Wilderness, again.

This was the response of a pastor friend of mine this past February when we entered our second COVID-Lent. It was a sentiment shared by many pastors.

Of course, it was during Lent of 2020 that the world shut down. At that time, the lectionary texts and traditional imagery of wilderness, discipline, self-denial and even penitence offered a helpful theological palette to make sense of this strange new world we were thrust into.

Likewise, the pandemic seemed to breathe new life into these texts and images that can begin to grow stale, even for us Baptists for whom the season of Lent is still something of a novelty.

That worked fine the first time around.

In Lent 2021, we all were done with wilderness. We felt as if we’d been enduring a whole year of Lenten discipline and self-denial.

After what for many of us has been a delightfully “normal-ish” summer of vacations, visits with family and all the many things we were denied last year, the season ahead once again feels uncertain.

Rising case rates have us as a church, and society at large, bracing ourselves for “wilderness, again,” again.

While we have been worshipping in our sanctuary since early May, we are still wearing masks. Conversations to loosen that policy have been put on hold for the moment.

As of now, we’re still planning to restart Wednesday night supper and activities in the fall, but like so many things, I am holding those plans loosely.

Medically vulnerable congregants have found special joy in being able to come to worship in relative safety. Now, more are double-checking that we’re still offering the livestream.

Of course, like all pastors, much of my work over the past year and a half has been guiding our congregation through the nuts and bolts of protocols and programming.

I’ve done my best, though admittedly failing often, to fulfill what is finally the true calling of a pastor and to help the congregation hold our lives against the story of God and God’s people we find in Scripture, so that we may order them accordingly.

And while it pains me to say it, the hard truth of the wilderness in Scripture is that it is out of our control. This has grown more apparent with each passing season.

At times, the people of God choose to go out into the wilderness themselves – Jesus, for instance, would retreat to the wilderness throughout his ministry.

But in the most central stories in Scripture, the wilderness is a place the people of God are thrust:

  • The people of Israel in their Exodus from Egypt wandering in the wilderness for 40 years
  • Jesus whisked away to the wilderness for 40 days after his baptism
  • Even the wilderness of Exile in Babylon for the people of Judah

The timetable for their stay was not their own, but God’s or their captors or someone or something else.

It’s in those seasons, when their vulnerability is laid bare before them, that the people of God are reminded of the central fact of life that is true whether we’re in the wilderness or not: that so much is beyond our control.

Yes, government policy and human behavior on a grand scale are important and can make a difference that we shouldn’t neglect. Our individual choices, too, matter.

But this virus proves again and again that it does not play by our rules or abide by our timelines. If anything, it has confirmed the omnipresence of the “powers and principalities.”

Yet, it’s also in those seasons when the myth of our self-determination is exposed that the people of God find themselves ready to receive the gift of God’s presence and provision in new ways.

It’s when they choose “the liturgy of abundance” over “the myth of scarcity,” as Walter Brueggemann has put it, and learn the only way to survive in this world with wholeness is by living in community.

Another dear pastor friend reflected recently that, as Christian people, how we respond to these challenges finally has to do with what we believe about God.

Of course, she’s right. Depending on the day, this insight either gives me comfort or seems cause for concern.

(Credit: First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia)

I have been humbled by the grace, courage and imagination that has marked this season within our church. In many ways, my faith in the resilience of the church has grown.

But we, too, struggle with the same anxieties and fears of so many other churches.

Will the money come back? Will the people? What does church commitment look like now?

I don’t want “wilderness, again.”

And yet, it may be that the longer this pandemic goes on and the more times we cycle through seasons of uncertainty and modest delight and uncertainty again, the more the story we tell and claim to live by will reveal new light to help us find our way through to whatever is on the other side.

For this is another truth of wilderness that we mustn’t forget, especially now: Though we can’t know just how long we will be in it, life is on the other side. And it can be abundant.

Editor’s note: From June through August, articles will be published from faith leaders reflecting on the pandemic ministry adjustments they enacted, looking ahead to the future or both. If you’d like to submit a column for consideration, email it to submissions@goodfaithmedia.org.

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