Patrick wasn't his usual self. From the moment he walked into the room, I could tell something was off. He didn't want to read, he wasn't interested in drawing, he didn't care about playing checkers. He wasn't his usual chipper and curious self. Instead he acted more like the ogre Shrek. He was irritable, grumpy and complained that nobody cared about him. Between his complaints, I could hear a low groan from deep within his stomach, and I knew that he hadn't had breakfast. He told me that he hadn't had a good breakfast since his grandmother died a couple of weeks ago.
After our difficult mentor meeting was over, I met with the school counselor. I learned that Patrick had been moved into a foster care home, and he was having a hard time adjusting. Patrick didn't get breakfast at his foster home, so he couldn't raise his blood sugar. This made him feel anxious, hungry, and grumpy. He was having a hunger-induced meltdown--starving from physical hunger and heart hunger. Patrick could've used a Snickers candy bar that morning. He just wasn't himself when he was hungry.
You might remember that during Super Bowl 44, Snickers candy bar began their "You're Not You When You're Hungry" campaign where grumpy people in troublesome situations are portrayed by celebrity actors. When eating a Snickers candy bar provided by a concerned friend, the character is transformed back into themselves and indicates that they are "better."
Unlike being satisfied by eating a candy bar, the people of Israel were not satisfied with the side effects of their newfound freedom from slavery in Egypt. It had been two months since their great escape from Egypt, and the people were irritable and complained: "What is next? What are we going to eat? How are we going to make it?"
The tough environment of the Sinai Peninsula and southern Israel prompted the Old Testament writers to imagine this desert wilderness as a land full of chaos and death. This "chaos" echoes the Genesis creation story that states "the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters." The "formless void" where "darkness covered...the deep" serves as a metaphor to describe times when people experience something unexpected and disappointing, or they encounter questions that challenges the way that they make sense of things.
The desert wilderness can take many forms, including a family crisis, loss of relationship or identity, a health crisis, the defeat of a cause, betrayal by a community, or intellectual inquiry that poses a challenge to an assumed faith or belief. Our world begins to change and perhaps even falls apart. And yet, as with every wilderness experience, as Israel will soon discover, there is also the possibility of eventually finding the "Promised Land." But for now, the people of Israel are stuck in their "Egypt-system thinking." And by now, the food supplies that they brought from Egypt were exhausted. They longed for the "good old days" and accused Moses of bringing them into the desert "to starve them to death." They began to complain about their hardship.
We are not ourselves when we're hungry!
People who complain about their conditions are really complaining about God's provision for them! Israel was no different; but God's response to the Israelites was totally unexpected. Rather than God telling them to shut up and be glad that they were free from their captivity in Egypt, God seemed to reward their grumpiness by providing bread in the morning and meat in the evening. And they didn't have to do anything to earn it. All they had to do was go out and gather what God provided for them every day; and the only caveat was that they didn't get greedy, to take more than they really needed or it would spoil.
In the morning when the dew lifted from the ground, there was a flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. They did not know what it was. It was right there in front of their tents. But why didn't they notice it before? Did they not get up early enough to see the dew evaporate? Was this a change of season happening--where the dew would be more obvious? Whatever the reason, they asked one another, "What is it?"
What fascinates me about this story is that their answer is right there in front of them every morning. Overlooked? Maybe. Arrived with the coming of a new season? Perhaps. They complained for hunger, and the next morning right in front of them was an unknown substance that could be turned into bread.
Not the bread they were used to in Egypt, but bread for today, for this season of their lives. And it was right in front of them, something within their grasp. But instead of realizing God's blessings, they complained. They struggled to see that this flaky, unknown substance could be made into bread. It didn't look like the flour that they had in Egypt. They were still holding onto what was, instead of looking to see what could be.
And this is where I enter the story. If I were part of the Israelite camp, I'd probably complain too. Like Patrick, the student who was thrust into the chaos of foster care, I'd be grumpy. I'd be hungry. I would complain about not having bread like I was used to, and I wouldn't be able to see the gift of God that was right in my front yard.
I don't know about you, but when I pray, I'm looking for God to provide me with Plan A. That's what I've complained about, I mean, that's what I've prayed for. And since I expect Plan A, someone has to show me that Plan B is what God has provided. For the Israelites who prayed for Plan A, while reminiscing about the "good old days of Egypt where they had plenty of food," Plan B was an unknown flaky substance that when ground-up and baked tastes like honey. Plan B, also known as God's answer to their complaining, came to them every morning, for the entire time that they were in the desert wilderness!
The people complained during their hunger, confusion, transition and discomfort. They were having what I call a threshold moment--an in-between experience where ordinary life is put on hold, identity shifts, and new possibilities can emerge. The desert wilderness served as a space apart, forcing the Israelites to confront their hungers and their greatest fears.
Though we are not stuck physically in the middle of a desert wilderness, we all have threshold moments. We all have to confront our hungers and greatest fears. Complaining is the outward expression of the discontent that we feel within. These thresholds of waiting and not knowing where our "next" is coming from are everywhere in life; they are inevitable.
During these experiences, well-meaning people often quote the old saying: "When God closes one door, God will open another, or perhaps God will open a window." But the problem is that we usually don't think about another door opening to us when we're comfortable with the door that we've known. In times like this, we resist leaving behind the lives we've known for fear of the unknown.
And while in the desert or in a threshold moment, the most common question we ask is: "Now what?" The Israelites "turned back" when the road ahead looked difficult, and their fears and hungers were exposed: the fear of dying in the desert from starvation. Today we fear being judged by others, and we suffer from the hunger of wanting to be seen, heard and belong. We complain when our hungers and fears are exposed. It's like God is a customer service representative trying to talk to us when we're angry at a retail store. No matter what God does to help us, we are likely to blame God because we are not listening to anything that God says, and it's very difficult for us to change our minds. We aren't ourselves when we're hungry and God isn't meeting our immediate needs the way we want God to do so.
Apparently, complaining is a serious issue with God, and we shouldn't underestimate the power of complaining from keeping us from our promise land. You're not yourself when you're hungry. And you'll never enter the promise land complaining. Complaining destroys our faith and breaks it down. We can never be victorious until we stop complaining and get on to victory.
Not only does God acknowledge the Israelites' need for food, but God also desires to shape them as a different type of people, a different type of community. In the ritual practice of daily gathering of food, they will learn that their very bodies have to trust God during their wilderness experiences; they will learn to share their basic human resources in an equal way. And their hunger will be satisfied.
We aren't ourselves when we're hungry.
When I spoke with the counselor, we discovered that Patrick's family was not taking advantage of the free-and-reduced lunch program that the school offered. The counselor arranged for him to have breakfast every morning with the other students. The next week, I saw an immediate change in Patrick. He was back to his old self again. And while he remained in foster care, his attitude changed. He stopped complaining and his grades improved. He wasn't himself when he was hungry.
Perhaps you are "enslaved with an Egypt-system way of thinking" that causes you to complain. You can never enter the "Promised Land" without leaving "Egypt." We're not ourselves when we're hungry. When our desires go unmet, we forget God's abundance and complain that God isn't working fast enough to meet our needs. Yet God's always faithful and continues to provide, over and again, even in the midst of our complaining, forgetfulness, and impatience
And God is always standing with us during our threshold moments of facing our greatest hungers and fears. God promises to be with us. God can do anything--far more than we could ever ask or imagine--even satisfy our hungers in the midst of our complaining!
Those who have ears let them hear.