I would’ve never thought that home could seem like a wilderness: A place of confinement . . . . a solitary ordeal . . . foreign and suffocating. My home was always an oasis: a place of refuge from the world and a sanctuary of refreshment and peace. It was light and airy and brimming with people; not a quarantine from family and friends–who now pay a visit to my home on screens filled with zoom-cubes. Our routines are now land-locked and weeks of social engagements and meetings are crossed straight through on our calendars. We have moved into a field of forces that feels dark, gnarly, and alien. For once, the world is in solidarity.
For those who are homeless or dying of Covid-19 in hospitals and nursing facilities, the home has a different connotation for these times: A home is not quarantined and sterile. It is a place where they pray that they can go to survive a viral tsunami or go to die–in their own beds, surrounded by loved ones, and smelling chocolate-chip cookies baking in the next room.
It all depends on one’s perspective. Dorothy Gale departs from a loving home in Kansas to search for her “heart’s desire.” She sets out on a long and dangerous journey on a path of yellow bricks to the mecca of wisdom, the Emerald City, home to a famous Wizard. She collects a ragtag group of friends along the way and they seek to fill a vacuum of perceived deficiencies: a sense of purpose and independence, intelligence (a brain), empathy (a heart), and courage.
Like many of my hospice patients and all of us at one time or another, they seek to find fulfillment outside of themselves. At the end of the movie, Dorothy wakes up from her fantasy and looks around the room at her family and says: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t go looking any further than my own backyard.” Smart girl.
What we are all looking for is deep inside of ourselves: We must go to the center of ourselves–to God–our true home. We need to get out of our heads and into our hearts. No need to search out there. So we are all hunkered down at home these days with plenty of time to think, read, journal, pray, meditate, and walk. For those of us that are not on the front lines battling Covid, we have time to search the rooms of our souls and come out on the other side of this pandemic, a more self-aware person and forgiving person.
We have been given an opportunity during this crisis to delve deep and grow spiritually. Many of us are dealing with horrendous losses now: deaths, illness, jobs, financial insecurity, lost opportunities, human touch, poverty, and relationships. Our creature comforts, churches, sports arenas, stadiums, and personal freedoms have been shackled.
People ask me where God is in all of this? A fair question. It’s a question that every person needs to grapple with at some point in life: Where is God amidst my suffering?
In my own experiences of trial and suffering, it was only after the fact–looking back–that I could see that I was being held and led. God used my periods of misfortune, betrayal, and suffering to bring me to a larger Identity. John 12:24. I’ve never believed that God used my travails to teach me a lesson. What loving parent teaches moral lessons to a child through suffering and pain? But from every trial, we can learn.
There were two distinct trials in my fifties that left me reeling and feeling alone and without God’s presence nearby. I continued to pray for relief: an end to the suffering, a sign of hope, a map for recovery . . . any little movement toward health. But no Calvary galloped to my door. When I had started to feel well enough again to be able to read, I picked up a book called, “Let Your Life Speak” by Palmer Parker. In it, he offered such an enigmatic truth that it took me a while to wrap my brain around it. He said: “God’s love for us neither avoids nor invades the soul’s suffering. It is a love that does not fix us, but gives us strength by suffering WITH us.” Ouch! But if I think about it, this really wasn’t a new theology for me. After all, we’ve been taught about suffering since elementary school: We are baptized into the life of Christ (and all that entails) and we die with Christ.
I rebelled. I didn’t want God to suffer with me; I wanted God to haul my problems away. When hospice patients would ask me which passage of Scripture tells us that “God suffers with us,” I would point them to Exodus 3:12. In the pericope, God asks Moses to go to Pharoah and plead for the release of the Israelites. Moses tries to beg off (I’m not your man; It’s not in my skillset; Can’t someone else do it?) and he tries to divert God by asking this question: “What is YOUR name and what kind of God are YOU?” God accommodates him with this reply: “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” According to Jewish biblical scholars, “Ehyeh” is rendered, “I will always be with you.”
God’s name is “I am with you” (through it all).
In delving deeper into this profound idea, I read the work of theologian David Griffin. He postured this concept: “God IS all-powerful, but God’s power does not include the power to control all events; it is the power to enable people to deal with events beyond God’s power to control.” WHAT?Griffen was alluding to the natural law of free will that God created. God does not tamper with our profound gift of free will.
So as we live through this pandemic–God is with us–suffering our exact misery, hardship, and torment. Joan Chittister, a feminist theologian and a Benedictine nun (and one of my favorite thinkers and writers), has some wise advice for us during this pandemic crisis and trial: “I surrender to my new circumstances in life. Surrender doesn’t mean that I quit grieving what I lost or no longer have. It means that I surrender to new meanings and circumstances. Courage, character, and faith are forged in the fire of affliction.”
After 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus was spiritually tempered and toughened for his great work. What will these months in the “wilderness” and isolation expose in us? During my past trials, those periods moved me from a place of self-deception to a place of self-awareness. Every trial brings me back home again–deep into my soul and in union with the divine.
Next Month: How did it feel to have God suffer with me?