It took a period of 40 for the earth to be purified, a period of 40 for Elijah to escape the evil queen, a period of 40 for the emancipated slaves to become a unified nation, a period of 40 for Moses to realize those so-called 10 commandments, a period of 40 for David to defeat Goliath, a period of 40 for Jesus to launch his ministry, and so forth.
Such references to 40 ultimately total hundreds when Jewish and Christian scriptures are combined and even more when Islamic and other Middle Eastern scriptures are added.
So, while it’s wildly clear that 40 wasn’t written as a precise measure by yesterday’s writers (and mustn’t be read as a precise measure by today’s readers), it’s also clear that it meant - and that it means - something notable!
Metaphysically speaking, we might say that 40 is the “whatever it takes” to get from where you are to where you’re going. If your journey is an inner journey, 40 might be the “whatever it takes” to get from a fear orientation to a faith orientation, from a lack consciousness to a sufficiency consciousness, from a concept of self as undeserving to a concept of self as a bad mama jama, just as fine as she can be.
If your journey is an outer journey, 40 might be the “whatever it takes” to get from a dysfunctional relationship to a sacred relationship, from an empty bank account to an ample bank account, from a soul-crushing job to a soul-satisfying job, from being a rank beginner at a thing to being a respected master of a thing; from a life in Kansas to a life in Washington.
For while there are objective facts in the biblical collection, there are also highly symbolic devices such as the number 40. Wouldn’t it be easier to believe that the biblical collection is entirely literal or entirely allegorical? But I’m not here to make it easier for you.
To go up the mountain means something far beyond going up the mountain. We’re not getting geography lessons here. We’re learning that it’s from the high and holy places in consciousness that the high and holy works tend to arise. We’re learning that if you want change in the valleys of life, visit the high and holy places in consciousness first. Meditate. Listen to Chopin. Walk in nature. Say your affirmations. Read enlightened words.
To calm the sea means something far beyond calming the sea. We’re not getting meteorology lessons either, you understand. To the biblical writers, a sea likely represented something of chaotic earthly life – brimming with threats and dangers. And so it was that in adding Jesus to the traditions of the only Bible he knew, a biblical writer recorded Jesus as having addressed the sea (as having addressed that something of a chaotic earthly life) by invoking the name of God as introduced by Moses. A biblical writer recorded Jesus as having addressed threats and dangers by invoking, “I am.”
And this is the vulnerability of translating Semitic languages – languages whose individual words lack precision, languages whose individual words can assume a wide array of meanings without a strong commitment to context. This is how a prayer attributed to Jesus (whether or not it was actually his is another matter) this is how a prayer attributed to Jesus likely beginning, “O great birther of the cosmos,” or something like that, ends up beginning, “Our Father.”
That Jesus stood on the bow of that boat, looked at the churning sea and said, “It is I,” is to put words into his mouth. The power of that moment is that Jesus stood on the bow of that boat, looked at that churning sea and invoked the name of God as introduced by Moses. “I am.”
He didn’t look at threats and dangers and say I am special. He looked at threats and dangers and said God is present. Those are very different lessons.
A well represented far more than a well. The restoration of sight represented far more than the restoration of physical sight. The healing of untouchable individuals represented far more than the healing of untouchable individuals. To find oneself in a den with a hungry lion represented far more than finding oneself in a den with a hungry lion.
I don’t know about you, but the radical suggestion that one might withdraw one’s attention from a lion (from threats and dangers) and place his attention on God instead speaks to me today.
So unlike, say, modern journalism that tends to offer meaning that’s one dimensional (“Just the facts, ma’am,” was Dragnet Sergeant Joe Friday’s catch phrase), biblical wisdom tends to offer meaning that’s multi-dimensional.
To think that a well is just a well, that a healing is just a healing, that a lion is just a lion and that 40 is just 40 is to deprive yourself of the good stuff. It’s to make history lessons out of soul lessons and how sad is that? It’s like making figs out of Fig Newtons.
So, metaphysically speaking, we might say that 40 is the “whatever it takes” to get from where you are to where you’re going. Left at that, it’s an encouraging idea, don’t you think?
From fear to faith, from lack to sufficiency. Nice.
From the dysfunctional relationship to the sacred relationship, from the soul-crushing job to the soul-satisfying job. Sweet.
It’s the stuff of inspirational speakers.
But when we read these stories more closely, we notice that between the “where you are” and “where you’re going,” most of our characters find themselves in an experience called "the wilderness."
I think it can be said that this wilderness experience is that place between the comfortable familiarities of yesterday and the unrealized promises of tomorrow. We’ve walked away from what was. But we haven’t yet arrived at what will be. We’ve left Egypt. But we haven’t yet discovered the Promised Land.
And in this moment, it becomes the stuff of spiritual teachers.
Now, this wilderness experience is an important conversation for New Thought people because this wilderness experience is pretty much always uncomfortable. Maybe that’s why the emancipated Hebrews of the Moses narrative complained as much as they did. The wilderness experience is pretty much always uncomfortable. And because New Thought people tend to have fashioned a God that’s in the personal pleasure business, when we find ourselves in a wilderness experience, we tend to ask, “Why did God abandon me?” In other words, if there’s no pleasure, there’s no God.
And in such a paradigm, every loss, every challenge, every surprise, every redirection gives rise to, “Why did God abandon me?” Or, perhaps even worse yet, “Where did I go wrong?” or, “How am I not doing God right?” in the assumption that a spiritually oriented life immunes one to loss, challenge, surprise, redirection.
And it seems clear enough to me that all one has to do is to look at the lives of our planet’s most awakened souls to realize that this assumption is problematic. Said more clearly: if Jesus wasn’t immune to the wilderness experience in his life, what makes you think you are immune to the wilderness experience in yours?
This wilderness experience is an important conversation for New Thought people because it holds us accountable to our own teaching that there can be no experience where God is not. It holds us accountable to the hypocrisies of, “Why did God abandon me?” or, “How am I not doing God right?” and encourages us to the possibilities of, “Well, I wonder what God’s up to in this.”
This wilderness experience is an important conversation for New Thought people because it shifts us from the misguided expectation that we’ll never suffer another disappointment to the comforting realization that there can be no disappointment that doesn’t bring value for our unfoldment, growth and development.
The wilderness experience is an important conversation for New Thought people because in my suggestion that even the most positive-thinking, unicorn-loving, tree-hugging, pachouli-smelling, hemp-wearing, throat singing hippie can have a wilderness experience, we might lose a God of pleasure, but we gain a God of meaning.
There might be moments lacking in pleasure. But there are no moments lacking in meaning. And the irony is that in this realization, even those moments lacking in pleasure take on a new pleasure, but it’s a different kind of pleasure. It was Viktor Frankl who said something very similar, and I quote, “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”
It seems reasonable enough to me that we might be in a collective wilderness experience even now; that in navigating the demands of a global pandemic against the backdrop of a polarized society, the Unity in Lynnwood community that rode shuttles together and filled seats together and sang songs together, that Unity in Lynnwood community that laughed and clapped and danced and popped cheese cubes and hugged seemingly anyone is not our current experience.
And yet I imagine you relate to my deep knowing that the Unity in Lynnwood community that is yet to be is still in process. We’re not there yet. We’re not done yet. We haven’t arrived yet. We’re not destined to spend our next years connecting in Zoom support groups and media chat rooms, right?
It seems reasonable enough to me that we might be in that place between the comfortable familiarities of yesterday and the unrealized promises of tomorrow. And if you’re like me, there’s a part of you that wants to run as fast as you can toward those unrealized promises of tomorrow. “Let’s just be done with this mess,” might be the battle cry of that aspect of self.
And yet when we study these biblical teaching tales, it seems pretty important to admit that some of the best stuff is found right in the middle of the wilderness experience. The burning bushes of inspiration are experienced right in the middle of the wilderness experience. The wrestling matches with truth are had right in the middle of the wilderness experience. The egoic temptations of our lowest selves – the temptations of greed and accumulation and power and ego – those temptations are negotiated right in the middle of the wilderness experience.
What if Moses had run so fast that he missed his conversation with the burning bush? What if Jacob had run so fast that he missed his wrestling match with the angel? What if Jesus had run so fast that he missed his negotiations with Satan (the ego)?
So maybe at least one message of any wilderness experience is to stop running. It’s to stay present. To pay attention. To embrace the “what is” of life. I’ve long entertained the fun visual that when the waters of the Red Sea parted, the escaping Hebrews were so busy looking at their muddy feet that they completely missed the miracle happening all around them.
Maybe there are some false beliefs and lingering limitations that would be challenged by you today. Maybe there’s some forgiveness work that would be accomplished by you today. Maybe there are some people who would be loved by you today. And maybe – just maybe - there’s still a greater harmony among the family of life that would be contributed by you today.
I have to wonder if these stories aren’t really early examples of the hero’s journey; early examples of that initiation stage when every hero (whether individually or collectively) crosses the point of no return to accept challenges which would leave the hero stronger, better, readier to undertake the remainder of the journey.
A god of pleasure? Maybe not so much. But a god of meaning? Yes! all day long.