Our Soul Pandemic

Our country is in the midst of a pandemic, a plague that is crippling both citizens and society. I am not talking about COVID-19. The virus that I am thinking of has a much wider reach, but it is not our bodies that are getting sick, but our souls.

In light of COVID-19, our world has drastically changed. Nearly everything that we do has been touched by the virus–our economy, our social lives, our religious observances, our mental health. As the weeks pass, our fragmentation becomes more obvious. As stresses build, those dark parts of us rise to the surface and they play out not only in our homes, but across social media which, it seems, is now our principle form of connection.

This pandemic of divisiveness and hatred dwarfs COVID-19 in both its effects and its reach. Although many of us may not get COVID-19, if my Facebook and Twitter feeds are any indication, many of us have been showing symptoms of hatred and division, more and more each day. Unfortunately, we are a whole lot better at seeing these things in others than in ourselves. We are much more capable of justifying our anger and name calling in the name of justice. When we have no doubt that we are correct, everything is permitted.

Just in the last few days, I’ve seen people I love calling Governor Evers an idiot or, alternatively, President Trump. I wish I were immune. I’ve seen boatloads of misinformation disseminated, but we believe these “facts” because they come from “our side’s” media outlets and experts. We use this misinformation to justify our righteous indignation. Suddenly, it seems that all of us are experts in virology, epidemiology, economics, and constitutional law.

Friends, this hatred, animosity, and division is killing us. Anger can make us feel alive, but too often it is stoked by toxicity. Many of us are thoughtful about the food we consume, trying to keep our bodies healthy, but we allow these viral thoughts to take hold and our souls get sicker and sicker. I pray we begin to wake up to the effects this soul pandemic is having.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Galatians 5 recently, which is one place where Saint Paul contrasts flesh and spirit. In each of us, there is this battle between flesh and spirit and they do not lead us to the same outcome. Starting in verse 19, Paul identified a number of “works of the flesh,” which are opposed to a Spirit-filled life. I won’t mention all of them, but I was struck by “enmity, strife, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, and divisions.” Sadly, this list seems to characterize so much of what I read every single day. Paul is clear that these things do not represent the Kingdom of God. But he also said that when we are walking by the Spirit, there are different evidences in our lives. A Spirit-led person shows love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, not perfectly, but I believe in increasing measure.

I invite each of us, myself chiefly, to regularly ask ourselves, “Who am I? Are my thoughts and actions characterized by fits of anger and division, or am I increasingly gentle and peaceful?” This soul pandemic has a cure, love.

God,
The evidences of fragmentation and division are growing day by day,
both without and within.
You call us to peace, but we are in turmoil;
you call us to grace, but we are full of judgment;
you call us to love, but hatred consumes us.

We are a double-minded people.
How can we be for peace when this war rages within?
We do spiritual violence to others and ourselves
when this plague of strife takes hold.

We are afraid.
We are angry.
We are confused.
Too often, we let our flesh lead,
forgetting both who you are
and who we are.

Forgive us.
Heal our hearts.
Make us whole.

John 14:18

“I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you.”-John 14:18

To be an orphan is to be vulnerable. An orphaned child is at risk for not receiving physical needs such as food and shelter, but just as importantly, relational and attachment needs. If a dependent child loses her primary caregiver as an infant, she will lack basic necessities such as food, water, and shelter unless another caregiver steps in. Because she lacks the ability to care for her own basic needs, she is at risk of physical death.

Yet the risk of relational loss is equally catastrophic. Humans are first and foremost relational. We exist for relationship with God and others. In fact, we cannot know ourselves if we do not know who we are in relationship. 

Jesus told his disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans.” He knew that they needed him. They would be able to provide for themselves physically, but without God, they would be left relationally hollow.

When we fail to believe in God’s never ending love, we fear becoming too much for God, afraid that that eventually he will say “you disgust me, away with you.” But God is always present to us, and he will never leave us alone.

Jesus, I know that I need you on a moment by moment basis, but sometimes I forget and lose sight of you. Help me to remember that it is I, and not you, who wanders off. Forgive my wandering heart and draw me back to you again and again. Amen.

John 14:3-4

“And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may also be. And you know the way to where I am going.”-John 14:3-4

Jesus was leaving, but he was also coming back. His disciples could not clearly see God’s plan for redemption; they had only heard that he was leaving. For those of us who grew up in the West in the last 100 years, we don’t have a great sense of someone going on ahead to prepare a place, but generations past knew. A father would leave his wife and children behind while he went on to establish a job and a home. Although the immediate loss was difficult and painful, the future home offered so much more promise. 

Yet don’t miss one detail here. Jesus did not say to them “I will come again and take you to my home,” even though he was telling them about his Father’s house. Rather, he told them, “I will take you to myself.” Jesus knew that their deepest longing was for him, not stuff.

If we are honest with ourselves, many of us like things—nice cars, large libraries, or beautiful homes—but material possessions do not fulfill our deepest need. We are tempted to chase after second thing blessings, but when we place our hope in those things, we are left wanting more. C.S. Lewis said, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first & we lose both first and second things” (2007, p. 111).

What we all most deeply desire is relationship: First, union with Christ, and second, though no less important, relationship with others, which is why in the Father’s house, the value is not in the stuff, but the people who are there.

Jesus, I am so often out of touch with my deepest desire, which is relationship with you. I chase after many other things, hoping for fulfillment, but stuff never satisfies. You never promised stuff; you promised yourself. Help me to rest in the reality of my union with you. Amen.

To Gather

Write 31 days, day 29
Writing Prompt: Together

For several months,
I have dreamed of a time
to gather.
A coming together
to share stories or song.
A place where we could talk about
truth and goodness and beauty.
A place where all is welcome
whether it be joy or sorrow,
lament or celebration.
A community without hierarchy,
but where all are equally valued,
where we choose to set aside
offense, conflict, and division for a few hours.
A forum void of correction, but filled instead
with listening.
A place where we remind ourselves
of the goodness and beauty and creativity
of God.

For reflection: What constitutes a good gathering? 

Listen

Write 31 days, day 13

Writing prompt: talk

I chewed on this word several times today, looking for something clever to say. All I kept coming to was this:

Let your words come to a stop.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Then listen and keep listening.

Our world desperately needs our ears more than our mouths.

Reflection: sit in silence for ten minutes. Practice the spiritual discipline of not having to have the last word.

True Love’s Welcome

Write 31 Days, day 6
Today’s Prompt: Belong

Today, I wrote a brief reflection on the Trinity, inspired by the 15th century icon The Trinity by Andrei Rublev.

On a clear day, I saw them from a long way off. At first, I could barely make them out. From such a distance, I could not say whether there were three or one as they seemed to blend into one another. As I drew closer, they came into focus, the three seated around a small table. At first glance, I struggled to tell them apart; thankfully they each wore different robes.

Watching them kindled a longing I had never felt before. Intimacy flowed between them. There was no sense of posturing, no one-ups-man-ship. They genuinely delighted in being with one another. So often, with meetings of more than two, cliques begin to form. Two will buddy up tighter than the third. Not so here. They each reveled not only in the others, but even in the connection between the other two. I was seeing love embodied.

As I continued to gaze upon them from my safe distance, tears wet my cheeks. Never before had I witnessed something so beautiful. In that moment I beheld perfection. Oh, to be loved like that! To experience such divine intimacy. It touched upon every desire I had ever felt. Yet I remained outside, hidden.

I intended to sneak away quietly. To interrupt them would be to intrude upon perfection, and I was unwilling to disturb what they had with one another. As I raised up to leave, they looked my way. I expected irritation, but saw delight. I expected disappointment, but they exuded joy.

As one, they beckoned, “Come join us.”

“I couldn’t. I wouldn’t want to intrude,” but every part of me resisted my own words.

“We’ve been waiting for you. There is already a place at the table,” they said invitingly.

“But as I have watched you, I have witnessed perfection. I fear that if I join in, I will diminish perfection.”

“Friend, nothing you have ever done, thought, or said can diminish us. Rather, our love will envelop you. You belong. You have always belonged. You were created for no other purpose than to be in fellowship with us.”

And, hoping against hope, I took my seat and felt true love’s welcome.

My Grandma’s Table

31 days of writing, day 5
Today’s prompt: Share

Lately, I have been contemplating the church trend of life groups or small groups, which aim to function as spaces for shared life and faith. Like much that happens in the modern church, these groups often feel mechanistic and forced, though considering our frenzied lives, perhaps we believe it to be a necessary pressure.

I don’t remember anyone from my childhood participating in a small group. Instead, I recall people living in close proximity to one another. Their focus was not life groups, but simply life. Neighborhood kids played together until past dark. Men would gather at the Knotty Pine or at Hill Farm, to drink coffee and shoot the bull.

For me, my life group met around my grandmother’s table on Sunday mornings. It was a round wooden table, nearly always cloaked with a white table cloth, for the wood underneath showed the signs of age. There were more chairs situated around the table than its small diameter could reasonably support. First Reformed Church, just one block to the west, released at 10:00 and First Presbyterian Church, directly across the street, a half-hour later. Uncles and aunts, cousins and friends, would trickle in and out over the next couple of hours, bodies stacked two deep around the perimeter of the small dining area.

My grandmother never failed to provide the necessary staples—hot coffee, orange Kool-Aid, saltine crackers, soft butter, and cheese spread. Other delights also regularly found their way to the table–molasses cookies, blond brownies, or summer sausage. But without fail, there was always coffee and conversation. Sometimes, I would go the whole week without seeing these people, but come Sunday morning, we met for our “life group.”

I think we miss something precious when we live life by curriculum. I ache for those times around that table; we talked about nothing in particular, and in so doing, we talked about everything.

For reflection:

What do you remember about your childhood gatherings? Where do you see organic community occurring today? 

A Place of Gathering

Christ’s table is a place of gathering
a place where the broken find restoration
the lonely find communion
the empty find fulfillment
and sinners find grace.

Have we forgotten this?
Have we forgotten that Jesus
ate his last meal with
Thomas the doubter?
Peter the denier?
Judas the betrayer?

Not just that he ate with them,
but that he longed to eat with them?

By his words and actions
he communicated
“You belong.”

Do we?

The Hardest Thing…and the Easiest

And above all these, put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.-Colossians 3:14

An expert theologian once asked Jesus, “what is the greatest commandment of all?” Jesus told him that the greatest commandment was to love God completely, with heart, soul, mind, and strength. He also said that the second flowed from the first, to love others as well as we love ourselves (Mark 12:28-31). As I was pondering Jesus’s words this morning, I wrote in my journal, “This is the hardest thing in the world to do. It is also the easiest.” The difficulty in the command is that we live in a society of sinners who are at times difficult to love. We treat one another poorly. We act disrespectfully, if not hatefully. The easy part, if we are willing to see it as such, is that we aren’t really given exceptions, or situations where love does not apply. It always applies, but will I heed?

I have decided to stick with love;
hate is too great a burden to bear.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sometimes, I think we lose sight of the reality that our battle is not against other people, but against evil. The devil specializes in creating discord. He isolates us from one another; accusations and temptations carry so much more weight when we have to bear them alone. Yet, we turn on one another. In Galatians 5:15, Paul says that we “bite and devour” one another. Meanwhile, the devil grins.

Are you angry about injustice? Love.
Are you confused? Love.
Do you feel misunderstood, misrepresented, or maligned? Love.
Do you disagree with how another person is acting? Love.
Are you afraid? Love.
Have you been betrayed? Love.
Have you been a witness to evil? Love.

Regardless of your circumstance, seek to put on love. You may fail. All of us do. But keep striving, day by day, to love better. In God’s economy, love is worth the effort.

And above all, love one another deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.-1 Peter 4:8 (NIV) 

 

Intertwined

Under the sun
disconnection,
isolated life
relational strife.

Oversized homes
lonely souls roam,
seclusion bred
intimacy dead.

Living private lives
independence thrives,
we never bother
loving another.

Who did God create?
People to relate,
intertwined souls
mankind made whole.

-October 2017, home