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Wilderness Lessons For COVID-19

Wilderness Lessons for COVID-19

Pastor Erica shared these reflections on Sunday, March 15th, 2020 in an online worship gathering.

The last time we gathered in-person seems like a lifetime ago with all the events that have transpired in the past week. We went from washing our hands for twenty seconds to many students packing up their lives in a hurry to leave campus, not knowing when the next time they would be back. If you are still reeling from all that has unfolded in just one week, you are certainly not alone.

None of us have lived through a worldwide pandemic before so it is no surprise if we find ourselves dazed and wondering how we are supposed to be a student, sibling, friend, worker, parent, pastor in times like these. Mixed messages fill the media and our minds are trying to make sense of information that keeps changing by the hour. We are unmoored and disoriented, struggling to find a sense of grounding in the midst of such uncertainty.

What has come to my mind in these surreal days during the Lenten season, is the image of the wilderness. More specifically, I have been mulling upon the stories from the Book of Exodus with certain scenes coming to the forefront.

The first one that comes to mind (Exodus 12:29-39) is when the last plague struck Egypt’s firstborn sons and in the middle of the night, Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, telling them to gather all the Israelites and get the hell out. I imagine the chaos that ensued, with families grabbing what they could—bowls, clothes, the unleavened bread they had to bake before it was ready because the Egyptians were urging them to hurry up and leave. They had lived in the land of Egypt for 430 years and overnight they were told they needed to evacuate without any time to prepare.

It is true that life in Egypt was dangerous for the Israelites, but it quickly became apparent that life in the wilderness was too. They did not know what lay ahead and the more pressing issue was that they did not have adequate provisions of food and water. Their fear and anxiety overwhelmed them as they cried out against Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” I think it is safe to say that they were in full panic mode.

We know from hindsight that this was just the beginning of a very long journey in the wilderness for them, forty years to be exact. While I certainly do not think that our time in the wilderness will be anywhere that long, that feeling of uncertainty and not knowing what lays ahead is something that we can relate with. Everything the Israelites knew was upended and they were in unknown territories trying to figure out how to live each day. Thankfully, we also have some helpful lessons from the story of their wilderness journey. I want to highlight just three on this day when so much is uncertain.

First—the Book of Leviticus, which was given to the Israelites while they were in the wilderness, often gets a bad rap for being boring and irrelevant to our modern life because it is full of rules we do not understand and seem strange, like not wearing mixed fabrics and slaughtering your offering on the north side of the altar. And I would agree that the specific rules do not have much relevance for us today, but understanding the reason behind all these archaic codes does. It was to ensure the whole community’s well-being.

Right now, the Levitical codes we need to be listening to are the ones our medical and public health experts are giving. Some of what they are telling us goes against our instinct and habit, and it is tempting to disregard or think they do not quite apply to us. We may think it is too extreme or an overreaction; we may feel that it is too hard to actually follow. But we need to pay attention to what they have been saying and implement their instructions immediately for the sake of our whole community.

That means social distancing in a way that pretty much no one but hermits are accustomed to practicing. Beyond the stay at home if you feel ill and wash your hands for twenty seconds, many medical and public health professionals are saying that the best thing to do is physically isolate ourselves from every non-essential gathering, not just a crowd of 250 but even small ones of just a few people. This goes against all our normal instincts and is super hard—let’s just acknowledge that. And yet it is essential for us to do this now to prevent the further spread of the virus and to help protect the most vulnerable and not overload our health care system.

The second scene (Exodus 16:15-21) from the Israelites journey in the wilderness that I think is helpful is their daily collection of manna. Manna, Hebrew for “What is it?”, was that daily bread which rained down from the skies each day so that the Israelites would have enough to eat. God specifically instructed them to only take what they needed for that day, and to not hoard it. However, some people were led by their fear of not having enough and so took more to store up; the next morning though, they discovered it was full of maggots.

Pictures of empty shelves where toilet paper and hand sanitizer once stood have been floating around the news. The New York Times published a story yesterday about a person who had driven hours around his home to buy up all the hand sanitizer from local stores so he could sell it for high prices on Amazon—he was shut down for price gouging and now he has stacks of boxes in his home that he cannot sell, the modern day of maggots eating what he hoarded while also leaving others without what they need.

It is tempting right now to be led by fear, leading us not to just hoard toilet paper (which honestly makes no sense anyway), but to not trust in God’s provision. The Israelites were so caught up in their fears of an uncertain future as they found themselves in the wilderness that they let their anxieties carry them away. The discipline of collecting manna, daily bread, each morning was not just about physical sustenance, it was also about practicing moment to moment trust in God. With the news around us changing by the hour, we too must practice giving moment to moment trust in God. It is enough to give thanks for what we have today, the daily bread God provides for us—and to trust that God will give us what we need tomorrow.

The third and final scene I want to lift up from the Israelites’ wilderness journey is when Moses went up the mountain to get God’s covenant on two stone tablets (Exodus 32). You see, he was gone for a long time which left the rest of the Israelites anxious about what was going to happen and too much time to get themselves into trouble. They ended up throwing all their jewelry into a melting pot so they could make a golden calf to worship, which as you can guess, did not end well for them.

In times of uncertainty and anxiety, we can get unmoored and create golden calves that ultimately are unhelpful. Whether those are habits of self-medicating through alcohol and other substances or indulging in habits that we know are not good for us, these idols will lead us down unhealthy paths.

When we find ourselves tempted, it is good to remember God’s covenant; the Ten Commandments are the Old Testament summary of those, detailing the ways in which we are to treat the people around us. Interestingly, the longest commandment of all is the one about the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11). Perhaps God knows that it is hard for us to stop and so wanted to make it extra clear: Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy…you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. In fact, there were laws not just about a sabbath day but an entire year of Sabbath that the people were to observe for all of creation.

Friends, what if we envision this time we have entered as an opportunity to observe a sabbath? To be clear, this is not God ordained as I do not believe this virus is from God. Rather, in this uncertain time of being forced to pause, we have an opportunity to remember the sabbath and lean into creative ways of being God’s people.

Even as we physically distance ourselves from each other, we are still called by Jesus to “Love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and soul and love our neighbor as ourselves.” You are all brilliant people whose gifts I have experienced firsthand in our community. Now is the time to unleash those beautiful minds of yours into figuring out the ways we can share hope, compassion, and good news into the networks we are a part of.

With the help of technology, what are the ways that we can make sure to stay connected to one another so that no one is relationally isolated? How can we pool our resources to help the most vulnerable in our society? I am confident that together we can come up with some great ideas in the coming days, weeks, and months to care and support each other. I also know that as needs become apparent—such as childcare, food deliveries, transportation for families, etc.— I can count on our community to step up and lend a hand.

It has been quite an extraordinary week and difficult times lay ahead of us. I know that I have been exhausted, overwhelmed, cranky, impatient, and certainly not functioning at my best. I imagine some of you can relate! Be gentle with yourselves and with each other for grace abounds for all of us. In these coming days, create a healthy routine that includes hydrating, eating, and movement. Remember to breathe deeply, listen to good music, and reach out virtually. We will get through this together. Amen.

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