Permission to Complain

by Rev. Ellie Barrington - September 21, 2014 A reflection on Exodus 16 Listen to the audio recording

“We wish that the Lord had killed us in Egypt. There, we could at least sit down and eat meat!”

Our Sunday School theme this morning is “God is with us.” What I take from our story, is that God is with us…even when we complain. This passage, and many others in Exodus, begins with the people, in their misery, complaining and grumbling angrily at God and Moses. It seems to me, that wandering lost in the desert, without basic needs like food and water, is good reason to be afraid and to complain! And notice how God responds? By meeting their needs, with meat and manna and the promise of some basic security.

God’s response to the grumbling Israelites should reassures us. Our loving God yearns to be close with us, so every honest expression of our feelings is welcome. God does not need us to always pray in praise and gratitude – though doing that helps us. One biblical commentator writes, that this passage, along with the Book of Job and at least 50 Psalms, give us ample evidence that, “no human emotion is prohibited in prayer and worship. We can certainly complain to God in the strongest possible terms and not only survive, but hope for relief.”

And isn’t it truly a relief sometimes, to just complain? To tell your troubles, to whine, wail, cry and lament? We know now that it is good for our physical health to cry, because tears clear excess stress response hormones out of our systems, before those hormones become toxic in our cells. We know that when we are injured, if we immediately cry and tell how we got hurt, even burns heal faster than if we hold all that in. And we know that good mental health often depends on being able to tell our hard story to another, in order to heal and recover from the pains of loss or trauma. It is natural and human and good to talk about whatever really hurts, whether it’s our hurting knee or our friend’s wounding words or some soul devouring stress like chronic unemployment.

Our Hebrew heritage offers us clear permission to share our hurts and fears and anger and misery with God – in the form of lament to God. All those psalms of lament! But it can be hard for folks raised with the “stiff upper lip” of our British heritage to actually take it ALL to the Lord in prayer. If you were raised to “Never complain. Never explain,” and “big boys don’t cry.” it is really a stretch, to learn to pray with full emotional honesty.

Why is it hard for us to accept that we can pray all our feelings? Do we think that it’s a downer for God to hear our pain and complaints? That God can’t handle our worries? Or is it that we fear God won’t love us if we seem ungrateful? Or do we think that our petty trials just aren’t worthy of God’s attention? Or is it that we think we aren’t worthy of God’s love? Well, according to our story, God stayed with the Israelites through 40 years of bitter complaining. And so, not incidentally, did their leader Moses!

A truth about human bonding is that deep relationships often take root when we share our pain with one another. Sharing our hard emotional truth with someone, when that makes us feel very vulnerable, honours them with our trust. And honoured by your trust, the listener’s heart opens in compassion, to heal you both. God is always available to be our loving listener. And so are a surprising number of people around here.

Lots of you have Trinity friends who have stayed with you through some miserable times in your life, and you through theirs, right? Aren’t they the dearest? The ones you dare to complain to? My hope for all who come here seeking community, is that they will forge such friendships too. The ‘for better and for worse and for better again’ kinds of friendships, which allow for some honest complaining.

When I said some of this to my mom, who is experiencing a lot of pain when she walks lately, trying to give her permission to tell me about how her feelings, as well a her symptoms, she responded: “Ellie, You have to be really careful not to complain too much or people won’t want to be around you!”  That’s true.  Repeated litanies about the same physical complaint are perhaps best saved for God in daily prayer. But sharing how you actually feel about what’s going on with you today – about how it scares you or disappoints you or how frustrated you feel – that won’t impose on your friendships. Chances are that telling the truth will lighten your load, and with your worries off your chest, you’ll be ready to share something that is more grateful or even joyful.

Our Exodus story illustrates the longterm balance of the Israelites prayer relationship with God. There is a season of complaints and pleas and lament, then a season of thanks and praise, and prayers that say Please God…or please God! An honest prayer life, like a deep friendship shares all the ups and downs.

Let this story and reflection be your permission to share your emotional truths, on bad days as well as good ones. With God…and with others. The last word on this comes from James. When we were planning music for today he said: “on a really bad day, when I’m sad or angry, I experience complaining as something good. Telling someone how I am feeling is a blessing. Expressing it helps me go to the depth of it, in order to get to joy. I share the pain. I feel the relief and release. Then eventually I get to gratitude and joy…When I am able to be truthful with the hurt I am actually feeling, then my Spirit is singing.”

I’ve heard him play the piano – pray the piano -in that kind of way. The deep notes and minor keys of his improvisation, like a dark painting… deepening till there is a shift…and the mood gradually makes its way to major joy.

God is with us in every kind of expression – our grumbling prayers as well as our gratitude. And God is with us in our relationships, growing love when we share our pain and our joy, both in good measure.

If we dare express ourselves fully in prayer, maybe we can learn to grumble our way to genuine gratitude? Let My Spirit Always Sing MV #83


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