I’ve tried to keep up exercise during this time of COVID-19. I’d just started to feel pride in my routine of lap-swimming during the week – and then the community pools closed down. For a while I really missed the wispy clouds that were my outdoor compass as I backstroked, and didn’t know what to do instead. But now I’ve rediscovered the patch of bush near our house. I’m addicted to the cool air at the bottom of the gully and the slight thrill of navigating some mossy tumbledown steps. I even love the graffiti-ed tunnel, the empty spray cans and just the sense of a suburban edge. And during these walks, in particular, I have enjoyed exercising my imagination, and finding that there can be a biblical edge to everything. Even COVID-19. Or maybe, especially COVID-19.
Let me explain.
As COVID-19 commenced its journey over the face of the earth, and we all began retreating into quarantines and isolation, it was not only our sense of safety and normalcy that was disturbed. Strange, vivid dreams visited may of us and disturbed us, often dreams with biblical bite.
Indeed, one US academic – Deidre Barrett, Assistant Professor, Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry – began collecting our dream metaphors online, noting a particularly big cluster of bug dreams:
“I’ve just seen dozens and dozens and dozens of every kind of bug imaginable attacking the dreamer: There are swarms of every kind of flying insect you’ve ever heard of; there are armies of cockroaches racing at the dreamer; there are masses of wriggling worms; there were some grasshoppers with vampire fangs; there are bed bugs, stink bugs.”
Our imaginations are grappling with a threat that can’t be seen without a microscope, and they are streaming pictures of small creaturely armies advancing toward us with malevolent intent.
We are reminded of the creaturely plagues that God visited upon Pharaoh and the people of Egypt before they let the Israelites go: frogs, lice, flies, locusts.
Ironically, these plagues threw Pharaoh’s lack of imagination into relief: theologian Walter Brueggemann notes in his book The Prophetic Imagination that Pharaoh was stuck in his “royal consciousness” and could not imagine any other way of being in the world. The emergence of Israel under the leadership of Moses showed an entirely new way of being in the word that “could not be extrapolated from any earlier reality”.
Our minds become their own endless news cycle …
Like Pharaoh, are we also stuck in unimaginative modes of being? What creative lament can we bring to our current political and economic situation? Can Christians break through hackneyed modes of discourse and show that God can (and will) create a new way of being?
The endless news cycle does not encourage us in this direction. Our propensity to ruminate during this crisis is like a wandering in the wilderness.
Our minds become their own endless news cycle, worrying over a situation, thoughts going round and round without expectation of exit. And as those thoughts go round and round, the paths of hopelessness become enlarged and (ironically) more comfortable to inhabit than other untried paths that might actually lead somewhere.
The soundtrack that accompanies this reluctance to step out into our unknown and God’s known, is endless looking-backwards-not-forwards grumbling.
What new soundtracks can we incorporate? What are we asking God for when we pray “give us each day our daily …”?
There is a sense of “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” to the new COVID normal: sanitising, deep-cleaning, mask-wearing, testing, quarantining. These rituals cannot be done once and then dispensed with. Like the Israelites and their Levitical stay-clean practices, these have to be repeated and policed to be effective and meaningful. There is a temptation to rebel and turn back to a reality that is no longer accessible.
Like Miriam and Aaron, we dread and protest the isolation that comes from being excluded from community. Like Miriam and Aaron, we may be questioning the authority over us. Are we also becoming frustrated like Moses at the rock, throwing up hard “hitting” words to God in our impatience for the rolling out of a COVID vaccine? Can we not do this better ourselves? Actually, the ruin of Babel reminds us that a coordinated rollout of anything across cultural and language barriers is likely to be plagued with misunderstanding and conflict.
Which reminds us too, disconcertingly, that much of our social and economic enterprise has been abandoned. Are we already looking out over a Babel-like ruin? Susan Stewart, an American poet and literary critic, notes in her recent (but pre-COVID) book The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture that ruination usually occurs at one of two speeds: either suddenly and catastrophically, as in an earthquake or military conquest; or imperceptibly and over a long period of time. A “systematic process of ruin” that we could see unfolding before our eyes would, according to Stewart, feel like sadistic torture.
And yet, perhaps this is what we are feeling as 2020 unfolds – that we are seeing governments grapple to manage a ruin? That we are in limbo-wilderness-land, not sure if there’s a rescue or not? The grass is growing up between the cracks, the wild boars are coming down from the mountainside and invading children’s playgrounds.
What pictures of our society are we painting in our mind?
The emptiness of Sydney and its office buildings reminds me of the ambiguous watercolour A Bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England, painted by John-Michael Gandy in 1830, at the request of John Soane, the architect and project manager who laboured for nearly forty-five years on the building. It is ambiguous because it is not clear whether the cutaway is designed to represent the building in construction, or the building in ruin. In fact, many (erroneously) refer to the painting as the The Bank in Ruins.
What pictures of our society are we painting in our mind: are they ruinscapes or (re)constructions? Is there anything else we could paint as we look to the future?
Wandering (wondering) in a mental wilderness is clearly not good for our sanity. We need to keep up good mental hygiene practices so that our perception is not contaminated by either hopelessness or presumption. Our thoughts can alienate us from Jesus, who was thrust into terrible isolation outside the camp (instead of us) and then restored on our behalf. Now, he is the cosmic ruler, overseeing the breaking in of a new way of being into our reality.
Jesus is the capstone. He’s the stone that is placed at the end of the building process and locks the others into position. He’s the stone that stops the arch from tumbling and living in precarious ruin. He’s the stone the builders rejected at the outset, and perhaps the stone that builders threw down in disgust when they down-tooled at Babel. It turns out he’s the perfect fit. Jesus is the builder, too. But Jesus’ work in transforming our wilderness into habitable homey-ness is not a triumphalist rebuilding or recapture. Our new home and our new civilisation is quietly under wraps for the moment, but we know that it is bespoke – made for us, the grandest design, and sparkly-new for an eternity.
There will be no more nasty bugs to fight off, no more death in the wilderness. There will be no more border closures: people will be free to come and go out of the gates, and no more social distancing.
Jesus himself will reach out and wipe away any tears that spring from the ruin of our past lives.
Danielle Terceiro is an English high school teacher at a school in Sydney’s western suburbs. She is married to Michael and they have four school-aged children. They go to New Life Christian Reformed Church, Blacktown. Danielle has always loved stories, and loves thinking about how God has told us his Big Story of love and redemption through Jesus.