“Baby Talk: Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back”
January 8, 2023
Today I’m starting a new series that I’ll preach through January called, “Baby Talk”. And in this series we’ll explore what we can learn about God and being human from a baby. I’ll give you three guesses to figure out what inspired this series!
The thing about being a pastor—and it’s funny because I’m not sure if I’d characterize this as a super power or a curse – but us pastors we always have a our eyes open for a good sermon illustration. Literally anything can become a sermon illustration. Which is great! The power of a sermon is its ability to connect to our ordinary lives; but it gets a little annoying as a pastor when you can’t shut this sermon illustration generator off in your brain and so you find yourself constantly connecting every mundane experience to the sermon you’re about to preach;
like once I found myself trying to find some deep significance in the experience of always either having too many chips for your dip or not enough dip for your chips, and then trying to figure out how that could play well in a sermon. It’s a whole thing!
But anyways, all that being said, it’s been a wonderfully unique experience to become a dad and watch Iona growing up, because all of it is such fertile ground for sermon illustrations! So I thought, why don’t I just make a whole series out of this. Besides, I think it’s fitting following our celebration of God entering the world as a baby.
I think one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received as a parent, is to be open to learning from my child, because I may find that she will teach me as much as I teach her. And so I’ve been watching and learning. And man, there’s so much I think we can learn about God and just being human, from watching a baby experience the world for the very first time. So over the next few weeks, let’s see what babies can teach us about God and being human.
In the last couple of months, much to our delight as parents, Iona has started scooting. While on her tummy she’ll put both of her hands firmly on the ground and push off from them. The only problem, is that she only knows how to go backwards. But still, there was so much excitement for us and Iona as she realized that she could in fact move her body a few inches at a time. It’s been adorable to see her look of determination when trying to scoot forward get to the toy that’s a few inches in front of her, only to end up several feet even further away from it.
Even Iona didn’t seem to care at first that she was moving in the wrong direction. I think she was just happy to be moving. But now, that excitement has given way to frustration. She sees the toy in front of her that she wants to grab, she sees the place in the room she’d really like to go explore, but no matter how hard she tries, she can only go backwards and end up further away from her desired goal than when she began.
I can see the look and hear the grunts of frustration from Iona as she just feels stuck. She wants to crawl, she wants to move forward with the freedom to engage any curiosity in the room, but she can’t. She’s stuck going backwards for now.
And this reminded me a bit of a story in the Bible about a group of people who also felt stuck going backwards.
The Israelites to this point in the biblical story have just been liberated by God from 400 years in Egyptian slavery. God not only freed them, but promised to give them their own home—a place they could put down roots and become a nation under their own rule.
So the Israelites were led by God out of Egypt through parting seas, across desert landscapes and past warring tribes, the whole time carrying with them the promise that they were being led to a place that would become home – a place they could finally rest after 400 years. The promised land.
The only problem, is that along the way, they made some poor decisions, disobeyed God a few times, and ended up having to wander across the wilderness, stuck in limbo between slavery and the promised land for 40 years. 40 years is a long time to wander in the wilderness.
And let me tell you, the wilderness in the Bible, is one of the last places you want to find yourself. In Hebrew, the word for wilderness, midbar, literally means “desert place.” Throughout the Bible, the wilderness is described as a bad place of hunger, thirst and deprivation; it is unsettled, windswept, haunted by noxious beasts and demons and echoing with frightful noises. It is the place where lots of bad folks wander, like Cain, the Midianites, Amalekites and raiders. Apart from nomads and the lawless who are on the run, only the mad inhabit the wilderness. The wilderness is described as a figuratively dark place, recalling the primordial state of the universe before God created light and life.
In other words, wilderness = bad. You don’t want to find yourself lost or stuck in the wilderness, let alone spend forty years wandering across it. These poor Israelites have finally escaped Egyptian slavery, they have their goal in mind, their promise of a home and a new land; they could practically see it, but they couldn’t get there. Instead, they found themselves stuck wandering in the wilderness, seemingly going backwards, further away from the promised land.
And you know, the Israelites, Iona and us all have something in common: we all want to move forward in life, and we don’t quite know how to deal with it when all of the sudden we feel stuck and it seems like we’re taking steps backwards, away from the promised land where we really want to be heading.
These steps backwards come in all shapes and forms. But for most of us, we view our life as a straight linear path. We have birth on one end and our goal of what we think a full, perfect or beautiful life looks like on the other end. And life then becomes a process in taking steps towards that goal.
We make choices that we think will take us a few steps closer to where we want to be. We choose a career, we start a family, we move, we learn new skills or take up new hobbies. The self-help culture we live in is all about this idea of always making sure you’re taking steps forward, that you’re bettering yourself, growing, progressing, always on the move towards a happier, fuller, more beautiful life – that you’re moving further along this straight line towards your promised land.
But of course, something always happens. We take a wrong turn. We make a mistake. Our choices aren’t panning out for us the way we thought they would. We have to turn around and backtrack our steps, starting over again. We lose a job. Our marriage crumbles. We screw up. A loved one dies. A mental illness or a health diagnosis complicates things. And with each turn in the road, it can feel as if your promised land gets further and further away, until perhaps you wake up one day and feel as if you’ve been wandering aimless in the wilderness for forty years, unsure where you’re heading or why.
As Franciscan Monk, Richard Rohr likes to say, life can often feel like a journey of taking three steps forward, two steps back, three steps forward, two steps back. Or maybe you even feel like two steps forward, three steps back more accurately describes your life. Or maybe like Iona you feel you’re just constantly scooting backwards, further away from where you want to be heading. Maybe you feel stuck like the Israelites, wandering in the wilderness, the promised land nowhere in sight.
But here’s the thing: life isn’t a straight line that we travel along to get from point A to point B. Because sometimes, to get to where you need to go, you have to go backwards before you can go forwards. And sometimes you need to wander for a bit in the wilderness before you can fully appreciate the promised land.
Because strangely enough, throughout the Bible, the wilderness is viewed as a bad place nobody chooses to be. And yet, there is story after story of people who encounter God in the wilderness and come away changed.
Hagar flees into the wilderness to escape her abuser and she finds God.
Elijah escapes into the wilderness to save his life and he hears God speaking to him in a still small voice.
Moses runs from the Pharaoh’s wrath and makes a life for himself in the wilderness before finding God in a burning bush.
Jesus, to begin his ministry, chooses to wander into the wilderness to be tempted for 40 days.
And the Israelites have had their own encounters with God in the wilderness, preparing them for the promised land. As God reminds Moses in our passage today, “I have watched over your journey through this vast wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything.”
In other words, the wilderness is a bad place you don’t want to be, yes, but it’s also a place where you encounter God and come away forever changed.
The story of the Bible is primarily a story about the Israelites who take three steps forward, two back, four steps forward, five back. Over and over and over again. It’s exhausting. If you read the Bible straight through you might start banging your head against the wall because these people just don’t seem to learn. Don’t they know where they’re supposed to be heading? God has told them that they are to be a nation that is a light to other nations. But rarely do they act that way. Two steps forward, three steps back.
The incredible thing about the biblical story is not that the Israelites seem to be going in circles. The incredible thing about their story is that God never leaves their side the entire time. And God actually uses their backwards steps and wilderness wandering to continually shape them into the people they’re called to be. God’s plan for them is wide enough to encompass and include even the times they seem to be walking in the opposite direction of that plan.
This may seem contradictory, but it’s really not. When I was growing up in Colorado, I enjoyed hiking 14ers, which are what we call mountains that are 14,000 feet elevation or more. And what you find when hiking such tall mountains, is that they’re full of switchbacks, paths that wind back and forth up the side of a mountain, meant to decrease the steepness of the hike.
And when I was younger these switchbacks infuriated me. I’d look up the side of the mountain and see the point I needed to reach, but then had to walk like twenty or thirty switchbacks, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, before I could reach that point. It felt like a waste of time and energy.
So one time my friends and I decided to try to take a straight line on one particularly hillside, cutting across the switchbacks to save time. And wouldn’t you know, we couldn’t make it. Because not only did we actually get stuck, but we wasted so much more energy and time trying to take a shortcut.
I wonder if life, rather than being one straight linear path that we travel to get from point A to point B, I wonder if life is more like a set of switchbacks on a mountainside. When you’re on the switchbacks, walking back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, sometimes even walking in the opposite direction of where you want to be, it feels like you’re losing progress and time – it feels like you’re going backwards. But in reality the switchbacks are necessary to make it to the top.
The same is true for Iona’s attempts at crawling. Before she can start going forwards, she has to start by going backwards. It’s actually good for her development. She builds muscles and skills in that process that will prepare her for the act of moving forward.
I know that the wildernesses we wander are more difficult that just learning how to crawl. I know that our steps backwards often have more painful consequences as adults than when we were children. But I wonder if God was trying to teach us something even as a baby, that life will never be linear, that there are no shortcuts, there’s no tried and true way to make it from point A to point B without taking steps forwards and backwards. There are switchbacks and wildernesses we must traverse along the way.
And just as God reminded Moses and the Israelites, so God would remind us: “I have watched over your journey through this vast wilderness of life. All this time the Lord your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything.” Amen and may it be so.