By Zac Koons
There comes a point in each of our lives when we discover whether or not we’re a camping person. You know what I mean? Camping is a crucible. A test some of us pass, and some of us fail. Some people, like my Coloradan wife, are taken camping as infants, and so they have the unfair advantage of never being able to remember a time when making mac and cheese over the fire felt weird. While others — perhaps you know some of them — have an intuitive sense that they’d fail the test so miserably they decide there’s no need for them ever to take it in the first place.
What I mean is that camping tends to be a revealing experience. It’s a time when you learn new things about yourself, and, often more interestingly, new things about others. What will Jonathan be like without the comforts of shower and cellular service? I wonder if Sarah’s as friendly when she first wakes up as she seems to be every Friday afternoon at book club. I’ll never forget the look on the faces of some of our St. Richard’s youth — as well as that of my parent-volunteer — when, a few summers ago on a three-day backpacking trip in the Rocky Mountains, our guide explained to us the rules and strategy of backwoods bathroom etiquette, with a shovel in one hand, and a stick in the other. We were about to learn quite a lot about one another indeed.
This is on my mind because, having never spent more than one night camping together, Anna and I decided last month that we’d go on a ten-day camping trip to Montana. And from the beginning, I could tell that Anna, in all her Colorado snobbery, was rather eager to see how I’d get on. And I’m happy to say I did just fine, thank you very much; I loved it, actually, but I will say I found my own thoughts frequently leaning in existential directions: Without my clerical collar, without my dog, without my books, without my phone, Who am I, really?
One way to think about this section of the book of Exodus is that Israel have gone camping. They’ve escaped from Egypt; they passed through the Red Sea; and they’ve emerged on the other side as an independent and free people for the first time. And now they’re trekking through the wilderness towards Mt. Sinai, setting up camp in a new spot each night, and their thoughts are leaning in existential directions. They’re about to learn quite a lot about themselves. The wilderness is the crucible in which their new identity will be formed.
It becomes apparent pretty quickly that Israel are not a camping people. They complain about everything. The desert is not their preferred climate. They don’t like the food (which we read about last week). There’s not enough to drink (which we read about today). And they’re beginning to question whether or not their fearless leader knows what he’s doing. (That’s when you really know a camping expedition is about to go off the rails, by the way—when someone starts questioning whether someone else is reading the map correctly.)
Israel start to say things like “If only we were back in Egypt! Sure, we were slaves, but at least there was a little variety in our diet,” which to me seems even more ridiculous than longing for a blow dryer from the foot of the Grand Tetons. At the end of today’s reading, Moses renames their desert campsite Massah and Meribah, which in Hebrew mean “test” and “quarrel” respectively. The test is: What kind of people are we going to be; And the answer at this point in the story is: the kind who bicker and moan.
I don’t know about you, but the last year has felt a little to me like America has been on one giant camping trip together. The conveniences of long-held assumptions have been tossed aside, and we’ve been, on an almost daily basis, witnessing and participating in conversations of an existential nature — about who we really are, about what it really means to be an American, and all with a greater intensity than we’ve seen for generations. What kind of country is America on the world stage, really? And who really are America’s enemies? Who should be allowed to move here? And who should be allowed to stay? If I asked you to close your eyes and picture “an American,” it’s that very image that feels like it’s currently being renegotiated. And our collective anxiety feels very high.
I actually think it’s good and important that these conversations are going on. The wilderness can be uncomfortable, for sure, but it can also be clarifying and character-building. The presidency of Donald Trump, whatever you think of it, more than itself creating new problems has brought to the surface tensions that have been in fabric of American society for a long time. The truth is, we’re long overdue for a conversation about patriotism and the military, and our tendency to celebrate some of our bravest men and women while keeping them at an arm’s length. The truth is, we’ve needed to talk about racism and white supremacy, especially us white people, for a long time. From time to time, a little wilderness can do us all some good.
But I also know that this conversation is exhausting. First, it’s exhausting because we can’t escape it. It’s on every webpage. Every TV channel. And this week the conversation broke into what felt like our last safe, politics-free space: the football stadium. And now you’ve come to church and even your stupid pastor is talking about it! I mean, is nothing sacred?!
It’s also exhausting because it turns out, for the most part, we’re no better than Israel; that most of us hate camping; that the dominating voices in our country do little more than bicker and moan. It’s exhausting to sort through all the quarreling and complaining to find anything of substance and grace, much less to summon up any substance or grace ourselves.
So, here’s the question I’m interested in: What are the Christians supposed to do? Is there a way for us, as the Church, to participate in this conversation in a faithful way? For this, I suggest we look to Moses.
When the anxiety of the nation is swelling in the wilderness, what does Moses do?
Well, he starts whacking stuff with his stick.
No, no, no. Don’t do that. I mean before that.
Well the very first thing he does, actually, is that he bickers right back. When Israel moans about not having enough water, Moses snaps, “Why do you quarrel with me?” saying in essence, “How dare you! It’s not my fault!” Moses, it turns out, isn’t perfect. So, if you, like me, have maybe said a few things without thinking that you might regret in the last year, take heart, you’re in good company. Ok, but then what does Moses do?
It’s not ingenious. It’s not even complicated. Moses, simply, asks God what to do. Moses, himself confounded by their predicament, brings the anxieties of the people before the Lord. In other words, Moses prays.
And God answers. God, through Moses’ staff, gives them water from the rock.
I know it sounds too simple. It probably is. But what if the most important thing the Church can do right now in this moment of widespread anxiety is to pray? What if what our country needs the most right now is for us to hold all the anxiety that we see around us, and feel in our bones, and instead of rushing into the ring ourselves to add a body to the fight, to first turn around and to hold it all up before God instead?
It’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of prayer, which is perhaps why it feels like an unproductive way to respond to a nation newly wrestling with its own identity. But consider what it does in the story of Moses and Israel: On the surface, today’s story makes prayer look like a magic formula to solve Israel’s concrete problems. They need water, so Abracadabra! Moses asks God, and there it is. But when you zoom out, and you see this miracle in the context of Israel’s long forty-year camping trip, you see that this, and all the other concrete ways God shows up for them in the wilderness are teaching Israel a greater lesson: That in every single aspect of their life, they need to turn to God first. Through Israel being forced to rely on God for everything, God is showing them the kind of people they’re destined to be.
You want food? Ask God. You need water? Whether it’s from a rock, the sky, or the sea, God is one who provides it. Do you need laws to organize your common life? Come to Mt. Sinai and God will write them down for you. Do you want to worship? God himself will tell you how. Do you need land to call your own? Ask God, and he’ll show you the spot he’s saved for you.
Which is all to say, the prayers of Moses do more than solve Israel’s concrete dilemmas. Over time, they transform Israel’s very identity. Notice Moses doesn’t pray alone. God tells him to involve the elders. And in so doing, Moses transforms the anxiety of a nation into renewed relationship with the one true God. Through prayer, quarreling is transformed into community. Fear is transformed into faith. Prayer changes who they are as a people.
This is why, contrary to what it sometimes looks like, prayer is not a way of running away from the tough issues. Prayer is actually a way of running straight at them. Which is to say, sometimes our prayers are answered in stunningly direct ways. Sometimes we pray for water, and we get water. Sometimes we pray for healing, and we get healing. But in my experience, that’s more the exception than the rule. What prayer does change, reliably, is us. Prayer is a way of running straight at the tough issues because prayer reshapes, ever so gradually, our very identity. It changes the conversation by first changing who is participating in it.
What our country needs right now is not more op-eds or hot takes. What it doesn’t need are more Facebook posts. What it needs more than anything is individuals whose lives have been transformed by the power of the Gospel. If we’re unhappy with the way things are going, we need to start with ourselves.
And I’m not saying that action isn’t necessary. I’m not saying that protests are unfounded or that policy changes don’t matter. But I am saying that if God’s not the one telling us what to do, then we need to ask ourselves who is. If we’ve not taken the time to seek out God’s direction, it means we’re probably following that of someone else. And I think we’d do well to pause in the wilderness to reconsider who it is we’re really turning to first, who we’re really looking to for answers.
This, in the end, is one of the reasons we go to church. We come here because we rely on God for the truth, revealed to us in the Scriptures, read in the context of community. This is where we learn to rely on the prayers of the church—of our Christian brothers and sisters—to sustain us through times of sickness and hardship. This is where we learn to rely on God for even our food and drink, offered to us miraculously at the altar made of rock. This is where we learn who we really are.
But we’re also only here for an hour and a half. And when we spend so much more time listening to other voices, it’s easy to forget what happens in this room. So, here’s my challenge for each of us this week: Think of someone who drives you crazy. Maybe they pitch for the opposing political party. Maybe it’s someone with whom you’ve just always struggled to get along. Maybe it’s someone on TV, or maybe it’s someone from your office. Pray for that person every day for a week. And see what happens. Maybe out of the blue that person will come to you, confess all their faults, you’ll be reconciled and they’ll come with you to Church next Sunday. But don’t focus on that. Focus on what it does to you. See whether or not, after praying for one enemy for a whole week, you feel your own heart has softened. See if you feel God reshaping you, ever so gradually, from the inside out.
What kind of church will we be next week? What if that’s what the world needs more than anything right now? What if our destiny as the church is to be the rock in the wilderness of this American moment? That we’re a people so saturated in the Bible, so saturated in prayer, in love for neighbor and enemy, in generosity of spirit, that when the temperature of the conversation rises, when the moaning and the bickering heat up at the campsite, and when God forbid someone strikes us, the water of life bursts forth for the world’s salvation. What kind of church would that be? What if there was never such a time as this to be a Christian?
The Rev. Zac Koons is rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Austin, Texas.