The story painted in Numbers this week is a vivid one. Indeed, it hits awfully close to home for anyone, anywhere who has ever tried to lead. I find myself especially struck today by Moses’ cry to God, for by now the burden of leadership has become profound — so heavy, in fact, that not only does he beg God to take it away — but that death itself would be preferable. I am not especially proud to say that I know something of what Moses felt then.
Over the past year I have enjoyed spending some leisure time doing research into a particular time and place: The Soldiers’ Widows’ Home which once stood on the banks of the Kankakee River in Wilmington, Illinois. It was founded in 1895 to address the needs of impoverished and/or abandoned widows and daughters of Civil War veterans. Prior to this, at least in Illinois, there existed another home for veterans and their wives. However, once their husbands died, their widows were left with nowhere to go. And so it was that Flo Jamison Miller, though not the first superintendent of the home at Wilmington, apparently was the one who carried the vision forward and brought this institution into being.
Now, of course, it is impossible to get into the 19th century mind, but I have been especially curious about her motivation. What I know is this. Flo’s father was a Civil War veteran — when mustered out in 1865 he had attained the rank of Colonel. She was a small child during the war and so one can safely presume that her father was absent during that formative time in her life. Also, her father died when he was still relatively young. Flo was nineteen years old. From what I can tell, her mother was in her care until her death twenty-six years later. In addition, Flo was considered one of the foremost patriotic speakers of her gender in that time. She was among those who advocated that patriotism be taught in the schools. (Perhaps this seems a bit odd today, but evidently at the end of the Civil War, there was not a common sense of country. We were, at least in the Midwest, still a nation of immigrants.) No doubt the fact that she put her life’s energy towards first the formation of and later actually running the Soldiers’ Widows Home in Wilmington was rooted in all of this and more.
Once the initial dream was accomplished, however, if you read her semi-annual reports, you can certainly detect her frustration. For it seems that she had envisioned a place of culture where these women would be offered some of what had been so meaningful to her in life. Instead, she was left to see to the needs of more than 80 elderly women whose bodies and spirits were worn down by the demands of difficult and mostly impoverished lives and who had now been left alone, many just abandoned, by surviving children. And all of this in a time when they did not have the means or understanding which would be at our disposal now to address everything from arthritis to dementia.
It was hard going. And it was surely not made easier by the residents of the home. For so it was that in the year 1905 Flo Jamison Miller, superintendent of the Soldiers’ Widows’ Home at Wilmington, was investigated by the Board of Public Charities of the State of Illinois. The charges brought forward included mistreatment by the superintendent. Among other things they said she was not giving them enough to eat, particularly potatoes. (Decatur Evening Herald, July 5,1906, p. 3) She was later acquitted.
But oh, can’t you just hear the echo of the ‘rabble’ quoted in today’s account in Numbers?
“If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at!” (Numbers 11:4-6)
One can certainly understand Moses’ despair — which was probably shared by Flo Jamison Miller and any leader before or since who simply did what they thought they were supposed to do and were left to deal with the complaining of an ungrateful community. She and all of us who have found ourselves there can certainly resonate with Moses’ cry:
“I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are gong to treat me, put me to death at once — if I have found favor in your sight — and do not let me see my misery.” (Numbers 11:14-15)
Clearly, Moses had had it.
And yes, this is where this story in Numbers always hooks me. For more than once at various times in my ministry when a seemingly petty complaint has been brought to my attention, I have been known to grumble, even if only to myself, “Don’t they know we have people dying here?!?” And often we do, of course, for the nature of ministry, in part, is to walk with and tend the needs of the suffering, the dying, the grieving.
And yet, at least at this point, I am fascinated that the Lord does not only join Moses’ lament. While a few verses later, those complaining people get their ‘due,’ (Numbers 11: 31-34) even so, the Lord sees Moses’ despair as a cry for help. And he gives him what he needs — namely other people who could stand alongside him, speaking a prophetic word to the people. For surely we can take from this that we are not meant to do this alone. In fact, as we read today’s account in Numbers we are reminded that sometimes the Lord gifts unexpected people in unexpected places to ‘prophesy.’
So, no, the complaining is not good. And yes, it never fails to surprise me that when we are in a hard place we often find ourselves wishing for what once was — even when as in the case of the people of Israel or the residents of Soldiers’ Widows Home at Wilmington, our present circumstance has given us life itself. The complaining is not good. But neither is our tendency as leaders to try to do it alone — allowing ourselves to sink into the kind of despair Moses experienced.
Like I said, I understand Moses. And yes, I do understand the complaining ‘rabble.’ I find myself wondering now what it would look like to be grateful — ‘meat or potatoes’ or not. And I find myself wondering where God’s spirit will rest next: who God will raise up to do the work with me, with us, so that we might more faithfully do the work we are all called to do. And I can’t help but wonder how this story might have ended differently if Moses had only recognized his need for such help sooner.
- Have you ever found yourself where Moses finds himself today as he takes in the complaints of the people? Do you recognize yourself in those lifting their voices in complaint? Or do you see yourself in both?
- Look around. On whom is the spirit resting today? Any surprises?
- Why do you think the Lord addresses Moses’ despair in this way first before dealing with the complaining crowd? What are we to take from this?