Written by: Rachael Keefe

Learning and Growing in the Wilderness

In recent days I’ve witnessed people romanticizing their past in ways I don’t quite understand. There was the person who continues to grieve over parents, stating that they were “the …

Learning and Growing in the Wilderness

Online home of the Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe.
Image of earth viewed from space with grid points of light connected across the globe

In recent days I’ve witnessed people romanticizing their past in ways I don’t quite understand. There was the person who continues to grieve over parents, stating that they were “the best” parents and how much they are missed. I know for a fact that these people were not good parents and caused a lot of harm in the world. Another person was lamenting the end of their marriage and saying how much they missed the relationship and all the “good” it brought. In fact, it was not a good relationship at all and caused a good deal of pain. And then there are the many people longing for the days “before pandemic” as if they were perfect days where love, peace, and justice reigned over the world. I don’t think I will ever understand what it is that causes people to forget the hard parts of their history and glorify the better parts. However, it’s a long-standing human behavior.

Remember the Israelites right after they crossed the Red Sea and found themselves in the wilderness? They were angry. They wished they had died in Egypt where they had fire, fleshpots, and bread. They were unhappy with the emptiness in their bellies and focused on that rather than on their new-found freedom. They quickly came to believe that the God who led them out of slavery had abandoned them to the challenges of the wilderness. Instead of asking for what they needed, instead of looking for God’s presence among them, they complained to Moses and regretted their choice to follow him away from the comforts of Egypt where they had been slaves into the discomforts and unknowns of liberation. Fortunately for them, God heard their complaints and provided manna and pheasants (they would later complain about these).

Here we are in the midst of pandemic, a wilderness of unknowns and discomforts for sure. The challenge for us as church is not to romanticize the past and long for when we can get back to “normal.” This wandering we are doing now will lead us to a new place. We must remember that before pandemic life was not perfect for the church. Our numbers were on the decline, our budgets were tighter every year, our technology was barely adequate, our buildings were needing repairs and updates… the list goes on. The complaints about Zoom worship, Facebook live, YouTube Live, and all the other ways we try to meet the needs of our communities, are a distraction and no real difference from the days when the sound system didn’t work or the projector overheated. Our longing for what was (in our own romanticized recollections) may prevent us from seeing what God is doing right here, right now.

Online worship, education, and kinship activities in whatever form provides access to folx who might not be able to join us in person for a variety of reasons. For those of us who are offering online communion, the complaints that it doesn’t “feel like communion” could distract from the ways in which God is drawing us together across miles. And what does communion feel like? Yes, we are all missing the in-person gatherings. It’s true. That missing of being with people does not need to negate the beauty and wonder of our online gatherings. We can grieve for what was and embrace what is.

The more we look back with the proverbial rose-colored glasses the more we will miss in the present. What are the manna and quail of our wandering in the wilderness of pandemic? Are they the wonders of technology that allows us to gather online? Are they the beauty of being able to expand our welcome? Are they the renewed appreciation for community? Are they the generosity of folx who provide tech access to those who didn’t have it before? Let’s not mistake grieving for what was for a longing that recreates the past to meet our own needs in this moment. God is in our midst and still doing the liberating, the leading, the transforming that God has always done.

Friends, there will be no going back. Just as those ancient Israelites could not return to Egypt in spite of their longing for fires and food, the church cannot go back to what was. This life in the wilderness of pandemic, no matter how long it goes on or how soon it ends, will forever change us. Perhaps we should spend our time searching out where God is active now and seek that vision for our future that God has for us. May we lean into the liberation from the limits of our buildings, the leading into a new shape for the Body of Christ, and the transformation of our communities that God is doing. Let us not grumble about what was and embrace what is. After all, our histories have shown us that there is far worse than manna and quail by whatever name.

RCL – Year A – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020
Exodus 16:2-15 with Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 or
Jonah 3:10-4:11 with Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Photo: CC0image by Inactive account – ID 9301

Share on:

About Rachael Keefe

Rachael is an author, a pastor, a teacher, and a poet. Her latest book (The Lifesaving Church - Chalice Press) is on faith and suicide prevention. She is currently the pastor of Living Table UCC in Minneapolis, and has launched a spiritual direction practice.

Leave a Comment