One of my favorite places is a camp on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles.[i] After seminary, I was on staff for over a year. During that time there was a major wildfire on Catalina. We quickly evacuated our guests and ourselves by boat to Catalina’s town. We left the island with the eerie sight of flames in the night near our home.
To our great relief camp was saved, only singed around the edges. We returned to power and telephone down, plastic water lines melted, and ashes everywhere. Portable generators gave limited power for essentials for a few weeks. With no cell reception in camp, leaders occasionally drove a boat out to make calls.
Soon stress rose and tempers quickened. We complained about what we lost. We complained about what we had, especially what we had to eat. Days had passed before we got the generators. Lots of meat from the walk-in freezer was fine to eat if it was cooked soon. So as some staff cleaned off ashes and others laid plastic water pipe over the hill, our cook barbequed. We ate BBQ chicken and more BBQ chicken and yet more BBQ chicken. Most of us got very tired of BBQ chicken, but we kept eating it.
With time, we remembered the people of Israel eating quail in the desert.[ii] God rescued our ancestors from bitter slavery in Egypt. God provided manna, a bread from heaven, each day for food. They weren’t hungry, but they complained about not having the variety of food in Egypt. They complained about not having meat. God sent large flocks of quail and gave them so much meat that they had to eat it for a whole month and got fully fed up with it.
I like this story, and it makes me wince. I, too, quickly complained about BBQ chicken even though camp was safe, and we had plenty to eat. Today I miss what I once had. I long for previous times, when I lived with those friends, that schedule, was in that city, with that role or job, that health, that quality of life or comfort. I have enough, but I long for more. I long for what I’ve lost. I keep looking back at what I left and even what I have been rescued or saved from. I complain, fixate, and keep grumbling about it. Maybe you can relate.
Israel’s long journey in the wilderness was anything but a direct route to the Promised Land. God invested forty years to shepherd a generation from slavery toward freedom. God saved Israel in the Exodus out of Egypt, and God continued to save them through the wilderness and beyond. At first there was the victorious departure and crossing the Red Sea on dry ground. Then there were long hard years in the wilderness.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus speaks of a similar journey: “Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
The Exodus out of Egypt is like a narrow gate and the wilderness that hard road that leads to life. The decision to follow Jesus—or the affirmation that Jesus has chosen you—is a narrow gate and everything after is the hard road that leads to life. For some taking vows of marriage or partnership, profession, or ordination is a narrow gate, and each day of keeping them (showing up again and again with a “yes”) is the hard road that leads to life.
After celebrating that first “yes” of discovery and commitment, we’re often surprised at the challenges that follow. I’m embarrassed by how much I have said: “Wow, this road is hard!” “Why are we in still in this wilderness?” and “I really miss what we used to have.”
At camp, remembering the Israelites in the wilderness reframed eating yet more BBQ chicken. We remembered God was with us. God kept providing amid our losses. With that in mind, we tried to minimize complaining and be actively gracious with each other amid the real stresses. We intentionally practiced saying “thank you” to God and each other. As we did, we saw more of how God continued to provide for and save us as we lived, stumbled, and had to keep forgiving each other through the fire cleanup and beyond.
There is an important distinction between complaining and grief. Grief may include some complaint. All of us experience much loss. Having loved, all of us experience heartbreak. Many experience tragic suffering. Grieving loss is human. God invites our grief in all its searing pain, anger, confusion, and bitterness. God hears people crying in pain. From Abel’s blood through the psalms as they express all emotions, God hears our cry. With pointed pain, the psalmists also express trust, too, that God hears and is good.
What are you complaining about? What, perhaps, do you need to grieve—being specific about the pain and trusting? How might stepping back reframe your perspective? What’s your gratitude? How has God brought you up steep inclines and through rough places? How God has been faithful?
God is still saving us here. Give thanks for all God’s provision on the hard journey. Give thanks for divine road food, even if it’s more BBQ chicken.
[ii] Numbers 11
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