24 September 2017

Feeling Anxious?

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

I hate to be a kicker,
I always long for peace,
But the wheel that squeaks the loudest,
Is the one that gets the grease.[1]

At this stage on their journey out of slavery, the Israelites were definitely squeaking—man, were they squeaking. They were murmuring, complaining, grumbling, whining incessantly to Moses and Aaron.  Not some, not even half, but, we’re told, “The whole congregation of Israelites complained again Moses and Aaron in the wilderness” (Ex. 6:2), which means they were also murmuring, complaining, grumbling, and whining at God—which is what triggers God’s response.  God doesn’t rain down fiery judgment from heaven; instead, God rains down bread from heaven.  But this bread, this “manna,” is really judgment, a judgment by bread.  It’s a test, as we’ll see.  And because God’s ways are always righteous and just (Deut. 32:4), this test, too, is an expression of God’s righteousness, an expression of God’s covenantal faithfulness to Israel, of God’s deep compassion for God’s people.

We find the Israelites in the severe wilderness of Sinai.  They are people on the way: on the way from Egypt to a land of promise, on the way from slavery to freedom, on the way from scarcity to abundance in a land of milk and honey, on the way from an oppressive past toward a hopeful future.  And the exodus road—exodus, a Greek word meaning, “the way out”—the way out of slavery, the way toward freedom, and this holy way cuts right through the wilderness.

The exodus from Egypt was the defining event in the history of Israel. Yes, the dramatic departure of God’s people through the Red Sea, but also the long forty-year trek around Sinai. The wilderness wandering should be understood as central to the exodus experience.  It’s not just a fruitless, empty in-between time between leaving Egypt and eventually crossing the River Jordan.  The wilderness experience was essential for the Israelites; it was formative and foundational.  In some respects, the wilderness is not unlike Holy Saturday, situated between Good Friday and Easter Sunday; a lot is going in that space in-between, that liminal space, that threshold space between what was and what shall be.

In time, the wilderness becomes the birthplace of Israel as a people: their theological identity is tested and formed there.  In the wilderness, they come to know Yahweh—the God of Abraham and Sarah—who was before then really a stranger.  They come to know God’s way, and will, and style.  They come to know God personally, not just beliefs or ideas about God.  They come to know God experientially, they encounter the holiness of God, they face the presence of the living God, they are confronted by the numinous, the Holy.  The wilderness is necessary for a knowledge of God.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are religious traditions that emerge from desert, wilderness experiences.[2]  Moses learns Yahweh’s name, not as a boy growing up in the empire of Egypt, but as an adult in the wilds of Sinai.  One could say that the wild God of Israel is most profoundly known and experienced in wild, dangerous places—whenever we find ourselves in what feels like a wilderness, when we find ourselves in the holy, scary threshold space between what was and what shall be, between the past and the future, between death and resurrection.

This is where we find Israel in Exodus 16. And, to no one’s surprise, their anxiety level is running very high. Wilderness wanderings, wherever or whatever the wilderness might be, often generate considerable anxiety in us. This was a perilous, life and death situation for them.  They were running low on food, starving.  In the middle of nowhere.  They could not imagine a way out, an exodus, out of their crisis.  They began to panic.  They had difficulty envisioning a future that included enough food to live on.  A promising future was eclipsed by absence in their present, the absence of food. They envisioned only death.  And they didn’t have a lot of trust in Yahweh, either. They were beginning to think that God was against them, that it was all a cruel joke, that God brought them there to kill them—because that’s what all the evidence was pointing to.

“If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt,” they cried.  Why didn’t God kill us in Egypt, “when we sat by the fleshpots,” with kettles full of stewed meat, “and ate our fill of bread” (Ex. 16:3)?  Back in Egypt, sure we were in slavery, life was difficult and cruel, but at least our stomachs were full.  Life was so much better back in those days, back there in slavery, compared to this suffering at the hands of Moses and Aaron and their God.  “For you have brought us out into this wilderness,” they shouted, “to kill this whole assembly hunger” (Ex. 16:3)!

They are fearful.  They are anxious.  Two different emotional responses, similar but not the same.  Fear usually has an object, whether it’s the fear of flying or spiders or starving.  Sometimes a fear is rational, when there are good reasons for being afraid.  Sometimes a fear is irrational.  Anxiety, though, is something different.  Anxiety, often, does not have an object.  We can feel anxious and not know why we are anxious; it sits deeper than fear in the psyche and can, therefore, have a fierce hold over us.  Of the two, anxiety is probably more destructive.  Anxiety, when it’s activated, especially by trauma, and becomes operative, constricts.  The word, itself, has its root in the Sanskrit ang.  In Greek, ánkhō means “to choke.” From ang we get angst and anger and angina, the constriction of blood vessels around the heart. 

Anxiety is often a secondary response to something else, whether what is perceived is true or not is beside the point.  Take, for example, the question of scarcity. Is there enough to go around? Whether it’s oil or money or time or love, or, for the Israelites, food, whether we perceive scarcity and abundance is a direct correlation with how we perceive the rest of reality.  An attitude of scarcity often generates considerable anxiety in us. 

How does this relate to Exodus?  Walter Brueggemann, the brilliant Old Testament scholar, reminds us that Egypt was an empire, an extremely powerful economic and military force, the mightiest empire of its time in this part of the world.  Empires are often built to secure the resources necessary for its own survival.  This is why empires need slaves; this is why Pharaoh needed to keep the Israelites in Egypt.  The narrative that fueled Pharaoh’s empire was the myth of scarcity—the fear of not having enough, the need to have more just in case because they assume there's not enough.  The Pharaoh narrative, the narrative of empire, Brueggemann says, the story that empires tell themselves and want to make others believe, goes like this: resources are scarce, scarcity yields anxiety, the anxiety of not having enough leads to accumulation, pathological accumulation leads to monopoly, and the need to maintain monopolies inevitably lead to violence.[3]

This is the narrative that Israelites are used to.  This way of being had been embedded into their psyches for generations.  Read through the book of Exodus and you see that Israel is always whining and grumbling and complaining and worried…it’s tiresome.  Even with all that God had done for them, they had difficulty remembering, they assumed the worst, they couldn’t trust, they couldn’t live with confidence and hope.  Anxiety—anxiety and fear, but mostly anxiety—is informing everything. 

When we’re anxious our perceptions of reality become distorted, our lives constrict, it’s tough to make wise decisions, it’s easy for us to (over)react to what’s going on around us, we choose scarcity over abundance, we become defensive.  Anxiety hinders the Israelites's ability to move forward.  Overwhelmed by anxiety, they want to go “home,” even if “home” was slavery.  When anxiety becomes intense there is often a tug to go back to the past, to "the good ol' days," to the way things were, to the familiar and the known.  You can see why there’s often a connection between anxiety and nostalgia, which literally means “a painful longing for home.”

And, so, the daily bread from heaven is given as a test: will they learn to trust in the daily provision of God? They were forbidden to, collect, or accumulate for a later date, behaviors often fueled by anxiety and an inability to trust in the benevolence of God.  They were not allowed to take matters into their own hands, they were not free to manage or plan for their future, they were not free to control the desired outcomes.  They had to learn to trust in God to provide for them.  Not once, but day after day after day.  This test might appear harsh, but it was designed to change their lives, so that they would stop being fueled by anxiety.  Stop grasping.  Stop trying to control the future.  Stop accumulating in fear or anxiety, as if God is not God.  It took more than two generations to change their attitudes, and even then, it was difficult for Israel to really trust in God.  They had trust issues—that’s what being sold off into slavery will do to a people.

As any psychologist can tell you, every human being has trust issues.  It starts early, as an infant slowly determines whether one’s parents, one’s family, and the world are safe.  And if our trust has been betrayed, once or countless times, it takes a long time for trust to be recovered.  If you’re watching the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary The Vietnam War, you see how the American government betrayed the trust of its people, a trust that has yet to be full recovered, a trust that continues to be betrayed. 

God wants the Israelites to learn to trust. But is God trustworthy? The viability and vitality of faith depends upon the image of God we hold deep in our heart of hearts. Your image of God is critical.  If you see God essentially as a judge, then don’t be surprised if you become excessively judgmental.  If you’re not sure that God is trustworthy, faithful and good, then don’t be surprised if you’re obsessed with gaining control over your life, taking matters into your own hands, fending for yourself, living defensively, living with the myth of scarcity…what if God won’t provide, what if the manna won’t show up, what if there’s not enough?  I need to do something about this.  What am I going to do?  I.  I.  I.

To counter these egocentric faithless pieties, God comes to us as the generous one.  Here, and later in Jesus’ ministry, we come to see that God is known for God’s liberality, God’s excessiveness, God’s prodigality.  This is the image of God that should fill our hearts and minds.  John Calvin (1509-1564), writing on Exodus 16, said it beautifully, “God so far extended [God’s] liberality as abundantly to satisfy them, …not less was given than was amply sufficient for them.”[4]  This image was at the center of Calvin’s piety because he knew God to be liberal and prodigal with love for him.  And, Calvin knew, this manna is really something else; it’s not like the food we obtain through planting and harvesting, it doesn’t come through the fruit of our labor.  It doesn’t come from us.  This daily bread, the kind that really sustains us is pure grace.  It’s unearned. It’s freely given from a generous God.  It all flows from God’s bounty.

We know we are living in anxious times.  And fear abounds. It feels as if we’re in a wilderness.  Earthquakes: three in Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan.  Devastation from hurricanes in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Puerto Rico, most of the Caribbean.  Weekly talks about nuclear annihilation. Pathological narcissists with fragile egos playing with the lives of millions of God’s children.  On Wednesday evening here at CPC, Robert Jones, author of The End of White Christian America, shared disturbing data about trends in American society pertaining to religion, values, and unacknowledged racism tearing at the fabric of society.[5] We are living through a time of fast, unprecedented change. These changes, too, are yielding considerable anxiety. 

So, what can we do?

We can either resist anxiety, deny it, self-medicate, run from it, try to run “home,” go back to an imagined past, somewhere called “again.”  Or, knowing that God is faithful, we can stay with the anxiety, really feel it, enter it without succumbing to it.  This is not the usual response to anxiety, I know.  But it might be the more faithful one.  Isn’t this what the Israelites came to know in the wilderness? In fact, our anxiety, our unease, Walter Brueggemann goes so far to say, is a holy thing or can be holy.[6]  Why?  Because we can discover in our anxiety a new experience of the Living God.  We can discover something of the beneficence, the liberality, the abundance of God. 

Moses and Aaron summoned the people in the wilderness, in their anxiety, saying, “Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.” And as Aaron spoke, we’re told the whole congregation looked toward the wilderness—they looked out over the hot sands of the Sinai, they saw the barrenness all around them, they became conscious of their situation, caught between the past and the future. And what did they see there?  

The cloud!  

The glory, the presence of the Yahweh appeared in the cloud.  Then, Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God” (Ex. 16:16:12).  

Then, indeed…that morning and this morning and tomorrow morning and the next morning and the next, on and on and on, forever and ever. Amen.

Image: Anton Koberger (1440-1513), "Gathering Manna," German Bible, Nuremberg, 1483.

[1] Attributed to the American humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw (1818-1885), around 1870.
[2] See Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
[3] This is a theme found throughout Brueggemann’s scholarship, but cited here.  See also Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012).
[4] John Calvin, Commentary on Exodus.
[5] Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016).
[6] From Walter Brueggemann’s interview with Krista Tippet at OnBeing, “The Prophetic Imagination,” aired 19th December 2013.