When I was a kid growing up in Pennsylvania we would take a road trip most summers to visit family in Michigan. We always looked forward to these trips. Summer in Michigan is incredible. We loved spending time in Traverse City, swimming in the lakes and rivers, and running up and down the mountains of sand at Sleeping Bear Dunes. We loved these trips, but we hated the travel. I grew up in a family of 6; flying was not an option financially for us. You can imagine our car filled with kids and all the stuff that they require; there was not room to stretch out, these were close quarters for over 12 hours. But the worst part about the actual drive was Ohio. Now, I have nothing against Ohio (accept for Buckeyes fans: Go Blue!) but leaving behind the rolling hills of Pennsylvania for the flat farmland of northern Ohio made the drive feel twice as long. For hours the landscape looked the same; I never knew if we were actually making progress or just stuck in an endless corn field. Would we ever cross the state line?
I’ve been thinking about those corn fields a lot lately. Each time I look out my window at home I see them; another barn, another field, it’s always the same; each day, the same. We want this to end, I want this to end; but we are here, in our homes, without our usual routines for as long as it may take.
During our Morning Prayer service on Sundays we have been hearing our wonderful soloists leading Canticle 8, the Song of Moses. This piece celebrates the Israelites escape from Egypt by God’s salvific act. We hear of the horse and rider being thrown into the sea while God safely brings Moses and his people to the other side. We celebrate this act of salvation. But very often in scripture once a boundary has been crossed, there is no going back; very often in our relationship with God as seen in scripture, once God brings us across a line things can never be the same.
It was the same for the Hebrew people. What follows in scripture is their wandering in the wilderness for the next 40 years. After God triumphantly brings them out of Egypt, out of slavery, they find themselves in the wilderness for the next 4 decades.
We know what happens next, many milestones along the way, manna from heaven, the 10 commandments, water from the rock. But all along the way the people are complaining. They are convinced that Moses has only brought them out there to die; they want to go back to Egypt, where they were enslaved. They do not know how much longer they will be in the desert. They do not know how it is possible they will survive. There is too much uncertainty; each day the same wilderness, each day the same uncertainty. They want to go back to Egypt where at least they knew they would have meat to eat and knew what waited for them there.
Along with corn fields I’ve been thinking a lot about Moses and the Israelites wandering in the wilderness during this pandemic. The people are bored. The people can only see the scarcity all around them; not the hand of God leading them, providing for them. How are we like the people in the desert during this time? How am I like these people? I am tired of the uncertainty, not knowing when this will end, even as phased re-entry is beginning across the country. I’m ready to just move past this pandemic honestly. But I believe I am finding myself in the wilderness; finding myself like those who are following Moses, tired of the uncertainty.
But like them I am coming to realize that there is no going back; life will not be the same as it was before. Each year when we’d drive through Ohio someone would say, “It’s always the same!” and my dad would annoyingly reply, “It’s different corn than it was last year!” Good one, Dad. But of course he was right, it wasn’t the same. The crop had changed, and we had changed too. The first year we made that trip without my oldest sister in the car with us was a milestone for us; it wouldn’t be the same that year or ever again.
As we go through this pandemic I’m coming to accept that life will not be the same again. I’m also realizing that this time where each day perhaps feels the same presents us with the same questions God was asking of the Israelites in the wilderness. What is that we think was back there that will be better than what is ahead of us? Perhaps this is a time to ask ourselves: What in our previous lives was enslaving us? What habits kept us from seeing the gifts all around us? Where was there death in our old lives and where do we see life today?
There is no going back I’m afraid. The sea has closed behind us and we find ourselves on the other side. I hope the questions before us then invite us to determine what the new normal looks like; we are in the process of defining that right now in this wilderness. What was it about our old lives that we hope to leave there? Where might God be showing us life during this time? Where is God showing us abundance in our midst? How can we claim that abundance as part of our lives ahead? In the wilderness there are gifts to be found. I pray I have the courage to allow God to show them to me.