In his book “Jewish Spirituality: A Brief Introduction for Christians,” Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes of a midrash on the story of the parting of the Red Sea. He describes it as an astonishing miracle, perhaps the greatest of all miracles, as the Children of Israel flee across the river bed with the pursuing army right behind them and the waters standing high on either side.
Two men, Shimon and Reuven, walk side by side looking at the river bed and complaining about how muddy it was. “There’s no difference between being a slave in Egypt and being free here” says Shimon. “You know what?” says Reuven, “When we were slaves in Egypt we had to make bricks with mud like this.”
They walk heads down and miss the miracle that is happening all around them. For these two there was no miracle redemption only the foot-dragging mud. They walked right through a demonstration of the rescuing power of God but they missed it, their eyes tight focussed on the mess on the floor. (Midrash Exodus Rabba 24.1)
Rabbi Kushner writes, “People see only what they’re looking for and what they understand, not necessarily what lies in front of them.”
That comment puts words to what I felt following the Presbyterian Assembly last week. So many looked and saw what they understood and not what was in front of them. They saw a hostile world, determined to turn Gospel light to darkness. They saw disordered, corrupting relationships storming the citadel of truth. They saw Presbyterianism heroically standing against the secularising tendencies of the liberals.
This is what happens when we wield purity like a axe. Weaponised Truth needs an enemy.
The mire and sludge of the river bed was a reality for Shimon and Reuven. But just as those two couldn’t see the miracle around them for the mud, likewise my fellow Presbyterians seem to see only threat and not opportunity or responsibility.
What perhaps Presbyterianism didn’t see, and perhaps what we can’t see or understand, (maybe even what we wilfully won’t see) is the opportunity presented last week for hospitality in a lonely world. What we apparently refuse to admit is the reality of loving, committed, exclusive, faithful and believing relationships. What we can’t see are infants utterly innocent of the ‘sins’ of their parents. What we won’t contemplate is an adjustment to a tradition of men in the face of a plain injustice.
Preferring the myth of institutional purity we opted for what we understood in our limited vision and rejected the mystery of grace. We voted for defensiveness and cold literalism. For separatism in the face of Gospel welcome. The sad thing is, we could have surprised ourselves and those outside of us, with an open, embracing, kind Gospel, but what we gave was only exclusion and a pathetic attempt to claim it as the loving thing. And then the reaction to our decision from those on the outside, (and from some inside,) from those of us who don’t see the world external to the church as a threatening place, simply confirmed the original vision that everyone hates us. But when I’m only looking in and down to the mud, small wonder that I get bogged down and dirty. And, like Jacob, we reluctantly have to confess that “Surely the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it” (Gen 28:16).
If all you’ve got is a gospel hammer, everything looks like a secular nail.