It’s a fine line; the nudge that is. Can’t be too soft. Can’t be too hard. A nudge too soft lacks intentionality. A nudge too hard invites a defensiveness rather than a curiosity about the nudge itself. A nudge too hard leaves the nudged saying, “He’s pushy.” You know what that feels like. But you’ve probably never heard someone say, “She’s nudgy.” Have you? The nudge is different. Its effectiveness comes when the Spirit is at work, stirring the soul so that when the nudge comes, an awakening results. Theology professor and author, Leonard Sweet, wrote a book entitled, “Nudge.”1 He says “the purpose of a nudge is to move a person down life’s path and away from death’s valley.” Nudge is actually Sweet’s definition of evangelism; “awakening each other to the God who is already there.” Evangelism is a word for which you likely have some familiarity. It’s been one of the religious terms that has been abused over time and associated with bullying, fear mongering, and pushiness. Its connections are linked with televangelists who yell and sweat and preach in front of posters with hell’s fire blazing in the background. It’s left people cold, even scared, of the idea of being associated with the word. Bob Evans (not the Bob Evans of sausage fame) but a pastor serving as an evangelism consultant in the Lutheran tradition put an insert in his church’s bulletin one week that simply stated, “Surveys show that the average Lutheran invites someone to church once every 14 years.” At the bottom he asked the tongue-in-cheek question: “How many of you are past due?”
Sweet’s book, the basis for this four-week series we embark on today, is working to redeem the idea of evangelism – of sharing the Good News of Christ by being the Good News of Christ. He says, “Every person who crosses your threshold today is ripe for nudging. A nudge happens in proximity. Even the nudges across the Internet or by phone takes place in a proximity of relationships. Sometimes a nudge will lead to conversion, but most often it will lead to a conversation, a confession, a connection, maybe a germination, but always a blessing. For the twenty-first century, evangelism will be built on nudges that have more to do with life before death than death and the afterlife, that focus more on the love of Christ than the wrath of God, that worry less about dying than about never having lived.” So we’re going to consider the nudge as a Spirt tool in the tackle boxes of our lives over the next few weeks – connecting with the special days of the coming weeks like Mother’s Day (has your momma ever nudged you?) and Pentecost (what does the gift of the Holy Spirit prompt in us).
The nudge we’re looking at today stems from our soul being stirred by God – the very Ground of All Being. We turn to a familiar story in Scripture found in the second book of the Bible whose name inspired one out of every five angry teenage garage bands in 1994 – Exodus. It is a compelling book that has such overlay to parts of our society today. Its theme is simple: the human race is in trouble. Sound familiar? Enormous energies continue to be expended by men and women to get humanity out of the trouble we are in – to clean up the world’s mess. And there’s some impressive devotion poured into this effort from parents and teachers and politicians and therapists and writers and doctors and pastors. Eugene Peterson says that at the core of this effort is God. “The most comprehensive term for what God is doing to get us out of the mess we are in is salvation. Salvation is God doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves. Salvation is the biggest word in the vocabulary of the people of God. The Exodus is a powerful and dramatic and true story of God working salvation. The story has generated an extraordinary progeny through the centuries as it has reproduced itself in song and poem, drama and novel, politics and social justice. Repentance and conversion, worship and holy living. It continues to capture the imagination of men and women, especially men and women in trouble. It is significant that God does not present us with salvation in the form of an abstract truth, or a precise definition or a catchy slogan, but as story.”2
Exodus draws us into a story as an invitation to participate – first through our imagination and then by faith – with all of ourselves in response to God. Exodus is the nudge to move from the mess to salvation and quickly gets us into the story of Moses. Born a Hebrew at the time when the Egyptian pharaoh demanded all Hebrew baby boys be killed, Moses was famously put in a basket as a baby at the edge of the Nile river in hopes of being rescued and spared this fate. Pharaoh’s daughter is actually the one to find him and pulls him out of the water. Moses’ big sister who had been hiding to see what would happen to her baby brother, says to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Want me to get a Hebrew mother to nurse the baby for you?” She did. She does. And his birth mother is right back in the picture. Time passes, Moses grows. One day at work, he saw an Egyptian hit one of his relatives and not seeing anybody with their cell phone camera ready to roll, Moses kills the bully and buries him in the sand. Word still gets out. Pharaoh tries to kill Moses and so he skips town and makes a life in Midian where he connects with a family, shepherds the family’s flock of sheep, and marries one of the farmer’s daughters. Moses’ life to this point is essentially a Tim McGraw song. This leads us to the burning bush moment. I set up the story to say that Moses wasn’t already some prestigious religious leader. He had a complicated upbringing, he killed a guy, was run out of town, and was now living with his wife’s parents and tending their sheep. His nudge from God could have easily been your nudge or mine.
Moses is out with the sheep herd in a place, quite literally, out back of beyond – “beyond the wilderness” the text says – a location even more remote than the wilderness itself. He comes to Mount Horeb which means ‘deserted place.’ Moses is out there, okay. And while this is a location, it could easily be interpreted as a state of being for Moses as well. Wilderness was often used as a way to describe being lost spiritually. But Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai, was called ‘the mountain of God’ and known for being a spiritually liminal place. And then it happens. Moses is minding his own business in this deserted place and ‘Schhhhlooomp!” … burning bush. The Message translation of this account captures Moses reaction very blandly. Two words. “He looked.” He looked! That’s it. There’s not panic in this moment. He doesn’t say, “Uh uh, we ain’t gonna be caught in no brush fire! Not today!” and bounce out. He doesn’t shrug his shoulders and casually move on. He looked. He stops. And then he talks to himself – I guess if you’re that far beyond the wilderness it’s nice to hear some human voice now and again even if it’s your own. It reads funny though when you try to picture it. ‘Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up.”
This is his turn from autopilot. Humans tend to function on autopilot, both as individuals and as communities. It’s why we sit in the same seats for worship week after week and sit at the same places when we are at school or in the cafeteria or at the conference table. It’s why you order without looking at the menu and run the same path when you exercise so as to not challenge your Garmin all that much. You push the button to find your location and your Garmin doesn’t even have to wake up – “Yep, she’s running that same route again. Go for it, sister. I’ll track you but you already know how far you’re going to go.” We walk with our heads buried in screens and, and, and… our lifestyles are not conducive for seeing that the bush. is. on. fire. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, as part of a beautiful poem3,
Earth is crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
But Moses didn’t miss it this time. Not today! He takes off his shoes and God speaks. Wouldn’t that be nice? We have a burning bush planted in the front of our house and whenever it turns that bright red, I always think about this story but I’ve never stopped to talk to it. You’d take one of those talking bushes wouldn’t you? “God should I marry this person?” Shhhloomp. Burning bush. “No! Check out christianmingle.com.” “God, what about that job – should I take it?” Shhhloomp. Burning Bush. “No. Hit the Google’s – better opportunity.” “God, how can I serve you most faithfully?” Shhhloomp. Burning Bush. “Go to www.hacctulsa.org/site/index.php?/page/in_the_church.html” and serve away.” Most of us haven’t had this experience, right? But I know more than one of you who told me something you’re paying attention to differently than before. You said to me some version of, “I’m going to say ‘yes’ more this year.” It is a challenge right? To turn off the autopilot and be open to God’s yes. Thinking about nudges this week, I was so much more aware of what was happening around me. And I challenged myself when I felt the nudge. I followed the lead when I may have usually passed it off as a fleeting thought. We’ll see what fruit may come from those nudges.
God only spoke through the bush because, as the text says, “God saw that Moses had stopped to look so God called to him.” Play that sentence over in your head for a moment but use your own name. “God saw that Mark had stopped to look so God called to him.” “God saw that Carolyn had stopped, so God called to her.” “God saw that Jim stopped, so God called to him.” “God saw that Hayes had stopped…” (a dad can pray, can’t he?). That kid never slows down. When have you felt the nudge to stop… to pay attention differently? What part of your life is on fire right now… that is nudging you to stop, reassess, and consider what’s happening in your soul? I think a question we need to be asking more regularly when we have these nudge moments and are seeing more clearly is this: “What is God’s invitation here?” Your marriage hurting? Ask that question, “What is God’s invitation here?” Your life upended somehow – through loss or addiction or struggle and you see the burning bush – ask, “What is God’s invitation here?” Maybe it’s reading the Word, hiking in the woods, watching a movie, or viewing a painting – whatever it is, we respect God when we ask ourselves this question: “What is God’s invitation here?”
We are bound to resist the nudge. We just are. Our inclination tends to be “No.” We like autopilot. It’s easier. That was Moses’ thought. He argues adamantly with the bush for a long time. God caught his attention and said, “Okay – I can work with this guy.” And Moses is all, “Nope. You got the wrong guy. I can’t talk right. I have no influence. Did you see me kill that guy a while back? I’ve got anger issues. The sheep won’t even follow me and you want me to lead a whole people out of slavery? Thinking ‘No’ on this one, Bush.”
And then, God shows Moses a clip from the Disney animated film, The Lion King. Now don’t send me an email – I know that’s not in Exodus. But imagine God could have shown this clip right out of the bush. It’s the scene where the spirit of Mufasa, the dead lion king, speaks one night to his prodigal son, Simba. Simba has been hiding out in the deepest, darkest jungle… beyond the wilderness we could say, reclining in a life of selfishness and ease. He’s totally forgotten that he was born to be king. The ghost of his father challenges him in his complacency: “You have become less than you are.” This isn’t a shaming statement. Lord knows we are hard enough on ourselves. But it’s a nudge. It’s a reminder from a trusted source who loves us that nudges us to get back on track. To stop, look, listen, and respond.
Philosopher and mythologist, Joseph Campbell said, “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” Only you can be who you were born to be. These nudge moments from God give us opportunity to look, review, and act. We spend so much of our time covering up our soul… our essence of being… our God image… with personality and layers of acting. If you need a nudge to cut through all of that extra build up and get back to the core of your God essence, consider this a gentle elbow to your rib cage. Life is too short to play the games. You’ve got one shot at life to live and be your image-of-God self and no amount of money or attention or fame or whatever else is worth the energy taken away from being who you are. Take this moment as a time to take inventory of your life spent this last week. Where was autopilot in full operation? Was there any burning bush moment, a nudge, that had you stop and look? It’s amazing what we can see and the clarity that can come. It may not come easily and may not come to fruition in a moment but movement toward that vision is worth the effort. A Spanish poet, Antonio Machado said of Jesus, “All your words were one word: Wakeup.”
Bell ringing in the church has long been a tradition. The bell’s toll had its specific place and purpose. In a Catholic Church mass, the sanctus bell is rung three times during the Eucharist. As a boy, Len Sweet remembers asking his mother about the bell ringing one time after service. She said, “It’s to tell you ‘Christ is alive,’ alive in the bread and wine.” “But why a bell?” he persisted. Her reason for the bell scared him at the same time it sparked his imagination. As a liturgical explanation it turned out not to be accurate, but it turned him into a lifelong bell ringer. “In olden times,” she explained, “they used to bury people with strings attached to bells above ground, so that if perchance they buried you alive, you could ring the bell when you woke up. When people above ground heard the bell ringing, they would know, “He’s alive!” and immediately dig you out.” His mother claimed that her grandmother knew someone who had been “saved by the bell.”4 … You’re still alive, my friends. Ring the bell.
All your words were one word: Wakeup. Shloooomp. Burning bush. Moses stopped. He looked. And nothing again was ever the same. He became more than himself. Life is full and complex and complicated… but we’re always on the verge… always a nudge away from being a step further down the path. You have full permission to tell whomever may ask that your pastor was getting a little nudgy today. Worse things have been said about me. And if such a nudge is enough to get us all to stop, look, and respond to God, then, well, I’m okay with that.
1 Nudge. Leonard Sweet. David C. Cook Publishing. Colorado Springs. 2010.
2 From the Introduction of Exodus in Eugene Peterson’s biblical translation called “The Message.”
3 Found so many places. Here is one… http://www.bartleby.com/236/86.html
4 Pg. 61 of Sweet’s book, Nudge.