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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.

A Technology Sabbath: Towards redeeming our smartphones

It can be hard to take Sabbath rest amid the pressures of academia. This is at least partially because of how technology allows us to be available and able to work at almost any time, irrelevant of where we are. Yet, Sabbath is a gift from God: a reminder of God’s good gift of rest and how even our best efforts cannot save the world. So as we enter into Lent, I encourage you to take Sabbath weekly, including taking a break from our smart phones (i.e., not touching it for a time except to make pre-arranged calls to loved ones).

The point of putting our smartphones down for awhile is to become more aware of how we use our phones in life (and how often we use it). Actually putting it away prevents us from allowing it to distract us from the world around us. The following are some further suggestions to grow in awareness of how much time we spend on our phones, as well as suggestions for preventing our phones from interrupting our lives unnecessarily:

  • Put an app on your phone (like quality time) that tracks how often you pick up your phone and which apps you use most.
  • Keep your phone out of reach (or in a bag if it’s with you); at the least, don’t put it on the table near you (and perhaps don’t even have it with you).
  • Figure out which app you use too much and delete it.
  • Turn off all notifications on your phone (if not all the time, at least some of the time). Decide what times of what days you won’t look at email.
  • Do one thing before looking at your phone in the morning.
  • Put a picture of that which is important to you as background on your phone.
  • Rearrange the apps on your phone so that you’re reminded of what’s more important.
  • Before picking up your phone and using an app, think this through a. what is my goal in opening this app? b. how do I know when my goal is accomplished? These are also helpful questions for any technology uses.

All of the above suggestions are about trying to remind ourselves that our smartphones (and any technology we have) are tools. They are a gift that can make our lives a lot better, especially in terms of being connected to people we care about. At the same time, smartphones can be addictive, especially as we can use them as a means not to feel bored or to be present to the world around us. Paying more attention to them is one way of allowing them to be more of a positive tool than a bad habit.

Further resources

Science vs. Faith?

While most people who are religious would argue that science and faith do not conflict, it can sometimes be challenging to be both a scientist and a person of faith. Faith is not always welcome in scientific fields (or specific departments), and the curious, questioning part of ourselves that makes us good scientists is not always welcome in churches. In order to encourage folks with this challenge, Campus Edge held an evening discussion on faith and science (with special guest, Rachel Barnard from MSU’s Lyman Briggs College).

The following is some of the wisdom that was shared by those present. Hopefully this might encourage you to recognize you are not alone in your struggles. At the same time, even though sometimes the challenge might seem overwhelming, what we’ve learned by becoming good scientists/academics can also contribute to our faith in a positive way.

The following are some of the challenges that we face:

  • Many of have us have lost innocence in approaching the Bible and Christianity, as we no longer approach the Bible and Christian teaching the way we used to. This is generally on account of increased doubt and questioning of our Christian beliefs and how we’ve been taught to interpret the Bible.
  • Science has trained us that everything should be test-able and only things that can be tested are worth studying. The challenge is that some faith questions can never be tested.
  • Science and academia consume a lot of time and energy, and even shape our identity, especially since how productive/effective we are affects our perceived worth as a scientist.
  • One’s spiritual self is often pushed to the side, sometimes because of time, but also because one’s spirituality is often encouraged (or even feels forced) to be separate from one’s academic self. Even one’s personal and emotional self is not always allowed in academia, as often only one’s rationality, work, and/or production is valued.
  • It can be difficult in some fields to identify as a Christian, partly because of how Christians are seen to view evolution. At the same time, many of those who are in humanities found it hard(er) to identify as Christian, as Christians are often seen as not deserving of having a valid voice/opinion to add to discussions, on account of coming from a perspective of intolerance (oppression) and having had excessive privilege in the past.
  • There are times competing narratives in how one understands the world and humanity. For example, science sees people as highly evolved animals where as Christianity believes that humans are the image of God. This affects our understanding of how we ought to treat others, as well as how we approach performance reviews (is this about ‘justifying our existence’ or about indicating how we’ve tried to be faithful in the use of our time and talents?).

The following is the other side of the story – How science can contribute in a positive way to faith:

  • It’s a joy to read the Bible with scientists because they notice small details and ask difficult questions. They’re meticulous and are not satisfied with simplistic answers.
  • Scientists don’t like easy answers; scientists have practice sitting with questions. In doing this, we learn then “to trust and wait and hope and try” (as Rachel described it so well).
  • Science searches for truth. This helps counteract some of the extremes of postmodernism in our culture, where it can feel like all perspectives are seen as equally valid. At the same time, science tends toward the other extreme (modernism) and the belief that reason (science) can redeem the world and solve [all] problems.
  • Many people do a lot of praying in the lab; how can that, irrelevant of the reason for the prayers, not bring us closer to God?
  • It is often the wonder we had in God’s creation that drew us into science. While science has often become more ordinary, more busy, and more difficult since we were first drawn to it, this does not erase the wonder.
  • The challenges found in the scientific field push us towards finding our identity in God. Practicing Sabbath is especially helpful in that, as it forces us to stop all our efforts and instead remember that God is sovereign (and all my efforts cannot save the world). Sabbath also provides us with an opportunity to experience God through wonder and curiosity.

Of note is that the question of science vs. faith has become less a conversation about creation and evolution. Christians are finding it easier to agree that God had a fundamental role in the formation of the world and appear to be less concerned with exactly how that happened. That isn’t to say that people are not struggling with this question, it is simply that the focus on creation vs. evolution has shifted from five years ago. The focus now is more on how people of faith ought to respond to developments in science (e.g., AI, gene editing, climate change, etc.).

Pub Theology as an opportunity to explore

At Campus Edge we’ve been hosting Pub Theology for several years now. It’s an opportunity for people to talk about how faith and spirituality interact with current events and topics of interest (e.g., sexuality, racism, politics, technology, etc.). Pub theology is a place to learn how to listen to each other and make space for people who see the world differently from me. Its intent is not to convince people of the Christian position but instead to facilitate people learning from each other, being both encouraged and challenged that there is more than one way that Christians (and others) have approached difficult topics. 

Pub theology has also been a place where people who are exploring Christianity can join us, and we’ve been delighted by how God has brought different people from different backgrounds to our conversations. People are free both to lament negative encounters with Christians and to ask pointed questions about what believing in God looks like. It is meant also to be a safe place to have one’s own views about Christianity and the Bible be refined.

Bryan Berghoef, who originally started pub theology, wrote an article about how pub theology might seem like a waste of time. After all, what real good does sitting in pub talking to other people really do? But Berghoef suggests that:

“One might be tempted to ignore or skip such a practice [of pub theology] in favor of ‘doing more’. But when I skip it, I miss out. I miss out on learning from people with experiences and perspectives that are vastly different from my own. I miss out on constructive dialogue on issues we all face together. When I am tempted to abandon the practice, I remember that for some folks, this is a first step toward re-engaging their spiritual side, or their first chance to speak honestly about their doubts, and is perhaps their only opportunity for deep, constructive dialogue and reflective thinking. . .

So is pub theology just talk? Yes. And no. It is deep relationships. It is barriers coming down. It is stereotypes being proven wrong. It is new friendships occurring. It is lines being crossed. It is deep thinking about the issues we all face as humanity, being discussed from varying perspectives. It is a movement to deeper understanding, where new possibilities are opened up.”

Bryan Berghoef, “Pub Theology is a Waste of Time.” (January 2014)

Epiphany – Seeing anew

Epiphany stands for ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearance’ and is celebrated on January 6. As Campus Edge’s Monday night study fell on Epiphany this year, we celebrated it together. This included blessing the house together, which was a liturgical experience few of us had experienced (as it’s outside of our church traditions).

We also spent some time remembering the story of the three magi in Matthew 2, as well as connecting it with Isaiah 60-61. One of the most fascinating aspects of both of those passages is their focus on foreigners – and how it is that these ‘outsiders’ see and respond to God in a way that the insiders (the people of God) did not. As Kierkegaard notes,

“The three kings had only a rumor to go by. But it moved them to make that long journey. The scribes were much better informed. They sat and studied the Scriptures like so many scholars, but it did not make them move.”

quoted by Derek Schuurman in his article, The Heart of Christmas.

Perhaps one way that we can see anew during this season of Epiphany is to be open to listening to and learning from unexpected people and places.

God of tomorrow, some day, and forever

In the season of Advent, a lot of people look to the book of Isaiah and find hope in how the texts point to the coming of Christ (especially Isaiah 7:14; 9:6-7; 11:1-9). Ironically, though, I find the texts less hopeful when the focus is primarily on how they’ve been fulfilled by Jesus’ birth. I believe that the point of these Isaiah texts is not simply to provide hope to the Israelites that God would some day do something miraculous connected to salvation. Instead, the texts provide hope of how God would be working in the near future for their salvation. God is, after all, God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, or, in the case of this text, a God who works for salvation tomorrow, some day, and forever.

There is hope in recognizing that God did not act only in history one time: during Jesus’ time on earth. Instead, God is active in all time. God cared enough about the Israelites to provide salvation to them in their time. God gave a sign to Ahaz (and the people of Israel) showing that the siege would end in the very near future. By the time a child not yet conceived was old enough to know right from wrong, the kings attacking them would have fallen and they would have recovered from the current siege to the extent that the child would be eating honey and curds (Isaiah 7:14-16). Isaiah 9 and 11 speak to deliverance through the coming of a king who would bring justice, a king who would do what “was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done.” A king would come of whom it would be said: “there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the Lord and did not stop following him.” This king was Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz, as described in 2 Kings 18:3-6.

Yet, just as the text gives hope for the immediate future of the people, it also provides hope for our future. Because as much as the text was immediately fulfilled in Isaiah’s time and was more fully fulfilled with Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1:22-23), it has not yet been fully fulfilled. The justice and righteousness spoken about in Isaiah 9:7 and Isaiah 11:2-5 were not fully established with Jesus’ coming. Nor is the peaceful kingdom presented in Isaiah 11:6-9 a current reality. Recognizing the many layers of fulfillment in the text allows me to be honest about how they have not fully been fulfilled. And so we can read these texts with longing and hope. We can honestly lament that, even though Jesus came at Christmas, the world is still so much not the way it ought to be. The injustices that Isaiah speaks about, such as prioritizing profit over the well-being of others (especially the marginalized) have re-surfaced in new ways today, such as the Flint water crisis, sweatshops, and extreme weather because of climate change.

These texts give me space to lament the suffering and injustices of the world. Yet, they also allow me to rejoice in the significance and wonder of Jesus’ birth while longing for Christ to come again and fully bring about the justice that first was established in Hezekiah and more fully in Jesus. And these texts reassure me that my hope in Christ coming back to bring justice is not in vain. Because certainly a God who has been faithful in assuring that the words of these texts came true in the near future and the some day, this God can and will fulfill the words in a future that is still before us.