God provides—even in the desert

Dear colleagues,

At times, it seems like my overriding experience of the past several months has been exhaustion. It’s been tough to juggle the many balls that have come our way during a spring and summer of pandemic, unrest, and a relentless news cycle.

In this time, the Biblical image that has come to mind most frequently is that of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. I’ve been thinking about what the months leading up to their flight from slavery was like. There’s a charismatic leader, Moses, who promises to lead them freedom. There’s a series of plagues—frogs, hail, locusts, etc.—that would leave me exhausted trying to figure out what’s going on. Underlying all of this is the struggle and grind just to survive each day of coerced labour in an oppressive land. Then, suddenly, in the middle of the night, they flee, pursued by Pharaoh and his army. And once they get to the other side of the Red Sea, it’s not exactly smooth sailing. They still have 40 more years in the wilderness before their people arrive in the Promised Land.

After all that, I’d certainly be tired. In fact, I think exhaustion might explain some of what the Hebrew people get up to as they wander in the desert. They complained (or “murmured” in the King James translation) against Moses and Aaron. They asked to be sent back to Egypt to die. They forgot about God and built a golden calf. They quarreled and fought among themselves.

Amid all this, what did God do? First, God was present: in a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud; on Mount Sinai and in the tabernacle they built for the Ten Commandments. God never left God’s people alone in their exhaustion. Second, God provided. One of my favourite parts of the Exodus narrative is when the community is running low on food. When they wake up in the morning, God has provided a bread so strange that the Hebrew people call it “manna”, which literally means “what is it?” Third, God continued to show the way. They may have taken some wrong turns along the way but in time God led the Hebrew people to the Promised Land.

We have heard it said so many times already but it’s true: we are embarking on an unusual semester together. The image of a wandering people may be helpful in thinking about how to move forward. Like me, you may be tired. It may feel like everything you thought you could take for granted has been stripped away. We’re not in the Promised Land but we are on a journey. There will no doubt be “murmuring” along the way, and maybe incomprehension (“what is it?”). But in this changing time we can affirm three truths: God is present. God provides. God continues to show us the way.

Yours on the journey,

Jesse Zink