Sunday, July 16, 2017

A PATH THROUGH MÉRIDA

God once provided a path through the Red Sea for the Israelites so that they could pass. Our family also has experienced paths of God, perhaps not to the same extent as did Moses and his people, but nevertheless, we also saw the hand of God in these times. This is a story of one of those times: 

A PATH THROUGH MÉRIDA 

The city of Mérida, in the Andes Mountains of Venezuela, is built on a narrow plateau that sits like a castle high above several rivers that seem to surround it like a moat. It is a college town. The Universidad de Los Andes is there. During the years that we lived in that country, the university had about 30,000 students.

College towns usually have a culture all of their own, but this was especially true in Venezuela where both student and faculty protests and strikes were very common and where the strikes would frequently close down an entire town or even a city. The kids learned it from the earliest grades. It was not uncommon for us to see first and second graders in our own town carrying placards along with the rest of the students of a school, protesting some sort of “injustice”.

Mérida, because of the geography of the mountainous region where it is built, is a long and quite narrow city. There are really only three roads that lead through the length of it. The streets were not built for the amount of traffic they needed to bear when the city grew to its present size, and the downtown congestion was common.

One day we had to drive the length of the city to return to our own home in western Venezuela. Again, things may have changed since we lived there a couple of decades ago, but at that time, there were seldom bypasses to cities in Venezuela. One had to simply drive through the heart of town and hope for the best.

As we approached the city of Mérida, I suppose we should have been immediately suspicious that things were not right when a police barricade blocked off the first main street that we wanted to take.

However, this was not that uncommon. Streets seemed to be almost routinely blocked off for one reason or another, and without further thought, we proceeded to the second street. When we arrived at that second passage-way, we saw that there were cars on it, and they seemed to be moving along.

Well…the word moving may be a little misleading, because once we got in the line of traffic, we realized that they were mostly stopped, bumper to bumper. Nevertheless, since we thought we might have no other choice, we also joined in. With that, in the spirit of driving in the cities in Latin America or perhaps anywhere in the world, we hoped for the best.

We expected the line to move slowly, but as we sat in our car on this hot day, this one became agonizingly slow. As we tediously proceeded, I noticed that the cross streets were absolutely abandoned. In fact, there were very few shops open. No cars were parked along the sides. Something was not normal in the city of Mérida.

As we got nearer to the university and the downtown area, I could really tell something was up. The only street that had any cars on it was the one on which we were stuck in the traffic. The city looked abandoned with all the roll-down steel window coverings over the store windows (for some reason they call these security doors “Santa Marias”), and only a few university students standing idly about on the streets.

I was getting tired of sitting in the car going almost nowhere, and I saw a nice shady place where I could park our car on one of the side streets. I decided to get out and see if we could find out what was going on. Sticking my arm out of my window to try to get the other drivers to make a gap for me, I cut across a line of cars and made my way to our shady spot.

Vivian, our two boys that were with us, and I got out of the car and began walking toward where we saw a group of students standing in the middle of the intersection. As we got closer, our sons began to complain. “The air is stinging my eyes and burning my throat,” they said. Vivian and I really could not sense anything.

We approached the students. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“We are having a protest,” one of them told me.

“Why, what happened?”



“Eight days ago, during a party, a business student was urinating on the street,” he told me matter-of-factly, as if no one could possibly see any offense in this. “A policeman told him to stop, but how can you stop urinating once you’ve started? So the policeman pushed him and the student hit his head against some cement. Today he died in the hospital.”

Our boys again began to complain of burning eyes and throat. My eyes also began to burn. Here the air did seem toxic. There was smoke in the air that had a chemical smell to it

Because of the emergency, the National Guard had taken over the city. This was the National Guard from the old days – not the National Guard from the present day. These days the country of Venezuela is in most ways a failed state, ruled by the dictatorial president Maduro, who uses the National Guard to protect and uphold his failed regime. But when we lived there, it was back in the nineties and early two thousands. At that time the government was still more or less democratic in form, and the National Guard had the role of simply helping to keep peace in the country.[1]

From where we were standing on the street in Mérida, we could see guardsmen at the intersections on down the line of the street. Students were milling around or standing in small groups of three or four, but at the moment, everything seemed peaceful enough. The streets in this part of town were littered with bricks, shattered windows and broken pieces of cement. Here and there were black circles of the last remnants of burning tires.

“Is the street open?” I asked him. I was now standing on a corner along the third and last passage-way through the city.

“It’s open,” he responded, “but some students are still throwing rocks at cars in protest. We just finished with a confrontation with the National Guard and are taking a little break, but we think we will start up again about 3:00.”

I guess even protesters take their siesta.

Wisely or foolishly, I decided that if we were to get through the city, now would be the time. It was relatively calm, and perhaps before the violence started up again we would have passed the dangerous area. We returned to our car. The street that was littered with rubble was empty of traffic, and I thought now, during the eye of the storm, we could dodge the pieces of concrete, hope that no one throws anything too damaging to our car, and quickly get through.

I backed out of my shady spot, put the car into gear, and started down the street where I had been talking to the students. As I began however, the street seemed not so peaceful as it had been moments before. A group of about 30 students suddenly began running at full speed toward our car. We thought we might be in for an attack, but I noticed that not many students were holding rocks. Nor did their expression show defiance. They had more of a look of fright. They seemed not to be attacking, but fleeing.

Then we saw from what they were fleeing. A huge (it seemed huge) rubber tired National Guard tank was coming from one of the side streets. Two guardsmen were standing on the sides firing tear gas into the groups of students.

“Quick, roll up your windows!” Vivian told all of us. No wonder the air had seemed toxic.

The tank turned onto the same street on which we had hoped to make our escape. The soldiers turned the tank to go down the street in the same direction that we were going. They were in front of us. After stopping and shooting a couple of tear gas canisters into a small group of students, the tank then quickly began to head down our street, dispersing the students as it went. Seeing my opportunity, I sped up our car and stayed on the tail of the tank. No one would dare to throw rocks at us when were right behind the National Guard tank!

In retrospect, I do not know why that National Guardsmen decided at that moment to barrel down that street throwing tear gas canisters. There were no real gathering of students at that moment, and the few that were there had been simply standing around and talking.

So, with the Venezuelan National Guard opening a path for us, we quickly made it through the city. I felt like a halfback carrying a football and following a lineman as he plowed through the defense, opening a hole in the opposing line for me. 

The Red Sea Crossing

It also reminded me of something else.

Imagine what it must have been like for Moses and the Israelites as they were fleeing before a pursuing Egyptian army, but had to come to a halt as they stood at the banks of the Red Sea. With the Egyptians still bearing down on them from behind, in military terms, the Israelites were trapped. They were hemmed in by highlands on either side of them and by the sea in front of them. The Egyptian army coming from behind had every advantage. They were warriors and they were armed. The Israelites were not soldiers. They were former brick-making slaves and now were simply fleeing refugees. It would seem as if it would be a rout.

Except of course, for one thing. As the Israelites trembled in their sandals, facing what they saw as certain defeat or perhaps even annihilation, Moses said to them, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you. You have only to be silent.”[2]

Of course you know what happened. Moses raised his staff and the sea in front of them parted so that the Israelites could pass. This great event has been depicted frequently in movies and explained in writings. I am not sure how it actually occurred. The Bible speaks of a strong east wind that blew all during the night that swept back the sea. Some archeologists have identified a rather shallow place in the Red Sea where they say that a sufficiently strong wind could conceivably do this, and where they believed the Israelites may have crossed.

Perhaps. But the Bible also says that as the Israelites passed through the sea, the waters were like “a wall” to them on their right hand and on their left. Whatever the case, the Israelites were able to traverse the sea. When the pursuing Egyptians entered into the seabed, God first caused their chariot wheels to swerve so that they drove only with great difficulty. When the charioteers finally realized the hand of God was in what was happening to them, and then tried instead to retreat back to Egypt, God sent the waters back upon them so that they all perished. True to the words of Moses, God had fought for the Israelites. 

“Your Presence With Us”

At a critical point during the exodus, when things were not going well at all, Moses said to God, “If your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here.”[3]

I have never been in a situation even remotely similar to the one that the Israelites faced at that time, but this has also been my prayer several times in my life when the Lord was putting me in an entirely new and unfamiliar situation to work with people I did not know, and in a land and culture that I did not know. Just as Moses spoke not only on his own behalf, but also for the benefit of all his people, I have sometimes been directed by God to bring my wife and my family into situations that were unknown to us, and insecure.

“If your presence does not go with us, do not take us from our home,” I would pray to God.

We look for security in every situation. It is understandable. We desire to know the exact circumstances that we will encounter and have whatever resources in place that will be sufficient for any and every eventuality. However, if we know that God is calling us to do something, then circumstances mean nothing. It is the call of God that means everything.

If my experience can be any indication, never will we have the complete security of the situation laid out before us before we begin a new work. At least this is not true in our walk of faith. Nevertheless, if we know that God is calling us to a work, there comes a time when we must simply set out. There comes a point when we must begin, based not on what we know or do not know, but based on faith.

I cannot imagine that the Israelites did not have some questions or doubts when they stepped into the dried-up seabed with the wall of water both on their right and on their left. But so it is with the walk of faith. We step out of what is familiar and secure, and into what is promised. What we are stepping into is unknown, but we wait to see what God will do. 

The Jordan River Crossing

At the other end of the Exodus, as the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, there was another water barrier that they needed to cross. This one was the Jordan River.[4] At the time of the year that the Israelites needed to cross it, the river was in flood state, making the crossing all the more treacherous.

Their former leader Moses had died sometime earlier, leaving his first lieutenant Joshua in charge. Before this crossing of the Jordan, Joshua sent the officers to circulate around the camp to instruct the people as to the details of how the crossing was to occur: 

As soon as you see the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord being carried by the priests, then you shall set out from your place and follow it. However, be sure to maintain a distance between you and the ark, about 3,000 feet. Do not come near the ark, in order that you may know the way you shall go, for you have not passed this way before.

The priests took up the Ark of the Covenant, carried by its two long poles, and started out before the people. When the feet of the priests stepped into the water, the River Jordan stopped its flow at a point some distance up river. The riverbed at the point of the ark became dry, at least dry enough to walk on.

As the priests carrying the ark stood in the middle of the river, the entire nation of Israel passed them as they crossed the divide between where they had camped the night before, and what was to become their home. They stepped into the Promised Land.

Allegorical Crossings

These two water crossings both hold great personal significance to me, and I have thought of them often in the past as I began a new work in a new land. I have mentioned that I have prayed the prayer of Moses, “If your presence does not go with us, do not take us from our home.”

I have also often applied the principle to my journeys that the Israelites were told to do in the crossing of the Jordan – they were to allow the presence of the Lord to go before them so that he would show them the way, “for they had not passed that way before.”
It has been like that for my family and me on several occasions. We were instructed to do something unfamiliar to us and to go and settle into a set of circumstances completely unknown to us. Some of these times more intense and challenging than others.

But these two examples in the Bible have significance in other ways as well. Their allegorical applications can refer to all of us in our walk with the Lord. 

Our Walk of Faith

First of all, let me say that they both of these instances are miraculous in nature. Many people have tried to speculate and demonstrate how both water partings could have occurred in the natural realm, and quite possibly they may be at least partially correct. But the fact is, we really do not know. We are given no explanation in the Bible.

So it is with our journey of faith. Many people have laid out formulas with just the correct words to say, or with just the right ordinance or religious ritual to perform so that we can begin our lives with Christ. Many of these are very good things, but the fact is, we really do not understand what God does within us to help us begin. What God does is miraculous in nature. It is not something that we can understand. 

Born Again? Believe?

Jesus told the Pharisee Nicodemus, “In order to see the Kingdom of God, you must be born again.”[5]

“Born again?” Nicodemus asked. “What does that mean?”

The thought seemed a bit ridiculous to him. He wanted a coherent explanation. We cannot fault him for this. We are the same way.

Jesus tried to explain it in a different way. “If you believe in the Son of God, you will not perish forever, but you will have eternal life.”

Believe in the Son of God? That is not much better. Again let me ask: “What does that mean?” Belief is such a subjective word.

"The Milwaukee Brewers (baseball team) is doing pretty well this year. I believe in them."
"The day has started out nice. I believe it is going to be a nice day."

Concerning our understanding of what is actually happening in initiating and growing in our walk of faith, saying that we must "believe" in Jesus is little better than saying that one must be born again. Both can mean almost anything that we want them to mean.

But speaking of belief in terms of everyday things is not the kind of belief that Jesus is talking about. What Jesus is talking about is when we decide to believe in him, we are putting our trust in him so completely, that whatever may happen to us, we are in his care.

In the end, our walk, our journey in this present life means very little. The only value that it has is in how it relates to our journey of faith and to the fulfillment of our lives in the Kingdom of Heaven. That is why we can believe in Jesus. We can know that whatever occurs in the present, Jesus gives us assurance for eternity.

Jesus has said to us as his believers, “In my Father’s house, there are many places to live, and I am preparing a place for you.”[6]

That is why the man Job of ancient times, could say, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.”[7] Job knew that whatever the present difficulties that he was experiencing, his place in the Father’s house was secure.

And that is why the prophet Isaiah could write these words concerning what God is saying to you and to me: 

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:1b-3a)




[1] We left Venezuela in May of 2002. Hugo Chavez, who began Venezuela’s present decline into political and social turmoil, was elected in 1998. At the time of this experience of ours in Mérida, Chavez had not yet taken over the country.
[2] Exodus 14:13-14
[3] Exodus 33:15
[4] Joshua 3
[5] This passage is in John 3
[6] John 14:2
[7] Job 13:15

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