When you feel like your world is falling apart, the last thing you want to hear is that God is behind it. But that is what Michael Casey, a Cistercian monk, recently suggested in a daily reflection from the devotional Give Us This Day.
He writes: “In calling us to make the changes necessary if we are to progress toward a more abundant life, God does not always treat us with kid gloves. More often than we may suspect, shock therapy is the preferred means. Sometimes a seemingly accidental confluence of events demolishes the life we had.”
Really? That is enough to make you wish you could lose your faith. To be honest, I was disturbed when I read his reflection. For nine months I had already been experiencing shock therapy: No more teaching (I had retired), the clearing out of books and files, a broken foot, surgery, and no regular schedule. And then the pandemic. Conferences and events I had planned to attend were cancelled, speaking invitations dried up, and I could not even have lunch with friends or go to church. Was this really all God’s work?
And what about others less fortunate than me? So many are experiencing food insecurity, loss of childcare, eviction, serious illness, even death. For some believers — those whose theology rests easy with the idea that God is punishing, God is testing, God is refining, God breaks stuff — it is natural enough to want to see God’s hand somehow at work in all this. If Casey is right and that’s what it takes to move us on to a “more abundant life,” I think many would say, “You know, God, my life wasn’t perfect, but on second thought, it was good enough. Can’t I just go back to that?”
Perhaps you have heard it said that believers should never complain, or that they should even be thankful in all circumstances, no matter how negative. But is that possible during a global pandemic? So much is incredibly stressed or falling apart: our economy, our democracy, small businesses, schools, the medical establishment, mental health, the environment, our own lives. Although many people may feel like running away, this time there’s nowhere safe to escape to. Churches, often a place of comfort and connection, are doing the best they can to provide those benefits during the pandemic, but with fewer contributions and services devoid of physical interaction.
“You know, God, my life wasn’t perfect, but on second thought, it was good enough. Can’t I just go back to that?”
While these circumstances are unprecedented in our lifetimes, what does history teach us about times of widespread crisis? Sometimes out of great disaster comes great opportunity. Crises can reveal faults in the system and open many minds and hearts to dramatic solutions. The Bubonic Plague in the Middle Ages, for example – responsible for the death of one third of the world’s population – eventually prompted the end of feudalism, the creation of a middle class, and wage labor. The Great Depression in the 1930s led to several important social safety nets. When in 1952 London was enveloped in a deadly fog, the Clean Air Act of 1956 limited coal burning in cities.
On the other side of the coin, crises can change the world in negative ways. The shame and shock of Germany’s losing World War I eventually spurred the rise of Nazism. Here in the U.S. the Spanish Flu of 1918 prompted a fear of foreigners and a drive toward American isolationism. Great disasters can open the way for great opportunities; they can also lead to dramatically dangerous responses. The difference is our willingness to be open to creative, constructive and – most important – widely beneficial solutions.
The difference is our willingness to be open to creative, constructive and – most important – widely beneficial solutions.
Religious scholar Phyllis Tickle suggested that every 500 years the church holds a giant “rummage sale” where ineffective routines give way to a “great emergence”— that is, a spiritual revitalization. I contend that the exponential rise of those who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” is a clear warning sign that the church needs to change. Tickle predicted that we are now due for such a rummage sale because the last one, she says, was the Reformation—500 years ago. This rummage sale may be under way now, and the pandemic may be an accelerating factor. Churches are being forced to change their habitual ways. They’re getting creative in how they meet, worship, and offer support to one another under the conditions of the pandemic. Necessity may well be the mother of lasting invention, and renewal for the church.
But churches are only part of the solution to our present crisis. In this large and complex society, we need a wider positive response. What might this look like? How about the elevation of so-called “service workers” to places of importance, including decent pay, medical security, and respect? How about honoring not only military personnel and first responders, but teachers, nurses, orderlies, public transportation workers, farmers, those who work in food service for hospitals and nursing homes, and many others? How about protecting those immigrants who often do the essential work of planting, harvesting, roofing, animal husbandry, butchering, food processing, and other taken-for-granted necessities? Of course, we should not just praise essential workers but support them.
How about honoring … teachers, nurses, orderlies, public transportation workers, farmers, those who work in food service for hospitals and nursing homes, and many others?
So where is God in all of this? My understanding of God does not permit me to attribute calamity to divine intention, intervention, or even “shock therapy.” Instead, I think of God sadly observing the ignorance, habits, faults, bad choices, corruption, and outdated but ingrained patterns that have led to our suffering. I imagine God leaning back, assessing the situation and saying: “Well, okay, I can work with that.” But I also believe God does not force this assistance upon us. Instead, I see God offering us a hand and saying, “Come on, take my hand, walk with me and we will see what good can come out of this situation.”