In my last blog I reflected on the story of Jesus feeding the multitude, extracting wisdom from how Jesus responded to a public health crisis that we can use as we live in a time of pandemic. I considered how the challenges of our current crisis not only bring pain but also reveal possibilities. If we so choose, we can build communities where we take care of our neighbors, distribute our resources, forgive debts, rest our bodies, and care for our sick. In other words, we can live out Jesus’ missional manifesto (see Luke 4 and Isaiah 61). And, like the gospel story illustrates, we can multiply our resources and relationships so that there is more than enough for everyone. Miracles are possible, even in troubling times and isolated places.
I still believe in those possibilities. But as this season has continued, week after week, and after it has become evident that this threat will not be leaving us soon, I find myself drawn to a different part of the same story.
One of my former seminary professors led a Zoom discussion on “coping with Covid” that I found informative and helpful. And something that struck me as especially helpful was the recognition that our brains and bodies are constantly evaluating an ever-changing threat. We are experiencing a collective trauma. And this requires a good deal of emotional energy. In light of this, we need to be kind to ourselves and one another. We need to avoid putting pressure on ourselves to be productive, to manage our expectations about what we can accomplish or should be doing during this time. Furthermore, the work of meaning-making about all this will come later. Our task right now is simply to survive, cope, and live one day at a time. Anything beyond that is wonderful but we don’t need to make lofty goals during this time. This was a liberating insight for me. There is still work to do, books to read (and write), and things I want to do while I’m at home. But Ashlyn and I are working on being kind to ourselves and each other when we are not as productive or positive as we’d like.
What does this have to do with Jesus’ leadership in feeding the multitude? Well, there’s a line in the story that has long struck me as curious: “Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass.” Why the part about the green grass? It’s easy to read it as a throwaway detail. But as I meditated on the story, I have come to believe it’s more than that. For one, it’s possibly a reference to Jesus embodying the Hebrew vision of the divine shepherd, who provides the nurture and nourishment that people need (think of the sheep and shepherd of Psalm 23). Even beyond that, though, I wonder if Jesus wanted people to sit down in the grass because he knew the power of being grounded.
So much of life is rushing around anxiously from one thing to the next. In the words of Quaker Thomas Kelly, “We feel honestly the pull of many obligations and try to fulfill them all. And we are unhappy, uneasy, strained, oppressed, and fearful we shall be shallow.” But Jesus, as a good wisdom teacher, reminds us to be still, sit down, and attend to the wisdom of creation. Something shifts when we reconnect with the Earth. We remember our place as creatures. We remember the ongoing, healing, resurrecting spirit of God in the universe. We remember the larger world and story of which we are a part. Like the 12th century spiritual teacher Hildegard of Bingen, we witness viriditas, the healing, life-giving “greening energy” of God around us.
Sound too new age for you? Remember what Jesus told his followers to do when they were overwhelmed by fear and worry? He told them to meditate on the birds above and the flowers below (Luke 12), imitating the wisdom traditions like Job where people are encouraged to “ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the sky, and they will tell you, or ask the Earth and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you.”
Indiana author Scott Russell Sanders also says it well:
“When the pain of leaving behind what we know outweighs the pain of embracing it, or when the power we face is overwhelming and neither flight nor fight will save us, there may be salvation in sitting still. And if salvation is impossible, then at least before perishing we may gain a clearer vision of where we are. By sitting still I do not mean the paralysis of dread, like that of a rabbit frozen beneath the dive of a hawk. I mean something like reverence, a respectful waiting, a deep attentiveness to forces much greater than our own.”
As Spring unfolds before us, many (myself included) are getting outside and experiencing the grounding influence of nature, whether through taking a walk in the park or getting their hands dirty in the garden. Of course it doesn’t solve all my problems, but it helps me to get outside every day. Maybe I just go out to feed the chickens or take out the dog for her bathroom break. Or maybe Ashlyn and I go out to put up bird feeders or plant seeds. I go out to mow the lawn and take weekly socially distanced walks with my dad. These practices ground me. And they ground us.
Maybe God is trying to ground us. Send us to our rooms for a time while the Earth heals. Sending us to the garden for a time until we remember our place. Or maybe we just have the urge to get out of the house because we are restless of being trapped or dealing with danger. Whatever the cause, the effect is a renewed sense of peace and possibility when we are otherwise surrounded by stories of sickness and scarcity.
How are you getting grounded during this time of anxiety and uncertainty?