Good and Mad
I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. They seem to provide hope at a time when it’s all too easy to fall into a kind of despair, or what we might call giving up. Giving up is different from giving over to God what seems too big to carry alone.
In one podcast, Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber talks about a time in her life, at the age of 12, when she was really sick with an autoimmune disorder, which caused fatty tissue to build up behind her face so that her eyeballs bulged up out of her face, so extremely that her eyelids couldn’t close. At the age of 12, she was ostracized by her peers, at that tender age, where self-consciousness is at its height. And surgery wasn’t an option until her bones were fully developed, so she lived that way until she was 16. Four long years, ostracized, made fun of, stared at, whispered about.
In the interview, Bolz Weber says this:“When you have an experience like that one of two things can happen…You can either become a self-diminished person who tries to disappear, or you can become angry. To become angry as opposed to disappearing becomes a kind of self-preservation.”
To be angry about how she was treated then became something she was grateful for because the anger preserved and protected something inside of her.
When I heard that story, I couldn’t help but think of the Israelites, who in this Sunday's scripture are angry; and they complain to Moses, who in turn complains to God. If you recall a few weeks ago, in an earlier scripture, the Israelites were grumbling then, or complaining, or angry – in this case I use these words interchangeably. There are other accounts of the Israelites complaining in the book of Exodus; and more than once about not having food and water. So their complaints are serious. They’re life and death complaints; they are what anyone would consider justified. Because what’s the alternative, to disappear into a state of despair? To diminish their own needs until they wither away quietly in the background? Or to get angry in an attempt to affect change, and in doing so protect the very life they so value?
I could point to endless articles about the anger in our country and how it’s been brewing for over a decade – especially for those who have been promised a better life – only to find that their taxes go up, their jobs are threatened, their healthcare inadequate, the promise of an education they can’t afford. There are those in this country that have been promised change long before the virus, and they’re angry.
And now, you can add to that, anger over the ways in which this virus has been managed, anger over the disproportionate ways it affects people of color, anger over a lack of unified leadership.
And as justified as all that anger is, it’s small compared to those who have seen death and illness up close: those in the wilderness then, hungry and thirsty; and those today who have and will continue to face this virus with the staggering number of over 200,000 deaths in this country alone. We’ve become numb to the numbers, and frankly, I would prefer to see people angry over them than numb to them and disappearing into a kind of disappearing denial of them.
When elderly people are very sick and begin to get ornery, what do we usually think? We often see it as a good sign that there’s some fight left in them, because there’s something in them that expects for things to change.
The Israelites expected change, we expect change. And the God of infinite mercy and grace is our rock and our redeemer during those times when we’re faced with a choice between giving up or complaining.
And as Sharon Dowson said, “If you’re going to complain you better complain to someone who can actually do something about it.”
For the Israelites in this scripture, that’s Moses, but Moses is also a spokesperson for God, so it’s not unlike complaining to God, and Moses in turn complains to God, “What am I to do with these people?”
In the eyes of the person complaining, in both those instances, they are complaining to the one they think can change things.They still have some fight in them: that’s self-preservation.
Theologian Walter Bruggemann says this about complaining: that when the people complain, they're hoping to "mobilize Yahweh to be Yahweh's best, true self," because they have a “deep confidence that the God...can prevent and overcome such intolerable life experiences.”
But to complain to God? To bring your anger to God? If you Google the topic, you’ll find a lot of preachers who will tell you that's sinful. But I’m not one of them. I can’t imagine for a second that God wants anything but our whole self, and that includes our truth – that is our honesty – even and especially when it’s rooted in our deep need, in need of wholeness, of peace.
To bring our deepest needs to God requires a willingness to admit humility, but too often we confuse humility with politeness, so we soften and temper what we’re feeling, convinced that it’s irreverent or wrong to feel angry.
Joanne Dunn said it best when she said she thinks it’s most important to be honest with God. Often, I will hear many of you say I shouldn’t complain, or I should be grateful, when what you should be is completely honest.
One of the more common things you’ll hear about Christian churches is that the deepest honesty expressed to God takes place in the church basements. What people are referring to when they say that are the 12-Step meetings that normally take place in church basements. At St. Luke they take place in the Bayview Room. Either way, if you’ve ever attended a 12-Step meeting, you will find people publicly confessing, admitting their reliance on a God they trust to do and to carry what they cannot.
The psalmists in our Bible do the same. With brutal laments to God, they complain. But inherent in the complaint is the belief and trust that God can and will show up, will carry and change what they cannot. Inherent in the complaint is faith. Anger and complaint to God understood this way is a form of self-compassion, not irreverence, and the God of mercy and grace, the God of unconditional love not only can take it, but prefers your honesty over your politeness.
There's a word in Spanish: desahogarse means “to undrown oneself.” It refers to disclosing a story of grief or difficulty in a way that liberates the teller, or at least lightens her load. (I read about this word as it as it relates to those who travel a different kind of wilderness, one that will carry them into this country, to receive the promises it makes symbolically, like the ones written on the Statue of Liberty.)
Undrown yourself is the invitation made to those who have traveled across the Sonoran Desert, risking their life for the sake of their family back home, all in the hope of landing work that pays more than a few dollars a day. Rest here awhile; says the new friend, tell me your story. Undrown yourself. There isn't much water out there in the wilderness, God knows, but there are plenty of ways to be swallowed up by sorrow.1
When Moses complains to God, here’s what God does not say:
Quit your complaining, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, think positively, be grateful, figure it out on your own.
What God does say is take some of the elders of Israel with you.
That’s easy to miss in this scripture, because we become focused on the rock and the staff and the water that comes from the rock. Take some of the elders of Israel with you.
This journey is not taken alone – not in your home, even if you live alone. If you’re here today, you are part of a community of God’s people. The community of God’s people travel together, through all kinds of anger –provoking circumstance that would have us lamenting and complaining to a god whom we trust will carry it with infinite mercy and grace. Undrown yourself here, with trust in a God who carries for you what is too much to carry alone.
Our weakness, our dependence, our honesty and humility, when shared and confessed out loud to the company of God’s people, becomes the motive for boundless confidence in giving ourselves over to the perfect love of our creator.