Manna & Marshmallows

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Are you waiting on God for anything in your life? Is there maybe something you’ve prayed for, something you really want to know beyond a shadow of a doubt? Perhaps it’s something you are waiting for clarity on, or something you know you need to heal. Whatever the need, we pray and we listen and we wait. Sometimes we get answers, like way opening or just the right word from a friend at just the right time. Sometimes answers to prayer feel like peace in the heart. Suddenly we just know we’ve been heard. It feels like God already has a solution in mind.

But it’s also just part of our human nature to question and wonder and poke at things. If the answers aren’t what we expected or don’t seem to come quickly enough, doubt can creep in. We may begin to second-guess whatever leadings we do have.

In our Old Testament story this morning, the children of Israel have been lamenting and calling out in the wilderness. This is not long after their escape from Egypt, when Pharoah and his army were swallowed by Red Sea. They saw that with their own eyes. But now they face a different crisis: hunger. They are afraid for their families, their livestock, and themselves. They berate Moses and tell him they would have been better off in captivity—at least they wouldn’t have starved in the wilderness.

Moses, as he always did, turned to God, who offered what sounded like an impossible solution. Moses and Aaron were told to tell these hungry, frightened people that the Lord would provide—for all of them. They would have meat in the evenings and bread in the mornings and there would be so much food, each person would have his or her fill. And the livestock would have all they needed to flourish, too.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Moses and Aaron to stand before this vast collection of people and offer them what must have been a hard-to-believe idea. The people were already hungry and worried—they would have been in crisis mode. Emotions were high. There must have been more than a few skeptics in the group.

But God did what he promised. Every evening flocks of quail came and “covered the camp” and in the morning, there was a fine, flaky substance like frost on the ground. God had given Moses instructions on how the people could use the manna to make morning bread. It was sweet, tasting like flour with honey. The people were told to gather up as much as they needed for their families—an omer per person (and an omer is nothing to sneeze at—I looked it up, and one omer is roughly equivalent to nine cups!). And whatever they collected, they were supposed to prepare and eat it that same day, because it would go bad and attract worms the second day (as the people who disobeyed the instruction quickly discovered). God told them they didn’t need to worry and save it up, because God would take care of them tomorrow just as God had done today.

Wouldn’t we all love to have such irrefutable evidence of God’s presence in our lives? The manna was a tangible demonstration every day that God is trustworthy and faithful; that God cares and sees and hears us, responding to our daily needs and concerns. In his commentary, Richard Foster writes that, “The word “manna” in Hebrew literally means, “What is it?” How God chose to feed the people was unexpected. The way he worked to help them did not look like anything they had seen before. Yet they trusted it, ate it, and lived. We also must be prepared for God to work in unusual ways in our lives. We must be careful not to turn away from something because it appears odd and unfamiliar. Many times God does something and we say, “What is it?” only to find out it is the very thing we need.”

In so many stories in the Old Testament we hear about the people forgetting God, turning away from God, choosing idols over God, repeatedly losing their sense of faith even though they’d seen miraculous things. Why don’t they get it? I used to ask myself. Why doesn’t the experience stick? If I saw a sea part of a bush catch on fire or bread float down from heaven every morning, surely I would be convinced of God’s presence and love and continual care.

But I also think it’s human nature that confusion and doubt wiggle in whenever our emotions are kicked up and anxiety is in the mix. Gandhi once said, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” And similarly, Mother Teresa’s ministry was to care first for the daily needs of the poor and sick in Calcutta because she believed that through kind efforts, when others were treated with dignity, they would feel and accept and respond to the love of Christ.

When God reaches into our lives in that kind of a tangle way, our faith transforms from a set of outward actions we perform—going to meeting, sitting in silence, saying grace before meals—our faith becomes a deeper, living spirituality in the center of our hearts. Isaac Penington put it this way in the 1600s,

“And truly, friends I witness…a great difference between the sweetness of comprehending the knowledge of things…and tasting the hidden life, the hidden manna in the heart.” He writes that this sense of the living spirit, the continual presence of the living God, is what God causes us to hunger and thirst for. And adds, “in the Lord’s due time [we will] receive that which answers the desire of the awakened mind and soul and satisfies it with the true, precious substance for evermore.”

In our New Testament reading, the persistent crowds have been following Jesus—even getting in boats to cross the lake–asking him for a sign so that they could believe in him. They told him that their ancestors were the ones who ate the manna in the wilderness—they understood the significance of the bread from heaven.

In response, Jesus tells them that it was not Moses but God himself who not only gave but gives them the “true bread of heaven.” Instead of affirming their understanding of the God who acted in the past, Jesus tells them God is the God of their present. “it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven,” Jesus says. “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Not gave life, but gives life.

This is the God of right now, Jesus says. Providing the manna in whatever form we need, in our generation, this moment. God is faithfully providing whatever seems missing—peace, food, connection, hope– not someday, not when we get it all right or figure out a magic formula and do the right things, but right now, the moment our hearts and minds are open enough to receive it.

A few years ago I read an interesting book called, “The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success,” written by psychologist and social researcher Walter Mischel. The book is based on a research study first done at Stanford University in 1970. Researchers wanted to see at what point the idea of delayed gratification—the ability to wait to get something we want—develops in children. So they did an experiment with four to six-year-olds where each child went into a room where he or she could choose one of several treats (there was a marshmallow, a pretzel, and an Oreo cookie on a tray). The child could either eat the treat right away or, if they’d wait 15 minutes, the reward would be doubled, and they’d get two treats instead of one.

The results of the study showed some interesting things. A few of the children gobbled up the treat as soon as the researcher left the room. But by and large, most kids found a way to wait for the second treat. They distracted themselves, they covered their eyes or turned around, they kicked their legs or played with their pigtails. The older children generally found it easier to wait than the younger ones. And of course their waiting paid off, giving them a double dividend. They were rewarded with more.

Over the next 30 years or so, researchers continued their study. They found that the children who were able to wait had other advantages in their lives as they grew. They had higher SAT scores, were more self-assured, coped better with stress, and were more likely to use reason over emotion when they got into jams. They were less likely to be in trouble with the law or struggle with drugs or other addictive behaviors—they even had a lower divorce rate and stayed in better physical shape as adults.

The researchers said that children who learned to use “cool” strategies to manage their desire for the treat were more successful that those who used “hot” ones. A cool strategy turns thoughts away from the desired object—through distraction or redirection or by focusing on something analytical, like the shape or color of the object. A hot strategy turns thoughts toward the object, intensifying the emotional pull—for example, thinking about how sweet the marshmallow is, or how chewy, or how much you loved it the last time you had one. This big idea of managing our impulses with “cool” and “hot” strategies reminds me of the very wise and famous words of George Fox—a man hundreds of years ahead of his time–when he wrote in a letter to a young Friend,

“Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit, from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord from whence cometh life; whereby thou mayest receive the strength and power to allay all storms and tempests.”

Being cool in mind and turning toward God is also the strategy Moses used when he needed help leading the people forward in the wilderness. It can also help us balance our own emotions when we are finding our way through difficult and unfamiliar territory in our lives.

But it also occurred to me that there’s a subtle—and mistaken–message that gets reinforced by the marshmallow test: It’s that if you like marshmallows—or Oreos, or pretzels—having more is better than having one. We miss out on savoring and appreciating and really fully enjoying the one, if we’re focusing on how to turn it into two. We live in a culture that puts a lot of value on having more—getting the next big thing, supersizing everything, wanting more than we have, leaning toward the bigger house, the fancier car, the more exotic vacation. When we orient our lives toward what we’ll gain in the future, we lose touch with what’s here, with the peace and sureness of how well we are cared for—how much we are blessed–today. And what’s worse, we—just like the children of Israel—can miss God’s hand in it all.

When we begin to stockpile our blessings and covet the ones we don’t yet have, we aren’t relying on God and celebrating what arrives each and every day. And that aspect of it all—the each and every-day-ness of our relationship with God—is really the whole point. The houses get termites. The pretzels get stale. The fancy car loses its newness pretty quickly. But truly knowing and feeling that God himself is caring for our daily needs is the sweetest of any possible joy. Our job is simply to savor it—to really take it in–and say thanks.

In closing, we’re going to do a little savoring exercise, a mindfulness experiment together. I’ve got a package of marshmallows here and I’m going to pass it up and down the pews. If you like marshmallows (don’t force yourself if you don’t), take one and pass it on. Just hold it in your hand while everyone gets theirs.

Notice how much it weighs in your hand.

Feel its soft texture. Maybe a little powdery.

Smell its sweetness. Does it make a sound when you roll it around in your hand?

Think of what it would mean if you were hungry and worried about your family and you prayed to God for help, and in the morning you came out and found ten thousand of these on the grass.

What does that wonder feel like in you?

Would you be hesitant to taste it? Can you open your heart to a feeling of sweet gratitude to the God who said he would provide this for you—and did?

Go ahead and eat the marshmallow, savoring it, bite by bite.

See if you can really take it in—the goodness of this simple gift–and hold on to that sense of gratefulness.

The point is not how many marshmallows we can collect but rather how much we can truly feel, really experience, the sweetness of God’s presence.

Thank you, Friends.

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