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Bound for the Promised Land

An Old Testament lesson on trust that we should heed today

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Bound for the Promised Land

I have always thought that reading the Old Testament Book of Numbers in bed would be a great cure for insomnia, except that a Bible is heavy and as soon as I fell asleep, it might fall on my nose and wake me again.

Many chapters of the book are among the most boring ever written. But, that is not true of the entire book. In fact, some parts have an eye-opening lesson for us.

In Chapter 13, the Lord tells Moses to send 12 scouts into the Promised Land to find out what sort of place it is.

“Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said to them, ‘Go up into the Negeb yonder, and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad, and whether the cities that they dwell in are camps or strongholds, and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there is wood in it or not. Be of good courage, and bring some of the fruit of the land.’”

So far, so good. The land is indeed rich and attractive, but all the spies except Caleb and Joshua are fearful and so the people say, “Wouldn’t it be better to go back to Egypt?”

Because they were unwilling to trust the Lord who was presenting them with a new future – because they wanted to return to the past – the Lord said that they would have to spend 40 years wandering in the desert until a new generation of men and women who had not lived in Egypt, and were willing to walk into an uncertain though God-given future, were ready.

In 1965, the twenty-first ecumenical council in the Church’s history, Vatican II, ended. The council was an invitation and challenge to move into a new future where the Catholic Church would share “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted” in new ways so that all people might know the promise of God’s love.

But, for some 40 years, we have not moved confidently into that new land. Instead, voices nostalgic for the supposed “good old days” became increasingly powerful, especially among leaders of the Church, the very ones who should have been our scouts.

Instead of realizing that the fairly sudden and complete collapse of old forms and pieties proved that they were neither robust nor viable, some people imagined plots and ill will that had no more reality than the giants the Hebrews thought inhabited Canaan. 

And so, collegiality, inculturation, declericalization and, in short, hope were delayed.

Now, after some 40 years, the Catholic Church has its first ever pope who was ordained after Vatican II. Like the new generation of Hebrews who were able to move into the future that God had prepared for them, we seem poised to finally explore a new land. The parallel with the ancient history of God’s People is uncanny. And encouraging.

For more than four decades, many of us have lived with sorrow, frustration and anger as we recalled our hopes after Vatican II and it looked unlikely that we would ever enter the Promised Land that had drawn and excited us years ago.

We knew that one day God’s people would cross the River Jordan to become a newly reconstituted Church because ultimately the Holy Spirit is stronger than fear. But, it looked as if the crossing to the future would belong to another generation.

The old hymn sang the longing of our hearts:

       On Jordan's stormy banks I stand,

       And cast a wishful eye

       To Canaan's fair and happy land,

       Where my possessions lie.

Now, when I talk with other Catholics and even non-Catholics, or look into my heart, I find jubilation. God may allow us to at least glimpse the promised land after all!

Sadly, many people who began that journey nearly half a century ago have died in the desert or given up. But the generations that will be born into a truly global Church truly incarnate in the real world will come sooner and the world will not have to wait yet longer for them.

Perhaps even more than in the last century, the world is hungry for the Word. Perhaps even more than in the last century, the world needs the healing assurance that our loving God meets them in their daily lives, in their hopes and fears, in their relationships and even in their religions.

Worn-out European forms will not answer those needs. A newly energized Church that is joyfully and confidently willing to cross into a new way of being Church will answer the hunger of the world for spiritual food and drink.

There will be setbacks, just as there were for the Israelites. There will be failures, just as there were for the Israelites. There will be a demonstration of the loving embrace of God, just as there was for the Israelites. 

The task for us is to break the habit of brooding and to joyfully invite our Egypt-bound sisters and brothers to find the trust, hope and courage to join us on the journey. We are once more on the move, confident that we journey with God.

       I am bound for the promised land,

       I am bound for the promised land;

       Oh who will come and go with me?

       I am bound for the promised land.

Fr William Grimm is the publisher of ucanews.com and is based in Tokyo

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