Lament and Hope in Liminal Times

This is an unprecedented time for us, the world over. We are in solidarity with one another in a way we haven’t quite experienced and in a way that we can’t entirely name yet. The story is still unfolding.

An unwelcome visitor has suddenly forced his way into our lives – bringing suffering from the loss of health, loss of loved ones, loss of social cohesion, loss of employment, loss of childcare services, loss of food security, loss of rituals. And, of course, many in the healthcare industry are working under an added load on top of the normal pressure of an already emotionally-taxing profession. 

Even for those who have not suffered a major loss, the upheaval of personal and societal norms mixed with the deluge of disquieting COVID-19 media has opened the door to new levels anxiety, loneliness, depression and restlessness for many. 

There are no easy answers during a crisis like this. Faith in a good God is not a panacea to inoculate us from suffering and grief. There is a lot that doesn’t make sense right now.

It is quite understandable that during this time of upheaval and loss many are discovering a newfound resilience and hope through their faith in God, while many others are questioning why God would allow such suffering on the earth, and, of course, others might see this virus as yet another glitch in the randomness of our brief and meaningless existence.

Is it not true, though, that we are all taken a bit aback and freshly reminded of our mortality, lack of control and our need for one another – especially for those of us living in places with material and technological abundance?

And, I would suggest, if we are honest with ourselves, we are searching for meaning and answers in this. And, if we can be honest with ourselves, without an organizing, redemptive narrative of hope, the suffering, grief and loss we are collectively experiencing is rather meaningless.

So, I am not surprised to hear that Google searches for “good news” are trending high these days. I am not surprised to hear that online meetings for faith communities are attracting higher attendance than when they previously gathered en masse in brick-and-mortar. I am not surprised to see the generosity and compassion of many people and communities of faith, like the Italian priest who gave up his ventilator so that another might live.

So, at a time like this when we have been thrust into a period of stillness, suffering and loss, the prudent course of action seems to be not to distract or numb ourselves, but to honestly lament the pain of our situation, to not stuff the hard questions down beneath the surface.

What would give us the audacity to do such a thing?

From what I read in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, from what I’ve learned as I've visited with Christian believers around the world, from theological reflection during my studies at Urbana Seminary and what I’ve personally experienced, what gives us courage to do that is the true story that there is a good God who not distant, absent or tyrannical, but a God who is near, involved, good and ultimately able, not only, to vanquish the evil, injustice and suffering in our world, but to subvert it and redeem it for good.

Because there is a redemptive narrative of hope within which the coronavirus sits as unwelcome and ultimately impotent participant – COVID-19 will not have the final say on the earth. Because there is a relational, self-giving God who entered into our suffering and experienced our pain, grief and loss with real tears and agony. Because there is a loving Liberator – who came to us in Jesus of Nazareth 2,0000 years ago - who most fully shows us what God is truly like. Because there is a Victorious God who tasted the worst death and evil of earth through Roman execution and came out on the other side as the firstborn of a New Heaven and New Earth. Because there is a good Father who is gathering his lost children to himself and gives us a lasting hope – even while we groan and suffer under the shadow of the former age of the tyranny of death, sin and viral infections.

I can’t help but think of the words of Jesus himself, spoken amid his own tears at the death of his friend, Lazarus, to his sister: “I am the resurrection and the life; the one who believes in me will live even though he dies.

Because of this Story, as Christians we can and will endure a temporary disruption to our churches and schedules, for our hope is entirely rooted in God’s good future that is already coming to earth as it is in heaven – however bleak it may seem at times. The acts of sacrificial love and justice are the signs that the Risen Lord Jesus is alive among us, for self-giving love is the DNA of his new creation.

I am fully convinced that if we take our pain and questions to God, he wants to draw us into his life, his peace, his hope, his Story of making right this world gone wrong.

And, it’s not that that he’s far away, waiting for us to find him – he’s searching for us. He’s like a father who is waiting eagerly and will run out of the house and down the street to embrace his lost son or daughter who had wandered from home.

As Christians, our faith is not a solitary endeavor – we were adopted into the family of God by Jesus in order to be brought out of estrangement and isolation and into life together. So, understandably, a time of social distancing and isolation is foreign to the Christian community; it is a season of exile right now. Thankfully, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures give us lots of resources to ground us in times of exile. But, even in exile, God is near and bringing good out of our broken mess – even when it doesn’t appear that way.

So, this could be a surprising time of strengthening of our faith, returning of our hearts to our first love, Jesus our Lord. This can be a time of remembering our hope is not in a Sunday morning ritual, but in our Risen King who lives with us. This can be a time of remembering that it is not responsibility of “the church” to help the poor, the sick, the lonely, but our responsibility as disciples of our Lord Jesus (this was Nazi resistor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life message - we've been set free by Christ for others; the church exists for a costly discipleship for others). This can be a time of remembering that our faith is not built upon the leadership of clergy, but we – all of us in Christ – are a Spirit-filled kingdom of priests called to use our freedom to love God, love our neighbor and serve one another.

In the end, with or without COVID-19 (see C. S. Lewis' cogent argument along these lines for "Life in an Atomic Age") we will continue to be mortal, we will continue to groan against the inevitability of death, we will continue to need the comfort and help of others, we will continue to work in jobs and careers that don’t quite fully deliver on our deepest desires for a satisfying life, but, in the Christian community, we will continue to live our lives earnestly in a demonstration of the hope we have in the God who is bringing his shalom to our lives and to our hurting world. 


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