In my mid-twenties, I found myself struggling with exhaustion. Having recently moved across the country, started a new job, and gotten married, I initially attributed it to stress. Even though these were positive changes, there was still a lot of adjustment involved. I tried changing my diet up and exercising more, which just made me feel worse. After several months of being unable to fully wake up, drinking coffee until my stomach got irritated, and only feeling good for a few hours at night only to not be able to sleep yet again, I realized there was something wrong. I started going to doctors who basically told me it was all in my head. I was sick, but not sick enough to qualify on any tests. Based on research and my symptoms, I suspected I had hypo-thyroidism, but it took nine years and the American Medical Association changing one number on a standard to finally get confirmation of what I’d known for the better part of a decade.
People’s experiences with hypo-thyroidism vary widely and mine has been such that, even with medicine, I don’t experience consistent health. I feel like I’m always starting exercise commitments over after flares put me out of commission, though perhaps that’s not the way to look at it: I consistently pick up where I’ve left off as best I can, over and over again. Thyroid medicine has given me back my brain though, and I’ve been able to read and write again, so for that I am extremely grateful.
Living with chronic illness has broken me in many ways. I used to subscribe to the myth “I am what I do,” as Chap Clark, one of my seminary professors, re-framed Henri Nouwen’s take on Jesus’ first temptation (In the Name of Jesus, pp. 25-48). I have needed to develop rhythms of rest, have been forced to listen to my body’s warning signs, and all of this has necessitated a reduction in what I can accomplish. As Osheta Moore describes it, I was “forced into a season of exile from the thing that defined me” (Shalom Sistas, p. 26). I was forced to recognize my worth as inviolable, no matter how much or how little I accomplished. This freed me to hone down the definition of my mission in the world and discard the unessentials. I would have given almost anything at times to escape the wilderness—the exile from society—but it was there I learned the most and experienced the most growth.
It strikes me that many of us are experiencing multiple exiles as we weather this pandemic. Some of us have literal exile looming over us as the ban on evictions expires. Some of us have been exiled to our homes—away from the rest of the world and most normal human contact. We are being forced to continually reframe and rethink how we go about almost everything.
Those of us fortunate enough to be exiled to our homes find ourselves living lives of unintentional monastics. We are cloistered away with a small group of people or living by ourselves as modern Anchorites: our homes becoming our cells despite still living in the center of cities and surrounded by people we can no longer see nor touch. We are forced to develop rigid schedules lest we be buried by the avalanche of unwashed dishes that accumulates daily with everyone eating every meal at home all the time. And some of us who would be fine with a more monastic reality are living with small, noisy, and unruly inhabitants of our unintentional monastery that make routine both more necessary and simultaneously impossible. Some of us have never been able to leave our jobs and find ourselves isolating from our families for their protection as we are exposed to the virus to continue caring for others, perhaps as a healthcare worker, or because our jobs require us to be present in person in order to keep getting paid to provide for our families.
While we may be working the same job, many of us are interacting with our jobs differently, and while our children will still be learning, many of them will be interacting with that differently as well. We are experiencing a collective untethering from the routines and relationships with which we defined ourselves. All of us are experiencing a time in the wilderness.
Nouwen comments on Jesus’ own first temptation in the wilderness–the temptation to turn stones to bread–and observes “when he was asked to prove his power as the Son of God… he clung to his mission to proclaim the word” (In the Name of Jesus, p. 31). Every wilderness comes with an untethering and a temptation or three that forces us to reexamine our identities. In this reexamination, is a call to discover or redefine our mission in the world.
Going back to Osheta Moore’s story, she recounts her experience with wilderness after Hurricane Katrina exiled her from her home in New Orleans. Through that wilderness, she discovered “Unless love rises up like a hurricane and disrupts our comfort, bringing to the surface all the ways we’ve been brokenhearted, we can never live whole-heartedly. We can never truly seek peace, shalom, and wholeness for those around us” (Shalom Sistas, p. 31).
Wilderness, exile, chronic illnesses, and pandemics aren’t things we would choose. Ezekiel found himself untethered from his vocation as a priest, unable to serve in the temple, being called by God to function instead as a prophet and do bizarre sign-acts to call the people of Israel back into faithful covenant with God. Likewise we find ourselves untethered from our normal lives, interacting with jobs and communities in different ways, or experiencing more disturbing and life-altering changes due to economic struggles or worse—the illness and loss of people we know and love.
Untethering is never comfortable and can be extremely painful. Untethering leads us to re-examine everything. For some, this is the curtain being pulled back, a clarion call that everything is not okay. Some of us already knew this, and yet this crisis exposes all the ways the supremacies of our systems let us down. These supremacies are all the intersections of oppression—racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, xenophobia, and so on–that seek to consolidate power in the hands of few and set a myriad of obstacles in the way of the diverse many trying to achieve human thriving.
After all, as Walter Brueggemann put it, empire wants to keep a pretext alive that everything is okay or that all of this was unavoidable (Prophetic Imagination, p. 11). Any system that exists to consolidate power and perpetuate itself has taken on the trapping of empire whether that is in our churches, our non-profits, or our governments. Empire shrinks our imagination of what is possible, seeking to keep us bound in helplessness so we never rise up to question those who have ascribed authority to themselves. The pandemic is peeling away the veil, shining light on all the inequalities and injustices and the ways well-fed sheep trample the grass and foul the water for everyone else (Ezekiel 34:11-22).
Like Ezekiel, we find ourselves called in the midst of disruption to wade into the midst of a corrupt nation and speak a vision of prophetic justice and shalom “whether they hear or refuse to hear” (Ezekiel 2:5). Ezekiel was called to resist the imposed helplessness of exile as well as the way the people had abandoned their commitments to God. If we follow in his footsteps, we will find the courage to radically overhaul everything from our church systems to our systems of government and not stop until we have achieved equity and justice for everyone. Because this is something those well-fed sheep at the top (which may include us as well) seem to miss: a world in which the least of these thrives is a world where everyone thrives. Our world is far from this vision, but with so many inequalities being laid bare through this time, we can hold onto a vision of shalom—total well-being and thriving for all—and begin even now to work in our communities to start bringing it into reality.
If you had told me fourteen years ago the way to learn to work for shalom was to experience chronic, debilitating illness, live through a global pandemic, and the next stage of the Civil Rights movement, I would have been very confused. I know I’ve always hoped I could grow without all the difficulties, but it seems hardship and growth are often intertwined. We don’t have a choice about hardship: we do have a choice about growth. I was alone on the first stages of my chronic illness journey except for authors to keep me company. However, as we are experiencing collective wilderness and exile, we have a unique opportunity to band together for shared growth. May we emerge from our wilderness a changed community, with shared experiences and structures of resilience built as we connect to each other and hold each other accountable to grow—and from that growth, to tear down the supremacies of empire and help birth shalom into our world.