Practices for Disturbing Times

January 21, 2021

Apparently year 536 beats out 2020 as the worst year ever. Among other things, a volcano in Iceland plunged the earth into darkness and climates so cold that crops wouldn’t grow. A bubonic plague killed a hundred million people. Ash covered everything. As disturbing as 2020 has been, however, I’m not eager to set the record for worst year ever. Still, it’s been troubling enough that you almost worry for folks who don’t seem disturbed by it, if you could find any. 

In the midst of it all, Christians hold on to knowing that God is with us, among us, alongside of us. Embracing this conviction may comfort us, puzzle us, encourage us, and guide us. Let me suggest four practices that may help us even while we’re dismayed. 

The first is simply to explain. We generally try to explain things so that we can understand them, or adapt to them, or even try (vainly) to control them. Some kinds of explanation can help us. With the coronavirus, for example, it can help us to understand what it is, how it acts, and what we can do to combat it. Apart from misleading information, we can learn enough to help us know how to live well while the virus is around. 

In disturbing times, some Christian folk seem eager to offer unhelpful explanations. One approach is to say that God sent this because you’ve done something wrong. This shows up predictably, often with predictable voices,  in every crisis. It’s a kind of mechanical application of ideas of curse and blessing. It’s the sort of explanation Job’s “friends” offered him. “This is awful, Job. You’ve obviously done something wrong, so you had better repent and get it over with.” Of course, one of the main points in the Book of Job is that his friends were wrong. That this mechanical explanation misses the mark. Please understand here. If you need to repent because you’ve eaten too much shrimp wrapped in bacon or you’ve gotten tattoos wherever (see Leviticus for other possibilities), don’t hesitate. Take care of it. But speaking mechanically like this about how God is at work is misleading. 

Another misleading, but predictable, explanation is that we’re facing the end times. It’s not just that I’m cynical since I’ve already missed the end of the world at least several times that I know of. It’s also that we don’t have the information we need to figure that out, and we’re not supposed to. Such alarming explanations don’t help us live more wisely or faithfully. 

A second practice is to complain. But here I mean something more than whining about masks, social distancing, and varied inconveniences. No, I don’t like them either. Instead, we can enter into the confusion and pain of complaining to God. In the Psalms we call this the lament song, and there are lots of them. At root, the laments grow out of the root of believing God is here. So the singers cry out “Why?” “Can’t you hear?” “Don’t you care?” “Can’t you do something?” “How long, O Lord?” Typically these songs include a confession of trust along with the cries of bewilderment and pain. Having these psalms teaches us that we don’t have to brave-face it before God. Instead, we can pour out our distress to the God who is with us, who understands and shares our trouble. 

Another helpful practice is to live with wonder. To wonder is to accept, however uneasily, mystery. It is to live without knowing or being sure of answers to the circumstances and questions that trouble us. As the Book of Job concludes, Job gets a glimpse of what he doesn’t know of God, who, for all of Job’s faithfulness, is beyond his understanding. He sees creation itself acting with a freedom in which God delights. And we know from the Prophets and elsewhere that people can act freely and badly in ways that God does not send or control or like. Sometimes we are tempted to say too breezily or too simply that God is control. We can fail to embrace the mystery in God’s presence and sovereignty. Wonder helps us live with mystery. 

Finally, I suggest we listen. Even in small things and in subtle ways God faithfully guides us as we pay attention to nudges, clear directions, and gentle whispers. Listen: how is God acting among us? how can we share in what God is doing? out of  all of that, in what particular ways may God be inviting each of us to act? I’ve been impressed by how many in our community are responding with simple acts of kindness, of being present, of helping others get what they need, of raising a voice in the public square. We each have ways of joining with God who with us, actively working to heal, to restore, and to open new realities.




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