As I was pondering this Sunday’s reading from Exodus, I was enjoying a rare afternoon to sit in my backyard garden. It’s the first day off I’ve had in a long while. I decided while I was sitting there to water all the different plants in the hillside garden around the seating area where I like to work. I made sure to fill up the birdbaths while I was at it. Then I just turned on the hose and let it start running down the hill to water all the hostas, ferns, and other plants that dwell under the canopy of trees in our backyard.
After about 10 minutes, suddenly there was great rejoicing in the Land of Birds, and dozens of sparrows, finches, chickadees, and wrens began to wing their way over to wash themselves in the birdbath and in the puddles of water on the ground. One of them even had the temerity to land on the empty birdfeeder, give me the stink eye, rap the base of the empty feeder sharply with its beak a couple times, and then flutter off in a huff, as if to say, “Get up off your duff, and get me some food, woman.”
Never mind that I had generously turned on the hose, which is what had drawn these birds here in the first place. Never mind that I had graciously filled the bird bath and emptied of all the leaves and other junk that accumulated in it. This bird was not satisfied, and he was letting me know it. Meanwhile, a gang of sparrows promptly and joyously splashed out all the water I had placed in the birdbath, and one of them flew to a branch over my head and started to shrilly berate me to refill it.
Are these birds never satisfied?
And the answer is: yes, and no. Once I started providing them with birdseed and water, they expect me to keep doing it. The nerve! That’s also the way it is when you help people, sometimes, too. There are some people in the world who, when you get into a relationship with them, it ends up being all about them. No matter how much you give them, they always want more. No matter how much you give them, they’re never grateful. They never seem to stop and think, “Okay, that’s enough.”
The Israelites are the same way. Over and over again, they claim to long for their days of slavery in Egypt over freedom in the wilderness. The more the going gets tough out in the Sinai peninsula, the more rosy their memories of their time in Egypt becomes.
Forgotten is the groaning that they raised up to God—groaning so loud that God could not ignore it. Nope, just like infants, the minute their tummies grumble or their mouths get dry, they turn and bite the hand that feeds them. Last week we saw God provide them with meat and bread, manna and quail that fell from the sky, and all the Israelites had to do was go and pick it up. Today, it’s water—or, specifically, the perceived lack of it. Gripe, gripe, gripe. Complain, complain, complain. I think that’s one of the reasons why, although it did them very little credit, the ancient Israelites liked to tell this story on themselves– one of the side purposes was probably to explain just why they complained so much, as all of us do.
Sometimes, we focus on what we don’t have instead of what we do. Here are the Israelites, freed from slavery in Egypt, moaning about how their every need isn’t being taken care of while they are traveling back to their homeland. We are an unhappy, discontented, grumbling people at times. Our reading from Exodus today is one of an Old Testament genre called “murmuring stories.” These are stories in which the people “murmur”—in our text, it is rendered as “quarreled,” but it seems that misses the flavor. “Murmuring against” someone is so much more suggestive of that tendency we all have to mutter just audibly enough to be heard, that passive-aggressive tactic that allows one to later deny that she has said anything at all. Murmuring of this type is filled with negativity, ingratitude, a simmering resentment. Freedom includes responsibility to look at our situation with clear eyes. And the first step is to be glad that we are free.
And it is here that we perhaps can consider our own similarity with those Israelites in the wilderness. We are more than six months in to this pandemic, and we are just as much lost and disoriented in a wilderness as were the Israelites in this story. It’s so bad that we are looking back longingly at the time before this pandemic—even those of us for whom the situation wasn’t all that great. At least it was familiar.
The uncertainty we have been thrust into is very real. The anxiety that hangs over us is very real. The shifting sand beneath our feet, the changing situation from day to day with no obvious end in sight. And the more the clamor in our heart and head increases in volume, the harder it can be to hear the still small voice of God murmuring in our ears.
But it’s also true that with those birds, that with those Israelites, and even with us, the complainers can seize the attention and seem to be a bigger presence than they are. And once we realize that, we realize that the narrative doesn’t have to be surrendered to the murmuring crowd. That there is a thread that can be pulled loose and be used to anchor a counter-narrative. A narrative of resilience, of community, and of faith. From the hard rock of our hearts, the water of gratitude can flow.
It’s at this time that we have to interrupt the downward spiral that seeks to grip us; to still the cacophony in our heads and hearts. To reset. And it starts with something as basic and necessary as the breath, and remember its connection to the spirit. To look beyond the narrative of hopelessness and look back to see a record of endurance and resilience. To see how far we have come at this point, and look for lilting notes of grace that run as a counterpoint to the basso profundo of despair. To see the flickering light of those small gifts that we have overlooked along the way, even something as simple as signs of community when people of good will take care of each other, when we’ve seen people recognize strangers as neighbors and companions along the way. Sharing each others’ burdens.
We’ve gotten this far by the grace of God and those of good will who reflect it and magnify that same compassion outward. It is then that we can acknowledge our uncertainty, but still see the glimmer of hope that can be used to light our way forward. To go from, “There, for the grace of God… “ to “Therefore, the grace of God.”
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.