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Delight and the Song of Songs

To celebrate Easter, we’ve been looking at the Song of Songs in our studies on Monday evenings. It’s a book that celebrates delight and human bodies, which is especially helpful in this time of a pandemic when life feels a little less delightful and moving our lives on to zoom has made us feel a little less embodied.

Song of Songs is a bit of a confusing book, at least partially because it’s an unusual genre in the Bible (e.g., a love poem) and Christianity has not always been very good at talking about sexuality. The following two reflections have helped us appreciate the text more fully.

Laura de Jong, who is a pastor, speaks passionately about how this Song awakens delight and longing in all of us, irrelevant of our marital status:

“Because this greatest of songs is about many things, but not just about human sexuality. And its not just an allegory of God’s relationship with his people. It’s also about longing, and excitement, and living deeply, and sucking the marrow out of life, and whimsy, and delight, and beauty, and language, and community. And it’s about God. What he has done, what he is doing, what he will do. The Song of Songs is an invitation to life.”

Laura de Jong, “The Greatest of Songs.”

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a theologically profound article about sexuality and desire:

“Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.”

Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace.”

As the article is quite theologically dense, if you’d like some help understanding it, Debra Rienstra, a writer and professor, has summarized his work: Rowan William for dummies on sexuality.

Hope this Easter

It has felt odd celebrating Easter this year, as it’s hard to celebrate when we do not get to be physically with many of those we care about. Besides the challenges of social distancing, more and more of us here in the United States are experiencing COVID-19 close up, either knowing someone who has become sick or becoming sick ourselves. There is tension between the sadness and uncertainty of this time and the hope and joy of Easter. 

Tish Harrison Warren has written an encouraging article in Christianity Today that proclaims the hope of Easter in the middle of the challenges of this time:

“The truth of the Resurrection is wild and free. It possesses us more than we could ever possess it and rolls on happily with no need of us, never bending to our opinions of it. If the claims of Christianity are true, they are true with or without me. . . . .

Believers and skeptics alike often approach the Christian story as if its chief value is personal, subjective, and self-expressive. We come to faith primarily for how it comforts us or helps us cope or lends a sense of belonging. However subtly, we reduce the Resurrection to a symbol or a metaphor. Easter is merely an inspirational tradition, a celebration of rebirth and new life that calls us to the best version of ourselves and helps give meaning to our lives. But the actualities that we now face in a global pandemic—the overwhelmed hospitals and morgues, the collapsing global economy, and the terrifying fragility of our lives—ought to put an end to any sentimentality about the Resurrection. . . .

I am a Christian today not because it answers all my questions about the world or about our current suffering. It does not. And not because I think it is a nice, coherent moral order by which to live my life. And not because I grew up this way or have fond feelings about felt boards and hymn sings. And not because it motivates justice or helps me to know how to vote. I am a Christian because I believe in the Resurrection. . . . If Jesus is risen in actual history, with all the palpability of flesh, fingers, bone, and blood, there is hope that our mourning will be comforted and that death will not have the final word.”

In honor of Easter, we’re going forward with a new study on Song of Songs. We start tonight. Join us! We’ll keep looking at Lamentations on Saturday, though, holding the tension of the sadness of this time.

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.