Ah, Remember the Fleshpots?
It was the 15th day of the second month since they left Egypt…so they are about 45 days in before they started whining. Why did we leave Egypt anyway? We should have stayed. We could have just died there. It would be better than leaving and going through all this just to die anyway! Ah, remember the fleshpots? Oh, to have one now on the fire boiling with meat in it. To sit and eat freshly baked bread until I just can’t eat anymore.
The Israelites weren’t in the wilderness long before they missed Egypt. Sure, they were slaves there. Sure, every day was hard and hot, but there was meat. Remember the meat? Oh, to have a pot of boiled meat now, to have bread to eat their fill. The reliability, the predictability,…normal. We just want to get back to normal.
Whenever we find ourselves at a liminal time, a threshold time, in a space between what was and what will be normal, we get into the space between and look back. And when we look back, we don’t see reality, but a distortion of reality – we see the good and not the bad, we see through rose-colored glasses, we long to return to an idealized version of normal.
The Israelites don’t want to return to slavery. They were regularly beaten, treated like animals, and there really was not meat regularly to eat. But this new time is hard. Every day in the desert is the same. You get up in the sand, it is hot, you walk, you look for food and water, you look for a place to set up camp, you sleep. Life-threatening situations could happen any day…will there be enough food, enough water, will we face an enemy, sickness? They are tired of transition, and unknown and of creating a new way of being community. So, they just whine to go back.
Jeff Greenberg, a social psychologist, researches the factors that determine our social behavior. In a recent interview he talked about the desire to get “back to normal” as a coping mechanism. We are living in the midst of social upheaval. Like the Israelites, we left home mid-March, and we have not arrived in the promised land by any stretch…in fact, like the Israelites we feel like we are wandering in a wilderness.
I looked up May 1st to give you an idea what was going on in our world 45 days after the sheltering at home began, to compare to 45 days after the Israelites left Egypt. It was a Friday. Masks were just being recommended strongly, so I re-filmed the Benediction for Sunday’s service wearing a mask. I weeded the back flowerbed with the day lilies. Do you remember what you were doing on Friday, May 1st? I only remember because I remember a conversation that I had on that day with Ann Erickson. Most days are all about the same – if it is Monday, I am teaching class and preparing the bulletin and Happenings, Tuesday is reading and preparation for sermon, Wednesday is writing and Wednesday Outdoor Worship, Thursday is finishing writing and filming for Sunday, Friday is reading for class on Monday, Saturday is preparing bulletin and service for Wednesday, Sunday is Sabbath. And again, it is Monday. There are some other things thrown in there, but those are the main markers in my week right now. But on May 1st, I didn’t have those markers figured out. I was still used to my old rhythm. I was struggling with whether I was ahead or behind schedule because I didn’t have a schedule. Everyday seemed completely open, without goals or task lists to provide a sense of accomplishment, a sense of normality.
When the Israelites complained, God responded. “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. Every day, you are to go out and gather just enough for that day. On the 6th day, get enough for 2 days and prepare it. At twilight each evening, you will eat meat and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.”
We can explain the food. The Israelites called the bread from heaven “manna” which in Hebrew just means “what is it?” We know what it most likely was. There is a little aphid-like insect that punctures the fruit on tamarisk trees and excretes a substance from the juice that is a yellowish-white flake that is sweet and can be baked into bread. We know that quails in migration from Africa in that area are tired in the evening and when they land are easy to catch. Some preachers and scholars have been bothered by the ability to explain the manna and the quail, but I don’t think that the food is the miracle. The miracle is the routine. Their days became scheduled. When God created the earth, he first said, “Let there be light” and the light was good, and he separated the light and the darkness calling them day and night and there was evening and morning and it was the first day. When they were in Egypt, they knew what they did when, seven days a week. Here’s the real miracle of the routine – on the sixth day they are to gather enough for the seventh day. They worked seven days a week in Egypt, now they are to follow God’s routine. Work six and rest on the seventh. It is a reset for them – that is the miracle.
I don’t think it is the fleshpots they miss as much as the occasions of festivity that called for them having meat with the conversations around the fire as the meat boiled and the preparations and the feasting together – the laughter, the children playing, the sense of satisfaction as they fell into bed tired and full – physically and relationally. They aren’t ready to return to a new normal, yet, that includes those kinds of festivities.
For now, they are given the miracle of routine, of daily work and of Sabbath rest. And so are we. Christian theologian Richard Rohr wrote about the potential of this time:
“Liminal space is an inner state and sometimes and outer situation where we can begin to think and act in new ways. It is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next. We usually enter liminal space when our former way of being is challenged or changed – perhaps when we lose a job or a loved one, during illness, at the birth of a child, or a major relocation. It is a graced time, but often does not feel ‘graced’ in any way. In such space we are not certain or in control.”
That is why it is so tempting to long for the past, “Ah, the fleshpots!” Oh, if we could just have a great big party – if we could all gather and have a great big group hug – oh, if we could just go back to the way it was before the pandemic. Except we will leave out some of the reality before the pandemic: that we rarely had time to do much more than keep enough clothes clean for the next day; that the time in a drive-thru had to be weighed against how hungry we were to see if we paused long enough to get something to eat for lunch; that we didn’t eat as a family more than a few times a month; that we rarely all watched a movie together or played a game or talked; that church family was a low-priority and church functions were fun if we made it to them, but so often there was a conflict. Oh, if we could just go back…
I had a history teacher in middle school, Mr. Wood, who often said, “It’s not the way it used to be, and it never was.”
The Israelites didn’t want to go back to Egypt, really. They wanted to get over the threshold. They wanted to get beyond the liminal space into the promised land. And yet, there were miracles happening in the liminal space. God was providing for them and shaping them for a new normal.
What are the things you took for granted before the pandemic that now you value? The relationships? What changes in routine have been positive? What have you learned? How will you restructure your routines and priorities going forward? Take some time in quiet today to reflect on your hopes for new normal. On the way and after we arrive, let us be thankful that God provides our daily bread and our Sabbath rest and collect them as we have been instructed by God. Amen.