-Rev Melissa Fain-
But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had spoken to Moses.
Exodus 9:12 NRSV
I've lived with this question for years. I wanted to know how to save Pharaoh. If I want to save them all, I've got to want to save him too, right? Why would God harden Pharaoh's heart? Why would God allow the Plagues to continue when allowing Pharaoh's heart to soften would keep great tragedy from entering the land?
If Pharaoh's heart were allowed to soften the plagues would have ended before the death of the first born. Think of the epic levels of loss on all levels. Crops were wiped out. The cleanup would take away from collecting the crops that were left. God softening Pharaoh's heart means there wouldn't be conflict leading to so much destruction.
If Pharaoh's heart were allowed to soften all those first born children would not have died. I seriously only remember one full Sunday School class from my childhood. It's not that I don't remember pieces, but I can no longer connected them to the specific moment where I learned them. The Sunday School teachers, an older couple that just returned from Jerusalem, asked any first born child to raise his or her hand. I raised my hand. "You're dead," the wife said flatly to a little over half the class. (My younger sister found this hilarious.) Why would God commission death, and specifically death of children? If that heart was softened it would have been avoided.
If Pharaoh's heart were allowed to soften the Israelites never would have left Egypt.
Yeah, that's it.
God didn't draw the line in the sand.
God wanted the people out. Plague after plague had already happened and, it was the Pharaoh who didn't listen, who drew lines, that was stubborn beyond measure. God didn't harden Pharaoh's heart right away. Pharaoh hardened his own heart six times first. More than that, God didn't send some foreigner into Egyptian court. Moses would have been someone Pharaoh knew, grew up, possibly even loved like a brother. Still he was stubborn. Six times stubborn.
Here's why there is no such thing as a just war.
War always has a very long fuse. There are historic moments where the fuse can be extinguished. Sometimes months, but more often times years in advance. When the bomb of war finally goes off, the lines are drawn not because God wants those lines to be drawn, but because the options to peace were ignored for years.
Even if Pharaoh's heart was softened, he wouldn't want peace like God wanted peace. Pharaoh didn't want God's choice. It was Pharaoh who put God on the other side, not God. And guess what? When the people finally left Egypt there were Egyptians that left with the Israelites. God's line is an ideology, not a people. God wanted freedom, and Pharaoh wanted power.
How does Israel stay in Egypt?
Listen, I fully and completely believe the people are not the problem. The system the people use is the problem. The side that was just fine didn't see a problem with slavery. This was because they couldn't see. They were too comfortable to see.
More than that, it didn't matter that at the seventh plague Pharaoh's heart could have softened. He wasn't going to change. It's very difficult to get people who are comfortable to give up their comfort for someone else's discomfort. It's relational. It's ignorance. If they can't feel it, most people don't understand it. Ignorance can drive a world into darkness. Ignorance can silence oppression with false righteousness. It puts fault on the abused, because anything else would change the system, a system where the ones in power want to keep their power.
That must be left behind if a new people are to find their freedom. Pharaoh's heart had to be hardened, because God was separating the wheat from the chaff. The peoples had already picked their sides by the time the seventh plague came around. They had drawn the lines; not God, but God had chosen a side.
This month I've been reading Walter Brueggemann's "The Prophetic Imagination." Chapter one is a great reading partner with this post.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
I had so many important moments in seminary. These were moments that have shaped my ministry and focused me on my call. To just pick one would be foolish. Yet, I can pick a specific moment that has recently attacked me in ways that has guided me in the present. It is a moment that keeps me anchored and lets me go.
I was taking Disciples of Christ polity. It was at Columbia Theological Seminary because Candler School of Theology didn't teach it. The only professor offering the class in Georgia was and is Dr. Jerry Gladson. Across the hall was the office of Dr. Walter Brueggemann. I remember musing about how close yet how far I was from him. (His writing has since formed many of my theological groundings.)
There was a night we watched this retelling of the story of Alexander Campbell. It was kinda Soap Opera(ish), on an old, worn out, VHS tape. I tried to find a digital copy so I could link it, but there are no remnants of it's existence online. It was the actor playing Campbell, holding his coin. It was a coin earned so he could partake of the sacred elements of Communion. I watched as he stared at this man on the street, so hungry for food, but unable to come in the church because he lacked the coin. Campbell walked in for communion, tossed the coin in the plate, and walked back out without the elements. The act of Campbell tossing the coin without communion held weight for me.
Who was going to know? He didn't yell it in the sanctuary before he walked out. He didn't threaten his departure. There was no reason. He knew what he was going to do. He didn't want anyone to talk him out of it, so why make the announcement? It was the strength of his conviction. Not knowing what was coming, but absolutely knowing it wasn't in that coin.
In October made a private announcement of my intentions regarding the Disciples of Christ. I bitterly wept as I realized the truth. I couldn't stay. I made it official by writing a colleague and letting him know first. I followed it up by telling a private group. I was scared. I was devastated. I asked myself the question most people ask when they break up: What had the Disciples of Christ given me or Fig Tree over the past decade?
What was the denomination taking away? Everything.
This all came crashing back to me only a month later.
Related side note: I'm easy to neglect. People see me, and I give the impression that I've got my stuff together. I get it. When I see a problem, I can make magic happen with paper clips and rubber bands. I can see potential where most only see trash. When the world is flooding I get ignored because I can tread water when others are drowning. Only water treading works for just so long, and even I run out of trash to turn to treasure. That moment always comes, and the people around me always lament the exact same lament: "We shouldn't have ignored you. We should have stepped up and worked with you." I figured if this time I screamed out, "Hey, I need help," they'd finally stop neglecting me. I thought if I was vocal about not being able to do it alone I wouldn't be doing it alone this time, but, hey, I'm just easy to neglect.
In November the Regional Minister was told my family was dealing with some big things. I won't go into details, but know we are almost on the other side of it today. She reacted by calling me. If the region had fostered a relationship with me, it would have been a comforting call, but after being neglected for eight years it was a reminder of what I never had. More than that, she offered me a "coin." (She didn't know that's what she was doing, but God moments are often hidden to the voices speaking them.) She told me I could get help from the Pension Fund if I were a minister in good standing.
There it was. I hadn't mailed in my annual standing form, but if I did, I could have a place within the system, and find comfort. She even suggested there could possibly be a church that would need digital ministry. Comfort and joy! Just, stay in the system. When we hung up it was so clear this was my Campbell moment. Give up the "coin" for those outside the church, or accept the "coin" and take "communion." I oh so quietly gave up the coin, and never called the Pension Fund, and never filled out my standing paperwork for 2020. Her call took away my deep sadness.
So I don't bury the lede, I'm leaving the Disciples of Christ, and Fig Tree is coming with me.
Yes, we're stepping away from a denomination, but not a tradition. I'm still a Restorationist. I still believe we're saving something beautiful and right, something that deserves to be shared and restored.
I feel in the deepest part of my gut I am being called out. I've never resisted when called. I will go anywhere I've been called, even into the darkness. I have now followed that call through the darkness and survived. How could I possibly settle down in that sweet meadow when so many are chewing on rocks in the wilderness? I know that isolated feeling. I know their pain. There is no sweet comfort anywhere while that persists.
Come with me too.
Let me be crystal clear. I would rather let my call shrivel up and die with the others who are spiritually dying than go back into the system. At least then they know they're not dying alone. There is no calling me back. It's just... if you come with me we're not going to die, but finally live.
I've done the dangerous part. I took the first step. Anyone who comes with me will not be alone. Spiritual power comes in community. I will say, coming with me comes with a consequence. It will change you. It will give you sight. You will understand what I've come to understand. You cannot simply return from that. That's why it's a request. I won't force you to see the truth. I will say staying won't stop that feeling, that aching.
I won't promise it'll be easy, because God knows it hasn't been for me. This is uncharted territory. I need spiritual cartographers to chart the maps we will be writing, and trailblazers & scouts who have the knowledge of the land to know the path ahead. I need help.
That's it. I've done my part. I went where God asked me and called out. If no one answers it's no longer on me. I'm at peace. I'm free. Join me.