Lessons after 40 Days in the Wilderness

40 days ago, our church held its first online service – officially beginning its exile, its walk win the wilderness.

Forty – the days of rain that fell in Noah’s day, transforming the world for a new beginning.
Forty – the years of Israel’s desert wanderings, moulding them into God-reliant children before settling into their new land (Deuteronomy 8:2-5).
Forty – the days Jesus spent in the wilderness, reliving Israel’s experience and passing the test – before commencing His ministry.
Forty what have we learned, and how have we changed during this time?

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

It can be easy to get caught up in the news: never-ending updates, statistics, bar graphs, line graphs, relief packages, and health advisories.
It can be tempting to become embroiled in the public debates – the vicious attacks, the self-justifying defences, the what-ifs and the protests.
And it can be difficult to make sense of unfolding events – provincial parks close while provincial liquor stores extend hours, and money is promised but potentially owed back.

There are those who look back and wish we did more. Politicians have called out out health officials for listening to the wrong sources, giving the wrong advice, and not taking the virus seriously enough, soon enough – as this timeline shows.
There are those who look back, and wish we did less. Critics look at the shattered economy, the struggling families, the reeling educational system, and wonder if it was all worth it. Given what we now know about the virus, they claim that our response should have been more targeted and measured.

Some people socially shame those who they feel haven’t gone far enough in social distancing.
Others protest their lack of freedom and employment, as seen recently in Michigan. People are torn between caring for public heath and caring for their next month’s bills.
And governments feel this tension – with no script to follow, they write it as they go, vacillating between maintaining lockdown, and re-opening their economies, and maintaining lockdown.

That is the climate we currently live in – but the question for us is – What are we learning through this? How are we growing, and changing? How should we?

Last month, as I was personally adjusting to the changes in our world, I shared a chart about the stages of grief. Here’s a simple expression of it:

If I were to put this into put this into Coronavirus terms, it might look like this:
Denial: Poor China! Good thing we’re safe over here (January-February)
Anger: They cancelled sports! The world is ending! Buy toilet paper! (March)
Bargaining: Well, an extended spring break isn’t so bad. Let’s renovate the house, phone grandma, and make paper hearts. (April)
Depression: Is this doing more harm than good? Will we ever recover from this? Will the world ever be the same? (May)
Acceptance: Some things have changed. I need to learn and adjust.

And one thing that’s clear is that we’re all learning as we go through this. There’s no script for such an occurrence, and it’s being written as we speak.
We don’t yet know if the death toll of this virus will ever come close to some other regular causes (see worldometer section on health), and we don’t yet know how outcomes in different countries, with their different approaches, will end up comparing to each other.
But, after these 40 days, here are some things we do know:

  1. Some things have been lost, and we don’t miss them.
    • Commuting to work in heavy traffic
    • Eating fast food on the run
    • Overbooking our calendars
    • The rat race of competition in our fields of work
  2. Some things have been found, and we want them to stay.
    • Household hobbies, like baking and gardening
    • Board games, artwork, books, and music
    • Old friendships and phone calls
    • Greeting neighbours and patiently waiting in line
  3. Some new challenges have arisen, and we’ve struggled to cope
    • The allure of escaping in binge-watching online shows
    • The false hope of discerning from news updates what the future holds
    • The fear that people feel toward one another that blocks love and charity
    • The withdrawal from unhealthy dependencies on productivity, possessions, planning, and programs
  4. Some things have been learned, and we’ve grown and changed.
    • Grandparents learning to use video chats
    • Parents learning to teach their children
    • Communities learning what they have in common
    • Churches learning that they are made of people, not programs, buildings, or events.

As we move into the month of May, we may see the economy begin to reopen. We may see restrictions lifted, and anxiety begin to ease.
But, rather than hanging on and waiting for things to return to normal, let us prayerfully ask

  • As I look back, what has changed? What have I learned? How have I grown?
  • At this moment, what is God up to? Where can I meet Him and be part of His work?
  • And going forward, how must I continue to change? What must I cling to, let go of, and more fully grasp?

And for churches, families, and other communities, let us ask

  • What were we previously doing that was unnecessary?
  • What is really essential about what we do?
  • What is the best way to accomplish that?

For years, I’ve believed that churches need to be prepared to exist without buildings and without paid staff. Historically speaking, these are temporary luxuries of certain times and places. While they can be beneficial tools, they are non-essential.
I had expected these to be threatened far down the road by an evolving culture – but recent events have rapidly brought this issue to the forefront.

Churches now, more than ever, need to understand their identity as God’s family, Christ’s body, and the Temple of the Spirit – collectively composed of individual members.
We need to strengthen small groups, practice the “one another” commands, and embrace the priesthood of all believers – each with access to God, called to follow Jesus, and gifted by the Spirit to serve.