Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage (Exodus 4:10-17) transports me to Beaufort, SC, circa 1983, where a weekend reunion of old college buddies begins in a small country church, as the funeral of one of those friends, Alex, commences. The country preacher, played by James Gillis, opens the first scene of the Big Chill with a slow drawl of a eulogy/funeral sermon, using an opening line that for some reason has always stuck with me, It makes me angry, and I don’t know what to do with my anger. His facial expression reveals that anger, with his teeth clenched and his nostrils flaring. He goes on to lament the loss of hope that led Alex to take his own life, and then the movie’s signature use of music starts when one of the classmates goes to the church organ and plays a rendition of the Rolling Stones, You Can’t Always Get What You Want.
I thought of that line about anger when I read today’s passage, with Moses provoking God to anger there at the scene of the burning bush. This is actually the first reference of many in the Bible to the anger of God, and it is interesting how the biblical writers literally describe it. The Hebrew word for anger, ahf literally means nose, and time and again throughout scripture, when God is roiled up, the description is the one we find here – God’s nostrils get hot. As human beings, we know what it feels like to have our nostrils flare and burn, when something threatens us or pushes our buttons. It’s part of our “reptilian brain”, that earliest part of the brain to develop, that gives us our basic instincts and raw emotions, anger being a prime example. We don’t have to think about it; that’s what our neo-cortex or “new brain” does. The old brain kicks in before we have any time to think; it’s a split-second reaction designed to help us combat those clear and present dangers that threaten our well-being. We can reflect on it later, but whatever our higher brain thoughts, we can’t prevent the nose burn sensation. And here, the biblical writer paints God as having that same kind of reptilian brain reaction. Sharing the image of God as we do, this shouldn’t surprise us, but for some reason, it does. We’d like to think of God as ultra-rational, not being reactive or driven by emotion. And then we have this picture of a nostril-flaring divinity, and we realize that no matter how much we want to philosophize the presence of God, making it the Ground of Our Being or the Ultimate Life Force, the way we really experience this Presence is very personal, complete with the same range of emotions we have. The Ground of Being can Be outraged. The Life Force can flame with fury.
What’s instructive here is to see what it is that drives God crazy. Moses maddens God by playing puny, by underachieving, by refusing to take up the mantle of leadership for the liberation of God’s captive community of faith. This is what threatens God, our tendency to slouch and stall when we should stand up straight and say yes to the call, whatever our call might be. This is what makes God’s nose burn and flare, when we don’t live up to who we’ve been created to be. When we play small. When we cower at the task ahead. It doesn’t bother me so much that God is painted anthropomorphically, with a reptilian section of brain that causes nostrils to burn so much you might see smoke rings coming out of them. What bothers me is the realization that I play the role of Moses all too often. I underachieve. I make excuses. I get scared. I hesitate to take the baton. I don’t believe in my capacity. I scorn the liberating love of God that calls me to speak truth to power in my world. Hell may have no fury like a Liberating Lover scorned, but heaven surely does. When I feel that fury, I know it’s time to quit stalling, to get up and get to work, to find my part in the ongoing work of freedom. I might wish for more gifts and talents, a more eloquent and charismatic voice, a better sense of strategic planning, the ability to generate resources. But as the song says and as Moses found out, You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find, you get what you need.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.