Holy Grumbling

“From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ But the people thirsted there for water, and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’”

Exodus 17:1-3

Not long ago I came across a book at the library that takes a humorous look at the current state of British morals and manners.

The title, “Mustn’t Grumble,” could hardly be improved upon— it refers, of course, to that peculiarly British notion that complaining, if not morally repugnant, is at least certainly in bad taste and bad form.

Contrast this to the Jewish tradition in which grumbling, complaining, kvetching, is not only not bad form but actually a highly developed art form.

And so we have a new book out which highlights the Yiddish flair for creative grumbling with a title that says it all: “Born to Kvetch.”

The author suggests that “kvetching” is an attitude “that sees the world through cataract-colored glasses.”

He says “that if the Rolling Stones’ song, ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ had been written in Yiddish, it would have been called ‘(I Love to Keep Telling You That I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (Because Telling You That I’m Not Satisfied Is All That Can Satisfy Me).’”

The author points out that even the most innocuous question can become a launching pad for kvetching— Question: How are you? Answer: Don’t ask!—the problem is, if you’re the questioner, you have already asked and what’s likely to follow is a twenty-minute laundry list of misfortunes and mishaps.

So given the rich Jewish heritage of creative kvetching, it’s not really surprising that in that most Jewish of books, the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament, there’s a fair amount of grumbling.

But what we might find surprising, and perhaps a little shocking, is how often this grumbling is addressed to God—how often complaints and accusations are leveled against God.

For example, in today’s lesson from Exodus, the Israelites, having escaped Egypt, are railing against Moses for leading them into a wilderness where they are in danger of perishing for lack of water—and Moses, sensing that a mutiny might be in the works, fears for his life—

But the people are not just protesting against Moses and Aaron, their leaders—they are also lodging a bitter complaint against Yaweh—they are voicing a vote of no confidence in Yaweh’s promise to provide for them.

Now twice before on this journey in the wild, Moses has had to contend with ominous rumbling and grumbling among the people when they have run out of water and food—and each time Yaweh has dispensed emergency provisions that have saved the day.

But even though Yaweh has rescued the Israelites twice before, their trust in Yaweh is far from certain and unshakable.

When they run out of water again, as described in today’s reading, the people are once more thrown into a state of panic and once more the sound of kvetching and grumbling is heard rising from their ranks which might be translated as follows: just because Yaweh saved us twice before doesn’t mean it will happen again!

Kvetching against God is one of the signature features of the Hebrew Bible—and the Jews can lay claim to doing it with unmatched fervor and originality.

For example, when my mother-in-law felt truly put upon, she would fall back on the prophet Isaiah for one of her favorite kvetches: “How long, O Lord?”

And, of course, the Psalms are chock-full of bold, blatant, and sometimes quite bleak grumblings against God.

This is from Psalm 88:

“Lord, why have you rejected me?
Why have you hidden your face from me?……
Your blazing anger has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me;
They surround me all day long like a flood;
they encompass me on every side.
My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,
And darkness is my only companion.”

Maybe this is why one of my seminary professors said to us one day, “When you feel bad, I mean really bad, turn to the Psalms because they will articulate your woe far better than you can.”

And this Jewish tradition of outspoken, even brash, grumbling against God continues unto this day, often under the cover of humor.

A certain Jew went to the Wailing Wall every day where he prayed at the same spot from dawn til dusk—someone asked him what he was praying for—he replied, “For world peace and understanding.”—well, he was asked, how’s it going?—he answered, “It’s like talking to a brick wall.”

Now the very idea of grumbling at God may strike some as unthinkably impertinent and irreverent—but I would suggest to you that kvetching at God is akin to the cranky child who says to his mother, “I hate you,” and the mother, completely unruffled, says in a matter of fact voice, “Yes, dear, I know.”

Well, I would like to consider with you how this ancient story of the Israelites’ grumbling, kvetching, in the wilderness, and the whole biblical tradition of kvetching against God, pose a question about faith that is also our question about faith day in and day out.

And the question is this—will we be provided for today, tomorrow, the next day?—Or, to quote today’s text, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Because even during the most comfortable and secure of times, this question seems to lurk just below the surface.

Oh, yes—during past times of crisis and need, during the storms of life, we have repeatedly been given sustenance sufficient to see us through—but that’s no guarantee that we will continue to be blessed with those unexpected events of grace, those life-giving surprises, those gifts that have fallen into our laps, that have nourished and upheld us, that have refueled us and kept us going.

Certainly we remember how, when we have been languishing in the waste-land of trouble and tribulation, we have been fed, nurtured, and ministered to— yes, we cleave to these memories, but at the same time we question how and if this will happen the next time we’re in dire straits.

Because maybe next time the waves will roll over us—maybe next time we’ll go under—maybe next time we’ll be a goner.

Enter grumbling—grumbling expresses the doubt and uncertainty that are always a part of faith—grumbling is the voice of our anxiety that maybe today or tomorrow our daily bread will come up missing.

So even as we hope and trust that we will somehow receive from the Giver of all good gifts whatever it is we truly need and cannot supply ourselves, at the same time we may well find ourselves plagued by the suspicion that this faith-business is just a pipe-dream and whistling in the dark.

The grumbling of doubt comes from realizing what faith is up against in “this mad, mad, mad, mad world”—yes, we may hear ourselves groaning, if not outwardly at least inwardly, when it dawns on us what a preposterous, impossible thing it is to have faith in such a harsh and merciless world.

James Muilenburg, professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, used to tell his students, “Every morning when you wake up, before you reaffirm your faith in…..God, before you say ‘I believe’ for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies….and then see if you can honestly say (I believe) again.”

Perhaps he would advise us to take a walk in the city or take a drive through those parts of the East Side or West Side where we dare not walk and take in the human wretchedness, the lives stunted and disfigured by social chaos and violence, poverty, untreated illness, malnutrition, drugs, what have you, and then see if we can say “I believe.”

For over twenty-five years, Father John McNamee worked as a parish priest in one of the poorest, roughest neighborhoods in North Philadelphia.

In “Diary of a City Priest,” he gives an account of his day-to-day efforts to minister to the people of the public housing projects, almost none of whom are Catholics.

His daily agenda might include trying to get somebody into a detox program for the third time, the thankless task of looking for a job, any job, for a parolee just out of prison, getting out of bed at 2 a.m. and going to night court because some young offender has no one else to speak for him, responding to the endless requests for food and help with unpaid bills that come literally knocking at his door, knowing there’s a good chance the money will go for drugs, twisting the arm of the ER doctor to get an uninsured woman admitted to the hospital, transporting somebody home in the middle of the night because Father McNamee is the only one with a car (until the car gets stolen), hounding potential donors for school scholarships for kids who otherwise will be hanging out on the corner and for contributions to get the pantry re-stocked, etc.

Every so often, when his morale and faith have become worn and threadbare almost to the vanishing point, he somewhat guiltily accepts an invitation from his suburban friends for dinner at an expensive restaurant or takes them up on their offer to pay for a short vacation trip to Ireland.

And when Father McNamee and his co-workers are sorely oppressed by the blight and raw misery of the projects, they are not at all reluctant to grumble at God—one day he and a social worker nun are visiting a high rise looking for a woman on drugs about to be evicted for rent delinquency, and a swarm of children are playing around an unprotected, dangerous elevator where a week earlier a child had fallen to his death—he asks the nun, “What do you think He (meaning God) had in mind?”—the nun answers “I don’t know, but he better go back to the drawing board.”

Father McNamee admits to times when he feels consumed by doubt, when, as he puts it, “I awake and the burden of this difficult place and a wounded self are simply there, waiting for me as I put my feet on the floor,” when it feels like “nothing is out there—no one—never was.”

And yet in the midst of his doubt he senses something else—he writes: “framed in the morning window (there is) such splendor, such sun and sky and birdsong, (that) even in the worn city….I am drawn in. Something greater is going on than this melodrama of mine….I should never lose sight of all that the window brings in here and invites me out into simultaneously…I sense that there is a larger reality in which (we are) encircled and the love (that) gave (us our) existence is awesomely greater than any clouding of the splendor of the gift by AIDS or tragedy or whatever.”

In the midst of his doubt, in the midst of this urban wilderness, Father McNamee is again and again, against all odds, fed and restored—one day at the break of dawn, as he is trying to assimilate the news that a cyclone in Bangladesh has claimed thousands of lives, he walks out into a breathtakingly cool, clear, sunlit May morning and is suddenly transfixed by the beauty of a blood-red azalea blooming in front of the concrete Ladyshrine.

Father McNamee’s faith is hounded and shadowed by doubt—he rages and grumbles against what he calls “the impossibility of my life” and yet at the same time he somehow continues to believe, to trust, that underneath everything, encircling all of us, are the Everlasting Arms.

So when we are blindsided by adversity and we realize, in the words of today’s collect, that “we have no power to help ourselves,” grumbling, you might say, is our natural reflex.

Like the Israelites, we grumble because we fear that this time relief might not be forthcoming, that this time we might be left high and dry.

So when deliverance, grace, happens, when we are fed in the wilderness, it is never a ho hum affair—it is always startling and miraculous—it is always cause for celebration and rejoicing.

Holding out our hands to receive bread and wine is the primal gesture of waiting to be fed by the mysterious Source of All Life.

Waiting to be fed is the adventure of faith.

And, as those members of our parish who have trekked to New Orleans well know, it is often by feeding others that we are fed.

To be given the opportunity to feed others with whatever talents and energy we have been given is sheer gift and grace—which is what Jennifer Anne Moses also discovered.

In her memoir, “Bagels and Grits, a Jew on the Bayou,” Ms. Moses speaks of moving with her husband and children from an upper crust suburb of Washington D.C. to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Severed from her familiar ties to friends, synagogue, and favorite delis, she soon discovers that she has landed in a polyglot wilderness of Cajuns and Evangelical Christians that seems alien and desolate.

A self-described nervous wreck, very much at loose ends, and desperately seeking some way of being useful, she volunteers at St. Anthony’s, an AIDS hospice, and decides to study Hebrew at the small local synagogue, Beth Shalom—she’s not sure she believes anything but this doesn’t prevent her from grumbling with a vengeance at God.

And then Katrina struck.

Ms. Moses writes:

“When Katrina, and then Rita, roared ashore, altering both the landscape and the American psyche, I found myself doing something I never would have been able to do had Stuart not dragged me and the kids down to Baton Rouge, where I found myself, both at St. Anthony’s and at Beth Shalom, surrounded by people whose deepest desire was to walk with God. In a shelter that had been set up in an abandoned K-Mart on Airline Highway, I worked—along with hundreds of medical and nonmedical volunteers from all over the country—tending to the sick and the desperate, giving sponge-baths, dispensing stuffed animals, and helping people who could barely walk get to the toilet or finding them something to eat. People I’d never before met and would no doubt never see again sobbed in my arms. Old men clutched my hand; Vietnam vets begged me to help them find relatives lost in the storm; people who’d spent days waist-high in filthy water or praying for their lives inside the New Orleans Superdome or the Civic Center blessed me, saying that I was an angel, and that God was good, and that the shelter itself—with its ancient grime, buzzing, fluorescent lighting, and almost complete lack of plumbing—was heaven.”

Ms. Moses goes on: “In the fifth-century book the Pesikta de-Rav Kahana it is written: ‘Between the Garden of Eden and ….(hell) there is no more than the breadth of a hand’”—that is, one human hand can make the difference between paradise and hell.

She concludes with this prayer: “Dear God, my heavenly Father, Source of All Life, guide my hands.”

And so we might pray: “Dear God, Source of All Life, guide our hands that they might feed those who are hungry in body, mind, or spirit.”

As our New Orleans missioners can vouch for, it is one of the great paradoxes of the kingdom of God that in seeking to feed others, we are fed. Amen.

Robert Dwight
3 Lent
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, OH
February 24, 2008


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