One of the most paralyzing questions that people ask during a transition is: What’s next? When something comes to an end, like a job, or career, a marriage, death, or a particular way of life, we attempt to push past the “what’s next?” question, hoping that we can find something new very quickly.
We become irritated when we can't chart a course forward. We find ways to compensate and go through the motions. I experienced this first hand with a third-grader named Patrick, who I was mentoring a few years ago.
During one visit, Patrick wasn't his usual chipper and curious self. From the minute he walked into the room I could tell something was off. Patrick didn't want to read; wasn't interested in drawing, and didn't care about playing checkers. Instead, he acted more like the ogre Shrek and was irritable, grumpy and complained that nobody cared about him.
You might recall Shrek, the mean-spirited, territorial green ogre who is the main character of the 2001 computer animated film. Shrek's a loner who loves the solitude of his swamp. Shrek experiences a significant transition when his life is rudely interrupted by Lord Farquaad, the short of stature fairytale-hating ruler of Duloc, who exiles several fairytale creatures to his swamp. Angered, by the constant intrusion of fairy tale characters, Shrek decides to ask Farquaad to exile the characters elsewhere. As his transitional quest begins, Shrek brings along a talkative Donkey, who is the only fairytale creature willing to guide him to Duloc.
Between my mentee Patrick's complaints, (I guess in some way I was playing the role of Donkey to Patrick) I could hear a Shrek-like low groan from deep within his stomach and I knew that he didn't have breakfast. He told me that he hadn't had bacon and eggs since his grandmother died a couple of weeks ago.
I discovered that Patrick had been moved into a foster home and was having a hard time adjusting. When Patrick didn’t get breakfast at his foster home, he wasn’t able to replenish his blood sugar. The lack of food made him feel anxious, hungry, grumpy and Shrek-like. He was having a hunger-induced meltdown - starving from physical hunger and heart hunger. Like the significant commercial, Patrick could’ve used a Snicker candy bar that morning. He just wasn’t himself when he was hungry.
Unlike being satisfied by eating a chocolatey confectionery treat, the people of Israel were also not happy, and Shrek-like. According to the biblical story in Exodus, It had been two months since their great escape from Egypt, and the people were irritable and complained: What’s next? What are we going to eat? How are we going to make it?
The harsh environment of the Sinai Peninsula and southern Israel prompted the Old Testament writers to imagine this desert wilderness as a land of chaos and death. This “chaos” echoes the Genesis creation story that describes the earth before creation as a “formless void” where “darkness covered…the deep.” The “formless void” serves as a metaphor to describe times when people experience something unexpected and disappointing or encounter questions that challenge the way we make sense of things.
The desert wilderness can take many forms, including a family crisis, loss of relationship or identity, a health crisis, the defeat of a cause, betrayal by a community, or intellectual inquiry that poses a challenge to an assumed faith or belief. Our world begins to change and perhaps even falls apart. And yet, as with every wilderness experience, as Israel will soon discover, there is also the possibility of eventually finding the “Promised Land. But for now, the people of Israel are stuck in their “Egypt-system thinking.” And by now, the food supplies that they brought from Egypt were exhausted. They longed for the “good old days.”
God’s response to the Israelites in the narrative was unexpected. Rather than God telling them to shut up and be glad that they were free from their captivity in Egypt, God seems to reward their grumpiness by providing bread in the morning and meat in the evening. Chicken, I mean quail and biscuits (manna) six days a week for 40 years sounds a lot like the first Bojangles' Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits.
And they didn’t have to do anything to earn it, all that was required was to gather what God provided. The only caveat was that they couldn't get greedy and take more than they need or it will spoil.
On the first morning, when the layer of dew lifted, there was a flaky substance, as beautiful as frost on the ground. The people didn't know what it was. It was right there, in front of their tents. But why didn’t they notice it before? Did they not get up early enough to see the dew evaporate? Was this a change of season happening - where dew would be more obvious? Whatever the reason, they asked one another, "What is it?"
What fascinates me about this story is that their answer is right in front of them. But it wasn’t the bread from Egypt. Instead, it was bread for today, for this season of their lives. And it was right in front of them, something within their grasp. Here is where I enter the story. If I were part of the Israel camp, I'd probably complain too. Like Patrick the student thrust into the chaos of foster care, I’d be Shrek-like and complain about not having plain bread.
Well-meaning people often quote the old saying that goes: “When God closes one door, God will open another, or God will open a window.” But the problem is that we usually don’t think about another door opening to us when we’re comfortable with the door we’ve known. In times like these, we resist leaving behind the lives we’ve known for fear of the unknown.
And the most common questions individuals ask in this place are: “Now what?” and “What’s next?” These are the questions that lead us to the choices that will make us move forward. But all too often we get stuck in asking why. Like, why did this happen? Why did I get here? Why, why, why? And what we're wrestling with is what does it mean for us to move forward from here?
When I spoke with the counselor, we discovered that Patrick wasn’t taking advantage of the free-and-reduced lunch program. The counselor arranged for him to have breakfast every morning with the other students.
The next week, I saw an immediate change in Patrick. He was back to his old self again. And while he remained in foster care, his attitude had changed too. With food in his belly, he stopped complaining, and his grades improved. He wasn't himself when he was hungry.
Perhaps you are enslaved with a metaphorical "Egypt-system thinking" that is characterized by the strenuous efforts of making brick without straw and it causes you to complain. We can’t enter the “Promised Land” without leaving our Shrek-like “Egypt” and walking through the wilderness of what’s next.
We’re not ourselves when we’re hungry. When our desires go unmet, or our lives are interrupted like Shrek's, we forget God's abundance and complain that God isn't working fast enough to meet our needs. God is always faithful and continues to provide, over and again, even amid our complaining, forgetfulness, and impatience.
On the Journey,