Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series. To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein. For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work. If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me.
The series continued on June 29 with readings from Exodus 16:1-15 and Psalm 37:1-6.
There are, as many of you know, a number of reasons to love my friend David. He is a wonderful human being. I was struck by Dave’s thoughtful and reflective nature earlier this week, when a large group of people had gathered to watch a World Cup Soccer game. The cameras focused in on Cristiano Ronaldo who is the most highly-paid, and by most accounts, the best soccer player in the world.
David looked at the screen and said something like, “Look, I don’t care what kind a person you are or how you are wired, you have to admit that man is an attractive person. It doesn’t have to do with being gay, but he is just gorgeous.”
What a risky thing to say in a room full of people! Because almost always, when a man says, “that person is beautiful”, the presumption is that is a statement of desire, and if there is desire, the presumption is that the speaker would love to move towards a physical relationship.
As David (who gave me permission to share this story) pointed out, that’s not what he was saying. He was naming the truth: Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro, OIH has been blessed with an astounding set of chromosomes. Thanks be to God.
That conversation with Dave got me to thinking about the business of desire. Desire is defined as “a strong sense of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.” You could say that Clint Hurdle desires a pennant for Pittsburgh, or that the 1956 Thunderbird was Larry’s heart’s desire.
Desire is key in our lives. As a grown-up person in America, I am astounded at how many times I am involved in conversations where the biggest question is, “What do you want?” Sometimes that’s because I’m down at Hanlon’s and the server is inquiring about my menu choice, but I have asked that question of a couple in a struggling marriage, a woman seeking to overcome decades of addiction, or a child throwing a temper tantrum. “What do you want? What do you wish would happen?”
When I was a teenager, my mother was a big, big Billy Graham fan. She somehow obtained a written copy of a sermon he preached in 1972 entitled “The World, The Flesh, and the Devil” and compelled me to read it. I’m not sure what Billy Graham was actually saying, but this is what I took from that message: desire is a simple matter. You can want what God wants you to want, or you can go the other way. I spent most of my teen years desiring all the “wrong” stuff, and was therefore convinced that I was headed the way of “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Just about everything I wanted was pretty darn worldly, and I knew I would burn eternally because of that. It was pretty black and white to me.
For 400 years, the people of Israel languished in slavery. Generation after generation of Jewish children grew up and grew old and died as captives in Egypt. I don’t suppose that old Pharaoh was much for protest marches, but if they had them, I would imagine that the chant could have gone like this: “What do you want?” “FREEDOM!” “When do you want it?” “NOW!” These folks wanted to get out of Egypt. They wanted to live as God’s people. That’s pretty black and white, I think.
Sooooo, six weeks after they get that for which they’ve been longing for 400 years, how’s that march coming? “What do you want? “The Fleshpots of Egypt!” “When do you want them?” “NOW!”
Seriously? Six weeks? Six weeks of wandering in the desert, and they begin to long for the bread and the stew that they “enjoyed” while living in slavery?
This story gets told twice in the Old Testament. In the Exodus reading we’ve just shared, God’s response to their complaining is to send them bread and meat. There’s manna to be found every morning, and in the evening, the quail come blowing in and pile up in heaps. “You want meat? No problem, I’ll give you meat,” says the God of Exodus.
The common quail is a simple and easily domesticated bird. Although it can fly, it prefers to walk and scavenge along the ground, and will usually only take to the air as a means of avoiding a predator. Even quail that migrate, such as those mentioned in Exodus, are such weak fliers that if they have to go very far (like across a desert or an ocean), they will wait for a strong wind that’s going in that direction to help blow them along.
The Common Quail
The first time I saw a quail, I marveled. I admired its plumage, I wondered at its ability to camouflage itself in its surroundings, and I chuckled at the way that it ran amidst the desert grasses. In following Jesus’ command, I considered the quail.
The Israelites of Exodus, though, had no such time for appreciation or consideration. They were hungry, they told God they wanted meat, and the evening breeze brought them a vast ocean of quail – not to wonder at, not to consider, but to eat.
The first time we read about these birds, in Exodus, the implication is that God is lavishly providing for his people. They long for the meat of their slavery, and he gives them the meat of freedom in abundance!
In the book of Numbers, however, the story is told from a slightly different perspective, and for many, the quail become a “last supper”. We’re told that God promises that they’ll eat the meat that they so desire – and in fact, that they will eat it until it “comes out of their nostrils”. Many die after gorging themselves on this quail that has literally been a “windfall”. Traditionally, we’ve understood this to be the biblical way of saying that God is punishing his people for having the wrong desires, as if God is saying, “Look, you miss the meat of your slavery? Fine. Here. BOOM! That’ll fix your wagons.”
OK, I’m pretty sure God never threatened to fix anyone’s wagon, but sometimes, in my head, God sounds a lot like my mom. My point is that we have often read the bit about the quail and the people dying as God’s way of getting even with us for wanting the wrong thing.
And if that’s not confusing enough, a couple of hundred pages later we get to the scripture from the Psalms, which promises that “God will give you the desires of your heart.”
Now, put yourself in the place of a young Dave Carver, who is pretty sure that there are “good desires” and there are “bad desires”, and if you choose poorly, well, that’s an eternal bummer for you… And then the minister comes in and says, “Remember what it says in the Good Book: ‘God will give you the desires of your heart…’”
My response was “Noooooo! That would kill me!”
How often have you thought, “Thank God I didn’t get what I thought I wanted back there!” How often have you been willing to choose the thing that would kill you if you let it?
Think about that: what if you ate everything that you wanted to eat? What if you watched or surfed every show or site that attracted you? What if you actually said everything you ever wanted to say?
Do you see? It might be alcohol, it might be driving like a maniac, it might be doing mean things to your spouse with a stick – but there are times when we really, really desire and crave and want things that will just crush us. We long for things that will cause us and those around us great damage…and we want them anyway. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not just Israelites who long to be Pharaoh’s slaves.
So how are we to understand the promise that God will give us “the desires of our hearts”?
Let’s remember the whole passage. It starts with some commands: “Trust in the Lord!”. “Live right!”. “Live where God sends you.” “Do what the Lord wants you to do.”
Too often, we wake up in a world where we are taught to believe that our desires and our wants are the most important thing – or at least the first thing. We think about what we want, and then plan our day after satisfying that on our own terms.
But the scriptural approach seems to be the opposite: we wake up and we decide that we’ll let God order the universe and our lives. We’ll seek to be attuned to the things that God has or will do, and then, when we’re in that kind of rhythm, God will give us the desires of our hearts.
Listen: the world is filled with people who are as beautiful as Cristiano Ronaldo or George Clooney or Taylor Swift or Scarlett Johannsen. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that amazing! Can we praise God for beautiful creatures?
And the world is filled with delicious foods, and tasty beverages and shiny objects and gorgeous art. Again, wonderful! It is right and good to notice, to admire, and to appreciate beauty where you encounter it without presuming to manipulate that beauty or to allow your noticing of that beauty to lead you to an unhealthy wish to own, control, or use that beauty in a way that diminishes the creatureliness of either you or the other.
What do you want? And how will you get it?
Here’s a young mother who is stressed by the demands of her full-time at-home job and her part-time gig at the grocery store. The boss was yelling before she left work, the kids are crying now, she’s got a headache to beat the band, and she passes by the liquor cabinet. She wants a drink so bad that she can already taste it. Why?
Because she’s so tired of hurting and feeling inadequate and incomplete. What do you want, mom? I want to feel like I can do it. I want to know I matter. I want to experience life without thinking that someone is squeezing it out of me.
Those are huge wants, and deep desires. You know that a couple of shots of Tequila aren’t going to satisfy them, right?
Here’s a man who finds himself sitting at a meeting next to a stunning woman. She is beautiful, and his thoughts begin to drift towards all the ways that he might use or enjoy that beauty. He imagines a conversation – and more – that is based on how badly he “wants” her. Why?
Because he’s stressed. He’s a man, after all. He has needs.
And he does. He needs to know that he is not unlovable. He wants someone to tell him that he is not old or fat or ugly, and if someone that attractive would want to be with him, well, then he would, in fact, be attractive, beautiful, or worthwhile himself.
And when he stops to think about what he really needs, as opposed to what his first impulse is, he might realize that that’s a lot of pressure to put on a woman to whom he’s never even spoken before.
What would happen if either of these people would look to God and ask God to help them understand who they are as his children? What would happen if you or I were to look to the Creator, not a creature, to offer self-worth and validation?
In her excellent book that inspired this series of sermons, Debbie Blue points out that in the Bible, quails are signs of both God’s extravagant provision and the fact that our desiring and wanting need to be transformed and renewed.
Today, in our celebration of and remembrance of baptism, we acknowledge the truth that we don’t always know what we want. Too often, we look in the wrong places, or we use a beautiful creature in the wrong way. As we baptize these infants, we name the truth that God’s grace is here, and that it has been since well before you or I knew to ask for it. As we baptize them, we indicate to them, and we remind ourselves, that there is a new way of living – there is a way to trust that God will give us what we need.
Beloved, the God who created and called and claimed you knows who you are, and he knows what you need. Bring God the things that you want. Ask God about what you want. And ask God to help you to identify the need that is behind that want. God in his grace is already there, helping you to transform the desire and appreciate the beauty that is present. Move toward and into that grace. Relax in that grace. Grow in that grace. Name and celebrate all the beautiful things you see in your world, and ask God to give you the ones that you need. Thanks be to God! Amen.
 Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible (Abingdon, 2013).