Grace That Saves a Kvetch Like Me

By now, you know how much I like to glean wisdom from our Jewish brothers and sisters, especially when it comes to reading the Hebrew Scriptures. This is partly because I have Jewish background on my father’s side. My great grandfather grew up in a shtetl in the Ukraine and I have memories of colorful Yiddish words and phrases that my grandfather would frequently use. Whenever my grandpa found himself doing something that he thought was boring or useless he would say he was “shlug zich kop in vaunt,” which means, “banging his head against the wall.” And whenever my dad complained or whined to my grandpa, my grandpa would tell him “don’t hak mir in tchainik” which literally means “stop banging my tea kettle,” but is a colloquial way of saying, “stop making a tempest in a teapot.” And if my dad would persist in his whining, my grandpa would tell him to stop being such a “nudnik,” which is someone who is so annoying that it is becoming boring. My dad recalls his uncle referring to him and his sister as “nudnik” so often that he’s not sure if his uncle ever really knew their real names (!).

There are many popular Yiddish words my grandpa would often use, such as “klutz” and “schlep” and “mensch,” but there is one paritcular Yiddish word that I want to offer for some reflection this morning; and that is the word “kvetch”, which means “to complain, whine or fret” or “someone who tends to complain.” In today’s readings, there is a lot of kvetching. The Israelites kvetch about not having enough bread in the wilderness, the day laborers kvetch about not getting paid more than those who worked for only an hour, and even Paul kvetches a bit about his suffering and his struggle. The other optional readings for this Sunday have even more kvetching with the bitter and melodramatic complaints of the self-pitying prophet Jonah. Ironically, the one reading that has the least kvetching is the Psalm, which comes from the book most replete with complaints. But even the Psalmist describes the kvetching of the Israelites (somewhat euphemistically) in saying, “They asked, and quails appeared, and [God] satisfied them with bread from heaven” (105:40).

And here is what is so fascinating to me about all this kvetching: Instead of God sternly demanding everyone to stop whining and start being more grateful for what they already have, God responds to all the complaining with profound grace, bestowing gifts of physical and spiritual nourishment. God does not necessarily encourage the kvetching, but God does seem to create a space for it, to accommodate it and to respond generously to it. God displays an amazing grace that appears to save all of these kvetches. And I’m personally comforted by these lessons because they encourage me to believe that God’s amazing grace could save a kvetch like me.

After all of their complaining, the Israelites receive the divine invitation to “Draw near to the LORD for he has heard your complaining” and then they receive a divine vision: “they looked toward the wilderness and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.” And then they receive their fill of meat and bread because, as the text says multiple times, the LORD heard their complaining. The Lord heard their kvetching.

In the Gospel, the day laborers also grumble. In fact, the Greek word for grumble is rather onomatopoetic (sounds like the act it conveys): gogguzw (gong-good-zo), which is the same word used in the Septuagint for the “complaining” of the Israelites (gong-good-zo, almost as fun to say as “kvetch”). The day laborers are frustrated and for good reason. They have received the same pay as those who only worked for an hour! They worked and sweated through the scorching heat and, as a result, do not want to be considered equal to those who worked for a brief hour in the coolness of the evening, so they bring their complaint to the landowner. And the landowner responds to their complaint not with harsh judgment, not by calling them “nudniks,” but by calling them “Friends.” If we see the landowner as God, then already the laborers have received a great honor in being called “Friends.” In this light, the parable reflects the words from the Gospel of John when Jesus tells his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends” (John 15:15). The landowner then assures them, “I am doing you no wrong” and then proceeds to offer them deep spiritual wisdom about his scandalous generosity that will nourish them for a lifetime.

In the readings, humanity complains and God responds with grace and love. As the Psalm says, “They complained and God satisfied them.” Now I am not encouraging us all to think of things to complain about. Giving thanks and praise to the Lord is a right and good and joyful thing for us to do as the Psalms and our Prayer Book attest. However, when we do have justifiable reason to complain (loss of job, apparent injustice in the work place, loss of loved one), God would prefer our kvetching to our cold indifference. Now I am not talking about complaining to one another or to our supervisors or to our priests. I am talking about complaining to God in our prayer.

Biblical Scholar Walter Brueggemann explains that our failure to bring our complaints to God in prayer leads to “both psychological inauthenticity and social immobility.”[1] By not confronting God with our frustration, we lose our voice and our capacity for what Bruegemann calls “genuine covenant interaction.[2] We also lose “the ego strength that is necessary for responsible faith”[3] and our prayers become “a practice of denial, cover-up, and pretense.”[4] If we fail to be honest with our frustration and refuse to bring our complaints to God in prayer, we fall into “civility …docility…grim obedience and eventually despair.”[5] But if we are honest with our frustration and bring our complaints to God in prayer, then we will experience the generosity and love of God in response.

Throughout Scripture and throughout the history of Christian spirituality, those who complain to God tend to draw closer to God as a result. Draw near to the LORD for he has heard your complaining. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel was asked if he still believed in God after experiencing the horror of the Holocaust. He said, “I have not lost faith in God. I have moments of anger and protest. Sometimes I’ve been closer to him for that reason.” When it comes to major tragedies, the word “kvetch” feels wholly inappropriate and inadequate to describe what we want to do and what we want to say to a God whom we expect to be ultimately in charge. Literally, the word “kvetch” means “to press or to squeeze,” which is what Jacob was doing to the Angel with whom he was wrestling; he squeezed and refused to let go of the angel until he received a blessing. Eventually, God gave him a blessing as well as a new name: Israel, which means “The one who struggles with God.” When it comes to major suffering in our lives or in the world, our kvetching turns into wrestling and serious struggle. St. Paul, who was no stranger to tragedy, (who was, as he said, “hard-pressed”), speaks of this struggle as a privilege because he knows that such struggle drew him closer to Christ. God can handle whatever anger or frustration we bring to him, whether it be profound sorrow caused by deep loss or kvetching about some apparent injustice. God can handle it (and will handle it) and then transform us in the process by pouring down nourishment from heaven.

When we complain, God does not say, “Quit banging my tea kettle” or “Stop being such a nudnik.” Instead God calls us “Friend” and holds us in our anger and frustration the way a parent holds a child who is screaming or throwing a temper tantrum. Even as the child is kicking and screaming, the parent still holds the child lovingly, knowing that the child does not (and perhaps cannot) understand. Although I myself can be a real kvetch to God in prayer, I have found that, through all my grumbling, God remains patient and loving. And I actually grow closer to God, maybe even because of my honest complaining. So I invite you to be honest with God in your prayers, to engage in “genuine covenant interaction” with your Lord. I invite you to draw near to the LORD for he will hear your complaining. Draw near to the Lord for his amazing grace continually saves a kvetch like me.

[1] Brueggemann, The Psalms & the Life of Faith, 111

[2] Ibid, 102

[3] Ibid, 103

[4] Ibid, 100

[5] Ibid, 102

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