Giants vs. Grasshoppers, Numbers 14:1-10

“Giants vs. Grasshoppers” is not a metaphor for Kentucky vs. Hampton in the NCAA tournament, and yes I know there is no mention of giants or grasshoppers in Numbers 14 – but I promise you they will show up soon.

We are still in the murmuring/complaining section of the Hebrew’s wilderness journey, but before you complain about how long we’ve been there during this Lenten season, let me assure you that we’re almost finished. The Hebrews are now on the banks of the Jordan River, in sight of the land God has promised them – but that has not stopped the complaining, it has in fact raised the level from murmuring to murderous threats against their leaders.

To understand this new level of frustration, we have to go back and see what happened in chapter 13. When the Israelites finally near their destination after 40 long years in the wilderness they discover that there are already people living in their promised land. And just as the Israeli’s and Palestinians today have very different opinions about whose land this is, we’ve got a problem. So Moses and Aaron decide to send some spies across the river to scope out the situation and see how big a problem there is. They pick 12 men, one from each of the 12 tribes, to do reconnaissance, and when they return from their mission, the spies have good news and bad news. The land is indeed fertile and beautiful, just as God has promised, but the bad news is the current occupants are very powerful. And here’s where we hear about the giants and grasshoppers. The vast majority of the spies agree that the people living in the promised land are an overwhelming foe and to take them on would be like grasshoppers going battle against an army of Giants.

And that’s where Chapter 14 picks up the story. The whole congregation we are told raises a loud cry and weeps. They ask Moses, again, “Why have you brought us here to die by the sword? Our wives and children will become booty. Let’s choose a captain and go back to Egypt.”

Isn’t that how we often feel in the wilderness? When we think we’ve almost achieved a hard fought goal and someone else gets the promotion, or a serious illness derails our plans for retirement, or a tragic accident turns a family’s life upside down. Granted we may need to cut the Israelites some slack. Remember these poor people have been traveling in difficult circumstances for 40 years! To realize how long that is, think about how long ago 1975 was. Diana and I were on a trip two years ago to China and our return trip involved flights from Shanghai to Beijing to New York, and then an 11 hour bus ride back to Columbus. All tolled we were traveling without a break for 36 hours, and I can tell you we were not the happiest of campers. I can’t imagine 40 years!!!

Sometimes when a goal seems impossible – when the mountain is just too high to climb, when our patience and endurance are at the breaking point, we just want to throw in the towel and give up. Take us back to Egypt – things were better there. Really? Sometimes memory plays tricks on us. There was a book out a few years ago titled The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, by Stephanie Coontz. One of the things Coontz says in her book is that while we tend to romanticize the 1950’s as a period of peace and prosperity before all the turmoil and conflicts of the 60’s and 70’s, we forget how oppressed women and minorities were, and that beneath the façade of domestic tranquility there was a hidden unrest. Coontz’s evidence for that is that valium and other popular drugs for depression and anxiety came into widespread use during that decade. It wasn’t all “Ozzie and Harriet” or “Leave it to Beaver.”

Fear distorts our memories of how things were in the past. As the theme song from the movie “The Way We Were” says, “What’s too painful to remember, we sometimes choose to forget.” That’s what happens to the Hebrews. They are so disappointed and fearful about the challenges and obstacles they see before them, they are ready to give up when they are so close but so far from their goal. Someone once told me that there are no trophies for running a 99 yard dash – you have to finish the race to win the prize.

We’ve also noticed in these murmuring chapters in Numbers that complaining is contagious. The text says, “The Whole Congregation” is ready to give up. When I was a kid and wanted something my friends had – a new toy or the coolest clothes – or if I wanted to go somewhere that I knew my parents probably would not approve of, I would often tell my mother, “But everybody else has one! All the other kids at school are going!” Her response was often, “Name Three.” And more times than not I couldn’t. End of discussion. So do you think “the whole congregation” might be an exaggeration?

Actually we know it is, because among the 12 spies there is a minority report. Two of the twelve, Caleb and Joshua, have a different take on the situation. They have seen the same evidence as the other 10. They all agree the land is flowing with milk and honey and would be a great place to settle. They all agree the people living there are a formidable problem. But Joshua and Caleb come from a perspective of faith instead of fear. They say, “If God is pleased with us – if we don’t rebel against the Lord, God will deliver on his promise. If God is on our side, nothing else matters.”

And how do the people respond? Verse 10 says, “The whole congregation threatened to stone them.” Dreamers, visionaries and prophets often meet with that kind of reaction – think Copernicus or Galileo. Psychologists explain it this way. When someone has a vision of reality that is very different from ours it creates what is called cognitive dissonance, which is just a fancy way of saying discomfort because things don’t line up the way we think they should. That can create fear and the need to do something to relieve the dissonance.

For example, we can choose to just ignore the problem, as in denial of climate change. Or we can remove ourselves from the situation–end a relationship, quit a job, move to a new home, etc. But on rare occasions where the dissonance is extremely high, things can turn violent, and history is full of martyrs like Jesus, Gandhi, and Joan of Arc, Lincoln, Martin Luther King and many less famous ones who have met that fate. And that’s what Caleb and Joshua are facing on the banks of the Jordan. If you read on in Numbers you will discover that God is much happier with Caleb and Joshua’s faithful response than the 10 other spies and the rebellious congregation. Because of their fear and complaining none of the latter group will be allowed to enter the promised land, but Caleb and Joshua are rewarded for their courage and faith and lead the new generation at last to their new home.

I was talking with a woman a few weeks ago who was dealing with a terrible family crisis. She was feeling like a grasshopper facing gigantic new challenges. When I suggested she just take things one day at a time and break the problems down into smaller pieces, she said, “I know, Steve, I tell other people that all the time. But I can’t live that way. I have to be in control and know what’s going to happen.” That’s the way we all would like life to be, but it simply isn’t.

And because it isn’t we all need faith and the support of others who are facing the giants with us. One of the problems with us rugged individualistic Americans is that we aren’t good at showing our own vulnerabilities and letting others in. We keep up a good front even when we’re dying on the inside. Another old Barbra Streisand song, “People,” describes that situation very well:

“We’re children, needing other children
And yet letting a grown-up pride
Hide all the need inside
Acting more like children than children.”

I was listening to a webinar the other day about transitions in life and was struck by a comment from Robert C. (Bob) Atchley, Distinguished Professor of Gerontology (emeritus) from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who said, “All of life is Assisted-Living.” Think about how true that is. We use that term “assisted-living” to describe a level of care for elderly people, but it describes all of life. None of us would have come into life or survived infancy and childhood without someone to care for us and teach us. But somewhere along the line we get the notion that we don’t need parents anymore telling us what to do. We move out into the wilderness of adolescence and adulthood on our own, yearning for independence and self-sufficiency. That personal quest is a necessary part of growing up and sometimes it feels great, but when faced with giants, it feels oh so very lonely.

Feeling alone and isolated in the wilderness is a major theme in the movie “Into the Woods.” The song “No one Is Alone,” sung by the Baker and Cinderella, both of whom have suffered terrible losses in the woods, addresses that issue this way:

“Maybe we forgot: they are not alone.
No one is alone.
Hard to see the light now.
Just don’t let it go
Things will come out right now.
We can make it so.
Someone is on your side
No one is alone.”

People of faith know who is on our side. And people of faith also know that we need to be there for each other. Jimmy, a little boy was scared one night by a thunder storm raging outside his bedroom window. When his father came into his room to comfort him he assured him by reminding him that he had learned in Sunday school that Jesus was always with him. Jimmy said, “yes, I know that Dad, but sometimes I just need someone with skin on them.” We need to be those skin-covered people for each other, especially in the wilderness times of life, but if we pretend we don’t need each other, thinking that we can avoid our problems by ignoring them – we cut ourselves off from the very support we need.

I want to finish today by talking about another kind of wilderness experience – one that is voluntary. When we think of the wilderness we often think of it as times of crisis, dealing with unexpected problems, but the wilderness can also be a time of intentional withdrawal from the distractions of daily living to get a better perspective on life – to see the bigger picture. Lent is a good time to do that, but any season of our lives will work. Someone once told me it’s hard to remember that your goal is to drain the swamp when you are up to your waist in alligators. Times of solitude for prayer and refection are needed when we get out of the swamp and see the bigger picture to remember or clarify what our purpose in life really is.

That’s not easy. We are all busy with multitudes of responsibilities. We need to intentionally build time into our schedules regularly to stop and evaluate where we are on life’s journey, to make mid-course corrections, to let go of regrets, guilt, grudges and other burdens that weigh us down. This is especially important at critical times that are rites of passage from one stage of life to another – adolescence to young adulthood, mid-life crises, career changes, new relationships, empty nesting, and retirement. Rather than jumping from one phase of life to another the way our culture says we “should,” taking time off to reflect on what God wants us to be and do is critical.

There is no need to be afraid of choosing to go to the wilderness because no one is alone. We journey with an eternal God who ultimately conquers all giants. Time in the wilderness is time to sort out priorities about the legacy we truly want to leave for future generations; to remember our real goal in life isn’t more stuff and wealth. The legacy we want to leave is faith and values for a life that is truly abundant in the deepest meaning of that term. Our real promised land is a life of peace that passes human understanding, and reaching that goal comes from saying “no” to the majority, who let fear rob them of their goal, and trusting and obeying the still small voice of God that says “put your money on the grasshoppers.”

Preached at Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, March 22, 2015

Lenten Prayer

O Gracious God, we pause to pray on this 4th Sunday of Lent, knowing that we are drawing ever closer to the dark days of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Jesus’ wilderness time takes on a whole new level of intensity in the upper room, in the Garden and at the place of the skull. We approach that suffering tentatively, wanting to follow him through that lonesome valley, daring to sing boldly, “Lord We are Able, our spirits are thine.” But when we open our mouths we hear Peter’s words instead, “Who me? No, I’m not with him.”

When life gets tough, they say “the tough get going.” But far too often we murmur and complain instead. Remind us again, O Lord, that many challenges and disappointments in life are simply beyond our control – and it has always been so. Our faith tradition was born and refined in the crucible of wilderness wandering and wondering. When we are suffering from broken relationships, grief, or loss of our sense of purpose and direction in life, we know our ancestors in the faith have all been there and done that before us.

When we fret over obstacles that we must face at school or work or home – when things aren’t going the way we thought they would – help us draw strength from Moses and the Hebrews in the wilderness and Jesus’ temptation by Satan or his night of trial in the Garden of Gethsemane. When things are bad, remind us to compare our problems in life to the generations before us who survived the Great Depression and two world wars. When faced with our own Jordan Rivers to cross, we can draw inspiration from brave souls like those who crossed the Atlantic to settle this promised land, or those who crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma to keep the torch of freedom burning, or all the anonymous saints who simply overcome the challenges of life with daily random acts of kindness to their fellow wilderness travelers.

O God, you know what is on our hearts today and every day. Hear our prayers for ourselves and others we know who are hurting. Pour the balm of Gilead on our broken lives and divided world. And as we share our needs and desires, our hopes and our fears, remind us again O God of resurrection, of all those who have gone before us to show us how faith can take our wilderness journeys and transform them into a time of spiritual renewal.
Remind us that we are never alone in the wilderness as we offer together the prayer of our risen Christ.

Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, March 15, 2015

Cruising with a Mission

Some people think I’m “at sea” most of the time, but as I started to write this I was literally. It was 80 plus degrees on the Western Caribbean on a late February morning, and I was feeling a twinge of guilt when I thought of my friends back home in “snOwHIO” – but only a small twinge. A much bigger guilt pang came from the memory of our brief time in Trujillo, Honduras, the final port of call on our 7-day cruise.

After a brief introduction to the history and culture of this poor Central American country from an amazingly well-informed and friendly tour guide whom we were surprised to learn is a 16-year-old high school student, we enjoyed lunch and time on a lovely private beach before heading back to our ship. The contrast between our ride in an air-conditioned bus to a luxurious cruise ship and the living conditions we saw from the bus were even starker than I expected. We knew from reading and from friends who have been to Honduras on mission trips that it is one of the poorest countries in the world, but seeing women doing their laundry in a river and crowded, dilapidated homes with dirt floors packed together on muddy dirt streets adds a dose of reality that left my wife and I wondering what to do with that experience.

The situation is even more dire because we learned that there is no public education in Honduras. That means poor families who cannot pay to educate their children have no viable means of ever breaking out the cycle of poverty. Little children as young as 5 or 6 trying to sell us sea shells or bananas as we walked by have little hope of a better future and are vulnerable to being seduced by drug dealers and human traffickers.

Is it wrong for those of us who can afford to travel to visit places like Honduras just to escape the discomfort of northern winters? Do our brief stops in places like Trujillo do more harm than good for people who need tourist dollars to improve their economy? Those are complex questions, and Trujillo is a fascinating case study. Cruise ships have only been stopping in Trujillo and its new port called The Banana Coast, since last October. The amenities in Trujillo suffer in comparison to those in well-established cruise stops, but some fellow passengers on our ship who had been on the very first cruise ship to stop there 4 months ago were amazed at how much improvement there had been in such a short time. The residents of this small city on the north coast of Honduras seem genuinely excited and pleased to welcome tourists. In the city and on rural roads children and adults all waved to our bus as we drove by. They need and want tourism to flourish there as it has done in other Caribbean countries.

I had a wide range of feelings in the 7 short hours we were in Trujillo. There were selfish and petty thoughts because of the inconveniences–like being crammed into small tender boats for transport to and from the cruise ship because the port is unable to handle large ships, or delays in our trip to the beach because of narrow streets and bumpy rural roads not ready for prime time vacationers, or simultaneous irritation and compassion for persistent street vendors trying to make a living, and admiration for Denison, our young our guide who works days and attends high school in the evenings–all topped with the aforementioned helping of guilt.

Before leaving on our cruise we were blessed to be able to spend a week with some of our kids and grandkids in Houston. While we were there I was struck by a conversation one evening at the dinner table between our bright 11 year-old granddaughter and her parents. They were talking about a situation she had experienced at school, and her parents asked her if she knew what “integrity” is. She thought for a minute before saying, “I think it’s one of the seven deadly sins.” We got a good laugh at her expense, and a good discussion of what integrity means followed. I am the last person to criticize and in no way mean this to be critical. I doubt that I had any idea what integrity was until I was twice Katilyn’s age. But her response has stuck with me because it sometimes seems like far too many adults in our world fail to grasp the critical meaning and importance of integrity or avoid it like it is indeed a deadly sin.

Asking the integrity question about our experience in Honduras reminded me of a line from one of my favorite movies, “Bull Durham.” There’s a young brash pitcher in that classic baseball movie named Eby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins, and Susan Sarandon’s character, Annie Savoy, describes Nuke at one point by saying that he “isn’t cursed with self-awareness.” Self-awareness, of course, is not a curse but a basic life skill, but at times, like when it spoils your vacation with feelings of guilt, it can feel like a curse.

What does living in integrity mean for disciples of a Lord who tells us that how we treat the least of our brothers and sisters is how we treat him? If I say to Jesus, “But when did I see you in poverty or in need of safe drinking water or adequate education?” (cf. Matt. 25:31-46), will he say, “Remember that vacation in Honduras?” Integrity and self-awareness do not come with on-off switches. We can’t turn them off while we go on vacation.

One of the benefits of travel to other parts of the world is learning more about other cultures. Never in human history has cross-cultural awareness and appreciation for our rich diversity been more needed. For better or worse we are world citizens and our global village is getting smaller and smaller. The information age has wiped out barriers like distance and geographical separation that once made cultural or sectarian and ethnic differences more separate and distinct. Today integrity cannot mean cultural purity and myopic prejudice against beliefs, customs and ideologies other than our own. Different does not equal wrong, and the only way to overcome those attitudes is through understanding. Some of that understanding can come through education and learning critical thinking skills, but it is better learned through direct human interaction.

The good news is that we humans don’t come into the world with innate prejudices. As the great song from Rogers and Hammerstein says “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear” (see my post “Life Lessons I Didn’t Learn in Class,” (Feb. 24, 2014) for more about that song and the musical “South Pacific.” My point is that because cultural biases are attitudes we learn from others they can also be unlearned. Cruise ships are a wonderful place to improve cultural understanding and competence because they are a microcosm of the world. On our ship, the Norwegian Jewel there were over 60 nationalities represented in the 1000 member crew. Add 2400 passengers, all living in close quarters, and you have a captive audience with the potential of being transformed from strangers into a multicultural community.

Having been on several cruises I have learned that passengers can either treat the people who feed us and clean our cabins as servants or get to know them as people. Because the cruise staff works very hard and have many responsibilities there isn’t a great deal of time to talk with them, but my wife and I have learned that taking the opportunity when we can is a great way to learn from servers in the dining room or cabin stewards about their personal lives. On this cruise we were especially touched to hear about the sacrifices and loneliness these people experience from two servers. Nashley (Columbia) and Maricel (Philippines) are both single moms who leave their children at home with grandparents for 8-10 months of the year while working long hours on the ship. Both of them said they enjoy their work, but when we asked if they wanted their children to work on cruise ships when they are adults they immediately said “no.” They want something better for their children.

On one of our final nights on board, Jamie, our cruise director, after introducing many representatives of the crew commented on her desire to create a feeling among crew and guests of being a “family” on board. She said she thought the U.N. could learn from their crew how to live and work together. My desire is to learn from Norwegian Cruise Lines what they do to create that community within their crew and how to share that experience more intentionally with guests. Our impression is that something is being done there that we have not felt on other ships and should be affirmed and expanded.

Coincidentally (or was it a God-incident?) the same evening I was writing about this and the cruise director mentioned it, we stopped by one of the lounges where a musical group was doing a tribute to the Beatles, and one of the most powerful songs they did was “Imagine.” As the audience joined in singing the powerful words to that great old song, they seemed more relevant and needed in our broken world than ever, and in that small sample of our global village much needed and appreciated words of hope.

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You, you may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
And the world will live as one.” – John Lennon

It’s tempting to end on that idealistic note, but just as cruises end and life returns to reality, so must this reflection. On one of the final days of our cruise I overheard a fellow passenger talking about his time in Honduras. He said he enjoyed it, but then added, “I saw too much poverty. Once you’ve seen that don’t want to see it again.” He’s right. Witnessing human suffering is not pleasant and not something we go looking for on vacation. But it’s real and it’s not going away. Jesus told his disciples, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.” (Mark 14:7). The question is do we want to enough to figure out a way.