Manna in the Wilderness
Photo credit: Flora Westerbrook on Pexels
Readings: Exodus 16:1-15, Divine Providence #59 (see below)
See also on Youtube https://youtu.be/3xogv3no4WU
I don’t know about you, but this text feels very timely. It is speaking into my soul and into this moment. Perhaps you can, as I do, feel some resonance with the experience the children of Israel. Obviously, not with their literal circumstances, but with the metaphorical sense of being in the wilderness, of feeling unmoored, lost, unsure, abandoned, afraid. We are in challenging times right now, my friends. We are experiencing a global pandemic, with all the attendant uncertainties and stressors, our concerns about our safety and our livelihoods, about juggling the needs of our children and our work. We are experiencing a time of extreme political division in the United States (and around the world), a heightened tension around questions of human rights, political competence and honesty, the continuance of democratic ideals. We are experiencing a time of increased urgency around climate change; daily we receive notice of signs that we are running out of time to make the changes we need…the Greenland ice shelf breaking apart, orange skies from constant wild fires, an unprecedented Atlantic hurricane season.
So it is not surprising if we resonate with this story of a people in the wilderness, and particularly, perhaps, with how many times we are told that the children of Israel are grumbling. While it may at first be easy to dismiss this as petulance, we really know that what is underlying this impulse is fear and grief. Swedenborg writes that this is exactly what is indicated by the internal sense of their grumbling.(1) Even in the literal story, this makes sense, that a traumatized people might transmute their feelings of grief and fear into a type of complaining. Perhaps we do this, too? Perhaps we transmute our feelings of grief and fear into grievance, because grievance feels more powerful, more in control, more active?
And to be clear, I’m not talking here about oppression. When the Israelites cried out to God from the midst of slavery, this was true suffering, and true suffering deserves to be heard in authenticity and fullness. But that is a different thing to when we choose to retreat into grievance to avoid processing our own feelings of grief and fear. Part of the invitation of spiritual work is to notice our own grumblings and defensiveness and to go a little deeper, to willingly take on the responsibility of processing our own insecurities, so that we then might be able to show up to our lives with clarity and purpose, rather than just being reactive.
But interestingly, this story is not so much about what *we* do. While we can infer a message about our response to our own wilderness times, this story is more about God’s action. What this story tells us is that God hears us, hears our unprocessed grumbling and responds with compassion. We don’t have be a fully actualized person before God will hear our prayers. God sees who we are and sees what is below the surface and responds in a way that will help us to take whatever next steps we need into fuller understanding.
God stepped up into the experience of the Israelites and provided for them the most basic of securities: nourishment for the day. Many interpretations of this story talk about trust. The fact that the manna could not be hoarded, could not be kept beyond one day (except for the Sabbath) meant that the Israelites had to trust that it would be there every morning. They were being invited to salve their fear and grief and worry with the knowledge that God would show up for them consistently, that God was steadfast.
But what is standing out to me about this story today, is that while it can be argued that the grumbling came from a sense of distrust, the distrust itself came from an act of forgetting, or even an active misremembering.(2) As the Israelites experienced hunger in the wilderness, they cast their minds back to their time in Egypt and remembered the food available to them there. They yearned for their full bellies in that time, conveniently forgetting that the cost of that food was unrelenting labor. They yearned for the simplicity of knowing that food would be on the table, conveniently forgetting that the cost of that food was their lack of autonomy. They grumbled about the uncertainty of the wilderness, conveniently forgetting that God had just parted the Red Sea for them, conveniently forgetting all the miracles that had led to their freedom.
As so, as the Israelites wake in the morning and see the manna on the ground, they ask “What is it?” They meant it literally, as they had no idea what it was. But I also see a more poetic meaning to that question, one that points towards the forgetting that brought the manna to them in the first place.
The manna in verse 4 is called bread from heaven. Throughout Swedenborg’s interpretive landscape, bread means goodness.(3) Just as bread nourishes our bodies, so does goodness nourish our soul, our heart, our mind. Goodness and love given from ourselves to others, goodness and love offered to us from other people. We cannot live without it, in a most basic emotional sense. And so metaphorically, in this story, we are invited to see how God is committed to providing us with as much spiritual goodness as we are willing to gather in each day. And then God shows up again the next morning. This arrangement is not contingent on our diligence or our foresight; we don’t have to gather enough for both today and tomorrow or next week or next month. This arrangement is contingent on God’s nature; on the ongoing giving essence of God’s divine love.
But sometimes, many times, we forget. The stress of our lives, our ongoing challenges, contribute to a sense of amnesia about who God is. We might look back at previous times with longing, forgetting that *all* times have their challenges, and that God helped us through them even then. We might even look back and re-tell the story with ourselves as the hero. And then when we see the manna given to us, we look at it without recognition: what is it? Though God’s care for us has been manifest so many times before, we still ask, what is it? Trust is built on remembrance but there is so much that can distract us or tempt us from a true remembering.
And while we sometimes might forget the obvious goodnesses that come to us in challenging times: the sunset, the smile, the meal, the song, the nap that we needed; what we forget *most* often is that goodness also comes through our challenges, not just in spite of them. That God does of course apply a balm to our woundedness so that healing might come to us, but not as if somehow we could get back to being un-wounded. God helps us to see how goodness might come through our woundedness, how we might integrate our woundedness into our own sense of wholeness, and to know that no part of our experience is wasted, or alienated from God’s active care. We don’t recognize the manna because, on the outside, it doesn’t always look like something that will nourish us. But if we could remember how deeply God works for us, we might see…
…oh right, goodness happens when I have this kind of difficult, brave conversation. Oh right, goodness happens when I allow myself to rest. Oh right, goodness happens when I commit to doing the hard right thing. Oh right, goodness happens when I let myself grieve, or be angry, or stand up for myself. Oh right, goodness happens when I take this challenge and see what I can learn from it. Oh right, goodness happens when I put aside my version of how things are supposed to go.
Father Richard Rohr writes:
"If I were to name the Christian religion, I would probably call it “The Way of the Wound.” Jesus agrees to be the Wounded One, and we Christians are these strange believers in a wounded healer. We come to God not through our strength but through our weakness. We learn wisdom and come to God not by doing it all right but through doing it all wrong…If we do not transform our pain, we will always transmit it. Always someone else has to suffer because we don’t know how to suffer; that’s what it comes down to.(4)"
In this story, with all its grumbling, we find not a judgment but an invitation. An invitation to take an active part in our ongoing transformation, one that God modeled for us in Jesus. God knows who are all are. God knows our forgetful natures, our selective memories, our desire to feel that we have some control. As we grumble, God knows our grumbling can be a stepping stone into lament, that lament can be a stepping stone into surrender, and surrender can be a stepping stone into trust. We are given a gentle reminder: What is it? Oh right, I’ve seen this before. I’ve seen that:
In everything that it does, the Lord’s divine providence is focusing on what is infinite and eternal (4).
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #8402.
(2) Michael J. Chan, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4573
(3) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #8414.
(4) Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, “Transforming our Pain,” September 18, 2020
(5) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Divine Providence #46
1 The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt. 2 In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” 4 Then the LORD said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. 5 On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.” 6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you will know that it was the LORD who brought you out of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you will see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?” 8 Moses also said, “You will know that it was the LORD when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against the LORD.” 9 Then Moses told Aaron, “Say to the entire Israelite community, ‘Come before the LORD, for he has heard your grumbling.’ ” 10 While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of the LORD appearing in the cloud. 11 The LORD said to Moses, 12 “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God.’ ” 13 That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat.
Divine Providence 59
…divine providence focuses on our eternal state at every step of our journey. It cannot focus on anything else because Divinity is infinite and eternal, and what is infinite or eternal or divine is not in time. It therefore sees the whole future as present. Since this is the nature of Divinity, it follows that there is something eternal in everything it does, overall and in detail.
People who think in terms of time and space find this hard to grasp, though, not only because they love temporal matters but also because they think in terms of what is present to people in the world and not what is present to people in heaven. This latter is as remote from them as the ends of the earth. However, people who are engaged with divinity base their thinking on the Lord and are thinking in eternal terms even while they think about what is present to them...
Thinking like this is thinking in terms of eternity even while we are thinking about what is present; and when we both think and live this way, then emanating divinity with us, or divine providence, focuses on the state of our eternal life in heaven at every step of our journey, and is leading us to it.
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