For some of us beginnings are easy. We are full of energy, the path is clear in front of us. Yes, it's scary but it's also exciting. Shake the dust off our shoes and away we go.
The trouble comes when the road gets rough. Or boring. The educationalist John Holt claims that boredom is important for children. Unless they experience what it is to be bored, he argues, they will never learn how to truly use their time creatively and find out what really interests them.
The Israelites in the wilderness had a physical problem - no water. But I wonder if they also had an emotional problem. They'd left Egypt in a flurry of excitement and hope, dust swirling around them as they hurried into the unknown. Then there had been the pillars of cloud and fire, the excitement and terror of the chase, and the crossing of the Red Sea. After that? The hard slog. The daily journey, worrying about food and water, and how long it was taking to reach the promised land. Stressful, and boring.
Then there was the problem that the Israelites had come out of slavery. The life of a slave is dictated by others. When choice is repeatedly taken away from you, it can be difficult to make choices even when you are finally free.
It's fair to say the Israelites didn't respond to their quandary with great creativity. They responded instead with the great human capacity for complaint.
"The people quarrelled with Moses and said, 'give us water to drink.' Moses said to them 'Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?'"
We haven't changed much. The life of faith usually has wilderness periods. These can be times of doubt or anxiety, or times of boredom and thirst. We're not sure we are making progress. We step forward on auto-pilot, not really engaging with the people around us, or with God.
Yet, as Philip Yancy argues in his book Reaching for the Invisible God, when we look back we sometimes discover that these wilderness periods have been times of great creativity. God has reached into our arid spaces and slowly, tenderly, sometimes invisibly, he has nurtured new life, and new hope. He has continued his work of developing us into the people he always intended us to be.
If your throat is dry, don't panic. God is there.
It's a dusty road, and a dull one,
at least it is today.
I'm not in pain, I'm not suffering,
but I am thirsty.
Forgive my complaints, Father,
it's just that I'm tired of walking,
fed up with the unchanging scenery.
Give me patience in the wilderness.
Sharpen my senses
so I can smell the water hidden in the rock.
Teach me to see the quiet beauty in my surroundings,
to hear the echo of progress in each trudging step,
to taste the goodness of the food you have provided
to feel the warmth of my companions as we walk.
Restore to me the joy of a child,
for whom every step is new
and full of possibilities.
In Jesus' name. Amen.
Water from the rock
17 The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, travelling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So they quarrelled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’
Moses replied, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?’
3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?’
4 Then Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.’
5 The Lord answered Moses, ‘Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.’ So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarrelled and because they tested the Lord saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’