Coronavirus: An Unending Holy Saturday

Those of you who come from liturgical Christian traditions know about Holy Saturday.  It is the day between Good Friday and Easter.  On this day, the Church goes dark, as it were, as we await the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter.

As present-day Christians, we have the luxury of knowing how the story ends.  But Jesus’ disciples had no such knowledge.  When Jesus died on the cross–as far as they knew, it was over.  There was no movement to sustain.  There was no dream to keep alive.  It.  Was.  Over.

After Jesus was crucified, John and Peter and the other disciples disappeared into the city, found someplace to hunker down and wait.  It was a Sabbath, so they were required by law to wait.  But for what?  For the Sabbath to be over so they could complete the work of preparing Jesus’ body for burial, because they fully expected him to do exactly what every other dead person had done since the dawn of time:  Stay dead.  After that, for things to die down so they could slip quietly out of the city and go back home to their old way of life up in Galilee.

We don’t know the sort of conversations they had during that time.  But we can imagine.  They probably said things like “Well, that’s three years of our life that we’ll never get back.”  “You don’t crucify the Resurrection and the Life.  Clearly this guy was not who he said he was, not who we thought he was.”  “Just another wannabe messiah…what the fuck were we thinking?”

In this world of coronavirus, we wait.  Just like the disciples on that first Holy Saturday.  For what?  For it to be over.  For things to get back to normal.  For it to be safe to go back to where we were before–which for many people is not such a good place.

Over at Christian Century, Richard Lisher writes that the coronavirus pandemic has the feel of an unending Holy Saturday:

The Gospels say little about the disciples’ behavior on Holy Saturday. We can only imagine. It was a day of rest. They were required to rest. What preparations the women made must have been done furtively.

In the world of the coronavirus, we are also waiting. But waiting for what? When the women came to the tomb in the gray morning, they came not with high hopes but with their world’s version of embalming fluid. In Hebrew, the verbs “wait” and “hope” can be rendered by the same word. But in a time of contagion, our waiting does not appear to be en­riched by hope any more than theirs was.

Our waiting has an intransitive feel. “For what?” is hard to answer. For it to be over. For those who are sick to recover. For a magically resurrected economy. For school to start and the multiplex to open. For baseball. For a paycheck once again. Waiting to get back to where we were—which for many of us wasn’t a good place to begin with. The people who clean hotel rooms, who work at Macy’s or the shop down the block, whose husbands or wives have died and remain unburied, who live in prisons, who are hoping for a bed in the ICU—what are they waiting for?

But waiting, like hoping, demands an object. We are waiting for a solution to the inexplicable. We are waiting for deliverance from our vulnerability to nature, of course—and from death—but even more from our vulnerability to the self-interest, lying, hoarding, and venality that make the pandemic even worse. Which is to say, we want to be delivered from ourselves.


Michael Spencer: Looking For an Exit

Today I direct your attention to a post by Michael Spencer from several years back entitled “Looking For an Exit“.

Last week we discussed Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand as presented in the gospel of John.  John makes the point that this attracted multitudes who followed Jesus not because they believed him to be who he said he was, but because they liked the show and they saw him as the answer to their political aspirations.  When Jesus couldn’t physically remove himself from the crowd, he thinned the crowd by proceeding to teach some weird shit.

It worked.  For many in the crowd, including several of the disciples, they heard Jesus say “Eat my flesh and drink my blood” and that was it for them.  They just couldn’t anymore.

This goes against the picture many of us have of Jesus’ closest followers.  We think of them as basically an easy sell, living in the Judean backwoods with nothing much going on and then some rabbi shows up and wants them to follow him and they’re all in.  Yet the reality is that many days probably ended with long discussions around the fire, lasting well into the night with one disciple or more trying to talk some other disciple or more out of leaving, or with the next morning coming to find that some disciple or another had packed his stuff and left during the night.

It is the same way in evangelicalism.  We tend to think of everyone in our communities as already convinced and already on board when the reality is that we just don’t know the real life struggles which others around us are facing, some of whom may be approaching or at the point of “I can’t do this anymore”.  We are accustomed to believing that good theology or apologetics cures all ills.  Yet for many people in many seasons, theology and/or apologetics just aren’t enough.

Peter says, “Yes, it’s difficult sometimes, but where else and to whom else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Where else can we go is a great response. It’s honest and authentic. It doesn’t make Christianity a game of “How many questions can be answered?” No, it’s a matter of WHO Jesus is, and despite the mystery, the challenge, the intimidation and the difficulty, who else comes to us as God on earth, with the words of eternal life?

…For all those who are looking for the next place to “get off” the path of following Jesus and/or being a Christian, their is no list of answers. There is only one who overwhelms all questions and answers; one to whom we ultimately say “Even with all my objections and reservations, where else could I go, Jesus, except to you.”

Fr. Stephen Freeman: It’s Not Your Job to Reform the Church

Today I give you a post from Fr. Stephen Freeman.  Freeman is one of the most influential Eastern Orthodox bloggers, and he blogs at Glory to God for All Things.

Today’s post is entitled “Healing the Tragic Soul of the Modern West“.  Freeman’s jumping-off point is a quote from one of the Orthodox fathers, the gist of which is that we cannot understand the Western world on the basis of idea versus idea, but instead we must back up another level and look at the historical events, thought processes, etc. which gave rise to those ideas in the first place. What’s more, this examination must take place within a patristic framework. (“Patristic” is just a big fancy word for anything having to do with the Church Fathers, most of whom lived in the second or third centuries AD.) Yet this examination must not come from a place of mere intellectual argument–something that’s just all about winning an argument and/or making a point. Instead, it is, in Freeman’s words, “the gathering of the whole of the West within oneself and plunging it into the depths of the Orthodox way of life. This is not a mental exercise – but the fullness of existence in the very roots of our being.”

Freeman takes as an example the notion of “making the world a better place”, a thoroughly modern notion which is part and parcel of much Christian thought and practice nowadays. It is not sufficient to debate whether this is right or wrong, instead one must go deeper and look at how this even became a thing at all. Freeman reflects on his own spiritual journey; he was an Anglican priest prior to his conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy and much of his energy during that season was devoted to trying to fix the church. The Anglicanism of his time was moving away from many points of traditional teaching and he saw it as his calling to raise his voice in protest. After his conversion to Orthodoxy he came, through a long and excruciating journey with the help of a close and trusted spiritual mentor, to a place where he no longer saw it as his place to save or to fix the Church.

There are a couple of takeaways here. First: One of the recurring themes in Eastern Orthodox thought and writing is the theme of struggle and conflict with the West. It is as if they see Western Christianity, and anything else coming out of the West, in much the same way that a Georgia Tech fan would look at Georgia, or Georgia or anyone else in the SEC would look at Alabama: as this ginormous thing which dominates all it sees, as something akin to the Death Star.

Why? The Great Schism out of which the Orthodox faith was birthed, happened several centuries before the Protestant Reformation. Consequently, Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity have developed along separate lines for centuries. Anyone speaking or writing from within the Eastern Orthodox perspective with respect to the West does so from an outsider’s vantage point.

Many of you are familiar with this. Many of you have left the expression of Christianity or the religion that you grew up in, and now look back on it from an outsider’s perspective. There are many things about your religious faith that seemed perfectly normal to you when you were in it–everything in the fishbowl seems perfectly normal to those who are in it–but now look weird when seen from outside the fishbowl.  Now imagine this outside-the-fishbowl perspective applied, not just to an individual church or congregation or even to a religious system, but to the entirety of Western society and Western Christianity.  Such is the Eastern Orthodox vantage point.

The larger takeaway is this: It’s not your job to reform the Church. This is especially important for opinionated young punk bloggers like yours truly, who see it as our job to reform the Church one post at a time. That is not your job, and more to the point, that task is much too big for any one person to take on. Instead, your task is to let the Church reform you. This is hard, because there are many places and contexts where the Church looks like a complete shitshow. Whether you are a Catholic living in the aftermath of the sex abuse scandals, or a Willow Creek attendee living through those scandals, or a black evangelical living through the scandals that have rocked that world over the past decade…I could go on but I think you get the point.

But consider this:  The Church is essentially just a knockoff Jewish sect that should never in a million years have made it out of first-century Jerusalem, let alone first-century Rome.  Yet here we are.  Clearly there is something to it.  That something is the Holy Spirit, working behind the scenes to preserve and reform the Church.

Despite what things may look like from our perspective, the Holy Spirit is reforming the Church and holding it together. Our task is to lean into that and let the Church reform us. Once we enter into that posture, then we will be in a healthier space from which to speak out and work to reform those aspects of our particular expression of the Church which need reforming.

Michael Spencer: The Face of the Gracious God

In my last post I noted that, in my opinion, evangelicals are deathly afraid of the possibility that God is actually better than we think.  Today I direct your attention to a Michael Spencer post in which he comes around that very idea.  The Gospel is the good news of a gracious God but there are far too many people out there who are invested in an angry God who is planning to justly punish us all but who might let you off if you believe all the right things etc.

The Gospel is the good news of a gracious God. It tells us again the story of the God who loves us, the God we have grieved and abandoned and the God who has taken our judgment and suffered it himself.

We have far too many people selling religion #1. Like the Pharisees, they are the authorized representatives of the grumpy, ticked off, hacked off, very, very angry God who MIGHT….maybe, MIGHT let you off the hook….MAYBE…..IF–and it’s a very big IF–you manage to believe enough, obey enough, get the theology questions right enough, find your way to the right church, follow the right script and get the details right, down to the last “amen.”

We have too many people who have heard that there is good news about God, and then discovered that the good news was covered in 25 pages of fine print explaining why God is actually quite miserable and its your fault. If you fulfill the conditions of the contract–See “Faith is obedience, perfect surrender and a good witness,” pages 203-298–then you have a reasonable hope of avoiding God’s end-of-the-word temper tantrum.

We have far too few Christians who are overwhelmed at the news that God has fired the bookkeepers, sent home the bean counters, dismissed the religion cops and bought party hats for the grumpy old people. The big announcement is this: In Jesus, we discover that God is just sloppy with his amazing grace and completely beyond common sense when it comes to his love. Just to enhance his reputation as the God who know how to throw a party, he’s inviting all of us back home, no tickets necessary, no dress code, for a party that will last, literally, forever. With open bar, and all on him. (Oh calm down Baptists. You can go to another room.)

Read:  The Face of the Gracious God by Michael Spencer

Jentezen Franklin Fires Back at Mark Galli

In my previous post I referenced Mark Galli’s editorial at Christianity Today calling for Donald Trump’s removal from office.  With 81 percent of American evangelicals having given their steadfast, wholehearted, and unwavering support to Donald Trump, one should expect that there would be blowback to such a thing.

Jentezen Franklin, a prominent charismatic megachurch pastor in the Atlanta area, has written a piece at the Christian Post in which he takes Galli and evangelicals who sympathise with Galli to task.  His arguments:  Under Obama (whom he does not even mention by name), America was in a state of moral decline.  Socialism was on the rise and religious liberty was in jeopardy.  Donald Trump has defied all the haters and kept his promises to the evangelical electorate.  He has overhauled a raging leftist, activist judiciary.  He is pro-life.  He is pro-Israel.  These are the values and policies that matter most to our Christian faith.

In other words, the values that are most central to our Christian faith are being pro-life (as evangelicals define it, which means that one’s pro-life ethic extends only to the unborn), supporting the state of Israel, opposing socialism, supporting religious liberty (again, as evangelicals define it, which means supporting the liberty of certain Christians and Christians to shit on gays and women and minorities and put Bible verses on it), supporting judicial restraint and a conservative judiciary, and being pro-Israel.  Don’t talk to us about Jesus Christ, except as the title sponsor who puts his name on all of this.  And don’t even begin to talk to us about love.

In the previous post I said that when I watched 81 percent of American evangelicals give their steadfast, wholehearted and unyielding support to Donald Trump, I watched my faith sell its very soul right out from under me.  This is exactly what I am talking about, right here.

Donald Trump’s life and message are the exact opposite of anything even remotely connected to Jesus Christ.  Under his administration, the worst specimens of humanity are now empowered and emboldened to spew out hatred for blacks, gays, immigrants–anyone who does not look like us privileged white males.  ICE is running rampant here in Georgia, and in other places too (I would imagine), and my nonwhite coworkers live in a low-grade state of fear that they could be targeted next.

According to Franklin, this is “the values and heart of Christianity today in these United States of America”.  God loves you and Jesus Christ died for you, but not if you are a woman, black, gay, immigrant, or otherwise not a privileged white male.

No.  Just no.  That’s all there is to it.

Those of you who are evangelical supporters of Donald Trump (and I recognize that the vast majority of you have probably long since left the room, but just in case there may still be a few of you hanging around):  You know what Jesus was all about when he was here on earth.  You know how he moved among people and you know the teachings that formed the heartbeat of his public ministry.  Can you square any of this with what Franklin says are “the values and heart of Christianity today in these United States of America”?  Do you see any connection between the life and message of Donald Trump and anything that Jesus Christ was about?

I have said it before and will say again:  Think about this through the grid of “What does love require of me?”.  If you can make a compelling case that what love requires of you is to continue to give your steadfast, wholehearted, unwavering support to a president whose life and message are the exact opposite of anything even remotely connected to Jesus Christ…no.  There is no such case to be made.

Hillary McBride Responds to John Piper on Eating Disorders

There is a place for theology.  Theology gives form and structure to our knowledge and experience of God.  But when theology, or more precisely, a certain brand of theology, sets itself up as the end-all, be-all of our experience of God, such that there is nothing whatsoever that we can say about God with any degree of legitimacy unless it can fit somewhere in the grid of this particular system of thought…that’s a problem.

John Piper has been on my shit list ever since “Farewell Rob Bell” a few years back, and he remains thus to this day.  What I offer you today is a perfect illustration of why.

About a year ago Piper responded to a question from a female reader struggling with an eating disorder and related feelings of bodily shame and self-hatred.  In a staggering display of just-don’t-get-it-ness, Piper suggested that there are instances in which bodily shame and self-hatred are perfectly appropriate–specifically when the body tempts you to sin.  Basically, Piper just blew right by all the human dimensions of the situation at hand–completely ignoring the sight of this woman struggling with an eating disorder and the related feelings of shame and self-hatred and crying out for help to a trusted pastoral figure in her world–and went straight for what could fit nicely and tidily into his theological framework, along with chapter and verse to back it up.

But enough from me.  I am a blogger, and as such it is part and parcel of my unique calling and vocation in life to offer my unsolicited opinion on subjects about which I know nothing.  But even I have my limits.  I defer to Hillary McBride, who has had her own struggles with an eating disorder and now counsels others who are in that place.  In an open letter written in response to this, she goes straight to the human dimensions of the situation which Piper seems so eager to dismiss, and lays out why Piper’s comments are inappropriate and even dangerous.