Spirit throughout our daily lives? I have turned to God when I have had a difficult decision to make or when I have sought strength to endure the pain in dark times. But I am only slowly learning to dwell in the place where leadings come from. That is a place of love and joy and peace, even in the midst of pain. The more I dwell in that place, the easier it is to smile, because I am no longer afraid.
If we dwell in the presence of God, we shall be led by the spirit. We do well to remember that being led by the spirit depends not so much upon God, who is always there to lead us, as upon our willingness to be led. We need to be willing to be led into the dark as well as through green pastures and by still waters. We do not need to be afraid of the dark, because God is there. The future of this earth need not be in the hands of the world’s ‘leaders’. The world is in God’s hands if we are led by God. Let us be led by the Spirit. Let us walk with a smile into the dark.
- OT Exodus 14: 10-16
- NT James 1: 19-26
- Bill, Brent. Sacred Compass. https://www.amazon.com/Sacred-Compass-Way-Spiritual-Discernment/dp/1612612504
- Quaker Faith & Practice, Britain Yearly Meeting: https://qfp.quaker.org.uk/chapter/29/