Daily thoughts during this worldwide crisis.
How am I supposed to know what to do? Everybody has an opinion, and everybody is an expert. I will say that it seems that we are nearly there: avoid large groups, keep your distance, wash your hands, disinfect, and don’t touch your face. There are the five commandments for now and we understand why. These are the overriding principles we live by right now to lower our risk. We take these everywhere we go.
I have had reason to be out in a few stores for my parents and my family. I still see few folks that haven’t put these things into practice. They stand out now. They get looks of judgment because we all understand that they are not doing their part. The interesting thing is the responses I have seen – they know they are breaking the rules and they feel the pressure. They may not care, but they know.
We are in the wilderness right now and these rules must be adhered or fewer of us will get to the other side. But there will be a day when we return to normal. We will again inhabit the land where “everyone will do what is right in their own eyes.” (see the Old Testament book of Judges 21:25, the very last verse for this reference). Then we will still want to stay safe and avoid getting sick. We will also be moving around and being productive.
These five commandments will keep us safe, but we will be in large groups, we will get close to people, and will be less concerned about survival as we were in the wilderness. How then do we function in a different world maintaining these rules? I am pretty sure we will figure it out, but these rules will stay with us. They will always be there, and they will adjust our attitudes and behavior from now on – until there is a generation that is not taught these things.
Lay this beside Israel in the wilderness and the ten commandments. This is the reason it is so important that we learn them and let them get deep into us. Immediately after delivering the “ten words” we read this in Deuteronomy 6:4-7:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
We carry these wherever we go because we know that they will help us survive in a world full of both abundance and peril. We need to know from whence we have come, we need to stop taking up God’s name for our own purposes, we need rest, and we need to treat each other and each other’s property with reverence and respect.
The rent is due today! No fooling! And not just for those who have been laid off but in some cases those who laid them off. The crisis creeps on. Those days that we dreaded are either here or approaching at a predictable, steady pace. The optimists will keep on being annoying and the pessimists will continue bring us all down. But the reality is always somewhere else.
On most days I can roll with the thought that “nothing separates us from the love of God.” But there will be other days when that simply won’t do. There will be days when what I know and what I feel will not be in sync. There will be days when good people will remind me that God loves me and all I will want to do is tell them to keep their pious mouths shut. I know this because I have been there before.
We may know that we are not to be anxious and most days we aren’t. We may believe that God will rescue us and care for us but there will be days that are dark and the only thing we can do is breathe, get through them, and hope that the sun comes up (even if it is shrouded by clouds) tomorrow.
At some point in his life, King David, wrote a song that began:
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
Yet thou art holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In thee our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and thou didst deliver them. (Psalm 22:1-4)
There are no answers here, only a cry for help based on the way things were in the past. If you read the whole Psalm, it turns into praise near the end but not before a great deal of suffering.
This is the song that Jesus sang as he was hanging on the cross. A lament. A lament that begins in utter isolation and despair. Whether it is true or not does not matter – it expresses how one feels at a moment. This might describe you on some days ahead (or today) or it may be someone you know. Do not dismiss this. Do not feel guilty about it. Walk (or run or crawl) through it.
There will be another day when this is over that you will be able to help someone else walk through dark days. Praising God includes all of life, even when it doesn’t feel like it.
Somebody should do something! There was a time in my life when I said this with annoying frequency. Now, I can be annoying when others say it to me. The reasons to say it are myriad – poverty, addiction, abuse, injustice, corruption. The people who say it are myriad – victims and perpetrators, politicians and preachers, practitioners and patients. Some say it to hide behind a façade of innocence, others as an excuse to remain entitled. Some say it to gain power and others to secure wealth.
The reasons we say this vary. One person may be fed up with a chronic problem in society. Another my feel powerless to change anything – which can be legitimate. But sometimes we say it out of sheer helplessness and despair. But having the thought or yelling it at the top of our lungs should not be a prelude to walking away. The source of such a cry comes from deep within and has the potential to cause us to refuse to accept things because, in the words of Bruce Hornsby, “That’s Just the Way It Is.”
One of the ironies of hearing “somebody should do something” is that usually somebody is doing something. It is for us to either engage with the tools we have or take the time to train and prepare so that we can join the fight.
There is always a gap, and it is always terrifying. The gap I am speaking of is the image of an ancient walled city with a breach in its defenses which will allow an invader to walk right in. There must be courageous people prepared to either repair the breach or stand in it to repel the danger. Ezekiel 22 is a tough read. The list of things that would cause someone to shout “Somebody should do something” is long and offensive. In Ezekiel’s day things did not end so well because in verse 30 we read, “And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found none.”
There are those who talk and those who do. Those who do productive work are a part of standing in the breach. Because of our current situation that has been taken from some, and those of us who are able should do what we can to help. Then there are others who, quite unexpectedly, have been thrust to the forefront to keep us fed and cared for. Thank you to all who are working in “essential industries.” And thank you especially to health care workers who are standing in the breach to mitigate the damage to the rest of us. Thank you for doing something!
I really would like to shake your hand, give you a hug, and maybe even invite your family to my home for a meal. But I can’t. I can’t because we do not know if one of us might be infected. There are apparently a few of us who can walk around with this sickness and not be terribly affected. There are others of us who, if we come into contact, will fall very ill – or worse.
If the experts are correct, I can still venture to the grocery store for food, the mechanic to fix my car, or the hardware store to repair a toilet, and take measures to reduce the risk of exposure. There is little doubt that while out of the sanctuary of my home, the illness is around me. I just can’t see it. What I do not want is to venture into the world to which I must go from time to time and become stained by it.
And so, I listen to those who can tell me what to do to stay safe. Has there ever been a better time to understand the concept of holiness? You may like me, you may love me, you may care deeply for me, you may think I am a wonderful person – but if I carry disease, I cannot be around you without higher risk of getting you sick. The only way we can be closer is if we both know that we are not infected. Right now, this is my family. And we must do all we can to protect that.
If one of us gets sick, they will still be part of us, but for a time they will be “cut off,” until the danger is gone. I won’t press this further for obvious reasons.
Here are three thoughts from the New Testament for us to consider. These do not diminish our love, concern, or involvement in life. Rather they encourage us to be holy, not compromise that holiness, and care deeply for others.
I Peter 1:14-16
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, "You shall be holy, for I am holy."
Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fail to obtain the grace of God; that no "root of bitterness" spring up and cause trouble, and by it the many become defiled; that no one be immoral or irreligious like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.
But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And convince some, who doubt; save some, by snatching them out of the fire; on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.
Can you imagine the headlines that would have been swirling about Jerusalem? “The people” following a rebel from the north, Galilee, where people talked funny. The educated and sophisticates angered because of his success and truly doing the justice and mercy thing that was only an academic discussion for them. The preppers on the hill outside the city watching with some satisfaction that there was trouble finally coming. And the politicians who could see this whole thing spinning out of control.
To make it worse, the people seemed to think that this rebel prophet from the north was in some fashion a king. This simply would not do. Then there is this fascinating face-to-face confrontation between the power of Rome and the would-be king. Jesus explained to Pilate who he was, and Pilate explained to Jesus his position of power. The conversation ended with these statements in John 18:37-38.
Pilate said to him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice." Pilate said to him, "What is truth?" After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again, and told them, "I find no crime in him.”
That conversation clearly has more bearing on the fate of mankind than our current conversations. However, Pilate’s question is still on the lips, and in the minds of everyone. Pilate looked truth straight in the eyes (did he have ANY idea who stood before him!) and walked away. He turned truth back over to the masses of self-interested, party-spirited, and divided people that drug it there in the first place.
In the absence of recognizing truth for what it is, we fracture. When disaster hits us (especially one that not everyone is convinced is real) we toss truth aside for our own versions and it makes us angry at the wrong people and anxious about the wrong things.
It may seem a good distance between COVID19 and the trial of Jesus, but for any who claim Christianity it is vital that we see the information in front of us through the lens of truth rather than filtering the truth through our own prejudices. At the very least it will open our ears and soften our hearts.
I had a professor when I was in graduate school, Dr. Ian Fair, from South Africa. We were studying that often misunderstood book called Revelation. He said something that has stuck with me. He said that the poor blacks in apartheid South Africa understood Revelation in a way that rich whites in the United States never could. It was not that their study habits were better, or that they understood the Greek better. It was not because they had better preachers and teachers. It was because their life context more nearly matched the oppressed whom the book was written to encourage.
I also recall a quote in an interview recently, to my shame right now I cannot remember who said it. He was asked if we could hear Beethoven the way Beethoven’s first audiences would have heard the music. The answer was “of course not.” The instruments and musicians were only a part of the reason. The main reason, he said, was because the background noises we are accustomed to are so different. What sounds surprising or soothing to us changes over time. It is because our live context is different than people in Beethoven’s day.
This probably explains why we have preferences of music today. It also explains why different cultures and times and places tend to gravitate to different parts of the Bible. The notes, rhythm, chords, and lyrics of some parts of Scripture suit our context more than others.
This is relevant today because our context has suddenly changed. Many are concerned about things we were not concerned about before. Some of us are having to be firmer that we like with people we know and love because we want to stay safe (or keep them safe). Our environment looks, sounds, and feels different. I guarantee that as you read scripture now you will hear notes and chords you have not heard before. Do not miss this opportunity to hear God’s Word afresh.
This is such a strange crisis. On the one hand I personally do not feel immediately threatened. On the other hand, I should act like I am. This is not a plague of locusts, or a hurricane, or a drought, or a flood. I can’t see this – at all. All I can see is how it has affected our behavior.
I just saw that unemployment claims has spiked to over 3.28 million. I can’t get my head around it. The threat to many is real and the stress is real. What is for one family an inconvenient sabbatical is for another a threat to their home and family.
Poetry was made for times like this. Specifically, the poetry in the Psalms. How does one express or explain when ordinary words will not do? We use poetry because it takes us right up to the edge of what we can express and pushes us off – only we don’t fall. Instead we discover that we are more than our words and experiences. There is another aspect to life that lies just beyond what we can see and touch and feel. These are wonderful and terrifying places that will serve us well in days ahead.
These are the deep parts of life that we rarely seek but occasionally are thrust upon us and we must deal with them. There are no emotions or thoughts that are unique to you in times like these. Even in “isolation” do not hesitate to reach out for help, which often takes more courage than we think we have. We may be by ourselves (and with our families) but we are not alone. Here is Psalm 46:1-5:
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult. [Selah]
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved;
God will help her right early.
March 25, 2020
Is your theology working? I have a theory that good theology works everywhere, all the time. I don’t know about you, but for me I am reminded that my theology needs adjusting from time to time. What this means is that I am willing to be molded by some basic understandings about the relationship between God, other people, and I.
What sometimes happens is that we get comfortable in our ordinary environments and allow those practices to become the center. Take this example in Luke 10:22-23, “And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have answered right; do this, and you will live.’”
If one has in mind that loving God is only demonstrated by “going to church” and serving in the community by doing ministry, then that theology is going to be challenged right now. There must be more to it. The second greatest commandment comes in to play here, to love our neighbor as ourselves. What inconvenience would you put yourself through to keep yourself out of danger of disease. What about your neighbor, even though you may not be at risk?
It is important to remember that in Luke, this quote is used to introduce the story of the good Samaritan. Those who were bound by religious scruples (which are not unimportant) could not get past their understanding of what it meant to love God. The Samaritan demonstrated by his care of neighbor, whom he did not know, that he was the one practicing love of God.
Yesterday’s note was about conscience, today’s is about practice. Theology that works has a solid enough and deep enough foundation to adjust even when life must be lived at the extremes. More on extremes tomorrow.
Take care, Peace.
March 24, 2020
I had the privilege of knowing a WWII veteran who spent much of his life after the war in Italy bringing religious freedom to that country. He and his brothers were arrested and one of his brothers was only let out (and forbidden to return) after the intervention of Lyndon Johnson. I asked this man what he did when he returned to Italy by car after years of being away. He said as soon as he could, he pulled the car over to the side of the road, got out, and kissed the ground. Dirt has meaning.
When Cain killed Abel, the earth cried out because of the spilled blood. And then there is this incident in the middle of the story of an enemy Syrian being healed of leprosy in 2 Kings 5:17-18.
“Then Naaman said, ‘If not, I pray you, let there be given to your servant two mules' burden of earth; for henceforth your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but the LORD. In this matter may the LORD pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the LORD pardon your servant in this matter.’”
Naaman was in a difficult situation. He now was a worshipper of the God of Israel, but he had to return to Syria, where they worshipped the god Rimmon. He asked to take some of the dirt of Israel back with him so that he could stand on it and hence be forgiven for being in the temple of Rimmon.
For the next little while, those who are accustomed to going to a building to worship are going to be a little out of sorts. We will not be able to be where we want to be. Indeed, where some of us need to be (for the encouragement and fellowship). Being without our brothers and sisters in Christ can be hard on us.
What we have as Christians is the Holy Spirit, who is with all the time. There is no place that we can go that the Spirit is not with us. Just as the dirt bound Naaman to the God he now believed in, so does the Spirit bind us to God and to each other – temporarily isolated or not. God understand exceptional times. It may feel strange on Sundays for a few more weeks, but your conscience need not suffer – God understands.
Stay safe. Serve where you can. Peace.