Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you’?” Then the LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” (Exodus 4.1-2)
Last week at A Feather Adrift, Sherry posted a provocative piece about hero-worship run amok called “And Another One Bites the Dust”. The dust-biter in question was NY Jets Quarterback Brett Favre, the latest married sports hero to—in his case, literally—expose his reckless libido. Around the time I read the post, I traded emails with the astonishingly courageous, caring mother of a transgender high school freshman. Our exchanges centered on protecting her son from bullying and potential violence. Understandably, his instincts urge him to be as invisible as possible. Yet as a gay man who survived high school, as well as a former teacher, I encouraged the opposite. “What is he good at?” I asked. “He should make his gifts known and excel at them. That will win him friends, gain his teachers’ respect, and increase his self-confidence.” Bullies prey on loners. But they think twice about attacking kids who have friends and faculty on their side. No doubt he’ll be teased and threatened. Still, it’s far safer and healthier to be visible and known than hiding in anonymity.
In terms of heroism, these two unsung giants dwarf Favre. Though his talents are abundant and he’s parlayed his fame into many noteworthy endeavors, it’s ludicrous to suggest weekly confrontations on a football field remotely compare to the challenges our new friend and her son face daily. As the son matures into an adult who honors his making as an authentic female, they will undergo many tests. They will make huge sacrifices. They know this, because they’ve already done it. But they will succeed because their love for one another and God’s grace will endure. Praying for and thinking about this dynamic duo convinces me makings of legitimate heroism reside in all of us. Finding and nurturing our heroic potential starts with one question: “What are you good at?” Or, to quote the question God uses as the catalyst for Moses’s transformation from homeless outlaw to heroic leader, “What’s that in your hand?”
An Oddball His Whole Life
One might describe the Moses story as a fairy tale that explodes into myth. The front end grips us with primal emotions affixed to the helpless infant miraculously rescued from death by a princess. The back end overwhelms us with the grown man’s amazing bravado as he defies Pharaoh, leads his people out of captivity, and shepherds their 40-year wilderness crossing. The improbabilities on both sides create one of the most riveting tales ever told—which is why the reeds and roaming garner the most attention. Without the mid-section, though, the story falls apart. That’s where Destiny calls and the decisive moment occurs. It’s unfortunate we skate by this part of the saga, because Moses is never more real to us than here. He’s neither helpless nor heroic. He’s ineffably human.
He’s extremely confused about his identity and the bizarre twists of fate that led him to the middle of nowhere. While being groomed as a prince of the world’s most powerful nation, a Hebrew governess (his birth mother) also steeped him in the faith and values of his race. He’s felt like an oddball his whole life. Deep inside, the tug-of-war that began the day Pharaoh’s daughter found him slowly mounts into a full-blown identity crisis. It peaks when Moses sees an Egyptian beat a Hebrew slave. He identifies with the underdog and murders the Egyptian in retaliation. Instead of resolving his conflict, the act confirms he’s too Egyptian for the Hebrews, too Hebrew for the Egyptians. Slaves who witnessed his valor suspect him of ulterior motives; Pharaoh issues a death warrant against him.
After fleeing to Midian, Moses marries the daughter of a pagan priest and names his first son “Gershom,” a Hebrew homonym meaning, “alien in a foreign land.” He supports his family as a shepherd—a vocation his upbringing didn’t prepare him to undertake. The job entails long sojourns to find pasture for flocks he doesn’t own (they’re his father-in-law’s). During one trip, God appears to Moses in a blazing bush, ordering him to return to Egypt and organize a Hebrew revolt. Since the slaves view him suspiciously, he asks, “What if they don’t believe or listen to me and say, ‘The LORD didn’t appear to you’?” God answers with a question: “What’s that in your hand?” It's a staff. God tells him to let it go. It turns into a snake. Naturally, Moses jumps away from it. “Grab its tail,” God says. When Moses picks it up, it returns to a staff. “That ought to cancel any doubts,” He says. (Just in case, however, He gives Moses two more feats to back him up.) And now, having cleared up worries about everyone else, Moses comes clean with his doubts. “I don’t know,” he says. “I’m not much of a talker. You want a charismatic, well-spoken person. I’m not Your guy.” God’s ready with a solution for this, too. He tells Moses to take his brother, Aaron—an articulate priest accustomed to public speaking—as his spokesperson. The rest you know.
Defined by Deficits
Lingering with Moses at this point in his story, we see a man defined by deficits. He has no self-confidence, political backing, cultural security, social standing, financial stability, remarkable talents or skills, and, from all indications, no driving ambition. His appearance isolates him from his people; his turmoil sends him from his adopted home. Dual upbringing, which should equip him with every advantage, proves useless. He ends up a stranger in a strange land, married outside his faith, with children who, by matriarchal lineage, aren’t Jews. Little wonder he’s timid and tongue-tied. But he’s got something. It’s right there in his hand. There God recognizes his heroic potential. Moses uses his staff to corral his flock, steady himself on rugged terrain, fight off predators, clear thickets, and anchor his climb up steep hills. Moses is a shepherd and a shepherd—not a prince or slave—is what God needs.
God asks us, “What’s that in your hand?” All heroes start by answering that question. At first, what we’ve got seems mundane and inconsequential. What we do with it doesn’t become heroic until we recognize deficits that define us give way to powers that transform us. Unconditional love and acceptance is a staff. Faith is a staff. Experience, hospitality, humility, determination, self-honesty, wit, wisdom, empathy, etc.—they’re staffs. We hold makings of heroism in our hands. We just have to see them for what they are and allow God to show us all they can be. What’s in your hand?
Each of us holds makings of heroism in our hands.