Today’s story from Numbers brings us a miracle: the flowering of the rod. Moses and the Hebrew people are in the wilderness, apparently indefinitely, having fled their bondage in Egypt, but not yet having come to the Promised Land. The Hebrews are becoming antsy with their long journey, and have begun to challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Finally, God intervenes, ordering Moses to command that the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel should each bring him a rod (ie, a stick of wood), so that Moses can place the twelve rods in the presence of God. And behold, the rod of Aaron flowered; it brought forth shoots and blossoms and even almonds. Think about that: that rod had been severed from its roots. Cut off from its natural habitat, denied its normal source of nutrients, isolated from its community of branches — nevertheless, it bore fruit.
Over the last few months, many of us have been feeling adrift in a wilderness. This time of Covid, with its confinement and challenges and uncertainties, with its new forms of community and strange rhythms of life, has required each of us to lean into a future whose shape we cannot begin to predict. It has required each of us to engage in a profound and sustained work of creativity: the recreation of our world.
Annie Dillard, one of my favorite writers, describes the work of writing like this: Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of maple trees. The furniture is in place; you go back for your thermos of coffee. Then, wincing, you step out again through the French doors and sit down on the chair and look over the desktop. You can see clear to the river from here in winter…Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.
That work has taken many forms of creativity: baking bread, writing poetry, knitting, painting, writing, tending children — each a personal act by which we, as individuals, reach into our soul and offer what we find there to nourish ourselves and those around us. Then, for many of us, there came a time in which much of that energy fell away. Our confinement was no longer a new and exciting (if stressful) challenge to be overcome by joyful resiliency. As it sank in that this was a matter not of two weeks or of two months, but of a year or more, we began a different stride: the long, measured stride of a marathon-runner. And then, one more shift: the sudden eruption into our streets of protesters around the world working together for a genuine new creation: not, this time, of our private lives, but of the world and societies we share together. A collective desire to make this time count — to compel this time of suffering and of extreme loss (so many lives lost) to have meaning beyond the loss. To bring, from all this death, a resurrection. Not a resurrection like that of Lazarus, brought back for a time into the old, broken world, but a resurrection like that of Christ — one which makes the world anew. A resurrection which undoes the powers of death and brutality and sin and coercion (powers which had seemed so strong), a resurrection in which the life of God can break through into our world in new and transformative ways.
Christian tradition links this hope — this work of God — to the Aaronic miracle, calling it not the flowering of the rod, but the flowering of the Rood. “Rood” is an archaic word for the Cross, and its flowering is the new life of Christ, running through our veins and bringing life to the world.
St. Paul touches on this mystery when he writes, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” (Rom 5: 3-5) This transmutation of pain into hope does not have to happen; too often, pain creates only bitter or broken people. But by the grace of God, it can happen. And, by the same grace, we can work together to transform what we hope for into tangible change.
That is what is at stake in Black Lives Matter, and the struggle for climate justice, and rights for “essential workers,” and so much else in our world. If those who have suffered and died in incidents
of state-sponsored brutality or indifference are allowed simply to perish, their death will be death indeed. But if their deaths become the spur to real change, they will still be dead — but their deaths will, indeed, mean life for many more.
Over the last few months, one form of our creativity has been this blog, which will go on hiatus after today. Many of you have written for it, and I am grateful for your generosity, candor, and courage. Each post has nourished our community and people beyond it. Over the summer, we will discern whether to revive it in the Fall, or whether it was a good thing for this community in its time. But at this time, our creativity is needed beyond the page. It is time to step off the balcony, into the world, and to spin God’s world into being, one act of courage at a time. It was always that time, and always will be. My hope is that these words — all our words — have helped us to see that just a bit more clearly, and have sustained for that work.
— Deborah Meister
Dillard quote: The Writing Life. Main image: Vincent Van Gogh, Blossoming Almond Tree, https://www.vangoghgallery.com/painting/blossoming-almond-tree.html. To learn more about Lily Cross, https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/wight/churches/godshill.htm.