From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”—Exodus 17:1-7
It’s the question of the week: “Is the Lord among us or not?”
If last week was like drinking from a fire hose—how to discern, among all the information flooding our overworked minds, hearts, and bodies, what is important to know and do right now, what can wait, and what is just plain untrue or unhelpful—this week is about letting the gravity of our situation sink in. Increasing infections and deaths, diminishing medical supplies, hospitals preparing for worst-case scenarios, borders closing, 1 in 5 Americans being asked to stay indoors, an economy grinding to a halt: this is our reality.
As a priest and human being, let me begin by saying that it’s okay to be scared and anxious. God gave us a nervous system to let us know when we face a threat. This virus is a real threat, and so it makes sense to me that I and so many others are feeling overwhelmed and anxious right now. If you’re feeling this way, it’s not a character defect or sign of weakness. The opposite is true: it means that you are alive and paying attention. Be vigilant about how you might be trying to numb that anxiety with things or behaviors that will ultimately make you less resilient.
I find myself going back to the basics: the joy of a simple meal with my family, riding my bike, and reading a good book. Right now, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is making me laugh out loud. I’m also enjoying the Library of America’s American Earth: Environmental Writing anthology (it begins with Thoreau, the original social distancer in his cabin at Walden Pond), and poetry by Dennis Nurske.
Our Lenten wilderness of pandemic is also an opportunity for us to dwell in God’s Word. It struck me that the reading above from the Book of Exodus (heard in church last Sunday) contains wisdom for this strange time. Let’s focus on how Moses responds during this crisis. He prays, listens for God’s response, asks for help, and holds on to a physical reminder of God’s enduring love and faithfulness. (I’m grateful to Dr. Terence Fretheim’s commentary on this Scripture; it informs my interpretation.)
He prays from the heart: “What shall I do with this people?” When you pray, don’t hold anything back from God. If you’re joyful, rejoice with God, who delights in you. If you’re scared or anxious, be honest with God about that and ask how God might comfort you. If you’re feeling that God is distant (or non-existent), offer that up in prayer, too. This is no time for self-editing of your prayer life. Read the Psalms: every imaginable human emotion can become an offering of prayer to God.
We are to speak to God, but most importantly, we’re called like Moses to listen for God’s response. In the coming weeks, make time for silence before God. St. John of the Cross once said that “silence is God’s first language.” Don’t confuse God’s silence with absence. As we quiet our souls and rest in God’s presence, suddenly we have the room in our hearts to hear what God has to say to us.
In the story above, after Moses listens, God replies with helpful advice to go and gather a team of elders who can assist Moses. In other words: times of crisis are times to connect with each other and work together for good, even if that means virtual connection. As many have said: this is a moment during which we love our neighbors best by keeping our distance.
And here’s an amazing thing! God in God’s own being social distances. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit both come together profoundly in communion and keep their distance from each other. In psychological terms, we would say that they are self-differentiated, yet remain in the closest of connection with each other through self-giving love. What if during this pandemic we discover anew the Trinitarian nature of life itself? This paradoxical differentiation and connection are the very essence of God, humanity and all of creation.
Now, what about that staff that Moses holds on to for support? Why does God tell Moses to take the staff with which he struck the Nile? The answer is that it’s a physical reminder of God’s enduring love and faithfulness during a crisis. (Moses strikes the Nile in order to turn it into blood and to split the Red Sea waters when he leads God’s people to freedom.) Moses’s staff is a tangible reminder that God will provide for us even in the most difficult of times.
I’ll conclude by inviting you to find one object in your home that will serve as a reminder of God’s enduring compassion and love. For me, it’s the Celtic cross below given to me by my cousin, Joanie, on the day of my ordination to the priesthood.
Joanie was a nun who lived and served in Chile. After the revolution, she and others with religious vocations were kicked out of the country. We grew up going to her home for Thanksgiving. It was a gift for me to bring her Holy Eucharist when she was in the hospital. I placed the wafer in her hands and said: “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.” She looked at me and replied, “I am.”
Is the Lord among us or not? To each and every one of us, God replies: “I am.”