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Archive for March, 2020

“Virtue signaling” is a new term aimed at those whose social action never extends beyond the outrage they express. The person is satisfied with the signal of justice – the posting of an informative article, an expression of outrage or biting criticism of people who deserve it – rather than all the appropriate actions that could do actual good in the world. “Virtue signaling” is difficult to detect in others. In my mind, it is most appropriate when self assessed. I know what “virtue signaling” is because I know myself.

I know that Facebook gives me the illusion of justice when I express my outrage – just enough to satisfy my anger but not enough to produce any real change in myself or motivate myself to real action. Just enough to produce likes or comments but not enough to produce change in me. Anger has its place; it can wake us up from ethical slumber and call us to action. Yet, in merely signaling where injustice occurs, do we avoid the more difficult path self-reflection that could lead us to the development of character God requires from us?

Our own proper outrage resounding in the echo chamber of our internet communities provides us an illusion of our own righteousness. I can only speak for myself when I say that I’ve let my own anger drown out my responsibilities to personal and social righteousness. I’d like to pat myself on the back and say I’ve loved my family, my neighbors, and my God, but I know that I’m just as wicked as I was before the crisis began.

We live in a time where we don’t have to give up something to participate in Lent. Lent has pressed its borders on us. Lent uncovers our hypocrisy. We substitute the Holy Spirit’s call with empty actions meant satisfy our lazy consciences. The only path is the one Jesus blazes for us. Yet, we find a desire to go our own way and make a name for ourselves. In Lent, we follow Jesus in desperation. In the wilderness, there’s no other way. We need  Jesus to lead us because we are frail. The wilderness hasn’t made us frail. We have always been frail because we have always been evil.

Like the disciples, I’ve struggled in groggy prayerlessness and been more focused on the shifting news of the day than on the eternal words of our Lord.  I believe my anger is appropriate. I believe our leaders have committed serious error and then tried to cover it up with pompous political self-congratulations while thousands of Americans are sick and millions of others have applied for unemployment. What did I actually do in the light of this injustice? All I did to help the matter was post something or comment on something or like or hate something. I indulged my own pride. I added my small contribution onto the big mountains of wrongs in this world.

In Isaiah 5, God calls Israel to judgment for their failures to produce the kind of fruit that God expects his chosen people to produce. They call evil and good and good evil. They exact justice on the innocent and accept bribes to acquit the guilty. Isaiah 5 paints the picture of constant unbearable evil where the wicked succeed and good withers and dies. An almost unimaginable scenario in our country where we like to think that we value justice. At least it was a few months ago. Now, it is hard to imagine good succeeding. Isaiah 6 paints a different picture: unconquerable holiness. Angelic creatures flying around eternal proclaiming holiness of the universe’s king who has never given up his heavenly thrown and has never stopped watching. What can bring the realities heaven to earth?

God gives us the words to pray: “As your will is done in heaven, so let it be so on earth.”

I’m sure many of us have, like I have, worn down our phone’s battery life updating Twitter or checking news sites for any new information on the status of the fight with this virus. I’ve been grieved by the stories of how the sick suffer. I’ve read where and how our leaders failed. I’ve seen the bleak projections of the months ahead. As we find new sources of anger and uncover more injustice, let us not look at the waves and storm, but to the man who personally knows what kind of evil this world can do to a person. Jesus will lead us through the troubled waters. News shifts, the world turns, hope lives one moment and dies the next. All the while there is one who watches with unblinking eye who leads us through the wilderness. We should endure in watchful prayer – the night is dark but it is also short. Evil will end. Good will triumph. We know the most powerful being in the universe, and more importantly he knows us. He knows we are weak. Our weakness is God’s strength because in our weakness we turn to the only one who can really do anything meaningful about our crisis. He will not leave us with scars too deep for grace to heal. Through his grace we can support each other’s feebleness.

 

 

 

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We are all familiar with Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam where the man dares to reach toward the extended finger of God. Michelangelo freezes the frame with just a tiny space between the two fingers making us wonder at the eternity that exists in the space between the fingers. Is there any analogy more appropriate for the space between last Friday and now? As the pathogen known as COVID-19 reshapes the entire world – halting the world economic engine, stretching and breaking national healthcare systems, and altering and ending human life at catastrophic rates – we sit in relative uncertainty of what the world will look like tomorrow let alone what it will look like when this finally ends.

Speaking for myself, my chest hurts from the anxiety of adjusting to new life at home, worrying about every trip I make into public space, figuring out what daycare looks like, and trying not to think of the economic impact this will have as it draws on. This past week has been the most stressful week of my life in recent memory. Beyond my own circle, there are many worse than I am – they have no job or maybe they are one of the currently 200,000+ people who are sick with the virus. In weeks like this, the only certainty is that the worst is yet to come. Every good outlook is beyond our vision. As we float aimlessly through the open ocean with nothing but a piece of driftwood holding us above the surface, we can only hope that the next wave that breaks on us doesn’t drown us.

I had planned to write about uncertainty and faith prior to the world crisis, but I was going to focus on the modern obsession with certainty. Human certainty is elusive – we could always raise some philosophical question to cast doubt on anything we hold certain. We live in a world where morality is relative, scientific consensus on many issues shifts regularly (as it should), God is basically unknowable, and we can’t even know for sure if our senses are geared towards discovering truth or just tell us what it takes to survive another day. Yet, most of us act each day as if there are certain laws in the universe that govern what we do. We do without knowing but not merely as a matter of pragmatism. We believe that there is good and bad. We believe in gravity. We trust our senses enough to act according to what we perceive.  I think we do this because there are laws built into the universe that we recognize almost by instinct that causes humanity to act this way. I think we’re designed this way.

Christians are not immune to uncertainty. Every believer goes through the wilderness of doubt with some regularity. Abraham had Hagar. Moses had stammering lips. David had Bathsheeba. Thomas, disciple known for his doubt, refused to believe his friend’s witness of the resurrected Jesus. When Jesus appeared to Thomas, he rebuked him for his idolization of certainty: “blessed are those who don’t see and believe.” Faith never completely squelches doubt until it is made sight.

COVID-19 introduces a different kind of doubt. The things we thought we controlled slipped beyond grasp in only a couple days. We don’t know when we will be safe. We don’t will happen to our money. We don’t know when this will end. We don’t know what normal will look like when this is over. Uncertainty is our horizon. Jesus teaches us that none of the “guarantees” of this present life are worth our worry. We can’t change anything by worry. The security that we gain in this world is limited to this world and is vulnerable to all invisible threat. The security Jesus offers through faith is eternally protected, and our Father knows what we need (better than we do).

In Lenten season, we choose to fast earthly pleasures in order to relate to Christ who gave up everything when he came to earth. The current crisis brings Christ’s willing deprivation into sharper focus and brings us westerners who don’t often struggle with uncertainty of material well-being into closer relationship with many Christians presently and historically who experienced regular deprivation. Many of them are persecuted. Many of them are ostracized. Many of them are destitute. They all, however, share a common faith that God holds onto them. We can learn from them. This world is fleeting, but God doesn’t change. As we continue to worry over this global crisis, certainty eludes us, but faith doesn’t depend on our certainty. Our faith depends on our Father who gladly supplies it. Our faith doesn’t have to be big; it just has to be present. And faith is present because God is present. Michelangelo’s God – a finger outstretched without touching man – is not our God. He holds us. Though we worry and doubt, he is bigger than both. The world will almost certainly be different after this crisis, but God will not be. He is our guarantee. So let us with feeble faith trust him.

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Lent and Lament

In Lent, we join Jesus in the journey through the wilderness. We join him in self-deprivation where we can rediscover our truest need – our need for his constant abiding grace. Lent is not our journey alone
as individuals. Lent reminds us that our journey is collective. We as the church travel together. Through the journey we encourage each other, confess our sins to each other, pray for each other, and mourn with each other.

Lament is uncomfortable and unpredictable and, in some cases, constant. The longer we live the more likely we are to accumulate grief. Grief comes in various forms: tragedies, secret sins, bouts of depression, doubt, loneliness, broken relationships, hateful words, physical ailments, persecutions and injustices. Sometimes, God removes the reason for grief completely. For others, grief leaves scars and impressions that can’t quite be shaken. They may fade over time but don’t always leave us.

In the community of faith we celebrate our healing in Christ, but for those of us who suffer, our celebration is limited by grief. Our grief can make us feel less human. Rejection and bitterness distort us. Grief deforms us and shames us, so we hide it. In our Lenten journey with Christ and the church, we discover our griefs together. We have a need to be seen, and we are seen. Like Switchfoot’s ecclesiastical hymn The Blues, we say:

It’ll be a day like this one
When the sky falls down and the hungry and poor and deserted are found

Jesus is not unacquainted with sorrows. Jesus did not try to escape grief. He went through it, and he still bears those marks. He never refuses compassion to those who need it. Together in the wilderness, we embrace the discomfort of your griefs and weep. Joy will indeed come, but until it does we mourn with you and you mourn with us.

Our hope of course is that at the end of our wilderness journey, we finally find the kind of joy that erases the memory of our grief. Until then, what do we do? Why does God allow us to carry such deep wounds? One of my favorite reflections comes from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila. Lila is a forgotten woman. Treated so poorly through her hard life that she had no idea how to respond to the kindness she received from an old pastor who himself carried deep sorrow from a personal tragedy. The pastor’s compassion won out despite Lila’s best attempts to reject his acts of kindness. At the end of the novel, Lila reflects on the wounds that she carries in the view of invincible grace:

There was no way to abandon guilt, no decent way to disown it. All the tangles and knots of bitterness and desperation and fear had to be pitied. No, better, Grace has to fall over them.

We cannot bear our griefs on our own. We cannot self-heal. We know this. Jesus must heal us. Our griefs remind us to extend our open hands drawing sharp attention to our desperate need for grace. Jesus meets us here and fills our need abundantly.

Though we still lament loss, we are given grace to bear it. Not only to bear it, but to extend the same grace which has fallen on us to others. We share what we have received because in the wilderness of this world we all have the same need for the same grace. By partaking in the cycle of grace, the humanity we’ve lost through grief is restored.

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Wednesday this week marked the beginning of Lent season for Christians around the world. My own worship tradition, the free church, doesn’t participate in Lent. We can probably trace our non-practice through the Puritans and Baptists both of whom rejected many church traditions in order to practice worship that is more mindful of God and directed more explicitly by Scripture. In my mind, their concern was warranted. Human beings produce idols out everything. Our tendency is to create easy button replacement of true worship – something that requires just enough devotion to satisfy our consciences and is easy to repeat. No form of worship is free from tradition either. Free churches either settle with  a “we’ve always done it this way” or a “jettison anything that appears decrepit” approach. Neither approach is necessarily directed toward God and more than likely rooted some human-made form of false worship.

I am not arguing in favor of incorporating the Lenten season in free church worship calendar (we do actually practice an abbreviated version with Good Friday and Easter). I do wonder if a proper reflection on Christ’s life and sacrifice through the season of Lent wouldn’t help us with one of our treasured idolatrous traditions: privatization of our lament and worship. We could cite typical examples of private practice: devotion, praise, confession, repentance – all our appropriate and necessary – but I’m talking about our corporate worship. Our corporate worship is almost certainly instructed by and built in service of our private practice. Worship music is left with just enough meaning for us to fill the gaps with our own interpretations. Ethical applications from Sunday School and sermons are directed toward personal, private practice. Even our most corporate act of worship, the Eucharist, is taken in mournful silence combined with private reflection and private repentance (I think there is something wrong with a mournful Eucharist, but that’s another story). If we’re not mindful of our individualizing tendency, we could all sing the same songs, hear the same prayers, be exhorted by the same sermon but relate everything back to our private experiences.

Some of the more public expressions of our faith our found in the things we fight against.  I’m not talking about sin and temptation. Our doctrinal purity, our apologetics, and our politics are very public. In response to an opinion piece in a popular Christian magazine which argued for empathic treatment of polyamory within the church, one Christian leader wrote: “These are soft men, writing soft words for a soft magazine, published in a soft generation, and all of it guaranteed to go down softly.” Not to say we shouldn’t comment on public sins, but are we open about our own struggles? Do we guard our own rights so fiercely that compassion and mercy appear like second class virtues? While I certainly disagree the original article, I am not sure calling out an entire generation for being soft the same as calling someone to repentance. It sounds angry rather than mournful. It leaves  spiritual wounds open and untreated.

Lent is a fast; a willful denial of basic needs in order to recover the most basic need: Christ. In the Lenten season, the church follows Christ into the wilderness. We face our failures both personal and corporate. The Spirit leads us to repentance. Here’s my public confession. Faced with the temptation to wander or to follow, I have opted for wandering many, many times in my life. I chosen to follow my own way rather than Christ. I’ve preferred the easy life over full devotion. I’ve worried obsessively about things that I have no control over. I’ve failed to be generous. I’ve lost my patience and been angry. I’ve held on to the faults of others instead of forgiving them. I’ve failed to love my neighbor let alone my enemy. Frequently I’ve compromised. Often I’ve failed. Yes, I’m soft.

So I ask: forgive me. Mourn with me over my failures. Show compassion to me. Ask the Lord on my behalf for mercy.

I think Lent leads us to public confession of our guilt – not only to God in our private moments, but to each other our public worship. We ought to be mindful of the voices beside us. Each one making the same confession of sin. Each one proclaiming the same message of praise. Each one encouraging the other through song. Each one proclaiming that we are one in Christ in our struggles and our joys. As we journey through the wilderness of this present life, as we struggle with all evil, as we battle our inner demons, we can lean on each other as we follow Jesus who leads us and keeps us from wandering off. Let us be honest with each other, so that we can help each other be whole in Christ.

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