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On Faith: Unexpected turns in life

The Bible is full of stories with an unexpected turn. While the Easter story is rightly the most prominent, there are many others throughout scripture. A double-dose of the unexpected is found in the liberation of the Israelites in Exodus Chapters 14-16.

The chapters begin with one of the most famous stories in the Hebrew scriptures — Israel's escape from the Egyptian army. Faced with an impassable body of water in front of them and Pharaoh's chariots bearing down on them, the people cry out and God moves in a mighty and miraculous way. The sea is parted, the Israelites escape, and the Egyptian army, the superpower of the world at that time, is overthrown, and a 'nation' of slaves escapes. It is most unexpected.

In the following chapter we have the great song of praise by Miriam, and then in Chapter 16, we have yet another unexpected turn. Though not as dramatic as the parting of a sea, this twist is more challenging. After their escape, the Israelites begin their journey in the wilderness as they move from their life of slavery into a life of promise. After Miriam's joyous song we'd expect the people, by and large, to be relieved and excited to be freed from 400 years of enslavement. The unexpected turn occurs in Verse 2 of Chapter 16 where we find the people complaining because they are hungry and wishing they had died in Egypt where at least they had food.

We may read this and wonder how these folks could be so forgetful (never mind that some of us would even use the word 'ungrateful'). In such a short time span they move from escaping to rejoicing to grumbling. How could they do that? We may find it easy to tsk-tsk these wandering Israelites, but do we see ourselves in this ancient story?

There have been times in my life when God has provided for me, and then all of the sudden life takes an unexpected turn and I find myself like those Israelites in the desert, complaining about what I've encountered. It is important to keep in mind that the Bible often encourages us to call out to God when things are going wrong and to be honest about our struggles (e.g., the psalmist cry in Psalm 10:1, "Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?"). But crying out to God and grumbling are two different things.

To grumble and complain is to be a person whose view of life has turned inward, when a person who has placed his/her expectations or desires as the ultimate goal for life and if those desires are not met, hope is lost. There would have been nothing wrong with the Israelites being hungry and calling out to God. But, in their complaining they romanticize the past and nostalgia distorts their history while leading them away from the lord who is their liberator and their source of life.

Our lives, like the folks we find in the Bible, will take unexpected turns. Scripture asks us the question of how we will respond. Will we turn to God, looking for help that might come in unexpected ways, or will we grumble about our current lot in life and lose hope? I pray we find comfort in knowing that the saints who have gone before us did not always get it right and yet God always found ways to answer their needs, just as God will be steadfast with us in hearing our prayers and providing for our days.

On Faith is a weekly column in the News-Chronicle written by area religious leaders.

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