I was working night shift. It was one of those rare nights when everything was utterly still. Even the godless felt the quiet was sacred, and no utterance of “it’s so quiet” or “hey isn’t this great?” is allowed, lest it be snatched from our bosoms by the supernatural powers that gave it.
It is not just any night shift, it’s a university hospital ER. Most nights are blazing with the fire of human need and impatience, with rivers of stress, chaos, and crisis wounding all the souls therein.
We are living in the tranquil still that God alone in his massive hands can bring forth. None of us takes it for granted. One is doing shopping on amazon. One is simply breathing. I am doing what has become a cathedral of pleasure for me.
I keurig a cup of coffee, always seeing if any nurse friends need to caf-up beforehand, and proceed to the quietest part of our three-sky-rise facility. I pick a classic jazz album – usually something by Coltrane, grab my kindle and seriously reflect back the relief of it all back toward my God and King.
It is still. So very still, that I can enjoy my thoughts, can feel like life is worth the clamor of humans who are in desperate need and you are the only one who can help them. It turns then from the heaviest of all weights to a reminder of how privileged a role this is. To speak comfort to someone who is about to die, or who has just lost a friend, mother, or partner.
It is a privilege to be the hand of God’s justice against abusers of the disabled, of helpless children, and of the elderly. The one whose legal role is to make that call to the Department of Children and Families, that is no burden but a privilege.
It is a privilege to find the family of one who was in a traumatic car wreck, to find transportation for the one who needs to back to their Skilled Nursing Facility, or to a psychiatric hospital so they can keep from harming themselves. It is even a privilege to pay for the multi-hundred dollar cab ride back to the hospital that transferred someone here when we had no intention of admitting them from our ER.
But when you are swept away in a river of these things. With no context of why you are there and why a thousand thousands need you now. It is easy to forget.
It’s improbable stillness, a jazz album, and cheep coffee that empower this realization. Most of all its a God who puts a face on this good providence for me to thank him that makes this moment beyond the natural.
“THESE are the times that try men’s souls…Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.
Thomas Paine, “The American Crisis,” 1775.
I am writing during the worst worldwide pandemic to have beset the postmodern age. Tens of thousands have died, over a million infected, and whether the virus is as dangerous as is said, only Providence will tell.
During days of cloud, gloom, when we find little encouragement from circumstance or headline, where can we look for hope? As a Christian, I know that we – the people of the earth – are not the first to face storms even as severe as this.
Augustine of Hippo saw such calamity as the Roman Empire – the stability of East and West – crumbled before his eyes. Even those of us who have not been touched by the Coronavirus, have, like Augustine, heard of the threat to all we have known and relied on, humanly speaking, from afar. Like the Vandals that sacked Rome, and advanced gradually closer to Augustine’s home, Africa, we also hear of this invisible threat of disease creeping toward those around us.
Reading an article by famed historian David McCullough he argues history ought to find the prime place in our dealing with the present
for the specific and realistic reason that all problems have histories…the wisest route to a successful solution to nearly any problem begins with understanding its history.
The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For (Simon & Schuster, 2017), p 20.
He notes the US blindly entered the Vietnam War without considering the stories of those periled nations that tried to subdue the nation before. Thus ensuring our own addendum to that list of failed invaders.
Returning to the present, what do I mean by looking to history to find hope? More than just milking the ancients for strategies or helps, the advantage of looking backward for nourishment is you find the darkness is quite common, and the road you think no one has tread is well-mapped. As Solomon states, there is nothing new under the sun:
9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.
We are to look to the example of those before us, who faced peril. Samwise’s words in the film, The Two Towers, distill this perfectly:
Frodo : I can’t do this, Sam.
Samwise:It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?
But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.
But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back. Only they didn’t, because they were holding on to something…
Frodo : What are we holding on to, Sam?
Samwise: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.
There is something to be contended for even today. There is a humanity to preserve by staying at home – or, for healthcare workers, to keep going to work with every precaution to save the afflicted.
For the Christian there is a hope that whatever happens with COVID-19, of the most dire, to the happily e’re after, the jewel of the secular world – a true utopia – is given freely by faith in Christ. Yet we must live in 2020 – Coronovirus central. For now, our hope can be found in those saints and sinners who trekked out a world as much or more uncertain as our own.
CS Lewis, in defending academic study while the earth was engulfed in a Second World War, stated,
“Human life has always lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil…turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies.”
Weight of Glory, “Learning in Wartime,” p. 50, (HarperCollins, 2009).
Lewis recognizes calamity, not tranquility, is the most common state of our world. Pax Romana – the peace afforded by the Roman Empire’s dominance for 200 years – was just as fleeting as our own stability is today.
What can we say by looking at those footprints already made on these dark paths? There will be a bright tomorrow. We will greet our friends and family. Those who have suffered will be comforted, and the weak will be strong.
Until then, look back, friend. It is bright in the midst of the gloom of those who came before you. You can find their path through weakness to be a light that guides you home.
For many, a cup of coffee is something sacred. You don’t need to be the religious type to be convinced.
In the liturgy of life, a routine more ingrained in us than centuries of masses and services, we pour or buy what is a symbolic of comfort and help.
I have an invitation to those who drink that comfort food. Paul the apostle invites us into something bigger than dopamine/beta-endorphins flow to the head when we “eat and drink or whatever you do” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
With all the revisiting of the preachers, teachers and thinkers of old, we rarely explore soli Deo gloria (for the glory of God alone), experientially.
We, if at all, obey Paul’s exhortation by declaring “I’m going this for God and his glory.” If, however, that glory is so majestic as to be worthy of our most insignificant activity (eating and drinking), then should we do so in name alone?
Here is the application from Paul: Take your coffee, and pray as long as you can over it. Lord, say you in the morning or at the start of the night-shift, “make this a partaking of your glory.” Say you, “let me both partake in a way that gives you glory, and of which I may see you in splendor.” And, “let me literally, taste and see that the Lord is good.”
If you persist in this, seeking first the Kingdom of God even in the morning routine, you will invite God into the nooks and crannies of your day. You will become a God addict. You will crave his presence in mopping floors, wiping diapers, and making dinner.
There is much talk among those whose spiritual gift is killing trees about the heresy of a secular sacred divide. But how many of us do something about that, and ask the Lord for invasions into our coffee conversations, our English assignments, and the most despised of duties.
This is our God. His eyes search the earth for those who want nothing but him. “One thing I have asked for,” says thirsty David, “and that will I seek after.” What, David do you desire? What is it you search after? “To dwell in the house of the Lord, gazing at the beauty of the Lord in his temple.”
Is this a call to monasticism? A study of the life of David disproves that notion. It is a call to live a life saturated with God, from day-job, to family life. Therefore man or woman, adolescent, or senior, consecrate your coffee, soda, homework, parenting, and every sort of task to the Lord.
Learn the lesson of David, “in your presence is fullness of joy.” That doesn’t mean he sat in the Tabernacle day and night. It means his whole life was saturated with the presence of God. Come and see.
The film, A Hidden Life (2019) depicts a true story of Austrian conscientious objector, Franz Jägerstätter, during World War II who refuses to pledge allegiance to Hitler when drafted into the Nazi army. His story is simultaneously sad and beautiful. Never have I seen death painted with such hope, joy, and glory.
In the midst of COVID19 – also known as the coronovirus, I call to mind the Christian discipline of mortality. Christians are called to immitate their Lord in death – it’s what baptism symbolizes after all – a death to what was (sinful flesh) and a resurrection with Christ in a new renewed life (the new birth).
The New Testament paints the Christian life as a seesaw between these two realities, on the one hand a constant dying to self and the remnants of that old nature, and a renewal that comes through that death.
In Western culture, an anemia surrounds mortality. It’s not polite conversation to speak about death, for in a secular mind it is the beginning not of heaven but nonexistence – the worst of all possibilities. Unfortunately, dying well is no longer considered a virtue in much of the Western Church. Sermons peppered with frivolity, and the spirit of the age which assumes we live forever infects more of the church than the coronovirus has infected mankind.
Returning to the film, Franz, the objector, grounds his resistance in a simple understanding of moral conviction in the gospel and he stays there despite seasons of doubt, discouragement, and desertion by his townsfolk, and family. His death is colored – literally – by the director with scenes of fruitful plants and greenery. It seems that God’s watering of the earth symbolizes the unconquerable nature of life. Though the Nazis took his body, they could not take his life.
Dear Christian, I say to you death where is your sting? In the midst of chaos, real or imagined, you have a hope which, should you venture to stand in it, cannot be robbed. While all others cower, you may be like the confessors of old – joyfully going toward the cross which unites us with joy incarnate – Jesus our Lord.
This is not a tragedy, like Jägerstätter’s passing was no tragedy. It becomes a fragrance which moves the heart of God, and tearfully cheers the spirit of the Church.
“The evil spirit answered them, ‘I know Jesus, and I recognize Paul – but who are you?’ Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them, overpowered them all, and prevailed against them, so that they ran out of that house naked and wounded. When this became known to everyone who lived in Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, they became afraid, and the name of the Lord Jesus was glorified. And many who had become believers came confessing and disclosing their practices, while many of those who had practiced magic collected their books and burned them in front of everyone. so they calculated their value and found it to be fifty thousand pieces of silver. In this way the word of the Lord flourished and prevailed.“
This is the account of a revival that took place in Ephesus in the 1st Century. Revival, of course, of a great movement of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, to save and sanctify people. Isn’t it interesting what Luke, the author of the above passage cites as the reason for the revival? A demon possessed man assaulting some half-rate exorcists.
There are about a thousand accounts of this in the Scriptures and on the pages of Church History. In 1733, a prostitute living in Puritan New England made greater waves than many fiery sermons. A preacher in the town writes:
When she came to me, I had never heard that she was become any wise serious [about following Jesus]…what she gave me an account of, was a glorious work of God’s infinite power and sovereign grace; and that God had given her a new heart, truly broken and sanctified.
The speaker, a pastor, worried the conversion of a woman of her sort might make the people in the town more bold in their sin. Instead, he writes,
But the event was the reverse, to a wonderful degree. God made it, I suppose, the greatest occasion of awakening to others, of anything that ever came to pass in the town…The news of it seems to be almost like a flash of lightning, upon the hearts of the young people, all over the town, and upon others.
Much like the lonely Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel, whose testimony results in the conversion of her whole town, God is pleased to take the tax collectors and prostitutes and make them the glittering jewels in his holy crown. They are the unlikely spark struck at just the right time for the gospel’s power to explode into darkened lives.
The town seemed to be full of the presence of God; it was never so full of love, nor of joy, and yet so full of distress, as it was then. Our public assemblies were then beautiful: the congregation was alive in God’s service, everyone intent on public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth.
Do you wish for an awakening? Let us ask for the unlikely sparks, for perhaps we are too respectable to be unbridled flame.
In the monotony of life, most of us chase the escape. There is Netflix, Prime, Hulu for couch surfers; Kindle, Indie Bookstores, and Barnes and Noble for the word thirsty; museums, theatres, and cinemas for the art-savvy. While some would rather Yosemite, or Yellowstone than read or watch – most of us have an escape.
It’s understandable why that might be. Man born of woman is few of days and full of trouble. But what do we escape to? What relief do we find in these stories, paintings, and landscapes of beauty?
In the pages of a book, one can live outside of one’s self. You can go places no person can. In the movies, one can celebrate the triumphs of characters whose essence is more beautiful, strong, or powerful than we.
The problem is not wanting to disappear into stories, for the Creator endorses that. The problem is viewing our lives as something other than stories. I don’t just mean our lives are stories like biographies are stories – one event turning into another, into another affecting a person over time. Rather, I mean a story being written with intent by an author, a story with meaning. Do you see yourself that way? As a character in a story?
It can be a hard thing, for we have a whole genre of stories called tragedies, and if our lives are being written by a divine author, then so many of our lives are of that type. But what if life being a tragedy depends on when the timeline ends? What if we reorient the arc of the story on a different timeline? MLK Jr. popularized the quote, the “arc of history is long but it bends toward justice,” – are we different?
One’s account of World War II could burden one’s soul if the account ended with Hitler conquering Paris in 1940. But what if the account ends with Hitler’s timely end and the surrender of Germany on V-E Day, 1945? Whether a life is a tragedy, or even a success story, depends largely on where we stop telling it.
Moreover, the way we look at life depends on how we see it as sweet or bitter. In a passage known as the Hall of Faith is a striking account of a group of people:
they were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Others experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.
These are the people commended by the author. To end the story there is certainly hard. Among the greatest heroes of the Christian faith are those who despaired and left the world with rags and sorrows. But the timeline continues past the grave. These people banked on a life which doesn’t end with their last breath. They had hopes and dreams – some realized, some not. But their bridge to a better world – and a happier ending – was through faith. The tragedy was they were crushed and afflicted without visible fulfillment. But God says this:
These all died in faith, although they had not received the things that were promised. But they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth.
These folks above who wandered in goatskins and lived in caves. They realized what they were looking for was not self-realization, but home – or more specifically – a homeland. They redefined the nature of a triumph story:
they are seeking a homeland. If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. But they now desire a better place—a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
The word homeland there is actually “fatherland” (πατρίδα). You can just pick up and move to Canada and become a citizen. But you can only go home to Canada if you’re from there and are going home.
You see, life is either the story of craving to maintain this crumbling existence (of which we will all be robbed by death), or it is the story of the “craving” (earnestly seek after – “ἐπιζητέω”) of fatherland by which we will pay all to regain.
One is the tragedy. One is happily ever after. This is a Choose Your Own Adventure Story. When you find yourself in sheepskins because you’ve chosen to live a life of faith, your story does not end with a breath, but pivots on a resurrection.
Richard Dawkins has a new book out recently attempting to persuade young people to jettison belief in God. Dawkins is an evangelist of sorts for the restless sort of atheism which is discontent with widespread belief in God(s) – but mostly the Christian God.
I don’t believe in the things that Dawkins compares with God: unicorns, leprechauns, or fairies – but I’m not publishing books on how or why not to believe in those things. If belief in God is safely far on the right of ridiculousness, then why is Dawkins continually making a career of evangelizing persons into unbelief? I contend Dawkins is what I was as an atheist – haunted by the Christian God. He [God] ever lives in the conscience of unbelievers never allowing them to live in full moral freedom, always reminding their sub-conscience of their rebellion and need for forgiveness. They can never forget the God who empowers their very life.
This isn’t merely a lone hypothesis of an amused believer: psychological studies show atheists, and agnostics often choose unbelief not after a critical examination of the “evidence” for God, but because of psychological disappointment in a God. The thing they accuse believers of is the real determiner for so many: emotion. Further, this emotion often exists in the form of anger toward God.
Some atheists and agnostics reported anger involving God, particularly on measures emphasizing past experiences (Study 2) and images of a hypothetical God (Study 3). Anger toward God was associated with poorer adjustment to bereavement (Study 4) and cancer (Study 5), particularly when anger remained unresolved over a 1-year period (Study 5). Taken together, these studies suggest that anger toward God is an important dimension of religious and spiritual experience, one that is measurable, widespread, and related to adjustment across various contexts and populations.
Exline JJ1, Park CL, Smyth JM, Carey MP; Anger toward God: social-cognitive predictors, prevalence, and links with adjustment to bereavement and cancer. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2011 Jan;100(1):129-48. doi: 10.1037/a0021716.
More evidence follows:
Our interest was piqued by an early study of anger toward God among undergraduates (Exline et al., 1999), which revealed a counterintuitive finding: Those who reported no belief in God reported more grudges toward God than believers. At first glance, this finding seemed to reflect an error. How could people be angry with God if they did not believe in God? Reanalyses of a second dataset (Exline, Fisher, Rose, & Kampani, 2004; Kampani & Exline, 2002) revealed similar patterns: Those who endorsed their religious beliefs as “atheist/agnostic” or “none/unsure” reported more anger toward God than those who reported a religious affiliation. Further analyses identified a group of conflicted believers (or slipping believers), all of whom had previously believed that God exists (or might exist) but no longer believed at the time of the study. When compared with believers, these individuals reported more anger toward God. These findings raised the question of whether anger might actually affect belief in God’s existence, an idea in line with Novotni and Petersen’s (2001) clinical descriptions of emotional atheism.
Worthington, Everett L. Handbook on Forgiveness (Routledge: 2005), p 79.
So atheists: you’re not fooling anyone – and certainly not God. Romans 1:21 states this clearly:
For though they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became worthless, and their senseless hearts were darkened.
I have compassion on atheists. In some sense they have their lives robbed from them by a blinding devil, a straying heart, and a world that cheers them as they follow suit. They can have no moral rest from the God who haunts them until they acknowledge him. If you lived in an atheistic universe, you could have rest. Since you live in God’s universe, you have the huge opportunity to come to the God who answered our disappointments and dejections with an invitation:
“Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”