Lent in the Time of Coronavirus

 

“I’m telling you a solemn truth: unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains all by itself. If it dies, though, it will produce lots of fruit. If you love your life, you’ll lose it. If you hate your life in this world, you’ll keep it for the life of the coming age.” -the gospel according to John, 12: 24-25

These words of Jesus were in response to Andrew and Philip. They came to Jesus saying that some Greeks would like to meet him. It seems to be a strange response for a simple request. But Jesus, noting that the “world” was coming to him for answers and for salvation, speaks of his coming death and the means to a resurrected life by following the same vocation. His words define the essence of Lent.

From the earliest days of the church, times of self-examination and self-denial have been observed. The origin of this practice may have been for the preparation of new Christians for Baptism and a reset of their lives. 2020 and the Lenten season is upon us and with it the government recommended “Stay in Place” until April 30th. Easter (April 12th), resurrection day, is the celebratory end of Lent and a restart to new life dependent on what takes place during Lent.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a worldwide intense focus on physical and financial well-being, As we each hunker down and remain sequestered away from the coronavirus, anxiety is compounded: we want to know if we’ll be OK; we want to know where all of this is going and how it will end. The Greeks who wanted to meet Jesus and first-century Jews with their age-old anticipation for a Messiah to set the world to rights had similar concerns.

It is said that Luke, writer of a gospel account and the Acts of the Apostles, was a Greek physician. This being the case, he would testify, if present today, to the infirmities leading to vast numbers of death in the first century. He would recount that there was all manner of infectious diseases, smallpox, parasitic infections, malaria, anthrax, pneumonia, tuberculosis, polio, skin diseases including leprosy, head lice and scabies and, more. Dr. Luke would be the first to tell you that first-century remedies were ineffectual against the afflictions mentioned.

Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, would tell us how Stoic and Epicurean philosophers dealt with grim reality surrounding them.

The Stoics, around the same time as Epicurus, posited a grim fatalist outlook. Considering themselves cogs in life’s machinery, their response was to lead a virtuous life in spite of “it all”. Materialism and passions were of no interest to them. “No Fear” and apathy towards life’s randomness were the attitudes they wore on their shoulder to appear non-self-pitying. They also advocated for suicide -the ultimate form of self-pity.

The philosophy of Epicureanism, posited by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) a few centuries before the birth of Christ, offered mankind self-pity with license. Per Epicurus, there was no God or the gods were uninvolved with men. And, for him, there was no life after death. So, mankind had to make the best of the atoms he was dealt. Man was to do so by avoiding pain and seeking pleasure in the company of like-minded friends. Self-pity could be dealt with in intimate and safe surroundings.

Around the first century Epicureanism and Stoicism were evident in Greek, Roman and Pagan life. These philosophies gave words to what was inherent in man from his days in the Garden – a narrative of mis-trust in God. During the first century these philosophies were already fused with pantheism and the zeal to worship pagan deities.

To seek relief, paganism, an early form of Progressivism, enjoined pagans to offer the distant gods sacrifices to secure their well-being. Israel, called to be the people of God, chose to lament – asking God to respond to dire circumstances according to revealed His nature. Many of the Psalms are worship-infused petitions invoking remembrances of God’s ability to save and vows to praise Him as he does so again.

Psalm 13

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
 How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

 But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me

In the news reports we hear “unprecedented” many times over. Yet, this pandemic is no Black Swan event. History records pandemics, plagues, earthquakes, famines and, all manner of tragedies affecting mankind. In my previous post I mentioned weathering last century’s Asian flu pandemic. And though our response to the current pandemic is “unprecedented” mankind will continue to suffer from unexpected devastating events. Mankind will continue to ask, as did the psalmist (Psalm 22), “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?” We read above that the psalmist has put his trust in God’s unfailing love. He awaits God’s salvation knowing that God has acted to save a remnant of the faithful before.

Lent, this Lent in particular, is a time to lament. We want to know if we’ll be OK; we want to know where all of this is going and how it will end. Asking God to consider the dire circumstances and to answer according to his nature, is a conversation to foster during Lent. It is a time to consider that there is an advocate – the Word Incarnate – who pleads for us before the throne of God. He does so with ‘real-world’ experience.

The Son of God entered the unsanitary disease-filled world described above. He is fully aware of the pain, suffering and groaning of his creation and of man’s philosophies, with its grains of thought which produce no fruit. He did not come to give us social justice platitudes. He did not come to create a Progressive party and overthrow the establishment. If, as God-man, he had not made the sacrifice to redeem his creation, then he would have “remained alone” as a philosopher with platitudes. He came instead, as he stated to Andrew and Philip, to be a grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies in order to bring forth much fruit in his creation.

Per Jesus’ example, Lent is a time to become a grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies, dies to the flesh on the world’s self-preservation life-support. It is a time to cultivate healthy spiritual habits, habits that produce the fruits that Jesus spoke about when his time of sacrifice was approaching.

As a season for Christians to mark time and to “Stay in Place”, apart for a time from the world’s pervasive influence, Lent is a time for Christians to hunker down, revise routines, and to focus on what matters. It is a time of reflection, repentance and, renewal. It is a time for fasting, growth and, a return to silence and simplicity.

As we do so, we may find that the silver lining we had purchased in the moment, in the midst of dark days of stress and difficulty, was in exchange for thirty pieces of silver. We may learn that the investments we have made – time-wise, financially and morally – are insufficient to carry us forward. We may find that we have greatly leveraged ourselves to control larger and larger positions in life, positions that are more than we can handle. We may have done so to gain acceptance and security from the world. But now there are margin calls we are unable to pay. This may cause us to look to for more security from the world or to God. During this time, we may also learn that our God-given discernment has been used to criticize others and their “sins” and not for intercession on behalf of them.

 

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic ‘exile’, we may be wishing “If only someone would push RESET and we could get on with our lives as before”. A RESET button has been pushed. Jesus of Nazareth, very God of very God and the Word made flesh, came into the world to reset all narratives, including the historical Judaic narrative, by keeping his covenant promises. The epigraph, words to both Greeks and Jews, tells us how.

The resurrection of Jesus is the greatest RESET and the only one that really matters. With it, the power of death had been defeated. Remember Jesus telling Martha at the time of Lazarus’s death, “I am the resurrection and the life. And anyone who believes in me will live, even if they die.” (John 11: 25-26) Yes, Jesus wept at the overwhelming sorrow caused by Lazarus’ death. But he knew that he would overcome death and that there would be rejoicing in the new-life fruit his death and resurrection would produce.

Lent in the Time of the Coronavirus is a time for Christians to plant the grain-of-wheat RESET and to be ready to go on with their lives as never before.

The Summing Junction

 

We first meet Saul of Tarsus in Dr. Luke’s historical account The Acts of the Apostles.

 

But they yelled at [Stephen] at the tops of their voices, blocked their ears, and made a concerted dash at him. They bundled him out of the city and stoned him. The witnesses laid their cloaks down at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Now Saul was giving his consent to Stephen’s death.

That very day a great persecution was started against the church in Jerusalem…

-Acts of the Apostles, chapter 7 vs. 58 and chapter 8 vs.1.

 

The young man named Saul, born sometime 9-15 years after the birth of Jesus, lived in a first century milieu of Jewish tradition and Torah, of covenants and commemorating, of prayers and psalms and, of Sabbaths and synagogues. In such an environment Saul learned early on that it was God’s people against the goyim – the rest of the world (e.g., David vs. Goliath).

The Jews looked for and prepared themselves for the return of the Messiah who would save his people from world rulers – Rome in the immediate- and bring justice and restore God’s Temple presence among his people. Zealous for God and Torah, the Jews of Saul’s day were resolute in their desire to see this happen. Some of the zealous were “using force against force” zealous, recalling the zealous acts of Judas Maccabeus against the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes 200 years before. Jewish revolutionaries wanted to force change against Roman rule. Others, like Saul, sought to live pious lives in expectation of the salvation to come. They kept their simmering violent zealousness under lid until such time as needed.

Saul studied the Torah, every jot and tittle, under the Rabbi Gamaliel. Politically, Gamaliel was not eager to push an agenda. The Rabbi was more “live and let live” towards Rome. Young Saul was more how can one go on living like this when one knows these things?

We recognize Saul’s Rabbinic training from his letters written to new churches. As mentioned above, we first meet Saul of Tarsus at the onset of persecution of the truly revolutionary – the Christian. I find it interesting to wonder about what we don’t know about Saul in those times.

Before the stoning, did Saul hear Stephen speak as he stood before the religious council? (Acts 7) Did he hear Stephen recount Israel’s history as the people of God and God’s dealing with them, a stiff-necked people? Did Saul sneer when he heard those words? Did Saul hear Stephen proclaim, “Look! I can see the heaven opened, and the son of man standing at God’s right hand!” Did Saul gnash his teeth at such a claim? Was Saul one of the men who dragged Stephen out the door to the stone pit? We know from Dr. Luke’s account that Saul was the moral vestment check at the scene of Stephen’s stoning.

Where was Saul when Jesus was crucified? I would have little doubt that Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee, had heard about the sky darkening and about the Temple curtain being rent in two. Both ominous events were sure to alarm any pious Jew.

Where was Saul when Jesus was resurrected? I have no doubt that Saul had heard the reports from all quarters of Jerusalem. This news must have been unsettling for someone who knew the Law and the Prophets and wasn’t able to see such a scenario depicted in the Torah. Even more unsettling, Jesus declared himself equal with God and Stephen claimed he saw Jesus as equal with God, standing at God’s right hand!

And, where was Saul on the day of Pentecost when God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven heard Galileans speaking words from the prophet Joel in their native tongue? (Acts 2) Such things do not go unnoticed by Rabbis.

From Acts, we know where Saul was on the day he encountered Jesus. Paul was riding a donkey on his way to Damascus. He was sent to silence the Followers of the Way forever. No Messiah, he was taught, would be crucified, die and rise again! And, certainly God would not be crucified, die and rise again!

I would consider it very likely that Saul, with a lot of time on his hands riding at 3.5 mph, thought about the events in Jerusalem. He would recall Jesus entering the city on a donkey. He would recall Jesus overturning the money-changers tables in the Temple yard and calling the Temple his Father’s house.

I ‘m sure with Saul’s’ connections that he had heard about Jesus standing before Pilate. And, about the Pharisee-swayed crowd trying to influence Pilate. Jesus had been given a thumb down by many of the same Palm Sunday crowd who waved Palm branches days before. Barabbas, a revolutionary and murderer, was given a thumb up. Jesus would be sentenced in his place. Jesus is crucified. Revolution squashed. But suddenly, there was news of the buried Jesus now walking the streets.

It is also very likely that Saul was also praying and meditating on scripture, perhaps on the visions of the prophet Ezekiel. Almost certainly Saul meditated on the Temple and the return of God’s presence to Israel. Like all “zealous” Jews, Saul was very much tuned into the Temple prophecies and eschatology. Could he have also been meditating on 2 Kings (vs. 11)? 

As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.

For Saul the Damascus road event wasn’t a conversion experience as Evangelicals would describe it today. And, it wasn’t a turn from Judaism towards Christianity or from the Law towards love. Rather, it was a game-changing, name-changing encounter with a new reality input into his life. I would call this encounter and its result “a summing junction”. Saul met the living Lord on the road that day and came out of that encounter a new creation.

Saul’s zeal for God, Torah and the Temple was ‘summed up’ with the resurrected Jesus. Saul’s hopes for a Messiah to return and bring change was summed up in Jesus. Saul’s prayers for the salvation of the Lord were summed up in Jesus. The sum of charges God could bring against Paul, the Persecutor, were summed against the work of the cross. Paul came out forgiven. His record, once scarlet, was now white as snow.

 This is one of many summing junctions that are recorded in Scripture. As I read again Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road I thought of Jacob. Jacob at one time was going in the opposite direction from his father’s God with his life and plans. At the river Jabbok Jacob encounters the angel of the Lord and Jacob puts up resistance. Jacob wrestles with the angel. In the morning the sum of his encounter is a blessing.

Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Here’s what happened to Saul when he encountered a greater resistance, as told to King Agrippa:

“While I was busy on this work [of persecution],” Paul continued, “I was traveling to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests. Around midday, while I was on the road, O King, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the light of the sun, and shining all around me and my companions on the road. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice speaking to me in Aramaic.

“’Saul, Saul,’ he said, ‘why are you persecuting me? It’s hard for you this kicking against the goads.’

“’Who are you, Lord? I said.

“’I am Jesus,’ said the Lord, ‘and you are persecuting me. But get up and stand on your feet. I’m going to tell you why I have appeared to you. I am going to establish you as a servant, as a witness both of the things you have already seen and of the occasions I will appear to you in the future. I will rescue you from the people, and from the nations to whom I am going to send you so that you can open their eyes to enable to turn from darkness to light, and from power of the satan to God –so that they can have forgiveness of sins, and an inheritance among those who are made holy by their faith in me.’” (Acts 26)

After each summing junction encounter with the Lord, whether Jacob’s or Saul’s, lives were forever changed. Jacob is given a new name: Israel. Saul is renamed Paul.

I wonder. Does the summing junction encounter happen at the point of a person’s most resistance to God?

Paul of earth was ‘summed’ with Jesus of heaven so that the riches of God’s love and grace would be declared to all of his creation, which meant beyond the Jews. Now, instead of avoiding the Gentiles and being at odds with them Paul was sent to minister to them.

In the king, and through his blood, we have deliverance—that is, our sins have been forgiven—through the wealth of his grace which he lavished on us. Yes, with all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the secret of his purpose, just as he wanted it to be and set it forward in him as a blueprint for when the time was ripe. His plan was to sum up the whole cosmos in the king—yes, everything in heaven and on earth, in him.  The Apostle Paul, to the Ephesian churches, 1: 7-10

The cross is the ultimate summing junction. The Holy One of God took upon himself all of the world’s use of force against him and all of the powers of darkness. The outcome became multifaceted: Jesus gave us a new definition of power- dying to self; Jesus claimed victory over evil, Jesus’ resurrection claimed victory over death; there is a turning from darkness to light; we are forgiven our sins and are now able to forgive others. And, the Divine presence now fills temples of His creation.

While we are walking around on resurrection ground, we, like Paul, are to be witnesses of our own “summing junction”, both of the things we have already seen and of the occasions when Jesus will appear to us in the future. With a new name comes a new vocation.

 

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A summing junction symbol:

A Blessing on Those Who Hear God’s Word!

 

lo·go·cen·tric [ˌlôɡəˈsentrik, ˌläɡə-]

 

ADJECTIVE: regarding words and language as a fundamental expression of an external reality (especially applied as a negative term to traditional Western thought by postmodernist critics, e.g., French philosopher and Deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, 1930-2004).

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Deconstructionism is taught and practiced extensively in colleges and universities today.  It directly affects our world by removing traditional meaning from texts and, thus, effectively shutting down debate. Here is philosopher Roger Scruton’s take on deconstructionism and Derrida:

“Deconstructive writing refrains from stating anything directly or assertively. It quickly withdraws from any proposition that it sets before us, and spirals off into questions – as to deny a foothold to the skeptical outside…. the deconstructionist critic will not engage in philosophical argument…Derrida is aiming for a radical ‘reversal’ of our ‘Western tradition’, and of the belief in reason that has guided it.”

–Roger Scruton, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, the chapter entitled, The Devil’s Work

For Derrida and other decons, there is no authority, sacred or otherwise, except for their self-referential community, the ‘intelligentsia’. For them, there is no truth and no creator and nothing transcendental to be found in texts. Texts contain only words on a piece of paper and they will gladly help you deconstruct those words down into gobbledygook. They are the purveyors of absence of meaning, the dispensers of Nothing. Decons turn language against itself. And, it seems now that Orwell’s 1984 was prescient, presenting us with Newspeak.

But those of us in the Kingdom of God know better. Or do we?

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Scripture as read, in the churches that I grew up in, was just snippets of text meant to support the preaching. In liturgical churches, such as the one I attend now, Scripture readings include Old and New Testament texts, a portion of a Psalm and a Gospel text. In both scenarios, the choir rehearsed, but, sadly, the Scripture readers did not.

As a youth I was encouraged to memorize volumes of Scripture. Scripture memory contests were held over several weeks in Sunday School. I am thankful for such a time as many Scripture texts were imbedded in my memory. I recall memorizing texts like Psalm 103. In my twenties, I memorized the Letter of James.

When I attended Moody Bible Institute the curriculum included Old and New testament Survey classes. I had to read the 66 books of the Bible. These courses, along with N.T. Greek, gave me a broad overview of the Scriptures. I have since read through the Bible again and again. But, when I look at the church today, I see that broad overviews and whole book reading of Scriptures have been deconstructed from our worship.

We certainly live in an accommodation culture. Everything, including church, is abbreviated to fit our lifestyle. It seems that we have Twitter-ized Scripture reading down to one-hundred forty characters. Perhaps this is so that we can get out of church on time to watch the football game or to make a lunch commitment. As such, it isn’t any wonder that the church is crawling along on all fours and being fed with droplets of milk. And, man cannot live by the Four Spiritual Laws alone.

Lacking a big picture understanding of what God began in Genesis and is summed up in Revelation (heaven and earth coming together; God making his tabernacle with man) makes a Christian and a church spiritually ineffective and worse, of little value to the kingdom of God. Those who see the big picture use their talents wisely (see Luke 19: 11-27).

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Reading God’s word in public is an act of worship and not a pre-text for a sermon. Reading Scripture – whole book readings- in public offers the listeners a narrative and a context and, better, an eye-opening understanding of what God is doing.

There are many ways to read the Scriptures. Using actors to read the text is one way. Another is to invert the liturgy. Read the whole Gospel of Luke text and insert the elements of the liturgy into the reading. See The Big Read.

Added 5-22-2017:

Here is one example. Recently deceased, British actor Alec Mc Cowan recites the Gospel of Mark in one evening. This can be done in churches, instead of the deconstruction of texts.

Earthquake Day

Earthquake Day

Tremor was always, before ex Nihilo showed up out of nowhere.

Tremor was there when man finally noticed Big Bang and all of
the little Bangs including mathematics, quantum mechanics, knot theory, string theory, radio pulsars, genetics, music, phi, art and poetry.

Tremor was in the apple bite’s rude awakening.

Tremor showed red when murderous Cain fled.

Tremor, as Plumber, called Noah and told him to ship out. Later, when things were settled, Tremor threw a palette of watercolors at the sky indicating a watershed moment.

Tremor used a slingshot against incredible bull’s-eyes.

Tremor gave the startled stars something to blink about.

Tremor was magnified in the womb of Mary, there was room for Him there.

Tremor sat in the temple teaching Rabbis everything a Father has said before.

Tremor whipped up a tempest, the Sea of Galilee provided support.

Tremor caused a stir at the local water fountain by saying, “I am He who is to come.”

Tremor gave the blind a new outlook and the lame a leg to stand on.

Tremor received a farewell gift of pure nard and a woman’s tears.

Tremor stood at the death’s door and said “Lazarus, come out.”

Tremor did an exposé on white-washed tombs.

Tremor broke the loaves, divided the fishes, according to old math.

Tremor broke the bread, drank the cup of sorrows and poured itself out.

Tremor was nailed down, pierced, forsaken and crushed. Violent insurrectionists like me were set free.

Tremor tore a curtain from top to bottom under orders from the Weaver.

Tremor woke up those staying in catacombs.

Tremor angels shook the rug under a rocky patch of earth, happy to find nothing there.
Seismic joy and fear were recorded that day.

Tremor decided to walk through walls and then tell everyone not to be afraid.

Tremor walked out to sea and back again for a fresh fish lunch with his friends.

Tremor had to move on but did send Another Tremor for everyone who loved Tremor.

Tremor will one day separate the wheat from the chaff and the sheep from the goats. Tremor will make the lion and the lamb see eye to eye. Hold on, Tremor is beginning again.

© Sally Paradise, 2011, All Rights Reserved

Gethsemane

 

What does faith tell us? Before all else who this man is there on his knees – the Son of God in the simplest sense of the word. For that reason he sees existence in its ultimate reality.

 Wherever we encounter Jesus, it is as the Knowing One, as he who knows about man and world. All others are blind; only his eyes are all-seeing, and they see through to the very ground of human depravity.  The forlornness Jesus beholds there embraces the whole of human existence.  And he does not see it as one who has broken though to spiritual health and clarity with the help of grace.  Jesus’ knowledge of sin is not like that of fallen mankind;  he knows about it as God knows – hence the awful transparency of that knowledge.

Hence the immeasurable loneliness.  He is really the Seer among the blind, sole sensitive one among beings who lost their touch, the only free and self-possessed one in the midst of general confusion.

 Jesus’ consciousness of the world’s corruption is not grounded in the world and therefore the prisoner of existence.  It springs from above, from God, and enfolds the whole globe, seeing as God sees:  around existence, through existence, outwards from existence.  Moreover, Jesus’ divine consciousness, before which everything is stripped and lucid, is not extrinsic, but intrinsic, realized in his living self.  He knows with his human intellect, feels the world’s forlornness with his human heart.  And, the sorrow of it, incapable of ripping the eternal God from his bliss, becomes in Christ’s human soul unutterable agony.  From this knowledge comes a terrible and unrelenting earnestness, knowledge that underlies every word he speaks and everything he does.  It pulses through his whole being and proclaims itself in the least detail of his fate.  Here lies the root of Christ’s inapproachable loneliness. What human understanding and sympathy could possibly reach into this realm in which the Savior shoulders alone the yoke of the world?  From this point of view Jesus was always a sufferer, and would have been one even if men had accepted his message of faith and love; even if salvation had been accomplished and the kingdom established alone by proclamation and acceptance, sparing him the bitter way of the cross.  Even then, his whole life would have been inconceivably painful, for he would have been constantly aware of the world sin in the sight of a God he knew to be holy and all love; and he would have borne this terrible and inaccessible knowledge alone.  In the hour of Gethsemane its ever-present pain swells to a paroxysm.

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Selection from the chapter Gethsemane, in the book The Lord by Romano Guardini