I had dinner with a dear friend tonight. This friend has known me across seasons–in Colorado and round-the-world adventures, in Michigan and Gainesville, and now both settled in Atlanta homes; she knows both my befores and afters, where I’ve come from and where I am.
I picked flowers [ok, weeds, but they were fall colors] from my yard and called them a centerpiece. We sat at the table for two hours while we caught up on life, asking the easy questions, the obvious questions, and eventually working our way around to the meaty stuff.
And finally she asked, “What is it, exactly, that has been so difficult about this latest season?”
I didn’t have an answer at first. A little of this, a little of that, a perfect storm of transitions and insecurities, disappointments and expectations.
I talked my way in circles until I finally said, “I’m having to recover ground I thought I’d already gained.” I’m walking roads I’ve walked before. I’m seeing familiar landmarks and asking how in the world I ended up back in this same place. I’ve conquered this mountain once and here I am circling it for round two.
It was hard earned ground. I put one step in front of the other for years, putting space between myself and that captive place. This backwards bent is not the direction I would choose.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon.
Ok, there are a lot of words in that sentence that I can’t even pronounce, but I’m pretty sure about the four-letter ones. On the wilderness way, every step matters. Each foot is putting us closer to the promise or closer to the chains and I know I don’t want to go back.
But God told the Israelites to do just that. He sent them back the direction they had come, re-covering ground with their footprints still fresh in the sand. He didn’t only take them the scenic route around, didn’t just ask them to pitch tents in sand for months on end with no forward progress to be made, he actually had them turn back, pointing their bodies toward the very yoke he’d just freed them from. And He knew that this would be so difficult that he gave the instructions to Moses even before the Pillar set out.
Each mile they had gathered, gone. The ground they had gained, disappeared. The distance they had fought for shrunk when the Lord led them back closer to the very land they had fled.
At least, that’s what it felt like as they marched themselves directly toward the Sea.
But in the wilderness, closer isn’t determined just by the direction walked, but rather by the experience gained. Somehow the Israelites were nearer to the promise even after “losing” ground than they were before they turned. And, I don’t want to give too much away here [spoiler alert], but God was about to finalize their freedom in a demonstration they couldn’t have predicted if they tried.
Losing ground for a moment postures us for the Lord to move in ways he cannot if we’re running ahead on our own. Sometimes losing ground is about turning around to stare the enemy in the face, no longer fleeing as if we could be recaptured at any moment, but standing our ground and defeating it once and for all.
I don’t want to look over my shoulder for the rest of my life wondering when old captors will return. So, on these familiar roads I’m walking I’m choosing to see the progress, however backward it appears at the time. I’m recovering ground and moving toward the Sea, believing in his faithfulness there.