Friday, January 14, 2011

A Table in the Wilderness

They spoke against God saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Even though he struck the rock so that the water gushed out and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread, or provide meat for his people?” Psalm 78:19–20

            Cancer is a wilderness like none we’ve ever experienced. It doesn’t matter that we’ve seen God at work in our lives in other ways—all the times that water gushed out over our thirsty and barren lives. For most of us, cancer is the largest, scariest desert we will ever face, and yesterday’s remembered blessings are irrelevant.
            The rest of the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, as it’s retold briefly in the psalm, isn’t pretty. God does provide manna and flesh (“he rained flesh upon them like dust”—can’t you just picture that one, the quail carcasses falling everywhere?). Then God was angry and killed some of them—not because they were hungry, but because they doubted.
            I’m here to dispute the idea that God can’t handle a bit—or a pickup truck full—of doubt. To argue against a God who destroys us for some transgression. To refute any notion that God sends us cancer, whether as a punishment or a test of our faith. I’m a firm believer in the God of Genesis 1 and 2, the Creator of all that is. I have a hard time throwing away even the terrible first drafts of my writing—how could the One who refers to us as a poem (“We are God’s workmanship,” Saint Paul writes, and the Greek word is poema) destroy us?
            The questions of the ancient Israelites are our questions, though. Even if we don’t feel like eating during treatment, we want to know that God can and will set a banquet for us, can give us bread or meat or cheesecake if that’s what we want.
            As I’ve been writing this, the words of a hymn that Isaac Watts paraphrased have been running through my head. Psalm 23 includes a promise of a table spread before my enemies (and have you ever faced a bigger enemy than cancer?). The final verse begins “The sure provision of my God attend me all my days.” Sure provision, all my days, including the one when I cried in chemo—not because I was hurt but because I was already afraid of a recurrence before I was half finished with my regimen.
            Try this image: God as chef, cooking up whatever it is we need most now, willing and eager to feed us. God as my Austrian grandmother, singing as she kneaded dough for bread. Whoever it is in your family or among your friends who loves to cook, to entertain, to put on a spread or take food to people who are ill or grieving. That’s the God I’m talking about, the one with sure provisions for our healing.

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