It’s probably not news to many of you that I have a terrible sense of direction. When I guided canoe trips in the Boundary Waters, finding my way was a major challenge. With the canoe bobbing in the waves, I would scan the landscape and study the map. Given the rambling shorelines and numerous islands, often all I saw was a monolithic wall of trees. Eventually, I learned to notice the differences in the density or color of the trees, which might indicate two distinct areas of land. I began to realize that a subtle “v” in the shoreline could be the opening of a bay or the beginning of a portage path. I also learned to trust the compass and the map and to subtly rely on the good directional sense of my companions. Even when no way through was apparent to me, if I just kept paddling, the opening I sought would eventually make itself known, sometimes quite suddenly and dramatically. Or I would be able to see where I had gone wrong, and turn in the correct direction.
At the Red Sea, the Israelites, too, faced an impasse. Before them lay an expanse of water stretching to the horizon. Behind them, Pharaoh’s army closed in. They exploded with panicky anger at Moses: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” And in that fearsome moment, the self-doubting, slow-of-tongue Moses found a steady voice. He did not flinch as the pounding of the horses’ feet rose in a crescendo, as the chariots approached in a great cloud of dust, and the soldiers’ spears glinted in the sunlight. “Do not be afraid, stand firm,” he told the Israelites, “See the deliverance that God will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. God will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” (Exodus 14:13-14) Moses trusted that God would make a way out of no way.
This saying, “a way out of no way” came to my mind, as I pondered the Red Sea text. I couldn’t remember where I had heard this phrase, so I looked it up. It’s an African American proverb, and a popular title for books, exhibits, and films. In the course of my search, I was incredibly grateful to discover the work of Monica A. Coleman. Coleman is ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal church. She is a professor at Claremont School of Theology. Her book Making a Way out of No Way presents a womanist and process theology. Don’t panic… I’m going to pause and define those terms as best I can. Womanist theologians center their theology in the stories and experiences of black women. To be clear, when theology is rooted in voices that are marginalized in our culture that does not mean their viewpoint is irrelevant to the rest of us. In fact, these perspectives teach us something we desperately need to know as we seek to become fully human, and to walk a spiritual path with integrity.
Process theology provides an alternative to traditional ideas about God. It’s also very philosophical (I’m going to do my best here.) In process thought, God is constant in God’s goodness but is also ever changing as the universe changes. God is not all-powerful. God does not control the world. God does not know the end of the story any more than we do. God participates in all that happens, within us and around us. God seeks to influence the world with God’s will of love, justice, and peace. In a piece for the Huffington Post, Monica Coleman writes about the ways in which her struggle with depression transformed her faith. She grew up in a deeply religious family, and was taught that faith, if it was genuine, would make her happy. As her depression worsened, and as she faced suicidal thoughts, she says,
Somewhere between my unanswered prayers and the realization that I could not worship myself into happiness, my faith died. . . . I kept going to church. I kept saying the words of the prayers. I still sang the songs. I’m a minister—I have to. But I was a fraud. I stopped talking with God. What could I say to the One who was not delivering me?
In these moments when death prevails, I appreciate that so many religions have an understanding of life after death. Regrowth, reincarnation, resurrection. They all understand that there is a finality to death. We don’t get back what we lost. We get something or someone new. My new faith is a deep trust that God is present with me and understands how I feel—especially when no one else can. I no more blame God for my sadness, than I credit God for happy days. This faith tells God how I really feel knowing that an offer of my true self is worship. I appreciate songs of sorrow more. I dance only when joyful. I am upheld by church community that can linger in pain without moving to fix it. This faith is different than what died. But it’s just as holy.
When I first learned about process theology in college, I recognized its validity and importance and yet it left me unsatisfied. I wanted all the old stories about God to be true; true in the way that I had always imagined them to be. I wanted a God who was in control, at least in an ultimate sense. I wanted a God mighty enough to part the sea, free the captives, change the course of history. I wanted a God who could make the brokenhearted be glad again. Honestly, a part of me still wants this God. But my own experiences in life tell me this not the God we have. Those doing womanist theology, or any theology that centers the experiences of oppressed peoples, tell us, too, that this high and mighty God needs to die. Because if divine liberation looks like a rescue from on high, a swooping in and saving all those who are innocently suffering, then God is really not doing God’s job.
God is the one who helps us to makes a way out of no way. Authors of the website Jesus, Jazz, Buddhism compare the God of process theology to a companion who sits with us as a non-anxious presence.
Inwardly and through the mediation of others,” they write, “we actually feel the feelings of God’s love within us. It is a feeling of being understood and accepted in a non-judgmental way, and it includes a sense of peace and inner courage. The peace and courage belong to God and to us, neither to the exclusion of the other. . . . Imagine further that this person [who sits with us] offers proposals—lures for feeling and reflection—to which you can respond. . . . These proposals are fresh possibilities. . . . In process theology the fresh possibilities come from God, too. Sometimes they come directly, in moments of solitude, and sometimes they are mediated by communities of solidarity and care: friends and family, church and community. Thus, moment by moment, and in situations of no exit, we nevertheless find openings and the courage to respond to them.
When the Israelites reached an impasse, Moses reassured them: “God will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” God’s presence is mighty. This presence can make the difference between faith and fear, slavery and freedom, death and life. But the divine presence does not hold the kind of power that acts unilaterally. God does not capriciously defy the laws of nature or take away the suffering and struggle of those who pray hard enough. Moses called the people to be still and trust in God so that they could receive the fresh possibilities God was offering to them. The story of God taming of the Red Sea waters and drowning Pharaoh’s army echoes another biblical story, that of the Creation. From moment to moment, God is one who works within and beside us to subdue the monsters of chaos and tyranny and to bring forth a life-giving order. There in the opening between the sea and the Egyptian armies, an old identity, and an old faith, rooted in the experience of slavery, died. A free people, bound to God in a new covenant, was born. Let us be still and trust in our God who helps us to make a way out of no way. Amen.