What Is It?

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“In the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God!”

It is understandable to ask God for answers to prayers, especially when it seems that we are asking for what we need. That is, we need to know which thing to do or what job to take. Or maybe we need to know what to do about a certain relationship or a problem at work.

Should we stay or should we go? Am I doing the “faithful” thing in hanging in there or am I just hiding behind this situation, afraid to see what is on the other side of my present suffering?

And, certainly, if we have started out on a journey believing we are following God and then get lost, it seems like God would want to help us out with some traffic “updates.”

The Hebrew people felt that way. Under the leadership of Moses and his brother Aaron they have managed to escape bondage in Egypt and are on their way to the land promised to them by God, at least it was promised to their ancestors. But after a while in the wilderness, there was no sign of the Promised Land and they were actually starting to miss Egypt.

“At least there,” they complained, “we had our fill of bread. Did you bring us out here to kill us? Were there no graves in Egypt?”

And Moses, understandably – who never wanted to rescue them in the first place – complains to God that the people are pretty miserable and taking it out on him. Plus, they’re hungry.

Got you covered, God says. I am going to rain down bread on them. Just wait until morning.

And the next morning, when the dew had lifted there was a white flaky something all over the ground that looked like coriander seed and tasted like honey flavored water. And they picked it up and asked, “What is it?” or in Hebrew “Manna?”

And they ate nothing but “what is it?” for forty years, day in and day out. You couldn’t save it up. You had to gather it fresh every day except the day before the Sabbath, when you could gather twice as much so that you weren’t gathering on the Sabbath.

Many of us feel this way about the answers that we receive to our prayers. We look at a situation or a relationship and we say “What is it?” How is “this” an answer to prayer?

God tells the people through the prophet Jeremiah (29:11) “I know the plans that I have for you; plans for your welfare and not for your harm; to give you a future with hope. Then, when you call upon me, I will answer you and when you seek me with all your heart, you will find me.”

It can be hard at first glance to reconcile this promise for our welfare with “blessings” that come our way, leaving us scratching our heads wondering: “What is this?”

In Dr. Wendy Mogul’s best-selling book on raising healthy and resilient children, The Blessings of a Skinned Knee and its sequel The Blessings of a B Minus, she observes that the research indicates that children don’t need every possible advantage to flourish. Rather, children who live in circumstances that are “good enough” routinely flourish, whereas, those who have been given everything they want whenever they want it and have never been allowed to be sad or left out or to fail routinely flounder. A strong sense of self-esteem does not derive from constant praise or instant gratification. It is the product of overcoming adversity.

Try telling this to parents who still carry the chip on their shoulder from being embarrassed by wearing out of style clothing or hand-me-downs that didn’t quite work. Or for whom “family vacations” to a nearby state park felt woefully shabby compared to classmates who went skiing in Vail.

What is lacking here is not more and better stuff but a better understanding of and appreciation for how some childhood challenges helped to shape cardinal virtues of fortitude, temperance, truth, and justice, not to mention the ability to find beauty and satisfying pleasure in an evening of family laughter around playing Twister or that great feeling of accomplishment in keeping to a household budget or appreciating how well a car drives that is paid for.

The psalmist tells us “God owns the cattle on a thousand hills.” Providing the 600,000 wandering tribes a feast every day during their forty years in the wilderness would have been nothing for God.

But it was their welfare God cared about, the welfare of their souls, not just their bellies.

They weren’t being punished with manna. They were being prepared to enter the Promised Land. Don’t think of this as a “place” but rather a “perspective.” They were being prepared to live lives of hope, to be able to seek God with their whole heart and find God.

Developing an appreciation for delayed gratification or the skills to rebound after a crushing defeat are both fruits that come from the paradigm of turning a sense of helplessness into an opportunity for self-control. During this long narrative however between bondage and well-being, between wanting or needing something and then figuring out how to either achieve it or live without it can lead to a faith crisis. After all, as Jesus says, “who among you when his son asks for a loaf of bread would give him a stone?”

But, let’s be clear. God here is not giving a stone. The people are indeed hungry, and God is feeding them. They are dying. And God is saving them. Again!

There is also something else going on here. The crisis around food is also a crisis of leadership. Although they were in bondage in Egypt, we have nothing to suggest that they were hungry. Now this leader who they don’t know has brought them out of Egypt and into a place they do not know, headed for somewhere they have not seen, and who has offered them little in the way of hope.

This story of the manna, the “good enough” is not for all of their lives. But it is for those zones of bereftness when the problem is not self-sufficiency but despair, need, and anxiety. From first to last, wilderness is subject to God’s ongoing providential generosity. If you believe you are in a wilderness period right now, you should have some very rich experiences with God because for some reason God is partial to wildernesses.

But, like a skinned knee or a B minus, the chief characteristic of wilderness “blessings” is subtlety.

One of the most important messages that must be preached from this pulpit is that God is NOT Santa. And prayers are not—or should not—be like letters to Santa that we fully expect to see fulfilled to our specifications and waiting wrapped for us at the bottom of our stairs on Christmas morning.

It’s a conundrum. For “what is this?” is itself a petitionary prayer. Perhaps a way to think of it is that “this” is an occasion for thanksgiving, and we offer our thanks, even for those things that seem at best like getting socks when you wanted a bike and at worst like getting a bag of rocks when you are starving to death.

In August 1939 the British government gathered a group of mathematicians at Bletchley Park to work on the project of trying to break the German machine used to encode messages, known as the Enigma. The enigma was itself an algorithm and each day, according to a key sheet, encoded messages would be sent out that could be easily transcribed by someone who also had a key sheet.

There were a possible 158 million million million combinations each day. There were also, however, some four phrases that were repeated. These “lapses” of recurring messages provided clues—known as cribs—about how the Enigma was set up that day. Working feverishly, the team soon discovered that no work could be saved over from one day to the next but rather at midnight all of that day’s work would be scrapped and they would begin again the next morning at 6 am when the encrypted messages began again. They learned that holding over one day’s work to the next actually confused the challenge.

But by paying attention to the cribs, and following their patterns, Alan Turing’s team was able to devise new procedures and algorithms for predicting the next day’s set up. “Good enough” – thankful for even the small amount of information that they had – actually triggered the creative energies of the team to solve the riddle, and to end the war some two years sooner than would have been otherwise possible!

So three quick “manna” lessons for us today:

  1. If it feels like it takes all that you have just to make it through this day, you’re probably right. But we can trust that tomorrow’s energy will be there when we awake.
  2. If you’re in the heat of the wilderness and you see a mirage, thank God for that holy imagination that pulls you forward.
  3. Finally, don’t misinterpret “imperfect” for “failure”. What God gives us this day is intended to ignite our creative and adaptive skills to get through.

Even in the dog days of August, there is still a holy story to give us hope.

The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
August 2, 2015

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