We don’t need to simulate death, we are experiencing it
We’re looking for signs of life in this season of death during this Lent in our church, Circle of Hope. We are emphasizing turning toward life in this usually somber and repentant season, since we don’t need to simulate suffering and death this Lent, because we’re surrounded by it during this deadly pandemic that’s taken half a million Americans. More than that, we’ve been isolated and in quarantine (which, evidently, is not directly related to Lent). We’ve been fasting in many ways for nearly a year, and so this Lent is simply a different experience. We don’t need to suffer further to know that we need to change, our society needs to change, and we desperately need liberation.
The Cross’s meaning and its purpose is made very relevant during this time. Liberation from death isn’t something we hope for because we will all eventually succumb. People around us are succumbing daily, and we need freedom now. That’s why it feels like our vaccination process is going so poorly, even though both in the U.S. and Philadelphia we are doing very well (and better than most). It’s not because we are doing poorly that we feel discouraged, it’s because we are desperate. Enough already, give us freedom. Give us our lives back!
And so while we dream of a time to be liberated from this scourge, we need to express the depravity of sin less during this Lenten season, because we see it all around us. The reason we need salvation is self-evident, normally. Look at the world around us: something is wrong. But it is even more self-evident during a pandemic. We need to be saved and it’s clearer to me now more than it has ever been.
We don’t need to look for death, we need to look for life
And so because we are closer to death, and our personal and societal complicity in it, we don’t need stretch to receive it. In fact, the insistence on some people downplaying the facts of the pandemic, the severity of the virus, and of the efficacy of the vaccines, shows us how bad it is. It’s so bad that people are in denial about it, and they deny it because they have no hope when they acknowledge. Some of us don’t have the resolve to be in such denial, and so we suffer despair instead. But whether we are in denial or despair, we need to see life so that we can be honest about where we are, and hopeful about where we might go.
Where our faith will get stretched most is knowing that liberation awaits us and having an imagination about how we can participate in that liberation. We need to have faith through signs of life, that freedom is coming, and coming from that dead man on a cross on Golgotha. That’s what we need to imagine and turn to this Lent. We generally don’t need to turn toward our own depravity in order to see the need for our salvation. It is already here. But we need to see life around us, and we need to see God’s involvement in life around us.
I think one reason this is especially challenging is because when we witness life, we name it as “natural,” which is to say not miraculous. I don’t think something that is naturally occurring or observable necessarily makes it not miraculous, but I think that’s how we categorize it. I think witnessing miracles, or signs of God’s presence, is reduced to fantastical images. But miracles occur in the ordinary as well. Signs of God’s presence, signs of life, don’t need to be metaphysical to be miraculous. That’s because God is always involved in creation. When it is apparent that God is involved, it seems like God’s involvement becomes visible to us. But maybe we can develop the eyes to see God’s presence in our world. See where the thin places are, where heaven and earth almost touch.
Developing eyes to see life
The other day I woke up feeling depleted. I was discouraged, and my source of discouragement was the fact that we haven’t worshiped together in our space on Frankford Ave. since last March. I miss our people. I miss singing together. I miss offering a message to the people I love and hearing what they have to say back. I miss the electricity of the community and their livelihood. I never realized how much that filled me up until it was taken from me.
I want to say that I do very much appreciate the endurance of our community, their mutual generosity, and their resilience during this time. I am also deeply grateful because we can still connect, even if remotely, and to be alive during 2021, when such a thing is possible during a horrible pandemic. But I do yearn for something more.
But that liminal space that we’re in now gives us an idea of the other liminal space we’re in. In this war-torn, death-filled world, awaiting the fullness of peace and life that awaits us in the age to come. Our desire evidences our own vacancy of that peace and life within us. We know we are alive, but know more life might come.
So in my own depletion, I was well aware of my own vacancy. I couldn’t fill it on my own, and I was praying for God’s help. Without leading our congregation to worship, pray, and dialogue together, I really had a sense that I wasn’t doing what I was meant to do. I felt less effective as a leader because I lacked opportunities to lead, to influence, to love, but also to be led, to listen, and to be loved. The fullness of the human condition, the fullness of being, to love and to be loved, was lacking in my life. And I was feeling it.
But then I was sharing with some others that something happened at the end of the day that reversed my course. I received a note that helped me feel like I am not ineffective. I actually can do something, that my voice isn’t worthless, that I have something to say. It made me feel more alive, even. I knew, theologically, that God was involved because, as I said, I know God is involved in all things. I doubted how meticulously God was involved, and because of my own spiritual bypass in the moment I was ready to dismiss the circumstance as a coincidence, not a blessing, and certainly not a miracle. But I am working on disciplining myself otherwise. I’m working on believing what’s before me as inspired and made by God. That’s a choice, for sure, but it’s a choice that gives life.
“How strange it is to be anything at all.”
That’s a line from a record I listened to a lot in college. And it speaks to the absurdity of our very existence, as Albert Camus put it. Because even if materialist science can explain our existence, it obviously does so insufficiently. It doesn’t answer the question of contingency. And so, no matter what, we are left with the absurdity, the mystery, the miracle of our existence and the life that is around us.
David Bentley Hart shared this perspective that I’ll summarize. If you were to walk into a forest and witness a glowing orb, let’s say, you would immediately wonder how and why it got there. Why not ask the same questions for the trees that we see in that forest? It’s because we’ve normalized and naturalized their necessarily contingent existence.
But, again, how strange is it to be anything at all? My friends, it is you that is a sign of life and a sign of God’s work. You are a miracle. And when you see the flower breaking through the snow, the frost melting into morning dew because of the spring sunlight, the plant disrupting the concrete (a favorite in Circle of Hope), the laughter of a child, the birth of a baby, the marvel of human creativity and ingenuity as we take these vaccines that keep us safe, name that as a miracle too, as God’s work. God is always at work, yes, we see it most clearly in thin places where heaven and earth meet, but let’s keep attuning our vision to see it all over creation and within ourselves. And don’t conjure it up alone, maybe your community can help you. Let’s ask one another where we see signs of life, where we’re seeing miracles, where we’re seeing God at work. One day it will be harder to for us to see where God isn’t than where God is. Blessed Lent to you.