Manna means “What is it?” — at least that is one interpretation of the word. In the Exodus accounts, manna becomes a tangible indication of God’s presence, a poignant, funny, strange, ironic and temporary sign of grace. The children of Abraham demand deliverance from slavery in Egypt and get what they wished for. “Let my people go.”
Escaping Pharaoh, they wander in the wilderness, and doubts descend. “How could you bring us here?” they ask the hapless Moses. “We remember the leeks and garlic, the pita bread, olive oil and the 20% off wine discount days at that Whole Food store along the Nile. If only we were back home! But you have led us into this wasteland, and we are starving here.”
Don’t we all talk like that from time to time? Whether in the Judean wilderness of 1440 BCE, or the American wilderness of 2021, if we want deliverance from oppression, best to consider where we are, who we are and how we tangibilify the grace of the present moment. Grace may be free, but sometimes it’s a long time coming.
Out in the desert, away from the “stewpots of Egypt,” the Israelites demand some tangibilifying grace.
“Tangibilification” is a wonderful word, coined, some say, by the Black separatist/prophet Father Divine to describe our unceasing need to embody the spiritual, concretize the abstract and make the transcendent imminent.
Tangibilifying grace leaps out at us from across the history of Israel and the church, illustrating the fact that sooner or later, most of us need “an outward and visible sign of God’s inward and spiritual grace” to support our journeys of life and faith.
It would be grand if we were spiritually mature enough to follow the Spirit wherever it might take us, no questions asked. It just wouldn’t be terribly human. Like the Israelites at Sinai, most of us need some demonstrable sign, symbol or sacrament that says, “God is still with us, even when we seem so far off from garlic and from grace.” Like now.
Which brings us back to manna, that mythic sustenance that fed the wilderness wanderers and assured them that Yahweh had not forgotten where they were. What was that stuff, they, and we, inquire? Certain texts suggest it was hoarfrost, a kind of solidified morning dew. Maybe it was a sap-like substance, the nightly secretion of the tamarisk plant. It could even have been insect-based-larvae of honeydew resin, tasty enough but you had to hurry and eat it before the little critters hatched. The Baptist preachers of my youth insisted that manna was simply a divinely manufactured miracle created for God’s chosen people on the spot. Speculation abounds.
“Most of us need some demonstrable sign, symbol or sacrament that says, ‘God is still with us, even when we seem so far off from garlic and from grace.’”
Whatever it was, manna tangibilified the grace of God, corporeal evidence of God’s presence and care. When eaten quickly and divided communally, it provided strength for another day’s wilderness existence. Yet its tangibility revealed another reality: manna did not last long.
Moses warns them to gather enough for only one day since if it remained too long uneaten, there would be maggots in the morning (Exodus 16:20). Their faith was not found in manna, but in God.
Sometimes the grace we tangibilify can go bad on us if we cling to it too long. Better yet, if manna was indeed natural hoarfrost, tamarisk sap or insect larva, then God’s tangible grace had been there all along, it just took eyes of faith and starvation to see it. Sometimes the grace we want made tangible is the grace that has been right in front of us.
That reality came home to me this week while reading Mark Wingfield’s excellent BNG article titled, “American young people report huge gaps between what matters to them and what appears to matter to the church.” A new Springtide study examines “The State of Religion and Young People 2021,” with daunting implications for faith communities. Wingfield writes: “On nine contemporary issues that American young people overwhelmingly say they care about, the same young persons said they perceive the church cares far less. On every issue, the gap between how much the young people care and how much they perceive the church cares ranges from 15 to 27 points.”
“Sometimes the grace we tangibilify can go bad on us if we cling to it too long.”
The distance between the young peoples’ concerns and their perception of churchly responses to those same issues seems considerable, divisive issues that include LGBTQ rights, gender equity, immigration rights, income equity, disability rights, environmental causes, reproductive rights, racial justice, Black Lives Matter, and gun reform. The 10,274 individuals, ages 13 to 25, involved in this study appear to believe that they have more compassion toward these concerns and the human beings connected to them than some Americans who claim to represent Jesus.
The survey is compounded by this week’s Atlantic article by evangelical journalist Peter Wehner, “The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart.” Wehner documents the burgeoning religio-political conflicts present in many evangelical churches, and the growing number of pastors resigning their current positions and/or planning to leave the ministry altogether.
Wehner writes: “The root of the discord lies in the fact that many Christians have embraced the worst aspects of our culture and our politics. When the Christian faith is politicized, churches become repositories not of grace but of grievances, places where tribal identities are reinforced, where fears are nurtured, and where aggression and nastiness are sacralized. The result is not only wounding the nation; it’s having a devastating impact on the Christian faith.”
“How many people look at churches in America these days and see the face of Jesus?”
He cites Tim Schultz, president of First Amendment Partnership, who asserts that evangelicalism “has been held together by political orientation and sociology more than by common theology.” COVID and a growing recognition of continuing race-related injustice revealed that oft-overlooked reality.
Wehner concludes that right now, “much of what is distinctive about American evangelicalism has become antithetical to authentic Christianity. What we’re dealing with — not in all cases, of course, but in far too many — is political identity and cultural anxieties, anti-intellectualism and ethnic nationalism, resentments and grievances, all dressed up as Christianity.”
Without knowing it, perhaps, Wehner links his analysis with that of Springtide when he quotes his former college classmate’s “haunting question”: “How many people look at churches in America these days and see the face of Jesus?”
Oct. 31, 2021, marks the 504th anniversary of the beginnings of the Reformation personified in Martin Luther’s circulation of his 95 Theses, a document that tangibilified his critique of the church of his day. For Luther, the “manna” of Protestantism was found in sola fide, sola scriptura and sola gratia, truths that while not completely lost within contemporary Christianity are certainly diminished, at least in the land of the free and the home of “sacralized nastiness.”
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.
Six ways to survive the fall of evangelicalism and the rise of emergence | Opinion by Patrick Wilson
The deconstruction of American evangelicalism | Opinion by David Gushee