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One of the most powerful stories from the Old Testament for the Jewish people, in fact probably the most powerful story, is that of their freedom from slavery in Egypt and their journey through the wilderness to the promised land. It shaped them as a people: God had freed them from slavery in Egypt, guided them through 40 years in the desert, helped them survive and brought them to the promised land. Compared with the oppression they felt in slavery in Egypt and compared with the tough conditions of the desert, the promised land was rich in resources: water and ground that could produce all kinds of food.

A big part of the story is the Jewish people’s survival in the desert. It was only through God’s provision that they were able to survive the desert. Yet, having escaped Egypt, the people of Israel begin to complain against Moses in the wilderness. “You’ve brought us out here to the desert to starve”. They even go so far as to say, “We would rather be slaves back in Egypt, because at least there we had meat and bread to eat”.

They complain against Moses and in response God provides a miracle: bread (manna) that they find in the desert and birds which fall from the sky. What a miracle!

Or was it?

Surely things like bread suddenly appearing don’t really happen, do they? Well, as it happens, probably not. Because scholars have been interested in this story for years, there’s been quite a lot of research that’s gone into this story. What could the bread have been? It turns out that there is a certain kind of bush in that part of the world, the tamarisk bush, which attracts insects. When these insects eat from the bush, they produce a substance, which they leave behind. As it dries out, it has the appearance of flaky-like bread.

The birds (quails) suddenly appearing has a much simpler explanation. On their long journey from the sea across the inland, quails literally collapse on the ground from exhaustion and then try to regain their strength. The Israelites just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

So there are some natural explanations for these miracles in the wilderness. The Israelites got lucky! Does the fact that the people of Israel got lucky rule out God? Surely it’s just chance or luck? Coincidence? Maybe God had nothing to do with it.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Fisher once said, “The more I pray, the more these coincidences seem to happen”! God uses the things we see around us to help us. God uses the natural world to help us as this is what he has to work with! God uses nature to help us. God uses other people to help us. God provides for us and protects us. God used the birds dropping from the sky and the edible substance left by the insects to look after the Israelites in the wilderness. God always looks after us, if we let him.

Sometimes other human beings get in the way, or our own stupidity gets in the way! But God is always faithful.

I think part of mindfulness and meditation is looking out for, or being aware of, signs of God’s faithfulness. Often help comes in the form of other people. If I think about the significant help I’ve had over the years, it’s mostly been in the form of other people. Were they sent by God? Some of them would say they were, for sure.

The point is that God uses what we see around us: other people, sometimes nature itself, to help us. Being mindful is about being aware and grateful for the ways in which God answers our prayers and cares for us. The mistake we’ve made in the Western world is to forget to look for God’s presence in the natural order of things. That’s a mistake the Jewish people didn’t make; they knew that God works through the natural order of things. God uses what we see around us to answer our prayers; and God is always faithful, of that we can be sure.

The Reverend Dr Theo McCall
School Chaplain