Now that fall is officially here and the nights are so much cooler—which is great if you’re a fan of warm blankets and cozy sweatshirts like I am—the hummingbirds at my house are practically swarming the feeders, often two or three at time, chasing each other back and forth until one finally stakes a claim and settles on the perch to drink. I see probably 30 or more a day, iridescent green ones and gray ones and black ones with red, some with long needle-like beaks and others shorter. One little hummingbird I saw yesterday morning looked positively portly—but maybe she was puffed up because the temperature was still in the 50s. [And here are a couple of fun facts about hummingbirds I want to share just because they make me happy: First, a “flock” of hummingbirds can be called a “bouquet, a glittering, a hover, a shimmer, or a tune”—how perfect is that?–and there are more than 330 species of hummingbirds in North and South America.) But whatever their size or style or personality may be, the same instinct that teaches them where to find good nectar is also telling them that change is on the way. They need more calories to prepare for the journey ahead. I’ll miss them when they’re gone and look forward to their return in the spring.
That idea of our journeys in life—and what prepares us or hinders us, inwardly, as we embark on them—has been on my mind a lot these last few weeks. It started with the idea that Moses, who’d led the children of Israel to the brink of the promised land, wasn’t allowed to enter it himself, even though he’d been so devoted to God and he’d done his best to be a good leader. A commentary I read recently suggested that God kept Moses out of the promised land not because he had sinned himself, but because he had lost faith in the children of Israel, the people he was leading. After all their hard-headedness and grumbling in the wilderness all those years, there came a time when Moses was so disgusted with them and their idols and their inability to listen that he suddenly saw them as irredeemable. Even though he’d argued with God on their behalf, asking him to spare their lives when God grew frustrated, Moses now despaired that the children of Israel would ever understand and change. And a leader who’s lost faith in his people can never lead them to the promised land.
But at God’s direction, Moses sent out a dozen scouts to explore whether this land they saw stretching before them was the land God had chosen for them. So Moses selected one son from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, and told them to go there and gather evidence of the goodness of the land and the richness of the soil. They were to return with their report.
The men did as Moses asked and brought back grapes, pomegranates and figs, evidence that life would be good there. They said, “It is, indeed, flowing with milk and honey!” and so it seemed they’d found their promised land after all. One of the men, Caleb, said, “We must go and take possession of the land, for it is surely ours!” But then the others added to their report and said the people there are strong and their cities fortified. They told Moses they couldn’t possibly go up against those people, claiming, “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own sight.”
This bad news caused a wave of despair to rise through the people. They wailed and tore their clothes—they were heartsick; so close to the promised land after so long, only to discover they were too weak, too inadequate to move forward into the blessing God had for them. They immediately began once again to grumble and complain, blaming Moses, and the stirrings of rebellion took root.
Joshua, another scout, along with Caleb, called for calm and tried to encourage them, saying to the whole congregation, “The land we passed through and explored is an exceedingly good land. If the LORD delights in us, He will bring us into this land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and He will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the LORD, and do not be afraid of the people of the land, for they will be like bread for us. Their protection has been removed, and the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them!”
Joshua and Caleb alone had a vision of what God could do in this new land and they put their hope and their faith in that. They saw God there and they knew that God had not led them this far, only to abandon them now. The others, who gave the negative report, were picturing a life there without God—without God’s presence, God’s protection, and God’s guidance. With that view, they spoke fear into the hearts of the people, evoking images of grave danger and certain defeat. It upset everyone and shook their faith in God—and in Moses.
The end of the story carries these two different perspectives to their logical outcomes. The men who couldn’t see the potential of the new land, who pictured it without God, full of threats and darkness, they were never able to live there because they died of illness not long after. The Israelites who grumbled and turned on Moses also perished in a plague that swept through their community. But those who had the vision of God’s potential in their hearts—Joshua and Caleb and the generation of Israelites who’d been born in the wilderness—they saw possibility, they knew God would be with them, and they were able to settle in the new land and establish their homes and prosper.
The question of what we see when we look down the road seems vitally important to me, especially in this time when we hear so many frightening reports about the state of our world and our hopes for the future. Depending on who we’re listening to—the scouts who share a fearful forecast or the scouts who see a more hopeful one–we can easily feel as small as grasshoppers—helpless, hopeless, and no match for the huge challenges we face as a nation and a world. And we do face big challenges but we don’t face them alone. Those feelings when they come—inadequacy, hopelessness, despair–should be a red flag telling us that when we feel that way, we’re leaving God out of the picture.
Each of our lives is a journey that is largely unknown from beginning to end. We are born into a certain family with its own dynamics, strengths, and weakness. We develop skills and abilities and a way to see and understand the world. The path we travel as we grow takes us through many adventures and challenges—outwardly and inwardly–through times of learning, confusion and despair, accomplishment, and failure. We’ve had moments of joy and times of great risk and heartache and trial. We meet people who are delightful or disagreeable, who love us or don’t, who are affirming or upsetting, who encourage us toward God or maybe mock our belief and cast doubt on our faith. Every life is unique, with its own challenges and blessings, but I think it’s safe to say we’re all are given chances to
- To learn what it means to forgive
- To feel how good it is to be forgiven
- To discover that love heals hearts and minds and lives
- To understand that we’re never alone
- To feel how empowering it is when someone believes in us
- To be invited to a deeper, living faith
- To recognize how freeing truth really is
- To know—really know—a divine presence in our lives that cares about our well-being and the well-being of all life
The invitations are there, and the opportunities come over and over again. The trick is having a mind and heart that recognizes them. If each of us were making a map of our lives, showing the journey we’ve already lived, our paths would be unique and varied. Some would be straighter than others, some winding and confused, others circling back on themselves as we repeated mistakes from our past. There would be mountains far too steep for us to climb alone and lakes far too wide for us to cross. In John Bunyan’s 1667 book Pilgrim’s Progress, he takes up this idea of life as a journey and creates a vivid allegory with a whole world full of colorful characters. Bunyan wants to show his readers that every faithful person struggles on the road to living a good life, and that the choices we make along the way matter.
In his story, Christian is the main character and as the narrative begins, he lives in the City of Destruction. He suddenly realizes his life is on the wrong track and he sets off on a journey toward the Celestial City, hoping for eternal life. All along the way, he meets people who either help or discourage him, people like Obstinate, who refuses to help, and Helpless, who says he is a lost soul and nothing—not even the mercy of Christ—can save him. At one point Christian is brought up on charges and on the bench is Judge Hategood and the prosecuting attorney is named Envy—you can see where this is going. Luckily good people also come alongside Christian to help him, people like Faithful and Goodwill, someone named Knowledge and another named Hopeful. It’s a fascinating and creative book and, if you’re curious, I recommend it to you (just be sure to get the one written in plain English). I’m sure it will be unlike anything you’ve ever read before.
In our New Testament reading today from Ephesians, Paul is trying—in a manner similar but not quite as creative as John Bunyan—to map out the potential pitfalls for the new church in Ephesus so they can be ready for the challenges to their faith that will come. When our focus is on God, Paul suggests, the challenges won’t seem monstrous and insurmountable—they will simply be trials we can overcome because God is with us. Paul names the things that get in the way of our view of God’s light, saying that those who get caught up in their own thinking
“…are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.”
Paul reminds them that Jesus brings a level of truth to our lives that far surpasses our old ways of being. “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
What does that mean, I wonder, to “put off your old self”? Maybe it means that the old ways we reacted to problems—with arguing and anger, division and judgment—no longer work if what we want is a life with God in a peaceful land. Paul was specific about how we can allow ourselves to be made new in our mental attitudes, so we live more closely aligned with God’s good hope for us. He tells us to
- Put off falsehoods and speak truth to our neighbor, for we are all members of one body
- To be careful not to wound others when we’re angry, devaluing or attacking them with our words
- We should settle each issue as it comes and not let the sun set on our anger (because holding a grudge, he says, gives the devil a foothold)
- We need to do good work that contributes something to others and share what we have with those in need
- He reminds us to watch our words, because the words we speak create something (remember the unfortunate scouts who gave the bad report and the fear and despair their words caused among the people).
- Speak only what is helpful for building others up, only what will help those who are listening. Another reason to give a good report and create hope in others’ hearts.
- He tells us not to grieve the Holy Spirit by refusing to listen or acting like we didn’t hear a leading that we know—in our heart of hearts—was meant for us.
- And weed out of our souls, Paul says, “all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”
- Instead, he says, look for the good in one another, for the good in our world, for the good in the journey ahead as we go along our way, being, “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as Christ God forgave you.” And if it feels like that could take us all the rest of our lives to master this, that’s okay, because it’s good and worthy work that makes God smile.
In these few paragraphs in Ephesians, Paul gives us the whole applied Gospel of Jesus Christ, spelling out specifically how living a life of faith looks if what we want is to live in harmony with God’s best for us and our world. Every one of those suggestions takes us beyond ourselves alone and asks us to speak, think, and act for the good of all, and the goodness of all, and on behalf of our belief that God is in fact leading us into a better day. We simply need to be willing and hold true to our vision. God is the One who does the work.
Like Joshua and Caleb, the scouts of the new era, let’s be the ones who see God working in our world right now. We are already on our way toward tomorrow. What do we see there? If we’re certain of God, we can look at our future and know that the ocean of light surely sweeps over the ocean of darkness George Fox saw so long ago. God is not asking us to do it ourselves, but to see and trust God’s presence in it all, guiding all He loves toward goodness and grace and peace.
I’d like to close with Emily Dickinson’s poem, I Dwell in Possibility:
I dwell in Possibility – A fairer House than Prose – More numerous of Windows – Superior – for Doors – Of Chambers as the Cedars – Impregnable of eye – And for an everlasting Roof The Gambrels of the Sky – Of Visitors – the fairest – For Occupation – This – The spreading wide my narrow Hands To gather Paradise –
Friends, we can see what she saw, a paradise so close, almost within our grasp. As we look to the future, we must be able to see God there–in the land, in the moments, in each other. That’s how we hold the vision and the promise of a better day. That’s how all of us together reach the promised land.
- OT Numbers 13: 25-33 & 14: 6-9
- NT Ephesians 4: 17-32
- Hummingbird facts: https://www.kaytee.com/learn-care/wild-bird/hummingbird-facts
- Bunyan, John. Pilgrim’s Progress in Today’s English. https://amazon.com/Pilgrims-Progress-Todays-English-Thomas-ebook/dp/B0092RIIAQ