On the road to the promised land

Psalms 66, 67 (Morning)

Psalms 19, 46 (Evening)

Numbers 14:26-45

Acts 15:1-12

Luke 12:49-56

And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: How long shall this wicked congregation complain against me? I have heard the complaints of the Israelites, which they complain against me. Say to them, “As I live,” says the Lord, “I will do to you the very things I heard you say: your dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness; and of all your number, included in the census, from twenty years old and upward, who have complained against me, not one of you shall come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. But your little ones, who you said would become booty, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have despised. But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness for forty years, and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.” I the Lord have spoken; surely I will do thus to all this wicked congregation gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die.

And the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land, who returned and made all the congregation complain against him by bringing a bad report about the land— the men who brought an unfavorable report about the land died by a plague before the Lord. But Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh alone remained alive, of those men who went to spy out the land. When Moses told these words to all the Israelites, the people mourned greatly. They rose early in the morning and went up to the heights of the hill country, saying, “Here we are. We will go up to the place that the Lord has promised, for we have sinned.” But Moses said, “Why do you continue to transgress the command of the Lord? That will not succeed. Do not go up, for the Lord is not with you; do not let yourselves be struck down before your enemies. For the Amalekites and the Canaanites will confront you there, and you shall fall by the sword; because you have turned back from following the Lord, the Lord will not be with you.” But they presumed to go up to the heights of the hill country, even though the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and Moses, had not left the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them, pursuing them as far as Hormah. –Numbers 14:26-45 (NRSV)

“I have bad news.”

One of the things we now teach medical students that was not taught when I was in training was “the art of telling patients bad news.” In my day, it was usually dumped on the lowest member of the totem pole (usually the intern) and often done with very little forethought. One of the things we teach them is to start the conversation with the short blunt truth–“The pathologist’s biopsy report is back, and you have a cancer.” “The cardiologist says that your heart is only pumping with a fraction of what’s normally expected.” “I spoke with the neurologists and they don’t think he’ll ever regain consciousness.” Another thing we teach them is to then say nothing and give people time to let it sink in and react–and to expect things like denial, or anger, or raw emotion, and to accept that some degree of “acting out” is normal.

As Linda pointed out in yesterday’s reflection, it’s human nature to couch things in the way that best meets our expectations and feelings at the time.

It’s appropriate that the word “mourned” was used in our passage today, because the truth is, we all have to deal with some degree of grief with bad news. It takes a while to visualize our roadway through bad news, and, frankly, sometimes we simply don’t do that. Hearing the word “cancer” takes our brains straight to “Stage IV, multiple metastases, only a short while to live, painful agonizing death,” and we are not yet ready to hear “curable,” or “treatable,” or “palliative care.” To be treated means work. It means suffering the chronic conditions of chemotherapy or radiation. It means changing our life schedules and our work life. Even if the diagnosis IS an incurable one, it means the work of being ready and reconciliation.

Today’s reading picks up at the moment Moses is told the bad news that is to be delivered–that the people will have forty pretty rough years. As Linda pointed out yesterday, retreating into the past is sometimes the response. “But you said the hill country was ours. I want my hill country, I’m going to my hill country, and you’re not going to stop me!” The people were not ready to hear that they were not given a total “Stage IV incurable cancer diagnosis.” The diagnosis was only for 40 years. Yes, it did mean for most of those present, it would be a terminal condition. But it was also a condition that, when treated, offered hope to succeeding generations.

The story is a reminder of those times in our life when we were not ready to accept that something would get better, but we’d have to walk through a period that it would get worse before it got better. Instead of simply putting on our grown-up undies and wading into it, we chose to be needy. If the bad news was financial, our response might have been to run out and buy something (or worse, charge it), or spend a weekend at the gambling boat. If the bad news was personal, perhaps we retreated into the emotional unavailability that drugs or alcohol temporarily provide. If the bad news involved intimacy or intimate personal relationships, we chose to immerse ourselves in one or more meaningless relationships and squander our intimacy. We bristle, flare up, clam up, and act up to hide behind a false sense of distance those actions seem to provide.

It’s also a reminder that sometimes we really won’t live long enough to see the place where reconciliation happens. It’s just a fact. Generation after generation of African-Americans went to their graves not yet seeing even a glimmer of civil rights. Native Americans are still waiting for that glimmer of reconciliation in many ways. Having hope when the situation will probably be hopeless in our lifetimes isn’t easy.

Of course, we have the advantage of knowing how this story turns out. The Promised Land will be reached. Moses will get to see it but not actually get to be in it–but it’s okay by Moses. We are the ones who feel sad about that, not Moses. That’s the stuff that is the center of holy hope. We are where we are in society this day, wrangling over the things in society we’re wrangling over, because others went to their graves with hope despite a sense they’d never see the day of its coming.

How will each of us choose to live in hope today, in the turmoil of bad news?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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