I have an affinity for those Scripture passages where the people or disciples complain to God. Because, who hasn’t? In today’s first reading Moses is also a target, the fate of leaders throughout history. (Numbers 21)
From Mount Hor the children of Israel set out on the Red Sea road, to bypass the land of Edom. But with their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!”
Disgusted. Wretched. Very descriptive. And real.
The story continues that God sent serpents to bite the people as punishment for their complaints! Which spurred the folks to apologize, and then God helped Moses get everyone to chill out by making a bronze serpent on a pole, and everyone who looked at it lived.
The nitty gritty reality of the complaining is what sticks with me. And makes me laugh every time this reading comes up in the lectionary. Because if I am honest, my own conversations with my loving creator sometimes fall into the complaint variety. Sometimes they are substantive and grounded in true issues. Sometimes they are of the more petty variety. Most often probably in the middle? And if I am to be real before God, I can’t stuff it down or pretend I don’t feel all the feelings.
When my Mom was dying of cancer twenty years ago, I had my first true (adult) crisis of faith. It was accompanied by a lot of complaining of the substantive variety. I had a valid beef with the reality of suffering and most particularly the suffering my Mom was going through, and how God was seemingly ok with it. Still do all these years later, truth be told. A wise priest friend encouraged me to spend some time with the psalms. They were filled not only with complaining, he told me, but even anger at God. And anger, he pointed out, is a pretty intimate emotion.
Somehow reading those ancient complaints and screeds against God brought me closer to God in the midst of the reality of suffering. Here’s the thing … while in today’s story from Numbers, God may have punished the people first, the story ends with mercy. The story always ends with God’s mercy. God listens. God is with us. And God wants to hear our complaints! As we hear today in Psalm 102:
Let this be written for the generation to come, and let his future creatures praise the Lord:
“The Lord looked down from his holy height, from heaven he beheld the earth, To hear the groaning of the prisoners,to release those doomed to die.
So go ahead. Groan. Complain…. God has heard worse. We won’t find the way through by ignoring the death dealing realities of life, real and figurative. We might miss life giving opportunities if we do. God invites us always to bring our realities to our relationship with our loving creator. And for that I am very grateful.