At my home church we would we would have what was called a devotional service. This was a period of worship were the congregations was free to stand up and give a testimony, pray, read a scripture or sing a song. Specifically I remember the devotion my church would have at the Wednesday evening prayer service. And every week, without fail the same deaconess would stand up and give her “testimony”. Every week, she’d stand up with her shrill voice say something like:
I woke up this morning with a headache. My daughter’s sick. The people at my job don’t treat me right. Children these days don’y have any respect.
And she’d follow this laundry list of complaints with:
But I won’t complain! Mr., play my song!
“Her song” was a song called “I Won’t Complain” a contemporary Gospel song written by the late Rev. Paul Jones. And as was our tradition the musician would give his weekly rendition. Like many Gospel songs it has a very personal feel to it. The reverend sings about the ups and downs of his life, mostly downs… But in his refrain he concludes “but all of my good days outweigh his bad days” and therefore “I won’t complain.”
There may be some of you who have heard this song before and many others who have either heard and/or used the phrase over and over again. “I won’t complain”… “I can’t complain” “How are you doing today?” “Well, you know. I can’t complain.” Or more than likely it goes something like this:
“How are you doing?” “Well, I’m my back hurts. I hate my job. I can’t stand my spouse. I don’t understand why taxes are so high. My kids are failing out of school. And this president is the worse. But, you know, I can’t complain.”
I won’t complain. I can’t complain. I see the value in this statement. There is virtue in attempting to limit the amount of complaining one does. There is definitely important to have an “attitude of gratitude” and thank God for all of the things that have been provided and all the things you have been spared. But as a world champion complainer, I have begun wondering if we are being honest when we say things like “I won’t complain” or “I can’t complain”. I wonder if saying “I won’t complain” before, after or instead of complaining counts as not complaining.
Considering this I really enjoy reading about the Israelites and the way they rip into God and Moses in our Exodus text for today. They don’t hold their tongue. They’ve been through slavery and oppression and they find themselves lost in a wilderness with this guy who seems like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. “You brought us out here to die of thirst, Moses! What’s you’re problem? Go tell that Yahweh dude to give us some water!” They are tired and they’re thirsty. And they are beginning to wonder if slavery was a better deal. They are very clear to address this issue. And unlike the Rev. Jones they have hit the point where their bad days have officially outweighed their good days and they will complain.
And many of us may think to ourselves what was wrong with those people? Moses has sacrificed his life and his position as one adopted into the ruling class to help these ungrateful people. They were being lead out of oppression. They had seen all of these miracles performed by God and God through Moses. How dare they complain? How dare they quarrel with Moses and test the Lord? How could they even think to ask why Moses took them out of Egypt? What kind of people would look back at slavery with any sense of nostalgia? Some of us read this text and say to the Israelites: I don’t care how thirsty you say you are. You need to be grateful and say I won’t complain!
And I am definitely advocating non-stop whining about everything and annoying people to the point that no one listens to you. Please don’t tell your pastor that I preached a sermon advocating excessive complaint. But I fear too many of us have gotten sucked in this, “I won’t complain,” way of living. And the point I want to try to make with this sermon is even as we are grateful for what we have and how far we have come, we should not be afraid to advocate on our own behalf. We should never believe that standing up for what we need and don’t have is not being ungrateful for what we do have.
And I think the Israelites in our scripture today were fierce self-advocates. They were thirsty and they were determined not to die of thirst in the wilderness. So they quarreled and tested. They persisted and annoyed Moses until he had no choice but to go to God and say what am I supposed to do with these people?? They tested and quarreled just long enough to see change happen. They protested against Moses and even fussed at God because there was a change they needed to see. And guess what? God provided their need. After hearing about this bickering, God sent Moses out to create the miracle of flowing water.
Now I don’t know but I wonder what would have happened if the Israelites had not complained. What if Moses went up to the elders and was like, “How’s everything?” And they were like, “well some folks are a little parched but, you know, we can’t complain.” I have a feeling Moses would not have taken the concern very seriously. Moses may not have even gone to God with this concern. And maybe just maybe they would not have gotten that water.
And I fear that there are too many of us who are doing just that. We are down-playing our needs and we are allowing situations, physical and emotional pain eat away at us and tear us apart on the inside while we smile and say “I can’t complain”. We suffer in silence and never ask for what we need because somehow voicing our needs will take validation away from what we have. We’re afraid of getting labeled and ungrateful or greedy or needy. But look at the Israelites, they received a label. They even got a piece of land named after their unflattering behavior. But I say who cares!? Because, in the end, they got their water. The Israelites and their live stock did not die of thirst.
As we travel through the world we must be honest not only about the good but the bad and the ugly. This is especially true if we know that voicing the bad and the ugly will bring about positive change on an individual or communal level. So I think there are at least 3 lessons that we can learn from the Israelites:
The first lesson is, be sure that your complaint is worth fighting for and it is something that will lead to the greater good or wellness of the community. You realize that the Israelites are not about to stone Moses over a nice pair of shoes or ticket to a concert. They didn’t publicly question the presence of God because they were deprived the best kind of wine or even bottled water as opposed to tap. They protested and screamed and hollered because they were afraid for their lives and the lives of their children and livestock. If there is no water there is no survival. This is no joke. So as you are considering whether or not you will complain, think about the live and death nature of the situation. Is it for the survival of the community? Or is it to get attention or recognition? Is it for your own personal safety and wellness? Or is it because you are being self-indulgent?
The next lesson I see the Israelites teaching us was: Do not be afraid to be labeled negatively if in the end your complaint it leads to what you need. I am almost certain that when Moses went before the Lord he used some “choice words” to describe those Israelites. They were testing God and quarrelling with him. You know that there was probably a great conversation where both Moses and God call the Israelites all kinds of fun names. And in the end the even got a plot of land was named for the Israelites. And it wasn’t named after their good qualities. It didn’t mean well-mannered and quiet. It meant test and quarrel. They named a land for this group of people in honor of the fact that they annoyed God. That sounds terrible but sometimes you have to risk getting a reputation. Not all the time, you don’t want to be the “oh no here he/she comes person”. You don’t want to be the boy/girl who cried wolf. But in times when you have a conviction it is sometimes necessary to let go of the fear of labels, ignore those who might mock you and speak your peace. The Israelites didn’t seem to fear the label of ungratefulness. They didn’t fear looking crazy for questioning why Moses took them out of Egypt. They needed water for survival; so they made their case. And I think if all of a sudden there was no water to be had in White Planes and no one was providing water for you and you were getting to the end of your second or third day without water you’d start bickering with town leaders. You’d be dramatic. You’d protest. You’d cry. You’d probably throw in a little extreme language. I don’t think you’d say “I won’t complain”. You too would test and quarrel.
And speaking of town leaders… the final lesson I believe is important as we look at the example the Israelites set for us is go to the right people. Go to the right people. When they were seeking out something to quench their thirst, when they were looking for something to save their lives, they didn’t just go to the random person who had no say over the water. They went to Moses, the guy who had an “in” with the dude that owned all water. I think so many times we have issues and pain and struggles. There are things in our lives that are unfair and unjust. And there is someone in the position to change that but we are too afraid to go to them. Or we go to them and talk around the issues. Or talk about how nice the weather is and how you “won’t complain”. But then we complain and complain to everyone else. We complain to or take it out on our friends, our family, and our pets. “Fluffy, you know my boss is crazy! She never listens to anything I say.” Fluffy can’t help you!” Yet somehow Fluffy knows more about your distress than the person who could actually create the change in your life knows nothing about it. Who ever it is that is stifling you live and livelihood thinks you are fine…invites you over their house and thinks you two are best friend. Fluffy knows about the pain you’re in and how sad you are but the doctor who has the ability to cure it thinks you’re feeling fine and has no reason to think otherwise.
A few nights ago my mentor and pastor Donna Schaper was telling me the story about how she got started in the ministry. She was a woman in ministry in the1970’s. So she had a call to ministry. She knew what she wanted to do with her life. She’d gone to seminary and although her denomination did not want to ordain her she was ready to serve a church. She moved to Arizona with her husband and made this plan to go door to door to all mainline denomination churches. And of course as she went from church to church she was rejected.
After a while she was at the end of her rope and was about to just give up. But she decided to try one more church. According to her it was a UCC church something like this one. And while sitting in the waiting room for the pastor, she met an older woman. This woman asked her what she was there to speak to the pastor about. Now, she could have said, “Oh, I’m blessed, I’m havening some struggles, but you know. I can’t complain.” But according to her she proceeded to break down and cry. And she complained and quarreled. She told this woman how she had been discriminated against by the men in her denomination. She tested God. She said, why God would you call me to this ministry if when I got there all the doors were closed to me? And in the midst of all of that, this woman standing there heard her frustration and pain. And God also heard because all of a sudden Donna was being pulled into the pastor’s office by this woman. And the woman says to the pastor of the church, “this is our new associate pastor.” And because this woman was an heiresses she followed that statement with, “And I’ll pay her salary.” And the rest is UCC history…
So… Just like my Donna 35 years ago. Just like the Israelites millennia ago. Just like the persistent widow in the Gospels, sometimes we have to be brave enough to complain, to test and quarrel with, with consciousness, in prayerfulness and for the greater good and the safety and well-being of the community. Without shame, without fear of what they might say… let us advocate on our own behalf and stand for the things that are most important. A-men.