Sept. 6, 2020
I think it is easy to feel lost in these times that we are living through now. It is easy not to know what exactly to think or who to believe. It is easy to feel hopeless about the direction we’re headed, angry while wishing we weren’t, polarized while lamenting the polarization, tired because it is all too much, maybe a little self-indulgent because there’s too much out there to deal with peacefully. The word, “unprecedented” has too much precedence, but in this case (and for me) these really are unprecedented times.
Projecting a bit on these times David Books in a New York Times op-ed article imagines the following election process scenario:
“On the evening of Nov. 3, Americans settle nervously in front of their screens to await elections results. In the early hours Donald Trump seems to be having an excellent night. Counting the votes cast at polling places, Trump is winning Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Those states don’t even begin processing mail-in ballots until Election Day, yet Trump quickly declares victory. So do many other Republican candidates. The media complains that it’s premature, but Trumpworld is ecstatic.
Democrats know that as many as 40 percent of the ballots are mail-in and still being counted, and those votes are likely to be overwhelmingly for Joe Biden, but they can’t control the emotions of that night…
As the mail-in ballots are tallied, the Trump leads erode. But the situation is genuinely unclear. Trump is on the warpath, raging about fraud.
Within weeks there are lawsuits and challenges everywhere. It’s like Florida in 2000, but the chaos is happening in many states at once. Ballots are getting tossed because of problems with signatures, or not getting tossed, amid national frenzy.
Trump says he won’t let Democrats steal the election and declares himself re-elected.”
Soon, certain people on the right take to the streets to reinforce Trump’s version of events. Likewise, others on the left emerge indigent and sometimes violent. It’s a massive political, social, and existential crisis in our nation. And, for Brooks it’s not simply an exercise in imagination; it’s an actual possibility.
I see it as an actual possibility as well, both as a result of the national discord that we’re in and as a reflection of just how severe it is. I don’t lift it up to incite panic or to encourage anyone to act out in fear. I share it though because I can feel its possibility and because I think it represents the kind of world we are responding to and seeking to applying our faith lives to.
What does it mean to live faithfully in such a world? What is the purpose and role of faith when a righteous vision of the future is so hotly disputed and when crisis is so widespread. I hear more and more that the answer is action. The role of faith is action. To a degree, that answer makes sense. Jesus was a man of action. He still is.
I question the usefulness though of believing that our faithful action is characterized by a particular set of legislatable results. And that’s not because I don’t feel that certain social and political decisions are more just than others; it’s because I think that when results alone become the focus of our faith and the point of our faith, a living God who colors the quality of our actions, the how of our actions, gets removed from our faith. When that happens the liberating joy of our faith is removed, the life-giving Spirit of our faith is removed, the peacefulness and love of our faith is removed. We’re left with our righteous goals alone.
There’s a danger in turning to the personal, to the individualized experience of knowing Jesus and his love. I’m aware of that pitfall of using God’s eternal embrace as the kind of affirmation that frees a person to act in self-interest without regard for others. But, I don’t believe that’s an actual experience of the actual love of God. I believe it is simply a religious justification of one’s self-centeredness.
Instead, what I’m thinking about are words from Thomas Merton. To paraphrase them, “Who are we to change the world without first changing ourselves?” They sound a bit more accusatory than I mean though. Merton was a man of social action, though his action was shaped by the contemplative practices that colored his life with an intimate sense of God’s presence and love, the awareness of a dynamic, alive, and eternally gracious God.
I hear our scriptures today, their call for mutual love and their call for the church to be about the work of transformative forgiveness, and I can’t help but think that if we are going to live into that calling, especially now, it will be because we’ve valued God’s invitation to be drenched in divine love, called the beloved, welcomed home to our Spirit-filled selves.
Here’s the passage that served as our focus to Wednesday’s Midweek Boost. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” When I first read it I thought, “Can a scripture passage like that be relevant for these times? Is now a time to lighten our burdens? Is this really a time for self-care when the world is falling apart?”
Actually, I think the answer is yes. I think that now more than ever the world needs people whose hearts like John Wesley’s are “strangely warmed.” The world needs people who are mature enough in faith to act from their truest and most loved selves. The world needs Christians who are filled with Christ.
I was told on Wednesday that this story will preach. I don’t remember where I first read it, but the picture it paints has stayed with me for quite a while: A pastor is walking down the education wing hallway one Sunday morning after the service. Sunday school has ended and everyone is out in coffee hour or out on the playground, except for this one little girl who is sitting by herself in an empty classroom. The pastor sees her there and asks what she up to. She says, “I’m coloring a picture for God.” The pastor says, “Well, that’s very nice of you. You and God must be very close.” And, the girl smiles up at the pastor and says, “Oh yes, God is very fond of me.”
It is important right now that all of us, who are both saint and sinner, understand that we’re invited to know the very same thing. God, my friends, is fond of you too. God knows you and not only does God love you, but God likes you. You are a part of God’s heart and it is God’s desire that you know the infinite, intimate affection that God has for you. So, give yourself time with those words, let their truth sink in, and as heart-warmed people let us act in love.