An extended reflection on wilderness, Ordinary Time and days, being emptied and filled, and Toys ‘R’ Us.
For many Christians, today is one of many days in the season of Ordinary Time. Normally, this is the time that the church flourishes. She has just recited the story of the Annunciation, the Incarnation, the Passion, and Pentecost. This is the time when the Spirit works in the church, and she flourishes as she lives in the world and spreads the gospel.
For me, there’s another sense of time being marked. June, while a time of joy (my brother, my step-dad, and an aunt were all born on the same date in June!), is also a time of loss, of sorts. The prevailing feeling can sometimes be described as a bittersweet melancholy. Especially for college students, if we’re listening. If your semester ends in May, this is the first full month since you’ve said good-bye to friends, either for the summer, or as they move to pursue their careers and dreams. The clock resets as you go home, another summer at home, in a liminal stage between where you’ve been and where you are going. Ordinary moments are twinged with both the bittersweetness of having said good-bye to friends and the joy of an upcoming year (or life!)
June 2015 was the last time I had consistent time with family in Iowa. (Bitter: not seeing them as often now; sweet: knowing we’ve moved into another exciting stage in our relationship as a family of adults). June 2017, I said good-bye to my first new car as she was totaled on my way to work. (Bitter: losing my first car and the enduring anxiety/pains of an accident; sweet: the exciting prospect of a new car, new ways to lean into the joy of the Lord as my strength). June 2018? Toys ‘R’ Us closes, marking a new epoch for a lot of children (and, of course, children at heart). This summer also seems to have a heavy concentration of friends leaving the area. An inevitability (bitter), to be sure, but a beautiful sort of excitement for their futures (sweetness).
I frequently think about the time Israel had spent in the wilderness. They knew where they were going, and they had a time table of when their families would arrive (sweet). But there was always the knowledge that they wouldn’t enter the promised land hanging over the first generations’ head (bitter). They didn’t have a sense of rootedness: the tabernacle centered the camp, but even that was only temporarily placed, as it was designed to be moved easily.
In a lot of ways, I wonder how the wilderness stage can appropriately describe my graduate school life. It is an analogy I return to frequently, as I think it describes well my liminality (being both a student and an adult, a student and a full-time employee, and so on). I know there’s a destination in mind (in some immediate sense, graduation) and a timetable (again, immediately, June 2019). But more than that? Who knows. I, too, have both a tabernacle (Jesus, John 1:14) and a rooted temple (Ephesians 2:11-4). Sometimes, these don’t really feel enough to center me anywhere, or give me a sense of rootednesss.
The more I read Numbers, the easier it is to empathize a bit with the Israel. (Not excuse their behavior, as much as I’d love to, if we’re being totally honest, just…understand.) Instead of trusting in Yahweh to bring them to a new home, they grumbled, looking back to where they came from. Oppression and hardship, sometimes, can become a numb pattern to us. Better the evils we know than the ones we don’t, you know? This gave root to bitterness in their hearts, turning them away from the sweetness God offered them. When God did bless them, they hoarded those blessings as if it would be the last time God would bless them. “This time, God may have given us bread, but who knows? Next time, he may give us a stone.” Yahweh says, when they became full, they forgot him (Hosea 13:6).
There’s this feeling, in the wandering and the wilderness, where you don’t feel known. You don’t feel seen. The feelings of homesicknesses, nostalgia, and melancholy threaten to choke out and overtake the happy moments. As the happiness fills those pits, they almost feel like black holes at times. That’s the danger of focusing on feelings and circumstances rather than truth. This is when the complaining starts; the calls for a redo, really.
In my time of wilderness, so to speak, it is easy to see how they sinned in these ways. It is easy to see how I sin in these ways. (There’s something so cathartic about confessing sin to cyberspace, isn’t there?) It is easier to complain about losing the campus that I love, the friends I saw daily, the familiarity of the dining centers and library, etc., to be brought into an entirely new state. When God does bless me, there’s this sense that it may be the last time. I become clingy and obsessive, and just like the manna, those blessings are gone in the morning.
But like the manna, God’s blessings are new every morning. God, through Hosea, reminds Israel that he knew her in the wilderness. There he knew her. He really knew her. He didn’t see her for her ability to labor, as Pharaoh did. He saw her as a bride; not because of her own righteousness or size, but because of his great mercy and love. In my wilderness, God knows me and loves me. This doesn’t mean there won’t be any more wandering, but it does mean it won’t be done alone. No, this God can’t leave me or forsake me.
So in these days of lack, of ordinary days and Ordinary Time, there’s a filling happening each and every day. It takes a desperately strong grasp on the Lord who has guided his people before, who promises to do so now. Its knowing that in these ordinary moments remembering there is no lack with the Lord who feeds his people every morning. Its not focusing on the hunger and focusing on the feast set before you. Its focusing less on the bitter moments and more on the sweet ones.