Questions and Complaints: The Wilderness School (Ex 16)

This is the message I gave at Camas Friends Church on September 18, 2011.

Complaints.

We pick up our story shortly after were we left off last week. The Hebrews have past their entrance exam, which was proctors by prof. Moses and his assistant Aaron, and now they have been admitted into The Wilderness School. Now the Wilderness school is a little unusual in that it isn’t exactly what it appears to be. First, it appears to be a place of death, empty, and terrifying and yet it is the place where these students learn and witness it is also the very center of God’s glory and power, as one author puts it, “by God’s rule, the wilderness is completely redefined” (Brueggeman). Another way this school is a little different is that our Wilderness students discover there is as much to unlearn as there is to learn in this school. For one, in order to survive in the wilderness they must unlearn all of the things they have picked up from Pharaoh, the self-sufficiency and the surplus of “fleshpots” as they call them which is something akin to an army-pot size of meat. But just as importantly, they must also unlearn the stories they’ve been told about being slaves, about not being good enough, about being property of someone else’s, about what it means to relate to someone of godlike stature as the pharaoh. Here in the Wilderness School they have the advantage of no distraction, not even any distraction of food, or water, YHWH the school master will provide everything and it will all be lessons for learning.

And like any school I’ve ever been a part of, there is a lot of complaining going on. Learning is hard, learning life-lessons is even harder and it often puts you in a grumpy mood, especially if you math teacher gives you 4 hours work of homework to do every evening! I mean, to say sometimes the lessons we face in Wilderness School are truly difficult and maybe some complaining is called for. Throughout the Wilderness School of 15:22-18:27 you will find a recurring theme of Israel complaining because of the difficulty of some of the lessons they are give. And each time YHWH responds to them with an abundant gift that sustains his people.

One of the lessons this morning that the Hebrews have to learn is a tricky one.

What they had learned in Pharaoh’s empire is that their complaints will go unheard, or they will be responded to in punishment or further abuse. In the empire the Hebrews have no voice. And so when they complain out of desperation they may well-expect some kind of a response, but the response they get from YHWH is totally unexpected. YHWH is not like Pharaoh, even in the wilderness, in the middle of absolute crisis and darkness, desperate for material necessities, we learn that YHWH hears our murmurings and responds.

Complaint has a bad wrap. To hold up complaining as a model for spiritual discipline may seem a little odd here, but I am comforted by the fact that not only is complaining something the Hebrews do well, but it is something that YHWH almost immediately responds to, at least on this occasion.

And this is good for us right? Aren’t hearing and registering complaints just a fact of life? I know that I sure can do my fair share of complaining. When all else fails, I know at the very least I can complain.

Consider a couple examples where complaint pops up:
For one, consider the people whose jobs are to basically sit and listen to people complain (any of you?). I mean, no one really wants to be a customer service agent for some local unpopular large cable company, we won’t say any names (comcast). Can you imagine how many complaints they hear in a day? Though they do say, at least in the customer service world, that “every complaint is an ______ (opportunity).”

Or what about when you see an old friend and you ask: “How ya doing bob?” What does Bob say? “Oh, I can’t complain.”
Really? Why not Bob? Have you ever considered what keeps us from complaining? Is it just that we’re that content? Or is it more often the case that we are afraid no one really wants to hear our troubles? Maybe he feels his voice won’t be heard? Or is afraid of the response he might get.

To register a complaint with Dumbledore, it’s quite another to register one with professor Snape.

The point is that we often do not speak up, even in desperate times for all kinds of reasons, and yet Exodus 16 shows us that God responds to prayers of all kinds, even the real-complainy ones. In Ex. 16 we learn that YHWH is about turning complaint into an opportunity. A key lesson for school that day was that YHWH is not like Pharoah (nor Snape), YHWH hears and will respond with care.

Questions.

The Wilderness School begins with a lot of lessons about how God’s ways are a whole lot different from the way of the empire and these differences actually might create a bit of an identity crisis and cause some serious anxiety (that’s where all the complaints come from). And before the school day ends what else do we need but some good questions to really open things up a little bit.

Our daughter L. has been asking a lot of questions lately. Hard ones. Ones that make even the “theologian” of the house ponder and consider. The other night while I was getting the two girls ready for bed many tears were being shed. It was late and L. and Mae were rather tired, not too mention L was out a piece of candy for the way she’d been acting adding insult to injury. As I was put lotion on her very dry eczema, L looked at me with tears flowing, L asked me these words: “Why did God give me itchy skin.”

That stopped me in my tracks. Not only did it really make me sad that she asked that question – because in fact it is a legitimate question yet it feels beyond her years – but I really had to debate how to answer it. My first response was typical, “Well L, I don’t know why, but God didn’t give you the itchies.” “Who did then?” She asks, “well, I don’t think anyone did, it’s just a fact of life.” Wow — what an incredible answer! So loving, so empathetic, I thought sarcastically (you know it’s bad when you think in sarcasm). I felt ashamed for having answered my very own daughter in this way, when I would never answer anyone else this way. What I said in essence was do not complain, at least not to me because I will not hear you.

So I tried again. “L, I don’t know why you have those itchies but I am very angry about the fact that you do.” This elicited a different response. We went back and forth about how we were both angry and how we wanted her to not have them. I felt like I was now more on her side, standing with her. I want her to feel like, if she has a problem with God she can come to me and not be worried that I will defend God and stand on God’s side against her.

Questions can be challenging to us as parents, but isn’t this great that she’s asking the questions? It shows that she’s interested, she has some language and wants to know. Aren’t questions an essential part of our spiritual lives? We cannot be afraid to raise our voice with a query, no matter how great or small. Without good questions how will we learn to identify what God is doing among us? A question shows that we are alive, and engaged in the process before us. It shows that we are still interested. I think it even shows signs of hope, because we hope there really is an answer to our question.

Like L, the Hebrews had their own Question, and God who hears complaints also hears the questions. The Wilderness students show up at the cafeteria and see a fine flaky substance appear on the ground. And in the same manner as a room full of students, the whole of Israel asks: “What is it?”

What is it?

This question — “What is it?” Becomes for them a central Wilderness School question. We still don’t get it. We still do not understand. Maybe the question comes out of disappointment (not this bread!). Maybe the bread is nothing like that bakery they frequented when they were still slaves in the empire. Maybe they are really excited and just eager to know. Maybe they literally have no idea what it is — ever have food like that? Whatever it is, this picture here shows us that their interest has been peaked. God has their attention.

Manna literally means “What is it?” All they know is that this bread is given by YHWH to eat. That’s it. The rest is unexplainable, not just to us thousands of years later, but to the main characters in the story.

So “Manna” stands as a question for all of us. Like all of our questions about what we are to do in these wilderness moments, when we are desperate for provision, when we really need help moving forward, when we cannot recognize what God is doing, or whether God is doing anything at all, we keep asking questions. Here we are reminded that in the wilderness, questioning and complaints are legitimate expressions of faith. They too are signs of life, of interest and even of hope.

But it was also bread for the people. The Wilderness Students ask “What is it?” “because [this Manna] is so different from anything they’ve experienced or eaten thus far…This is bread Israel has never seen; it is not the bread of coercion or affliction.” It is bread of gift and abundance. And when we eat Bread the way God intended us too, there is enough for everyone to eat. This is something new, bread not from the storehouses of Pharaoh but fresh bread from YHWH.

The bread of the Pharaoh was the bread of surplus and self-sufficiency, bread of anxiety and greed. This kind of bread is off limits for Israel, any hoarding, any surplus for them will rot and be eaten by worms. Self-sufficiency is the bread of disobedience. They will be sustained by a different kind of bread, the bread of life, the bread of dependence on YHWH, daily bread (WB 814).

This bread teaches Isreal, and I think it should teach us as well, that our complaints and our questions are heard but sometimes we have to wait for the answer and sometimes the answer comes in a really odd way. In our darkest hours, in the wilderness, God not only hears us but is present with us and responds. For us as Quakers, Jesus is that bread of heaven, that bread of life that comes in the wilderness. Jesus is the bread we so desperately long for and which sustains us.
Sometimes in our darkest hour of Wilderness School all we can do is complain and question, sometimes our prayers are not quite right, sometimes we simply do not understand, and so like any good student in the wilderness, we raise our hands tentatively, but with hope and ask our instructor — “what is it?”

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

One thought on “Questions and Complaints: The Wilderness School (Ex 16)”

  1. I’m with L on the subject of ‘the itchies’ and don’t seem to be able to move off that question.
    But the Wilderness School gave me some new ways to understand the manna and all the struggling.
    Thanks for that, at least.

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