Could there be deeper meaning in this crisis?

c51f8-easterGood morning to you! What times we are enduring! What a challenge to our hearts…our perception of time and health…and our journey in Jesus. Who would have guessed that we would be facing?

Friends, I’ve been joining you in having an inordinate amount of time to do some reflection on what is occurring in all of our lives. As many of you know, I’ve had the honor and privilege of joining academia over the past two decades. In my work with students on a doctoral level, we have spent considerable time exploring “deeper meaning” in life via an analysis of the parables of Jesus. Without delving into more than we can handle in one, simple devotional time, what has dawned on me as I’ve attempted to deal with the total upheaval of much of my life is how completely unprepared most of our culture was and is for navigating this Corona Virus crisis. There are some deeper truths that underscore and provide a “thought framework” for why these times are as challenging as they are…here are some on which to reflect:

First of all – our culture has been steeped in a philosophy and way of thinking about life that has focused on the “worship” of material success as well as embrace of the “myth of human progress.” Ever since the 1800’s there has been a growing sense in the unstoppable nature of the progressive perfection of the human experience. Thinkers like Immanuel Kant (who believed that if all human beings would stop, think and meditate, they would figure out life all by themselves) and Jean Rousseau ) who embraced a belief in the purity and unqualified goodness of each human heart) have set the stage for currently the greatest time of angst and growing despair that has occurred in the lives of people since the early 20th century. A period in history that philosophers and academics label “modernity” was that moment in time where human beings started to “believe their own press”…in other words, we really did start to believe that we had every capacity to move our race toward utopianism…that being a life without challenge or struggle or discomfort.

Well…you can imagine how reality of late has slapped us into rethinking some of those presumptions. If you take a moment and think about this, you will realize that all great movements or moments of growth and spiritual breakthrough have to do in one way or another not with how we move ourselves to a perfect, suffering free world but rather how we deal with pain, suffering, and the “front row seat” we have to a world that feels out of control.

I am afraid that many of us who have built our lives on the “myth of progress” have become very naïve about pain and suffering. We simply don’t have time for it. It is a massive inconvenience. It is derailing the building up of our own securities. It’s making the future that we felt we had under control, feel scary and uncertain…things and experiences that NONE of us want to experience. We’ve, in essence, forgotten a basic truth of the human experience – we do not handle suffering; suffering handles us— in deep and mysterious ways that truth is the only way that we can understand the very matrix of life and especially an embracing of new life. Only suffering and certain kinds of humility and brokenness can lead us into genuinely new experiences.

It is amazing to me that the cross of Jesus became the central Christian logo in history. You would have thought that maybe those early followers of Jesu could have come up with something a bit more “positive.” You see, the cross and its rather obvious message of inevitable suffering is aggressively disbelieved in most countries, individuals, and even churches. We are clearly into ascent, achievement, accumulation, and denial of discomfort. It you think about it, the cross of Jesus has become, in many cases, simply a mere piece of jewelry. We’ve made the cross of Jesus into a feel-good salve instead of a very personal, painful, trying, and intense experience of the very reality of love’s unfolding and transformational power. The cross should be reminding us not of OUR glory but His…it should be pointing out again and again how it is through pain and suffering that we are healed. That is the existential (aka, “life-altering experience”) challenge of Jesus’ words to “pick up our own crosses”…sooner or later we, too, have to realize that life can really have NO meaning without redemptive suffering. Yes, it is true…there is something that ONLY suffering and pain can do that all successes and comfort levels of life cannot accomplish in our souls. To be intensely practical, we cannot nor should we miss out on the positive and redemptive meaning of our own pain and suffering.

The Old Testament story of God’s people wandering the wilderness for 40 years was built on the assumption and plan of God to “make new” a wayward people into a unified, new community of faithful obedience and service to God. Could it be…not that God is “doing” this to us…but could it be that THAT is what God can and will do in and through us as we keep our focus on Jesus through this time of challenge? Remember, the cross was something Jesus did for us (that’s true), but not only that…it became something that revealed and invited us into the same pattern…we discover REAL life through the cross. We need forgiveness not just for our sins, but we need transformation so that we are not continually “victimized” or punished by our sins (such as blindness, egocentricity, illusions, or pride).

I read this morning this powerful sentence:

“It seems that nothing less than some kind of pain will force us to release our grip on our small explanations and our self-serving illusions.”

As we live the story of Jesus, we always remember that it is the Resurrection that always follows the cross…in other words, in Jesus’ suffering, pain and even death can be trusted. It is the cross, the journey into a necessary “dark night of the soul” through which we are convinced that life as Jesus promised we’d experience through His resurrection is offered as a gift.

So, in this time of uncertainty…in this time of suffering…we have to ask ourselves, “what are we going to do with our pain? Are we going to blame others for it? Are we going to try to fix it?” If we don’t find some way to embrace the meaning of this “cross”…if we perpetually blame others or even buy into the lie that we are the “fixers” of the problems in the world, then we will miss out on the great “teacher” the cross can be. Another great sentence I read this morning;

“Though none of us want to admit it, if we cannot find transformation in our pain, we will transmit it to others in some form.”

The cross and empty tomb don’t take us back to ourselves for the attaining of our own perfection. They leave us on our knees seeking Jesus in whom is real healing, meaning, and life.

Since it is the beginning of Lent, some good words on “Spiritual disciplines” (especially in this case, “fasting”) from Dr. Scot McKnight

Lent’s Faux-Fasting (click to the left for the original posting of this article)

Too much of the fasting during Lent is faux-fasting. Here’s why.

Fasting — tis the season. Because it is the season a good question can be asked: What is fasting?

What is fasting?

Try defining it, and I’ll make a suggestion. Go ahead — in your mind define it.

Here’s my suggestion: If, in defining fasting, we are tempted to define fasting as something we do “in order to” get something, I suggest we need to look again at the deepest wells of the Christian fasting tradition: the Bible. In my book, FastingI suggest that in the Christian tradition we somehow got sidetracked.

We turned fasting into an instrument for personal spiritual formation, and in doing so lost one of its — if not its — key element. Fasting is not so instrumental in the Bible as it is responsive.

Fasting done to get something is faux fasting. Abstinence and fasting are not the same thing, so giving up chocolate for Lent is faux fasting.

Fasting done to get something is faux fasting. Abstinence and fasting are not the same thing, so giving up chocolate for Lent is faux fasting. I can hear the grumbles, so give me a chance here.

Instead of seeing fasting as a discipline we use, do, or practice “in order to” get answers to prayers, “in order to” become more attuned to God, or “in order to” become more spiritual, the Bible’s focus is on fasting as a response to life’s sacred, grievous moments. If in defining fasting you get quickly to the “in order” element… I suggest look again at the Bible.

So, how can we tell if we are fasting? Simple answer: Are you grieving or are you looking forward to something happening for you? If the former, fasting; if the latter, not fasting.

The Bible urges us to move away from seeing fasting as something done in order to get something, and exhorts us to learn to see it as a response to some grievous or sacred moment/event. (I use a letter system.)

A (grievous moment, like death and sin) –> B (act of fasting) –> C (benefit)

I hear too many suggest we should fast (B) in order to get (C). I suggest in my book that the biblical pattern is much more A (grievous, sacred moment) triggering the natural response of fasting (B), whether we get C or not. Furthermore, fasting is an act whereby we enter into the pathos of God regarding that grievous moment.

And one more element to think about as we enter Lent. To be sure, Lent is a time for fasting, but I suspect most of those who speak of “fasting” are talking about “abstinence” (not the same as what the Bible means by fasting). Fasting is suspension of all food (and sometimes drink) for a designated time — not the suspension of kinds of food (or internet, or social media). What happens when we use the word “fast” with “Twitter”? I suggest we are losing fundamental elements of fasting — the response to grievous, sacred moments.

The Church calendar is designed to embody the gospel itself on an annual basis: we begin the birth of the Messiah and then through a season called Epiphany and then we move into Lent and Holy Week with focus on Good Friday and Easter, and then we head for Pentecost and the rest of the year is called Ordinary Time. Ordinary Time is designed to focus on various elements of the Christian faith and mission. Lent prepares us for the gospel events — the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

How do you prepare for Lent? Or how will you prepare for Lent? Or, from another angle, why do you not prepare for Lent?

Well, some will say, the NT doesn’t teach a church calendar and so there’s no need for it. To which I (really not “I” but the Church) say, “Hold on, dear friend.” God so ordained Israel’s life so that it would re-live and embody the great saving events in God’s relationship with Israel. So, let’s begin right there: God evidently really does care to institutionalize saving events into a calendrical form. The Christians, from very, very early, wisely restructured the calendar to be shaped by the saving events in the life of Jesus. (And I don’t say this to snub my messianic friends who are Jewish. I see no reason why we can’t combine the Christian calendar with Israel’s calendar.)

So, if we are going to fast, let’s fast.