Chased by a Train

Read: Exodus 3

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. The Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up” (Exodus 3:1-3, NRSV).

Back at the beginning of the pandemic, I remember hearing people talk about their hope that lockdown could provide the sabbath rest they knew they needed.

Far be it from me to criticize that well-intentioned goal. I, after all, know myself to be the chief of sinners. I have spent much of my life behaving like I am being chased by a train. So, I can identify with the need to catch one’s breath.

But I wondered whether the pandemic had provided the respite for which my friends had hoped. So, I circled back and asked them.

The consensus seems to be that it has been a mixed bag. Sure, we’ve learned some things. We have learned to savor evenings in front of the fire. We bake more bread (yes, sourdough). We take more walks. All good—but also all evidence of a level of privilege that many do not enjoy. Parents with school-age children are having a very different pandemic experience. Those who have lost jobs and loved ones are in another universe of pain, depression, and anxiety. All of us long for the day we can step back into the sunshine of a human embrace—not to mention a good, old-fashioned party.

When we look back on the experience—somewhere ages and ages hence—I suspect that we will see that the pandemic took far more than it gave. Even for the optimists, it was not the change that was “as good as a rest.”

Cal Newport has a new book out that explains part of the problem for many of us. It’s called, A World without E-Mail, and it highlights the down side of this relentless connection to a “hyperactive hive mind.”* While acknowledging the attributes of having “fast, asynchronous communication,” Newport also points out that “this way of working makes us miserable. It just clashes with our fundamental human wiring to have this nonstop piling up of communication from our tribe members that we can’t keep up with.”

I don’t know about you, but this explains a lot about that “chased by a train” feeling that many of us have, even when we’re working from home.

We can’t blame email for all our ills, of course. It is only part of a complicated picture. At the end of the day, we have to take responsibility for ourselves, and this may involve making some hard and deliberate decisions about how we live our lives.

Which brings us to Moses—finally.

Consider this poem by Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas. It’s called, “The Bright Field,” and it highlights the moment when Moses turns aside to check out the burning bush:

I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it. But that was the

pearl of great price, the one field that had

treasure in it. I realise now

that I must give all that I have

to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you

What are we missing while we’re being chased by that train? What wonders, what callings are lost to us? What would it take to help us turn aside to find them?

Ponder this quote from Anne Lamott: “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”

Pray: Do whatever it takes to get our attention, God. Then grant us the courage to turn aside.


* Quotes are from Ezra Klein’s excellent interview with Cal Newport on Klein’s March 5, 2021 podcast for the New York Times.

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