Sunday, March 3, 1995

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Exodus 16:11-21
Matthew 16:24-34

And when they measured it with an omer, one who had gathered much had no surplus and one

who had gathered little had no lack.

Exodus 16:18

One of our students read the story of the manna for a chapel service this past week. Her

basic message was one of trust in providence to give us the strength we need on a daily

basis, which is a message we can scarcely hear too often. We are remarkably slow to learn

that the past and the future are out of our reach, that what we really need are the

resources to cope with the challenges of the present.

What struck me for the first time, though, was the oddity of the verse that is our text.

People who diligently gathered a lot, perhaps to make sure they had enough, would get home

and find that they had exactly what they needed and no more. People who shirked the task,

perhaps because they felt rushed, or lazy, or perhaps because they wanted to get even for

something that had happened yesterday, would get home and find that they had all they

needed. It is as though we could count on opening the refrigerator and finding what we

needed for our next meal, whether we had shopped thoughtfully or not. It is also as though

there would never be anything there we did not need.

Obviously, physical life is not like that; and whenever we find this kind of "unrealism"

in the Bible, we must suspect that it is pointing to one or another of the ways in which

our spiritual life is different from our physical life. We do not run into many miracles

in the world as we experience it, but miraculous changes to take place within us. To

borrow from Nicodemus, we cannot reenter the physical womb and be born again as to our

bodies, but we are becoming new people in a deeper and more abiding sense.

Is there, then, something about our spiritual lives that answers to this strange

characteristic of the manna? Is there something of which we always have enough but never a


These questions raise one immediate caution flag. In the Biblical story, once the

Israelites crossed the Jordan and entered on the conquest of the promised land, the manna

stopped. This means that it is presented as a particular provision for particular

circumstances and does not come with a lifetime guarantee. Far from it, it comes with an

expiration date.

To be specific, it is presented as a kind of adjustment to wilderness living, the

wilderness being the barren territory between the fertile land of bondage and the fertile

land of Canaan. The whole mood of this period in Israel's history is grim. The God who has

freed them from Egypt has inundated them with laws. They have given absolute power to

Moses, and he is an inflexible leader. They are discontented and rebellious, and

especially in the book of Numbers we read of incidents in which they "test the limits," in

every case discovering that the limits are for real and that the consequences of rebellion

are disastrous.

If we look at the whole sweep of the Biblical story as an image of our own lifelong

spiritual journey, the wilderness period in both position and mood answers persuasively to

the time of early adolescence. There are the sense of bondage and yearning for freedom

that we find in the Israelites in Egypt. There is the venture toward maturity and the

discovery of a world that is nowhere near as gentle and supportive as the world of our

childhood. There is the discovery that this world is full of rules and of consequences.

There is the testing of limits, and there is the sense of "wandering"--of a lot of effort

and motion, but no perceptible progress.

In the Biblical story, this period ends when the Israelites cross the Jordan and enter the

promised land. Our theology interprets this as a shift of focus from outward issues to

inner ones, a kind of beginning to set our own house in order. Before this, we are almost

compulsively focused on behavior, on how others respond to us. Our sense of identity

depends to a frightening extent on what other people think of us, and that tends to make

us acutely conscious of what we look like, how we dress and talk and walk.

As the inner conquest proceeds, though, we become less and less dependent on what other

people think of us. We begin to discover who we are in a new sense. There is growth in

both self-reliance and self-control. At the end of the conquest story there is the

marvelous scene in which Joshua gathers the people and asks them to decide whether they

are going to serve the Lord or not. They are absolutely sure they will, and he sounds

equally sure that they will not be up to the task. It is as telling an image as we could

ask for of those times when we need to believe in ourselves, but when there is one single

significant voice telling us that we are kidding ourselves.

All this may serve to bracket the period of the manna. We may see it most vividly in early

adolescence, but times like that recur. These are times when we struggle with harsh

demands and don't seem to be getting anywhere. They are times when the focus of our

attention is not on understanding ourselves or taking care of ourselves but simply on

doing things that have to be done whether we like it or not. They are times when our

"liberation from bondage" turns out to involve not a sense of freedom but a burden of

responsibility. These are the times, it would seem, when the Lord provides us with this

manna that follows its own rules of supply and demand.

Swedenborg makes several references to manna, and one of them I find particularly


. . . when (the delight of outward pleasures) is removed, the Lord instills spiritual

delight and good in its place. It is this good which is meant by the manna, while the

former is meant by the flesh and bread in the land of Egypt (Arcana Coelestia ¶ 84132).

Something does keep us going through these strenuous passages. They are outwardly

unrewarding. We feel as though everything has been laid on our shoulders and that there is

no relief. But if we attend to it, there is another feeling as well, a feeling that comes

"in the morning"--when our energies are freshest--and sustains us.

Essentially, I think, this is simply the feeling that there is something right about all

this. Reflect for a moment on what we feel like when we do not meet those

responsibilities, the feeling that we want to run away and hide from the world, the

feeling that we are fraudulent and worthless. When that feeling is not present because we

are in fact in there trying, it does not leave a vacuum. There is some awareness of the

part of us that does want to serve the Lord and is therefore, strange as it may sound, at


Disciplines of prayer and meditation or of study and reflection are of help to us in our

daily living to the extent that they bring us into touch with that part of our being, into

the place within where we experience ourselves as the Lord's children, as treasured. One

thing the story of the manna may be telling us is that the amount of time we spend in such

disciplines--how much we try to collect--is not really all that critical. If we are

getting through the day, we are getting enough; and in the bleaker times of our lives,

that is all we can realistically expect.

Some effort on our part seems to be required, though. The manna did not just appear in the

Israelites' tents at mealtimes; they had to go out in the morning and gather it. To me,

this says that especially during bleak times I need to pay attention to the good things

that happen. It is all too easy to block out the fact that it is a beautiful day or that

someone has just been particularly thoughtful or that I do seem to have an adequate supply

of energy. There is a certain appeal to wallowing in self-pity or manufacturing a martyr

complex, but in order to do a good job of it one has to screen out or explain away all the

things that are actually making life worth living. When we find ourselves feeling that our

lives are unbearable, we might think of Bosnia or Somalia and ask how bad off we really

are, how much of our depression is really due to causes outside ourselves.

Our circumstances do make a difference. It is just that they do not make all the

difference. We are not left powerless. If we do compare our circumstances with those of

people in truly dire situations, it is awfully clear that we can be quite fortunate and

quite depressed at the same time. This is the reverse side of the manna in the wilderness,

in a way, and it takes us to the wider application of the manna principle of supply and

demand. Just as people can survive circumstances that appall us, can retain their sense of

humanity and care, so people can find something to complain about at the very best of

times. It might be worth noting that we are talking about people like ourselves. There is

every likelihood that if we were ever subjected to such dire circumstances, we too would

find ways to cope. It is just that we are not supplied now with what we would need then.

The key to the wider application of the manna principle is in the word, "delight."

Genuine happiness, true "spiritual delight" is a gift. If we demand it, it is not

supplied. If we try to grasp it, it eludes us. If instead we focus on thoughtful living,

it is supplied. There is no such thing as a surplus, and it is not something we can store

up for a darker day. In fact, nothing is more futile than trying to cheer ourselves up by

recreating how we felt yesterday--this is like the day-old manna, wormy and smelly.

We need delight if we are to survive. This is an important issue. There are pages and

pages of references to it in the concordance to Swedenborg's writings. There is one

charming passage where he describes the life process as one of being led by our

delights--how the delights of infancy lead us into childhood, the delights of childhood

into adolescence, and so on. Whether we intend it or not, apparently, there is some sense

in which we do follow our bliss.

Fundamentally, then, we are dead wrong about the Lord's will for us if we do not realize

that we are designed and intended to be happy. All the things that are forbidden by the

Lord's laws are things that destroy happiness. A completely miserable life is not worth

living. Suppose the doctor tells me that I can have one week of doing what I love to do,

but it will kill me. I could survive for a whole year, though, if I were hooked up to the

machines and cut off from ninety-nine percent of what makes my life worthwhile. Is a year

of futility better than a week of activity? Most people would say that a week of futility

is better than a year of futility, and certainly that a week of activity is better than a

week of futility.

If manna is a symbol of spiritual delight, of contentment of the soul, then we can be very

sure that the Lord is constantly offering us manna or its equivalent. In the bleaker times

of life, it may be just enough to keep us going. But the wilderness was in fact the path

to the promised land, the land that flowed with milk and honey. The little gifts of

delight we are granted when we feel most burdened are foretastes of what the Lord has in

mind for us, no more than hints of what life is like in heavenly community. The Lord went

through more than we can imagine, and at the close of his life told his disciples why--not

for the sake of suffering, not because there was some special virtue in pain and struggle,

but so that his joy might be in them, and their joy be full. Perhaps we can begin by

wishing this for each other, and through our efforts to make those wishes come true,

discover that it is intended for us as well.


contact phil at for any problems or comments