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One Woman's Journey Back to Faith

I WONDER . . . ?

Man’s heart strives after unending eternal happiness.
Thou hast created us, O Lord, for Thyself,
and our heart is restless until it rests in Thee.
—St. Augustine

     My lungs at bursting point, I flopped on the stone ledge, propped my back against the wall, and stretched my aching legs. The pounding in my ears subsided as my brain told my heart it could ease up now. I’d made it! I was at the top of Mount Sinai.
     Inhaling the dry, clear air, I settled myself more comfortably as my eyes scanned the magnificent view. Range upon range of rosy granite mountains towered over parched riverbeds that waited expectantly to carry spring rains to thirsty plains. It was an inhospitable land, where those who struggled to survive the terrain clustered with their camels and goats around intermittent oases.
     I had joined a tour group traveling to Egypt, Jordan, the Sinai Peninsula, and Israel. The mystery of ancient Egypt had beckoned for years, so I jumped at the chance of an adventure. In addition to experiencing the grandeur of this ancient civilization, the trip would bring to life one of my favorite Bible stories—the Exodus. That amazing escape of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt and their journey through the Sinai desert to Canaan, the land God had promised them. I would walk in the footsteps of Moses and the Israelites. Reality would replace imagination—imagination fueled by Cecil B. DeMille’s magnificent portrayal of this historic event in the movie, The Ten Commandments
     Although historians and archaeologists are unable to pinpoint which mountain was designated as the “mountain of God” in Exodus, the general consensus holds the most likely candidate as being Jebel Musa, Arabic for “Mountain of Moses.” The mountain looms over the desert in striking contrast to its surroundings. At its foot nestles the Monastery of Saint Catherine, constructed on the site of a church built by the Roman Emperor Constantine nearly 1,600 years ago. European artisans spent almost twenty years sculpting its ornate basilica, chapel, and library. The monastery owes its existence to a wild desert plant that grows in its ancient courtyard, which the local monks believe is the living remnant of the original burning bush that attracted Moses’ attention. Defying the desert’s eternal heat and dust, the monastery stands in isolation, a tangible memorial to one of the most significant events in Judeo-Christian history.
    The hospitable monks provided a simple meal and camp cots. To our weary bodies, those unyielding camp cots felt like down mattresses. Ahead of us lay the adventure of climbing Mount Sinai.
     At 4:30 a.m., flashlights in hand, water bottles dangling at our waists, we set forth into the cool, early morning air. The path snaking up the side of the mountain became visible as darkness gave way to the first light of dawn. We paused to watch the sun peep out between the stark mountains. Its warmth rapidly overtook the coolness, ushering in another scorching day in the desert.
     The path steepened, the temperature soared, and my dangling water bottle no longer seemed an encumbrance. What I thought would be a breeze to my reasonably fit thirty-seven-year-old body became a challenge. Only the recognition of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity kept one foot in front of the other. Red faced and panting, I reached the summit and sank onto the stone ledge.
     The voices of my fellow tourists murmured around me, yet I felt isolated. Thousands of years of history oozed from the cold granite of this mountain range. A million life stories had been absorbed into the sandy river beds. I felt as insignificant as a pebble, content to rest quietly.
     My thoughts drifted to the story of Moses and the Exodus. The Hebrew slaves traveled from the security and bondage of Egypt into the uncertainty and freedom of this desert. I imagined them in a sprawling camp around the base of the mountain—people, tents, goats, sheep, and camels everywhere—as the smoke of a thousand fires drifted skyward.
     What were their hopes as they embarked on their journey? What did they expect from Moses and the invisible God who, after four hundred years of silence, had now decided to intervene in their plight?
     Time and again, the Bible says Yahweh met with Moses on a mountain such as this. The Exodus account described an open, honest relationship between them. Moses told God He had made a huge mistake in choosing him to lead the Hebrews to freedom. He pointed out his dubious past (Prince of Egypt turned murderer and fugitive) and lack of communication skills (forty years of talking to sheep does not make a man a compelling orator). Moses recommended God pick someone else.
     At God’s insistence, Moses agreed to the task. Becoming the liaison between Yahweh and the Hebrews did not turn him into a “yes” man. He complained when things got difficult. He expressed his frustration with Yahweh and the stubborn people. He obeyed Yahweh’s orders while sometimes interjecting his own opinion. Living interaction forged a relationship. Moses became an exception in the history of God’s dealings with humans. Prior to this, God had only spoken through a prophet via vision or dream. Now He honored Moses by speaking directly to him. Moses actually saw the form of God, although not His face. As the story unfolded, their relationship developed to the point where God entrusted Moses with His Law, the Ten Commandments.
     How wonderful it would be to have that kind of unhindered, one-on-one relationship with my Creator, I mused. Yet, was it realistic to hope that I, or anyone, could build a relationship with God in this modern age? Perhaps the type of relationship Moses had was only for his time?
     My inner life was an inexplicable mess. I had started out with high hopes, only to have them dashed on the rocks of disillusionment and confusion. I professed to be a Christian, but my heart resembled the dry, dusty desert below. Over the years, religious traditions, theological confusion, and emotional trauma had been piled on me, like blankets on someone in bed, until I suffocated under rules, restrictions, and codes of behavior. I felt as trapped as a convict in a prison, or as a Hebrew slave dominated by an Egyptian taskmaster. Disappointed and resentful, I felt God had not given me what I wanted most - a Knight in Shining Armor, someone to sweep me up into happiness. Surely my painstaking efforts to please Him deserved some reward? Life had become a never-ending struggle to measure up to others’ expectations while hiding the aching emptiness inside. The effort resulted in discouragement and disheartenment.
     The call for a group picture broke my reverie. A tiny church formed the backdrop, and then we began the descent to the monastery—infinitely worse than the ascent. Approximately 3,000 large steps led straight down the back of the mountain. I will never forget the ache and stiffness resulting from that exertion.
     Our next stop was Jerusalem and its surroundings. At last I could visualize the setting for all those childhood Bible stories: the rolling hills around Bethlehem where Jesus was born, the often destroyed walls encircling the old city, the road that wound its way to Bethany. I stood among the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, mused at the site of Solomon’s and Herod’s temples, and floated across the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum. Numerous shrines and holy places beckoned me inside.
     It was wonderful, it was inspiring, and it did nothing to assuage my gnawing dissatisfaction. The openness of the desert and the perception of an unhindered connection with God contrasted starkly to the formalities and rituals of organized religion. A longing to throw off the suffocating trappings stirred within, like a faint breath of fresh air in a stale room, as though my idle wondering had opened a window in my mind. For the first time I acknowledged my religion as being deficient. Contrary to what I had been taught, it did not meet my deepest needs. I needed something more; I needed a faith that worked!
     Sometimes we think that reaching out to God requires determined effort or a dedicated act of will, followed by some emotional expression. For me it started with a wistful, simple, “I wonder . . .?” wrung from a hurting heart in the middle of the Sinai Desert.

POINTER: Begin by Opening a Window in Your Mind

• Have you found modern Christianity disappointing? If so, what events or    circumstances triggered your disappointment?

• Are you confused by differing interpretations of religious beliefs?

• Are you suffering under the trappings of organized religion—the formalities, codes of behavior, and dictates?

• Perhaps you’ve never considered trying to get to know the God of Christianity? Why not open your mind to the possibility this might be worth exploring?