The Grace of Knowing When to Step Away
When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd.
For the ole man is a-waitin’ to carry you to freedom.
Follow the drinking gourd.
During the height of the Civil War, escaped Southern slaves utilized the Underground Railroad in order to travel North and thus attain their freedom. In order to ensure as safe a journey as possible, they often used encoded maps to guide their way. One of these encoded maps was in the form of a folk song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd”. Unfortunately, the song is not nearly as popular as it should be, but its haunting melody and vivid lyrics can take both the listener and the singer to a dark forest, seeing runaway slaves who are seeking a better life for themselves and their posterity. The risk of stepping away from what was familiar to them was great indeed, but in their minds; it was well worth the risk and the dangers they faced.
Even though we may not be in mortal danger, stepping away from what is familiar to us is still never an easy thing to do. However, there are times when we know it is necessary. In his conversation with the Jewish elder, Nicodemus, Jesus reminds him, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8 NKJV)” In maritime, the mariner checks the winds every morning so that his ship might be steered and maneuvered accordingly. In much the same way, we have the responsibility of daily checking the wind of the Spirit so that we may follow him wherever he may be blowing. But every time we raise our hands to check the wind of the Spirit, we are raising our hands in surrender. It is a way of saying to God, “My life is not mine own. Lead me where you will.” Raising our hands to check the wind of the Spirit also involves a risk. It may very well be the case that we raise our hands one day and feel the Spirit blowing and directing us in a path we never saw coming. There may be a new course ahead of us, and it will involve the painful and difficult decision to alter our course. It may very well involve stepping away from what we have come to know and to appreciate as familiar and safe.
So we have a choice: will we heed the wind of the Spirit? Or will we do everything in our power to ride against the wind for the sake of maintaining our preconceived notions of familiarity and safety? The children of Israel had to make this decision for themselves at Horeb. Deuteronomy tells us, “The LORD our God spoke to us in Horeb, saying: ‘You have dwelt long enough at this mountain’… See, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land which the LORD swore to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—to give them to them and their descendants after them. (1:6, 8 NKJV)” After spending nearly forty years in one place, there is no doubt this mountain had become a familiar and safe place. And even after God had called them to move on from the mountain, Israel rebelled and refused to enter the land of Canaan. As we would expect, Israel paid a penalty for their rebellion. Eventually, after the wind of God continuously blew upon them, they entered into their new home – a Promised Land – a land flowing with milk and honey far beyond their wildest imaginations.
The children of Israel at Horeb remind us our own journeys of faith at times involve moving on from our own mountains. But we should never forget that doing so is first and foremost an act of faith Faith is like a delicate scale perfectly balancing both the call to step away and move forward and the call to return home. It is hearing God say to us, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Move forward,” yet hearing him also say, “But do not be afraid, for I am with you.” Yes, it is scary. It is difficult. It is painful. It may involve a sense of loss, grieving, and sadness both on our part and on the part of others. But the winds of God compel us to move forward. In the mist of the difficulty, the prayer of Jabez is remarkably helpful. Our American, pop-culture Christianity has taught us to hone in on the first part of his prayer, but the full prayer invites us to pray, “Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain! (1 Chronicles 4:10 NKJV)” While some pain may be unavoidable, we can certainly ask for God’s hand to be upon us, to guide us, and to keep us from causing unnecessary pain both in our lives and in the lives of those we love.
We follow the wind’s blowing with our next step – each step an act of faith. In time, we will discover a new home, which God has been preparing for us all along. Although we may not know what it may be, we know it will be far better than anything we could have ever invoked on our own. But the good news is that we do not have to move forward and step away on our own. For the same Holy Spirit that blows like a wind is the same Spirit who fell at Pentecost upon a room full of believers gripped by fear. Yet it was in their fear that the Spirit raised them up for a new season of unforeseen ministry. This same Spirit will fill us and empower us to do the work of ministry in new and unprecedented ways. He will remain with us and faithfully bring us into the new home he has prepared for us.
Runaway slaves had to follow the drinking gourd in order to attain their freedom. Our journeys are likely not nearly so dangerous or terrifying, but we will face times in our lives when we will have to step away from what is familiar and safe in order to follow faithfully the wind of the Spirit. That can be a frightening endeavor in its own right, but despite the fears and uncertainty it brings, we can rest assured knowing the presence of the Spirit remains with us as strongly as his wind blows. As Jabez teaches us to pray, we can rest assured, knowing God’s hand is upon us. He will keep us from evil so that we might not cause pain. So come what may, difficulties and all, for it is in our stepping away from the familiar and the safe that we find our new and true home in God.