From Complaint to Trust

Full title: The Israelites gathering MannaArtist: Ercole de' RobertiDate made: probably 1490sSource: © The National Gallery, LondonReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Exodus 16:2-15 on September 20, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

Their life in the wilderness must have really fallen apart for the Israelites to long for slavery back in Egypt. Somehow, they had forgotten the terror, the back-breaking work, the domination, and the chains of slavery. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of cloud by night that guided them out of Egypt also faded into the recesses of their mind. They lost the image of the mighty waters of the Red Sea blown to the sides as marched across in a parade to freedom on dry land. Had they forgotten too, what God had done for them?

A month had already passed since God liberated them from Egypt. The Israelites were in this awkward, in-between time that bridged departure and destination. They were ready to arrive somewhere, anywhere, and establish a life and regular routines. But instead, they were in this middle passage of uncertainty, with no end date in site—it is enough to try anyone’s patience, as we have all learned ourselves these last six months. It is difficult to remember what God has done in the past, when right now feels pretty awful, and we do not know when this awful is going to end.

The wilderness environment the Israelites found themselves was making matters worse—they went from the Nile basin—the breadbasket of the middle east with plenty of water and grain, to the harsh arid heat of the desert. It was difficult to find food, even harder to procure water—how were they to keep everyone fed in a place like this? It was not safe—they could not go anywhere and feel safe—safe from the elements, safe from unseen dangers of the wild, safe from starvation and dying of thirst.
The passage of time and uncertainty about their future made the Israelites re-think their past. They looked back through rose-colored glasses, revising their history and re-writing their memories: slavery started to feel like security, oppression began to look like 3 hots and a cot, and chains became a safety fence that kept the wilderness at bay.

• The passage of time, the uncertainty of our future, and the lack of safety in our current environment are dynamics that are remarkably similar to the Israelites in the wilderness. Do you find it surprising that Scripture based in oral stories from the Bronze Age still speak to our experience today?
• Do you tend to think nostalgically about life before the pandemic? Is it easier to gloss over the difficulties you had then given current circumstances?
• It might be therapeutic to write out your “COVID complaints” as a lament to God and a release of stress.

It only took a month of hardship for life to fall apart for them. Thirty days and they are mess. Do you ever wonder why God commanded us to stop and worship once a week? Well here is why—amnesia about God’s saving acts, and revisionist history in four short weeks of hardship. What had God done for them lately? They could not remember. But they did remember there was food in Egypt. So they complained and fussed at Moses and Aaron about how much better it would have been to live in slavery in Egypt, than to die of starvation in the wilderness. What kind of plan was this? Is there a plan? What is the plan? Where is God? What is this God going to do now that we are out here?

Don’t you find it a bit unsettling to focus this much on complaining? Where is their stiff upper lip? Where is their faith? Trust and complaint can feel mutually exclusive. Can we bitterly complain to God and trust God at the same time? That does not feel right. We would expect that after all God had done for them, that God was probably thinking about sending them back to Egypt and starting over with a whole new group of people. I know I would!

• What helps you sustain faith in hard times? Are there “God-moments” in your life that your return to remind yourself of God’s faithfulness?
• Do you feel uncomfortable with complaint? That someone always has it worse? That you should just toughen up? Where does this come from and what would it take to let some of this go?

But that is not what God does. Instead of rejecting this people or firing back with a litany of God’s complaints about these ingrates, God has two responses to the complaints of the Israelites: First, God hears their complaints—four times our passage tells us that God hears their complaints: “he has heard your complaining against the LORD, “LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him,” “he has heard your complaining,” “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites.” Alright already! I think God has heard their complaining.

God’s response of hearing their complaints shows the Israelites that bellyaching to God is actually an act of faith because to complain to God is to trust that God is listening, that God cares enough to pay attention. This was no “One and Done” God—one big miracle to get you out of Egypt and then you’re on your own—no, this is a persistent God, a patient God, a long-haul God who is always there, always listening, always present, always in relationship.

Second, after hearing their desperate pleas, God responds to their complaints by providing for their needs—manna in the morning and quails in the evening. This liberating and complaint-hearing God is also a gift-giving and life-sustaining God. In the wilderness, in this time for the Israelites between departure and destination, in this time of COVID between onset and vaccination—it is the most challenging time to keep trusting God to show up. So, God says, “I will give you enough bread for today, and enough quail for tonight, and a double portion to feed you on the Sabbath. You will have to trust that I will provide again tomorrow.” Does not Jesus, in the Lord’s Prayer, teach us to pray, “give us this day our daily bread”?

Every morning the Israelites wake up with daily bread on the ground and every evening when quails appear, they build a deeper and deeper trust in the provision and reliability of God. The rose-colored glasses come off, and they remember what God did for them yesterday, so they can trust that today, knowing with complete certainty that God will show up again. This liberating, complaint-hearing, gift-giving, life-sustaining God seeks an intimate, loving relationship with faithful people who will deepen trust daily.

• Are you surprised by a God who not only listens to complaints but responds to them? Does this encourage you to let God know your frustrations, and laments?
• What makes it difficult for you to trust God for what you need daily?

Being a complainer may not make you a great dinner companion if you do it every night. It may not win friends and influence people. But the Israelites’ experience of wilderness whining reminds us of the great Scriptural tradition of holy lament and complaint. Complaint can be and often is an essential, honest, and even necessary part of our conversation with God. For where would we be without grief and complaint, knowing that when we are at our wit’s end, we can cry out to God and let God know of our misery, trusting that God hears us and responds to us with the daily bread we need?

Job cries out, “Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” Psalm 55 complains, “My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.” Psalm 42 laments, “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?” And Jesus himself cries from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For certainly the God who put on the limits of human skin, the finitude of this earthly life, and who hung on a cross, defeated, and alone empathizes with our pain, our frustrations, and sorrows.

Complaint is not the opposite of faith—rather, it is an act of deep faith—trusting that God will hear our prayers and give us this day our daily bread.

Image: Roberti, Ercole de', -1496. Israelites Gathering Manna, from Art in the Christian Tradition

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God’s Judgment of Oppression and Call to Justice

CrossingtheRedSeaReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Exodus 14:19-31 on September 13, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas 

This famous story of the Exodus is not only an exciting account of the Israelite’s march toward liberation, but it is also a gruesome story of judgment against an oppressor. Not only do we hear about the pillar of cloud and fire that guided the Israelites to freedom, we also hear how Yahweh confused the Egyptians and caused them to foolishly plunge into the sea. We see their panic as their chariots become stuck in the mire. We watch in horror as the waters collapse on the soldiers. We witness the Egyptian dead washing up on the seashore. Why so much gory detail in a story about the victory of God’s people? We could have gotten the point of liberation without so many horrible details. I had hard time reading it aloud.

But this story, as it stands, forces us to really pay attention to what happens to oppressors like the Pharaoh and his army—to ask questions, like, “Who really wins in an oppressive system or government, when one group dominates and rules another? Who really benefits when violence is the solution, making death inevitable?” The distance of centuries may make it easy to judge Pharaoh for being so hard-hearted, so violent, so malevolent toward a whole race of people.

With the distance of time and culture, we may conclude that this is what happens to oppressors when they oppose God’s will. And we would not be wrong about that. But we in the United States in this time, should not feel too satisfied with that conclusion, for this story serves as a cautionary tale for all nations who have amassed the kind of power that our country has.

While the US has championed freedom and liberation throughout its history, we also have a disturbing record of domination and even oppression.

While we would like to focus only on the positive parts of our nation’s story, we cannot close our eyes and plug our ears to the domination and violence of our story. After three decades of expansion, our detention system now captures and holds as many as 400,000 immigrants each year, even separating children from their parents and placing them in caged holding cells.

While our national creed promises “liberty and justice for all,” our nation continues to systematically oppress others – the poor, neighbors with black and brown skin. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world—37% greater than Cuba, 69% higher than Russia—and not because crime has increased. Crime has actually gone down since the 1990’s, but the arrest rate for non-violent drug crimes has gone up and the sentences have gotten longer, targeting those at the margins. Low-income and homeless people cannot pay bail. Black men have been arrested up to 270% more often than white men for marijuana possession and are twice as likely to get a longer sentence. Simply put, this is segregation by incarceration [See this article by the American Action Forum which calls itself "a center-right (italics mine) policy institutute providing actionable research and analysis to solve America's most pressing challenges"].

Our story today forces us to reckon with the bodies of the Egyptians dead on the shore, foiled by chariot wheels stuck in the mud, killed by the weight and burden of their superior military might, because we need to be reminded of the price of Pharaoh’s terror and oppression. Our story causes us to look at the casualties of our own nation’s power and policies – power and policies that target immigrants, the homeless, the poor, people of color, or the marginalized whose lives are not valued or on par with others.

If we do not hear in this story, God’s judgment on domination and oppression, then we are not dealing with the details of the story and thus, we are missing the point. Scripture tells us over and over what the Lord requires of us – that we “do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). Throughout scripture, God has a special care and place for the poor, the oppressed, the foreigner, and the marginalized. While we can debate the best policies, or candidates, and ways to achieve equity and justice, we must act. In several weeks, we are all called to vote our conscience, guided by our God who wants peace and freedom, not only for our country, but for every nation, and for all people. Regardless of whom we elect, we will have the work of God’s justice to do.

While all oppression results in bloodshed and death, our story from Exodus is, in the end, a story about new life and liberation. God re-establishes order over chaos just as God did in the creation story from Genesis. In the beginning, the Spirit hovered over the deep, then moved as a mighty wind, separating the waters and creating dry land. In this Exodus, God ends the chaos of enslavement and empire with a new creation—so again, the Spirit blows the waters apart to reveal dry land and a safe passage for the Israelites into freedom and a new life.

Our calling as the church is to constantly choose this new life over death, freedom over slavery, liberation over oppression. For we serve a God of new life and liberation in Jesus Christ—whose Spirit blows over each of us anew in Baptism to claim us for freedom and for life. God calls us daily to leave systems of oppression and fear behind, and be made new to serve him with love and justice—

• we write letters to politicians who can make a difference in the lives of our marginalized citizens,
• we cook breakfast and feed our hungry neighbors,
• we listen to the experiences of immigrants who are seeking freedom and a better life and advocate for them with our votes, our voices, and our feet.

Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that “the moral arch of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We rejoice that on the journey of freedom and justice, our God of creation and liberation supplies our every need—God gives us water from a rock, manna from heaven, a cloud of witnesses to accompany us, and the body of and blood of Christ to nourish us, heart and soul. And God makes a way where there is no way – because God will not rest until we all arrive in the Promised Land as one people together.

Reflection Questions:

• Where else do you see places of great injustice in our country today? Where do you see our country using its power for great good?
• Is it difficult to separate God’s desire for justice for all people of the earth, and our own national pride and self-interest? What do we do as Christians when these come into conflict?
• Have you ever connected the parting of the Red Sea with the creation story—as an act of re-creation of God’s people? Of establishing a new order in the face of the chaos of oppression? If God were to take such a dramatic action today, where would it be and what would it look like?

• What do you think are the most pressing needs in Richardson, northern Texas, and in the country that the church needs to be involved in and advocating for?
• What issues affect your neighborhood, those you love, or people you know?
• How has living in a global pandemic affected your experience and your perception of community needs, fairness, and how people exercise power (economic, governmental, social)?
• What is it you need from your church to be engaged more actively in community issues of justice, fairness, or community care?

Image: Art by Raanan,">

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From Passover to Freedom

RabbiElanawithSederPlateReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Exodus 12:1-14 on September 6, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

Pharaoh had nine chances to free the enslaved Israelites, but he was not persuaded by any of them. It did not have to come to the killing of the first-born males. Moses and Aaron spoke with him before turning the river into blood, sending frogs, lice, flies, a pestilence in the livestock, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness. Sometimes we are only persuaded by our own shadow—when our own evil comes back and hurts us. Pharaoh tried to kill the male babies of the Israelites, first through the midwives, but he was foiled by Shiprah and Puah, and then by drowning them in the Nile. It is not until this curse, the death of the firstborn males, was visited upon Pharaoh himself, that his heart of oppression began to turn.

Was this God’s judgement or is it that we can only ultimately come before God when we are broken by our own sin? Maybe they are one in the same. Perhaps that why passages in the New Testament tell us that we “reap what we sow,” and the “measure you give is the measure you get back.” This is true whether we sow good or evil, so Pharaoh is a sharp reminder to be mindful of what we sow. Even more, we must take note of how many people suffered because of his sin. How many Egyptian mother’s wept because Pharaoh could not bend until visited with his own worst sin?

  • What do you think?
  • How have you suffered from your own worst sin?
  • How have you asked to enter that struggle, forgive you and help you think and behave differently?

But God would now allow either nation—the Egyptians or the Israelites—to continue under this kind of oppressive rule. Liberation from tyranny was the order of the day, even if there was terrible price to pay. God had made a promise to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, and that promise not only included many descendants—a promise already fulfilled—it also included land and to be a blessing to many nations.

  • Have you ever thought of God’s liberation of the Hebrews as also liberation for the Egyptians because Pharaoh’s evil reign had to end?
  • In what other instances in history or in your lifetime, do you see many people suffer because of the sins of one person or a few people?
  • What does God call us to do in these situations?

It was time to make good on these promises and bless more than Egypt with exploited labor. So, as Pharaoh’s heart finally broke and his will bent toward God’s will, the instructions came to the Israelites on how to make ready to leave on foot—a mass exodus—an underground railroad—with an entire nation of people stealing off in the night.

But they were to eat a ritual meal first. They were to sacrifice a lamb—a recognition that freedom comes with a price—lives are sacrificed, and blood is spilled, so mark the door frame that your God is willing to make a sacrifice for your freedom.

When we lived in St. Louis, we had Orthodox Jewish neighbors, Rabbi Zal and Ellen. When we talked about the kosher food laws they followed, especially about eating dairy and meat 6 hours apart, Ellen said, “we don’t put anything in our mouth without thinking about God. Jews are not called to be vegetarians, but a life was sacrificed for us to eat and we always think about that by paying attention to what and when we eat.”

In the Exodus, the instructions ask for this recognition—that life is not only sacrificed for this meal, but they survive by others’ blood. So, eat with care and attention—even though you must eat in haste and readiness to leave. Eat with your belt tied, your shoes on, your walking stick in hand—leave no leftovers for you will not be back. For this night you march for liberation, you march to freedom.

  • Have you considered that every time we eat fish or meat, a life is sacrificed for our well-being? Does this add new meaning to taking time for saying grace or a blessing before meals.
  • Have you ever connected this sacrifice for daily meals, with Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross and Holy Communion? Can you see how these are connected?
  • What does it mean that God is willing to sacrifice life for your daily life and for your eternal salvation?

Notice that this identifying event for the Jewish people begins in the home, not in a Temple—with a home liturgy and a family worship ritual—not a priest leading a communal event. I honestly never paid much attention to this detail before, but now, it is so obvious since we are worshiping in our homes with our own Communion elements. God’s liberation begins at our own dinner table.

From there, as soon as the meal is complete, the Israelites leave on foot to participate in God’s freedom and new life for them. They must get up and go, they must join the work, they must trust that while death still happens, it will “pass over” them as they march forward into a new and different life. They go from recognizing and sharing in a sacrificial meal to participating in God’s freedom by sacrificing the only life they know and trusting God to bring them to somewhere new.

The Israelites go from following God’s word at the table to marching into God’s liberation in the street. So too, God calls us from being nourished at our tables, to being a participant in God’s justice and freedom from oppression in the world.

The exodus makes a direct connection for us from dinner to deliverance, from liturgy to liberation, from worship to witness, from ritual to readiness to participate in God’s kingdom. The one makes a ready for the other, the one compels us to do the other, the one is not complete without its fulfillment in freedom work in the world.

So when Jesus takes the bread and wine of the Passover meal—the liturgy that leads to liberation, the dinner that prepares for deliverance, the worship that remembers God’s work of justice, the ritual that readies people to march for freedom and he says, “This is my body and my blood—poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins,” he is saying that he is the new Passover lamb, with his blood over the doorframe of our life and in the cross in our forehead. At the last, death will “pass over” us and instead of our sin, God will see the perfection of Christ.

In Holy Communion, we remember that God is willing to make a sacrifice for our freedom. At the Lord’s Supper, we are set free by Christ, so that we can walk in this freedom here and now. With the Israelites, we go from liturgy to liberation, from dinner table to deliverance. We are set free from our own sin through Christ to participate in his work of justice and freedom for all people here and now. We go from worship to witness, from ritual to readiness to participate in God’s kingdom.

  • Have you ever connected the ritual of Communion with the work of freedom from oppression? Who needs to be freed from injustice today?
  • What cause of injustice break your heart? Is it hunger? Homeless veterans? Farmers suffering from climate change? Black Lives Matter? Children living in poverty? Who are you willing to march for, advocate for, enter the street for?
  • If you are not physically able to advocate for situations of injustice, are you willing to become educated about solutions and write to your representatives?
  • What does marching to liberation and freedom in Christ look like for you?

We do not wait with Pharaoh for our own worst sins to return to us and break us. For freedom Christ has set us free. We have received grace upon grace. When we carry the grace which we have received from Christ into the world, it returns to us, “a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, will fall into your lap, for the measure you give, is the measure you get back.” We receive our full measure of grace abundant in Christ Jesus.

So, our belts are tied, our shoes are on, our walking sticks are in hand—we leave no leftovers for this day, we march for liberation, we march to freedom.

Image: My good friend, Rabbi Elana Zelony of Beth Torah Congregation, Richardson, doing a Children's Message on the Passover Seder.

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Unexpected Grace

House of LaughterThis and one other essay are published in the recently released "House of Laughter," the seventh in the "House of..." series of books published by The Retreat House Spirituality Center where I am a Covenant Partner and affiliate spiritual director. 

My grandmother was not always a kind person—not like the rosy-cheeked, round, open-armed grandmas of Norman Rockwell paintings. “Gram” was a survivor with the sharp edges of a woman who endured hardships with a Norwegian stiff upper lip. She never saw a reason to cry about anything. I suspect that became a decision when her baby brother, Dale, died in her arms when she was only 16, the eldest of ten. I doubt she cried when she was shoved out of the house at age 17. There were eight younger mouths to feed and it was time to make it on her own. Or when her husband died at the age of 52. Have a brandy, light up a cigarette, and carry on. That is what she did, that is what she expected you to do. After leaving the farm in North Dakota, one of her early jobs was working for Dr. Mayo’s family in Rochester, Minnesota, while he was founding the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Mayo was convinced that the kidnappers who took Charles Lindbergh’s baby were going to be after his children next, so Gram, still a teen, slept with a gun under her pillow.

We were not able to see her much when I was growing up because she lived in Duluth, Minnesota, and we grew up mostly in California. We would take summer trips by car to see her and other relatives, but visits were few and far between. I saw her more when I was in college, and even lived with her for a summer in Duluth. But she was a hard woman to be close to. She always worried I would do something wrong and she might be blamed. What worried her about a straight-A, goody two-shoes like me? I never did find out. Maybe she was just so accustomed to bracing herself against disaster that it was hard to relax and enjoy life as it was. Maybe it felt like something bad was always around the corner.

Perhaps that was why Gram had a bit of a mean streak. She picked favorites—the favorite granddaughter who lived closest to her who she talked about endlessly, the grandsons over the granddaughters, pictures with the boys and not the girls. People chalked it up to her age, but I never felt old age was an excuse for being mean.

Gram did not travel much as she got older but, one Christmas, my Mom convinced her to spend it at their house outside of Fort Worth, Texas. I lived in Kansas City, Missouri, at the time; my husband and I just had our third baby—a girl after having two boys. Mom wanted us to come down for Christmas, too, so we could take a four-generation picture with Gram and Leah, who was three months old. Dan was serving as a parish pastor and had Christmas Eve services, so we loaded up Daniel (age 4), Jacob (age 2), and baby Leah on Christmas Day to make the eight-hour drive to Texas. After being there for just a day or two, I was walking out of the kitchen and Gram said to me, “I didn’t think I could wear stretch pants because my butt was too big, but you’re wearing them, and your butt is bigger than mine.”

I thought, I am so glad I drove eight hours on Christmas Day with three small children so I could hear from my own grandmother that I have a big butt three months after giving birth! I almost asked Dan to load up the car so we could leave, but I didn’t. I did not want to disappoint my mom. And, I did not want someone else’s misery, or old age—or whatever it was—to determine my own behavior.

Gram lived to be 101; in fact, she outlived my mom by eight months. Gram had dementia and lived in a nursing facility in her later years. We saw her a few more times near the end of her life because we were in Duluth for my mom’s burial. Dementia and Alzheimer’s are harrowing diseases when you lose someone you love brick by brick. But with Gram, there was also so much grace. The hedging against disaster, the control, and the mean streak were all gone. There emerged this sweet old granny in a wheelchair with a crocheted blanket in her lap and her teeth lost—thrown away in some napkin many meals ago—smiling up at me through coke bottle glasses with rosy cheeks and open arms.

Gram still preferred men—she took one look at my sister’s tall, well-built husband like he was her new boyfriend and said, “I want him!” Gripped with sadness, battling the frigid February weather, we all burst out laughing as if our very lives depended on it. It was so healing amid our grief, that the one person who could bring us relief, laughter, and joy was none other than Gram. On another visit with my dad, he wheeled her up to the lunch table and the staff person asked her where she got this tall, good-looking man to wheel her around. She looked up at my dad, who was 6’5” and said, “Oh him? I got him in a catalog.” Another story that still makes us laugh today.

The last time I saw her, I knelt beside her wheelchair, looked up at her, and said, “I love you, Gram.” And she said, “I love you more.” I believe it has always been true. I still have the four-generation picture hanging on my wall with Gram, my Mom, me, and baby Leah, who is almost twenty-two.

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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.