About Me

My photo
Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

What Is It?

2014-09-21 Ex 16 02-15 What Is It?


Our daughters have gotten to the age when they’d rather we didn’t follow them through the house every single minute to make sure they’re OK. It only makes sense that we would adopt a replacement creature that demands 24-hour supervision because, teenagers aren’t exhausting enough.

So, a couple of months ago, we got a puppy. Some of you have met him. He’s almost full-grown, which means he’s nearing seven pounds. Yes, he’s tiny, but in his mind, he runs with the big dogs. He’s a terrier. Terriers were bred to chase vermin down their holes, drag them out, and then break their necks with side-to-side twisting action. It’s adorable. Our terrier is a breed from Germany, so he’s really sweet, but you turn your back and he’s invading Poland.

The puppy finds things. In the backyard, he’ll find things on the ground, and under the ground. Sticks. Car parts. Skeletal remains. A lot things we have no idea what they are. Puppy doesn’t care. To him, they’re toys. They’re treasures. They’re blessings. An answered prayer. Put there by the terrier god for his fun and nourishment.


The people of Israel were kind of like terriers. They were God’s chosen, God’s beloved, God’s adored children. But as soon as God turned his back, they were up to no good. Even on their way to the Promised Land, they dug up trouble. They barked at shadows and bit at their leaders, Moses and his brother, Aaron.

So God puts something on the ground. Something surprising. Something for their pleasure and nourishment. Something they had no idea what it was.

“In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.”

For the record, God was not the one who named it. The Israelites called it, Manna, which means, “What is it?” And what is it? It’s God’s gift. A treasure. A blessing. An answered prayer. But it also came after the quail, so it could be kind of gross. They weren’t sure.

Maybe our dogs really are smarter than God’s honor students. At least dogs know a blessing when they find one. We humans are picky. We’re skeptical. Even when it looks good. Even when it might be from God. We’re asking, “What is it?” (“Iiiii’m not gonna eat it. Let’s get Mikey.”)


Have any of you spent hours planning a menu, shopping for the right ingredients, cooking to perfection? And then you set this art of cuisine on the table in front of a family member – maybe a spouse, maybe a five year-old, maybe not much difference – and they say, “Ew. What is this stuff? And what’s that sauce all over it?”

And you say, “It’s Grenache. It’s from France.”

And they say, “Well they’re probably wondering where it is. The only French food I want is fries.”

This is not going to end well. Dinner might end up being served in your lap, or on your head. “What is it?” CAN be asked in innocent honesty. (“No, truly. I simply wanted to name this delicacy.”) But more often it comes with an Elvis lip curl. The “Ew” is silent, but implied. “What IS it?” “What IS this stuff?” “Man. Uh.”


Dogs are dogs, people are people, and God is Other. God is Creator of all. God is infinite. God is so far beyond us. God is so far beyond anything we can ever imagine. When you think of it that way, anything, ANYTHING from God that lands in our laps, or we discover in our own backyards, or gets plopped on our heads – anything from God is going to be strange. If God is so completely great, and if we’re such tiny little beings, anything from God is going to make us wonder, “What is it?” We’re like ants seeing a toe and going, “Whew. Looks good, but how are we gonna get the rest of it home?”

Is it a blessing? A treasure? An answered prayer?

Or is it something else that’s just gross?

Something complicated, connected to big problems?

A lot of times, it’s really hard to say, at least at first.


Two Sundays ago Inky Johnson was here. And he talked about how in a split second, his football career, his hopes and dreams for a better life, came slamming to an end. Just like that. His arm was paralyzed. He manages constant pain. And yet Inky says the injury was the best thing that ever happened to him. Spiritually, emotionally, mentally, he’s stronger than he ever could have been. To him, this “what is it?” that most of us would call a tragedy, call a curse, to him it’s a treasure, a blessing, an answered prayer.

Now, Inky’s an extreme example. I would never want to say that every injury or illness is sent by God to make us better people. But here’s the thing: The Israelites were starving. They were angry. They were blaming. They were filled with regret, saying, “We never should have come out here with Moses,” “If only we could take back that decision.” So God sends them something. Something strange. Something maybe distasteful. Something that might make them feel worse. Or not. If they never tasted it, they’d never know. This gross-looking, “What is it?” turned out not just life-changing, but life-saving.


I think the Bible is trying to teach me something here. I think the Bible is trying to teach me that whenever I’m feeling barky – when I’m angry, or blaming, or regretful – when I’m starving to know what’s the point – maybe the thing I’m avoiding, the thing I’m afraid of, the thing I’m so skeptical about – maybe that’s God’s manna. Instead of running from it, or pushing it back, maybe I need to move closer to it. Try it. Touch it. Taste it. Open myself to this strange other-ish “Ew” before I dismiss it as something for the birds or from them.

How about you? What “What is it?” are you so skeptical of? What scares you? What people make you say, “Ew,” before you even know them? What ideas make you go, “Ew,” simply because you’ve never seen them before? What are you certain is so gross that you never give it a chance?


We’re all starving for spiritual nourishment. We’re all dying for manna from heaven. OK, so God sends it. Would you even get close to it? Or would you already have your mind made up that it’s too weird to be any good?

If God only sends us what we expect, then it wouldn’t be very Godly, would it? It would us-ly. If God only sends us what we ask for, we miss out on everything that exceeds our expectations. We miss out on the manna, because we’re too busy naming it, and claiming it, to be grateful for the holy mystery of what it is.

Listen. Listen to what makes you bark and growl and turn up your lip in a snarl. What is it? What is it that makes you so upset? What is it, really, that you’re afraid of?

I know for myself that “whatever it is” is usually a threat to my dreams of being a Big Dog. A threat to having my say. A threat to waking up in the morning to my own little recipes for manna.

And that’s the problem with manna of our own making. It’s not manna. Because we already know what it is and ever shall be, amen, amen for us.



If you say the word, Manna backwards, what is it? I’ll give you a moment. “Annam.” You know what it means? Nothing. Now, say, “What is it?” backwards in English. Instead of “What is it?” (question mark) it’s, (question mark) “It is what.” (period)

I think most of us – most of us get Manna backwards. Instead of marveling at God’s grace, instead of being awed God’s “What is it?” we don’t even ask. We just jump to our own declarations. “It is what.” (period). “It is what I say it is.” (period). “It is this.” “This is it.” “This is those people.” “Those people are that.” “THIS is what this means.”

Period. End of discussion, thank you very much.

And what happens, then, to God’s amazing grace? It rots untouched in the wilderness.

Imagine how many arguments could be diverted. Imagine how many misunderstandings could be avoided. Imagine how many wars could have been prevented, if we got Manna going the right way, asking, “What is it?”(question mark) instead of twisting it backwards to our own declarations of “This is how it is” and always has to be. Period.

What would it take for you to taste the Manna from heaven, or even see the manna from heaven, or even believe manna from heaven’s here for you, today? What would it take for you to face the Manna, without the “Ew”?

I guess we’d have to be hungry enough, or desperate enough, or brave enough, to find the blessings God hides in plain sight, on the ground. The things present in the new light, that pass as quickly as the morning dew. Whatever they are.