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Perseverance in Exile

Perseverance in exile. The poor Israelites and Moses persevered for 40 years (which is basically a metaphor for a really long time) in the desert before they finally glimpsed the Promised Land. And then Moses died, which I’ve always thought was terribly unfair.

The torch of leadership was then passed on to Joshua, Moses’ second in command, and Yahweh gave him quite the pep-talk in the first chapter of Joshua. Here’s my paraphrase: “Be strong! Be courageous! And hold tight to the Torah, the five books of Moses, the stories and the laws… this is what will guide you. Have a strong moral and spiritual compass and don’t stray! Don’t let your ego get in the way, don’t let people change your mind about what is right and holy. Stay the course and you will gain wisdom and act wisely. Let me repeat… Be strong! Be courageous! Don’t be afraid or discouraged, because I, your God, am with you wherever you go!”

Perseverance. Yahweh gave Joshua the formula: Be strong, be courageous, and don’t forget who you are and whose you are. 

That’s my take on it anyway. All those stories and laws contained in the Torah were designed to help the Israelites remember their past and remember their God. The laws especially were designed to set them apart so that they would not be assimilated into the surrounding cultures. The ancient Israelites strongly believed that they had an exclusive covenant with Yahweh. Yahweh would be their God and they would be God’s people. Together they could get through anything.

Perseverance is the story of every life, no matter who you are. Everyone has their struggles, everyone has experienced loss, everyone has been betrayed and hurt, everyone has down days, everyone has something… probably multiple somethings. 

Individually and collectively, we have been through some really awful things in life - death, cancer, job loss, abuse (mental, physical and sexual), illness, accident, betrayal, divorce, war, oppression, loss of ability, and so much more - and we’re all still here. And I know all of you well enough to know that you are typically positive, caring, compassionate, kind people. You haven’t let all these really, really difficult times keep you down or make you bitter, miserable people. I know that some of us are still struggling, and some of us have needed some meds to help us get through. But, so what? You’re still here. You’re still making it. And I know you see the blessings around you every day when you remember to look. Do you realize how amazing that is?

Ok, we’re tired. I get it. We’re exhausted by the emotional, spiritual toll of the pandemic, coupled with the racial situation in the country and the election.  Some days we’re hanging on by a thread. We cringe when we think of how long we might have to be wearing masks, not hugging people and not having coffee hour after church. The shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha hit awfully close to home and it breaks our hearts every time we hear of an excessive use of force by the police against black people. We hold our collective breath wondering when and where the next incident will be. And, God help us, we’re worried about what the election will bring to America.

But, we’ve persevered through all kinds of things and I’m here to remind you that we will persevere through all of this, too. 

Rabbi Karyn Kedar in her book The Dance of the Dolphin, wrote, “It seems that we make a choice at some point in our lives. There are those who choose to develop and nurture a strong spiritual center. At first this decision is neither conscious nor noble. It simply feels like survival. Somewhere deep inside a voice shouts at the darkness, “No! Not me! You will not get me.” …At any moment that voice from within can announce in defiance, “No! Not me! You will not get me.”

There was an amazing story shared in this month’s edition of Oprah magazine. It was about a young woman named Michelle who, for medical reasons, never thought she’d be a mom. She married at 37 and at 39 had a flawless pregnancy and gave birth to a beautiful little girl, Gabriella. Motherhood was as miraculous and precious as she imagined it would be. Marriage, however, was not. When her daughter was 7, Michelle realized that her marriage was broken beyond repair and she wanted to model a healthy relationship for her daughter, so she filed for a divorce. After months of ugly fighting they finally signed the papers. They agreed to sit down with Gabriella the next day and talk to her about what that was going to look like. But the next day Gabriella was murdered by her father.

Michelle wrote, “The devastation was crushing – it brought me to my knees. Desperate to cope, I started reading the Book of Job. It felt as if the devil had attacked me with the force of everything he had, so I could only surmise that I was left on earth to do something meaningful. I’d exist in spite of that evil. I looked up all instances of “yet” and “nevertheless” in the Bible. Not “God willing or “hopefully one day,” or other desperate platitudes attached to tragedies suggesting there might be an after that would look like the before. That wasn’t happening.”

Eventually Michelle would go on to create a foundation called Gabriella’s Wings to help kids from underserved communities. But what struck me most about this story was how she looked up “all instances of ‘yet’ and ‘nevertheless' in the Bible.”  It was that inner voice shouting, “No! Not me! You will not get me!”

This is us today, and every day we struggle to get out of bed, struggle to put one foot in front of the other, struggle to be positive, struggle to offer a hand to another, struggle to smile. Not yet… we’re not giving in yet! Nevertheless, despite everything we’ve been through, we will go on. In defiance, flying in the face of all that feels as if it wants to drag us down… No! Not me! You will not get me!

Be strong! Be courageous! Remember that you belong to God and God is with you every step of the way.

Love & Light