Sunday, July 6, 2014

Toddlers Wandering Ohio


Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15, 31

2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” 4Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 9Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’“ 10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12“I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’“
13In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.
 31The house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.


Exodus 17:1-7

17From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

So the Sinai Peninsula, where these folks are wandering around, is not very big. It’s probably around 200 miles to get from where they were - Egypt, to where they were going - the so-called “Promised Land.” By car, it’d take, oh, maybe 3-4 hours, depending on your gas mileage, your bladder and need for diet cokes and red vines - about as long as it takes to drive through a state like Ohio. I just drove through Ohio; it’s the state you gotta go through to get to Indiana, where my folks live, so Ohio is on my mind. And we make this trek a couple times a year, and we take our kids with us to do the whole family thing.

So imagine wandering through Ohio for 40 years. Now, imagine wandering through Ohio for 40 years with a toddler. Ok. NOW imagine wandering through Ohio for 40 years with a toddler, with no Ipads, no Toy Story 3, no Happy Meals, and no internal plumbing...

Toddlers are wildly happy when things are going their way. They, dare I say it, are actually pretty fun. But. But there comes a time, usually several times a day, when things don’t go their way. And when things don’t go their way, they reach a level of insanity that can go beyond Black-Friday-Walmart shopping, beyond Donald Trump politics, beyond our Supreme Court’s definitions of “personhood.” Now, this insanity usually happens when said toddler is hungry, tired or has to poop.
The toddler usually does not recognize his or her own true needs, and thus, you get crazy rants about how the t-shirt is suddenly too itchy, the sun is suddenly too sunny, or the water in the bath tub is too wet.

This is especially frustrating when my son, Jonah, claims that he is hungry. “I’m hungry, momma,” he says. And I think, “Great. Sure. I’m the momma. It is my duty and pleasure to give this child something to eat, to provide for him, to help him grow.” So, I say to Jonah, “Sure kiddo, what can I get you to eat?” “Something good,” he says. “Ok,” I say, “how about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” “No.” “Banana?” “No, something good,” he says. “Hmm. What about some carrots?” “No.” “Some cheese and crackers?” “No, Momma! Something good.” “How about some milk?” “No. I’m hungry, not, thirsty!” “Alright, well, how about a granola bar?” “No.” “Some grapes?” “Ew! No!” “But you love grapes. You begged me to get them when we were at the grocery store!” “Momma...I’m hungry!” “Well, you tell me what you want to eat.” “Something good.” And...scene.

Turns out, he has something very specific in mind that he wants. It usually involves yogurt. But not just any ol’ yogurt. The kind that comes in a tube. If he was truly hungry, he would have taken one of the options I had given him, but he’s not really hungry. He has something in mind that he wants, but he wants me to be the one to offer it.
He wants me to support his choice - even though he knows that he has already had his yogurt tube for the day and it’s time to eat something else. I think it’s somewhere in the Bible - “children shall not live on yogurt tubes alone.”

But when I don’t give him his yogurt tube, I might as well be the worst momma EVER. The tears. The shouting. The crying and the flailing. It’s so. Not. Fair.

These Israelites are just a bunch of toddlers - preschoolers maybe - wandering around the desert, trying to find their way. And when they don’t get their way, when they get a little hungry, a little thirsty, suddenly the disease-ridden, back-breaking, slave-driving land of Egypt becomes paradise. They used to sit by vats and vats of meat! They had all they could eat! There was bread everywhere! Yogurt tubes by the dozens! Why have Moses and God driven them from this land of plenty and prosperity to die in the desert?! So. God gives in. To “prove” God’s faithfulness, God makes it rain frosted flakes and fried chicken. Every day.

Ok. Great. Now we’re all wandering through Ohio with Tony the Tiger and buckets of KFC original recipe. Great! Everything is great now! Yogurt tubes aplenty!

Until. Until 5 minutes later your kids ask, “are we there yet?”
Until your toddler is bored and the iPad won’t work.
Until the preschooler needs to pee and has spilled yogurt tube all over his pants.
Until your toddler is thirsty and needs something to drink RIGHT NOW.

See, I think we’re all spiritual toddlers - at best. We are all spiritual toddlers wandering the spiritual desert of Ohio, grumbling and whining and demanding that God do something for us. And things are great for us when we get what we want. Not so great when we have to wait, or when things don’t come, or when we’re offered what we need, but not necessarily what we want.

“Gimme! Gimme!” We shout.
I need a bigger house!
I need a better job!
I need relief from this pain!

And you know what? Maybe all of this is true. Maybe you really do need a bigger house.  Maybe you really do need a better job. And for those of you who are suffering from pain or illness or anxiety or grief - you do need relief.

But, the question is, do you demand all these things all the while forgetting that it has been raining blessings all around you?

Or. Can you hold them both? Both the need and the gratitude? Can you be thirsty and be grateful for the frosted flakes?

I don’t mean the kind of gratitude that we use against each other to make us feel bad about ourselves. Sometimes I think we tell each other to “just be grateful” at the expense of real pain. A loved one dies, and people say, “well, at least he’s not suffering anymore.” Or you get in a car accident and people say, “be grateful; it could have been so much worse.” Or you lose your job and people say, “you were just complaining about not having enough time for yourself!” All of these things can be true, but that kind of “gratitude” just masks the real pain and suffering that comes from a real need. That kind of suffering makes it easier to ignore a miscarriage of justice.

I don’t doubt that the wandering Israelites really were thirsty.

Yes. Be thirsty. But also be grateful.

How can we hold both of these things together?
I think it is by remembering your story. Remembering where you’ve been, how God has helped you before. And how you’re thirsty, or hungry, or grieving, or scared now.

Otherwise you’ll miss it.

You’ll get the water, sure. God wants to give us water. God can and does give us water. But you’ll miss that there is God, right in your midst, standing right in front of you.

That’s the thing that catches me every time I read this passage: there is Moses, and the staff, and the elders and the rock and the water spewing up. Great. Good. I’m glad. But there is also God, right in front of them. And what do they comment on? What do they focus on? The water. God is right there. So close. God. And they miss it.

Is God with us, or not?
Upon what does our belief in God’s presence depend? What do we need in order to believe in God? In order to believe that God is with us?
Does your belief in God depend upon signs and wonders? Upon fried chicken falling from the sky and water pouring from a rock? Upon landing a good job with benefits and from magical healings and lightning bolts from the clouds?

Is God with us, or not?

The Israelites are asking a very human question. It’s the wrong question. But it’s very human.

We’re all spiritual toddlers - infants, even. We don’t know where God is -- We don’t even know where we are as we wander around Ohio. All we know is that we’re thirsty, and we demand something to drink, NOW.

It’s like we have spiritual amnesia. The Israelites have forgotten their bondage and their backbreaking, dehumanizing status in Egypt, have forgotten that it was God who has freed them from it, have forgotten the plagues and the passover and their dramatic rescue through the Reed Sea with the wall of water and the drowning chariots and the celebrating and all that. We so easily, so quickly, forget about all the ways that God has been present. We live in a culture of complaint and demands. We ache for dramatic mountaintop experiences, and we get so used to that thin mountaintop air, the high altitudes, the dramatic views for miles and miles, that we forget how to take deep breaths.

We don’t notice the wildflowers on the path on the way up, the soreness of our knees as we make our decent, the way the wind turns the leaves on the trees when it’s about to rain.

We forget that we’ve seen this bend before, that that tree looks really familiar, that we have already turned right in that fork in the road, that we’ve passed that bunch of rocks before, that we’re wandering the wilderness in circles.

“Is God with us, or not?” we ask as we circle back around, stop at another gas station for yet another map and more directions and another bag of red vines.

Of course God is with us.
But are we thirsty for God? Are we grateful? Maybe thirst and gratitude have a lot in common, if we’re grateful and thirsty for the same thing?

We have encountered God. We’ve been fed and we’ve been healed and we’ve been guided and loved and forgiven. Even as we’ve wandered the wilderness. Even as we take another exit onto the Ohio Turnpike.
Can you remember that? Can you keep telling that story?

If so, then of course you know that God is with you, is with all of us.

We will still get thirsty. We are spiritual toddlers, after all. But we can remember all the times we’ve had something to drink. And gratitude is simply that - the remembering that thirst - or fear, or loneliness, or depression, or pain - doesn’t have the final say in our lives. That there is something after thirst. There is water, and there is God.

THANKS be to God.

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