Sticking with the Familiar

5And YHWH said to Moses, “Go before the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you, and take your staff, the one you used to smite the Nile, in your hand, and go. 6I will be standing before you there at the rock in Horeb, and you will strike the rock, and water will come out of it, and the people will drink. And Moses did so in front of the elders of Israel. — Exodus 17:5-6

11And Moses lifted up his hand, and he struck the rock with his staff twice, and lots of water came out, and the whole assembly drank along with their flocks. — Numbers 20:11

I must confess that I really don’t like things to change. The longer things can keep going without major changes in procedures, the happier I am. I want all changes to show up with lengthy, air-tight justifications, else they need not apply here.

I was reminded of this, oddly enough, by a short story by Mike Resnick. It’s an “alternate history” story in which he assumes that just one thing has been changed from the historical situation, and then he carries on from their with his imagination.

In this story, when Teddy Roosevelt volunteers to raise troops for World War I, he manages to bully President Wilson into sending him over to Europe. Roosevelt collects a new regiment of Rough Riders, most of which are getting on in years. On the battlefield in France they finally disobey orders to get into the fight, and then charge up a hill—what else would Rough Riders do?–into the face of German machine guns. But the terrain is different, the equipment is different, and the opponent is different. This time the Rough Riders are wiped out. What had worked in the Spanish American War no longer worked in World War I in Europe.

Now it took me some time to think of a text to go with this thought, and you may think I stretched things a bit. But I started thinking. Why did Moses strike the rock? He could have yelled at the Israelites for a while. He could have waved his staff at them. In fact, he might have struck a few Israelites with his staff, had he been angry enough. But he went up to the rock and struck it.

I was reminded again of a church service, a communion service I attended once. The pastor carefully explained that he was offering communion in a different way. I forget the reason, but it doesn’t matter that much. He gave careful instructions. When he finished and was prepared to serve, the congregation got up and did what they always had done. Most didn’t even notice that anything had happened. I know, because I was a guest-teacher for a Sunday School class and only one in the class had noticed anything at all.

They stuck with the familiar. It was so ingrained that they just had to do it once again, even when it didn’t fit the situation. I suspect Moses found himself in that situation. God had given directions, but Moses was very, very angry. I doubt he thought, “I think I’ll disobey God and strike this rock.” He just walked up to the rock, he was furious, and he did what came naturally. Last time he’d been here, he’d struck the rock and produced water. It just happened.

If I may turn back to the war again, there’s a saying that the United States is always well-prepared to fight the war they last fought. Unfortunately, the corollary is that we are rarely prepared to fight the next war. I’m forcefully reminded of this when I watch or read of the Battle of Midway, and those Brewster Buffaloes from the island go up against the Japanese Zeros with predictable results. Men die because they are flying planes that were very advanced—for the previous war. (For those who know the plane in question, I’m being a bit hard on it, but there was no doubt it was not up to the Zero.)

I’ve told a few stories here, but what’s my point? We can get caught in the routine of our daily lives and be unprepared for the next thing that’s going to happen. We can stick with the familiar in our spiritual lives, and never find out what else God has for us. Don’t automatically assume that new is better, but take a careful look. God may be leading you into something new. He may be asking you to lay aside that staff and just speak—and see what he can do!

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