Good Friday and Sabbath

Lent is almost over. Good Friday is day 39 of 40. This has been an unusual Lent, with more lament and inconvenience than usual. 

As I have grown in faith I have come to realize that the death of Jesus has meaning on many different theological levels: being enthroned as true ruler of the world, exposing the scapegoat mechanism of the empire, providing atonement for sin, modeling the way of self-sacrifice, standing in solidarity with those who are unjustly punished, becoming the suffering servant. How does the death of Jesus resonate with you?

After spending some time with resources from the Bible Project, the interpretation that resonates with me this year is that of Sabbath rest. Perhaps the most famous reference to this idea is the the sign of Jonah: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40). Drawing on eschatological notions of a future Sabbath (mostly from the Psalms), some scholars have concluded that the Sabbath rest that Jesus experiences while his body is in the tomb is a prefiguring of a cosmic rest that all people will some day experience in Christ.

While for many people the pandemic is not a time of “rest,” it is a time of great inconvenience in which we must refrain from our routines and community activities. In this way our experiences reflect the  “inconveniences” of the Sabbath such as prohibitions against buying and selling. On a larger scale this time might reflect the intent of the year of Jubilee — a total socio-economic reset for the land and the people, which is presented as a super-Sabbath (Lev 25). Our current “rest” has only come because of a time of great “reset,” and one that reveals economic and racial injustice in our US context. 

But there is hope. The effort for a more just world in which all creation flourishes together is headed by Jesus, the one who starts by announcing the year of Jubilee (Luke 4:19) and is crowned the “Lord of the Sabbath.” In this paradoxical time of rest and inconvenience and lament Jesus has gone before us and is with us now as we walk our own “lonesome valley.” We sojourn with Jesus wondering what we can learn from suffering, how we can grow in faith and what we might do in service of God’s great acts of re-creation. 

How is this time of quarantine like an extended time of Sabbath? What have you learned about yourself by being inconvenienced? How can this time draw you closer to God? I invite you to meditate on Jesus’s invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).

– Mitchell Eithun

Coronavirus and Quarantine – Takeaways from Veritas Forum (held on Mar 24)

On March 24, Veritas held a Virtual forum on Coronavirus and Quarantine: What Big Questions Can We Be Asking? featuring David Brooks, Andy Crouch, Lydia Dugdale, and Andrew Schuman.

Mitchell and I both found that the Veritas Forum generated an inspiring discussion about learning from past national tragedies, seeking signs of hope, and developing creative ways to be community. The following are some notes that we (primarily Mitchell) took. We encourage you to listen to it yourself (as well as the following conversations).

The first bit of the conversation focused on gleaning insights from past pandemics. While pandemics can lead to isolation and fear of other people, they can also teach us what it means to be together. The main precedents we have are the plague and the 1918 Spanish flu. In 1918, WWI also ended and, with it, the idea that “life has meaning” passed away. What’s the logic in living if your neighbor dies? Many would argue that the Great War was the time when “Europe stopped believing in God.”

Will we see a cultural transformation as the result of this pandemic? The human vocation is the shared activity of creation and stewarding the earth. Going back to “business as usual” too soon or too late could have consequences.

How do countries hold together in times of crisis? Historically, countries do well when there is high social trust, trust in institutions, integrated population, and a sense of togetherness. Unfortunately, the US has struggled on all of these fronts. To compare, after the bombing of London, social connection increased and Churchill gave moral meaning to the war by fighting fascism. An important part of the situation now is that an overwhelmed healthcare system forces difficult ethical decisions on doctors. The role of the doctor is to alleviate suffering and care for everyone but sometimes doctors are forced to make difficult decisions, which results in suffering for some (e.g., potentially limiting care for pandemic victims or through limiting resources for ongoing medical issues and potentially increasing suicide cases).

One sign of hope in all of this is that people are wrestling with big problems. Times of crises also encourage social innovation (e.g. the Great Depression). In this “great reset” we can now ask “was normal that great?” In particular, Generation Z will likely become more aware of mortality and ask “what matters to me?” When we are confronted with death it can shape us to want to “invest in living.” When we remove certainty from our to-do list we are liberated.

A remarkable claim in Christianity and Judaism is that “God is active in the contingencies of history,” including the worst events. There is nothing worse than “the neighboring empire conquering your small nation, burning your temple, taking away your beautiful things and embarking on cultural genocide.” It is hard to imagine a more dire time than post-exile for Israel: “How can we sing the song of Zion?” (Ps. 137). The amazing witness of the Hebrew Bible is that God was there and there is a way to sing songs of hope. One positive outcome in the case of Israel was a national recognition of sin. Whatever your worst case scenario is, God is present and unlocking possibility.

As people of faith, the exile becomes part of our story. While in captivity Jews are told to “contribute to the health of city.” This is the formation of a creative minority, a call to be separate but not isolated. Another religious idea present in most religions is that suffering is redemptive. It destroys the ego. “Suffering carves through the basement of the soul,” and only “spiritual and relational food will fill this void.” Lament is also “the seed of genuine creative action.” Writing a lament that cries out and reaffirms trust in God unlocks creative power. We can anchor our creative work in the injustice in the world and a trust in God. Creativity is birthed out of the pain and groaning of the world.

In response to questions, it was noted that resilience is not having “good thoughts.” It is about discovering the stress and viewing it as a challenge instead of a threat. Suffering hurts you unless you can attach it to a narrative of redemption. Christ’s example in the garden (“take this cup from me”) suggests that we can mourn and grieve and ask for it go away, but it ought to be coupled with “not my will, but thine.” Rather than a surrender to fate, this is saying, “it’s not my life.”  So when you pray don’t ask for it to go away, ask what is “spiritually most useful to transpire.”

How lonely is the city

“How lonely is the city that once was full of people!” is how the Old Testament book of Lamentations begins. These words suggest that the life of the city is dependent on people and the relationships between people. When these are absent the city itself feels lonely and “the roads to Zion mourn” (Lam 1:4). 

The other week we began studying Lamentations in response to everything happening in the world because of COVID-19. The grief-filled words remind us that lament is an important part of a life of faith. We lament to express frustration and even our anger for the way things are. The book of Lamentations helps with that, as “Lamentations is a searing book of taut, charged poetry on the subject of unspeakable suffering. The poems emerge from a deep wound, a whirlpool of pain, toward which the images, metaphors, and voices of the poetry can only point.” Kathleen O’Connor, “Lamentations” in NIBC, 879

Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, in his book Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, talks about how lament gives voice to the grief and sadness that result from the task of “reality,” or honestly identifying the state of things. This can be especially challenging when others do not share our concern. We hear this also in Lamentations: “Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?” (Lam. 1:12). O’Connor echoes Brueggemann:

“The book of Lamentations practices truth-telling. It refuses denial and reverses amnesia by inviting readers into pain and affliction in all their rawness. It urges us to face suffering, to speak of it, to be dangerous proclaimers of the truth that society wants to repress. … Advice like ‘Get over it,’ Get on with it,’ ‘Look on the bright side,’ reinforces the dehumanization of the sufferers by refusing to accept their stammering efforts toward truth” and healing. (O’Connor, 892). 

Wherever you find yourself in this journey, may we be supportive of each other, being people that “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). In our communities may we share words of comfort and hope in the midst of struggle. Like with the book of Lamentations, may our “stinging cries for help, [our] voices begging God to see, [our] protests to God who hides behind a cloud – all create a space where communal and personal pain can be reexperienced, seen, and perhaps healed.” (O’Connor, 879).

– Mitchell Eithun and Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink

Pandemic Grief

Jessica Wrobelski speaks graciously regarding the grief connected to this pandemic in her article, “Jesus Wept: Pandemic Grief and the Fifth Sunday of Lent.” She notes that, while we in the United States are likely facing more suffering here on account of illness and death from COVID-19,

“we are nevertheless collectively experiencing a kind of grief right now due to the practice of social distancing and other early impacts of the pandemic on our lives. The loss of daily interaction with friends and coworkers, the cancellation of travel plans and events that we have looked forward to, the economic losses, and our inability to gather as communities of faith—these losses are real, and so is our grief.”

Wrobelski highlights that the gospel for the fifth Sunday of Lent, the story of Lazarus’s death, presents Jesus’ own grief in light of loss. She highlights that Jesus does not “‘skip over’ the experience of human grief.” Recognizing this “should free us to acknowledge our own grief—to experience all the emotions of sadness and anger and disappointment and frustration that come with real losses—even if we ultimately have faith and hope in God’s promise to bring life from death.”

She concludes by encouraging as “to allow ourselves time and space to grieve, to name our sorrows and losses and even to bring our accusations before God. Faith in these times does not mean stoically denying our human emotions, but trusting that God is present in and through all of it.”

More Prayers

The following prayer related to COVID-19 is taken from the Christian Reformed Church’s Office of Social Justice

“In this time of unprecedented, global crisis, we all struggle to hold the weight of it. Worries abound and drastic changes to how we work, parent, shop, gather, worship – indeed how we live – are compounding quickly. We, as Jesus followers, are being called to change our behavior out of love and care for our neighbor. There are many directions to pray in so here are a few we could hold before us today.  

Prayers for Leaders and Decision Makers

Abba, the leaders we have in government, healthcare, business, education have exceedingly difficult decisions in front of them. Open their ears and eyes to recognize wisdom. Guide decisions to reflect their positions of “servants of the good.” (Rom. 13:4).  

Help our leaders see the breadth of our connectedness – the ecology of the whole creation.  Help them hold the truth of our humanity before their decisions.  

Guide them with the next right steps in this crisis.  

Grant them sleep and health so they can endure the distance they have to go as our leaders during this time.  

Prayers for the Vulnerable

God, protect the vulnerable. Some members of our society are more adversely affected than others and we hold them up to your care at this time. We hold the immuno-compromised, the already sick, care home residents, the health care workers and their families up to you. We hold the homeless population and those who depend on food banks up to you in this time of resource scarcity. We hold communities with less resources, doctors, clinics and money in mind. We hold the elderly, the already isolated, the already lonely up for your presence and care. Protect bodies and minds from that which separates us from our love and your love. Help those who can care for the most vulnerable among us do so well. By keeping distance, by staying home, by delivering meals, by making sure our neighbors have ways to stay in touch with us.  

And God, help us to remember that injustice around the world still abounds, affecting the most vulnerable most adversely.  Help us to see truly in this time. 

Help us to know that we are in your hands, and that we are also in each other’s hands. (Lynn Ungar)

Prayers for Uncertainty

God, the myth of certainty is laid bare at our feet.  Will you now raise up trust and faith in your unwavering presence?  

The myth of certainty has been taken down and we hold the weight of not knowing what the future holds.    

Help us to hold our own fears, responsibilities, unknowns with grace.  

Give us enough for today, help us to take the next right steps for tomorrow.  

Be with those whose livelihoods are at risk -provide for them.  

Be with those who are unable to see loved ones – care for them.  

Be with those who are not sure how to balance all the new ways of daily living, all the shifts to important plans.   

Be with us when we inevitably will feel the fear, angst and weight of this uncertainty—point us to your love in those moments.

Help us not trade justice for certainty, making an idol out of plans that work for us but not for everyone.

Spark in us possibilities and bigger imaginations in a time where what we thought was certain is no more.  

Prayers for the Body of Christ

Spirit of the Living God, you have called us to be the embodied community of the living Christ. Help us all take steps away from fear and hostility, bravado and self-righteousness, towards agape love.  Towards a love that demonstrates your care to all who encounter us.  

Help us to be good neighbors, locally and systematically, within our communities.  

Draw us together in new bodies of worship, word and sacrament.  

Open our eyes and ears to your Spirit’s movement during this time.  

Surprise us and lead us to become communities that bring life to our cities, leaven in the bread.  

Help us move through our own fears, naming them, and offering them to you.

Increase our trust in you and increase our love for our neighbors.  

Even in a time of social distancing, may the resurrected Body of Christ be truly embodied, alive, pulsing with grace in our neighborhoods and keep doing your work in us in unexpected, subversive and life giving ways.   

Give us new songs from this time, that we may sing of how you do not leave us or forsake us.”

Amen.

Prayer for MSU, universities, and the world

MSU stopped in-person classes yesterday, has been encouraging students to leave campus and return to their permanent residence, and has been cancelling gatherings of large groups of people. Most of us are a bit overwhelmed and still processing the concrete implications of this for our lives, while also being uncertain of what will happen in the next few weeks.

In thankfulness for and solidarity with the prayers that people are already offering throughout the world and in response to everything related to the coronavirus, I lift up this prayer:

Almighty God, we pray

  • ​For those who are sick. That they might have knowledge of their illness, courage in isolation, healing, and the means to limit the spread of the disease.
  • that you might sovereignly move in mercy to spare lives. May there be effective measures to limit the virus’s spread, the quick development of a vaccine, and may You guard against mutations.
  • For wisdom for leaders on our campus and throughout the country and world. May all those who are responsible for cancelling events and/or closing schools, at any level, have the courage and strength and help in making hard decisions requiring much wisdom.
  • For Christians to walk in tangible faith and love, and be ready to share the good news of hope. For wisdom for faith communities as they know how best to respond and take care of people’s physical and emotional well-being.
  • For a spiritual hunger, especially among those who do not know Jesus, during this time of social distance (and Your hand in guiding people and resources to them).
  • For the vulnerable elderly, due to both the danger of the virus itself and the isolation they must endure.
  • For all those in health care and research of disease, that they might have strength and wisdom. May they stay healthy.
  • For those whose livelihoods are significantly affected, especially those in hospitality, the travel industry, and retail, where they bear some of the brunt of people’s anxiety.
  • For professors (and staff and students) who are facing the daunting challenge of switching their classes online.
  • For students whose lives and plans have been disrupted, especially ​those who will face difficulties in finishing their programs (e.g., because of cancelled recitals/shows) and ​seniors whose in-person college experience has suddenly and unexpectedly ended. We pray especially for students with complicated living and food situations or for whom it is unsafe to ‘go home.’
  • For those who are no longer able to travel to check out grad programs or interview for a job; and the departments/programs as they find creative solutions to people not being able to travel;
  • For those who have cancelled their trips, whether conferences or holidays. ​
  • For those who are currently in a country that is not their home and unsure of where they ought to be.​
  • For those facing social isolation: we pray especially that families might grow through more time together and that there might be creative ways of helping those living alone deal with loneliness.
  • For those facing discrimination as people take out their anxiety about possibly becoming sick.
  • For those with unexpected time on their hands (especially those who were expecting to watch sports or travel), that they might use the time to be creative and to rest.
  • For children and parents, and all living in close quarters, that we might have extra grace for each other, and appreciate and love each other.

With thanks to Chris Ahlin (who helps lead the MSU faculty and staff prayer gathering), for many of the words above.