Transitions, Clean Breaks, and The Work of Becoming a People – Ex. 14

This was the sermon I preached at First Friends Meeting Greensboro, NC on October 9, 2022. It is from Exodus 14.

Trauma and the Red Sea

This morning I want to speak on the subject of the Red Sea, trauma, and the importance of transitions in growth.

I think the best way to describe these past two and a half years since COVID broke out globally is traumatic. The fear of the pandemic, all the subsequent impact that it had on community, politics, economics, families, schools, and our meeting members are experiences that we continue to live in the wake of and will continue to live in the wake of for a long time.

What has some of that impact been for you?

Do you stop and think about the impact? Do you ever think to yourself:

I am feeling this way, or experiencing this, because I have experienced trauma?

You have. We have. And it has effected us.


At Guilford College where I work, many of our students coming into college are really struggling. It’s not because they’re bad students or don’t care about school – it’s because of the immensity of what they have just lived through.

I know from stories my wife Emily, who teaches middle school, that this is also true for many of those students as well.

Whether it is mental health, focus, relationships, or energy, things that used to be more basic or came more naturally are much more challenging now.

It can been hard for parents, teachers, and schools to accept this reality.

It’s much easier to try to create some distance from it, dissect it, “understand it.”

In this case, we do that when we turn to blame the students, the educational system, or the parents, or perhaps the college itself for its recruitment strategies.

But what if instead of trying to understand the experience, we were content to accept the experience as it is and start from there?

In other words, though it may be difficult, and present us with a whole new set of challenges what if we allowed ourselves to “experience the experience?”

I am not saying this is easy or will fix everything, but how might things be different — whether we are talking about students in schools, our families, or members in our meeting — if we practiced entering into the experience, no matter how difficult or painful, and listened to what it had to say to us?

I don’t know who first coined this saying, “experience the experience,” but what I can say is that the phrase is very clearly drawn from the contemplative tradition.

Experience the experience is an invitation into a patient presence, a noticing of what is right here, right now, rather than a rushed escape.

No doubt it is so much harder to just sit with the hard thing and experience what it has to say, what it has to teach us, and how it might change us.

One feature of trauma is its residual effect on a person and community. It’s not something you shake or get a clean break from, no matter how much we wish we could start over. We can’t. Trauma is something we can learn how to manage and work through.

A student of mine, Allison, was visiting the other day and she’s doing work on trauma in her graduate studies – she was telling me that the only way to really deal with trauma is to walk through it, facing it, processing it through various behavioral therapies, etc. The point was clear: trying to ignore trauma’s effects or work around it prolongs it.

As a friend of mine once said to me:

“Pain not managed becomes pain transmitted elsewhere.”

The hope is that through recovery you learn how to manage the effects of the trauma on your life.

In that sense, I don’t think it’s too much to say that we will all be in recovery from the pandemic for a long time. Perhaps for the rest of our lives.

Transition & The Red Sea

The Red Sea is a powerful story because it is so vivid. I know that it can be hard to imagine these events as modern readers. And we might be tempted to dismiss it because of the miracle at the center of the story; for our purposes this morning I am interested in simply accepting it as a story that is so true it doesn’t matter whether it actually happened or not (Peggy Morrison).

The book of Exodus – where the story of the Red Sea is situated – is a story about God liberating poor out of the Egyptian Empire: the word “Hebrews” literally means “poor folks,” or “a group of individuals who are the spoils of empire.” “Hebrews” in that time did not mean a nation state but those enslaved people living under the Egyptian empire.

God not only liberates them out of Empire, God then turns this tapestry of people from all over the Mesopotamian region, into a people: The Jewish people.

Because of this they were people coming out of empire and needing to learn how to survive and become an alternative community in the wake of their own trauma, fear, and anxiety.

The story of the Red Sea follows very shortly after their initial escape from Egypt.

It is in their journey towards freedom recorded in Exodus, and their passing through the Red Sea that was a kind of birth canal, a great transition, that allowed them to become a people together.

Here’s why:

Pharaoh and the officials realized they had a momentary lapse of judgement when they let the Hebrews go and now they want those their slaves back.

“What have we done…?

They remark.

So they do like every empire does and they fire up their military – six hundred of their best chariots plus “all the other chariots of Egypt.”

This ancient militarized force will come against women, children, men, and animals all on foot, all unarmed, many of whom had already at some other point their lives been captured forcibly and against their will by this very same military.

God brought them out of Egypt to liberate them but it looks like Empire will get the best of them in the end.

“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?”

It is easy to read this complaint from our position as people with comfort and privilege, thousands of years later, and with the power of hindsight.

“Come on you faithless people, don’t you know just how powerful God is?”

It is much easier to say that when your back is not against the wall to begin with.

But we may have heard things like:

How could such a thing happen to America? We have so much power, and money, and the best scientists, and technology. We can’t get sick. And maybe more quietly some thought God wouldn’t let this happen to me.

A question I hear in this text is:

Did we come all this way to be abandoned? Did we do all this work? Did we make all this effort? Did we trust only to be proven wrong?

Isn’t this a really human question?

And it is very often this question of abandonment that we hear whenever we are in the middle of a great transition.

In the story of their freedom journey, the Red Sea marks the point of no return and that is itself very disorienting. If they go back to Egypt that is the end of this liberation story, maybe forever. If they go ahead they have to enter into even more of the unknown, more disorientation.

The Red Sea is the perfect image of a “liminal space.” The Hebrews walking through this mysterious moment when it seems like time has stopped and the waters were driven back all night on their right and on their left.

You know you’re in the midst of a major life transition if you find all of the normal ways of understanding and seeing things no longer make sense. When time feels and is different. When all the normal ways of coping, all the normal ways of relating, all that surrounds you seems to no longer work they way it is supposed to.

A side note: some mentioned they felt sympathy for the Egyptians who were killed by God in the Red Sea at the end of this story. How could God do such a thing? I think we are often accustomed to God more influenced by liberal, middle-class, theology. That is one who loves and accepts everyone and never intervenes, or gets angry, or advocates. But here the text is very clear, The God of the Hebrew people is a God who advocates for the poor and enslaved and advocates for them against empire and its military. A God who advocates on behalf of the poor over and against the powerful is one that does not sit well with theologies influenced by capitalism and white supremacy.

We Are Not Abandoned, Even in Profound Pain

I don’t know what it is like to literally walk through a sea with divided waters, but I can only imagine great fear and uncertainty. It must have felt like walking into a trap. Going from a really scary situation where you know how it’s going to end into a really scary situation where you cannot make sense of what is happening.

And while we don’t know what it is like to walk through the Red Sea, we do know what it is like to walk through a global pandemic. We know what it is like to walk through great political unrest. We know what it is like to walk through a difficult transition in the life of this meeting. And I am sure there are plenty of other things you can add to this list.

If ever there was a time where hurry must have felt appropriate. No one wants to have you tell them to “experience the experience” when you walking through the Red Sea.

How were the mothers and father’s dealing with their crying babies? What did they do when their children whose legs were too tired wanted to give up? How did they handle it when the elders in their midst could not take one more step?

The message parents must have given their children whether in word or dead was:

I will not give up on you. I will not abandon you.

The escape from empire takes a great transition because it is not just a matter of no longer being physically separated from Pharaoh, the people must undergo a complete liberation where they are able to become free from the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual slavery which they have been subjected to.

They have to process their trauma and move through it in order to reach freedom on the other side.

In an article titled, On the Road with Thomas Merton, Fred Bahnson writes:

The ocean has long been the great symbol of mystical union with God. With the vast Pacific before me, I recall the story Merton told of the early Irish monks who took that metaphor literally, becoming pilgrims on the open sea.

THEY WERE CALLED peregrini.

Inspired by Abraham, the archetypal pilgrim who left his home in Ur and traveled to the land God would show him, the Irish monks of the sixth and seventh centuries adopted the practice of peregrinatio, “going forth into strange countries.”


The peregrinatio was a result of the “profound relationship with an inner experience of continuity between the natural and the supernatural, between the sacred and the profane … a continuity in both time and in space.”

Fred Bahnson – Link

The Hebrew people were also going forth into a strange country and the only way into that was through the Red Sea, this metaphor for transition, change, even a kind of baptism out of empire.

The waters surrounding them on every side shows the inner struggle that it is for them – and for us – to go through these transitionary moments in life.

It is in “experiencing the experience” of the Red Sea that we not only see how they become physically free but how that inner conflict that comes from moving through trauma towards freedom can itself be used by God to free them.

And that ultimately, God has not brought us this far to abandon us.

The Red Sea is for us a story and a reminder that while we would much rather have a clean break, the best way is through and while transitions of any kind can be difficult and sometimes painful, if we are willing to listen and be present to that pain we can learn and grow from it.

The work of becoming a people is long and drawn out. It is in the nitty gritty and in the challenge that it happens. This is the rest of the biblical account. There is progress and there is decline. The work of being an alternative community to empire is hard work them and for us, being able to be a community not handcuffed to the past, but able to follow God even into the disorienting unknown is where we will find life.

Queries

  • What are those Red Sea experiences in your life?
  • What has the journey to freedom looked and felt like?
  • Where are you – and we as a community – being invited to sink deeper into the experience rather than hurry through it?

Published by Wess Daniels

Teacher, author, Quaker, ​and public theologian. Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College.

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