Do you know when you read something amazing, and all you can think about is, “I have to share this with someone right now!” Or you think to yourself, “Everyone must read this. It’s life changing!” But then you realize, not everyone is always excited about your discoveries. Sometimes people have to come across things for themselves, or there has to be a process of personal transformation, before they grasp your own transformation from something you have read. You know what I mean? I think we have all been there. But I’m going to do it again.
Eugene Peterson, in my own humble opinion, may be one of the best theological/spiritual writers that there is. Everything I read by him is amazing, and everything he writes is new. He doesn’t tend to beat the same drum in book after book, but rather, comes to each book with fresh Biblical insight and wisdom.
His latest book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology has been a life transforming book for me. I began this book back in March, but had to put it down for many months, because I was quite unprepared to read on. Peterson is not one of those authors that you can cruise through. You could if you wanted to, but one needs time to think on and process the stuff that he writes. And this book is one of those. I just recently picked it back up, and am nearing the end.
And as I was nearing the end, I came across some unbelievable writing and thinking concerning Moses and his leadership. Peterson provides some beautiful insight, and unlike many authors, he is more concerned about living out our Christian lives, rather than just information gathering, which is what much Christian writing is.
And this passage concerning Moses was something that I badly needed to hear. It’s something that we as Christians and pastors and leaders need badly to hear. Leadership in community is always a baffling thing at times, and we can tend to idealize ministry and leadership, rather than grounding it in local community. Local community gives us grounding, keeps us from escaping reality as leaders, and keeps us focused on the realities of life in the trenches.
Concerning Moses, and the closing writing and sermon in Deuteronomy 32 and 33, Peterson says this:
After Moses had preached his sermon, he wrote it all down, handed it over to the priests, and ordered them to read it every seventh year to the congregation–men, women, children, aliens–during the autumn Feast of Booths, the feast devoted to remembering God’s providence through the forty wilderness years. Deuteronomy was to be their text for living; every seventh year they would get a refresher course (Deut. 31:9-13).
He then appointed Joshua to take over the leadership from him and take the people across the Jordan into the new land.
The scenario on display on the Plains of Moab that day is totally satisfying: a congregation of free people, thoroughly trained in worship and obedience, ready to enter a land of promise. Moses’ sermon has just brought it all present and alive before them, those splendid sentences and stories reverberating in their ears. Joshua holds the reigns of leadership that Moses had just placed in his hands. Moses and Joshua stand before the Tent of Meeting; the pillar of cloud, God’s presence among them, appears in confirmation and blessing. A dramatic, satisfying moment. A perfect ending.
Except. Except that there is one thing more. God has a private word with Moses. It couldn’t have been pleasant for Moses to hear; and it certainly isn’t pleasant for us to read. But if we are going to be prepared for the reality of living as a holy community, we must read it. Here it is:
“Moses (I’m paraphrasing here), you are about to die and be buried with your ancestors. You’ll no sooner be in your grave than this people will be up and whoring after foreign gods of this country that they are entering. They will abandon me and violate the covenant that I’ve made with them (31:16)….So here’s what I want you to do: Copy down this song and teach the people of Israel to sing it. They’ll have it then as my witness against them (32:19)…when they begin fooling around with other gods and worshipping them (31:20)….When things start falling apart, with many terrible things happening, this song will be there with them as a witness to who they are and what went wrong. Their children won’t forget this song; they’ll be singing it.
“Don’t think I don’t know what they are already scheming to do behind my back, behind your back. And they’re not even in the land yet, this land I promised them’ (31:21).
So Moses wrote down this song that very day and taught it to the people of Israel” (31:22).
The song provides the rhythms and metaphors that will keep Israel’s experience, both their sins and God’s care for them, alive and present for understanding and sharpening the holy community’s life of worship, love, and obedience in the generations that follow. But it can’t have provided a very satisfying ending for Moses. He had done his best. He had preached his best and final sermon. He had written this stunning book of wisdom, love, and grace. He had transferred his authority into the competent hands of Joshua. The pillar of cloud had filled the air with the blazing light of God’s presence. And then God whispers to Moses, “And one more thing, Moses–everything is about to fall to pieces; these people can’t wait until you’re out of here so they can dive into the orgiastic sex-and-fertility religion of the Canaanite culture. So write out one last message that can be read after you are dead–make it a song so the children can learn it and will be able to pick up the pieces and recover this holy community that you started and that you have served so faithfully and well these forty years.”
Moses, at the end of his life, hands over leadership to Joshua, teaches the people his song, blesses the community tribe by tribe, and then trudge up Mount Nebo to Pisgah Peak with the entire Promised Land spread out before him in a wide-screen vista. There he dies. God buries him (Ch. 34).
He dies, by all human accounting, a failure, and knowing that he is a failure, knowing that everything that he has worked in leading, training, and praying for this community will unravel as soon as the people enter Canaan. It is a familiar story for readers of Scripture, even though frequently suppressed. What does this mean? It means that we have to revise our ideas of the holy community to conform to what is revealed in Scripture. It means that we cannot impose our paradisical visions of hanging out with lovely, upbeat, and beautiful people when we enter a Christian congregation. It means that God’s way of working with us in community has virtually nothing to do with the world’s idea of getting things done, of what “works” and what doesn’t. It means that God hasn’t changed his modus operandi of choosing the “low and despised in the world (I Cor. 1:28) to form his community. It means that we who want to get in on what God does in the way God does it in all matters of community, will have to give up pretensions of shaping an organization that the world will think is wonderful as we parade our accomplishments to the tune of “worship” or “evangelism.”
(Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, pp. 264-266.)
How many times have I read that passage and walked away not really grasping the contextual reality of the community Moses was a leader in, and the reality of his own life. I’ve always been one who tends to idealize and romanticize leadership and ministry and the spiritual life. But the text of Scripture will not allow us to do that. Genuine community will not allow us to do that. God will not allow us to do that. And Moses is just one example.
Maybe it is time for us as Christians, and leaders and pastors to realize that genuine community is not about us, or our gifts, or our skills, but it is about the work of God. It is about living out in real places, in real situations, and with real people, the Spiritual life. This life does not allow us to live and dwell in wishful thinking and constant romantic dreams, that have no grounding in reality. Should we have ideals, and wishes? I think so. But community, and life with God, does not dwell permanently in these places. It dwells in reality. And our ideals and wishes should not be forced upon a community, or upon situations if they have no place in that community.
It reminds me of what Bonhoeffer says is his book Life Together:
Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both….
Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial….
God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himselfâ¦When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)