Mourning the Gentle Locusts of Egypt with mewithoutYou on the Way to the Promised Land

pale horsesThis last month has been one of great upheaval. For those of you unaware, my wife and I just uprooted our lives in Orange County, California to move to Deerfield, Illinois in order to pursue a Ph.D. in theology there. While this is a fantastic opportunity that I’m still pinching myself over, we had to leave our jobs, families, friends, and basically every regular feature of our life behind to do so.

Needless to say, this has not been without its challenges of various sorts. Wrapping up a ministry, leaving an office in the hands of another, charting routes, selling cars, packing up an apartment, driving across country, saying goodbye to friends and family, and the half-dozen other major steps I could list are all–taken simply by themselves–large undertakings. We praise God we’ve had wonderful friends and family who have helped us throughout the process, or we would never have survived.

As I sit here on the “other side” of the biggest steps in the ordeal in Trinity’s library, though, it’s all a bit surreal to think about. To be honest, I think it’s going to be a long time to process the meaning of this move for us just in practical terms, but the existential ones will likely take even longer.

One thought that’s struck me in the process, however, was triggered by the release of mewithoutYou’s newest album Pale Horses a month or so ago. It’s kind of been the soundtrack of the move for me. It was the album stuck on repeat in my car as I drove around Orange that last month, running errands, making final purchases for college group events, or the last drive to the coffee shop up the street, or over to our friend’s house for the final time before the trip out.

On it is one particularly powerful song called “Red Cow.” It’s one of the most mewithoutYou songs to ever mewithoutYou, full of lyrical gravity, gut-wrenching vocalization, rocking distortion, and passion. It’s why I love this band. Weiss’ lyrics on the song fall into a characteristically, stream-of-consciousness meditation that slips back and forth between scenes from, possibly a trip through the Midwest and a telling of the Biblical story of the Exodus. And in the middle of it, of course, he tackles issues of meaning, symbol and reality, the captivity of idolatry, and so much more.

Here, give it a whirl:

As I said, I listened to this album and this song a lot while I was driving around that month. There’s so much going on in there that I’d love to unpack. But listen after listen, the line I kept coming back to was this gem, sung in the mournful, longing voice of the Israelites:

O for the land we knew before the frogs withdrew,
And the fragrant pomegranate blooms where the tender locust flew.

In that one line, Weiss invokes the narratives of the wilderness wanderings of Israel after Moses led them out of the land of their slavery, Egypt. After the initial thrill of liberation wore off, the Israelites were quite prone to grumbling. A couple of days of thirst and hunger, a couple of hours too many of walking, and the newly-freed sons and daughters of Jacob were ready to throw in the towel and return “home.”

Exodus 16 gives the account of one such instance:

They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:1-3)

Here they are, just a couple of months after God stretched out his hand to work mighty wonders before them in order to make them his own. He brought frogs, flies, and locust, rained down hail and blackened the skies, bringing the mightiest Empire in the ancient world to its knees before their eyes. Not to mention bringing them out of grinding slavery of the worst sort.

And what’s their response? Grumbling and mourning ingratitude of the sort that actually caused them to misremember and distort their time in Egypt. It’s not just that things are tough out here, but back in Egypt they used to “sit by the meat pots” and eat until their guts were full. It was practically paradise in their telling.

Now, for years this story had frustrated me to no end. I just didn’t get it. I mean, I understood, theoretically, that all sin, all face God with that same gross ingratitude deeply lodged in their hearts. But there seemed to be something extraordinarily obtuse about the whole sorry affair.

And yet, here, as I drove along a number of those mornings, stressing out about all the things I had to get done–the hard conversations, phone calls, running around, managing stressful personal relations, my own rising sense of anxieties over the exposure of all my inadequacies that were sure to come–I found myself thinking a number of times, “This all would have been so much easier if I’d have just stayed home. I wouldn’t have to say goodbye, or worry about finding a car, or McKenna getting a job, or whether I’d measure up to the road ahead.”

Of course, nothing about my last gig was even remotely like slavery in Egypt. I loved my last job and church–that’s part of what’s been so hard about leaving. But here I was, preparing for a journey to the very good thing God was giving me–the “promised land” of challenging study and adventure–and I’m sitting there, longing for the lands that the “gentle locust flew.” A little difficulty, a few nights going to bed wired and waking up exhausted were managing to crowd God’s extraordinary mercy and provision out of my vision for the future.

Isn’t that the way of things? Our good, beautiful God promises a hope and a future just on the other end of hardship and yet, at the first taste of uncertainty and struggle, I clamor for the ease I used to know.

I’ve been slowly learning to thank God that his way of giving is not like ours, though. It is not tempered by our feeble and fickle gratitude. He doesn’t just sit there, waiting to see if you’re grateful enough, or trusting enough, or righteous enough before he continues to care and provide for you. He’s the good God who makes his sun shine on the righteous and the wicked and has patience with his children as the grow and make their way into the sun.

In the case of the Israelites, their complaint provides an opportunity for God to flex again, providing the manna, the bread of life that would feed them in their wilderness wanderings. For his children today, we have the promises of our Savior that he is the bread of life who sustains us day by day (John 6). Of his graces and mercy there are no end. He is the one who provides us our daily bread–both physical and spiritual.

And that is my hope in the middle of all the transitions and weirdness–wherever he takes us, Jesus will never stop giving us what we need most: himself. And if that’s true, it’s all gonna work out.

Soli Deo Gloria

3 thoughts on “Mourning the Gentle Locusts of Egypt with mewithoutYou on the Way to the Promised Land

  1. Derek,

    Thank you. This spoke to my soul today. My family and I are in the midst of a new transition as well, the result of a surprising and unexpected opportunity arising in a new city. As a result, we’ve also had to uproot our relatively settled and comfortable lives and move. I, too, have had dark thoughts, questioning the Lord in directing us here — and even this morning have thought that it just would have been easier to have stayed where we were. In our case, it seems that we ask the Lord for opportunities and then complain when He provides them.

    Anyway, thanks for the encouraging word today.

    Josh

  2. I didn’t come away from the Exodus story thinking God was good and beautiful. I came away wondering why a God who was supposed to be good would punish so many Egyptians when it was likely that the vast majority of them weren’t enslaving or mistreating anyone. They were just ordinary people trying to survive and take care of their families, and God made their lives miserable with plagues and killed their children.

    Sorry. Realize this isn’t really relevant to the point you were making with this post, but I really don’t get how you can see the God of the Bible as good.

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