When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea.
They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
(Exodus 13:17-18a, 20-22, NRSV)
When my father was a little boy, he looked forward to camp because it meant going to Ocean View, to the beach with the ocean instead of the bank of the river just down the street. Forever after, his idea of escape was a place where you could hear the waves breaking and smell salt air. He was a skinny city kid with coke bottle glasses, a boy who ran and played outside all the time on the sidewalks and streets of our hometown of Portsmouth, Virginia. Each night a band of boys played outside together until they heard, from the shipyard, a gun fired at 9 p.m. In our family lore, it was the 9 o’clock BOOM!!!
Camp had structure and new friends and different ways of keeping time. Camp picked him up out of the familiar, and even when we love the familiar, there’s something to be said for losing it or leaving it, to live in a different way.
For kids today, leaving behind the iPods and computers, the instant messaging and the cell phones, can be a shock to the system. I guess it’s true for counselors, too. I never have to feel alone at my house, even when no one else is at home; there is always a friendly email to read or a DVD to watch or a CD to play. Even when I turn things off, the refrigerator hums or the fan turns in the window. Unless the power goes out, as it did one day while I was away, it is never completely quiet at our house.
Spend a week with a cabin of 11 and 12 year old girls, and you will learn what QUIET is. When the whispers stop, finally, and the flashlights have been turned off, and the only sounds come from the rustling leaves, then it is QUIET. If you are not quite ready to sleep yourself, there is plenty of room to think as the night air grows cooler. Until, of course, the loons begin to call.
When you are a born city girl, and you lie in a cabin just up the hill from the lakeshore, and the loons begin their singing, you know you are in the wilderness.
I love being in the wilderness, or what I think of as wilderness. To me the wilderness is all about trees, trees so close together that you can’t be sure which one you passed and your sense of direction can easily be lost.
The Israelites on their journey out of Egypt were in a very different kind of wilderness. We’re not entirely sure where they spent most of their forty years of wandering. Historians and archaeologists have worked to narrow down the possibilities, but with no absolute conclusions. All we can say for sure is that they struggled to have enough food to eat and water to drink, and that their arrival in the Promised Land came much later than anyone expected when they set out on the journey.
Oh. And we know one more thing. God set out on the journey with them, providing a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of cloud by night, to keep them moving away from their captivity in Egypt.
At camp we had fun singing the song “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” and although the population of Hebrew slaves who left Egypt following Moses was large, they come up as number three in the song. “I’m gonna send thee three by three, three for the Hebrew children…” They truly were sent, away from the familiar and into their wilderness, the unfriendly dessert with its snakes and insects and strange weather patterns and general hostility to a large community seeking to survive together.
Camp is not quite that rigorous, thanks be to God. A bell rings to tell us when to meet at the Lodge. There are meals on the table at regular times, though campers are sometimes as suspicious of tomato soup as the Israelites would be of manna on first glance. There are boardwalks to keep us out of the poison ivy and flashlights to guide us back to our cabins when Vespers ends after dark. This summer, Pilgrim Lodge has used a curriculum entitled “On the Way,” a journey-themed set of lessons aimed at helping campers of all ages seek where and how God may be sending them, and together we studied this story of the Exodus.
Where is God sending you? Where is God sending me? And most of all, why are we being sent? There are many unanswered questions, but God isn’t testing us on our timing. This isn’t a great big game of Taboo, which I played with a group of mostly college-aged counselors this week. God isn’t sitting by egging us on to lose or buzzing us when we say a taboo word. God is providing the signal fire, the unchanging cloud, the spiritual guidance we need to get to the place where we are being sent.
New at Pilgrim Lodge is a labyrinth, modeled on the famous one at Chartres Cathedral in France. Built in the woods, it looks almost as if it grew there, as thoughtful planners measured the four directions and brought in stones and preserved trees within the path leading to and from the center. A labyrinth may remind you of a maze, but it has only one way in and out, with no dead ends. The path is not direct. You curve back and forth, some parts of the path short and others longer, sweeping around the outer edge.
This week I walked the labyrinth with two fellow counselors and the eleven campers in our “family group.” Throughout the week this group met for Bible Study, for group-building challenges, for worship planning and in my favorite meeting, to walk the labyrinth together. These young people, soon to enter either 6th or 7th grade, approached the labyrinth with reverence. We gave each person a significant start, and each walker set his or her own pace. At the center we sat in a circle on benches carved from logs, every part of the labyrinth made of natural materials. Together we reflected on the experience, and then we prayed. We heard prayers of thanks for camp, and prayers of concern for grandparents and siblings and the families awaiting help from the Maine Conference in Honduras. We walked out again, still reverently. I was last, and as I came out of the labyrinth, I looked up and saw them all sitting ranged across some big rocks, as quiet as they had been in prayer.
They showed me they had learned the three “C’s” that matter a great deal on every journey: Cooperation, Communication and Caring. These were the watchwords of our group work all week. We worked together. We shared our thoughts, both by expressing them and by listening to the thoughts of others. When the group did not communicate, we saw the poor results of a task we could not easily complete.
Most important of the three, the greatest of these, is Caring. To work together as a community on the way, we must actually care about one another. We must feel compassion for each other’s grief and loss. We must allow airtime for another person’s opinion. We must notice that there *are* others who have those opinions and feelings!
Where is God sending you? Where is God sending me? And why are we being sent?
Every night this past week, I read aloud to the six girls in my cabin. We shared a book my daughter recommended, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo. It is the story of a large china rabbit named Edward Tulane, a rabbit who has a lesson to learn about caring. Edward Tulane is a toy who has, through a series of misfortunes, passed from one owner to another to another to another and finally landed in a doll shop. Depressed, he no longer hopes to love and be loved again.
In a conversation with an antique doll, he says,
“I am done with being loved. I’m done with loving. It’s too painful.”
“Pish,” said the old doll. “Where is your courage?”
“Somewhere else, I guess,” said Edward.
“You disappoint me,” she said. “You disappoint me greatly. If you have no intention of loving or being loved, then the whole journey is pointless.”
If you have no intention of loving or being loved, then the whole journey is pointless. The journey is about love: love for God, love for others and love for yourself.
Just like the china rabbit waiting on a shelf for a new person to come into his life, we don’t know right this minute where God will send us next, what the sending will look like or feel like. We don’t know if it will come with a sense of urgency, as did the sending of the Hebrew people out of Egypt. But we can be as sure as they were in those first days of their flight that God is indeed the one sending us and leading us on the way. Because God loves us, we will never be alone. Because we love God, we will find courage to go where God sends us. Amen.