NEW BIBLICAL INSTINCTS
So, a pastor just got arrested for leading worship in defiance of public health. He kept telling his church to gather even when we know that close contact spreads the coronavirus and undermines our ability to fight this pandemic together.
His instincts for gathering, worshiping and praying were just wrong and dangerous. But I can see where his instincts came from. Under pressure, Christians have been trained to gather; to do something! We share hospitality. We hand things out. We hug. But these instincts are all wrong in light of COVID-19. This pandemic challenges our cultural expression of faith – the ways we instinctively respond to crises.
Our instincts as a church need to be reshaped. And to do this, we need to dig deeper into our tradition, our source code, and find ways to think and feel into this new reality. We need deep theological reflection because we can’t rely on our usual cultural expressions of faith.
As I think about this, I am encouraged. This season could be one where we rediscover Christian traditions that we as 21st century American Christians have forgotten. There is a deep well of resources to draw on.
So, every few days I want to share some underused theological and biblical resources that could guide us in this time. I’ll try and give some practical examples as well.
The first virtue that comes to mind during this season is patience – not a popular virtue for human beings in general or Americans in particular. We have a prejudice for action and an instinct for busyness. Even in spiritual matters, we think that the best course of action is action. After all, God calls us to do!
So when we are told to shelter in place for weeks or even months, we feel stressed and lost. Surely we can do more! Surely we can respond! But the hard truth of the moment is that most of us (medical professionals and other essential workers aside) can do nothing to help, except wait.
In Scripture, one of the most commonly overlooked commands is the command to ‘wait’. It’s all over the place. The Israelites, caught between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army were told to wait. “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Exodus 14:14). The prophets said that “those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength”.
Jesus’ disciples were called to ‘wait in Jerusalem’ until they were clothed with the power of the Holy Spirit. If they had rushed off to action, even to do good, they would have missed the moment of Pentecost. The earliest description of Christians found in the New Testament is marked by waiting for Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 1:10)
We are saved by God’s grace. Grace means that God acted when we could not. The more we are reminded of our weakness in waiting, the more we understand this good news of grace. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9 – “For is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” If our church and our faith is only known in our actions, then we have missed the heart of the gospel.
Patience teaches us important truths. That we are not essential; that we are beloved by grace, not by action; that we are held on to, more than we hold on; that the Spirit is changing us from the inside out; that God is at work, even when we are not.
The seeds of patience and waiting usually mature into two fruits – hope and prayer. The more we wait, the more we long for God’s righteousness to be revealed (Romans 8:25; Galatians 5:5). The more we wait, the more our longing turns into asking or crying out. Powerful prayers come from those who are watching and waiting. The psalmist has a lovely way of putting it in Psalm 130:
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
I am trying to lean into the discomfort of waiting, of my inessential-ness, of my powerlessness. It shapes my soul into a place of intimacy with God.
I’m also realizing that my time is well-filled up, even as I wait. It doesn’t mean sitting on the couch. It means raising kids, loving friends, cooking, cleaning, writing. But the true work of this season is waiting.
The early church knew this better than we do. They had much less power in society, so they learned to wait, trust, and pray. They were obedient and courageous, but they knew that by their power they could not change the world. So, they understood the value of patience. They preached and practiced it. It is a huge theme for early Christian authors.
One of them; Bishop Cyprian wrote a whole book called “The Benefit of Patience”. He wrote it from North Africa in 256 AD, in the midst of turmoil. Here’s a quote:
Patience both commends and keeps us to God.
It is patience, too, which assuages anger,
which bridles the tongue,
governs the mind,
breaks the force of lust,
represses the violence of pride,
extinguishes the fire of enmity,
checks the power of the rich,
soothes the want of the poor…
It makes us humble in prosperity, brave in adversity, gentle towards wrongs and contempts.
It teaches us quickly to pardon those who wrong us;
and if you yourself do wrong, to entreat long and earnestly.
It is patience which firmly fortifies the foundations of our faith.
It is this which lifts up on high the increase of our hope.
It is this which directs our doing, that we may hold fast the way of Christ while we walk by His patience.
May we rekindle the forgotten art of patience as a distinctive Christian practice in this season.
Next time: The Theme of Exile!