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A place of great danger

Encountering God by comparing pandemic challenges with the wilderness experience

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

The sunset in the Negev Desert near Yeruham, a town in the southern district of Israel. (Wikipedia/Bill Brown)

LOUISVILLE — Describing the Israelites’ passage through the wilderness in Exodus and Numbers as a metaphor for challenges the church faces today, Dr. William P. Brown took 160 people participating in the 2020 Vital Congregations Virtual Gathering on a journey into a place of great danger and extremes — a place where they can encounter God.

Leading Wednesday’s Bible study, the Columbia Theological Seminary professor said the wilderness is also a place of hope and guidance.

“It is revelatory,” Brown said. “Many of us, living with the triple pandemics of COVID-19, racism and poverty, are increasingly aware of the enduring reality of communities of color — Black, brown and Indigenous.”

Dr. William Brown led the 2020 Vital Congregations Virtual gathering Bible study, “Navigating the Wilderness: Finding Vitality and Direction Amidst Disruption.“ (Screen shot)

Comparing what we are living through with what the Israelites experienced, Brown said they were living in the extreme opposites of deprivation and provision, which is where they cultivated resilience.

As they moved from enslavement to freedom — and from chaos to community — their greatest challenge, Brown said, was to move backward instead of forward into the blessings and wonder God had for them in the lessons learned along the way.

Deprived of water and food, the Israelites cried out because of their thirst and hunger. Moses struck a rock with his staff for water, and God provided manna — bread from heaven.  But eventually, Brown said, “the manna became a curse.” Longing for the foods they’d eaten in Egypt, they cried out, “If only we had meat to eat!”  They yearned to return to Egypt, but Brown said that would have sabotaged God’s plan to free them by molding them into diverse community.

“It’s often overlooked, but it wasn’t just Hebrews making their way to the Red Sea,” he said. “There were others with them who remained nameless.”

A depiction of Moses parting the Red Sea for the Israelites. As they reached dry land and looked ahead, all they could see was vast wilderness. (Stock photo/Bill Brown)

When the Israelites learned they would be in the wilderness for 40 years, they became impatient and impulsive. Despite Moses warning them, the people charged the land that the Lord had promised them, with disastrous results.

Brown sees the same thing happening in America’s struggle with the coronavirus.  As people became sick and tired of staying put, some rushed forward with impatience, crying out, “How dare you infringe on our freedom!”

“The struggle of people in the wilderness,” he said, “is trusting the provisions of God.”

Brown sees the same thing happening in America’s struggle with the coronavirus.  As people became sick and tired of staying put, some rushed forward with impatience, crying out, “How dare you infringe on our freedom?”

“The struggle of people in the wilderness,” he said, “is trusting the provisions of God.”

In Exodus 19:4-6, God gives the Israelites a new mission at Mount Sinai. Brown said they were now to be a blessing to the world — not only by looking inward, but outward, as a holy nation. And when God introduces the giving of the decalogue in Exodus 20  by opening with the commandment that “they are to have no other gods,” he said, that should be a reminder to us, too.

“The wilderness is the place and time to shed idolatries,” he said, “and become connected to the true source of vitality, the Lord our God.”

Knowing in a new way that they are God’s people, the Israelites forge ahead with creativity and innovation. They still fail and succeed. But now, Brown said, God holds them accountable, judging them in forbearance as well as blessing them.

Brown reminded those gathered that the Israelites’ greatest technological achievement came in the wilderness when they constructed the tabernacle. God gave them seven instructions for building it, which were parallel to the seven days of Creation recorded in Genesis.

“In the tabernacle God was present to the people in the flesh,” Brown said, “walking through the thick and thin with them every step of the way.”

In closing, Brown reminded those gathered of one of the foundations for Vital Congregations found in Isaiah 43:16-21.  Here, the prophet is having a wilderness experience with people in exile. He tells them something radical: to “forget the things of the past,” Brown said, “for God is doing something new.”

“Don’t let nostalgia for what was become a trap,” Brown said.

Referring to Isaiah 41:17-20, Brown said the goal  for God’s people in exile was to become a beloved, diverse, inclusive community by remembering again the alien, the widow and the orphan, which God commanded them to do in Exodus 22:21-23 and Exodus 23:9.

“We must detoxify ourselves from systems of oppression,” he said. “At Easter we were hoping to be together for Pentecost. But this is taking longer than we anticipated. Remember the long way of the Lord your God.”

And when the coronavirus pandemic is finally over, Brown wondered, “What shall we remember from this time?”

One of the images Dr. Bill Brown will remember from our current time living in the wilderness of the pandemics of COVID-19 and racial inequality is this depiction of George Floyd. (Image courtesy of Bill Brown)

Reminding those present that more than 400 years ago slaves arrived on the shores of what would become the United States, Brown showed images of some of the things he wants to remember, which included:

  • A Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation with a “He is not here” sign posted at the front of the building.
  • Graphs showing the number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. (now more than 173,000) — and Black people dying at 2.5 times the rate of white people.
  • Immigrants working in the fields.
  • Nurses in New York welcoming those coming from around the country to help treat coronavirus patients.
  • A Black Lives Matter sign held in front of a billboard for White Pride Radio and Alt Right TV.
  • Police officers and protesters kneeling together.
  • The late Congressman John Lewis.

And as the final image, a cover of The New Yorker magazine of George Floyd, faded, Brown read these words from Isaiah 43:1-3: 

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

The Virtual Vital Congregations Gathering continues through Thursday. Leaders engaged in the VC initiative continue to adapt and find  new creative ways of doing the work in covenant with the Office of Vital Congregations, housed in Theology, Formation & Evangelism ministries in the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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