That May Be Enough (Deut. 34:1–12)
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Until then, here's the full text:
That May Be Enough
I remember it very clearly, my first brush with failure. Not that I hadn’t failed before, but always before I could think of some reason, some excuse unrelated to my abilities: They didn’t understand what I was trying to get at. I had a bad day. They didn’t want me to succeed.
But this time, I was left to take responsibility for my inadequacies.
I was in seventh grade, and I wanted to play for the basketball team. There were three hundred students in my class, and most of the male ones came out for the seventh grade team. I got cut. I wasn’t good enough; and I could see it plain as day. There were twelve boys better than me. I was confused.
I had such huge expectations of myself as a child, as in many ways I still do. As a child, I was certain I would grow up to experience unparalleled heights of fame and expertise. I was convinced that I could play professional sports; it was only a matter of picking which one I preferred to play. Baseball. Basketball. Football.
As a child I thought I might make my living some day singing in a Rock band. Perhaps, it occurred to me, I could be a famous scientist, or a high-powere attorney. Naïvely, arrogantly, I was convinced that I was special in ways that other people were not.
And at 12 years-old, some man whose name, I cannot even remember, told me that I was not, nor would I probably be, everything that I thought I was, or hoped one day to become.
I was devastated for a week or so. But with the resilience of pre-pubescence, I went and tried out for the wrestling team—which I made, and at which I excelled (inasmuch as a twelve year-old 100 pounder can excel at throwing around other hundred pound twelve year-olds). But something profound had taken place. Someone had placed limits on what had been, to that time, a limitless horizon.
We have such amazing dreams, you and I, expectations that we’ll somehow achieve, win, be something special. We see clearly the vistas before us. They’re so wide, boundless, and they’re ours for the taking. We’re certain that if we work hard enough, want it bad enough, we’ll find the promised land that we envisioned so clearly.
It’s right before our eyes . . .
I find the picture of Moses in our text today oddly fascinating, strikingly poignant. He’s an old man now. And whether it’s because God called him, or because he just wanted to shake the dust from his creaking bones, he climbs to the top of the mountain. You can hear him wheezing, as he sits down below a scrap of shade growing out of an outcropping, all the years making his way through the desert finally catching up with him. All the responsibility has bowed his once strong back, as if carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders has finally left him so stooped, he can no longer turn his eyes to the heavens, but only be satisfied peering down into the valley. He leans back against a rock, pulls his shoes off, and shakes out the sand. He sighs, half-snickering at the thought that he could drag his old body up the mountain one last time, half crying at the pain.
As he takes out an old handkerchief to blow his leathered beak, he hears God approaching, his old friend and sometime adversary. God comes and sits down by Moses. They exchange pleasantries. Finally, God calls Moses’ attention to the land below the mountain—as far as his eyes could see. God says, “This is it. Remember from the time you were a little boy in Pharaoh’s house, how your sister would sing to you about the land I’d promised Abraham and Isaac and Jacob? Remember all the stories? Well, this is it. This is what I was talking about all along.”
Can you imagine? Moses’ eyes crinkled up, knowing that this is what he’s been waiting his whole life to see. The hopes and dreams that had kept him awake, kept him alive through 40 years of wandering in the desert lie before him now. Right below his mountain perch, he can see for the first time the very thing that God had called the Israelites out of the land of Egypt for—all those years ago now.
Four hundred years, his people have been looking forward to this moment. The very point to which his whole life has been leading, can be seen by the old man as he looks down the end of his nose. No words, I’m sure, could describe how Moses must feel. This is the finish line toward which he’s been striving for all these years. And down in the valley is his gold medal, his Nobel prize, his “man of the year honors” all rolled into one big, green valley called, “The Promised Land.”
But just as Moses is about to descend to the winner’s circle to collect his prize, God says, “Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you. I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”
Do you see? You work your whole life to get to the promised land, and just as you’re about to walk across the finish line, you see that you’re not going to make it after all. Martin Luther King saw that. He preached a sermon on this passage the night before he was assassinated. You remember it. “I’ve been to the mountaintop. I’ve seen the promised land. And I might not get there with you . . .”
Can you understand the pain of holding your life up by a dream, only to see that the dream is just too far out in front of you—that whoever walks across the finish line—you know it won’t be you?
Devastating. Moses prepares to die with his storybook ending just out of his reach.
But—and here’s the crucial thing—as he prepares to die, with chips still on the table, he realizes that he does so with God at his side. A different ending than we had expected, but not an entirely bad one. Kind of uneven, quite a few loose ends.
We much prefer things to have some closure, don’t leave us hanging there with all this unfinished business. But that’s how life is, isn’t it? Kind of messy. A few unmade beds. A few hairs out of place. None of it ever quite the way we planned it.
After I turned 29, I became profoundly depressed. Susan didn’t know what to do, coming home every night to a self-pitying twit. My mood cast a black pall over the house. I convinced myself that I should have achieved much more in my life than I had. I’m embarrassed to say now, given the self-preoccupation it demonstrates, but I felt like a failure.
I looked back over the dreams I’d held so dear, the thoughts that I ought to accomplish something by the time I was 30. I hadn’t gotten my Ph.D. I hadn’t written my first novel. I didn’t even play softball anymore. I felt like I’d let my life slip through my hands.
I embarrassed for my 29 year-old self even saying this out loud, in front of people who’ve lived so much longer, and had justifiable reason to be aggrieved. But to me, at the time, my complaints were real—if only to me.
Then one day, for whatever reason, I woke up and I thought, “You know, whatever else might be said about me, I’ve been pretty lucky. I’m married to a woman who loves me—often in spite of myself. I work in a great job, with people who seem to appreciate what I do. I have friends and family who care about me. And every once in awhile, I think God even uses me to some good. I haven’t done all that I dreamed, but God has blessed me in ways that I could never have dreamed on my own. And if I died this afternoon, I think that might just be enough.”
And now, almost twenty years later, I’ve still got all of that—plus kids.
So, here’s the thing: Life is so rarely like the movies—with happy endings, neatly tied up. Our lives have gaps and unanswered questions, false starts and unfinished business, dead-ends and unrealized dreams. I’d love to be able to stand here and tell you otherwise, but I can’t—I get paid to tell the truth.
On the other hand, there may be a whole lot of grace wrapped up in such a realization.
“Why is that?”
Well, if somebody as important as Moses couldn’t get it all wrapped up in a storybook ending, why do we think we’ll be any different? That is to say, God’s working out God’s purposes in ways that don’t necessarily lead to satisfying personal memoirs—Oh, they might; you could wind up dying having accomplished everything on your bucket list. But if you do, you’ll be in some pretty rarified company.
To put a finer point on it, God’s working out God’s purposes in ways that may include you, but aren’t about you. Do you hear the difference? God’s got work to accomplish—important work—and you . . . you’re a part of that work. You aren’t, nor am I (nor anyone else, for that matter) the point of that work.
Listen to what gets said of Moses: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire lan, and for all the mighty deeds that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (Deut. 34:10-12).
Pretty prime stuff that. And still Moses doesn’t get the story book ending. Oh, well.
I was listening to Storycorps on NPR Friday morning, after dropping the kids off for school. Being interviewed was the first African-American, A.P. Tureaud, to integrate LSU in 1953. He recalled the difficult times he encountered being the only black man on a southern campus in the 1950s.
He said, “The students wouldn’t speak to me. I think someone had decided that if they totally isolated me, I would leave.”
He didn’t have a roomate, but the guys in the rooms on either side of him would take turns trying to keep him up with radios and banging on the walls. If he walked into the showers, everyone would leave. The professors wouldn’t touch his papers.
Understandably, he felt like he was all alone in the world. Except for the mascot, a bengal tiger named, Mike, who lived in a cage across from Tureaud’s dorm room. So, he used to spend time talking to Mike the tiger, figuring that they both lived in jails.
One day, while he was talking to Mike, a pick-up truck pulled up. Tureaud said, as he saw it approaching that he hoped that it didn’t have a rifle rack hanging on the back.
But a black man in worker’s overalls got out. He said, “Are you A.P. Tureaud?”
So, he got into the truck and came back out with his seven year-old son. And the man said, “I want him to meet you, because I want him to know this is possible for him to come to this school—thanks to you.”
Tureaud said, “After I composed myself, I said, ‘You just ruined my day. I want to get out. I want to get out, but now I can’t.’”
Moses could tell us, only God knows where it all leads, what it finally means. We are the story God writes. God only knows. Whatever we or our lives as preachers, homemakers, executives, second sopranos means is ultimately up to God. We live therefore with the conviction that God really does put us to good purposes, even though we may not see clearly, even though we may not enter the promised land of concrete results and visible fulfillment in our exodus from here to there.
This is God’s rodeo, after all, not yours or mine.
But whether you achieve all your goals, make progress, arrive at your planned destination, travel with the right people or not, here’s the promise: As with Moses, God goes with you... and that is always enough.