Checked Your Sandals Lately?

As a punk kid growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, I carried around a huge chip on my shoulder…and that’s something of a polite understatement. The truth is that I was furious at the world and furious with God for the many “hardships” that I felt I was regularly forced to endure. Things were “never quite right” at school, or at home, or even in the church. There were good times as well as bad, certainly, but even the good times had, for me, something of an “anxious aftertaste” to them. Why, I wondered, had I been “singled out” for such a messed-up life? “Oh, poor me!” You know, that kind of thing.

In hindsight, of course, I can see very plainly how appalling and offensive my complaints were, how utterly lacking in gratitude was my heart, and how petty my unmet wants were when stacked up against the wants and needs of so many other people I regularly came into contact with. There were plenty of people living south of Eight Mile who would have jumped at the chance to trade places with me. In fact, there were probably a ton of people living on both sides of that societal-class dividing line who would have taken that deal. Nice house in the suburbs, new clothes every fall when school started, a vacation home on one of Northern Michigan’s crystal-clear lakes…many people, given the chance, might well have asked, “What exactly is your problem, kid?”

The problem, as it turns out, was an advanced case of blindness.

Just like me and every other parent on the planet, my parents – may they both rest at home with the Lord – made some mistakes. Caught up in a cultural zeitgeist that included reevaluation, rebellion, riots and Roe vs. Wade, my parents pretty much let the three Mayer children run wild. Perhaps my older sisters stretched the boundaries ahead of me, but by the time I hit my teen years, just about anything went and, as a result, pretty much everything did go…and then some. I don’t remember either of my parents spending much time trying to reason with me or draw a line from my behavior to my fearful status before the living God, but one impromptu theology lesson that actually stuck with me came from my father who – no doubt tired of my near-constant bellyaching – responded with one seemingly-simple question:

“Have you ever noticed that you have not gone hungry, not even one day of your life?”

Coming from my father, as it did, this was an unexpected tactic that even I could not take lightly. In the moment, I doubtless shot back with some horrid, petty, uncaring riposte, but even with all the surface-level teenage sturm und drang, this simple remark stuck to my heart like flypaper. I couldn’t shake it, even though I very much would have liked to.

My father, you see, had spent his teenage years putting up with all kinds of unjust treatment at the hands of the Nazis, one of whom nearly shot him for losing control of the family’s horse-drawn cart, relenting only in the face of my grandfather’s impassioned pleas not to “waste a bullet” on their “stupid, careless son.” After that, my father and his entire family had to flee eastward as the Soviets marched across Eastern Europe. (Like many European families in that tragic time period, my father’s family feared the Russians even more than they had feared the Germans.)

All that to say that I knew full well that my father, in addition to many, many sufferings that he did not even wish to speak of, had endured actual, legitimate hunger. Not the kind of hunger one puts oneself through during times of fasting and prayer, and certainly not the kind of hunger that Americans will try to endure in the name of losing weight. No, this type of hunger was “the real deal,” the kind of hunger that comes upon a person when they have no money and, even if they did, there’s nothing left to buy, anyway.

What was most effective about my father’s remark was that he did not revisit in gory detail any of his childhood suffering by telling me about it; he merely pointed to the fact that I had never once gone without food. While there may well have been many other things that were arguably wrong about the way I was being raised, his point was powerfully made: “Even in your rebellion, you have always been clothed and fed.”

Sadly, my life as a teenager compares quite favorably to the murmurings of the Israelites after God liberated them with a mighty hand and outstretched arm (Deuteronomy 4:34-35). Honestly, I sometimes get annoyed whenever my wife and I go through the book of Exodus together; it can really tick me off how frequently the people of God grumble and complain (Exodus 15:24; 16:2-3; 17:2-3; Numbers 11:1-2; 11:4-6; 12:1-2; 14:1-3; 14:41-42; 16:3-4; 16:41-45; 20:2-3; 21:4-5). If I am honest about it, though, what really ticks me off about the blindness of the Israelites is that it puts a finger squarely on my own shortcomings, reminds me yet again how blessed my life has been, and yet how quick I am to lose sight of God’s blessings. Truly, how appalling it is to live in one of the most privileged cultures known to human history and yet shake a finger at God, demanding that He make right all of the broken relationships, financial strains and other petty concerns prior to my giving Him my whole heart, as if my withholding my affection for God hurts anyone other than me.

There is a verse in Deuteronomy 8 that never fails to remind me of my father’s deceptively-simple observation. Deuteronomy 8:4 calls the attention of the grumbling Israelites to a very obvious sign, one that they had perhaps neglected to notice among all of the time spent lodging complaints against Moses, Aaron and the great I AM they were serving: “Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years.” (ESV) True, you’ve been wandering in a desert absolutely devoid of shopping malls and yet, as it turns out, the stuff you left Egypt with held together for forty (40) years. Forty years! You would think that someone, somewhere along the way, would have noticed that their clothing had so far outlasted the manufacturer’s warranty. Nope…apparently not.

My life is just like yours, or anyone else’s. As you read this, there are plenty of things going sideways, no shortage of things that are not turning out the way that I had planned. My strongest temptation, then, is to focus in on those areas where it would seem to me as though “God is letting me down,” and determine for myself that God can’t really be God as long as Problem A and Relationship B are not entirely mended to my satisfaction. Taking this thinking to its logical conclusion, then, there would be no God available to worship unless and until all of my problems had been fixed such that I could relax and unwind in my own personal heaven, right here and now.

Rather than give in to that particular type of stupidity, then, I think it’s probably better to ask God to give me vision to see how faithful He has been to me, even in the midst of conflict, heartbreak, anxiety and disappointment. Yes, there are plenty of things to worry about each and every day, but whenever I am tempted to despair, I remind myself of the grumbling heart and how it acts like an aggressive, lethal cancer on a life of faith. If we have been given eyes to see, it is no stretch whatsoever to find evidence of God’s faithfulness to us, even as we have been murmuring against Him. I can’t recall my earthly father ever once withholding food as a punishment, even though I know I well deserved to be brought up short somehow.

For anyone reading this who has found themselves in my shoes – eyes firmly fixed on what’s wrong with their life and wondering why God won’t make it go away – I would encourage them to ask God to open their eyes, breathe life into their rebellious hearts, and calmly point to the sandals that have been covering their feet all along.

Deuteronomy 8:1-10
The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers. And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you. So you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him. For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.

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