Friday, April 17, 2020

When panic gives way to drudgery

You're tired of the pandemic. Your habitual ways of dulling pain–Netflix binges, a second glass (bottle?) of wine, constant snacking–have stopped feeling like an escape and are starting to feel like a problem. It no longer feels urgent to check the news multiple times a day, though some of us still do it. I see (and feel) it happening like you do.

I heard an interview recently with a man who had been at the center of the SARS epidemic in China a few years ago. When asked what that lockdown experience was like, he said it was six weeks of intense fear followed by months of drudgery. He expressed a concern that we are moving these days from panic into drudgery.

What do we do now?

Most of life is lived in the face of drudgery. The adrenaline-laced moments are few and far between. We live most days putting one foot in front of the other.

Here are four tactics you can use to navigate the mind-numbing drudgery of these days:

1. Don't forget there's a monster under your bed. The pandemic is still a real thing, in spite of the fact that we all collectively want to move on. The challenges are still real. Your fears for your loved ones may not feel as urgent, but they're still hiding deep in your gut. Remind yourself that you're still in this struggle, and how you deal with it is important.

2. Clean the kitchen. Pick one chore, or a short list, to accomplish today. Don't plan to redecorate your entire house, but pick a few manageable things to finish. When you finish the dishes, mentally pat yourself on the back and take a minute to appreciate the cleanliness. It won't last, but seeing that you've accomplished something is its own reward.

3. Put the ice cream back in the freezer. You don't have to give up all your painkilling behaviors, but remember: When you numb pain, you also numb joy. Limit how much you indulge. A day a week, consider "fasting" from your favorite painkiller. It will hurt, but you might also find that you can feel joy and excitement in a new way as well.

4. Learn to play the ukulele. Choose one small skill and learn it. Decide that when this pandemic fades to memory, you are going to be better, faster, stronger, in one concrete way. Then, a little bit at a time, pursue that strength. If you are slightly familiar with another language, decide you're going to get a little more fluent. If you've always wanted to know the Bible better, read a chapter a day.

Finally, and this is important, give yourself a break. Be gracious when the frustration and panic rise to the surface again. Be gentle with yourself when you need it. Talk to a friend, watch a clip of your favorite comedian, go for a walk. Life is still very good. We're just settling in for the long haul, and it's still challenging.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday

I have been struggling this week with the fact that it is Holy Week, and this morning more sharply than ever that it is Good Friday.

My deepest experience of these markers, these holy days, is corporate. I am used, as the psalmist says, to being in the grand procession into the house of God.

Make no mistake: the great heresy of American Christianity is its individualism. We make salvation all about me and my solo standing before God. Jesus died for me, we say, and we rejoice in that. Rightly so. Posters and memes proclaim that if you were the only person ever to have existed, Jesus would still have died for you. There is a sort of theological truth in that.

But biblically speaking, Jesus died for the sins of the world. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, and that's a big group. And in our collective need, in our communal brokenness, in our shared sinful state, Jesus redeems not just a gaggle of individuals but a community. A church.

Our redemption is corporate. I have returned many times in the last few months to the word "redeem." The only non-theological use we have for that these days is for coupons. Does anyone clip coupons anymore? Cut out that piece of paper and turn it in at the grocery counter, and voila! 75 cents off on your Cheerios. Have you ever read the fine print on a coupon? Usually there's a statement somewhere in that four-point font that says something like "cash value 1/20th of one cent." Let's be realistic: most of us don't get excited to pick up a penny off the ground. And this coupon is worth one-twentieth of that. In other words, this is just a worthless scrap of paper. But when I turn it in, the grocery clerk and I agree that it has value. I get a discount on my cereal.

That's what redeeming means. It means to give value to something that was formerly valueless.

So when Jesus redeems us at the cross, it means that he takes what was valueless and declares it to be valuable. Us. Jesus' death confers new value on you and me.

I've been embarrassed lately watching our corporate antics in the headlines. Donald Trump flip-flops in his daily press briefings. Bernie Sanders pulls out of the Democratic primary race (why did that take so long??) and immediately his followers get militant about how much they don't like Joe Biden. News agencies unabashedly use the current pandemic as a foil to sway public opinion toward one political pole or other. Otherwise intelligent people keep insisting that if their political party was in power, life would be so much better. Hordes of hoarders are collecting, of all things, toilet paper. We are a sad bunch, all told.

Jesus' death redeems us. It takes what was of little or no value and confers on us great value. We are precious because the death of Jesus says we are precious.

Good Friday is at the very least a call to raise our sights. It is a call to begin to live as though we are precious to the Lord of the universe. It is a call to fix our eyes on him, to let his love, joy, peace, and patience move us to that which is excellent and praiseworthy. It is a call to go beyond our self-focused individualism and learn to live as a church, loving one another and reaching across the divides of social distancing to pay attention to the least, lost, and lonely. Only this kind of corporate love, this kind of community, helps us to live in the consequences of what Jesus has done for us.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Seeking God vs. seeking his blessings

Oswald Chambers is one of my favorite conversation partners. I don't always agree with his reflections on following Jesus, but he's always forceful and always makes me think.

There was a lot in this morning's reading from My Utmost for His Highest and I won't recap the whole thing. One of the many phrases that made me pause (and reread) was this:

Darkness comes by the sovereignty of God.

Think about that in the midst of this current pandemic. In the midst of social distancing. Quarantine.

What does it mean that darkness comes by the sovereignty of God?

Well, start with what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean God is punishing you. It doesn't mean God is angry. Truth is, we tend to gravitate toward the most pleasant option rather than the most needful option. So we have to consider the possibility that God is allowing hardship (or at least challenge... few of us are really experiencing hardship) for a greater good.

What greater good might that be?

Let's start here: Begin with the assumption that God's agenda might not align with your current self-interest. Be honest. Self-interest is notoriously fickle and well, self-centered. I want a pony. I want a million dollars. I want to eat whatever I want and still be trim and fit. I want...

What if God's agenda is for you to have exactly what Jesus said: Life. Abundant life, not by your definition but by his. Then we need to ask the question, how does Jesus define abundant life? Here's the closest he gets in the gospels, and it's not a bad definition:

This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

(That's John 17:3, by the way.) Knowing God, and knowing him in his fullness through Jesus, is life. Notice that it doesn't say "leads to life." Jesus says knowing God IS life. A=B. The two are one and the same.

Let's be honest. Most of our Christian agenda is built around self-interest. We preach family values because we want to have strong families. We subconsciously (or consciously) craft our churches to fit what's most comfortable for us. Even our theological definition of the gospel (accept Jesus' death on the cross so you can go to heaven when you die) is based on self-interest.

What if life really means knowing God?

That would mean instead of viewing our circumstances through what's best (i.e. most comfortable) for me, I need to ask in each moment how I can know God better.

If we try this point of view on, we find the Bible pops open in a new way. Suddenly we start reading all over the place that this is exactly what God desires. God wants us to know him. God wants us to seek him, not our own salvation. In fact, we'd understand salvation better if we focused on knowing God.

So what's going on in your world today? Are you frustrated with quarantine? Are you anxious about an uncertain future? Are you freaked out by exponential rates of infection? Are you lonely? Bored?

What would it mean for you to turn to God and ask, "How can I know you better in this moment?"