The Freedom of the Christian

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I hear a lot of talk about freedom in our current pandemic situation where people do not want to accept mandates to wear masks or be vaccinated to hold a job or participate in a function. I don’t want to discuss that for the moment because I believe this reflects a different understanding of freedom than how I understand freedom as a Christian. When we discuss things from different premises, we often end up talking past each other–no wonder we disagree.

As a Christian, I understand freedom as freedom from and freedom to. Fundamentally the uses of freedom from in the Bible are either freedom from human bondage or freedom from sin. In the Old Testament, the outstanding case was the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Exodus 20:2, the prologue to the Ten Commandments says “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (NIV). Even here, we see they are freed from Egyptian bondage for a relationship with God.

The other form of bondage is that to sin. The singular “sin” refers to the fundamental approach that says to God, “not thy will but mine.” Bondage to sin means a life of running from God, living under the tyranny of self, broken relationships with others, and the abuse of creation, fouling our own nest as it were. In one of the most famous passages, often misappropriated, Jesus said:

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:32-36, NIV)

Jesus says elsewhere that the truth that sets free is “to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29) or in the immediate context, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples” (John 8:31). Jesus says real freedom comes in believing and obeying him.

That brings me to the freedom for. Real freedom is to be freed for right relationships: with God, with ourselves, with each other, and with the creation. Instead of rebelling against and running from God, we love God and believe that our highest joy is found in “knowing and glorifying God forever.” Instead of seeing ourselves at the center of the universe, we find that our greatest dignity is living as beings who reflect the character of the God who is. It is a great relief to realize that God is God and we are not. When I realize I’m not the center of the universe, I can get along better with others. When we accept that we are creatures entrusted with the care of a creation that belongs to the God who made us, we cherish what he made and seek its flourishing. We gain freedom from poisonous water, polluted air, unhealthy food, and, hopefully, a climate out of control. And other creatures of God gain their lives.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians may be called the manifesto of Christian freedom. Here is what he says our freedom is for:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

Paul says that our freedom in the society of people comes not in seeking our personal wants but rather seeking for our neighbor what we want for ourselves. He observes that self-seeking at the expense of others is an exercise in mutual destruction. It deeply troubles me that people cloak this disregard of neighbor in an assertion of personal freedom against “tyranny.” Paul wrote these words under the tyranny of Rome that would one day take his life. The use of “tyranny” in our context is an insult to the sacrifice of martyrs to real tyranny around the world.

As I think about our present moment, freedom means freely choosing to do all I can to protect others from being infected by COVID. Masks block the spread of the virus to others. The vaccine can sometimes prevent infection, or if not, make me less infectious to others. No one has to require these of me. If they prevent my neighbor from getting sick, even if I do, that is love for my neighbor.

These verses challenge me in my response to those who differ. My temptation is to belittle their decisions, which I believe endanger themselves and others. I think my belief warranted, but my belittlement or angry reactions are also indulgences of the flesh and a form of biting and devouring. Where I have done this, I am in the wrong.

But I do want to question my Christian brothers and sisters who refuse to wear masks or receive vaccinations, despite their safety, for reasons of personal freedom, to explain how this freedom takes precedence over the love of neighbor and the humble service of others. I would love to know how you believe this is both love of God and neighbor for which you have been freed in Christ. I honestly would like to understand how an assertion of personal freedom that puts at risk the freedom, health, and possibly life of another is consistent with freedom in Christ. In our present situation, I am deeply concerned that this especially puts the children Jesus loves, and those with other illnesses, at greater risk.

My discussion is not with those who do not share my faith commitments but with those who say they do, who say they follow Christ. It seems to me that you are embracing a worldly rather than Christian definition of freedom. My concern is that when we embrace the worldly, we move away from right relationship with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and the world. Instead of freedom, we return to an embrace of bondage. That is even more deadly than COVID. I dare to raise these concerns not merely out of concern about a disease, but out of concern that you renounce the freedom that is in Christ for a poor substitute.

Another Wave

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In May I wrote about “Coming Out of the Cave.” I wrote about some of the “normal” things we were starting to do. We’ve dined out and gone to public places without wearing masks. We booked a remodeling job in our home in October. I started making plans to sing with our choral group in the fall.

I wrote back then:

I hope we don’t have to return to the cave. But we don’t know what will happen with the virus. The worst nightmare is that it keeps getting more infectious and also causes more severe illness with high mortality rates. As long as it is out there, especially at significant levels, that is possible, especially with over half the country and much more of the world un-vaccinated. Because of that, I can’t think of a return to pre-pandemic “normal.” That is living in a dream. But like most of you, I will enjoy a bit more life outside the cave this summer.

What I hoped would not happen has. The Delta variant is sweeping through the country with huge rises in cases. It is at least 2 1/2 times more infectious as original COVID, and while the vaccines are very effective in preventing hospitalization and death, they are less so, in preventing infection. As one of the “over 65” crowd, my immune system isn’t as strong as younger people, and even a number of them who have been vaccinated have had “breakthrough” infections. Most of these are mild, but one doctor described mild as a bad cold or a case of the flu. That doesn’t sound great. A booster shot will help, but there aren’t any yet, and it will be some time. The six-month mark when the vaccine may begin to wane comes around the end of September for me.

So what does that mean? I will continue to worship with our “masked” church and resume wearing masks when I am shopping indoors. I will seek outdoor or take out dining. Indoor gatherings with large numbers where I don’t know the vaccination status seems really iffy. Long exposures mean enough exposure to this more infectious virus that may be more than my immune system can handle.

Looking at the infection curves of the previous waves, it appears waves take five to six months to wax and wane, peaking 2-3 months in. Officials are saying October will be bad. That would be about right. And maybe it will wane by January–if something new doesn’t come along.

I find myself both angry and sad. Fundamentally, I’m angry because this doesn’t have to be. While vaccines never provide complete protection, a high vaccination rate would make it much harder for this variant to take hold. I’m angered at the misinformation campaigns that have persuaded people that the vaccine is far worse than the virus, which is just plain wrong. The long term debilities and the deaths resulting from this are on them, and on the public officials who cave to them. I’m angry that those asserting their “freedom” end up making others less free and possibly sick.

And I’m sad. I’m sad for our economy, which will never fully recover until COVID is suppressed. I’m sad for all those like myself, who because of risk factors need to reconsider all the things we had just begun doing. Most of all, I am sad for all those who will die or get very sick who did not need to. I’m sad for kids who are getting sick because they can’t get vaccinated and the adults in their lives won’t. It all seems such a waste. I’m sad that we are so divided over this even in a time of crisis.

I’m not sure if I will sing with our choir (if they are able to). The choir is requiring proof of vaccination. But it is not clear that we will mask, and singing has been proven to be a very effective way of spreading COVID. Do I hope that no one is infected with a breakthrough infection, and that vaccinated people are unlikely to spread infection? [Update: In the 24 hours since I wrote this the CDC has announced that vaccinated persons who are infected do shed the virus in significant amounts and can infect others.] There is a lot we don’t know. I also have to think about my wife, who has had some health issues.

I’ve concluded that I can’t change anyone’s mind about these things. Given our divided state, and the challenge of vaccinating the world, I believe we will be dealing with COVID for a long time, as the virus keeps mutating and circulating. I think we will have alternating seasons of relative normalcy, and others of infection spikes. I will keep paying attention to infection rates and gauge my behavior appropriately.

And my faith? I will not “test” God by exposing myself to possible infection on purpose or recklessly. Nor will I presume that anything “protects” me–masks, vaccines, anything. I will use these means as gracious provisions of God to reduce my risk of infection but my trust is in God, not means. My trust is in the God who already has numbered my days. I believe I will live as long as God gives me life. I will do all I can not to be a source of infection to others.

While I’ve enjoyed life out of the cave, I’ve also discovered in the last year the richness of days shared with my wife, a good conversation with a friend, times with vaccinated friends and family, the beauties in my own backyard, and the delights of a good book. Philippians 4:12-13 is more real to me now than ever: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Whether COVID waxes or wanes, and I believe it will continue to do both, Christ continues to be the one who gives me strength. And that is enough.

Review: Candles in the Dark

Candles in the Dark, Rowan Williams. London: SPCK, 2020.

Summary: Weekly meditations by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, written for his parish church from March to September 2020, during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We all remember when life as we knew it ended as lockdowns and stay at home orders were issued to curb rising COVID infections. For many of us it was around mid-March 2020. On March 26, the day of the Feast of the Annunciation (remembering the appearance of Gabriel to Mary announcing she would bear the Christ child), former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote the first of a series of meditations addressing what it means to live in faith, hope, and love during the pandemic. On that day, he wrote:

“And as we contemplate the coming months, not knowing when we can breathe again, it’s worth thinking about how already the foundations have been laid for whatever new opportunities God has for us on the far side of this crisis. The small actions we take to protect one another, to keep open the channels of love and gift, volunteering, if we’re able, to support someone less mobile or less safe, finding new ways of communicating, even simply meditating on how our society might become more just and secure–all this can be the hidden beginning of something fuller and more honest for us all in the future.”

Rowan Williams, pp. 2-3.

Over the coming months, ending September 17, 2020, Williams wrote weekly meditations for his parish church, collected in this compact book. Each are two to four pages in length. He reflects on our anxiety when our usual outlets for productive activity are gone, of treasuring relationships because of the experience of aloneness, the giving of the Holy Spirit that reminds us we are not God, and of seeking justice for those disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

One of my favorites, on the Feast of St. Matthias (May 14) celebrates this apostle whose greatest accomplishment lies in taking the place of Judas Iscariot. Williams emphasizes the hidden heroism he represents of those who faithfully show up. Another, written on August 6 was especially meaningful. Williams notes that this is both the day the first atom bomb was detonated with deadly results over Hiroshima, and the day of the church’s celebration of the transfiguration. In the first we see the dark face of humanity. In the second we see the radiant face of “infinite love of beauty,” the face of God in human flesh and know there is yet hope for us. I was born on August 6 and I feel this contrast, so beautifully articulated by Williams, has framed my life.

His posts do not all address pandemic-specific realities. Many, like the examples noted above, are connected to the church calendar. Others simply address contemporary realities like the reduction of our individuality and dignity before God to algorithms. Another is simply on meditative walking–something some of us have had time for. He writes with a measure of caution about the current trend of tearing down statues, which merely reflect what is true of all of us–people who got much wrong and a few things right. It may be right to remove a statue, but there is no room for smug superiority in doing so.

This is a sparkling collection of writing that reflects not only the pandemic but many of our contemporary concerns. I found myself wondering what Williams would have written during the horrendous wave of infection that came after the close of the book. What would his reflection have been about stubborn variants and vaccines? I hope he has continued writing. The book ends only part way through the journey, offering helpful direction for how we might live as people of faith both in this and more ordinary times. He recognizes this in his epilogue and recalls his opening reflection. He asks if we have grown through the solidarity forced by our common plight.

It is a question worth considering if we believe that the call to trust and follow Christ is to grow in Christ-likeness until the day we see him. We may feel with vaccines and the rescinding of health orders (at least for a time) that this is “over” and we can move on. If we simply want to forget, does it reveal something about the kind of people we have been through this time, with which we are uncomfortable? It is not too late to reflect on how the pandemic has shaped our life of faith, hope, and love, and make course corrections where needed. If we do not consider William’s question, we may find ourselves on a course that takes us away from Christ, and from solidarity with the human community. Williams’ book reminds us there are candles in the dark for those looking for light.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Coming Out of the Cave

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It feels a bit like climbing out of a cave. Since the middle of March 2020 we have basically been sheltering at home. Not utterly, but pretty close. We have grocery shopped, bought take out, and only gone to other stores during periods when infection curves have dipped. Our main in-person interactions have been plein air painting with art friends, a few outdoor visits with our son and daughter-in-law, and doctor and dental visits. I am one of those fortunate who can work at home and, thanks to good internet, have had tons of interactions with friends, and even those I’ve not talked to for years.

We’ve stayed healthy, by the grace of God. Simply being the age we are is a co-morbidity, so this is a blessing. We’ve followed the health advisories. And we’ve been fully vaccinated for over a month.

We’re taking our first tentative steps out of the cave. A few more shopping outings. Painting with our friends. This weekend we celebrate Mother’s Day with our son and daughter-in-law who are also fully vaccinated. We expect to hug them for the first time in fifteen months. Unmasked. We have a few other such meet ups on the calendar with vaccinated friends this month. We’re having a crew in to do radon mitigation on our home (something probably most homes in Ohio need–it’s just the geology). We’re starting to plan the bathroom re-model we’ve been using our stimulus checks to save for.

It still feels a bit weird and awkward. We’re not ready for indoor dining at restaurants or other larger gatherings where not everyone is vaccinated, especially indoors. I wish I could figure out how to help those who won’t accept vaccinations understand that this fact alone restrains me, and I think others from engaging in many gatherings, especially where mask-wearing is intermittent. There are counties in my state with low vaccine acceptance and higher infection rates. They depend on tourism and we’ve obliged in the past. Not now. You want me back? Get vaccinated and get your COVID rates down.

Have you noticed the new dance when we talk about getting together? We often mention when we reached our full immunity date as do others. Then we know we’re “safe.” I wonder what the etiquette is when someone is not vaccinated. Do we just ignore the risks (more to them, really) and feel awkward.

Our church has not met in person but will start to do so this summer. It’s a place where there has been high vaccine acceptance. Still, it will probably feel a bit strange at first.

I hope to catch a Clippers baseball game this summer. Enjoying America’s pastime on a summer evening in the open air ranks among my favorite things. There will probably be a few more trips to bookstores. There are some in the area I’ve not been to that I’d like to check out and write about. And if things keep getting better, I hope to rejoin my local choir in the fall.

You can tell we’re still on the cautious side. This all still feels provisional. We wish we could just get the whole world, especially the poorer parts, fully vaccinated, so this virus would run out of hosts that offer it opportunities to multiply and mutate. Until then, we run the risk of variants that break through the protection vaccines currently offer, and the variants spread fast in our global village. I don’t think of vaccines as making us virus proof. They make us harder to infect. But with the vaccine, we will start edging out of the cave and doing some of the things that are less risky to us now than before.

I hope we don’t have to return to the cave. But we don’t know what will happen with the virus. The worst nightmare is that it keeps getting more infectious and also causes more severe illness with high mortality rates. As long as it is out there, especially at significant levels, that is possible, especially with over half the country and much more of the world un-vaccinated. Because of that, I can’t think of a return to pre-pandemic “normal.” That is living in a dream. But like most of you, I will enjoy a bit more life outside the cave this summer.

Pandemic as Dress Rehearsal

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OK. I’m just going to put it out there. I am convinced that the pandemic is a dress rehearsal for a more serious challenge that makes infection control, treatment, and a global vaccination campaign look like child’s play. The challenge is our rapidly warming planet and the ways it will change and imperil life on our planet, the only one we have.

An article from 2013 states that the last time CO2 levels on earth were as high (then 400 ppm, recently as high as 420) was before we humans were around. The oceans were 100 feet higher, the arctic was a tropical paradise. Since 1800, planetary temperatures have risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit, on average, and far more in some locations. The evidence of a changing climate is evident in rising sea levels, melting glaciers all over the planet, more extreme storms in some areas, drier, prolonged drought and fire seasons in others. The growing season where I live is at least two weeks longer than when I moved here 30 years ago. In some places, summer temperatures have hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit, levels that challenge human habitability. Coastal cities globally face inundation.

At this point CO2 outputs continue to rise as the rest of the world catches up to the US in outputs, and likely global temperatures will follow. If the permafrost melts, large amounts of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas, will be emitted, further accelerating global warming. Now some forms of life survived while others died during this previous time of high CO2 levels. One thing that is clear is that some people will die from heat or famine or flooding. Many others will be displaced and what will happen when they (or we) try to share the remaining habitable places. We haven’t even begun to reckon with other creatures on the earth. Even if we make the requisite effort to reduce CO2 output to “net zero” by 2050 or earlier some of this will happen. If it is not evident yet to everyone, I believe we are facing an existential threat.

It is one that:

  • Threatens our very existence.
  • That will wreak significant global devastation even if we take the necessary actions, which may mitigate but not eliminate the consequences of what we have already done contributing to global climate change.
  • Will require significant changes in the way we live.
  • Will require concerted efforts to address the primary causes of CO2 emissions–cows, coal, and petrochemicals.
  • Calls for a shared ethic of pursuing the common good.
  • Cannot be accomplished without global cooperation and coordination.

Do you recognize the parallels with our global responses and sometimes lack of responses to the coronavirus? I think the verdict is mixed. We did mount a global scientific effort to study the virus, sequence its genome, and develop highly effective vaccines in record time. Efforts to mitigate the virus’s impact worked to a certain extent, more in some countries than others. In the US where personal freedom is more highly valued than acting for the common good, these efforts have faced a tug of war between public health and personal freedom that has led to an acceptance of infection rates, hospitalizations, and deaths that have outpaced the rest of the world. At this point, there are great inequities of vaccination rates reflecting distribution of vaccines in various parts of the world. Meanwhile the virus continues to mutate becoming more effective in spreading itself, especially in parts of the world where it can continue to spread unchecked, which imperils us all.

The thing is, we have seen human beings at their best and worst through all of this–selflessly caring for the very sick in ICUs and hoarding toilet paper. We’ve seen the capacities of researchers to study something that was novel and learn immense amounts about how it infects and spreads and effects the body and where it can be attacked in the space of a year. Medical personnel have made major advances in treatment. And we’ve seen it turned into a political football, where nearly every insight into prevention, treatment, and the safety and efficacy of vaccines has been contested.

It makes me wonder how we will respond to the coming climate challenge. Now some of you don’t buy that this is really an issue. I do. Truthfully, I’d rather you were right. I respect you if you think differently. But I would hope you might think about the “what if?” Because if “what if” turns out to be true, this will be one of those situations where we either choose to “hang together or hang separately.” We can choose to listen to our better angels and work for the global good. Or we can choose a “survival of the fittest” (and the richest) ethic in a hotter and less hospitable world. Ultimately, what happens to the earth is beyond me. But what kind of person I will be as we face these challenges is not. At this juncture of the pandemic, it seems time for me to consider how I’ve played my own part in this “dress rehearsal” for the greater challenge before us.

My Thoughts on Receiving the Vaccine

This picture was taken moments after receiving the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine on March 9. We were sitting in the parking lot outside the Celeste Center at the Ohio state fairgrounds for our fifteen minute wait after receiving our shots from the efficient volunteers working with the Columbus Health Department. As I reflect on all this, I find myself filled with a profound sense of gratitude to God in so many ways:

  • For those volunteers–EMTs, nurses, and other health professionals serving on their day off.
  • For our local public health officials, who organized this vaccine site and have provided invaluable health advice throughout the pandemic.
  • For genetic sequencing technology that made it possible for scientists around the world to have the complete genome of the COVID virus, the operating instructions that make the virus work.
  • For the researchers who invested years in their academic training and long hours in vaccine research.
  • For new vaccine technologies, including the mRNA technology that helped reduce the time to initially make the vaccine and is tailored to activate my body’s immune response to the spike proteins on the virus that enable the virus to infect us. From what I hear, it is also easily tweaked, as the virus mutates.
  • For the regulatory agencies like the FDA that ensured that the vaccine is safe and effective through the standard process of testing the vaccine.
  • It is amazing that it is over 90 percent effective. Flu vaccines are typically 40-60 percent effective. The hopes with COVID was a vaccine that was 50 percent effective.
  • For both the Trump and Biden administrations who facilitated the development, production, and distribution of the vaccines (although companies did not receive payments from the government until vaccines were delivered). Despite the highly partisan nature of our politics at present, both parties and administration contributed to this amazing effort.
  • For our state’s governor who has wrestled with the hard decisions balancing lives and livelihoods throughout the pandemic, and opening vaccination to all adults a month ahead of the president’s target. We can argue ways it might have been done better or differently, but I’m thankful for not having to make those decisions and our governor’s willingness to make hard and sometimes unpopular decisions. That is good servant leadership.
  • I’m grateful that we are already seeing lower case numbers, lower hospitalizations, and lower death numbers, especially among our elderly population (and I hope we all team up to keep it that way).
  • I’m grateful for the possibility in the next week of being able to share a meal in person with vaccinated friends in safety.
  • I’m grateful that because of the vaccine that even if I should be infected, it is far less likely that I can infect others. Throughout this, my concern is less that I’ll be infected than that I could infect and be the source of serious illness in someone I love.
  • Perhaps above all, I find myself in wonder afresh that the vaccine and the research that produced it is an expression of what it means to be created in the image of God and given dominion under God for his creation. It means the capacity to create vaccines that subdue viruses. I see vaccines like the one in my arm as yet another way in which we were made to glorify God and love our neighbors.

Finally, as I mentioned, I’m glad for a chance to do something tangible to love my neighbor. I see vaccines (like masks) as not so much about protecting me as protecting others. Because of the requirements of social distancing and our age, we’ve not been able to do things with people. We’ve found other ways to care, but it is nice to do something physical and not virtual that makes a difference.

Side effects? They’ve been minimal for both of us. I had a sore arm for a day or so after–like most vaccines, and was a bit tired the night of the second shot. My wife had a bit more–tiredness for a couple days and a rash near the injection site that disappeared within three days–all within the range of normal.

As I’ve noted previously, I’m not into vaccine arguments. I studied the information and made my personal decision a long time ago. Now I’ve acted on that decision. I’m won’t argue with you about yours. But I will give thanks that I could make the decision I did.

Review: God and the Pandemic

God and the Pandemic, N. T. Wright. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2020.

Summary: Reflects both upon our quest to know “why the pandemic?” and how we should then live.

Many of us have tried to make sense of “why the pandemic?” For some, we’ve resorted to conspiracy thinking, pointing to this country and that, this political leader and that. For some believing people, the response has been to see this as a retributive plague, God paying us, or others, back for their sins. This idea of retribution has a long history, expressed most tellingly in the friends of Job who contended that Job’s losses and sufferings had to arise from some sin in Job’s life from which he needed to repent.

N. T. Wright argues quite differently in this short book, easily read in an evening. Considering Job, and other situations, notably the condition of Israel enslaved in Egypt, the appropriate response was not “repent” but “lament.” Lament is the cry of dependence that doesn’t understand the why, but looks to God for both strength to bear up and for deliverance. It is the cry of “how long?”

Wright turns to Jesus and the telling scene at Lazarus’ tomb. He doesn’t engage in theodicy. He weeps, entering into the deep grief of the world. And then, foreshadowing his own work of the cross and the empty tomb, he bids Lazarus to come forth. In his ministry, the “sovereignty” of God, the coming of the kingdom is evident in the works of healing, the restoration of what was broken. This work culminates in his own crucifixion, death, and resurrection.

In the apostolic preaching, it is not natural catastrophes, famine, and plague around which the call to repent comes. It is around the person of Jesus, the one who preached, “repent for the kingdom of God is near.” The kingdom was near because Jesus was near. Then Wright turns to Paul and Romans 8 which he considers most significant for our response as Christ-followers. Noting our love of the beginning and ending of this chapter, he invites us to consider some of the less cheery verses of Romans 8:22-27

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (New International Version)

Wright comments on what this means in practice:

“It means that when the world is going through great convulsions, the followers of Jesus are called to be people of prayer at the place where the world is in pain. Paul puts it like this, in a three stage movement: first, the groaning of the world; second the groaning of the Church; third the groaning of the Spirit–within the Church within the world. This is the ultimate answer to those who want to say that the present Coronavirus crisis is a clear message from God which we can at once decode, either as a sign of the End, a call to repent, or simply as an opportunity for a standard kind of evangelism.”

He then turns to Romans 8:28 which he would contend may be best translated, “God works all thing towards ultimate good with and through those who love him.” Instead of speculation around sovereignty, Paul invites us to follow Jesus in the good work God would do in, with, and through us during this time. Practically then, Wright bids us to both pray where lament is prominent, and act in the manner of Jesus to care as appropriate to our station. He reminds us through a poem of Malcolm Guite written on Easter of 2020 and reflecting on the applause given health workers in the UK each Thursday that Christ is not locked down in locked down churches. A short excerpt:

On Thursday we applauded, for he came

And served us in a thousand names and faces

Mopping our sickroom floors and catching traces

Of that corona which was death to him:

Good Friday happened in a thousand places

Where Jesus held the helpless, died with them

That they might share his Easter in their need,

Now they are risen with him, risen indeed.

Malcolm Guite, Easter 2020, as cited by N.T. Wright

N.T. Wright wrote this book in spring of 2020. I’m curious what he would say today, after waves of infections, contentious debates in many countries about the measures to be taken, and the rancorous discussions on the internet. What is striking to me is his call to prayer and self-giving service is not one I’ve heard among Christians. We’ve deferred the latter to healthcare workers (many who are people of faith) who have the proper gear. There has been precious little prayer, perhaps only at the point when we learn of a sick friend. We are now in a season where the hope is that the virus will recede with the advent of vaccines and there is this unquenchable thirst to return to normal. I wonder if Wright’s book might be a good source of self-examination for us, helping us ask what kind of people we have been during the pandemic, and what kind of people will we be coming out. Will we be the contentious and the conspiratorial? Or will we be the prayerful servants of Christ, his hands and feet in the world?

New Year Reflections

December Vectors by Vecteezy

Happy New Year!

I find myself coming into this year saddened, grateful, waiting, and hopeful.

Saddened: So many lives ended too soon by COVID-19, including at least one friend. The divided state of our nation that can’t even agree on something as simple as wearing masks, that can’t unite around a common enemy in the form of a virus. The deepening unsettling recognition of how deeply engrained racism is in our country and my own complicity. I grieve today for Andre Wells and Casey Goodson from my city who won’t see the new year. I grieve for a warming planet and the existential threat that we refuse to face. I grieve the culture of deception and the death of truth in a grave of universal suspicion. I wish all this would have ended with 2020. The trouble is that time passes, but we carry these things embedded in our lives. I’m not pleased with what I’ve seen of myself and as I move into the new year, I want to look at what God wants to change in me.

Grateful: Quite simply, I’m grateful to be alive, for each and every day. With so much closed down and so many at home, I’m grateful for all the conversations I’ve had with friends during 2020–so many I’ve not spoken with in years. Our church hasn’t met in person since March yet I’ve been touched by the mutual care we’ve practice from prayers to porch fairies with bags of groceries for shut-ins. We’ve still been able to serve a community through a garden, a food pantry, school supplies and Christmas gifts and winter clothes for children. I feel our pastor has been touched by God to speak into our hearts to help us all live through this time. Significantly, so far, none of us have been sickened. There has been time to read, to think, and to realize that we don’t need to shop and eat out to be entertained. I’m grateful for deck, patio and driveway visits with our son and his wife. We’ve enjoyed plein air painting with friends and participating in a virtual choral work. I hope I can learn the lessons of gratitude and its companion, generosity, in 2021.

Waiting: Our pastor spoke honestly and thoughtfully this past Sunday about waiting, and that waiting would continue to be part of our lives in 2021. This year, and these past weeks of Advent, have taken me more deeply into how waiting is so much a part of my faith–the coming of the Savior and his good rule. It has made me long more deeply for that coming. I do struggle with knowing those for whom waiting is difficult–businesses going under, those wrestling with depression–I don’t see easy answers as long as infections are high and we must “hunker down.” I also know of stories of many who have stood by those who wait, whether with patronage and GoFundMe campaigns, or simply by being present. This time of waiting, particularly as we look toward vaccines and the hope of a return to some kind of new normal, can also be a time of taking stock of what we have learned. I suspect there are some things we might not go back to, and some things that will be all the more precious. I want to use the time of waiting both to wait with others and to discern what God’s invitations are as we come out of this.

Hopeful. I am hopeful for the impact of the vaccine. I’ve seen vaccines eradicate other diseases. I know some of the scientists who have worked on these vaccines and believe they can make a big difference in suppressing the disease if we work together and accept the vaccine when it is our turn. But ultimately, I’m hopeful because of my faith. My hope in the resurrection leads me to hope for many mini resurrections. Creative new work arrangements, new businesses and rejuvenated ones, new educational methods, and hopefully new initiatives toward racial justice in our country and my own city. Will the lessons we learned about reducing energy use be ones that lead to permanently reducing our carbon footprints? And like many of you, I’m looking forward with hope to many of those deferred celebrations, all the sweeter because we’ve had to wait so long.

This blog is in its eighth year. I am so grateful for all of you who take time to read and comment, some of you regularly. It’s been a place of sharing so many favorite things: good books, important ideas, and great memories of Youngstown among other things. Lord willing, we’ll get to do a lot more of that this year. I will leave you with a thought I came across recently in Louise Penny’s A Rule Against Murder:

We’re all blessed and we’re all blighted, . . . . Every day each of us does our sums. The question is, what do we count?”

I do wish all who read a Happy New Year. Stay safe and count well…you all are dear to me!

Thanksgiving in a Pandemic

Image by hudsoncrafted from Pixabay

“Rejoice always,  pray without ceasing,  give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NIV).

There is one imperative that hasn’t been hard to follow during the COVID pandemic. I’m constantly hearing of people to pray for who have tested positive, are sick, and maybe very sick. Equally, I hear of many who are struggling with isolation and depression from months of physical distancing from others, and the sheer length of this virus.

Rejoicing and thanksgiving? That is harder, and were it not for some prayer practices that my work team follow in the collegiate ministry with which I work, I probably would not do much of this. Thank you, Carrie and Kathy, for this. But it is hard. Monday night I learned of a long-time acquaintance who worked in Student Life at Ohio State who passed from COVID. His smile will no longer light up any room he is in, nor will students know the care of this big bear of a man. As I write, Ohio topped 10,000 new cases in a day and set a single day record for COVID deaths.

How can one give thanks amid all this? I certainly cannot give thanks for it. That would be cruel and heartless and perverse.

Paul’s urging is to give thanks in all circumstances, not for them. He writes to a church that has faced intense persecution in an empire where Christians were not a legal, recognized religion. And life for many in these times was often nasty, brutish, and short.

Paul’s urging to give thanks is situated in the middle of passages that speak of Christian faith and hope, between the faith that assures one of God’s saving work in this life and the one to come, and the certain hope of that coming.

This leads me first to be thankful both for the life in which I enjoy God’s love and approval and that I’ve nothing to fear in death. Because I treasure the life in which I can live out that faith, I heed the measures that offer protection from getting sick. I don’t practice these out of fear but thankfulness for public health officials who offer this advice. If, despite this, I get sick, I am at peace.

I give thanks each morning when I awaken healthy, and at the end of the day.

I give thanks for all the public officials and health care workers who care for those who are sick, sometimes despite public resistance, and often putting their health on the line.

I give thanks for first responders, grocery and other frontline workers who are at greater risk, who serve us, many at relatively low wages.

I give thanks for my wife, and that I do not live alone during this time. Her daily companionship and the ways we help each other when we get too obsessed with the news, helps us both to keep a sense of proportion

I give thanks for the small blessings of daily life, meals prepared and shared with each other, working together on home projects, de-cluttering, and maintenance. Not going out so much gave us the time to work together on those tasks we avoided–like the first cleanout of our garage in ten years or more.

I give thanks for my son and his wife. I admire their good sense throughout the pandemic without any expressions of parental concern. We won’t be together for Thanksgiving or Christmas (apart from a drive-by outdoor gift exchange). We’re grateful for outdoor, physically distanced visits from time to time and that they have also remained healthy.

I give thanks for our church. We have not met in person since early March but I feel, if anything, closer as I pay attention to the prayer lists and stay in touch with a number of individuals. And it might be that I pay even closer attention to our pastor’s sermons when he is staring me in the face on Zoom!

I give thanks for the glorious sunsets I’ve seen on walks during these months. I’ve thought of some time posting a photo spread of the sunsets of the pandemic.

I give thanks for the glorious music I’ve listened to (and the chance to be a part of one virtual recording) even while I miss our local choral group. We all have recognized more clearly than ever the treasure of singing together.

I give thanks for the opportunities to join our plein air group in safe, outdoor painting outings this summer and online gatherings with artist friends.

I give thanks for books (of course!). I’ve kept company with writers like Hilary Mantel and Marilynne Robinson. I’m thankful for publishers who usually say “yes” to review requests. As always, I’m thankful for the incomparable Byron and Beth Borger at Hearts and Minds Books. I’m so thankful for all my book-loving friends who help turn reading into a community conversation.

I give thanks for meaningful work encouraging emerging scholars as they connect faith and their academic calling. I get to write, edit, and interview people far more intelligent and gifted than I. This old dog keeps learning about various social media platforms, web analytics, marketing. Everyday brings conversations with a variety of partners inside and outside our organization. Fortunately, I am able to do all of this at home.

The pandemic has taught me in new ways to focus on all the things we have and may do, even in a time of loss. Perhaps confronting so much that I cannot control has challenged me to greater prayerfulness throughout the day.

By God’s grace, next year’s list may include so much we’ve had to leave aside. There is so much I look forward to be “over with.” But I don’t want to forget either those we’ve lost or the particular goodness of God in these times. Most of all. I am thankful and rejoice in the unchanging and certain hope our faith affords us. As we sit down to dinner today the abundance on our table will reflect the abundance in our hearts and lives.

Pandemic Fatigue

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

What day is it? They all seem alike. I haven’t been out to eat at a restaurant since early March. I haven’t hugged my son and daughter-in-law since early in the year. All my conversations, except with my wife, are on Zoom, except for brief exchanges when I’m out for walks in my neighborhood. I miss singing with my choir–except for virtual recordings (I did last night). I hadn’t reckoned on this going for seven months, and perhaps that many more.

I don’t think most of us did, and it is hard on all of us.

And it is very tempting to just say, “I’m over with this.” Can’t I just throw a big football party with all my friends? Or celebrate Thanksgiving with lots of friends and food?

And then I remember I’ve made it through seven months. We are in our sixties, and that is good news. By God’s grace, we haven’t gotten sick when others in our age group have gotten very sick. We personally know of people who have died–our age or younger. Perhaps you do as well.

I’m also reminded of life challenges that have lasted into years. And there were times when I wanted to throw in the towel. Caring for a parent with terminal colon cancer. Walking through each parent’s final years, the calls in the night (never good), the emergency trips home. There was a graduate degree while working a full time job with a young family. There were the half marathons I ran. Walking with my wife through close to a year of cancer treatments and recovery. Working a number of years to accomplish work goals that couldn’t be done in a year.

I’ll bet you have stories like that. You were tired. You even were tempted to quit. Why didn’t you? Those memories and the answer to why you didn’t quit might be important in your life right now. It might be your love for someone else who was dear to you. It might be a goal that answers to a deep calling in your life. It might be a faith that believes goodness and truth triumph in the end.

What practices sustained you when you had to say “no” to many good things in life? Maybe it was a few quiet minutes with some music and a glass of wine. Maybe it was a walk in the park. Maybe you read the Bible or said your prayers. Reaching out to a trusted friend with whom you can be your unfiltered self. And you kept doing these things as you were able.

While none of us have gone through a pandemic before, many of us know what it is to go through hard things that aren’t over in a few days or weeks. We know what it is to be fatigued, and find the resources to keep going.

And if we haven’t? Then this is our time to develop the grit, the resolve, the stick-to-it-iveness that will serve us well in any other challenges we face in our lives. What story will you tell about this time?

Why does it matter? Because the infectiousness of this disease means the action of one could affect 10 or 50 or 100 others. In a highly individualistic country, it reminds us how our lives are inextricably intertwined. That party could result in the deaths of grandparents who weren’t even present.

Have you ever thought, “I’ve made it this far, I don’t want to lose all I’ve worked for when I’m getting closer to making it through.” We’re a lot closer to a vaccine than last March. We’re closer to when this virus will recede if not disappear.

As a Christian, I do not fear death. But my faith also teaches me that life is never to be thrown away heedlessly. These have been good months of reading and writing, communicating and planning, building and clearing out. They have been months of clarifying and simplifying. They have been months of trying new things. I’ve been fortunate to work, and work as hard in many ways as any time in life. They are months for which I’m glad I’ve been alive. By God’s grace I hope to be doing these things for a while yet and I want to be around when we can gather and party and sing again–without masks.

I want that for you as well. Let’s hang in there together.