Resisting Interruption, Returning to the Story

Dr. Ellen Ott Marshall

(This is a guest blog post Dr. Ellen Ott Marshall. Ellen is a board member of JustPeace and an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Conflict Transformation at Candler School of Theology).

One of many biblical stories of anxiety unfolds at the base of Mt. Sinai where the people are waiting (and waiting) for Moses to come back down the mountain. They have already received the detailed instructions for building a tabernacle for God. But when Moses tarries on Mt. Sinai, the movement from instruction to implementation gets interrupted. For forty days and forty nights the people wait for Moses to return. Finally, in their anxiety and impatience, they turn to Aaron: “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (NRSV Exodus 32:1) Aaron obliges them by taking their gold to fashion the calf. Instead of implementation, we have idolatry. The story of the golden calf is a familiar one not only because we have heard it before, but also because we live it. We know the interruption of idolatry in a journey from instruction to implementation. We know how it feels to grow anxious and impatient; we know how it feels to reach for something to secure ourselves; we know how the interruption becomes the story.

The narrative about an anxious and impatient people who lose sight of their Lord and turn to other forms of security – this narrative becomes a story that forms us. We certainly have legitimate fears; and we truly carry the imprints of trauma in our lives that affect our capacities to be open to one another. But we are also surrounded by voices that politicize our anxiety, capitalize on our insecurities, lobby for walls, legislate fear, preach hatred and division, and profile our neighbors. Instead of welcoming the golden calf to secure us, we must instead refuse it, saying: “My friend, you are interrupting the story. Stop interrupting the story.”

Let us put the interruption back in its place and remember the narrative disrupted by it. God says to Moses: “Have them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”  The sanctuary was designed to be portable, movable; so that God may dwell among the people. God intends to stay with the people; to journey with them. In the Exodus account, the people finally get back to work, collecting and offering up all of the materials and constructing the tabernacle. “When Moses saw that they had done all the work just as the Lord had commanded, he blessed them” (Exodus 39:43).

This is the story. It is a story of a people who make a place for God to dwell among them on their journey.

One summer, my family and I had the great fortune to spend a week among other desert mountains on Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. This 20,000-acre ranch in the high desert is one of the top 10 paleontology sites in the world, and it was Georgia O’Keefe’s home and the subject of many of her paintings. Because my family visited during the “festival of the arts,” we spent the week surrounded by artists of all kinds – painters, potters, sculptors, poets, musicians, quilters, and jewelry-makers. Even from the very edge of their world and work, we quickly picked up on the sense that they were particularly capable of doing creative work in this land where they felt so closely connected to God. It is a magical place. Majestic and mysterious. It is the kind of place where you feel utterly small and remarkably grateful at the same time.

“Our human personalities may seem distinct, but their roots run down into the eternal life of God” – Walter Rauschbusch

In his Theology for the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschbusch wrote, “Our human personalities may seem distinct, but their roots run down into the eternal life of God” (186). Our roots run down into the eternal life of God.  We are connected to other people and to the whole of creation through a common root system. Our roots run down into the eternal life of God. That connectedness to God makes creativity in the midst of destruction possible. It makes relationship in the midst of division possible. It makes faithfulness in the midst of fear possible. The challenge is to live out that story of connectedness in contexts that defy it, ridicule it, trivialize it, and trash it. In those very contexts, we must create the space for God to dwell among us, to be manifest in our actions, words, and ways of being together. Our roots run down into the eternal life of God, and we must be bold enough to live that way.

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