The hall again?
Lugging my shrieking ten-month-old down the aisle, I try not to make eye contact with the endless rows of faces, each of which I know holds one of two expressions—disapproval or pity. I stop at the back corner of the chapel, careful not to block anyone’s view of the speaker, but near enough to the door for a quick exit. Bouncing and rocking, gently at first, then with increasing insistence, I attempt through sheer force of will to quiet the wriggling mass in my arms.
I fail. With a howl and a stunning whack against my nose with both pudgy hands, my son lets me know in no uncertain terms that he has had his fill of sacrament meeting for the week. My cheeks flush with embarrassment, frustration, and exertion. I push open the heavy door as quietly as possible. Just before it closes behind me with its echoing kuh-CLICK, I hear the words, “We will now sing our opening hymn . . .”
I sit down heavily on the familiar stiff sofa in the foyer and look at this small person working desperately to free himself from my grasp. His hair is disheveled from the struggle, damp and matted a bit on his forehead. “Oh, Buddy,” I say, exasperated, “can’t we ever stay in the chapel?” He looks up, miraculously still for a moment, with eyes suddenly merry. He laughs in his throaty, disarming way at my apparent humor, then again turns his attention to twisting out of my arms. I sigh, wondering how many months of Sundays I will spend sacrament meeting out here, wrestling my baby and my frustration, instead of inside, peacefully partaking of the spirit of the worship service.
Another mother sits across the foyer from me, bouncing a red-faced baby with a single shock of blond hair pointing skyward. She sends a sympathetic grimace in my direction. A father trudges after a toddler racing down the hall. I know I am not the only one pulled from the chapel by the needs of my child, so why do I feel so isolated?
At home that evening, after my children are at last asleep, I open my scriptures with a silent prayer. Help me understand, I plead. Help me know how to find the spiritual nourishment I crave. I flip through the pages, reading passages that catch my eye, following ideas from one verse to another. Somehow, I find myself in the Old Testament, wandering with a people through the wilderness. Okay, I think, this definitely feels familiar.
“We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely,” the wanderers say, “the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick” (Numbers 11:5). As the Israelites reminisce about fresh produce and savory meats, I yearn for the blissful months I spent as a Relief Society teacher, an assignment that offered me ample opportunity to feast on meaty doctrines and relish fresh truths. I recall the deep satisfaction of preparing and sharing these monthly meals of the Spirit in a sort of sisterly banquet. I had finally found my place, my gift, my true calling. Embarrassed by my inability to get a “real” dinner on the table each evening, defeated by my children’s refusal to touch most of the meals I managed to offer, I felt like a failure at providing for the nutritional needs of my own family. But in serving spiritual food to a large group of others who not only partook but savored, I felt full for the first time in years.
Then I was asked to be Primary president.
The demands of administering to a large children’s organization in addition to the needs of my own family have quickly depleted my stores of strength. The spiritually nutritious “meals” I attempt to prepare for the Primary children often seem unappreciated—tasted reluctantly and rejected, smashed through fingers and carelessly smeared around, or simply ignored. Why do I even bother? And now my opportunity to enjoy sacrament meeting rapidly diminishes with the growth of my baby. As I ponder these feelings I find myself right there among the Israelites, recalling past times of plenty with deep nostalgia and real hunger. This is my wilderness.
But the prayers of the children of Israel were heard and answered, and I must believe that mine will be too. I look for more reassurance in the words of the scriptures. As I follow the threads extending from the Topical Guide entry for manna, I realize that I have unthinkingly visualized the food provided for the Israelites with the exaggerated poetic imagery found in Psalms 78: God “had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them of the corn of heaven. Man did eat angels’ food” (v. 24-25). I had imagined the followers of Moses dancing about gleefully in the bounteous downpour, baskets upheld and filled effortlessly with daily bread.
As I look further, however, I find that this free gift from heaven was strange to the Israelites and not even immediately recognizable as food. For years I smugly dismissed these people as blind and ungrateful; now I am forced to question my previous assumptions. After weeks of tediously gathering such bland and unremarkable rations, would I not have murmured right along with them? Would not my taste buds have yearned as theirs did for more than this insubstantial and monotonous ingredient from which I was expected to fashion daily meals? The most grievous offense of the wanderers—repeated complacently in the comfort of Sunday School class—is that they did not see the deeper significance of manna: “For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world” (John 6:33). And yet, can I honestly blame these hungry, homeless people for missing the transcendent symbol in the too-familiar substance surrounding them on the very ground?
That, I realize, is exactly what I am doing now. Suddenly, the landscape of my own wilderness slides into focus and I am shamed by my own nearsightedness. In lusting after the flesh-pots of previous experience I have been despising and rejecting the most substantial food of all—the “true bread from heaven” (John 6:32)—because it is small and plain and difficult to gather. I have ignored or smashed through my fingers the provisions He has been constantly sending. I have been hiding my face from the source of all life and starving in the midst of abundance.
I continue to ponder the metaphor during the ensuing weeks, alert now for seemingly insignificant experiences I can gather and add to my stores of spiritual strength. All at once, they are everywhere, like frost on the ground. My six-year-old son teaches a powerful family home evening lesson, all on his own. A passage in a book provides an unexpected answer to a difficulty I am having with Primary. An experience I feel prompted to relate in sharing time triggers a flood of Spirit that washes over and instantly calms a roomful of boisterous children. A ray of morning sunlight falls across my face like a caress as I am scrubbing the kitchen floor, overpowering me with a sense of my Father’s love and acceptance. The next time I walk the halls during sacrament meeting with my restless son, we stop in front of a painting of the Savior. “Ah-ahh!” he croons, straining forward to touch the image with his fingers. “That’s right, Buddy,” I say. “That’s Jesus. He loves you!” And He loves me, I add silently, knowing again.
The wilderness continues to stretch out before me, but now I see more clearly. I reach out to carefully gather each crumb of manna, eventually collecting a sufficient amount to grind and process into cakes of spiritual sustenance for my famished soul. For now, I find they are enough.