Everything about this season feels stuck in the middle, in between what’s been and what’s coming.
As I write this, there’s an inch of slushy snow on the ground, with mud and scraggly grass showing through the melted footprints. Half of my heart is yearning for the final melt, for spring; half of my heart wishes for one more good snowstorm.
According to the Christian calendar, we’re now in the season of Lent: forty solemn days of reflection and repentance when we prepare our hearts for the joy of Easter. For me, this time always feels like a spiritual valley between the twin mountaintop celebrations of Christmas and Easter. During Lent, I find that everything usually goes wrong: the pipes burst, the kids are sick, I have no patience — as if the whole world were conspiring to drain me of joy and distract me from meaningful reflection.
And THIS year, I’m slogging my way through the third trimester of my fourth pregnancy. This has been my most ache-y and uncomfortable pregnancy yet, and I’ve been saying, “I just want this baby to be born so that I never have to do this again,” much earlier than usual. On the other hand, I also want to savor every minute, knowing that I’ll probably never again experience pregnancy (if I have any say in the matter).
Stuck in the middle.
Then I read Exodus 14:14, which tells the story of people who were literally stuck in the middle. To set the scene: Moses and the Israelites have just been kicked out of Egypt, fleeing by foot in the night from the home they’d known for 430 years. They hear a rumbling behind them, and look back to see that Pharaoh, having changed his mind, is chasing them with the entire Egyptian army. In front of them is the Red Sea; there’s no escape.
So they freak out.
Because most of us have heard this story (or seen the Charlton Heston movie) since we were old enough to remember, and since we already know the ending, we — at least I — tend to think, “Silly Israelites! Why are you always panicking? GOD’s on your side!” But, man, if there was ever a time to feel like, “There’s no way out; we’re stuck in the middle and we’re all going to die!” it was then. Looked at from any perspective, they were in an impossible situation. When they complain to Moses that they would rather stay slaves in Egypt than die in the desert, it seems perfectly logical.
But in Exodus 14:14, Moses tells the Israelites, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
I felt like this should reassure me in my own stuck-ness — which, let’s face it, is nowhere NEAR as dire as the Israelites’. But it seems like counter-intuitive advice. When we’re mentally, physically, spiritually, or emotionally stuck, the last thing we want to do is “be still.” We want to struggle, we want to MOVE — to get un-stuck so that we can make forward progress. Not only that, but I couldn’t see how I was supposed to “be still” with three children, a puppy, a husband, a house, a yard. . . . Every day is a whirlwind; let’s just say my moments of quiet reflection, let alone SITTING, are at a minimum.
What kept coming to mind, oddly, was a scene from What About Bob?, the 1991 film about a psychologist, Dr. Marvin (Richard Dreyfus), and his manipulative patient, Bob (Bill Murray). In this scene, Bill Murray practices Dreyfus’s self-help philosophy, called “Baby Steps.” You can watch a video clip here, but it goes something like this:
Bob: [to himself] Baby steps out of the office . . . baby steps into the hall . . . baby steps onto the elevator . . .
This kind of “being still” feels possible for me right now: not doing NOTHING, but focusing on the task immediately at hand instead of worrying about what’s behind or in front of me: a still spirit in an active body. I think that’s also the kind of “still” that Moses was advocating to the Israelites. After all, they didn’t sit down and start meditating — they kept walking. In fact, in the very next verse, God Himself says, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.” (God’s kind of awesome like that: “Quit complaining and just put one foot in front of the other!” One of my favorite translations of Exodus 14:14 comes from The Message: “God will fight the battle for you. And you? You keep your mouths shut!”)
When we’re stuck, I think we sometimes mistake inaction with spirituality. Don’t get me wrong: prayer, meditation, and reflection are all great things. But Exodus — and Dr. Marvin — remind me that inaction isn’t always possible, practical, or even “holy.” Sometimes being still means shushing our minds and hearts, but taking a step forward.
So, one morning, I said to myself, “I don’t have to worry about the day ahead, or about the changing seasons, or about making myself as spiritually right as I’d like to be, or about a baby who won’t be here for another three months. Right now, I have to make the coffee. I can make the coffee.”
And for that moment, I took care of the coffee and God took care of the rest. Baby steps. (Coffee helps, too.)