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Betrayal, Negotiation & Steadfast Love

MosesSeesGodsBacksideReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Exodus 33:12-23 on October 18, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

Who are we when we get past the pain of betrayal? When we are deeply wounded and hurt, how do we navigate re-engaging in the relationship?

When God and Moses begin their fateful conversation in our passage today, they are feeling deeply wounded and betrayed. No sooner had the Israelites received the Ten Commandments with the instruction to have no other gods before the Holy God who brought them up out of the land of Egypt—than they betrayed their relationship with God by building and worshiping a golden calf. Even worse, their worship led to “revelry,” which is a polite way of saying wild parties ensued, orgies and all.

God is incensed; Moses is outraged. Indeed, Moses is so angry; he takes the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments are written and shatters them on the ground. He burns the golden calf, crushes the remains, and makes the Israelites drink it in their water. If they are so fond of this false god, they can consume it.

God, likewise, is so deeply hurt and angered by this betrayal. He complains to Moses, “‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, and I will decide what to do to you.’” (Exodus 33:5)

God’s vulnerability is on full display – God’s love has been exposed. God has invested heart and soul and salvation in this people and at the first sign of difficulty, at the first moment of anxiety, they betray God’s passionate love, and give their loyalty and devotion to mere gold. The relationship between God and the Israelites finds itself at a crisis point—they either must make up or break up—there is not a lot of in between here.

Moses knows he must do something. He informs the people that he will go to God and to atone for their sin. In God’s presence, Moses acknowledges to God that the people have committed a great sin. He then asks God to forgive them. Moses ups the ante: if you will not forgive them, “blot me out of the book you have written,” instead.(Exodus 32:32) Moses, either in a moment of self-sacrifice or using rich hyperbole that life just is not worth living if God cannot forgive, offers to take the punishment for the people. Moses was not even with the people when they went off the rails, and had nothing to do with this decision, but he is willing to take responsibility for Aaron’s lack of leadership and the people going astray. Blame me, says Moses.

But God refuses his offer. God sends a plague and then decides that the ingrateful Israelites will have to complete their journey to the Promised Land without God’s presence. God will send an angel as a token to lead them, but that is all they will get.

This is where our conversation between God and Moses gets interesting. Moses sympathizes with the depth of God’s pain and sense of betrayal, but he will not accept God’s answer—to abandon the people and send an angel instead? Moses argues that this is completely unacceptable. In that moment, Moses becomes Israel’s lawyer, advocating for mercy. Moses further presses his case by becoming God’s character witness, pushing God to display Who Moses knows God truly to be.

Here is this servant Moses, who first refused God’s call because he could not speak well, he was not good with words, and now he woos God with words of remembrance and affection. Like King George VI overcoming his stammer in the iconic speech of 1939 as Britain entered WWII, Moses boldly rises up, finds his voice, and bargains with God. He appeals to his own good character, and to God’s true nature. How can they be a distinct nation if God is not with them? How can Moses believe he has earned God’s favor without God’s presence leading them? Now is the moment, Moses implores, to fully and finally, show the height and depth and length and breadth of God’s love and mercy to a sinful, limited people.

Moses rests his case and wins his closing argument. God does not even have to deliberate, because God knows that Moses is right. God has promised to be with them, and God will not break that promise: "I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name." (Exodus 33:17) Moses, with new-found confidence in his negotiating skills, pushes a little further—he wants a concrete sign, a good-faith gesture, a deposit of trust of God’s presence. God agrees. God is willing to give Moses a glimpse of his backside, since to see God face to face would overpower any mortal.

The following day, God instructs Moses to make two stone tablets and ascend to the mountain so God can etch Ten Commandments anew. With the two new stone tablets in his hands, God says to Moses:

“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped. He said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” Exodus 34:6-8

This God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, makes a new covenant with Israel promising to perform marvels such as have never been seen before. Moses receives the assurance he needs that God will remain with the people of Israel into the future. Moses trusts that even when the people’s sins betray and hurt God, God’s nature and character will always turn to steadfast love, forgiveness, and mercy, even to the thousandth generation.

We, who are traversing our own wilderness in this time, are particularly susceptible to hurt and betrayal. It sometimes feels like God has abandoned us and is indifferent to our plight. Moses did not give up or hide from this God, but sought him out, expressed his own anger, negotiated, and held God accountable to be the God that Moses knew God to be—the God who’s majesty and mystery we can never fully behold or comprehend, but who invites us to advocate and argue with God anyway.

So, seek the Lord, pour out your anger, negotiate with all your might, demand that God reveal God’s self to you, trusting that’s God’s gracious and merciful nature will overcome all things, and embrace you with an abounding steadfast love and faithfulness which endures until the thousandth generation.

Reflection Questions:
• How have you handled betrayal in relationships? Have you forgiven and built a deeper trust, or needed the relationship to end and go your separate ways?
• Have you ever thought of God feeling vulnerable and exposed by God’s love and devotion for us? That behind the judgment we read in the Old Testament is really the pain of rejection, hurt and betrayal? Does this shift how you view God’s anger or God’s needs and desires for a relationship with you?
• Do you think Moses was willing to sacrifice himself for Israelite’s sin? Or was he engaging in dramatic hyperbole—kind of bating God—that if God cannot muster up forgiveness, then life just is not worth living?
• Have you ever argued, or negotiated with God, refusing to accept God’s answer for you or someone you love? How did this engagement with God affect, change, or deepen your faith? Have you considered the idea that you can change God's mind?
• Have you ever asked God for a sign and received one? What are the signs of God’s presence and love that you notice most often?
• If you were to take God to task right now, and hold God accountable to being Who you know God to be, what would you say to God? How would you ask God to show up and be true to God’s nature? Be bold and give Moses’ conversation with God a try!

Image: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/455426581038052436/?nic_v2=1a3CZSdFX

 

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Idols and Animals

Hortus Deliciarum calf09274 largeReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Exodus 32:1-14 on October 11, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas 

When I was growing up we took some awfully long car trips in the summer from where we lived in California, to Duluth Minnesota, where my parents are from. There were four of us kids piled into the station wagon, so to make this whole operation work, my parents had strict rules. Before we got into the car at every stop, each of us were responsible to use the restroom, get a drink, and make sure we had our books and activities ready nearby. There was no dawdling and begging for snacks because mom had those packed in a bag in the front seat. Most importantly, we were NOT allowed to ask questions like, “when are we going to get there? What time is it? How much longer?” Such whiny questions were not permitted, because we were assured that periodically, we would get an update from the front seat about the time, and how much longer until the next stop.
We behaved for the most part, but we were kids, so once in a while we would get into it because we were getting hot and sweaty, someone touched us or swiped our pillow and we would start bickering. If we did not settle down fast enough, my dad, who always drove, would start to pull-over. I can still hear the sound of the gravel crunching under the tires as the car came to a stop on the shoulder. Dad looked at us from the front seat, and I am sure most of you know what he said, “Do you want to get out and walk?” We would be properly scolded about how he cannot focus on the road with us carrying on, we would all zip our lips, and then Mom, once we got back on the road, would soothe everyone’s frayed nerves by giving us all a lemon drop.

It is too bad Moses and Aaron did not take a page from the Anderson play book before they set out through wilderness. The Israelites have received the Ten Commandments, but they have not internalized that this means that they are responsible for their behavior. They have to take care of themselves at each stop along the way, with no complaining in between. Moses will give them periodic updates from the Lord when has them, and they just have to trust that when there’s new information to be had, they will get it—just like they have had a pillar of cloud and fire to lead them, just like they have had manna and quail to eat, just like they have received stone tablets to define their life together with God and each other. What seems to be the problem?

I suppose the problem is that even with all those physical blessings, it is difficult to serve an invisible God, especially during hardship. Sounds familiar does it not? The challenging of traveling into an unknown future without being able to read a definitive map, without being able to ask how long it will last, when will it end, and where the heck is God anyway feels awfully similar to life in 2020. The year itself mocks us with an image of clarity and perfect vision—2020—when in reality, we have more confusion, conflict, and chaos than many of us ever known in our lifetime.

We share the Israelites frustration—if there were ever a time for the invisible God to be made visible, this is it. If there were ever a time for decisive, consistent leadership, now is the time. Instead, Moses has disappeared up the mountain, communing with God; without their leader, the Israelites descend into chaos, bickering like children in the backseat. Aaron realizes that he has no lemon drops to soothe their nerves or calm their anxiety.

It is hard to serve an invisible God, especially in crisis. They are so human—first they turn to a human idol, Moses, and when he’s not available, they turn to gold, to religion, to their own control and ideas, they turn inward instead of outward, failing to remind each other of what God has already done.

When they cannot make their leader, Moses, their idol, they make their religion their idol instead—needing somewhere to focus their anxiety, their urge for control, their stubborn inability to sit in the back seat of this journey and trust that they will get what they need, and arrive at their destination, according to God’s plan.

Isn’t it interesting that when the Israelites choose an image or idol to create, they do not make a human representation of God; instead—they choose an animal. A golden calf. What a fascinating juxtaposition on the Sunday when we are blessing the animals that bring meaning and love into our own lives. Why an animal? Why a calf? When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, Exodus says they left with their flocks and herds, so as they traveled across the desert, the animals journeyed with them. Imagine the comfort those animals brought them in their travels and in their hardship. They kept them warm on cold desert nights, they provided constant companionship, they connected them with their past, they provided milk and wool, they never talked back, they were a steady presence that stood by them no matter their mood, their childish petulance, their anger, or their struggles. Morning and night, day in and day out, there they were, cows and sheep, walking alongside them, accompanying them in their journey no matter what.
Wouldn’t that be nice if God were like that?

Of course, God IS like that—which God has been showing them over and over. Moses reminds God of this truth, and then Moses reminds the people as well. And with those signs, with those daily reminders, they could remember, and they could take heart. The constant presence of sheep and cattle through this desert remind them, that God is always with them. With daily provision of manna and quail they received God’s blessings even when Moses is absent.

And for us who own dogs, we see their loyalty and remember how loyal God is to us and to God’s promises. When our cat purrs in our lap, regardless of how crappy we have been, that is God’s grace for us. When we behold God’s beautiful creation, this is the invisible God made visible—creation being our first Bible. St. Francis of Assisi taught us to see God in all things, in all creatures—to see all people, animals, including our pets—as sacramental, as visible signs of God’s presence. We see in them God’s presence, not so that we worship them, but so that they point us to the goodness and greatness of our One Creator God whom we worship and trust, even in hard times.
As we continue today on a journey without a map and with questions that do not have answers, we may be tempted to put our trust in many things above God—money or gold, political parties, our job, our family, our freedom, even the reliability of our pets.

Even while these things may be a necessary part of our life, they are not life itself; they are not God. They are all blessings that point us to God—to the Creator who is our constant companion no matter what, to the One who holds the map—and sometimes, even gives us a lemon drop—to the One in whom we trust to bring us, our pets, and all of creation, safely to our destination, to the kingdom of God.

Reflection Questions:

  • Do you have travel memories from childhood? What did you learn from these experiences that have served you well as an adult? What have you changed or adapted?
  • What is difficult for you in serving an “invisible God?”
  • What have been your most concrete experiences of God? Where and how have these taken place?
  • What are the physical signs of God’s blessings and presence that you have seen in your life? Can you call these to mind as a source of strength that you can rely on during challenging times?
  • Everyday we are tempted to put many idols before God (money, possessions, consumption, power, status, ego, political party, or leaders); what are the most challenging idols for you?
  • When have you experienced God’s love and grace through a pet or other animal? Through creation?
  • Are there spiritual and other practices that help you trust God and navigate this unknown journey we are now on? If there are events/practices/worship services that Pr. Linda can offer to help with this, please share your ideas.

Image: Herrad of Landsberg. The Dance of the Golden Calf from the Hortus Deliciarum, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55985 [retrieved October 12, 2020http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hortus_Deliciarum,_Der_Tanz_um_das_goldene_Kalb.JPG.

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A New Identity

MosesStrikestheRockReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Exodus 17:1-7 on September 27, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

How do you develop trust when all you have known is abuse?
How do you accept kindness when all you have experienced is cruelty?
How do you receive love when all you have known is domination?
How do you live in freedom when all you have known is slavery?

These deeper struggles churn within the hearts of the Israelites as they journey out of Egypt and into the wilderness of the Sinai desert. Their constant complaining has worn out Moses and Aaron, who day by day seek to manage their needs in an arid, hostile climate. God keeps showing up for them, and Moses and Aaron keep leading them, but it is never enough. They eat manna every morning; they dine on quail every evening—God remains true to the promise to provide for them. God even continues to appear in the pillar of cloud and fire to lead them toward Sinai—what more do they need?

Apparently, they need more—a lot more. The Israelites need a new identity because they have not figured out yet who they are when their lives are not structured by enslavement, domination, and abuse. They do not know how to trust God, much less any human leader because they have never trusted anyone before. They cannot rely on any human kindness, because in their experience, it is always self-serving, turning to violence at any moment. They cannot receive love and mercy from God because all they had received from Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods were control and domination. They do not know how to live in freedom because someone has always told them what, when, how, and where to do everything. Manna and quail are here today, but what about tomorrow? We may have food, but we do not have enough water! When is the other shoe going to drop? When is this all going to turn south? At least in Egypt they knew what to expect. That gave them a measure of control. Out in the wilderness, all bets are off. They do not who they are, they do not know what to think, they do not know how to act. So, they revert back to the one behavior that sustained them in Egypt: complaining about how bad things are. The Israelites are expert grumblers.

Out in the wilderness, away from Egypt, the Israelites are living in freedom, but they have an enslaved identity. This is why it can take years for women to leave violent men, for survivors of childhood abuse to seek help, for victims of any trauma to achieve healing, or even why people who have lost large amounts of weight often gain it back again—because without changing our identity and how we think about ourselves, we live with old thought patterns, even in new circumstances. We live in freedom but with an enslaved identity. It’s all about what happens in the 6” between our ears.

Whereas Israel’s survival in Egypt relied on distrust and suspicion; their survival in the wilderness demands trust in and reliance upon God—which is for them, a complete change in identity. In Israel’s case, it is the work of generations because what we do not transform, we transmit. We pass onto our children and to others our unresolved pain and trauma. It is painful work to unlearn the habits of domination and victimhood, the thought patterns of subjugation and powerlessness, and to replace them with habits of trust in God’s presence and provision, transforming hearts from skepticism to optimism and from suspicion to gratitude. God knows that such a change in identity requires time, patience, consistency, and steadfast love.

It can be hard to let go of a former identity, even a negative one, when we do not know who we are without it. As a pastor, I end up in a lot of groups where we are asked to introduce ourselves and share—it happens at conferences, continuing education events, Synod workshops and so on. It took about 5 years before I noticed that I stopped including “breast cancer survivor” as part of my introduction. “Breast cancer survivor” was a hard identity to let go because I did not want to stop being diligent about my health, nor did I want to lose the spiritual lessons I learned. But I also did not want people to expect too much of me, so I had adopted a victim-mentality, and I finally had to let go. I realized I had to stop clinging to cancer as part of my identity, as an excuse for limitation. Now, cancer is something that happened to me that is part of my story, but it does not define who I am—and God gave me patient, steadfast love and a good trauma therapist, until I got there.

God offers this patient steadfast love to Israel in the wilderness in the midst of their Massah which means “testing” and Meribah, which means “grumbling.”
First God goes ahead of Moses—which has been true every step of the way. God has been going ahead of them, but here, God again reminds Moses and the people that God is with them and goes before them. God instructs Moses to bring the elders with him to the rock at Horeb, so every tribe has a storyteller to convey the miracle and constancy of God’s presence and response. God instructs Moses to take his shepherd’s staff which God turned into a divine instrument when Moses was first called, proving God was with him in the Exodus. Now in the desert, God uses the staff to cause life-giving water to flow from a rock—a sacrament of God’s presence attached to an earthly gift that nourishes the Israelites in body and soul. Their thirst is quenched, and their identity begins to be reshaped by this God who transforms their ways of thinking by washing them through with streams in the desert.

God loves them, even while stuck in their complaints and grumbling, transforming them with visible signs of a God whose mercy and love they are learning trust. In the water that freely flowed from the rock they begin to learn that their identity is rooted in God! In the wilderness, their spiritual work is moving mentally from an enslaved people to a trusting nation, “Israel”—a people who has wrestled with God and prevailed—always and ultimately receiving their blessing, like water from a rock.
So, too, our identity is rooted in God—we are washed through and through in the sacrament of water that comes with God’s promise of life, forgiveness, and hope. Our identity is the same from the moment the water first splashed upon us in Baptism: “child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Child of God. That is our identity. Nothing more, nothing less. Nothing else is needed.

We have all experienced some form of trauma, illness, or loss—and some of us, all three. But they do not need to have the final word over us. With the Israelites, our patient, steadfast and loving God invites us into healing, into letting go of old ways of thinking, anger, or being a victim, and washes us through and through with a love that says, “You are precious to me, I love you, and you are mine.” God quenches our thirst, body and soul, giving us love and a holy claim on our lives for eternity. Hearing these words is especially important now when past experiences of trauma may be triggered during this pandemic. I invite each of you to reach out to me for support—that’s one big advantage of having a pastor with some of my experiences—I have been in trauma therapy, I have had PTSD, I understand what it’s like. Dan and I both have mental illness and addiction in our family trees, and after nearly 60 years of ministry between us, you will not surprise me.

Moses was surrounded by elders and community as the water flowed from the rock and so are you—you are surrounded by love—the love of God, the love of your pastor, the love of this community which desires your best and highest good, and the love of the saints who have gone before us and built this church so you can have Christian community in this time and place. We are the storytellers for each other, always standing at the miracle of grace in Jesus Christ, reminding one another of Who and Whose we are. We are God’s church, baptized into one people for life together, and there is no pandemic or trauma, no election or point in history that can change what Christ has done for you, and what God is doing to bring life and salvation to all of us.

You are a child of God—live in this freedom—for this is your true identity.

Reflection Questions and Resources

Deeper struggles churn within the hearts of the Israelites as they journey out of Egypt and into the wilderness of the Sinai desert.

• Are there experiences from your past that continue to affect your ability to trust, receive love, kindness, and forgiveness?

The Israelites are expert grumblers.

• Last week we learned the importance of bringing our complaints to God. At what point does your healthy acknowledgement of hardship and grief turn into unhealthy grumbling?
• When do you need to turn your complaining into a willingness to change what you think and how you act?

It’s all about what happens in the 6” between our ears.

• In what area do you have an “enslaved identity” or need to let go of old thought patterns and identity that no longer serve you or apply to your life today?

Patterns of survival that help us get through a traumatic childhood, event, or timeframe, serve us well in crisis, but become problematic as a life pattern (e.g., control, distancing, suspicion, hyper-responsibility, anger, aggression, sarcasm, addiction, chaos). We engage in these to avoid feeling pain rather than working through it and releasing its power to determine our behavior.

• Can you identify behavior and thought patterns honed during a crisis that no longer help you experience connection to others, relationship with God, meaning, or joy?
• Psychologist affirm that what we do not transform we transmit—we pass on to others our own unresolved pain (see the list of some of our survival traits above).
• Can you identify pain from your parents’ experiences that still affects you? Can see you see how your traumatic experience and survival behaviors affect your children and/or other relationships? Read these related articles: Related Articles: ​How Childhood Trauma Can Affect Your Long-Term Health; Healing the Whole Family. This is why it takes 40 years for the Israelites in the wilderness to be reformed into a trusting relationship with God.

God knows that such a change in identity requires time, patience, consistency, and steadfast love—the law points out our sin, but only love and grace transform the heart, mind, and soul.

• What are visible ways God shows love to you today?
• Can you think of ways that God is present in daily life that you have not thought of before? It does not always have to be a big miracle, but small moments—any time you experience love, peace, or calm—a good nap, a bird singing, a hug, daily gifts of shelter, family, a true friend, tasty food, unconditional love from someone, even our pet, and many more.
• If you would like to explore recovery from a past or current trauma, read about EMDR therapy which helps release traumatic memory stored in the brain. https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/. I am happy to share my experience of how it works, and a referral to a counselor skilled in trauma recovery. I am your #1 advocate for emotional, psychological and whole-soul healing!

Image: Moses Strikes the Rock, Chabad.org

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From Complaint to Trust

Full title: The Israelites gathering MannaArtist: Ercole de' RobertiDate made: probably 1490sSource: http://www.nationalgalleryimages.co.uk/Contact: picture.library@nationalgallery.co.ukCopyright © 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 Traditionhttp://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55968

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