From Mountain Top to Dark Box to Intimacy
Poor Moses had a lot to deal with. God sent him to lead the Israelites into the wilderness. When they got hungry they complained to Moses. When there was no water, they complained to Moses. So, God opened the spigot and they drank, but forgot to thank him. He dropped manna in their laps, but they wanted steak and potatoes cause they weren’t creative enough to make pancakes out of it and douse it with syrup!
Yet still, God loved their sorry selves. He desired a covenant and intimacy with them. It would be extraordinary! But, the Israelites were having nothing to do with it. It was way too scary! Intimacy? No way! So they stubbornly settled at the foot of the mountain and were going no further.
Then, the Lord called Moses up the mountain….and….
UP HE GOES
(19:3) The Lord instructs him, “Tell those guys I’m going to do awesome things for them: Make them all holy and priestly.”
DOWN HE GOES
(19:8) Moses repeats what the Lord told him and they jumped all over it! “We will do everything the Lord has said.”
UP HE GOES
(19:11–12) Moses tells the Lord how excited they were! The Lord tells Moses, “I’m going down there in a bunch of clouds to hang with you so they can see how cool I think you are. But, if they try to approach me for selfies I’ll kill the lot of them! Got it?”
DOWN HE GOES
(19:14–19) Moses told them to clean up and don’t have sex (okay?!). Then everything explodes! Thunder, lightening, thick clouds and a really loud, ear drum bursting trumpet blast for good measure. Even the mountain trembled. People were screaming and crying and scattering all over the place! It probably wasn’t the reaction God anticipated. So, he called Moses back.
UP HE GOES
(19:21–24) Before Moses unpacked his gear the Lord said to him, “Go back down and keep them in line.”
DOWN HE GOES
(20:19) So Moses went down to the people, told them the Lord was not happy with them, but they were still trembling with fear and begged him, “You go talk to the Lord. We’ll wait right here!”
UP HE GOES
(20:21) While he was gone God was furiously chiseling out the Ten Commandments which he gave Moses along with a huge list of additional mandates and decrees.
DOWN HE GOES
(24:1) Then, the Lord summoned Moses and Aaron and some big shots back up for some sort of conference maybe.
UP HE GOES
(24:3) Then they went back down.
DOWN HE GOES
(24:7) Moses showed the Israelites the plans the Lord drew up. Again, in unison they replied, “Yep, we’ll do all that stuff!” Bright and early the next morning they got to work.
UP HE GOES
(24:18–31:18) Moses and Joshua climbed back up and hung out there for forty days while the Lord gave them specifics of his required offerings from the Israelites. It was some pretty pricy stuff too.”Oh yeah, an Arc. I need an Arc. A very BIG Arc –HUGE — and fill it with lots of cool stuff! Here’s the specifics and note the required fancy priestly garments all the way down to the underwear.”
It was a LONG forty days!
32:1–6) The Israelites didn’t think he was coming back and it all went downhill from there (pun intended). They decided they wanted to be their own gods and make their own rules. It was party time!
32:7–14) The Lord saw what those stiff-necked fools were up to and was furious! He planned to destroy the whole lot of them. Moses begged him to recall his promises and relent. When the Lord settled down, Moses left.
DOWN HE GOES:
(32:19–29) His legs ached and his back hurt from lugging those stone tablets down the mountain! He was exhausted and HE. WAS. LIVID.
They were all running wild — even Aaron. Moses lost it and ended up doing what he had just begged God not to do! He had the Levites chop up about three-thousand people and then he blessed the rest of them. Weird! So, back up he goes to beg God for mercy for the ones who are left. Saying nothing about making mincemeat out of 3,000 of them!
UP HE GOES:
(32:31–35) The Lord makes note of Moses’ request (insert God-sized eye-roll here), while at the same time planning the proper punishment for those who sinned. He sends Moses back down to give them the bad news followed by a fun little plague, followed by their long walk without the Lord cause he is still fuming and afraid he might let loose and destroy them all, but he’s not sure, “I’ll let you know”.
DOWN HE GOES…
A little trivia: Did you know that Mount Sinai is about 7,500 feet high! Moses’ mountain climbing world record has never been beaten. Moses went up and down that thing eight times trying his damndest to keep everybody happy — God included, and look where it got him.
Still today, we seem to quickly forget or just dismiss the fact that all humans are erratic and unstable screw-ups — every one of us! Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites were no exception. The Lord promised to love and care for them if they would trust him, follow the “rules”, and draw close to him. And they were all about it for a millisecond — until the Lord got a bit too dramatic.
Anyway, when the Israelites saw the lightning and heard the thunder they shrank back in fear. They ran from him to a safer place with shiny, mute, fake gods that they created themselves. They preferred distant respect over intimate relationship: Out of reach, out of range, out of earshot.
Then one day, as Moses was recovering from his mountain climbing adventures and feeling his age, he had an AHA moment! There had to be a better way for him to mediate between God and the Israelites from his recliner, in a more practical way; less frightening and less physical. He knew the Israelites would love it because they had already made it known they wanted to keep their distance from God, especially when they were despicable wretches deserving of God’s wrath. So, he had them build a big Box, later known as a “Confessional”. He hung his shingle out front and began the business of absolving sins. Brilliant! Never mind that not once did he run the idea by God!
Okay, fine, history tells us that is not how it went down. It was actually worse!
John Cornwell, in his book, The Dark Box, tells us Pope Pius X dreamed it up. He wanted to have the reality of sin and damnation seared into the brains of every child by their first communion so he wouldn’t have to deal with the adult version of them. They were required to learn and memorize every detail of categories of sin and the appropriate punishment of Purgatory or Hell. And, yes, there would be a quiz at the end. That’s right; six-year-olds were introduced to the fear of hell that may have surpassed their fear of monsters under the bed. What fun!
I had my own AHA moment when I watched my kid’s classes full of six-year-olds go though that ritual. Deep down I had to wonder what offense a child would possibly have to commit to rile God! It made no sense to me.
Cornwell tells us, “Many readers will be surprised to learn that prior to 1910, young children were not subjected to this rather terrifying information, because they were deemed incapable of sinning in any meaningful way.”
He adds that there was also the required annual confession for everyone else as well and that this requirement was “imposed, at least in part, by church leaders who expected priests to interrogate penitents and learn if they might be heretics.” Sneaky inquisitors — the lot of them!
Even today, we seem to prefer admiration at arm’s length over a relationship God longs for. Like the Israelites, we want someone, anyone, to stand between us and God — what confession in a Box symbolizes.
There was a period of time, after my adult conversion, when I faithfully and fearfully adhered to the requirements of going to confession. Though, admittedly, I tried to disguise my voice or go to a different church. So, I’m sitting — sorry — kneeling in the dark spewing all my wretchedness and waiting for the easy-peasy penance that every penitent receives, from grandma’s admission of missing one Mass in seventy years because she was in a coma to abusive priests on their way to another assignment (ohhhhh, don’t get me started!). The only difference seems to be the number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers required to wipe the slate clean. Done. Then you’re off the hook till you screw up again which for me was likely that same day. I kid you not, there were times I would ask God to take me right out of the Box — while I was all shiny clean — but please hurry!
Then, I quit “going” to confession. It happened when I was able to realize that God isn’t interested in how many prayers we can memorize, or if we meet our Hail Mary obligation. But rather, how sincere we are about changing and correcting our offenses. I now long for intimacy that allows me to go straight to the source any time I mess up. I don’t have to wait till Saturday between the hours of 3:30 and 4:45 and I don’t have to wait in line. And, bonus, I have never experienced one bit of thunder, lightening, or annoying trumpet noises!
I would like to end this post by sharing how three amazing people (and many more since) helped me along the path to a relationship with God: Brennon Manning, Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. Sure, they were all qualified to hear confessions and dole out penance, but that is not how people change. Rather, it was seeing how they lived their faith that helped me change how I live mine!
They professed to the world their failings AND their trust that they could draw close to God because his love is unconditional, merciful, and grace-filled. Because they believed that, so can I! They have all inspired me to long for that God!
One of my favorite quotes of Brennon Manning:
“To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side, I learn who I am and what God’s grace means. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.”
I can now profess that, yes, I am a paradox of misfitted pieces: I love and hate, forgive and hold grudges, accept and judge others. At times, eager to give and other times, selfish. I can sing praises to God and curse the jerk that just cut me off in traffic all in the same breath. And on some really bad, terrible, horrible, dreadful days I can be all of those parts at once!
So, the question before us seems to be: Do we stay stuck at the foot of the mountain or go all in? Going all in is what St. Augustine meant when he said, “The glory of God is man fully alive”.