"And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, "Is the Lord among us or not?" Exodus 17:7, ESV
The story of the people of Israel longing for water in the desert was one of the passages used at the Mid Council Leaders Gathering in St. Louis last week. This is a gathering of Presbytery and Synod leaders from across the country, coming together for fellowship, learning, and the opportunity to tell our stories. Past gatherings have been deeply marked by the grief of congregations leaving, the struggle over reduced resources, and the anxiety about what the future would bring.
There was a different spirit in the air this time, though, a tentative sense of emerging from the dark, turning the corner, the sun breaking out after a long and damaging storm. This time, there were more stories of hope and grace, more laughter than tears, and a growing sense that the new thing that is emerging might actually be a greater blessing.
I love the stories of the Israelites traveling through the wilderness because they are so human. Of course they grumbled against Moses and God. Of course they longed to go back to where things were, if not comfortable, at least predictable. Of course they were thirsty and hungry in the desert. The very humanity of the stories makes me smile, and convicts me of my own grumbling and quarreling.
And in the midst of the grumbling and quarreling, the doubting and fighting, the ingratitude and lack of faith, God keeps showing up. The pillar of fire and pillar of cloud continue to lead the fractious crowd, and Moses continues to speak with God as with a friend. Though the people act more often as whiny brats than humbled followers, God's faithfulness is unabated.
God shows up in the desert with water, a gushing torrent coming from a rock at Horeb. They are not left to die of thirst, as they were not left to die of hunger. God shows up.
What struck me in hearing this passage read in the context of Mid Council leaders gathered together was how the location of this story was named, how Moses chose to remember that place and time. The focus of the story became the quarreling and grumbling of the people: "And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, 'Is the Lord among us or not?'"
When God shows up with abundance, with life-giving water, with an answer to prayer that astounds in its overflowing, how do we remember it? Do we mark that time in our lives with the story of our tears, our anger, our fear, our anxiety? Or do we mark that time in our lives with the story of God's providence, of the love of Jesus, of the movement of the Holy Spirit, of provision, abundance, grace and mercy poured out?
Do you see how that can change the narrative, and change the hearts and minds of everyone who experienced the event and then retells the story? If we focus on the way God appears in our midst instead of the ways we doubted and lamented, we change the focus and God's presence takes the central spot. This isn't to diminish the real pain and suffering of the journey, the betrayals and hurts, the fears and sorrows. Instead, it is to frame those heart-rending days with the answer Jesus gave his disciples. "I will be with you even to the end of the days," he told them, and he tells us.
God shows up. I'm renaming in my heart the place at Horeb where the water flowed from the rock "Abundance." I will choose new markers for my journey and for the journey of the places where I serve that celebrate God's faithfulness.