Spiritual life in a pandemic

July 7th, 2020
This article is featured in the Growing Spiritually issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

Honestly, this is a post I hoped I wouldn’t have to write. But we remain in the grip of a growing pandemic, one that now weaves together the threads of virus and violence — medicine and morality, disease and dis-ease. This combination intensifies the complexity of our situation and increases our anxiety in the midst of it. I find myself drawn back into the question, “How then shall we live?”

Of course, there are a variety of vantage points from which to respond to the question. At the end of this piece, I offer two additional resources for responding to the question. In this blog I offer you my response. I have found instruction and inspiration from remembering and reconnecting with my identity as a disciple of Jesus Christ. The two salient features of the word disciple are learner and follower. These two qualities of my spiritual life are helping me live in the midst of the pandemic.

First, I am a learner.

This is true in terms of both the virus and the violence. I am not a doctor, and I am not among those who are being oppressed. Whatever else being a disciple means, right now it means committing to the spiritual discipline of deep listening. And for me, having lived every day of my life in the bubble of white privilege… and… functioning for decades in the preaching/teaching mode, the necessity for deep listening is a spiritual discipline. That is, it is going against the grain of my entitled status and my educator role — both of which dispose me to speak (and write) more than listen. Even this blog is a departure (hopefully momentary) from the practice of deep listening. 

I have discovered in my listening that I am not unique in my need to adopt the disposition of a learner. Others are feeling it too. Last week in her "Sunday Paper" Maria Shriver highlighted this need by sharing an excerpt from a note one of her friends sent her. It encapsulates our need to be learners these days,

“There is an awakening, but it is partial — not just some people and not others, but some parts of ourselves and not other parts. We’re at war within and without — between the new and the old. But I have total faith that we’re moving in the right direction. And yes, the awakening needs us. But it doesn’t need the part of us that says ‘the awakening needs us.’ It needs the humble part that longs to learn, not the arrogant part that wants to teach.”

These words gripped me because I am one, among many others, who believes we are on a path of awakening. Sadly, tragically … it is a path strewn with death and harm brought about by individual and collective inhumanity. But it is a path nevertheless. The words from Maria’s friend gripped me because they are a call to people like me (and many of you reading this) to adopt a learning disposition even as we do our best to exhibit tenacious solidarity and work for the common good. If we can have eyes to see this new day (Mark 8:18), we will recognize it is a moment pregnant with potential for disciples, for those willing to be learners.

I believe this is a particular kind of learning. It is the kind of learning Jesus invited his first followers to engage in — the learning which comes when we are willing to see old things in new ways. Six times in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard … but I say.” The learning to which we are called is one that comes from looking at life in a new way. This is the root meaning of repentmetanoia, having an enlarged mind, an expanded view. 

This kind of learning occurs when we refuse to make the status quo a sacred cow. It is the learning that happens when we listen to the voices of those previously ignored or silenced by prejudice and subjugation. It is the learning that takes place as we pay attention to the mystic/prophets, who in their own ways are telling us that God is doing a new thing. It is the learning which happens only when we are willing to take risks, form new relationships, and be labeled “defectors” by those who place a greater value on preserving the past than seeing how the past is evolving into the future as it passes through the refining fire of the present.

Spiritual life in the pandemic is adopting the disposition of a learner. Henri Nouwen called it “paying attention” and went on to say that attentiveness is the essence of the spiritual life.

And second, I am a follower.

The mindset of a learner becomes the movement of a follower. Christ is on the move, and I am to follow him in both my countenance and my conduct. This too can be described in more than one way. In this blog, I use the template given to us in the trilogy of faith, hope and love.

Faith … Spiritual life in a pandemic means trusting God in two ways simultaneously: for eternity (the long haul) and in time (the short run).

With respect to eternity it means we trust that the plan of God is moving forward despite the pandemic. That plan is described by Paul, “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). Put into the words of poetry, faith in the eternal outworking of God means believing that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” [1]. Because it is God’s plan (that is, flowing from God’s heart and accomplishing God’s will), we can sum up the eternal nature of it in two words: love wins.

With respect to time, faith means trusting that God works in history. God is with us, and nothing can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38). Faith in time means believing that God works in history for our good, through the wisdom and guidance of those who know the most about the viral pandemic — the medical community. Spiritual life in the viral pandemic means listening to the doctors and following their advice, not following the politicians and some pastors who would have us disregard the wisdom of science. “Have faith” is not a substitute for having common sense. Spiritual life in time of disease means being smart.

Faith in time means listening to the wisdom and guidance of those who know the most about the violence pandemic — the nonviolent community. Spiritual life in the violence pandemic means listening to peacemakers and following their advice, not following those who commend the use of “brute force” as the way to restore order. Spiritual life in a time of dis-ease means being calm.

Hope … Spiritual life in the pandemic means remaining confident that “this too shall pass.” We will get through this. [1] Confidence is the interior infrastructure that enables us to endure. It is what Jesus called “the good foundation” — the strength to weather the storm. Confidence says, “Nevertheless,” and says it over and over. Spiritual life as hope is the inhaling of the Spirit, the Strengthener, who makes real Jesus’ promise, “I am with you always.”

From that sacred center, hope gives rise to our willingness to do what we can to respect others (e.g. wearing masks and resisting brutality) and to be helpful. Hope is offering ourselves to God as instruments of God’s peace in the process of moving into the new normal. It is what Henri Nouwen called “active waiting.” It is the phrase from the children’s song that says, “everybody do your share.”

Love … Spiritual life in a pandemic means being rooted and grounded in love, which I take to be summarized in the two great commandments and the fruit of the Spirit. Living within these things, we apply them in two directions.

First we love ourselves. This is not selfishness, it’s survival. It means exercising self-care with respect to such things as reasonable precautions, conscientious hygiene, a good diet, and ample sleep. Frederick Buechner offers wise counsel about this, “Pay mind to your own life, your own health, and wholeness….Take care of yourself so you can take care of others. A bleeding heart is of no help to anyone if it bleeds to death.” [2] From that strength, we love others. This is what I meant above in the second dimension of hope, but there I was referring to willingness; here I am referring to motive. Love is the motive which ignites the driving force. Spiritual life in a pandemic is the life of love, turned inward and thrust outward. It is the life created by the union of contemplation and action.

Jesus said he came to give us abundant life (John 10:10). In a time of pandemic, we must “ask, seek, and knock” for it with determination, and we must recognize that it will fluctuate as we face new challenges and experience fatigue as we do so. But at the same time, abundant life is not an elusive butterfly. We can net it through the exercise of faith, hope, and love.

Taken together, learning and following provide a means to gain the perspective and to enact the words of the prophet, “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). Spiritual life in a pandemic means being a disciple. 

Two additional resources

Walter Brueggemann, Virus as a Summons to Faith (Cascade Books, 2020)

N.T. Wright, God and the Pandemic (Zondervan, 2020)

[1] From the hymn, “This is My Father’s World.”

[2] Paul Chilcote and I had recognized the need for a resurgence of hope, before the viral pandemic ever came on the scene. We decided to co-author a book about the recovery of hope. We had no idea it would come out at the very time the virus was raging. We wrote an Addendum to the original text that connected hope to the viral pandemic, even though the book is about finding hope whenever we need it. It’s entitled, Living Hope: An Inclusive Vision of the Future.

[3] Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 27-28.

Steve Harper is the author of For the Sake of the Bride and Five Marks of a Methodist. He blogs at Oboedire.

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