“What is it?”
“What is it?”
November 11, 2018
I grew up with a mother who loved to cook and cooked very well. What I remember most are the wonderful smells, many of which involved cooking apples: apple sauce, apple crisp, apple pie. Is there anything that smells better than cooking apples? Well, maybe the smells of Thanksgiving dinner when it is well underway. Can’t you smell it already? (I believe that Thanksgiving dinner smells even better than it tastes and I think it tastes amazing!)
Every now and then, Mom would cook something new. The smell wasn’t familiar. My inquiring nose would lead me into the kitchen. I would stand there for minute and then ask, “Hey, Mom. What’s for dinner?” And in an answer that I’m pretty sure my sisters would repeat simultaneously with me if they were here this morning, Mom would answer, “It’s called, ‘Good.’” It was kind of a conversation stopper: “This is what we’re having. I don’t want any guff.”
She was right! Think about it. Day in and day out for 18 years, food was provided. It was always there. And it was almost always delicious. (Sorry, Mom!) But who was I to complain anyway? I could trust that food would be there waiting or even delivered between basketball practices and play rehearsals. How lucky was I? How grateful should I have been?
Even in college, for the next four years, food was always waiting in the cafeteria: choices of entrees; salad bars, soups, deserts galore. What did we do? We ate that food every day, gained our freshmen 10 pounds and then complained when we grew tired of having to choose between all those options.
It wasn’t really until seminary, when I had to start shopping and cooking for myself (What?) that I realized how fortunate I had been. A few other seminarians and I formed a dinner group where we rotated cooking responsibilities. I remember one night I splurged and made a ham, complete with Dole canned pineapple. (I know—delicious, right?) My roommate asked, “What’s this?” And I answered…(You’re already there right?) “It’s called, ‘Good!’”
For the whole first part of my life, I was provided for and took it for granted. My family provided for me so that I could grow, physically and as a person, so that I could spend my days worrying about something other than the next meal (which never stopped me from popping open the fridge door between those meals and just gazing longingly at the contents!). My family and my college fed me jointly when continued growth meant being on my own (with no bills to worry about and still not worrying about feeding myself. What a luxury!) In a world in which way too many people do have to worry about having anything to eat, I was provided for so well that my concern was what I would prefer to eat. (I think it is impossible to overestimate just how uneven that can make the playing field…)
Flash back 3000 years or so. The incredibly good news is that our ancestors in faith, after centuries in slavery, have been liberated. They walked right out of Egypt, across the parted Red Sea, and straight into the Wilderness. At this point, they discovered the truth that every one of us has discovered when we finally get the opportunity to make a change in our lives, to liberate ourselves from those things which enslave us: everything is about to get exponentially harder. It takes courage to change: to seek relief from chronic pain; to leave behind the substance that has you by the throat; to say, “Good-bye!” to the job that is sucking the life out of you. To address that pain, you have to have surgery and trust doctors and nurses and physical therapists. To break that addiction, you have to learn to tolerate feeling uneasy to your core. To leave that job you might have to walk straight into the great unknown of what might come next. In short, if the first step of change is hope then the next step of change is anxiety and disorientation and things that feel awfully close to despair. Change is a giant risk and we almost never perceive how huge those risks are until change is underway.
Trust is a tough thing, especially if you are standing in the wilderness and there is no food or water in sight. There is no path to follow. What’s next is entirely unclear. What we know was controlling us and sucking the life out of us starts to look pretty good. Literally, our ancestors in faith start to wish they were back in Egypt: we were comfortable there; we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat. Now, we’ve come all this way just to starve? (If we are honest, everyone who has ever left something behind who needed to leave that something behind has felt this exact feeling: you’ve quit smoking but in your dream you are smoking again; you left that bad relationship but find yourself dialing all the numbers and hovering over that last one; you left the job but you keep grilling yourself over whether it was as bad as you thought.)
For our ancestors, although they never had any freedom, their basic needs were met (not because anyone cared about them but because their work was valuable.) Almost every decision to change involves us coming to terms with how whatever it is that controls us is limiting our choices in life. There is always a short-term payoff—a buzz of nicotine, a night you are not alone, a paycheck. However, those things cost you—big times.
Back to our ancestors—they were liberated by Moses who was responding to God’s calling. God called them to grow. God called them to take the risks. God called them into the wilderness. And why do they need to spend time in the wilderness? Because it is only in the midst of serious change, by facing all the discomfort and all the risks, that they will finally begin to see that the God who led them out of slavery in the first place is their God and is with them every step of the way. In the great refrain of the Old Testament, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” If you don’t take me for granted… If you are willing to take the risks… If you are willing to not enslave yourselves to anything less than me. Will you learn to trust? Will you learn to depend on me? Will you learn to walk through this life by my side?
What are they worried about? Well, Moses doesn’t seem to know where he’s going and there are no roads and paths. How will they find their way? Eventually, they will come to know what it is like to follow a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They will learn what it is like to do the hard work of discerning what’s next, one step at a time, instead of worrying about what direction they will be moving, five days or five years from now. They will learn to let go of having to be in charge. They will learn how to follow—at least, how to follow for a little while, which may be the best any of us ever do.
All of this matters, but it’s not what matters first. As we all know, there is nothing that matters with quite the same urgency as an empty stomach. Again, the mind-blowing truth is that millions and millions of people in our world still today literally do not know where their next meal is coming from. In the meantime, what most of us know is only the first growls of actual hunger that we feel every now and then when for some unforeseen reason we’ve missed lunch. As the commercial says, suddenly we get “hangry.” Suddenly, the bells and whistles go off and we pursue relief. Think about those ancestors, though. The wilderness they were in was not full of lakes to fish and game to hunt. It was the desert. It was a lifeless, uninhabitable place.
The only way that these folks were going to survive was if God came through for them. They had their part of the bargain to uphold. There was work for them to do. And yet, the ultimate outcome of what was unfolding was not in their hands but in God’s. And honestly, is there anything harder than to put your well being in someone else’s hands? (This from a man who not too long ago put himself in the hands of an anesthesiologist and a surgeon and then a set of nurses and then his family and friends. Trust me here…It has taken me several weeks to begin to convince myself that I’m just fine on my own…Thank you very much!) It wasn’t that these folks didn’t have a prayer. Rather, it was that, in the end, all they had was a prayer.
Here’s the thing, though. God came through. God sends word to the people that there will be meat in the evenings and bread in the morning. “Oh, my God,” the people think, “God’s going to make it rain 5 star food!” What God provides is quail in the evenings and a kind of bread in the mornings. The thing about the bread is that the people’s first reaction when they see it is to cry out, “Man-hu.” Now, you might think that was a type of bread, like matzah or rye or whole wheat. Manhu isn’t a kind of bread. It’s a question. It’s the question I asked my Mom as a kid: “What’s this?”
God apparently resisted the temptation to answer, “It’s called good!” Instead, God told them there were two rules. You were only to take what you needed for that day. There would be no hoarding manhu. Then, on the sixth day, they were allowed to take enough manhu for two days, since the seventh day was the Sabbath.
Here’s the thing: it was enough. God was with them. God provided for them. God didn’t meet their wildest culinary desires. (Apparently, it tasted like a coriander cracker with just a hint of honey.) However, needs were met. No one starved.
Honestly, I bet they were super grateful—for a while, just like the person who had surgery and found a caring nurse waiting on the other side, just like the person who shed an addiction and found perfectly imperfect companion in recovery so that they were not alone, just like the person who left the job behind and discovered a mentor.
And then, more than likely because we are altogether human, one day, they thought to themselves, “Manhu again? I’m so tired of Manhu” and they took God’s care and just about everything else for granted once again. It’s hard to stay grateful over time… It’s hard to remember that life is full of God’s presence and it’s all good!