JOSHUA Remember Where You’ve Been

1 When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, 2 “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, 3 and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests ’feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight. ’” 4 Then Joshua called the twelve men from the people of Israel, whom he had appointed, a man from each tribe. 5 And Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, 6 that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you? ’ 7 then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever. (Joshua 4:1–7 ESV)

Not long before I left Dubai, I sat on an ‘abra عبرة — one of the little motor boats used to cross Dubai creek, the inlet that separates Bur Dubai from Deira Dubai — looking at the sky and crystal clear water of the creek, smelling to city, watching the sun set over Bur Dubai, having paid the boatman my dirham, thinking to myself

Remember this place always. Remember that you were once here.”

Six years later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, I stood on the bow of a New York Waterways ferry, on the last Tuesday of my employment with a company whose death at the hands of the bankruptcy laws was set for that Friday, feeling the spray of the Hudson River on my feet, the late summer breeze in my hair, and watching the sun rise over The World Trade Center, and thinking as I beheld it

Remember this sight always. For you will not have it with you much longer.”

Israel here is beginning something. It will celebrate the first Passover in Canaan, and soon the conquest of the promised land will begin. But this is also an end. The manna, that miraculous bread from heaven which God sustained Israel during its long and arduous sojourn in the wilderness, will soon stop falling.

Just as God parted the waters of the Red Sea so that Israel could escape into the wilderness, God parts the waters of the Jordan so that Israel may leave its time of wandering, confident rather than fearful, going into something rather than running from something.

But God commands Joshua to tell 12 Israelites to gather stones from the dry riverbed, and stack them on the other side (and in the river itself), as a reminder — this is where you have walked, this is what God has done for you.

This comes at the end, and not the beginning, of Israel’s long and sometimes pointless wanderings. While Israel is to remember the Passover — the night of terror in which death swept over Egypt — and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the sea, the memorial marks the completion of their journey, not the beginning. “The journey is done,” God is telling Israel. “Remember who you are, where you’ve been, because tomorrow, the real work begins.”

This is not the end of Israel’s calling. Another struggle is beginning, one that will fully establish God’s people in the land of promise while at the same time failing utterly to faithfully accomplish the work God commanded them to.

I have a few souvenirs of Dubai — some dirhams, a map, a big visa stamp in a long-expired passport. And I still have a few NY Waterway tickets to remind myself of that last ferry trip across the Hudson, and a few bits and pieces left over from a long-dead company.

But I’ve no pile of stones to mark the place where the wilderness wandering has ended. And maybe that’s because … it hasn’t.

LENT I Want to Go Back to Egypt

1 Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. 2 And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 3 Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” 4 And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:1–4 ESV)

I want to go back to Egypt.

I want to go back to my life as a reporter 15 years ago. I want to go back to the time before September 11, 2001, before Jesus spoke to me underneath the burning towers of the World Trade Center in New York. I want to leave this wilderness, I don’t want to inherit Canaan — which is already full of people bigger and stronger than me — and I want to go back to making bricks for Pharaoh, filling my stomach occasionally with good things, and resting sometimes on cool evenings in the Egyptian dusk, talking with friends and getting a little joy out of life.

I want to go back to Egypt.

I wish I could. I wish I could leave all of this behind. Put the clock back. Live and work and die in the land of comfortable servitude.

But I cannot. There is no unhearing Jesus. There is no way to take back that groan I uttered from the depth of my soul in the few years before 9/11. No way to uncry for help. No way to undo God’s listening, God’s remembering, God’s knowing. There is no way to undo the plagues, undrown Pharaoh and his army, ungraduate seminary, become an uncandidate for ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (oh, but wouldn’t that make a few people happy, to have never heard my name!), even unencounter the ELCA in the first place so no one there would be troubled with my presence and vexed by my story.

I cannot go backwards to Egypt. There is no backwards to go. There is only forward. My hands can make nothing of value right now, neither bricks nor idols. They are only good to gather the gifts of God scattered daily for my sustenance. To pack up and move from place to place as the pillars of cloud and fire demand it.

Canaan lies in front of me, full of people — frightening people who tower over me. I am scared. They are many, and I am few.

I want to go back to Egypt.

I want to go home. There is no home behind me, though. There is nothing behind me but a godless sorrow, a life without meaning, a place I had to flee just two steps ahead of death and destruction.

There is a home that beckons, but it lies in front of me.

And there is God, leading me on. Commanding me to take it.