Saturday, May 11, 2013

Daily Bread

When I was a little kid, I assumed that when you got really, really old (like thirty or so) that you’d be all grown up. By “grown up” I meant you’d pretty much have life all figured out: you’d not only know the answers to all the really hard math questions and be able to understand all the words in any book, but much more than that, you’d understand why the sky is blue and the grass is green and where pets go when they die and why there is so much suffering in the world.

Thirty came and went a long time ago. Adulthood is not what I once believed it would be. I had thought it was a destination, but what  I have discovered is that life is a journey, and that when we get stressed and confused or upset or feel betrayed we revert back to somewhere in our childhoods. We never grow up, at least not in the ways I used to believe—not in the sense that we “arrive” and can check it off some list.

When I was a young curate in Westport, Connecticut one of my responsibilities was to put together a Confirmation Program. One aspect of that program was to bring in a panel of “saints” to meet with the kids—older members of the congregation who had been around a while to share their faith journeys. One of those saints was Helen Gault, a wonderful old "Yankee"  in her late eighties who told the kids that she thought by now she’d have this faith thing figured out but the truth is that the older you get the more questions and uncertainties you have. I loved that, and the kids did too, I think.

The journey from slavery to freedom runs along a similar trajectory: it is a meandering road through the wilderness, and at best we make gains in fits and starts. Sometimes you start to move forward a few steps, only to revert back again to the old patterns. In the fourteenth chapter of Exodus, the Israelites dramatically cross the Red Sea. And then in the very next chapter they sing a song and do a liturgical dance and shake their tambourines. They are happy because they have seen that God is good; that God cared about their plight and has done infinitely more than they could ask or imagine. But by chapter sixteen, the liturgy has ended and they look up and there is the Sinai Desert in front of them. Only one month has passed since their singing and dancing. The Bible says they will spend forty years in Sinai which means they only have 479 more months to go!
In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.’                Exodus 16:2-3 (Jewish Publication Society Translation)

We spend our lives somewhere between slavery and freedom, somewhere between childhood and maturity. And when the stress level goes up we can start to become fearful or nostalgic or sometimes a combination of both. We start to think that slavery wasn’t so bad, or that being a teenager was easy. But even if our memories were not so skewed, the fact is that you can’t go back even if you want to. There is only ever Now: we don’t get a redo on the past and we cannot control the future. So the only real question before us, each step of the journey, is to try to live this moment fully, with trust rather than fear.

Now this metaphor extends way beyond Exodus, and the Bible is ridiculously honest about the fact that we spend a fair amount of time in our lives in such transitions, or to use that Biblical metaphor, “in the wilderness.” Think about it: the Torah—those first five books of the Bible—are the heart of Jewish faith and by extension pretty important for Christians as well. From this point on until the last verses of Deuteronomy, we’ll be in the wilderness. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy: four/fifths of the Torah takes place “in the wilderness!” In the New Testament, Jesus will recall this ancient metaphor when, after his baptism, he is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days and nights. The season of Lent is an opportunity for Christians to do the same.

But the wilderness is also the place where gifts are given and where spiritual growth occurs. It is not a punishment: it is just where we sometimes find ourselves along the way in the journey from slavery to freedom. I suspect that the Israelites may have initially imagined what freedom would be like in much the same way that I, as a child, imagined adulthood would be like. That it would just happen one day. But it doesn’t work that way. It’s a long and winding road toward freedom. And part of the key, I think, is in learning to live one day at a time, in trusting in God for daily bread—learning to be fully present to the moment.

The story remembered in the sixteenth chapter of Exodus is actually pretty funny stuff. Everyone is complaining and quite frankly behaving very badly. Hunger will do that to you. This is the original Survivor, only no one is going to get voted off the island. They are in this together and perhaps this is the single most important lesson they need to learn in this journey from slavery toward freedom: their utter dependence upon God and their radical interdependence with one another. They need to figure out how to become a community together. We tend to get nervous about words like this: we like to think of ourselves as independent. But the key lessons given to us in the wilderness are about dependence and interdependence.

For the Israelites, one month into the journey of Sinai, the memories of Egypt are already becoming skewed: they remember only the good parts, that they had food from their master’s table. At least they had enough to eat. So the Lord tells Moses, “I’m going to rain down bread from heaven for them.” And Moses passes the message along: God will rain down bread from heaven for you.

Great! I’m sure they are thinking about some rye toast or maybe a nice whole grain batard or a sourdough baguette.  Hungry people talk about food. When you are famished words like “pizza” and “cheeseburger” make you crazy. So they are thinking about warm crusty bread with melted butter, I’m sure. And then this:

… in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When 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."  (Exodus 16:14-15)

What is it? It sounds like something your kids might say when they first encounter something beyond chicken nuggets or pizza or penne with butter. The Bedouin to this day use the same word, “manna,” to speak of the excretions made when scale insects and plant lice ingest the sap of the tamarisk trees: they excrete it onto the trees where it crystallizes and falls to the ground. So technically speaking now, Moses could have answered the question “what is it?” by saying, “well, it’s lice excrement!”

Yum! I’m usually the first in line where there is food but I think I’ll wait and see whether or not Mikey likes this stuff!

Now does knowing this take away from the miracle or add to it? An atheist might argue that lice excrement on the ground has nothing to do with God. Sometimes believers want to counter that argument by insisting on more than this text says: as if God rained down loaves of crusty bread. But if we are looking for the Little-Red-Hen-God who will gather the manna and kneed it and bake it for us then we may well miss the miracles of life that are right before our very eyes. I think the degree of normalcy, and then the ability to thank God for what is, is part of the whole miracle here. What is this stuff? Well, Moses says:

It’s good enough to eat. In fact you better eat it if you don’t want to starve to death. It’s the key to our survival. It’s the daily bread God promised.  There will be enough for everyone if we share it and work together.

In Pharaoh’s economy there were those who have more than enough and those who had less than they needed. In God’s economy, the first step is to learn to trust God that we will all get what we need. We may not always get what we want, or what we think we deserve or what we think we have earned, but you get what you need. That manna rains down from heaven just as surely as all of God’s good gifts are given. What greater miracle is there, by the way, than a vine-ripe tomato or a beautiful acorn squash or an oven-roasted potato? God is the giver of all good gifts—when we feel settled and secure and when we feel vulnerable and uncertain. We just need eyes to see and ears to hear.

What is this stuff? Well, it’s bread, Moses tells them. It is one of the keys to your survival for the next 479 months, so get used to it and receive it as the gift from God that it is, and remember to say “thank you.”  It will be much harder in the Promised Land to remember that all of life is a gift. It will be much easier to say, “I hate rye bread - I only like wonder bread with the crusts cut off!” It’s harder to remember to be thankful when we are surrounded by affluence in the Promised Land, and we think that our neighbor’s house or spouse is better than ours.

Envy corrodes community. There is no way around that. But the point of the manna is to put your trust in God and be grateful for what you have. To learn that it is enough - more than enough -  to go on. That is why God’s people continue to pray, as we journey toward adulthood and freedom:  Give us this day our daily bread.

The wilderness is not a place of punishment. It’s a place where life is stripped down to the bare essentials. That can be a great gift in a society that thinks life is about luxuries. We get to know who we are in the wilderness, and where we are headed, and why we need each other as companions along the way. That is good news, I think. 

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