We continue to remain in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the challenge of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, the threads of virus and violence — medicine and morality, disease and dis-ease, weave together to challenge our everyday lives. As this combination intensifies the complexity of our situation and increases our anxiety in the midst of it we find ourselves drawn back into the question, “How then shall we live?”
I find instruction and inspiration from remembering that we are disciples of Jesus Christ. The two salient features of the word disciple are learner and follower. These two qualities of spiritual life help us to 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 preaching role, both of which dispose me to speak (and write) more than listen.
Maria Shriver recently wrote on her blog “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.” I believe we are on a path of awakening. Sadly, it is a path strewn with harm brought about by individual and collective inhumanity
The words from Maria 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 work for the common good. If we can have eyes to see this new day (Mark 8:18), we will recognise it is a moment pregnant with potential for disciples, for those willing to be learners. 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.”
This kind of learning occurs when we refuse to make the status quo a sacred cow. We may be called to be peace makers but we are not called to simply keep the peace. Remember Jesus himself said “I bring not peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). 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
And second, I am a follower.
The mindset of a learner must become the movement of a follower. Christ is always on the move, and we are to follow him. This too can be described in more than one way. I use the model given to us in the second trinity – 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). In Western Christianity we are pretty good at the first but we would rather trust in our own strength and wisdom for the second.
With respect to faith in 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).
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 ministers 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 and constantly remembering that ‘God is with us, and nothing can separate us from God’s love’ (Romans 8:38). “Have faith” is no excuse for ignoring the call for justice neither is telling those who suffer injustice that they will ‘get their reward in heaven’.
Hope. Spiritual life in the pandemic means remaining confident that “this too shall pass.” Confidence 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, as the Strengthener, who makes real Jesus’ promise, “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20)
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.
Love. Spiritual life in a pandemic means being rooted and grounded in love, which can be summarised in the two great commandments, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and your neighbour as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:37,38), and the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26). 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. As Friedrich Buechner says “Pay mind to your own life, your own health, and wholeness. A bleeding heart is of no help to anyone if it bleeds to death.” (Telling Secrets, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991)
From the strength of that inner love, we love others. Love is the motive which ignites the driving force to reach out to others. 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.
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 true disciple of Jesus.
God bless and stay safe,
* ‘Come let us sing of wonderful love’ – Robert Walmsley (Singing the faith 443)