Monday, March 30, 2020

Two Vital Truths

There are two types of truth in this world, and I'm not talking about truths that contradict or compete with one another. These two types of truth are both vital to who we are as persons of faith, and we live our best witness when we are able to embrace them both at the same time. But it isn't so easy. Most of us tend toward one or the other. 

It's tempting to call these truths "sacred truth" and "human truth," but to do so would be to create an unnecessary confusion. Because when we hear these terms, we think that it's about authority somehow, that one truth is about what God says and one is about what man says, and that's not at all what I'm getting at. So rather than trying to define these truths by what they are, it's best to define them by what they do. 

So the two truths we're talking about are the truth that you anchor to and the truth that you connect with. 

The truth that you anchor to is the unchangeable, absolute truth of God. It is the truth about what is real and what is happening and what matters. It's the "facts," if you will. The truth that you anchor to gives you something to set your feet on. It's the solid foundation from which you set out to live and love in the world. It's the things you can know for absolute certain, the things that aren't going to change when your circumstances change. Here, we're talking about truths like 'God loves you' and 'God is good' and 'God knew about this before you did and is working it together for good, just watch.' 

These are the things that I always tell others are non-negotiable. Whatever you encounter or experience in this world, whatever questions you find that you ever have to ask, are not allowed to make you question these things. Because we do that all the time, right? We find ways to explain our current situation, whatever it is, by causing ourselves to wonder all over again if God is good or if He loves us. No. God is good and He loves us and these things don't change, so whatever explanations you come up with for why the world is the way it is can't contradict this truth. This is the truth that you anchor to. It is the place from where you start and the place you run back to when things get a little crazy. It keeps your ship upright in stormy waters. 

The truth that you connect with is the truth of fallible human experience. It is the truth about what it feels like to live in a broken world. It's the reality of wrestling with sin and death, even under the promise of redemption and eternal life. It's the common thread that binds us all together, that makes sense of our being human beings. It's the truth that, when you hear someone else speak it, sets your soul at ease because you're not the only one. It's the truth that you relate to, and it's the truth that binds us together. 

In the life of faith, this is the truth we're talking about when we talk about being 'confessional' with one another. There's something vulnerable, yet authentic, about it. It puts real skin on the matters of life and love and lets things be a little messy...or a lot messy. It admits its limitations, especially when it comes to understanding, and it holds on to this thing we call faith - demonstrating that little leap we have to make over the space we don't understand in order to hold onto the truth that we anchor to in a life that feels anything but steady. 

These truths are not at odds with one another. One is not 'right' and the other 'wrong.' Rather, they complement one another and create a full picture of what it means to be human in a broken world, to be faithful in a storm. We need them both. 

Even now.

We need to be a people who seek out and hold onto facts, onto those things that we can know for sure or with reasonable certainty. This includes the things that we know about God - that He is good, that He loves us, that none of what's going on right now is a surprise to Him. It also includes what we can know from those who have invested their lives into studying things like this - the doctors and leaders who are guiding us through these times. 

But we also need to be a people who seek out and hold onto each other, onto those uncertainties and insecurities that plague us all right now. This includes the questions we all have, about whether we know enough or whether we're doing enough. It includes the real grief and heartache and fear and stress about the ways that our lives have changed and are changing. It includes the real human impact of staying six feet away from one another and working at home and staying at home and trying to find toilet paper. 

With these two truths in tandem, we demonstrate what it means to be a people of faith, by being a people of faith. Real human beings with a real God in a real world with its real troubles, doing our best to live out a real love for the Lord and for one another. 

Friday, March 27, 2020

What Faith Can Do

Yesterday, we looked at some of the (unhelpful) ways that persons of faith are trying to explain the current situation we find ourselves in. We are talking circles in our faith around the issue of the pandemic, about plagues and judgments and Sabbaths and curses and secret messages for the faithful and all sorts of stuff. We are raising more questions than we are answering, in most cases, and that's because faith has never been primarily about explaining the nature of the world. Even though that's how we most often try to use it.

This is a fine line, one that's difficult to walk. On the one hand, because we have a intelligent God who is Creator of all, we know that we can know so much about our world and the way that it works. We see His design woven into all of it, and there is a certain place for explaining Divine Intention as an indicator of God's glory. We should absolutely do this. (And in fact, this is the foundation of science itself.)

Where we get in trouble is when we try to explain every little thing in every little corner of the earth by the language of faith, as though that's what our faith is for. But it's only been in the past few hundred years, in the so-called age of Reason, that we've tried to use faith this way. Throughout the history of the church, and even of the Jewish foundations on which we stand, faith has always been about explaining our behavior. It's been about demonstrating why we act the way that we do, why we choose the way that we choose, why we believe the way that we believe.

Think about what Peter said - always be ready to give a defense for the faith. Always be ready, not to give others a lecture about the glory of God or His mighty hand or whatever else is true about Him, but to explain to them the difference that faith makes for you and how it lets you live in this world the way that you do.

So when we talk about faith right now, we ought to be talking about how faith permits us to live in these times. We ought to be talking about how it changes the way that we think about things. It shapes the way that we live because of how we understand.

In other words, faith was always meant to explain the way we live in times like these, not the way we explain these times.

It's a powerful difference.

All of a sudden, we're not creating a scenario where we're putting God on trial. We're not raising difficult questions about good and evil, about judgment and mercy, about whether God is all-powerful or all-wonderful or if He even cares at all. We're not forcing anyone to think about whether God loves some persons more than He loves others, or if we're all so sin-stained that even the saints among us can't escape His wrath. We're not raising more questions than we're answering. Instead, we're making one bold statement:

My faith can handle this.

My faith gives me a framework for holding on. It gives me a foundation for standing firm. It gives me the grace to wrestle with things and not fear losing it. My faith lets me respond in love, even amidst fear, even in the face of uncertainty. My faith tells me how to act based on what I do know, and it reminds me that things that I know about God are absolutely true even in the moments that I don't understand them or can't see them as clearly.

That means we ought to be living differently than the rest of the world right now. We ought to be radiating peace and contentment. We ought not to be wrapped up in worry and fear, though there's certainly space in our hearts for concern, for care, for compassion, for love. We should be washing our hands, but we should also be demonstrating what it means to be washed in the blood.

The question we ought to be prompting from the watching world is not, "How could your God do such a thing?" but rather, "How are you not shaken?" How are you living the way that you're living? How do you have such peace, such certainty, such comfort when the rest of the world can't seem to find it?

A pastor friend wrote yesterday that we ought not to spend so much of our time trying to defend God, even right now. "We are not His defense attorneys; we are His witnesses." And if we live as witnesses, we won't need to defend Him. For others will see how real, how loving, how life-giving He is by the way that we're living. 

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Conspiracy Theories

As we press on through these trying times, the voices of the faithful are starting to cry out even louder. Looking for a way to make sense of what we're going through, it seems we're ready to give God all the credit for this - for better or for worse - but should we? 

On one hand, we know that nothing happens in this world without God knowing about it. We know that He coordinates and orchestrates and weaves together a lot of what we experience. But we also know, if we're paying attention, that not everything that happens in this world is "God's plan;" a lot of things happen that He would rather not, and even though He works them together for good, it doesn't mean He's behind them to begin with. 

And the truth is that a lot of what we're willing to say about God in times like these raises more questions about Him than it answers about us. That's not really helpful. So let's look at a few of the things circulating, just some that I've happened to see so far, and ask whether they really are a blessing to our faith or a burden to it. 

- Is Covid-19 a "plague"? Is it something God has sent upon us to punish us for something? 

It doesn't look like this is true. A simple look at plagues in the Bible reveals one thing - they are targeted. The plagues of God either affect His people or His enemies, never both. Israel was protected from the plagues in Egypt; when plagues swept through Israel's camp, the rest of the world was untouched. The virus spreading through the world right now is not discriminating. It is infecting Christians and pagans and Muslims and atheists and everyone. If it's a plague from God, it would be unlike any other plague He's ever sent into the world. And it would be inconsistent with His nature as a discriminating God. 

We should also say that there have been plenty of diseases throughout the history of the world, diseases for which the church has found herself on the front lines, that were never considered to be plagues. Leprosy, for example. Tuberculosis, for another. AIDS, for a third. When these illnesses broke out, we didn't consider them plagues; we saw them as opportunities for grace. We'd be well to do the same here. 

- But isn't God using this as a time to help us refocus, to tear down our idols, to restore our hearts?

This is a common response of people of faith right now, talking about how God has stripped our lives in quarantine of all the things we are tempted to worship except for Him. This is true, but only if you're taking advantage of the opportunity in this way. Not everyone is. In fact, we're going to see new addictions form during this time. We're going to see an increase in the number of persons who can't stop streaming shows, who drink more than usual because no one is watching. Traffic on pornography sites is already up exponentially. 

For the people of faith, this certainly is an opportunity to refocus and reconnect with sacred things, but unless your heart leans that way, that's just not the natural outcome of a time like this. A lot of persons are going to turn to darker things and get sucked into vortexes they will wrestle the rest of their lives to get out of, and the honest truth is that many of them won't. This is another one of those examples of God working things together for good - we can reap tremendous benefits out of a season of Sabbath like this, but only because we see it as restorative. Only because our faith guides us that way. It's one of those coworkings between us as a people of faith and the God in whom we believe. 

- Isn't this a sign of the end times? I swear to you, I can already hear the trumpets.

Again, probably not, although it's also true to say that no one knows. Some of us are far too anxious for Jesus to come back and put us out of the misery of our flesh, and we'll take about any sign we can get to say that it's happening soon. God said it would be soon, but that was also 2,000 years ago. But if you need proof that this isn't the end times, consider this: God said that two would be working together in a field or life-ing together in town, and one would be taken and the other would be left. Right now, we're not doing anything together anywhere and most of us aren't even working. So, you know... 

- Fine. Maybe you're right. But God is still speaking to us through all of this. There are things He wants us to know; we just have to figure out what they are. 

This is true all the time, not just in times of pandemic. God is always speaking to us through all the things we experience. He's constantly whispering in our hearts, hoping we'll hear Him speak words of comfort, of peace, of strength, of courage, of faith, of hope, of promise. But we don't have to have some mystical knowledge or mathematical formula to figure out what He's saying. This is the old heresy of gnosticism; it's been around since basically the beginning of the church, and it's always been struck down as heresy. God isn't cryptic. He doesn't send us secret messages. 

By now, you've probably seen the thing circulating on social media about 2 Corinthians. Someone saw "CO vid 19" and decided it was God declaring to turn to 2 Corinthians and look up a specific verse. But honestly, why 2 Corinthians and not 1 Corinthians? Why not Colossians? "Vid" are last three letters of David; maybe there's something in his story we're supposed to look at. It's random, grasping at straws. We know that every word in the Bible is a good word, and there are thousands of them we could apply right now. To say that God is leading us through a secret code to one word over another is simply a stretch; it's hard to defend. 

- Okay. Let's say you're right and none of this is God's work, none of this is holy conspiracy. It just...is. What's the harm in finding a way to put God in the middle of it? Why does it matter if I'm wrong in speaking about God the way that I am...at least I'm getting God out there!

And this is the rub. Because we think that every time we give God power or strength or agency or glory or anything, we're doing Him a service. We think getting His name out there, however we go about it, is a good thing. But what we're doing right now raises more questions about God than it answers, and that sets Him up for failure in the hearts of those who might be so, so close to finding Him. So, so close to receiving Him. 

If we say it's a plague, then we have to explain why. When we start to explain why, we run up against the non-discriminating aspect of the virus, and now, we have to explain why the grandmother who taught Sunday school for 70 years and never missed a day of church and fed the homeless in her community died alone in the ICU on a ventilator, the same way that the axe murderer who embezzled funds from the non-profit he worked for did. Tell me why God killed them both. Go ahead. I'm waiting. 

If we say God is using this time to break our idols, we have to explain why. When we start to explain why, we run up against the fact that many more idols are being made in times like this. Why does God care if we watch too many sports, but He's okay with Bill streaming pornography for two weeks straight in the privacy of his own home? Why is God so concerned with our love of movies or concerts or dining out, but He's fine with Sheila drinking herself to oblivion every night? Tell me why God is so worried about one thing but not another. Go ahead. Try it. 

If we say that these are the end times, we have to explain why that's more true today than the 6,412 other times that Christians have claimed the end is near only to be wrong. And we just can't do it. We've always been wrong. And when we've been wrong, we've often been unloving. So just...love one another. Stop trying to be right. 

If we say that God is speaking to us through all this and that we just have to figure out what He's saying, we set up barriers of knowledge between God and His people. Only those in the know can figure Him out. Only those who take the time to do the math can know what God is saying. For a God who has spent the entire history of the world speaking plainly to His people, that's a soul-crusher. It just is. 

Look, I get it. As people of faith, we want to put God in the middle of all of this. And we should. But not in the ways that we're doing it. Not in the ways that make Him harder to understand, more difficult to access, impossible to love. Not in the ways that build walls between Him and His people. Tomorrow, I'll talk about where faith really comes into all of this and what we're supposed to be doing with it. Stay tuned for that. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Fear and Love

Yesterday, I said that we seem to need fear in a time like this. Fear keeps us compliant. Fear keeps us constantly thinking about the threat. Fear keeps us taking steps to mitigate that threat, doing what they're asking and expecting us to do. Fear keeps our eyes open to all the things we never saw before that now, we can't afford to stop thinking about.

But I also said that whatever fear can do, love can do. And that is also absolutely true.

The difference is: you can't weaponize love.

You can't force someone to act lovingly toward someone else. Or even toward himself. You can't coerce someone into doing for someone else. You can't pound a message of love into the heads of a mass audience and get them all to live it out the way that you can bombard the human spirit with fear and threat and disaster and get the same response.

Love is trickier. It's not a "natural instinct" the way that fear is. You don't have to teach anyone how to be afraid; we're wired for fear. We're wired for self-preservation, not other-preservation. We're fight-or-flight, and at the slightest hint of threat, you've got our attention. It's the way that we're made.

Love has to be chosen. It's a conscious decision. It's something you have to think about if you want to put it into action. Love thinks of others all the time. It stands in front of a mirror and can only see the community standing behind it. It's the most bizarre of all things; you just can't explain it.

It's true that love could get us to do all the things that we're using fear for right now. Love could get us to stay home just like fear does. (In fact, many of our churches are claiming this very thing - that it is our love for one another that has us closing our doors right now.) But love doesn't inherently do this; it only does it when we choose for it to.

Fear...is naturally isolating. It separates us. It keeps us from connecting with those around us. Not physically, but relationally. When we are afraid, not one of us seeks out someone to be afraid with. We don't go out hoping to find someone who's just as scared of life as we are. In fact, most of us feel some measure of shame when we are afraid, and shame, too, separates us. It keeps us from being honest about what we're feeling. If you want to keep human beings apart, fear will do that. All on its own. It's the way it works.

Love...not so much. Love has us craving the other, seeking out community wherever we can find it. In a time like this, love is agonizing because in the very same breath that it convinces us that we have to stay home for the sake of the other, it can't stop thinking about the other and longing for connection. That's why love is harder. It requires conscious choice, deliberate action. We have to keep choosing it again and again and again. Can you trust a whole community of persons to continue choosing love when it's that hard? Inevitably, love draws us together, even when it's meant to keep us apart.

Actually, everything we are feeling right now draws us together. It makes us seek one another out. The anger, the sadness, the confusion, the exhaustion - though they seem negative, they build community. Because they turn us outward. Looking for affirmation, for vents, for comfort, for consolation, for clarity. They make us seek answers outside of ourselves. And that's another reason why we have to make space for them now, more than ever. Because all of these other things we're feeling will keep us seeking connection amid a fear that keeps us hiding, that keeps us apart. Our real human emotions will draw us together even when we remain six feet apart.

I wish that we lived in a world where love was just as strong as fear, where our natural inclination was turned toward love and not shame in times like this. Where love was enough to keep us apart, even while it has us craving connection. By human nature, we know it's not so simple; love is complicated in a way that fear just isn't.

And yet, you can't control love no matter what you do to it. I said that before - you can't weaponize it. You can't use it as a tool of mass compliance. You can't coerce someone into loving. But...neither can you stop them.

That's what we're seeing all over our world right now - love pouring out through the cracks, seeping out of our closed doors, reaching out with gloved hands. We're seeing the stories of communities coming together to care for one another, to make sure their neighbors are safe, secure, and have everything that they need. To feed each other. To encourage one another. To connect with one another across all spans of what is sacred space between us. And not one person, not one, is crying out that this is a bad idea. We all know it is the best idea.

You just can't "make" us do it.

That's the difference between fear and love. Fear is easy enough; we do it without a second thought. But after we've thought about it, we'll choose love. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

On Fear

We are in strange times, indeed. And one of the things that's coming forward in these times is just how important fear seems to be. The media want you to be afraid. The health officials want you to be afraid. The public wants you to be afraid. Everywhere you turn, they are reminding you how quiet and deadly this virus is, reminding you of all the things you can never know about it, reminding you that what should be first and foremost on your mind is the damage you could cause to others without even knowing it. You're supposed to be afraid.

And if you should happen to say anything about having another emotion, even one, during this time, there's a whole panicked public out there who will be quick to shout you down and remind you that whatever else you're feeling is small beans compared to the fear that you're supposed to have. Angry? So what? Others are terrified to leave their house because they might die. You'll just have to deal with anger; others are afraid. Sad? Too bad. Think about all of those who are scared witless right now. That's how you ought to be. Tired? Boo-hoo. Confused? Big deal. None of that matters. What you're supposed to be is scared, and the world wants you to know that that's the most important thing.

In one sense, this matters. Fear keeps us safe. It keeps us compliant. If we're scared, then we're going to stay in our houses the way that they want us to. If we're scared, we're going to wash our hands more. If we're scared, we're going to think about others - maybe to protect them, but definitely to protect ourselves. Fear keeps us vigilant, and if we have to be vigilant to be safe, then fear, it seems, is what we need.

It's false, of course. Fear isn't the only thing that would keep us vigilant. It isn't the only thing that would keep us compliant.

Love would also do that.

But I digress. Can I tell you a secret? Most of us are having mixed emotions amid all of this pandemic stuff. We're scared, sure. But we are also angry. We are sad. We are confused. We are tired. And one of the ways that the church can respond in this time is to make room for this whole range of emotions, to create space for the human element amid the infectious one.

It's perfectly natural for us to be angry. We're angry because our lives have changed. We're angry because others aren't taking the same steps that we're taking. We're angry because others are being selfish and hoarding all of the basic necessities that we all need. We're angry, as one meme circulating says it, because we feel like a classroom full of schoolchildren who keep losing more and more recess because one or two kids can't follow basic instructions.

We're sad. We're sad because not everyone cares about our grandmother the way that we do. We're sad because we're watching fear in the eyes of our loved ones, and there's nothing we can do about it. We're sad because real human beings are dying, and in some cases, they are now living on the other side of the glass from their loved ones, unable to have the basic comfort of not being alone. We're sad because we're watching our neighbors go without.

We're confused because there are a lot of numbers thrown at us that don't always make sense or that we don't understand. We're confused because there's a lot that we just don't know right now, maybe more that we don't know than we do. We're confused because we're all locked in our houses by ourselves and can't see what's happening in the world except to turn on the news, and it's hard to have a grip on something we aren't actually seeing. One pastor friend recently asked, "Does anyone even actually know anyone, personally, who has been infected?" The comments were always 3-4 degrees of separation. When we are sheltered away from what's happening, it's only natural for us to be confused.

We're tired. We're tired because it already feels like forever, but we know it's only just begun. Some of us are tired because the things the world is just now starting to think about are things we've had to think about our whole lives, and just when we've fallen into our own rhythm of it, the world has come to screeching halt. We're tired because we're talking ourselves blue in the face, trying to get through to those who just refuse to listen to anyone at all about anything. We're tired because we're clinging to what we know while others are spouting whatever they can find from any ol' unverified source and confusing everyone all over again. We're just tired.

And you know what? All of these things are perfectly normal. They're all fine. There are probably some I missed, and you know what? They're normal, too. We are dynamic human beings, not static creatures. Living in this broken world affects us. It has an impact on our very soul. Pandemic included.

What we need to do, and what the church (Christians) are better poised to do than any other, is to create space for these emotions, too. We need to stop shouting down what is human so that we can force everyone to hold onto fear. Trust me, it's not necessary. We're scared. If we're not scared of the pandemic, we're scared of the panic. We're scared of the uncertainty. We're all scared of something.

But we're also human, and we're feeling a lot of other things, too. As Christians, we know that our God is big enough to handle all of them. We know that He has given us this range of emotions because it is essential to our being human. It is necessary for our sacred engagement with the world.

The world runs on fear, but that doesn't mean that we have to. Even in times like these. Let's create the space among us to be human again. To be afraid, yes, but to be more than afraid. To be angry. To be sad. To be confused. To be tired. To be whatever we are, whatever is coming out of our very unique hearts.