“Tell the people to go forward.
Lift up your rod,and stretch out your hand
over the sea and divide it,
that the people may go on dry ground through the sea…”
Verses from Exodus 14
Attraversiamo. Some of you will remember this word from bestselling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love. The story begins with her difficult decision to leave a irreparably broken marriage and an impossibly oppressive career. But as important it was for her step out, it was frightening to her to leave behind all that was familiar. She says, “The only thing more unthinkable than leaving, was staying; the only thing more impossible than staying was leaving.” But leave, she does. And thus she undertakes a journey across the ocean and around the world, first to Italy, then India, then Indonesia. It was not only a geographical journey, but a quest for meaning, self-understanding, freedom, and authenticity—a quest for God. She says she was looking for God “like a man with his head on fire looks for water.”
It is during her sojourn in Italy that she discovers her most favorite word in the world: attraversiamo. It means simply, “Let’s cross over”—as in cross over the street, cross over the sidewalk, cross over the ocean. For some reason, she says, this word “goes right through me.” It is not only because of the lovely, lyrical sound of its syllables, but because, by the end of the book, it becomes symbolic of her inner transformation. In her journey around the world, she is not only crossing over an ocean. She is crossing over boundaries between the past and future, old and new, familiar and unknown, from death to life. By the end of the book she emerges as a new person with a new life filled with hope and promise. Attraversiamo. Let’s cross over!
This is her story. It is our story too. You and I, in the course of a lifetime, will regularly come to places on the journey in which we will be called to cross over—cross over into a new city, a different job, another school. Cross over from adolescence to adulthood. Cross over from dependence to independence. Cross over from singlehood into marriage, or from marriage into singlehood. Cross over into parenthood. Cross over into empty nest. Cross over into retirement. Cross over from this life into the next. Sometimes, standing at the edge of such a crossing, we know what it means to say “the only thing more unthinkable than leaving, is staying, and the only more impossible than staying is leaving.” Yes, it can be scary.
The Bible is full of stories of people “crossing over”—the story we just heard, Moses and the children of God crossing over the Red Sea, from slavery to freedom. But there is also the story of the children of God crossing over the wilderness; Joshua and the people crossing over the Jordan River; the story of Jesus and the disciples crossing over the Sea of Galilee. Each act of crossing over signifies a break with the past, a change of direction, a leap of faith, a new beginning, a new life. Indeed, in the 5th chapter of John, we even hear Jesus say, “We have crossed over from death to life.” This is the defining experience for people of faith, this is the story of our lives. In the New Testament, we call it Easter. In the Old Testament we call it Exodus. Ours is a God who is always calling to us to step out in faith, cross over from death to life: attraversiamo!
How do you say that in Hebrew? Because that’s where we find the children of God in our lesson for today. Led by Moses, they have left behind 400 years of oppressive slavery in Egypt. But they are hardly out of the gate when they find themselves standing at the edge of the Red Sea. Before them stretches a body of water. Behind them, the thundering hooves of Pharaoh’s horses and chariots. You have heard the term “come hell or highwater”? Well, this was it: hell behind them, highwater in front of them. And “the only thing more unthinkable than leaving, is staying, and the only thing more impossible than staying is leaving.” And the people were filled with fear. The story says: GREAT fear.
Some of them are yelling, “Go back!” Back to Egypt, back to the past: “We’d be better off slaves to the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness!” Lyle Schaller, the well-known church consultant, once asked a group of ministers, “Do you know what is the single most powerful influence in the decision-making process?” And his answer? The past. It’s the most familiar thing we know—been there, done that. And its so easy to look back with our rose-colored glasses and “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.” Like the movie Gone With the Wind and its nostalgic view of antebellum South. Do we really want to go back to that when the truth is more like the movie Twelve Years a Slave? Like people who wistfully remember that “Old Time Religion.” Do we really want to go back to pulpit-pounding hellfire and brimstone? Like these Hebrews remembering centuries slavery: at least we had food on the table, somebody telling us what to do and when to do it. And that old Pharaoh, he wasn’t so bad, was he? At least it was predictable. But the future?–totally UNpredictable. Go back!
Remember the Beatles’ song, “Can you take back where I came from, can you take me back?” There is something in each of us that wants to go back to the bottle, back to infancy, back to mama, back to the womb. Not forward. Is the past the single most powerful influence in your decision-making process? If so, let’s go back. (How do you say that in Italian?)
How do you say that in Hebrew? That’s what they were saying–let’s go back! And their mouths were filled with blame: “It’s all your fault, Moses! You’re the one who got us in this mess! Didn’t we tell you to leave us alone and let us serve the Egyptians? We were happy, well-adjusted slaves, until you showed up!” It is one of the hardest things about almost kind of crossing over, whether its from slavery to freedom, from dependence to independence, from old to new, past to future: facing reality. Taking responsibility. That’s what those years in the wilderness would be about. And here they were, up against it for the first time: Reality. Responsibility. And the Red Sea. And they were filled with great fear.
That’s when Moses says the most counter-intuitive thing he could have said, “Fear not.” Imagine him with that major panic attack in progress all around him, his the only voice of calm and confidence in midst of the chaos and craziness. “Fear not. Stand firm. Be still.” The late Edwin Freidman, rabbi and psychotherapist, popularized the term “non-anxious presence” and what a difference one person’s non-anxious presence can make in any situation. He talked about the difference between the anxious non-self vs. non-anxious self. The anxious non-self which has no solid sense of identity, anxiously flailing, striking out in every direction, drowning in the deep. But the non-anxious self with a solid center of calm and confidence from which a sense of direction can be discerned. It has a positive effect on everything. Moses was that non-anxious presence in the midst of the panic attack underway all around him. I’m sure the other Israelites were thinking, Moses, now would be a good time to be a little anxious!–with the Egyptians breathing down our necks! But up against their extreme anxiety he brought his strong faith to bear.
All week long, my husband and I have been watching the PBS special on the Roosevelts. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was that a non-anxious presence for a whole nation, with his great smile, his unflappable inner serenity, perhaps, his biographers say, from having had to face down an enemy like polio. In the midst of the Great Depression, then the throes of a war on 3 different daunting fronts, his Fireside Chats on the radio became that quiet center of calm and confidence for a frightened nation. His first one was delivered on March 5, 1933, in the midst the Bank Crisis. Anxious Americans, afraid of default, had withdrawn all their cash from the beleagured banks. FDR, newly inaugurated, in his 1st Fireside Chat, proclaims a Bank Holiday. A holiday? Are you kidding? But Americans, huddled around their radios, listened to his promise that when the banks reopened they would be sound. He said, “I can assure you that it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than under the mattress.” And they did. When the banks reopened on March 13, people stood in line to return their hoarded cash back to the banks. It saved the day. I can assure you, he said.
Stand firm. Be still, Moses said. The Lord will fight for you. We are not alone in this. Never fail to factor in what faith in God can do. Sometimes I think you and I get so frantic, trying to cover all our bases and keep everything under control, that we don’t even give the Spirit room to work! That’s why I love that line in Psalm 46: Be still—and know that I am God—not you! Trust another unseen hand at work.
The story tells us that it happened at night, while the people slept on the shoreline. All through the night, an east wind blew the water back, another hand at work. And when the morning came, there it was: the window of opportunity, their D-Day, the right time, the right place: “Tell the people to go forward,” came the direction. Not back. Let’s cross over. Attraversiamo. And they did.
And so can we.