Checking Pharaoh’s Power

Shiphrah and Puah are two of my favorite women in the Bible. They are courageous  midwives who defy Pharaoh. Their story is recorded  in the very first chapter of  Exodus.  Pharaoh had instructed them to kill every  newborn baby boy born to Hebrew women.   They not only defy him, but when asked to explain why they weren’t obeying – they use his own prejudices to explain themselves.

Who, but a person blindly prejudiced,would have believed their story?  The story about how Hebrew women weren’t made like Egyptian women that he knew and loved. No, they told Pharaoh,  the  Hebrew women had babies that came so fast the midwives never got to the woman  before the baby was born. This was especially true of their boy babies. It must have been hard to hide their laughter as Pharaoh swallowed their story.  They were, of course, only telling Pharaoh something he already believed.  Those  Hebrew  were different – not at all like him and his kind.

Life in Egypt had started well for the Israelites after Joseph literally saved the people of Egypt. An earlier Pharaoh was indebted to Joseph. He welcomed Joseph’s family  when they arrived in  Egypt, making a place for them.  They found a good place to raise their families. With the blessing of Pharaoh these new immigrants quickly became successful and prosperous. But, memories dim with time. New generations don’t recall details of an earlier one. Memories of Joseph and what he had done for Egypt faded, until eventually, a Pharaoh comes to  power who knows nothing of the story.

Not knowing the story, the new Pharaoh  is afraid of the Israelites. Fearful they will join in war against the people, he decides to contain the people he fears. This was the kind of reasoning that sent thousands of Japanese Americans into camps, causing them to lose their possessions, homes and livelihoods after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. It is what made German Americans suspect during the First World War. The root of all racism is fear – fear of a person not quite like ourselves. We either grow afraid of what we do not understand or seek to understand what we do not know. For the Israelites racism takes a sinister form. First the people are enslaved and put to the hard labor of building cities and monuments to Pharaoh. Eventually, Pharaoh devises a form of genocide, that will effectively rid the nation of Hebrews by eliminating every boy baby born. He assumes he will be able to assimilate females into the Egyptian world.

What Pharaoh was not expecting was the defiance of the two midwives, Puah and Shiphrah. They listen instead to a higher authority. Fearing God, they will not harm their patients or break their trust. Their moral code will not conform to the mind set of Pharaoh. Because the women stayed close to God, they were prepared when faced with the words of Pharaoh.  Puah and Shiphrah chose to live by a higher law. In the process they checked the power of Pharaoh and saved the lives of the children. William Sloane Coffin, wrote, “Fear distorts truth, not by exaggerating the ills of the world . . . but by underestimating our ability to deal with them . . . while love seeks truth, fear seeks safety.” –William Sloane Coffin, The Courage to Love (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), 60

Shiphrah and Puah risk everything. The story could have gone so  differently had they followed Pharaoh’s order – the destruction of our ancestors in faith. Instead,  these courageous women refuse to  violate the trust, faith, hopes and dreams of the people they serve. Throughout history there have been those who have chosen not to follow orders of a Pharaoh – choosing to be true to God instead. Members of the underground railroad helped escaped slaves find freedom. Others joined Ghandi’s long walk to the sea. Some sat at lunch counters in violation of unjust laws, refusing to leave during the Civil right era.  Shiphrah and Puah left us a legacy of courage, in checking Pharaoh’s power. They were life givers – giver’s of hope. Women of courage. Women of faith. Examples to follow.

Planting Seeds of Mercy, Compassion and Love

Howard Thurman, in his book, Disciplines of the Spirit writes, “There are many forces over which the individual can exercise no control whatsoever. A farmer plants a seed in the ground and the seed sprouts and grows. The weather, the wind, the elements the farmer cannot control. The result is never a sure thing. So what does the farmer do? The farmer plants, always the farmer works at it . . . in confidence and assurance that even though this seed many not grow to fruition, seeds do grow and they do come to fruition.”

These past months have brought turmoil in many sectors. Our political divisions continue to separate us. We demonize those whose viewpoints are different than ours. Last weeks confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia symbolized for me how fractured we have become. White nationalists, proud of their evil symbols of hate and bigotry marching with torches, brought shades of another era and time. It was as much symbol of our political discord as it was of the attitudes which formed it. And then the tragedy when a young man drove his car into a group of pedestrian aiming to injure and kill.  This has been a time of questioning who we are and what we are becoming as a nation.

At moments like this we ask ourselves what we can do to challenge the forces of evil in our world and in our nation. We wonder why we should keep trying, when nothing seems to be working.  We grow discouraged.  Challenging moments are those in which we most need to remember that seeds do grow.  Our task in God’s kingdom is to sow the seed.   Seeds grow. We know they do.   We  have seen that growth in our own lives.   We know too,  that without planting at appropriate times there would never be a harvest of good fruit.

Like the farmer, we are never certain which seed will grow. Planting seeds of faith, nurture, love, acceptance, compassion, tolerance, mercy, integrity, hope, joy, peace, commitment and service continues to be our task. Sowing good seed, loving God’s people, risking, caring and forgiving are ways we live out our faith day by day. No, our efforts are never a sure thing. But, God asks only that we try, that we do our best, and leave all which remains to God.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21

Strength Under Pressure

 My parent’s house burned down on Easter Sunday the year I graduated from high school. In the process of rebuilding our house, my parents decided to put in a real basement replacing a small dirt cellar. We’d has a lot rainy days just before  the cement was to be poured and the ground was muck. It wasn’t long before the cement truck was throughly stuck some distance from the basement.

We had asked our neighbor Jim to come over and help us out. Jim lived down the road about a quarter mile and had a top of the line tractor . . . It was the biggest and most powerful tractor you could get your hands on at the time. We had seen his tractor in action when he pulled a bus load of kids out of similar mud. Which is why we never doubted that he would be able to free the cement truck. Although Jim put up a valiant effort, his tractor simply would not budge the cement truck more than a couple of feet – which got it even more stuck,  until it was firmly embedded in the mud. All of this created a dilemma. If Jim’s tractor couldn’t pull out the cement truck, what could?

Now, my uncle DD dabbled in a variety of trades. He owned the only restaurant in town as well as being its mayor. DD had recently bought an old pickup truck and converted it into a tow truck by installing a winch on it. He claimed that there wasn’t anything that winch couldn’t pull.  Still,  most of us were skeptics about the winch. In spite of our skepticism we called my uncle  DD after the tractor failed.

When my uncle arrived in his old beat up pickup truck with its winch, Jim looked at his powerful tractor and then at DD’s pitiful truck announcing to all of us, “If he can pull that cement truck out of this muck when my tractor couldn’t, I will personally shovel every last bit of this cement into that hole by myself.” By then it was quite obvious if the cement truck ever got unstuck, it was not going any closer to the basement than it already was. A considerable amount of manual labor was going to be involved in getting the cement where it belonged.

We watched as my uncle attached the cable, started the winch and attempted to pull out the cement truck. Just as we expected, the wheels of his little pickup spun and spun kicking up mud, but not moving the cement truck at all. Then someone thought that we ought to try chaining his pickup to the nearest tree. This tree was not a large tree with a thick trunk, but a slender tree about 10-12 inches in diameter. The hope was that the strength of the tree would stabilize the pickup.

I remember how my dad and DD looped the chain around the tree,  attaching it to  either side of the frame of the truck. I have this vivid memory of the day, watching the winch begin to work. At first it was only a few inches, but the cement truck had actually moved – the weight of the cement truck and the force of the mud pulled against the strength of that slender tree. Then the tree bent . . . while the pickup’s wheels started to rise off the ground, as the chain worked its way up the tree trunk. Meanwhile the winch kept pulling and my uncle’s pickup kept rising, until its front wheels where three feet off the ground and its back wheels a foot. All the while, the cable continued to pull at the cement truck. We watched as that slender tree bent and looked as if it could snap. We held our breath while  my uncle’s truck hung in midair. The tree looking increasingly like it could snap. But that winch kept right on pulling away and the tree stood firm until the weighted down truck filled with its tons of cement was pulled  free of the muck and the mud. Once free, the driver wisely parked a safe distance from our basement.

Right about then Jim, wished he had never uttered those fateful words, “If he can pull that cement truck out of the muck with that little pickup when my tractor didn’t even get it to budge, I will personally shovel every last bit of that cement into that hole.” Which he did with a lot of help.

When I look back on that day, I think of many things.The gifts of grace which come in our need.  Friends who reach out to help out. I think of the gift of neighbors to call on. And I think of the strength in that slender tree and how it surprised me. I still marvel, these many years later, at its flexibility and the pounds of pressure weighted against it. I think of how God gives us strength at times when we are under pressure and we wonder how we’ll be able to endure the forces aligned against us.

And once again the assuring words of Isaiah come to me.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
For God does not faint or grow weary;
God’s understanding is unsearchable.
God gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:28-31

Becoming Free to be Compassionate

Ten years ago, the 35W bridge collapsed and fell into the Mississippi river during rush hour traffic on August 1, 2007. I rarely drove across the 35W Bridge into Minneapolis, but a wrong turn had sent me over the bridge a few days earlier. Thirteen people died. Many were critically injured. More than one hundred forty people were transported to hospitals by pickup truck, cars and ambulances. What I remember most were the number of people who immediately jumped into action. Before First Responders could get there, bystanders were diving into the river,  rescuing people trapped in their cars. They were just ordinary folks who happened to be there and knew they needed to help. That evening, no one worried about the political, ethnic or religious background of the injured or the rescuers.  All of that was immaterial.

Henri Nouwen said, “To die to our neighbors means to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus to become free to be compassionate. Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other. Often quite unconsciously we classify people as very good, good, neutral, bad, and very bad. These judgements influence deeply the thoughts, words, and actions. These self-created limits prevent us from being available to people and shrivel up our compassion.” Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

I often get discouraged about  the enmity between  people  in today’s society over  race,  religious faith or  immigration status.  Ten years ago,  in that life or death moment after the bridge collapse, all  judgements were suspended.   What mattered was searching for survivors, breaking windows of submerged vehicles and pulling people from the river. What mattered was getting children on a school bus about to erupt in flames or tip into the river to safety.  What mattered was stabilizing an injury  and offering comfort. It was one of our finer moments as we collectively worked together in the midst of a tragic event – evidence that if we choose to, we can be that again.