In Ohio, our community interactions began to dwindle on March 15 with the closing of restaurants and bars, then dropped off sharply over the course of a week. It is now April 15, a stay-at-home order has been in place since March 23. If the order is lifted on May 1, it will be 40 days of life as we knew it, disrupted.
I don’t have to list off the things we’ve lost, both big and small, during these 40 days. The individual injustices and disappointments have rained down almost daily, let alone personal losses, job losses, the suspension of freedoms, the loss of human life, and perhaps what is most unmooring, the collective sense of security that cushioned our daily lives. All gone. Any guise of certainty we had before regarding our immortality has been taken away, replaced with this reality: There is no way to know whether any of us will get sick or die from the coronavirus.
Of course, we have always known this. Everyone dies. This isn’t news. The difference is how universal and communal this particular revelation is right now. The whole of humanity is likely wondering whether or not they might get sick and die from this one thing.
We’re experiencing and will continue to experience collective grief for all we have lost, and this grief will permeate our futures in the form of habits we develop and coping mechanisms we’re forming in these long, slow days. Our grandparents kept bread bags and drawers full of twist ties for decades after the Great Depression so that we could dump them into the trash after they passed. We will adopt our own practices that get us through; we will vigorously wipe down every hard surface with Clorox Clean-Up until we’re dead.
It’s going to be at least 40 days. Forty days!
This is hard, and no one will ever want to go through it again, but there is good to be found in the wilderness. There is hope woven in the suffering.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.Isaiah 43:19
Forty is significant. In Scripture, the number “40” often symbolized a season of testing or preparation. Moses spent 40 years in the desert before God called him to help the Israelites escape Egypt. The Israelites wander in the desert 40 years before they are allowed to enter the Promised Land. Jesus spends 40 days and nights in the wilderness before being tested by the Devil.
What new thing is being prepared in our hearts as a church, as a country, as a world, during this time? What old thing is being dragged into the light, deemed unessential after all, and is ready to be discarded? What new thing is taking its place?
I believe one of those new things is a more firm sense of solidarity and connection. For so long and still, many of us have operated in the States on our islands of individual freedom. I should be able to go to whatever beach I want. You can’t tell me how I should live. I should be able to congregate wherever I feel led, with whomever I desire, on whatever day of the week. I have my rights!
For the first time in decades, perhaps, we have been encouraged, recommended, and to some degrees forced for the public good to consider others more important than ourselves. In an ironic twist, by forcing separation it has brought us, with one mind focused on a collective good, closer together.
“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus…”Philippians 2:3-5
People are generally self-centered and driven to meet their own needs. This is not supposed to be the way of the Church, and yet, so much of our narratives about our relationships with God have become individually focused, from our worship songs to our Bible study to our disconnected “us vs. them” narratives that cause separation and fear of the other, in all of it we have lost the communal nature of faith. The Scriptures address the Nation of Israel, the Body of Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven. He has a plan and a purpose for you plural, you nation, you body, you kingdom, you people, to prosper you and not to fail you, to give you all hope and a future. There ought to be a Southern American Version of Jeremiah 29:11: He has a plan and a purpose for y’all, plans to prosper y’all and not to harm y’all, to give y’all hope and a future.
From our individual homes this Easter we participated in a virtual church service, and to some degree, our church family has never felt closer, more intimate, more vulnerable, while practicing social distancing. The fanfare, the polite morning greetings, the brave face even though our personal worlds might be in crisis, it has all fallen away in our shared crisis of this moment.
We are all always going through hard things. But right now, the hard thing is all of ours to carry. And for the moment, we are all carrying these burdens together. And isn’t that what the Church is supposed to do? Isn’t that beautiful?
At the beginning of the year, the “word” I heard for myself in 2020 was “make space.” Who knew how much space would be made for me, for us?
What do we do with all of this space? How can we live out the truths we’re learning right now – that love is strong, that community is important, that people are precious, that life is sacred, that family matters, that nature persists, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, that these three remain: faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.
It is up to us to determine how we emerge from this wilderness. What new thing can we see God doing right now? What way is he making? What river is he carving? What dry bones is he resurrecting? What walls is he breaking? How will this hard thing break us, and how will Christ’s love and comfort in the midst of this wilderness fortify us for what comes next, the slow emerging, the entering into the Promised Land of tomorrow?