The Stunned Circle

Published by Trevor Bechtel on

More than anything else I am glad that I have retained some ability to wonder. To find something out about the world and to let it be, in addition to whatever else it might be, a marvelous thing, and object of astonishment.

I am in a high risk population for losing my sense of wonder as someone with a lot of education, perhaps especially as someone with a lot of education about the bible and how people have read the bible. But as I have learned more and more and more about the context and situation in life of the stories, sayings, and wisdom in the biblical text, I have also continued to practice belief in the impossible, trust in the improbable, and faith in God’s overwhelming presence.

Over the last 10 years I have done this mostly by paying attention to the natural world, particularly in the lives of animals, and how animals and humans interact. So when the videos this week of penguins touring the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago were brought to the internet I delighted. I wondered, “what are they thinking” as they walk looking at tank after tank of marine life from climates they may never have known if not for the pandemic’s removal of human spectators. One of the memorable videos shows Wellington a 30 year old rockhopper penguin from New Zealand marveling at some fish from the Amazon. Another shows Wellington’s son Edward and his partner Annie, a bonded pair, waddling together throughout the exhibit.

The Michigan writer Michelle Webster Hein notes, “Every single one of us has been swept suddenly into the same stunned circle; we are more apart but oddly more together than before. We’re waving furiously across the distances, calling to each other over the roar.”

I think that Wellington, a penguin who has lived twice as long as the average rockhopper penguin and therefore has twice as much wisdom, probably thought something like this as he waved his wing at the Amazonian fish on the other side of the glass.

I think too, that as the Israelites were lead out of Egypt and into the wilderness by God and by Moses that they felt themselves swept suddenly into the same stunned circle.

My guess is that amongst the Israelites journeying out of Egypt there were some who were only full of the joy of release singing from their tent windows, others occupied only with caring for the most vulnerable, others only with planning for the next days journey. But the voice that is remembered in the texts is the voice of the complainers; we had lots of food in Egypt! We had meat!

These were people who were faced with something entirely new. Formerly slaves, held captive in one place, they were now wandering in the wilderness. I get why they were complaining. I’ve found myself wandering this last week even though I have hardly left my house. My wandering has been more of a wandering of my attention into distraction. It’s hard to focus on my work. It’s hard to focus at all. I get why they were complaining but I don’t want to dwell on that side of the story. I also don’t want to dwell on God’s anger with their complaining, although that is also remembered in the texts. Instead I want to think about what God did for God’s people in this sudden stunned circle.

God provided Manna. “What is it” the people asked? We know something of what it looked like: flakes of something: delicate, powdery, fine as frost, like coriander seed, and like droplets of gum from the bark of a tree.

And when we ask the question about context, and what it could have been, there are good candidates. The cocoon of the trehala beetle tastes sweet as it has high amounts of trehalose which is about half as sweet as sugar. The manna scale, a mealybug which is also native to the

area where the Israelites would have been wandering, produces a sweet secretion. Both trehala beetle cocoons and manna scale secretions are still harvested today for human consumption.

This answer, the scientific one, on one hand takes some of the magic out of manna. Insect secretions and cocoons resonate with us in quite a different way than bread from heaven. These kinds of explanations of God’s miracles can be risky to our sense of wonder. But on the other hand the idea that insects beyond honeybees can also give us sweet sustaining food is very cool. If we have the right mindset God’s miracle of providing the manna scale is no less miraculous than God’s providing manna.

For me, the key to wonder is often to hold these things together: the beauty and wonder in the natural world, and the beauty and wonder of God’s care for me.

In John 6 though Jesus is hard on manna. “Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died.” The point here is to be able to move beyond both complaining about our lack of food and seeing God’s care as just about providing food to a next level in wonder. This is in asking the question what new thing could be happening in this suddenly stunned circle I find myself in.

The people wandered in the wilderness eating manna for 40 years. We hope that our period of social distancing will be much less, but in both cases there are probably new things that we can learn about ourselves in this time. This is definitely going to be true for us as individuals, as families and as a community. But it will also be true for us as a society.

One of the most interesting things I read this week was a collection by Politico of 34 ways that our society could change as a result of the coronavirus from 34 big thinkers. Here are a few that I found most hopeful

An end to polarization.
The extraordinary shock to our system that the pandemic brings has the potential to break us out of a 50 year pattern increasing polarization for two reasons: Covid-19 provides a common enemy that we can rally around and the political shock that may make us more open to change. 75 percent of inter-state conflicts over the last 200 years ended within 10 years of a major destabilizing shock.

A return to trusting government
A number of the thinkers profiled suggested that in a time like this one we see the value of government at all levels in people’s lives, and we recognize the importance of social institutions.

A return to faith in serious experts.
In a pandemic we want to hear from people that we trust who have the right expertise to get us through. We want to hear form Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. We respect the way he has been able to advise six Presidents.

Better Virtual Presence
We are using our devices to rethink the community we can create through them. We have seen an number of free concerts from musicians, free classes from yoga instructors, entrepreneurs, and university professors. We are improving telemedicine, we might see serious electoral reform through new voting for both the population and for congress. Churches are exploring how we can connect online and the value of enhanced online presence. We are forced to use our devices to be human and this could create a powerful legacy.

And most importantly, we have enacted significant restraints on mass consumption and globalization that could reshape both our economic systems and our ability to care for our environment.

Not all of these ideas will come to pass. But let’s come together in this time as we sit around in a stunned circle: to look for what God is providing, to ask “what is it?” and to wonder what might change next.

Categories: Sermons


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