Monday, April 6, 2020

Presence and Purpose: Reflecting On Pandemic Responses

Last week, a local pastor told me, "People are hungry right now." We're looking for voices we trust to say something meaningful in these days of disorientation. All of us are separated from people and places where we usually find meaningfulness.

Most of this post relates indirectly to that hunger. I've just been curious how certain influential voices would respond to this moment. Now that some of them have spoken, I'd like to share with you summations of their comments. Further below, I try to synthesize their thoughts and draw out something that relates more directly to our shared hunger. Here we go.

N. T. Wright 

Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It's Not Supposed To

Mansplaining Acts 9 to Tom Wright.
Professor Wright warns against adopting common answers to why our world has this pandemic. Instead, he promotes we recover the biblical practice of lament, which he defines as asking the question why, and not getting an answer.

Wright points us to the Psalms as the handbook on lament. He notes that God, too, laments—as when he observes the violence in Genesis 6; and as when Jesus weeps at the tomb of Lazarus.

He concludes that now is the time to wait; to focus on God's love wherever we can; and, to look for this challenging time to breed "new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope," and new wisdom for our leaders.

Walter Brueggemann

God's New Thing

In his brief comments, Brueggemann says God can be at work through the pandemic without being its cause. The crisis exposes our societal systems, usually thought to be unassailable. Breuggemann concludes with reasons for hope. He points out unusual measures of compassion in the midst of crisis. He hopes this heightened compassion will become the new normal, and he relates this hope to Isaiah 43:18–19.
“Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.

John Piper

Coronavirus and Christ

John Piper emphasizes God's hand in the onset of the virus. Like the other voices, Piper avoids guessing why God sent the coronavirus. Instead, he encourages us to trust that God knows why, and that God is always working for good.
The secret is this: Knowing that the same sovereignty that could stop the coronavirus and doesn’t, is the very sovereignty that sustains the soul in it. Indeed, more than sustains — sweetens with hope that, for those who trust him, his purposes are kind, even in death.
Piper says God is working—not just in the coronavirus—but by it. God has a purpose for it. Our role is to worship and cherish the One who purposes all things, even this.

Stanley Hauerwas

You're Not Accepted (Podcast), Episode 6

The brief conversation in Stan's recent appearance on You're Not Accepted is kind of all-over-the-place. He mostly laments the absence of gathering (physically) for worship.

When asked about God's whereabouts, Hauerwas warns against using God as an explanation. After that, I'm not sure I understood his response. He seemed to say we can't pick and choose what events God is behind and which ones he isn't. I think that's what he meant.

He said more clearly that to understand God's interaction in history we need to start with his choosing Israel. He also recommends reading the Psalms if we want to contemplate God's relationship to earthly events.

Can any fruit come from this crisis? Stan hopes that a universal problem will ultimately lead to unity in thanksgiving.

The Presence of God

The one thing these guys most agree on is the presence of God. Tom Wright sees it in the fellowship of lament. Brueggemann sees it in remarkable compassion. Piper sees it in the virus, itself. (Maybe that's unfair. Read his letter to judge for yourself.) Stan sees it in the possibility of everyone realizing we are all God's children. (He says that more expressly than I alluded to above.)

They disagree on the matter of whether God authored the virus and the crisis. Hauerwas rejects the question. Piper says yes. Brueggemann says we don't know, but God can work in it regardless. Wright hints that God instigated the virus, and encourages us to draw near to God in faith with our question of why—even while understanding God does not owe us an answer.

O Lord, Be Gracious to Us

What is the way forward here? One thing we can do is to remember that now is not the first end of the world as we know it. It frightens us. It's fresh. It's closer to home than historical crises of such magnitude. But, we have always known that God is present. He is working in the world. He is altogether good. His ways and thoughts are higher than ours.

The contributions surveyed above all engage one or more of the following: lament, Psalms, and Isaiah. All three have much to tell us at this time, and we find the influence of all three in this simple prayer.
O Lord, be gracious to us; we wait for you.
Be our arm every morning,
our salvation in the time of trouble. (Isaiah 33:2)

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