Doom-Scrolling in the Wilderness

Exodus 16 – Discovering Manna                                                                  

“Doom-scrolling” is now on the new word watchlist for the Marriam-Webster dictionary.  It means “the tendency to continue to surf or scroll {online} through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing.”  Welcome to a typical Thursday while I read the news and write my pastoral prayers.  Should I start with the scenes of Oregon amid Dante’s Inferno?  Or the Twitter video of anti-mask protestors chanting at Target, proclaiming their freedom as COVID spreaders?  Should I read about another Hurricane, the barking-mad rantings of talk show hosts or even government officials, or forced hysterectomies of detainees by ICE doctors. How can I tell if I’m a doom-scroller or just well informed?  

As I contemplated the people complaining against Moses, I felt a kinship across the centuries.  You don’t need an iPhone to feel an impending sense of doom and existential dread.  Our emotional brain has not evolved much since biblical times.  I empathize with their fear, anger, and worry; and the group dynamics; blame, murmuring, and reactivity; that resonate today.  

I’m struck by the fervor on the opening complaint of the people against Moses:

“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

I recognize three common rhetorical strategies of doom-sayers.  First, great hyperbole!  I would be better off dead than the mess you got me into!  If you hear this kind of statement, you feel like rolling your eyes and dismissing it because it is so over the top.  Really, you would rather be dead?  But as a rhetorical device, hyperbole has its uses.  Jesus said to pluck out your eye if it caused you to sin, or that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to heaven, or take up your cross.  It is an attention-getting device signaling deep conviction and distress.  The people want Moses to listen, and behind the hyperbole, there is a very real fear of hunger and starvation.  They don’t know how to live in this new reality and their anxiety is deep. They feel doomed!

Rhetorical strategy number two is nostalgia.  Egypt was the land of plenty where we had meat and bread and ate our fill.  It was great in Egypt, other than the slave thing.  Remember what God said to Moses at the burning bush, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings.”  (Ex. 3:7)  Did they forget the whip, bricks without straw, infanticide to prevent population growth?  Six weeks since crossing the Red Sea and Egypt is already the good old days.  Of course, the good old days were never quite that good.  I’m sure the 1950s had a certain charm, other than segregation, the narrow roles of women, and intolerance of same-sex relationships, it was a very good decade.  Like hyperbole, nostalgia has its logic.  From the Greek, “nostos algos” means “a pain, an ache, for homecoming.”  The English word was originated by a 17th-century medical student describing the symptoms of Swiss mercenaries fighting far from home, afflicted by melancholy.  So nostalgia began as a diagnosis of displacement. When people harken back to the not-quite-so-good-old days with warm nostalgia, it’s a coping strategy for displacement.  Deconstruct it at your peril, unless you have something better to offer.

The final rhetorical strategy is; blame.  You, Moses, have brought us out here into the wilderness to kill all of us with hunger.  Yes, Moses confronted Pharaoh at great personal risk because really, he wanted to kill Hebrew slaves.  The most effective blame strategy goes for the motives because you can’t refute the charge.  They could have said, “Moses, you should have thought through a better exit strategy.”  He might have agreed with them.  But to say, “Moses, you want to kill us, don’t you!?  You are a sociopath.”  You want to destroy America and make us socialists.  It’s truly de-legitimating.  What can Moses say now?  I am not a sociopath!  I’m a patriot.

This brief complaint is a brilliant summary of the symptoms of group distress-hyperbole, nostalgia, and blame.  Sound familiar?  It is important to see these for what they are.   It is not merely whining, not just mean-spiritedness, these are coping strategies to displace distress.  In the short-term, it is an emotional relief to spout off, to blame, and to remember idealized golden days.  

The problem is you suck, you are against me, and you got me into this mess.  Now I feel better because I have an explanation and its not my fault. 

But we still have the problem.  We are still hungry in the wilderness and don’t know what to do, but at least we have squarely pinned down the blame on someone else.  Recognizing these coping strategies in ourselves and others is necessary, so we don’t get distracted fighting battles that don’t solve anything. That only serves injustice.

Moses handles this very well.  He does not get caught up arguing with peoples’ complaints or join them in their anxiety and distress.  (At least not yet, that happens later, and makes for another sermon!)  He counters hyperbole, nostalgia, and blame with three strategies we would do well to learn – center in prayer, eyes on the promises of God, and adapt to reality.  Let’s look at Moses’s leadership amid a sense of doom.

After the complaint, starting with verse four, the narrative says, “Then the Lord said to Moses…”   Moses says nothing to the complainers at first.  He’s a passive character until God speaks to him.  For God to speak, there needs to be a listener.  Moses heard the complaints, pondered things, listened for God, and prayed… before speaking and acting.   The voice of God comes when we are willing to center ourselves, be open and listen-more like Elijah in the cave hearing the still small voice whispering to him. Centered prayer as the first response to anxiety.   Be a non-anxious presence, don’t add fuel to the hell-fire fear, so we can all calm down and think. Prayer is the opposite of worry.

Second, Moses refuses to engage in the blame game and other rhetorical strategies of distress and instead grounds people in a narrative of the promises of God.  God is going to rain down bread and Moses and Aaron say to the people, 

“In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning, you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord.”

This is the function of liturgy and studying scripture-to remind us that we do not live by the logic of our problems, but we live by the promises of God.  At a funeral we often read Psalm 121, “I lift mine eyes to the hills, from whence comes my help?  My help comes from the Lord.”   Or we read Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  We read these promises in distress.  Exodus itself became part of the promises.  As Passover is celebrated for when God liberated people from bondage.  We have a deep need to ground ourselves in memory of what has come before.  This gives us hope and strength

Third, Moses centers people on the reality of their situation.  They aren’t living off the rich Nile Delta anymore, they are in the arid Sinai.  They would have to adapt.  Moses already understood this land.  He spent his years in exile in Midian, just east of the Sinai and the Gulf of Aqaba, which would be NW Saudi Arabia today.   

He knew strong winds off the Mediterranean blew flocks of quail down to the Sinai to rest, and it was easy to catch them by hand.  He had gone out many mornings and harvested the sweet, sticky residue of the Tamarisk plant as the sun dried it, and balled it up in his finger and popped it into his mouth.  He showed it to his fellow wanderers and they called it “Manna” which is Hebrew for “What is this stuff?”  And then he preached to them and said, “Here is the word of God: you shall have bread by morning, and you shall have meat by evening, and God will provide for you even here in the wilderness.”

And he turned manna into an object lesson, a metaphor for our faith in God.  “You can only gather enough of it for one day, for it spoils the next.  But don’t worry, because God is generous and will provide for you the next day.”  

We could conclude by playing the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”  The escaping Hebrew slaves were not hoping for Manna, they had never seen or heard of such a thing.  But they got the resources for what they truly needed-freedom-dignity.  What they needed was right there, once they knew how to see it.  

We have our wilderness to walk through today, and it’s likely we still have far to go.  We can do this.  Moses shows us the way.  Keep grounded and pray, so our fears don’t get the best of us.  Keep hope alive by remembering how God has met people before us.  Pay attention to where you are right now, keep showing up for the life we have, and we will find what we need, the Manna for our body and souls.  God hasn’t brought us this far to leave us behind.

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