Amnesia in the Wilderness

It’s been about five weeks since the children of Israel fled their captors in Egypt. Five weeks for the food to run out and to miss their modest dwellings. Five weeks of squinting into the harsh sun with no real shade in sight. Five weeks of yearning for their gardens and the fresh tomatoes and peppers and cilantro they used to cook with. It’s been five weeks, and they’re hungry and getting angry.

So they let it rip on poor old Moses. “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.” You’d think they’d still be singing their praises to God given Moses’ divinely-inspired leadership. But no, they wish they had died back there when they used to draw out meat from their pots over the fire and ate bread until they were content. At least then they wouldn’t have experienced this current misery. 

We get it, don’t we? Life seems much more fragile for us now than it did 6 months ago. We’ve had our own run on meat and yeast and flour at local stores, showing that the craving for protein and carbs during times of stress isn’t something new. Even if things were bad pre-COVID, it’s so much worse now, and so the instinct is to head back if we could. To make a bee-line out of the wilderness back to the familiar life when you could hop in the car and see a movie and grab dinner and think nothing about masks or physical distancing or gobs of hand sanitizer.

But now? Well we’re pretty much tired and angry and wishing for the normal that doesn’t seem to be materializing. And we wonder where God is in the midst of all of this because it feels pretty desolate—as if God has completely forgotten us.  But perhaps, maybe, it’s the other way round, and we’re the ones who’ve had a lapse in our memories.

Look at the Israelites. In the course of a single chapter in scripture, they go from the elation of having God deliver them at the Red Sea to wishing they were back in Egypt.  Their hunger is so bad they want to return to the place where they were literally slaves, working seven days a week under harsh conditions. We read that and think, “Are you crazy? Why would you want to go back there? Don’t you remember how God has been with you all along?” And yet, how often do we ourselves forget about the places we’ve been in the past and the times that God has blessed us? Times of grief interrupted by joy. Places of hurt where grace came to soothe. Moments of desolation when a flicker of hope emerged. Why is it that in the midst of difficulty we feel utterly forgotten by God? Why is it so hard to remember?

Many of us know about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The model is shaped like a triangle, with the most basic needs at the bottom moving to the top in five different levels. At the base are physiological needs: food, warmth, shelter, and rest. Those Israelites are there at the bottom in their desire for food. Next comes safety and security, also part of our basic needs. The third level encompasses the need to belong and feel loved through intimacy and friendship. Esteem takes the fourth level with prestige and a feeling of accomplishment. And then at the top are the needs of self-actualization. 

If I had to guess, I suspect many of us are fluctuating between the second and third levels of that triangle during the current time—not feeling especially safe or secure given the pandemic and its impact on our finances, or feeling disconnected from experiencing intimacy and friendship due to physical distancing.  When those needs are unmet, well, we tend to get amnesia. We forget the times when it was hard before and how we made it through. We cannot recall the goodness and grace of God that buoyed us up in those previous experiences of difficulty. And so we feel alone, forgotten by God, and anxious.

I think it’s important to note that while the Israelites in their anxiety contemplate a return to Egypt, as one commentator pointed out, they are “not reprimanded in this narrative for [their] anxious concern, but receive an immediate, positive response.” God answers them, telling them that their needs would be provided for both in meat and bread. That very evening a whole host of quail came and covered their camp and the Israelites had their fill of that delicious bird roasted over their fires. And then the next morning as the dew dried up around them, they discovered a fine flaky substance covering the ground. “What is it?” they ask. Moses tells them it is the bread given to them by God. They end up calling it manna, literally, “What is it.”

The manna would continue to be found nearly every morning to provide for them over the next 40 years. I say nearly intentionally, as the day before the sabbath they were to harvest double to sustain them on the day set aside for them to rest. God faithfully provided for them throughout the entire time they were in the wilderness when they could not provide for themselves, including a time for them to rest from their labors.

And God will provide for us in our wilderness too.  When anxiety spikes we have an inclination to seize control, to get finances inline, to clean out our closets and organize, to get a bit bossy with others. We’re trying to make it feel as a small part of our lives things are fine, while around us things are decidedly less than fine. We clench our fists, holding on desperately to what we already have. And what God shows us in this narrative is that the provision from God is more than enough for all of us. That we should unclench our fists and hold out our hands, as Madeleine L’Engle put it, because God provides. God doesn’t leave us to fend for ourselves. We will have more than enough, and we can share those provisions with others.

Friends, I have no idea how long this pandemic will rage forcing us to continue in the wilderness—I pray that it isn’t anywhere near 40 years, though some days it feels so much longer than the six months it’s been so far. But I do know this, manna in its many forms is around us waiting to be found. Maybe it’s the chance for healing prayers with Mary Coogan this morning. Or in writing a note to a friend who lives alone. Maybe it’s literal food you need that can be found in the chest freezer in our parish hall. Maybe a cup of tea shared with a friend over zoom. Maybe a conversation with your beloved and just holding hands. Or a game with your kids, or a walk in the woods.

I’m not sure what you need or the form that manna will take, but I do know this. God provides for us in the wilderness. God never leaves us to fend alone. Sometimes it’s hard to see, and sometimes we have to get to the point of having our anxiety spike before God simply responds and tells us that we have nothing to fear. That God will care for us. Friends, do not be afraid. God sees your need and will bring you refreshment. Do not lose hope, rather trust that God remains with you always.

Photo Credit: Steve Corey Flickr via Compfight cc

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