Today we pick up on the story of Moses again. Since we last visited this story, Moses has grown up, asked the Pharaoh to deliver the Israelites, the Pharaoh refused, the plagues came to the Egyptians, the Pharaoh reluctantly freed the Israelite slaves, then changed his mind and sent the armies after them. As they were being chased they came to the Red Sea, trapped between this body of water and those chasing them, the seas parted and the Israelites crossed to the other side while the Egyptian army was caught in the waters. A pillar of cloud leads the Israelites by day and fire by night and food is provided for them to eat. So, by all accounts, you would think the Israelites would be grateful for their freedom and feeling blessed by the food they are receiving. But, no. In todays’ scripture we hear that the Israelites are complaining again. This time they are thirsty. So they go to Moses and say, “Why did you free us from Egypt? Did you just bring us here to die of thirst? We were better off before. Why did you free us?”
Now, remember, the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt. They had been worked hard by their masters, given food and shelter, but not much… just enough to keep them healthy enough to do the manual labor they were forced to do. They had no freedom, and were used to harsh conditions. Now they are on an extended wilderness trip, walking through the desert, their needs being met by God, but still they complain. Why didn’t you leave us there to die? Why did you bring us into freedom? This isn’t what we signed up for!
I do wonder how many years this was into their journey. We are told they are wandering through the wilderness for forty years before reaching the promised land, so if they had been walking around for years already, this complaint may make sense. The new lives that would have been born in the wilderness having known no slavery, the memories of harshness faded to a fairy tale re-telling of their lives in Egypt, the many lives that would have been lost with no place to be laid to rest. All impacting the people. And the fading memory of how bad it had been replaced with the day to day reality of surviving while following this guy who was making promises about a land that was full of milk and honey…. Empty promises of plenty for all that were beginning to sound like lies when all they had to eat was manna in the mornings and quail in the evenings…. And, presumably, they would get meat from the flocks they had with them too. But this would get boring after a while. Where was the sweetness of the honey? Where was the creaminess of the milk? Where was this place where enough turned to plenty and roots could be laid down, crops grown, lives rebuilt with a sense of stability? And who was this Moses who kept talking about this land that felt far away? Who had put him in charge? And who was this God he claimed to keep talking to?
As they complained once more, Moses listened and turned once more to God. What shall I do God? I want to take care of the people, but they are testing you once more. They are ready to stone me. They are thirsty for more. And once more God answered, told Moses where to go and what to do, and in his faithfulness, Moses listened and followed the instructions, hit a rock with his staff, and water flowed, enough water for all the people and all the animals alike.
And we know this is far from the end of their complaining. As the story continues to unfold, they complain about the ten commandments, they complain about the idols they are told not to worship, they complain about the leadership, it seems that all they do is complain as they travel for these forty years through the wilderness.
All this leaves me to wonder how much better their lives would have been if they had expressed gratitude instead of complaining. If, when they had arrived at the camp where they were thirsty they simply said, Hi God. Thank you for all you have given us. We are grateful for the food, the freedom you afforded us, the ways you are guiding us and are never far from us during this time. We know there must be water in this place.. can you show us where it is please?… Thank you God!
For when our hearts are filled with gratitude our whole attitude is different and we begin to notice the blessings of life, rather than what is absent. And this is counter cultural, for the world loves to tell us what is missing from our lives. Consumerism tells us all the time that we don’t have enough. That if only we had this or that product, our lives would be better and we would be happy. If we buy this cereal, we will be filled for the whole day. If we buy this make up we will be beautiful. If we buy this car our lives will be filled with adventure and romance and new things. Even the right toilet paper will make your life better! Every time we turn on the radio or tv or open a newspaper, we are told what we are lacking, what we need to buy to be and feel better. And this can make us complain about what we are missing, rather than seeing the abundance of what we have.
I have a friend who began to take this seriously over a decade ago. It was spurred by an unfortunate Thanksgiving, where she had invited some people to come and eat with her family. She had a middle school daughter at the time, and life was chaotic and hard, with the two of them butting heads often. And when their friends cancelled coming for Thanksgiving, she felt let down and angry and upset… Surely it must be her own fault that the friends had cancelled after she had spent time and energy into planning a great feast. And I think there was much complaining in the house that week! She says, “I was a wreck. My daughter was a wreck. And my husband couldn’t ‘fix’ anything that was happening. Clearly, we lost sight of what Thanksgiving and the upcoming Advent season were supposed to mean so I decided, in that moment, that we would not sit down to dinner until we each stated 1 thing we were grateful for.
It wasn’t a moment of glory.
They had no idea where I was coming from. It was a challenge that none of us were really ready to be open to and it came off as more of a punishment than an opportunity for spiritual growth.”
But, it was the start of a conversation between her and God, one that planted seeds over several years, seeds that began to grow as she listened to what God was cultivating in her heart.
She says, After a few years, I realized I needed more. This is the point that I began to understand that: 1. gratitude is different from thankfulness, and 2. it’s personal – it has to grow from within.
I knew I was missing something – that still, small voice whispered, “Why be grateful on “that one day”
And instead of just demanding one thing that her family was thankful for on Thanksgiving Day itself, she began to name things she was thankful for in the week leading up to Thanksgiving Day. Soon she was giving thanks each day of November, journalling what these were so she could look back upon them. And soon the nudge from God was why limit your gratitude to Thanksgiving. What about the other days? Why wait? And so, since then, she has practiced gratitude each day, journalling through the good days and the hard days, the ones where joy is easy to find and the ones where grief and chaos and doubt swirl. What is there to be grateful for in the midst of all of life! And it has been a transformational practice for her.
This practice has led her to some deep lessons, including her saying:
there is a difference between thankfulness and gratitude. Thankfulness is a social act, an outward response, to honor and appreciate the efforts of another.
Gratitude, while expressing appreciation, is more importantly an emotional state of being. Gratitude grows from within and then needs an outward expression.
Gratitude is not the same thing as Joy. Gratitude may be the spark for Joy, but in real life we are asked to find gratitude in order to find balance in the worst of moments where joy is the last feeling that would be reasonable. Grief and gratitude go hand in hand just as naturally as it partners with peace and joy.
Gratitude is understanding that while the world seems so crazy, I have an anchor that holds me in balance.
Gratitude allows us to glimpse the Eternal in the Everyday and we begin to respond to the Divine rather than the tunnel vision that narrows our focus onto the single moment that is causing our distress. The more we rely on gratitude we begin to replace negative responses and begin to feel at peace.”
These deep lessons have continued to be transformative for her life as she moves through the difficult times and the times where peace and joy are more easily seen. It now comes more naturally to her, the gratitude rises from deep within, and sometimes finds an outward expression, but sometimes really is just an inner attitude that brings strength and a different way of looking at and feeling into the world, and brings about more glimpses of God at work in every day life.
These days it may seem like we have a lot to complain about…. Our nation is unsettled, we don’t know what November will bring, we have lost a great advocate for women with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, justice feels far from being served, people are taking to the streets to make their voices heard and some are using the protests as an excuse for violence, many have lost income during CoVid, and some say complain freedoms are being taken away. But what we if can change our attitude and see what we have to be grateful for?
So, right now, I invite you to feel a sense of gratitude. Find that sense of gratitude that resides deep within you. If you are struggling to find it, return to the things that caught your attention as Kitty played Surely The Presence of the Lord is in this place. Find that place of gratitude within you. You need not have a specific thing that you are grateful for, but just the feeling of gratitude. Picture it like a light, a small flicker of candle light. And as you sit with this, picture the light getting stronger, glowing brighter, allowing that sense of gratitude to grow and spread with the light’s brightness. See if you can allow it to fill your whole body, your whole being, allowing the gratitude to flow, to spread, to build, to glow and warm your whole self. Sit with this sense of gratitude, just letting it be. If a feeling of fear or doubt or anxiety tries to come in, set it aside for now and just let the light fill you, the gratitude to become you.
As we go through these tumultuous times, let us turn complaints into gratitude. It may start with naming what you are thankful for, but it may be sitting with that feeling of gratitude and allowing it to build and spread. Watch how it transforms you, gives you strength, allows the grief and pain to be held in a different way. Allow gratitude to become your anchor, and give you glimpses of the Eternal everywhere you are and in all you meet, and pay attention to how it transforms you over time.