Many of us feel exhausted by the events demanding our time and concern. Far from confined to a calendar that deludes us into thinking that was 2020 and this is 2021, the creeping tendrils of political and social unrest, economic anxiety, and COVID-19 extend out to us …, reach into us …, wrapping themselves around our hearts and minds.
We can only attend to so much at one time.
There is only so much “crisis” we can tolerate.
At some point, we become exhausted from the repeated pulling of the emergency cord, of the triggering of our freeze/fight/flight system, of the way in which the tension in our brains and bodies crest then fall into a deep tiredness.
The fire extinguisher is out of flame retardant. We have pulled the ripcord on our parachute to no avail. This is the way we operate in a crisis, but you cannot continue to live this way.
The biblical figure of Moses could not continue to live in the midst of crisis either. An adopted orphan, he existed in a sort of in-between state of being a part of Egypt, the oppressors, and a part of Israel, the enslaved. After murdering an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew, Moses fled to the desert, to anonymity, to get away from the tension of his life.
Moses already felt like a stranger in his home; leaving Egypt, he became a true foreigner.
There in the desert, following an act of kindness on Moses’s part, he becomes a shepherd, tending the sheep, watching for threats. Moses’s vigilance was born out of his own experience of fear and anxiety. There were good reasons for those feelings and ways in which his vigilance was a gift.
And in that wilderness was where Moses sees the burning bush.
The burning bush catches our attention.
From biblical scholars and more recent ecological studies, we know that fires in the desert are not uncommon. Even in the language used in Exodus 3, Moses’s attention is caught not by the flames in front of him, but that this burning bush was “not consumed”.
For us, especially in our current media landscape, we are shown a barrage of burning bushes.
“Look!” “Watch this!” “You won’t believe this!” are the headlines that grab our eyes. Then as we watch or listen, as our attention is captured, we find that our heart rates increase, our muscles tighten, our breathing changes to short and shallow since that is the sort of breathing we need when we are preparing to run or fight.
The brightness of that particular burning bush has caught us in the flames. We are told that this particular bush is very important, is the most important “battle” of our lives! That “everything” is at stake in this moment!
The worst part is that when it has caught our attention, it is not long before we are consumed with this bush. This is the language of those who perpetuate a culture of “likes” and “clicks” and “eyeballs on the screen”.
Your attention is a commodity; but we end up being the ones who are devoured, burnt away like the leaves on that burning bush.
We are left with ashes.
Burnt out is what many of us feel moving into 2021. Our brains and our bodies are not set up to be in crisis this long. Short term crises are not pleasant, but are how our brains/bodies operate. Once the short-term crisis is over, then we can settle again.
But this year has been one burning bush after another, after another.
Perhaps for some of us, there is a need to rest a bit, to even retreat so that we do not allow ourselves to be manipulated and diverted by all the attention-seeking, the waving hands and shrill voices calling us to spend our energy/fuel on situations that will remain beyond our control.
At some point Moses did stop running.
As we read in Exodus, Moses settled and made a life for himself in the foreign land, marrying, having a child, focusing on the work/life in front of him, leaving behind that which he could not control. He named his child a name that meant “an alien in a foreign land”.
Then, while going about his work one day, he noticed a burning bush that was not consumed. This burning bush was different than the others. The work of rest, retreat, prayer and meditation is a call to stop.
We take off our shoes and feel the unmediated ground beneath us.
We settle our breathing to the long, slow cadance of watchful waiting.
We truly observe what is happening around us without reacting.
First we notice. Then, we breathe and pray. We listen. Then we respond.
For Moses, he encounters this one who says, “I am that I am”, the “ground of being”. And following this encounter, albeit somewhat reluctantly, Moses follows the call for liberation. God calls Moses to free those who are truly oppressed, enslaved, beaten, and killed.
This is not the faux outrage of the powerful, but the cry of the weak and vulnerable to which God responds.
My prayer for you and for all of us, is that we can find some way to retreat and rest, to allow our bodies and brains and souls to recalibrate, to attend to what we can actually control.
And ultimately that we stop and listen to the compassionate and loving heart of God that calls us toward justice and peace.