Wealth in the Wilderness

In Exodus, chapter 16, the people of God are wandering in the wilderness of Sin (literally and figuratively!). They begin to grumble and complain about food, contrasting their current situation with their life in Egypt. Whenever I have read this passage in the past, I have assumed that the Israelites lacked food– that they were starving in the desert–and that their grumbling had some merit. After all, they are in a desert. Their complaints about water make sense. Surely, their complaints about food have the same ring of desperation.

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But a few chapters earlier, and a few chapters later, we get a better picture of the true situation of these wandering bands of Israelites. As they left Egypt, they demanded from Pharaoh that they be allowed to take their flocks and herds! This would suggest that they had sheep, cows, and goats with them–meat and milk in some quantity. They may have had other animals as well– chickens, pet dogs or cats, oxen or horses. The need for water was greater– not only water for the people, but for their animals– but the complaint about meat seems to have had nothing to do with actual need. If anything, their complaint might have been about grazing land for their animals– but they never bring this complaint before the Lord. Either there was enough grass, even in the wilderness, or they had brought grain to feed their flocks. And there was grain for bread–just a few short chapters later, God gives directions for the sacrifices– sacrifices that are to involve rams, bulls, and three different types of bread, cakes, and wafers made with wheat flour!

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The Israelites have provisions. They have taken enough food for the journey up to that point, and more. They complain, not that they ARE starving, but that they believe they will starve. God answers their complaint by sending quail– enough that they got sick of it– and bread from heaven (manna). The manna continues to fall without fail every day (except the sabbaths) for 40 years, throughout all their moving; in every location and season, on rocky mountainsides and dusty plains.

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God’s amazing and miraculous provision should have produced thanksgiving and worship. Instead, the people got sick of the quail, and continued with their complaining and grumbling for an entire generation as they wandered around the wilderness.

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How many times do we complain about “needs” that are not needs at all? I find myself worrying about bills getting paid, or the car making “odd” noises, or an aching shoulder. I find myself thinking back to days when I had more money or free time, and far fewer aches and pains. It is tempting to ask God for a return of “the good old days.” But God’s plan for the Israelites didn’t involve pots of meat that came with chains attached. God’s plan for my life doesn’t involve my immediate comfort, but my eternal character. And even in times when I feel like I’m wandering in the wilderness, God never leaves me. I have been poor, but I have not starved. I have been sick, but not left to die alone. I have been lost, but never abandoned.

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There is wealth in the wilderness–the riches of God are available to those who will trust Him. Like manna, God will provide what only He can, and enough to see us through each day. He doesn’t promise that we will have “pots of meat” or easy circumstances. Instead, if we open our eyes, we will see miracles of grace, showing us how much God loves us and cares for us.

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God’s people complained a lot, but rarely did they celebrate God’s provision or offer thanks. May we learn from their story, and praise the God who sends quail and manna to the very ones who doubt His mercy and love!

Taste and See…

Candy canes, Christmas cookies, hot cocoa, fruitcakes, and families feasting…this season is filled with food and memories of food shared with those we love.

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But there is no feasting in the Biblical tales of the Nativity. No cookies or pies, no roast lamb or goose, no hot cocoa or fruitcake. So is it wrong to celebrate Christ’s birth with tasty treats?

I don’t think so. (And not just because I enjoy tasty treats!) We’ve spoken recently about seeing Jesus as the Light of the World, and hearing the Word of God, and feeling the warmth of God’s Love…God speaks to us through our senses, and taste is no different. There is nothing inherently sacred about Christmas cookies. And even foods like pretzels and candy canes, which can be symbolic of prayer or the shepherd’s crook, or other religious symbols, are still ordinary.

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But the Bible is not silent about food and feasting. In fact, King David said:

” Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!
    Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints,
    for those who fear him have no lack! “

(Psalm 34:8-9 ESV, via http://www.biblegatewaycom)

And Jesus would invite each of us to “taste and see” His goodness as we remember His death and resurrection:

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23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

1 Corinthians 11:23-25 (ESV) via http://www.biblegateway.com

As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of our Savior, may we engage all of our senses to recognize His goodness, and may we share the memory of all the good things He has given us– physical and spiritual. May we delight in the tasty treats, but let us also remember that Jesus is also the “Bread of Life,” and the “Living Water.”

Also, in this time of bounty and excess, remember that we are to “taste” and see God’s goodness, and to share it! Christmas gluttony does nothing to remind us of God’s goodness, and may prevent other “hungry souls” from being able to enjoy. And that doesn’t just apply to food. May we be eager to share– food, laughter, hugs, good news, compassion, and the truth. The sweet and the bitter…may we taste and recognize our health, strength, and life in the Goodness of our Great God.

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Thank you, Jesus, for being our nourishment. Thank you for precious memories shared around tables–food and fellowship, laughter and love. Thank you for being God With Us in every “sense.”

You Aren’t What You Eat…

There is a common English saying, “You are what you eat.” It suggests that if you eat a lot of fatty foods or sugary foods, you will suffer the consequences– you will become fat or develop health problems associated with sugar, cholesterol, etc. There is some truth to the saying, especially if a person eats such foods to excess, and does not eat a balanced diet that also includes foods high in fiber, vitamins and minerals, and other nutrients.

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But the saying also suggests that a person’s diet determines their identity, which is not true, and often involves labeling and unfair judgment. And the judgment comes, not just based on what a person eats, but sometimes how, when, and where a person eats:
“couch potato”
“gourmand”
“junk food junkie”
“vegan”
“carnivore”
“gluten-free”
“keto”
“midnight snacker”
“carboholic”
“power foods”
“see-food diet (if I see it, I eat it!)”
“fitness diet– I’m all about fitness (fittin’this) whole pizza in my mouth!”
“picky eater”
“fast food”
“five-second rule”
etc.

The truth is, our relationship to food can indicate aspects of our personality or character, but it is not “who we are,” unless our entire life is about food. (Even for those with conditions like anorexia or bulimia that turn food and/or eating into an obsession, it is one aspect of their life–a diagnosis, not an epitaph.)

Our world today is filled with opportunities to make an idol of food and eating, diets, nutritional fads, supplements, etc. We end up ashamed of every meal– counting calories, pointing fingers at those whose eating habits don’t live up to our standards (while secretly envying them), trying to excuse (or hide) any trip through the fast food drive-thru window, feeling guilty over a candy bar, or feeling depressed when we cannot afford to eat like the people we see in magazines, in movies, or on TV. In religious circles, we champion “God-given” diets, some of which are not given by God. “What would Jesus eat?” The Daniel Diet, or The Shepherd’s Diet– these may be good principles and even helpful nutritionally, but they won’t “save” you or make God love you better than He already does.

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Jesus himself addressed this question. His disciples were being singled out by the religious leaders of their day because they ate without performing the ritual handwashing ceremonies. They were declared “unclean” for eating in this manner. But Jesus saw through this criticism. It wasn’t based on God’s law, but on the human traditions that had been added over the centuries. What God had said about cleanliness and hygiene was meant for general health AND to distinguish the nation of Israel from other cultures whose eating practices were sometimes part of their worship of idols. After chastising the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, Jesus turns to the crowd:

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Matthew 15:10-20 English Standard Version (ESV)

10 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+15%3A10-20&version=ESV

Notice that Jesus does not say that it is healthier or better to eat with unwashed hands, nor does He say that people should eat without washing– instead, He is speaking common sense about obsessive and judgmental practices. Jesus himself followed the traditional kosher diet of His people, as did His disciples. Jesus also fasted, and recommended it as a companion to disciplined and earnest prayer.

It isn’t what we eat, or when or where that makes us who we are. Our eating habits and diets may help our bodies, but they won’t save our souls, or make us better than our neighbor. In fact, if our eating habits are more important than our neighbor–if we use them to try to manipulate, control, shame, or label our neighbor–we need to reconsider how “healthy” they really are.

Diets are not bad. Food is not bad. Pride, envy, self-righteousness– these are bad for the heart, the stomach, and the soul. Let’s be grateful for food, but even more, let’s be grateful for a God who knows us intimately and thoroughly– a God who knows that we are NOT “what we eat!”

The Seven-Layer Prayer

Growing up, I loved going to pot-luck meals at our little country church.  Neighbors, family, and friends would bring large dishes of home-cooked deliciousness for all to feast on as we chatted, laughed, and encouraged one another.  There were certain dishes we all could count on–homemade yeast rolls, courtesy of Lulu M.  Jello with fruit was my mom’s standard.  Another lady almost always brought meat loaf.  Baked beans, candied carrots, fried chicken, chocolate cake, scalloped potatoes– my mouth still waters just from the memories!  The wonderful woman who has since become my mother-in-law brought her famous cookies, and often, a seven-layer salad.

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I love Mom’s seven layer salad, and I have learned to make my own variation.  It’s easy, it’s delicious, it’s healthful, and it travels well.  I’ve seen other recipes that use different vegetables, don’t use eggs or meat or mayo–I’m sure they’re ok, but I’m happy to stick with the basic outline that follows below.

I was thinking about the seven-layer salad the other day– it’s a wonderful dish for this time of year– chilled and utilizing fresh produce, and I realized that you can use a similar “recipe” for prayer.  So here’s my modified “Seven-Layer Prayer” recipe:

 

  • First, start with a layer of “Let Us”
    • Prayer doesn’t happen without an act of the will.  We must be deliberate about setting aside time and thought for prayer every day.  We should “leaf” the busyness and chaos of the day and “romaine” in fellowship with the Father!

salad vegetables vegetarian lettuce
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  • Next, add a layer of “Care”-rots (shredded).
    • 1 Peter 5:7 New King James Version (NKJV)
      casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.
    • Give your worries and cares over to the One who cares most about you and all those you love.
  • Now you can add the “Peas” that passes all understanding
    • Trust that God hears and answers prayer.
    • Trust that God is in control.
    • Trust that God is Good, Wise, and Loving.
    • Rest in the knowledge that “God’s Got This!”

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  • Here’s where I like to add some “Meet” (usually bacon!, sometimes ham or chicken)
    • While it’s vital that we spend time in personal, private prayer, God also wants us to meet regularly with others for fellowship, mutual encouragement, accountability, PRAYER, and guidance.
  • Now it gets a little dicey–diced onion (sometimes I substitute green onions or sliced or diced mushrooms)
    • Time to peel back the layers, and cut through to the root of anything that is getting in the way of a closer walk with God–confess it and give it over to Him.
    • Sometimes, this process may cause tears, or involve a little dirt– clean it up before you proceed!
  • Time for some dressing– mayonnaise or salad dressing.  Annoint your salad, and your prayer, with oil.  Remember, God has annointed you to spread His love and grace to others.  Don’t forget to add this to your prayer life.  Just as the dressing will coat all the elements of the salad, so God’s Spirit will surround and influence your words and actions done for Him!
  • “Cheese!”  It’s a “gouda” idea to round out prayer with a time of joyful thanksgiving.  Pile it on– God’s given us a LOT for which to be “grate”-ful!

board cheese close up dairy
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  • Finally, the garnish– Hard-boiled eggs.  These remind me of the new life we have in Christ, the Triune nature of God (we used to have lessons in Sunday School about the egg having three parts but being a single egg.  We don’t use the shell in the salad, of course, but you can’t make a boiled egg without all three parts…), and also, the yolk reminds me of Heaven’s streets of gold.  In prayer, we should remember God’s faithfulness in fulfilling His promises, and the hope we have in Him.

That’s the basic recipe for a seven layer salad– enough of each ingredient for a healthy “layer”.  I’ve added extra layers a couple of times–diced tomatoes or peppers are good if you are planning to eat the salad quickly, but they will cause sogginess  if you let the salad sit.  (Also, if you use peas, use fresh if you can– drain canned peas, or get rid of any ice crystals if using frozen peas. )

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A good seven-layer prayer should also be presented fresh, and savored.  It’s delicious, it’s good for you, it feeds others, and it travels well!  Try some!

Bargain Basement Praying

I have a very bad habit (one among many).  I tend to be competitive, and a bit of a perfectionist when I work at something.  I’m never satisfied with “good enough” when I think I can do a little better.  This includes shopping for bargains.  I will go to great lengths to stretch a dollar; to save a few cents–outlet and discount stores, sale shelves, bargain basements–I’ve haunted them all.

But prayer shouldn’t be a “bargain basement” encounter.  God is not in the business of selling.  He’s in the business of redeeming.  God is lavish in his Grace, and sufficient– even abundant– in his blessings.

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Don’t misunderstand– God has not promised us wealth and ease and constant comfort.  And God is not a vending machine or a genii, that I should tell him what I want and expect that he will grant my every whim.  But I tend to come to God as if I had to earn his approval, or pay for his gifts.  I ask for the bare minimum– “just help me get through this meeting”, “you know what bills are outstanding– just help us catch up”– and then I am surprised when that’s what I get.

It’s not that I am asking for bad things or wrong things, or that I should be asking for so much more.  But what does my attitude say about God?  I say that God is Love, I say that he is Good.  I say that he can do anything, and that he is gracious and merciful.  But my prayer life says otherwise.

It’s time that I ask God for “my daily bread”, without expecting day-old leftovers.  And, when he choose to give me Manna, it’s time for me to see that provision for the miracle and the blessing that it is.

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Prayer and Pizza

Have you ever looked at a pizza and thought– “Wow, this reminds me of prayer?!”  Me neither. But God works in mysterious, and sometimes mischievous, ways to teach us great lessons.  God is an awesome teacher, and he often uses parables, object lessons, and analogies to illuminate his truth and make it memorable and comprehensible.  God tends to use a lot of food-related analogies (bread and wine, fish, mustard seeds, vineyards and grapes, fatted calves, bitter herbs, yeast, and salt…), likely because he knows that the way to our hearts and minds is often through our taste buds!

So yesterday, as I was thinking about prayer (and listening to my stomach rumble a bit), I sat down to write, and I was suddenly thinking about how prayer is kind of like a pizza– a wonderful, freshly made pizza.  The same ingredients that make a great pizza should help us build a great prayer life.

Every good pizza starts with dough.  Every good prayer starts by recognizing our “knead” to rest on God’s grace, his promises, his timing, his strength, and his love.  Whether your dough yields a traditional yeast and flour crust, a matzoh wafer, a cauliflower thin crust, a deep dish corn meal extravaganza, a flaky biscuit-dough crust, or even a culinary experiment, it provides a base for all the other ingredients.  I could get side-tracked into an entire blog just about the crust analogies (three-ingredient, yeastless crust: Holy Trinity?  self-rising crust: resurrection? round crust: eternity?  pray without ceasing?  crusts that are tossed, pressed, rolled out, or put on the rack?), but I’ll let that sit there and go on to the toppings.

One of the wonderful things about pizza is the endless combination of toppings.  Prayer can be just as unique as the person and occasion involved.  Some prayers are simple two- or three-ingredient prayers.  Some are piled on with praise or loaded with concerns.  Some prayers include ingredients that are sweet, or bitter, or crushed, or salty.  Some prayers are meaty, some are fruity, some are cheesy, and some are saucy.

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But ah…the aroma!  And the final product!  Something miraculous happens when simple (or complex) ingredients combine on the crust and come through the heat.  God takes our worries, our praises, our confessions, our remembrances, our groaning, and our rejoicing, and turns them into something supernatural and mysterious.  He compares our prayers to an aroma (like incense, not precisely pizza, but..) rising to Heaven.  Tangy, pungent, comforting, or mouth-watering, our prayers become satisfying, nourishing, powerful, and enticing, beyond what our mere words could ever produce.

The next time you make a pizza (or order one)–thank God for his gift of the food you eat– but remember to thank him for the miracle of prayer as well.

Buon Appetito!

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