If you were to take seriously some of the terrible jokes we Jews tell on ourselves, you might think we invented complaining. What can I say? My Jewish people have many good qualities, but as far back as the book of Exodus, the Israelites—who should have been very happy to leave Egypt and be on their way to the Promised Land—did nothing but complain. Truly now, maybe 40 years of camping was too much of a good thing, but whose fault was that? If the location committee had not turned in such a negative report, with complaints about giants and other obstacles, we would have gotten where we were going a little faster!
But then, we Jews don’t exactly have a corner on complaining. Everyone who is a part of this human society complains to some extent. Complaining seems to be a way of coping with life and of relating to others who also must cope.
Even Christians—who in Scripture are told to rejoice at all times—complain. Since we don’t want to be caught complaining instead of praising God, we call our complaints prayer requests.” Church members complain passively about church by staying away from services. Preachers complain actively and openly about the conduct of their flock, only it’s called exhortation and admonition.
There are ways to complain while appearing to be sensitive, alert and concerned. Complain that the poor don’t have as much as the rest of us, and you sound like a humanitarian. Complain about high prices and poor quality of merchandise, and you sound like a consumer’s advocate. Complain about the way other people’s children are raised, and you sound like an expert on parenting. Complain about the way other governments treat their people, and you sound like a statesman. Complain about the way our government treats its citizens, and you sound like a politician.
In Brooklyn, New York they have refined the art of complaining. They can complain with a facial expression, with a gesture of the hands and arms, or only by a certain stance. They can complain nonverbally with sounds from yelps to groans and nonsensical words like “Yech!” However, besides knowing how to complain in style, Brooklynites are some of the most verbal, poetic and intellectual of American Jewry.
I think of a certain elderly Jewish believer from Brooklyn who was one of the bright lights guiding me in my young ministry. We called her Mama Frank. She could have been a champion complainer. It was impossible to detect her age. When I was 25, everyone beyond 60 looked ancient to me, and once when I asked how old she was, she said with a smile, “Don’t worry, I’m socially secure!” Her constant smile was frequently crooked because of ill-fitting dentures, and often when the dentures shifted you could almost see a wince of pain. Mama Frank was a God-credentialled missionary who received neither recognition nor remuneration from any human mission agency. She was one of my first helpers.
In truth, I would not have been so eager to enlist her help, except I had been assigned a task I surely did not want—conducting outdoor street meetings. I argued with the person who had assigned me the task about the invalidity of street preaching as a method. A first-year Bible college student, I knew in my heart that anything that frightened me so much surely had to be wrong and would not work at all. I argued hard that I had never known of one person who had ever been converted through a street meeting. Come to think of it, I didn’t know of a single person who had ever been converted through a Billy Graham meeting either. Most of the converts I knew just “happened” to walk into the kingdom of God. I also argued that raising one’s voice in the streets detracted from the dignity of the Christian message. That argument didn’t work either. Then I said that Jews didn’t like people who stood up on street corners and tried to convert them, to which my supervisor said, “Is there anything that could be done to convert Jews that they would like?” I lost the argument roundly and soundly. Since I could not claim to be an authority on methods and materials, I felt duty-bound to try this one.
When I called for volunteers, I found that most people were about as unenthusiastic as I was, but it was an assignment and I had to do it. I finally rounded up a handful of helpers. One old man was deaf, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him. Then there was his daughter, who was truly helpful out of the goodness of her heart. (She had graduated from Bible college but didn’t believe it proper for a woman to speak in public.) Then there was Mama Frank, who was the “expert.” I, the novice, was going to be the preacher, and those three were going to be the listeners. They would come along, stand where I was preaching and look interested, so that others also would stop and listen. At the close of my message, we would have a question and answer time for this anticipated crowd, and my three volunteers and I would witness to individual inquirers.
I picked a safe corner—one where I wouldn’t be embarrassed by anyone stopping to listen to my feeble attempts. My three intrepid soldiers of the faith came along, unquestioningly accepting my leadership. In a very energetic way I declaimed, proclaimed and generally maimed the gospel for 35 minutes, imitating Billy Graham’s best rhetoric, including the wide gestures. I didn’t know very much, since I was only a first-year Bible student, so I repeated everything I knew three times. Not one person on the street except my three volunteers paid any attention to me. The three looked puzzled. As I breathed a sigh of relief and we turned to make the short trek back to the mission, Mama Frank, with that wonderful smile said tactfully, “Brother Rosen, that was such a good sermon you gave. Wouldn’t it be nice if next time we went to a place where someone could hear it?” That was Mama Frank. She continued to come to those outdoor meetings, and we did find a location where people would come and listen and ask questions.
Since I first knew her, Mama Frank could only stand with the help of a cane. I could tell by the number of sweaters she wore over her already bulky frame that her circulation was not good and she was given to having chills. But into the early winter, even when snow was falling and I would have been tempted not to go, she would insist on our regular outdoor meetings. And people did stop. (They would stand in the snow and listen to the gospel and interact loudly, complaining that we were forcing our religion upon them after they had chosen to stand in the freezing cold for half an hour to hear what we said.)
My little volunteer army didn’t grow much. Occasionally someone else would come, but I always had my faithful three. All were an encouragement, but especially Mama Frank.
She had an intellectual capacity far beyond her meager “greenhorn” education. Furthermore, she knew a great deal about the Bible. She also had plenty of common sense and knew how to tell me and everyone else what we needed to hear. She always reminded us of our duty in a way that made us smile. But that’s not the most of what I learned from Mama Frank. The biggest lesson was something very Christian. In the three years I knew her, I can’t recall that she ever complained about anything even once.
One time she stumbled and fell right in the middle of 72nd Street and Broadway. As I picked her up, she smiled and said, “Praise the Lord anyhow.” I had heard her say that often, but this time I asked, “Why say ‘praise the Lord’ when you fall down?” She answered with a big smile, “I praise the Lord first of all because he reminds me that I am weak and he is strong. Second, I praise the Lord that it didn’t hurt very much. Third, even if it killed me, I’d say praise the Lord, because then I’d be with Jesus.” Praise the Lord anyhow was Mama Frank’s motto.
When I left to serve in Los Angeles, Mama Frank wrote me for many years. She rubber stamped her notes with her favorite motto, “Praise the Lord anyhow.” The stamp had a picture of a little bird with a musical note coming out of its mouth. Now that I’m of an age I used to consider ancient, I too have aches and pains and ill-fitting bridgework. In times of fleeting or chronic distress, I like that slogan even more than I did when I was younger. Those encouraging words comfort my soul. I too can say, “Praise the Lord anyhow.”
I’m not talking about the Pollyanna-type of pretenses that everything is good when it’s not. Nor am I talking about whistling in the dark to keep up one’s courage. I’m talking about the power that comes from praising God in the midst of the wails of this world. Even in the most adverse of circumstances, the Christian is in control because God is in control. Whatever comes our way, we have the power to control our response. When we belong to God, we know he cares for us, and we can always have a song in our hearts.
So, next time you are in pain, tested or tempted to complain, just do what I learned from that magnificent Jewish daughter of faith from Brooklyn. Say, “Praise the Lord anyhow.” It helps!