Decamp

Let us consider the death euphemism “the dearly departed”.

“Departed” is a very useful term when speaking about death. The Greek word analyseos, which is rendered in English as “depart” really means “to break camp”. It means to take down your tent and move on to another place.

Consider the Jewish festival of Sukkot. (Sukkah, singular, means “booth” or “tabernacle”. Sukkot is plural). It is celebrated on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which is around September or October). You’ll find it observed by Jesus in John 7:1-52.

Booths or tabernacles are temporary structures that Jews live in for a week as a remembrance of what they lived in when they traveled for forty years in the desert to reach the Holy Land. The structures are built every year, and intentionally have flimsy walls and a roof you can see the stars through. All meals are eaten inside this structure, and ideally you are to sleep in it at least one night.

This is a very beautiful symbol of our bodies. They are temporary structures that we dwell within. They are fragile, and while able to endure stronger gusts of wind than the sukkah can, they are not permanent and subject to decay. It is a sign of our utter dependence upon God.

Remember that Jesus is said to have “tabernacled” among us”, to have become enfleshed.

When we die, it is really that we have departed. We have left our temporary dwelling behind. We have left for a better place, just like how nomadic people will break camp to follow the herds or to move to where the crops are ripe. Just like how the Jews gave up their tents when they entered the Holy Land.

Death isn’t the end. It is just the end of life as we know it.

Change and clouds

I am not a fan of change. I like a set routine. Yet God has other plans.

Let’s look at what it was like to be an Israelite, travelling in the desert for 40 years. They had no map and no idea of where they were going. They were told that it was somewhere good, but they didn’t know how to get there because they didn’t know where it was. They were led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

Numbers 9:15-23
15 On the day the tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the testimony, and it appeared like fire above the tabernacle from evening until morning. 16 It remained that way continuously: the cloud would cover it, appearing like fire at night. 17 Whenever the cloud was lifted up above the tent, the Israelites would set out; at the place where the cloud stopped, there the Israelites camped. 18 At the LORD’s command the Israelites set out, and at the LORD’s command they camped. As long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle, they camped. 19 Even when the cloud stayed over the tabernacle many days, the Israelites carried out the LORD’s requirement and did not set out. 20 Sometimes the cloud remained over the tabernacle for only a few days. They would camp at the LORD’s command and set out at the LORD’s command. 21 Sometimes the cloud remained only from evening until morning; when the cloud lifted in the morning, they set out. Or if it remained a day and a night, they moved out when the cloud lifted. 22 Whether it was two days, a month, or longer, the Israelites camped and did not set out as long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle. But when it was lifted, they set out. 23 They camped at the LORD’s command, and they set out at the LORD’s command. They carried out the LORD’s requirement according to His command through Moses.

Look at line 20 – sometimes they were there only a few days. Sometimes change came often. They never knew when it was going to happen. The most important part is that “They would camp at the LORD’s command and set out at the LORD’s command.” This is repeated in line 23. Anything that is repeated requires special notice. The Lord would command, and they would go – again, with no idea where they were going. They just followed the Lord.

We don’t hear any complaining from the Israelites about having to move so often and apparently so randomly. Sure, there was plenty of complaining about not having enough food that they liked.

Numbers 11:4-6
4 Contemptible people among them had a strong craving for other food. The Israelites cried again and said, “Who will feed us meat? 5 We remember the free fish we ate in Egypt, along with the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. 6 But now our appetite is gone; there’s nothing to look at but this manna!”

They’ve forgotten about how hard it was being slaves in Egypt. Now that they aren’t slaves, all they can think about is the great food that they ate – such variety, and free! They’ve forgotten that here in the middle of the desert, God is giving them food day by day.

Yet they don’t complain at all about having to pick up everything at a moment’s notice.

Numbers 9:22
22 Whether it was two days, a month, or longer, the Israelites camped and did not set out as long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle. But when it was lifted, they set out.

I find it significant not only that they stayed for as long as the Lord commanded them, but that they got up and moved immediately when the Lord commanded them as well. This is no simple task, remember. Not only did were they carrying everything they owned with them – there were no Winnebagos on this trip – but they also had to dismantle and carry the portable Temple – no simple feat. That was huge, and had heavy equipment. They had to carry all their clothing, their tents, their cookware – everything.

Anyone who didn’t follow immediately, who was slow in breaking down camp, would have been left behind. They had to move together in order to survive together. Every person was necessary.

Also, if they didn’t all move at the same time they would have missed the cloud or pillar of flame. It would have gone on ahead of them, not waiting for them to catch up. If they didn’t follow it, they would have most certainly been lost in the desert. They’d be on their own, without God, and that is truly lost.

Compare this unswerving obedience to the Lord in the story when Jesus called his first disciples to him, in Mark 2:16-20:

16 As He was passing along by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew, Simon’s brother. They were casting a net into the sea, since they were fishermen. 17 “Follow Me,” Jesus told them, “and I will make you fish for people!”18 Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. 19 Going on a little farther, He saw James the son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in their boat mending their nets. 20 Immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed Him.

Note that Simon, Andrew, James and John left everything – their boats, their possessions, and their families – and followed Jesus “immediately”. He didn’t have to convince them. They didn’t have to think about it.

This kind of obedience is what is required. Some other followers of the Lord were hesitant, and they were told they weren’t fit for the journey. Pay special attention starting with verse 59 in the following section:

Luke 9:27-62
57 As they were traveling on the road someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go!” 58 Jesus told him, “Foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” 59 Then He said to another, “Follow Me.” “Lord,” he said, “first let me go bury my father.” 60 But He told him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.” 61 Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord, but first let me go and say good-bye to those at my house.” 62 But Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

When the Lord calls, we are to answer immediately, without question.

Change is hard, sure, but being left behind is harder. It is better to follow the Lord than be lost and on your own.

(All Bible translations are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible)

In the desert, we remember.

I am enshrouded in the welcoming smells of desert sand cooling, the dusky smoke of the fire, of roasting lamb slaughtered that afternoon. I recline upon rugs, handwoven by my grandfather (taught by his father, taught by his father…). They are a little musty from being rolled up for too long.

For too long we have walked on carpets made by machines and not men, soaked up the rays of florescent lights, breathed recycled air, listened to artificial music.

We’ve left, gone west into the desert, no map, no plans, no forwarding address. We’ve slipped loose this mortal coil, this mortal toil for older times. We slip into our djellabas like slipping into a warm bed on a cold night – comfortable, comforting, consoling, smoothing away the calluses built up like armor, like a shield against an unforgiving, unwelcoming world.

We’ve left that world behind.

We left at twilight, dusk gathering her cloak about her. She had not yet bejeweled herself with stars. By the time we found our home for the night amidst the hills she’d gone all out for us, diamonds against dusky cobalt.

We wear turbans out here, all of us.

We are doing as we have done for thousands of years. It is us, always us, out here under the stars, laughing with storytellers, singing with song weavers. Out here, we remember.

Out here, we remember who we are.

Nativity scene with Magi – I almost missed the best part.

I saw a picture of the nativity that took my breath away recently. Maybe it was the size. The picture is maybe three feet high by four feet across. Maybe it is the colors. Maybe it is the composition. Maybe it is all of it together, and more.

I apologize for the pictures. It is framed behind glass and there are a lot of fluorescent lights at the store. But, something is better than nothing.

1

The first thing that got my attention is the tender scene of the Holy Family. It is to the right of the picture, bathed in light. It appears that all the light is coming from Jesus. Then I notice the shepherds kneeling, holding a candle for light, admiring Jesus. They were the first to be told by an angel that the Messiah had been born. They are joyous and overwhelmed. What they have waited for has finally happened.

2

A dove looks on. This is the dove of peace, the dove of the Holy Spirit, and the dove of Noah, all at the same time. Doves are powerful symbols.

Then I wondered where the Magi were. There is no logical reason for thinking this. They don’t appear until 12 days later. The shepherds and the Magi aren’t together in the story, so they shouldn’t be together in this image.

Then I pan over, looking to the left. There they are, just getting off their camels. There they are, just about to come in. The artist has shown a moment in time, just for us, the viewer to see.

3

The Magi haven’t seen Jesus yet, but they know He is there. He is the reason for their long journey.

Mary and Joseph haven’t seen the Magi yet. They don’t even know they are coming. They are still overwhelmed with the miracle that has just happened to them.

It is just us, the viewers, who are privy to this scene. We see it all.

It nearly made me cry, to see this moment. To think that I am seeing this slice of history. And to think I almost missed it. The Magi were there all along.

We read from left to right in America, and we view pictures the same way. Once you learn a pattern it is hard to break. I almost missed the Magi because I jumped straight ahead to Jesus.

When I saw them it was such a surprise that I gasped a little. There they were, and I almost missed them.

How often do we do this? We jump ahead to the good part, forgetting that it is all the good part. We forget that everything counts, every character, every brush stroke. We only see a piece and we miss out on the big picture.

The Magi are coming. They are on their way. They are in the desert, wandering like the Jews did, but not for forty years. They are following the same God who leads us all to freedom. At the end of the journey lies redemption, and proof that God is here, with us.