Our Emotional Exodus

We are a people of the Exodus. Our lives are exodus movements.

I’ve written before around the edges of the idea of cosmic geography and about the way the sea was viewed in the Old Testament as the place of chaos and death.

When the climactic act of Yahweh’s saving power happens at the beginning of the Exodus out of Egypt—the crossing the Red Sea—the Hebrew people walk out of slavery, through the waters of death, into new life in God’s presence at Sinai.

That’s baptism, that’s salvation, that’s the cross—there’s a reason it’s the central event in the Old Testament’s story.

Justly, then, the exodus movement out of Egypt to Yahweh’s presence at Mount Sinai has been likened to the movement across cosmic geography found in lament and thanksgiving psalms, as the psalmist is drawn out of the surging waters and brought to safety on God’s temple mountain, a cosmogonic movement from death to life.

L. Michael Morales, Exodus Old & New, 52

There’s quite a lot going on in that sentence, but to draw in on just one feature: from death to life is also the emotional journey of lament to thanksgiving that we encounter in so many of the psalms, and so few of our churches.

Which is to say, our emotional lives are meant to be a series of exodus movements.

We are supposed to be people who first walk through death, and express the way this feels, before walking out onto the sunlit uplands and giving thanks to our sunshine king for his rescue from the depths of death.

That’s what the Christian life is meant to be like, over and over again for we continue to live in the land of the dying and long for the land of the living.

In my experience most churches, and most people, manage one or the other. We either—and this is most common in my circles—ignore the difficulty and jump straight to thanksgiving as though we had not passed through the halls of the sea, or we never move past lament to thanksgiving and are stuck in a whirlpool of despair.

I tend towards the latter.

For the sake of clarity, these are continual movements, we don’t arrive at the end of our exploring until we cross the threshold of death and fall headlong into the arms of Jesus to wait for our resurrection. Therefore, someone isn’t stuck because they’re lamenting, or because they’re “still” lamenting some years later, they’re stuck if they never go through a lament-thanksgiving cycle. Likewise, someone isn’t naïve if they’re giving thanks, or if they’re “still” giving thanks some years later, they’re naïve if they have never expressed the emotions of exile, the pain of chaos, the stench of death, if they’ve never lamented before giving thanks.

We need good models to learn these practices. It would be great if our church meetings week by week gave this to us. I would imagine some of the older liturgies do so, but I’m not so familiar with them—share them with me on Twitter or Facebook if you’ve got good ideas.

The model I’m using, and really at the stuttering beginning of learning, is to pray the Psalms. I’ve started adding reading a Psalm every day to my usual ‘devotions,’ which there’s nothing at all unusual about, and I’m trying to learn to also pray them.

By which I mean, take the words of the Psalmist and make them my own, make them my prayers, as Christians have for the last couple of thousand years, and Jewish people for much longer. If I believe that the Psalms are the Church’s prayerbook, framed to tell the church’s story, and shaped to pull us into the presence of God (and I do), then I wanted to learn to actually do this.

I’m still at the beginning, when I’ve got some lessons I’ll share them. What I am picking up is that it helps with this emotional Exodus. I’m delighted by how often the Psalms echo my darker emotions (especially in the first three books—Book 3 is of course raw), but when they do they lift to thanksgiving.

I’m rarely prepared for the sudden turn and find it quite difficult to move from one to the next. It can feel like mood whiplash. Which is not unreasonable: from the darkest deep to the mountain of God in three days is a sort of whiplash. Creation is still groaning from it (Romans 8) and is going to need something more than a cosmic chiropractor to recover.

But it’s this which is going to help me actually travel my emotional exodus movements over and over again: to move from lament to thanksgiving about every riven thing that torments me, about every sinful moment my heart is splattered with, about the tawdry ash of death that taints our tongues.

When we see our lives as the Exodus, over and over again in small ways as well as in the grand sweep of our movement from sin to life, it helps us find ourselves in the Bible’s warp and weft. It helps us pray the Psalms with the church through the ages.

Most importantly? It helps us see that it’s meant to be this way.

I think it’s dreadfully tempting to assume our yo-yoing emotions and our failure to constantly live in thanksgiving despite the crushing weight of the dying world are somehow wrong. Not how it’s meant to be. In the sense that the world is not meant to be dying then I would agree with you, but once we accept that it is, then an exodus from slavery, through water, to life on the mountain—that’s what the story is meant to look like.

Over and over again, in a spiral that leads to the heavens.

Photo by John O’Nolan on Unsplash

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