A Summer Devotion for Young Harris College Students
A Russian train was stuck in the forest on a snowy night. All the famous leaders of the twentieth century on board. Lenin went forward to the cabin to re-educate the driver, but the train wouldn’t budge. Stalin went forward and shot the driver. Still, no one could move the train forward. Finally, Brezhnev went through the cabin closing all the curtains while telling the passengers the train was moving. 1
It’s a good parable to describe how we are dealing with the COVID19 pandemic in The United States.
Some of us are wearing masks, as we should, and trying to evangelize the country with how to keep the virus at bay. Others think we can beat the virus with brute force. “Go to work,” they say. “Open up schools. That’s the way the world works.” Nevermind, that’s actually only the way we’ve decided the world should work. My wife, Danielle, heard a little boy in the grocery say, “I’m going to shoot that virus with my gun!” American catechesis. There’s no enemy we can’t defeat. Others again resort to denial, naming this a conspiracy.
What I’ve noticed is that there are three drastically different responses to pandemic on the train, but what we all share in common (imagine that) is the frustration that the train isn’t moving as it should. COVID19 is forcing us to acknowledge our lack of control of a virus and one another. Call it a layover worse than anything that American Airlines could pull off.
Here’s the question for Young Harris: Is coming back to school a sign that the pandemic is ending? Or is it a curtain pulled over our eyes? Just because we invite you back on to campus doesn’t mean the train has started moving again. Don’t get me wrong—I want students back on campus. I long for students to fill the RCC, to worship together, break bread together, to be ten percent more immature. I long to spend less than six hours a day in my office. I’ve spent one hundred dollars on new artwork for my office and I can only afford to redecorate so many times. And by so many times, I really mean one more time.
Most of all, I long for the train to start moving again. Let’s get back to normal.
Curious phrase, back to normal. I’ve heard it said that every organization has a ‘back to Egypt committee.’ It refers to the Jews escape from slavery in Egypt and into the wilderness before Canaan. Egypt: the good days with the five star dining and easy labor. Israelites! You were enslaved. But at least there was a sense normalcy. This is all about fear of change, isn’t it? Well, maybe not change. I like the way that Heiftetz puts it better: “We don’t fear change, we fear loss.” I can think of plenty of changes I’d welcome with open arms— children who sleep in their own beds, for instance. It’s the changes that require loss that give me pause. I fear the day those kids don’t want to hold my hand.
Normal is never as good as you remember. Spoiler: the cafeteria is still the same cafeteria, which (‘unpopular opinion’) I don’t mind. Like the manna in the wilderness, it’s not world class, but there’s always enough. I think back on my time in school and seminary fondly. It was a blast. I never studied church history for ten hours at a Starbucks. And I never had a panic attack before delivering a sermon in front of some of the world’s best theologians. Nostalgia is seductive; it tells you what you want to hear and rarely tells the full truth.
Pre-COVID was hard. Don’t be fooled. And COVID has taught us about all the specific ways it was hard. We’ve been forced to acknowledge the truth about ourselves and our lives together. We’re human, which means we’re creatures. And creatures catch diseases from other creatures. We’ve come to gain the clarity that the economy was made for humans, not humans for the economy. Turns out that “unskilled laborers” are essential laborers and they should be paid what they’re worth. We’ve outsourced all of our social welfare to the education system. And so we feel forced to open schools, even during the most nebulous times, to care for one another. We’re coming to finally understand how our structures and systems cater to an ideology of whiteness.
Here’s one thing I hope Christians have learned: America isn’t your savior. It has failed you and it will fail you again. Shocking for White people to hear. Luckily, we follow Jesus. Not the state.
This is why so many of us are asking why we’re so concerned about getting the same train started? Isn’t it possible to readjust the speed, the track, the destination? We can tinker with the GPS, or change the voice on the system to Victor, the French sommelier. Like the viral instagram post says, “In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.” Or as Bonhoeffer says, “if you board the wrong train, there is no use in running down the corridor in the opposite direction.”
But that’s beside the point. The real problem, and I take this from Sam Wells, is the word ‘back.’ You can never go back to anything. Our first (second—third—fourth) naivetes about the way the world works have been shattered. Our eyes have been opened.
This isn’t altogether worth lamenting.
The Bible is never too interested in going back to normal. 2 It’s always interested in envisioning a new normal. Thank God. I think of someone like Isaiah writing in exile, whisked away from everything normal. For fifty years, Israel said, “I want to go home.” I miss the way life used to be. But they didn’t stop there, right, they went one step further and dared to utter even more hopeful words, 'I want to go home—to a different kind of home.”
Our life together moves through disorientation, which paves the way for reorientation. What is cutback is used to provide the the life-force for new growth and change. A shoot will come up from the stump. The future that was cut off prematurely will be re-imagined. A new tree will grow that will provide shade for all of God’s creatures, with branches for all of the birds to perch. I want home to be different. More just, equitable, merciful.
We can start making adjustments to our life together—questioning our idolatry of the market, considering where our bodies will take up space on campus and who will take up space alongside of us. How can we abide by the necessary requirements to keep our community safe? Will our administration follow through on promises on diversity and equity? Ask yourself the question why you’re even attending college and who do you want to become when it’s over? And then, ask yourself the question again.
I’ll close with this: Is it a mistake to reopen? I don’t know. That’s the question we’re all asking. We have some reason to believe that we can do this safely, but it also depends on your response when you get here. Some say we could nip this thing significantly if we just wear masks for four weeks. You’re going to have to believe someone about COVID19. I choose to believe the ones who err on the side of love and humility. It also doesn't hurt to believe the ones who have degrees.
What I do know is this: eventually, the train will start moving again. When it does, I pray that we’ve not just changed the track or the speed. I pray that we’ve found ourselves on a different train altogether—one that’s moving toward a completely different city.
Don’t go back to normal. Go forward to the kingdom of God.
Oh yeah, one more thing: wear a mask.
Earth Day Sermon for YHC: Second Sunday of Easter
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas tells his ecstatic friends, “I don’t believe you.” Or more emphatically, “I’ll never believe you.” That is, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side.”
The other disciples claimed they had seen Jesus. But that's hard to believe after he was nailed to a 2x4 and thrown in a stone tomb guarded by a Roman soldier. There are more reasonable explanations. Take conspiracy, for example. Resurrection was a grand plan cooked up by a leftist, religious movement on behalf of a failed messiah who was supposed to restore Israel and usher in the kingdom of God. It's just politics. In reality, he died a lonely and embarrassing death. That makes sense. Ockham's razor, right?
Thomas tells his friends that he needs to experience it. He needs to move his fingers along his raised, scarred skin.
John gives us this story about Jesus, of course, but it's also helpful as a parable about doubt and belief. Thomas, the patron saint of doubt, continues to live among us. Humanity will always be slow to believe anything that changes the status quo or demands us to reimagine the world and our place in it, particularly resurrection, which is scientifically unprecedented. But today folks are having an equally difficult time believing that morgues are really saturated with dead bodies from a pandemic.
If I'm going to believe it, then I need to experience it.
Thomas is the Easter saint we need to unearth every Earth Day--the vicarious representative of a numbed and desensitized, or plain resistant, population. Today, well-meaning climate evangelists will be standing on the street corner of Instagram and Facebook spouting statistics about sea-levels, soil quality, and biodiversity.
The coral reefs are disappearing at an alarming rate! Half of Florida will be gone by the end of the century! They might as well be holding a cardboard sign that reads, 'The End Is Near. Repent and Believe.'
Thomas is watching, eyes glazed over. I don't believe you. Didn't you hear about the conspiracy from the failed political movement that's desperately seeking power? It's always about partisan politics. Sounds like propaganda. His blood pressure is starting to rise. It's a little like trying to tell a sixty-five year old man that his pork sandwich will accelerate heart disease. Who wants to live longer, but sacrifice smoked ribs (or cheap clothes, nice cars, and convenient food)?
Or maybe there's another form of Thomas that's even more insidious: the jaded liberal. This is the Thomas who is dejected and numb, boarded up in an apartment of his own fear because he knows that any kind of environmental change is about as likely as physical resurrection. Evangelize all you want on Facebook, but statistics won't stop humanity from guzzling the gas and it definitely won't stop large corporations from chain-smoking fossil fuels.
"We can make a difference," the hopeful disciple might say. "Just look at the impact social distancing is having on our ecological life. We have seen new life: pollution is down and air quality has been improved by eight-five percent in some places. Forms of wildlife are returning to various habitats that they had vacated. Furbies, which haven't been seen since the early nineties, have re-entered the forests."
Call me cynical, but a photograph of a happy dolphin and the sound of bird chirping isn't likely to create lasting changes in personal habits or deter an entire economic system that's premised on commoditization and consumerism.
"I want to see," Thomas says. "Unless I experience the joy and promise of resurrection, I won't believe. And I don't care."
Thomas, the first Christian existentialist, reminds the church that fear and facts aren't great catalysts for belief and changed behavior. A Christian ecological ethic must be based on something other than a judgment house. It must be about love and hope.
In other words, Thomas needs relationship.
Most of us have some kind of intellectual understanding of our relationship with nature. We're either college educated or in the midst of a college education. We learn things like this: fossil fuels? Bad. Recycling? Good. Carbon footprint? Monitor. The problem is that many of us don't have any actual experience of being a part of a complex ecological system, though Young Harris is doing a good job to remedy that. We think we live in an urbanized, 'post-agricultural' world that is so separated from the land that we don't even recognize the smell of a cow. Why should we care about ecology when produce magically arrives at the grocery and water out of a faucet?
A professor of creation care and food, Norman Wirzba, once challenged our seminary class to grow a tomato plant. There's an easy grade, I thought. I'd much rather grow a plant than to write another paper. To my surprise, I learned that I knew nothing about the very soil of my life. It's much easier to memorize the facts and the figures about climate change than to be in relationship with the earth. Does one just sprinkle a little dirt over a seed? There are holes in the leaves, does that mean I should water it more? Less? Not at all? Did you know that soil has an acidity level?
Suddenly, I began to care about the dirt in my backyard. It's never about the facts and the figures. It's always about the relationship. One silver-lining of pandemic is that COVID 19 is teaching us about the vastly interconnected nature of the world, but we as Christians have known this all along. This is a distinctly Christian way of thinking about the world.
Wirzba taught us that the best way to make a significant change in our ethical framework is to put your body in contact with the 'other,' whether that's a piece of fruit or the farmer who picks it. Permit me to play with the Thomas story a little longer: unless we see the scars caused by monoculture farming and put our fingers in the soil, we won't believe in its crucifixion or its eventual resurrection. The earth is not the body of God, don't accuse me of pantheism, but the earth is pervaded by God's Spirit. It's possible that the church needs Jesus to guide our hands into the wounds we've caused on creation if we'll ever receive the hope that new life is possible.
The Thomas story reminds us that there's one other relationship that matters more than anything else, even more than our interaction with the physical world. It's our relationship with Jesus. Jesus' resurrected body gives us hope for a new world. We may have poisoned the earth, depleted habitats, and over-farmed the earth and seas. We've already caused irreparable and irreversible damage to the world and we will never go back to previous patterns of living. But sustainability isn't an insurmountable problem.
Resurrection reminds us that there is no end to God's creativity. No crucifixion is beyond God's redemption. We can destroy the material, including ourselves and the created order, but we can't seem to destroy the life-sustaining force of God in 'whom we live and move and have our being.' Even a self-imposed extinction of our own species, wouldn't be the final line in God's story.
Jesus' resurrection appearance to Thomas reveals to us that God hasn't discarded the material world, even if we have, which has been the plot of God's story all along that comes to a climax in Jesus. Here, we discover a God who climbed into a woman’s womb to bed fed through an umbilical cord. In Jesus, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. And God climbs back into skin and gives us a new way to imagine the world. Jesus doesn't reappear as a disembodied soul waiting to fly away to heaven. He walks out of the grave and looks for food until he scores some broiled fish.
When Thomas finally meets Jesus, and touches his nail-scarred body, he exclaims, "My Lord and my God." Our Catholic brothers and sisters say the same in Latin, Dominus meus et Deus Meus, whenever the Priest elevates the consecrated bread and chalice. Reveal to us the mystery of the divine in the material, O God.
For Christians, Earth Day has no significance without resurrection. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus shows us that the material is infused with the heavenly and that the heavenly is infused with the earthly—a hypostatic union between the divine and the material. Christ resides in a particular flesh so that there might be no material where Christ's Spirit doesn't reside—in our neighbor, the streams and oceans, the mountains and fields of wheat. The bread and wine at the communion table.
We care about the environment because we've encountered the risen Jesus who shows us what it means to call creation good. And to be in relationship with Jesus is to be in relationship with the natural world he created, redeemed, and is sustaining with the very life force of God's breath. Resurrection was never about your soul. It’s about defeating death. It’s the healing of creation. God has not discarded creation for heaven. Neither should you. In the resurrection, God doubled down on the goodness of the earth.
So come, touch and see that the world is good.
The other day I ran into a stranger at the college campus where I work, which is now like coming across a unicorn or more appropriately, Bigfoot. Most academics take their social distancing as seriously as they take themselves. He was on a morning walk and I was walking to the chapel to pray. The noonday stranger apparently thought that the pandemic was at least seventy-five percent exaggerated as he stepped closer to me and stuck out his hand--the very place where a virus might be taking a nap! I tried to mind my manners and talk with him about the weather. "At least it's sunny," I said, as I took a few, short steps backward. It's equally possible that he came to the well in the heat of midday starved for connection.
Much of the world is learning something that Christians have known all along: relationships make us human beings. When I say you are created in the image of God, I stand with Bonhoeffer and say that you are human because of your engagement with the other and not through some biological characteristic. It's part of the meaning of a doctrine like the Trinity, a three-in-one God in perfect communion with each other. The Trinity is hard to explain and three-leaf clovers don't make it any easier. Here's what I do understand: God is a perfect reciprocity of love and we're called into the same vocation. We're human because we attend to others. We're capable of loving and being loved.
The irony, of course, is that this pandemic calls us to sacrifice a part of our humanity to ensure our own survival and the health of our neighbors. Look, we're living in strange times. I prefer to describe this period of life as a Netflix movie made on a whim with a cheap budget: COVID-19. Starring Nicolas Cage, of course. It's an imitation of a full, robust life where most people are on edge or depressed. Our friends and relatives are trapped in screens and Zoom meetings. Or, we go to the grocery check out line to pay for beer, the essentials, and the grocery clerk immediately sanitizes her hands and sprays the debit chip reader with a stream of Lysol. It's a bullet to our humanity.
The travesty of pandemic is that the external world is transformed into a threat, fostering a climate of fear and distrust. Everything that breathes has the potential to spread disease. How's that for the image of God and the goodness of the world? It's hard enough to love the material world when it's not held captive by a flu on steroids. And now we have to love ourselves and the world while desperately needing a hair cut. When we're most alienated from each other, the physical world, and our very own bodies, it's only a small step to feel disconnected from the God who gave us a material world and called it 'good.'
How good is it, really?
At the apex of holy week, we cry out with Jesus, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Here's a God who dies on a cross, but we learn that the horror of the crucifixion is not the physical pain. It's forsakenness. The pain more profound than physical—it’s not just his hands and his legs. It’s the torment of an empty heart. Jesus doesn't have a hand to hold. The deepest form of suffering is the simultaneous alienation from the body, the community, and God. Jesus had the triple threat. So will many of us.
My isolation is compounded by the lack of meaningful work to contribute to my community besides the development of two small children through microwaved chicken nuggets and watered down apple juice with occasional lessons on reading and good manners. The youngest is still trying to nail down the color 'blue.' The work is abusive and thankless. We frantically ask each other, 'what can I do to help?' And the best thing we can do right now is to stay home. To make matters worse, the world is still revolving, I think, despite my lack of contribution to the spinning. The vanity of life! Is this all there is?
Where's the humanity, again?
I started playing in the dirt, getting a summer garden ready. Nothing is safe, well, except the dirt. Not to mention that dirt is cheaper than CBD oil and possibly more effective for stress relief. I've learned that I'm not making a novel discovery as I take my evening walks around the neighborhood. There are kids rolling around in the dirt like dogs who have found the grossest spot in the lawn. I've also noticed that a spring quarantine is a middle-aged dad's dream come true—there's unlimited time for landscaping right as everything starts to bloom. It's seventy-five degrees and perfect and neighbors line their porches.
Look, it worked for Adam and Eve in Genesis. The land, more specifically the garden, was the first place we learn to become human beings. God the Gardener charges the first humans to till and love Eden. In other words, God calls humanity to plant, nurture, and celebrate the goodness of the material world. We become adamah by taking evening walks with God in the garden, paying attention to the sparrows and lilies, which have always been on the forefront of God's mind. Together, we put our hands in the dirt to co-create, nurture, and celebrate life.
A friend recently shared a poem by Scott Cairns who describes the creation of humanity in a playful, midrashic way:
"Then, YHWH lay back, running His hands over the damp grasses, and in deep concentration reached into the soil, lifting the great handful of trembling clay to His lips, which parted to avail another breath.
With this clay He began to coat His shins, cover His thighs, His chest. He continued layering, and, when he had been wholly interred, He parted the clay at His side, and retreated from it, leaving the image of Himself to wander in what remained of that early morning mist."
This primordial story helps us climb back into the goodness of our skin. We are a clay cast of God, sculpted from the dirt that God animated with God's own breath. Of course, the unbelievable part of Christianity is that God later re-covered Godself in the mud to live among us. In the incarnation God has come and touched our lives to show us the true image of humanity. And if we give ourselves to the dirt, whether on the ground or in a more complex form called 'human,' we're reflecting the image of God.
Most of us are estranged from the people we hold most dear, but a great way to look up to God is by looking at the ground beneath our feet. When the material is a threat to be feared, the world can still feel good again--at least for an afternoon. Grow a plant. Build a sand castle. Go for a run. Pick the tulips and smell them. You'll feel a little more connected to your body and the patch of land you call 'home.'
There's this story in the Gospel of John, where Jesus picks up mud and lathers it on a blind man so that he can see again. May God lather our eyes with dirt, too, and give us eyes to see the blessing of being human even amidst disease and fear.
This spring I've been amazed by the number of earthworms in the soil as I've tended to the garden. I'm continually surprised at the complex matrix of life under my feet, that which is seen and unseen. The worms thrash around, disturbed by a large metal spade they never saw coming. I was always taught as a kid to save as many earthworms as possible. "They're good for the soil," mom said. Unfortunately, I struck one or two with the shovel; it wasn't intentional. Regardless, there I am, a terrorist to whatever makes its home in the dirt.
The world is not a safe place, not even the dirt, and yet it also produces ripe tomatoes and cucumbers. It's cognitive dissonance. There is a pandemic and there's the twilight hour when the sunlight is perfect and the kids are riding bikes around the neighborhood. I go for a run and the sweat drips to cool my body and that feels good, even in a body that has the propensity to carry disease. There are ways to climb back into the cast that God left behind, to feel the goodness of the material world again.
In a couple months, there will be some kind of plant in the dirt that I disturbed--a defiant sign of hope and goodness. Disease will threaten to kill it, but I will watch over it with vigilance. I'll be human, again, fashioned in the image of a gardener God who watches over us even as disease threatens to take our lives. One day, even further down the road, this plant will bear some kind of fruit. The fruit will make its way to our dinner table where we will celebrate the goodness of life with friends. We will touch and laugh and bear God's image for one another. Invisible grace made visible. A sacrament and the material made holy.
Easter begins in a garden, where the dead becomes compost for new growth and a body walks out of a tomb. It starts in dirt and ends in dirt. It will begin again from the ground because the earth, and all that is in it, is good. In the meantime, you can find me in the dirt—in all of it's fragility and wonder, just like you and me
There’s a vacillation between garden and wilderness, orientation and disorientation, throughout Scripture. There is prosperity and exile. You know, Gardens symbolize health—floral blooms and broccoli. But every gardener knows that no matter how hard you try to keep wilderness out, wilderness always finds a way into the garden, like a groundhog that sneaks in and eats all of your freshly planted cucumbers.
In the beginning of Genesis, the cosmos was chaos, a wilderness, until God ushered in this order and formed a world. On the sixth day of creation, God plants adamah (Adam), or these divine-dirt people, in the garden of Eden. That’s fine until they’re cast out into the wilderness. In the wilderness, Cain murders Abel. That’s the way it works. A Psalm of praise is quickly followed by a Psalm of lament—or two—or three. Don’t forget that there’s more prayers of lament than praise.
The wilderness conjures up different images in our imagination, usually Arizona or New Mexico. Tumbleweed, cacti, and the Breaking Bad RV with its methamphetamine exhaust billowing out of cracked windows.
In Scripture, the wilderness takes innumerable shapes. It’s the Israelites wandering for forty years before entering the land of milk and honey. There, they learned about sharing bread. Or, it’s Noah rocking on the ark through wind and wave on the ark as he cares for creation by scrubbing donkey cages and feeding camels. Elijah flees to the wilderness, Jonah enters the wilderness through a fish’s mouth, John the Baptist goes to the desert to call for repentance. Jesus was hurled there Spirit in the wilderness for forty days of temptation. All of these periods of wilderness were used to remind the people of their identity.
We’re in the season of Lent, which is the church’s wilderness season of fasting, repentance, and self-denial. Couple that with a pandemic, and we’re in the middle of a desert without any streams of water or toilet paper. Except my older brother, he bought a bidet this year and now he’s just relishing his good fortune. There’s no anesthesia this year; we go all the way in and there’s no trail out.
People have asked me, ‘how do I be a Christian during this season—the wilderness season?’ The real answer is this: I don’t know. None of of us have lived through a pandemic. We’re all making this up as we go along. We follow the best advice given to us by physicians, like practice physical distancing, which doesn’t mean social distancing. Hugs are illegal, relationships aren’t. You can still connect with each other through screens and cards with stamps.
Those are all good things, but they don’t seem very heroic. A lot of people I know wish that they could do more. It makes the church feel a little puny, right?
I wonder if we’re forgetting about one of the greatest streams in the Christian tradition—monasticism. The wisdom of our tradition reminds us that we have mothers and fathers who know the spiritual nourishment of being alone. I mean, these are the kinds of people who voluntarily quarantine themselves into deeper union with God. They choose wilderness.
What would it be like to practice a kind of monasticism for a season?
In the 3rd Century, ancient Christians escaped to the desert just as Christianity was gaining a degree of prominence. The church began to cozy up to the Roman Empire and disciples of Jesus had to flee metropolitan centers to live out true discipleship in the deserts of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. This is the rationale: if everyone is a Christian, is anyone really a Christian? The original hipsters. If everyone wears flannel, does flannel even mean anything anymore?
Many Christians began to worry that they were more faithful when they were less comfortable—like when they were being eaten by lions or burned at the stake to light up Nero’s dinner parties. They had to leave their comfortable houses to really practice Christianity; they had to get away to take stock of their lives. It’s as if the stars in the sky can only be seen when all of the lights are turned off.
These Christians began to live simply; all they needed was a set of clothing, a Bible, and some straw to weave a basket. One of my professors used to put it this way: people started taking Christianity seriously enough to give up money, sex, and power. That’s crazy. But it’s an interesting kind of crazy. They found their sustenance in the one thing that can’t be taken away—Jesus. Everything else is in this world is up for grabs, so you might as well put it to death now. The monks made their homes in tombs and caves, dying to themselves, and emerging out of the dark born again. And the wilderness was transformed—no longer a desert, but a sanctuary of God’s love. 1
Sometimes God calls Christians into solitude—to be planted so deeply into the soil that they can’t be seen. But when they sprout they’ll provide shade for the whole church. Soon, the desert had become a city, as Christians began to flock to the wilderness to experience something of God.
This was the beginning of a tradition that bled into new expressions of monasticism. Later, the church gave us St. Benedict who developed a rule for an alternate way of communal life together based on ora et labora, or praying and working, together. Francis renounced his father’s wealth and began to beg for alms; a decade later there were five thousand friars in Europe. And then, there’s Ignatius and Teresa and Luther and Julian of Norwich and on and on.
In every generation, God uses monasticism to teach us how to be the church once again—that simplicity, solitude, and prayer. The rhythms of grace. Now, let me be careful not to romanticize the wilderness; it usually sucks. And it hurts. The desert fathers battled with demons—constantly. And the world laughed. By the way, do you know what they complained about most often? Boredom. Instead of running from it, they faced this ‘noonday’ demon head on.
This season is incredibly lonely, but I think we can start to learn how to become alone in the right ways. The Christian tradition has made a distinction between loneliness and solitude. When you are alone, does it feel like loneliness or solitude? They’re so similar, yet they’re antonyms. Loneliness is being alone with despair, while solitude is being alone with a purpose—with God. Paul Tillich puts it this way, “loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.” The monastic communities teach us about solitude, not loneliness.
Solitude teaches us to be with ourselves. Think back to your life three weeks ago and the pervasive busyness. Now, many of us are wide open. Here’s the bad news: you can’t distract yourself. Not with meetings, extracurriculars, or even church—loud music by Hillsong United. We can’t cover our nakedness, as did Adam and Eve when they became conscious of their humanity. One of the gifts of this season, if we can call anything a gift, is the chance to take a step back from the busyness and consumerist values that rule our lives like a grueling slave master.
The desert fathers used to have this mantra: “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” There, in our cells, we’re face to face with things we cannot escape. Mother Teresa used to say that “God is a friend of silence.” And our problem is that we’re enemies of silence. Silence makes us profoundly uncomfortable. And I don’t mean external silence; it’s the internal silence that is difficult. We get quiet and suddenly there’s anger, fear, distraction, self-doubt. When all of that is uncovered, we’re forced to take it to God or a neighbor for consolation.
Evagrius, a desert father, advised his followers to divide oneself into two parts: “a consoler and the other, the object of the consolation.”
Sounds a bit like cognitive behavioral therapy.
I’ve also noticed this: the church is moving back into rhythms of prayer. At any given moment, I’ll pull up facebook or instagram and one of my friends is praying. Granted, I have a lot of friends who are pastors. Still, we’re lifting our voices to God in the morning, midday, evening, and at night with compline. They have simple, paired down music—a cappella voices or a simple strum of the guitar. A few candles flicker in the screen. It’s as if the church is learning to love Scripture and prayer again. It feels a bit monastic, doesn’t it?
“By our prayers, the world is kept moving,” said the early desert fathers. Can we treasure this time alone in the quiet with God? Structure your life in the rhythms of prayer. Pray in the morning. Pray at noon. Pray before bed. Let prayer be the lifeblood of your day.
One last thing on solitude: tribalism has evaporated at least for a season and we’re acting like the church—together. Though we’re alone, we’ve been brought together by virtue of wireless internet and the waters of our baptism. We’re starting to realize that guests and strangers are to be received as a new incarnation of Christ. How monastic of us! Some of the desert fathers would say, “We don’t retreat from the world, we retreat for the world.”
Our inwardness is meant to turn us outward and compassion becomes the fruit of solitude. Maybe the Corona virus is leading us to realize just how deeply we need each other and how intertwined our lives are with one another. We can’t live alone. Maybe most of all we’ve learned that we can’t live without God. The God who created us out of community, won’t save us without community.
And so may the church learn again the rhythms of solitude, prayer, and community. In other words, may we learn something of monasticism.
1. This was Jason Byassee's observation--somewhere.