I recently read a reflection by an old friend in ministry about his memories of his grandparents. Part of the story really captured my attention and has stuck with me. He shared that his grandparents had a yearly custom that they kept. Once a year, when all of the grandchildren were at their house at the same time for Thanksgiving, Christmas or some other occasion, their grandfather would take all of the children down the main hallway in the house to a particular closet. In the closet was nailed a board on which he kept a recording of their height each year. One by one he would have them stand against the board, mark their growth and then write their name and the date thus charting the yearly progress.
My friend went on to say that when his grandparents died, his own father went down to south Florida to prepare to sell the family home. While there, he went into that hall closet and ripped out the board upon which all of the measurements had been recorded over the years. He kept that board as a treasured piece of their family history. It was a special reminder of the times they had spent together and of how all of the grandchildren had aged and grown over the years.
I want to invite us this morning to take that story and set it to the side for just a moment. I want to lay beside that particular family memory of my friend the three passages I have read this morning and the story of how they fit into the Israelite story in the wilderness and then tie the two together with the time that we have remaining.
In essence, the three passages I read are all occasions in three successive stories from Exodus 16 & 17 which conclude with Moses performing a concrete act meant to mark what the Israelites should have learned through the experience.
First, with God’s gift of the Manna in Chapter 16, Moses and Aaron, preserve some of the Manna in a jar that is eventually put in the Ark of the Covenant as a reminder of God’s care and provision of food.
Second, with God’s gift of water from the rock in the first half of Chapter 17, Moses gives the place where it all happened two names which are Massah and Meribah which meant “the place of testing” and “the place of arguing” so that the people would never forget their attitude, complaining and God’s faithful response.
Third, with the defeat of the Amalekites, in the second half of Chapter 17, Moses builds an altar to memorialize God’s power and deliverance from their enemy.
A jar preserving manna signifying God’s provisions, a name for a place where the people complained and God listened and altar to mark a moment of God’s power and deliverance – all three were teaching tools to mark moments where lessons had been taught and where the Israelites should have grown in an understanding of God and the world.
The only problem is that the Israelites didn’t learn. Oh, they may have learned for a moment but eventually they consistently went right back to questioning God, doubting God’s power, complaining and dismissing God’s presence. In essence, this is what leads to their wilderness wanderings for 40 years. Rather than moving in a straight line, with each new lesson helping them to mature, grow and inch closer and closer to being ready for life in the Promised Land, the Israelites kept making the same mistakes and thus continuously traveling in circles.
My question for all of us on this day is simple and straightforward. Which of these illustrations, that of charted, consistent growth marked yearly on a closet board or that of a consistent failure to learn that leads to making the same mistakes while traveling in circles is more descriptive of our lives of faith at this point?
Life in general and the spiritual life in particular, are full of teachable moments like the ones that Moses worked hard to help the Israelites to learn and grow from in their wilderness years. The question really isn’t whether or not life and God afford us constant opportunities for growth. The question is more focused on our willingness in those moments to listen, to learn and mature?
Said a different way, in these very moments through which we are living, are we listening, learning and moving forward in a linear fashion or are we just spinning our wheels making the same mistakes while going in circles?
Did you know that according to health experts that the average girl stops growing taller by the age of 15 and the average boy by age 16 with 20 years of age being the extreme end of the spectrum for both sexes? Yet, the good news is that when it comes to our lives of faith, the ability to grow, mature, learn and reach new spiritual heights never ends as long as we live.
I want to end with this today. I have developed a good news/bad news discipline over the last few years in my spiritual life. The good news is that almost every day I write down a line or two that captures what I have gleaned from that given morning’s readings of scripture, devotionals or other faith related pieces that I am working through at the time. The bad news is that I have not developed the discipline of going back and rereading those lessons in order to ask myself if I have done anything at all with them in order that I might grow taller inch by inch as a person of faith.
I want to challenge us to do both. First, I want to challenge us to find a way daily or at least weekly to write down and truly ponder the lessons of these days just like Moses was trying to help the Israelites to do in the wilderness. Second, I want to encourage us to pour back over our notes on a regular basis and ask an important question. Am I living into the lessons of this season? Am I changing? Am I growing taller spiritually as a result of these times where there is so much to take in and learn about life and ourselves. Or, is it all just going in one ear and out the other. Are these opportunities missed and lost leaving us aimlessly spinning our wheels getting nowhere fast? Amen.