Brief thoughts on COVID-19, Lent, Holy Week, suffering and more

Introduction

This has been an unpredictably strange Lent and now Holy Week for us Christians. As a faith that places high value in our collective identity—i.e. the communion of saints—we have been either legislated against gathering or strongly discouraged to gather together to worship during much of Lent and now Holy Week. Staying home, social distancing, quarantine and self-isolating have become the universally acceptable protocols.

Without question, the coronavirus—COVID-19—has changed the world for the worse; as well as in some respects for the better. It is a tragedy that COVID-19 has claimed the lives of so many people; and will continue to do so into at least the near future. My heart goes out to those who are suffering with the coronavirus; as well as those families who have lost loved ones.

In times of suffering, the worst in human beings comes out. The New Testament Passion narratives in all four Gospels bear this truth out. Humankind was, and still is way too capable of betrayals, denials, exploiting the weak and most vulnerable, wrongfully scapegoating and unjustly arresting, torturing and killing the innocent.

The media doesn’t always help in this regard. Sometimes they do not have the complete facts; distort and misunderstand and manipulate the facts to create fear among the general public; which can escalate into mass hysteria. For example, it is mass hysteria at work when people buy and horde as much toilet paper and hand sanitizer as possible—creating a shortage for others. Moreover, it is also a coldness of heart and intentional greed on the part of some to sell their surplus of these items for outrageously high prices.

Another example of people at their worst is expressed in antisemitism online—encouraging people with the coronavirus to deliberately go into Jewish synagogues and other places where Jews gather to spread COVID-19. Such actions, once again, confirm that sin and evil are alive among human beings in the world.

Suffering can be redemptive

On the other hand, suffering can be redemptive in that it has the potential to bring out the best in humankind. For instance, there are people like health-care workers, first responders, those in essential services like grocery store workers, truckers, etc., who willingly risk their lives for the common good of everyone. May God continue to bless them in their work!

During Lent and Holy Week, followers of Jesus are hopefully acutely aware of and appreciative for how suffering is redemptive by focussing on the Passion and Resurrection narratives of the Gospels. The suffering and death of Jesus on Good Friday was not the last word. By raising Jesus from the dead on that first Easter Sunday; God has assured us that suffering can be redemptive.

As we experience sufferings from COVID-19 I do not think that we should blame God for it. Rather, I believe that God is in solidarity with us and suffers with us and is even giving us the opportunity to turn to him for help and come to see that he is the Giver of life. By turning to God for help maybe we can learn some important lessons from our sufferings.

Sabbath

I am, in part, seeing this time as a Sabbath in that it affords us to stop; slow our life down; and reflect more deeply about the meaning of life and what is most important in life—i.e. God, faith, relationships, community, loving and serving our neighbours, especially those most needy.

By cultivating our relationships with God, spouse, children and others and slowing down and resting from work can improve our spiritual, mental and physical health. By not being so busy; by slowing down; God’s creation also benefits from Sabbath time. For example, it is being observed that in many of the world’s largest cities there is less air pollution.

Exile and Lament

I also think that this is a time of Exile and Lament. Someone has described this time of exile as similar to being under house arrest. Different countries have different laws in response to COVID-19. Some nations –again perhaps acting out of fear—have complete lockdowns, everyone has to stay home. If they go out, they may face fines or even go to prison. Other nations allow people to go out for walks as long as they remain two meters from each other. People are also allowed to go out for basic necessities such as food and medications.

Even so, it seems like living in exile since social gatherings are either not allowed or strongly discouraged. For those living alone, I think the sense of exile is likely even more pronounced—since we humans are social beings.

This sense of living in exile is closely related to the reality of lament. Those living alone lament for the days before COVID-19; when they were free to come and go and be with others. Many lament because they cannot go to work or may even have lost their jobs. Others lament not being able to be with a love one who is dying in the hospital. Those who are dying may be lamenting that they cannot say their final words in the presence of their loved ones. Those who have lost loved ones lament not being able to have a proper funeral service for their loved ones. Children may lament that they cannot attend school. People of faith lament because they are unable to gather and celebrate important festivals like Passover and Easter. They will have to celebrate at home; and for some, online—yet that is not the same as being physically present with one another.

I believe that exile and lament have the potential to give people of faith a greater appreciation for the Psalter. Many of the Psalms reflect the experiences of exile and lament. In such times once again we have the opportunity to turn to God for help and express all of our thoughts and emotions to him regarding our circumstances. In so doing, hopefully there can be strength to cope with the present situation and hope for the future.

Passover and Easter

Passover and Easter are festivals of hope and freedom. The Israelites celebrate Passover by remembering how God saved them from death and freed them from Egyptian slavery. Against all odds, as they wandered in the wilderness; God chose Moses to lead Israel to the promised land; God also gave them hope in the midst of their hardships in the wilderness that in the future they would live in freedom in the promised land.

Christians celebrate Easter as a festival of hope and freedom too. The suffering and death of Jesus on the cross was not the last word. On that first Easter Sunday—against the powers of sin, death and evil—God acted to raise Jesus from the dead. Easter is a celebration of hope in a new, resurrection life in the future. It’s also hope in the small resurrections in the here-and-now wherever faith, love, peace, goodness and justice prevail. Thanks to the saving work of Jesus through his suffering, death and resurrection; we are given a new freedom from the powers of sin, death and evil. That freedom is experienced in part now and permanently in the life to come.

In the case of both Jews and Christians, suffering can never defeat us by the circumstances of life—including the coronavirus. Why? Because we still have the freedom and the hope to respond to such circumstances in ways that are appropriate and life-giving. We can choose, by the grace of God, to love God and love our neighbours.

Brief thoughts on Hosea 2:23-Names

Brief thoughts on Hosea 2:23-Names

ירחמו Pitied

האנשים שלי My people
In my devotions this morning, one of the texts I read was Hosea 
2:14-23. The last verse, 23, in particular lept out at me. It 
reminded me of the importance of names. Indeed, the prophet 
Hosea, who was active in the eight century BCE, employs the 
names of people to symbolize the relationship between God and 
Israel. The name Hosea in Hebrew means salvation. This prophet 
then was a proclaimer of God’s message of salvation for God’s 
people.
   Like most of the Israelite prophets, God called them to 
proclaim messages of warning and judgement as well as promise 
and hope. The prophets most likely did not win any popularity 
contests! 
   During the time that Hosea was active as a prophet, the 
Israelites were highly attracted to the Canaanite gods and the 
worship rituals associated with them—which were, of course in 
violation of the First Commandment, and other Commandments 
as well. 
   Another temptation amongst the leaders of the Israelites was 
to form alliances with the Assyrians and Egyptians, for military 
protection and security. However, God was not pleased with such 
political and military alliances. Rather, God sees such alliances as 
a lack of faith/trust in him. 
   Hosea in chapter two, verse twenty-three speaks a prophetic 
word of promise and hope for the Israelites in the future. The 
name of Hosea’s child Lo-ruhamah, which means “not pitied,” will 
be changed to “I will have pity.” In other words, Israel’s suffering 
and judgement due to their unfaithfulness to God and God’s 
covenant will be reversed. God’s grace and mercy shall prevail in 
a renewed covenant relationship with God and God’s people. The 
name change of this child is a living symbol then of God’s grace, 
mercy and lovingkindness. 
   The same is true in the case of the child named Lo-ammi, 
which means “Not my people.” Lo-ammi shall be given the name 
“You are my people” as a living symbol of God’s renewed 
covenant relationship with the Israelites. 
   Names are extremely important. What is your name? What 
does it mean for you as you live your life? What might your name 
mean in relationship with God and with other people? Does your 
name reveal the grace, mercy and lovingkindness that God 
desires for everyone? Hopefully it will be a sign, a symbol of 
God’s presence and blessing in your life as well as in the lives 
of others. 

 

The New Year and brief thoughts on Joshua 24:1-15

Open Bible-public domain

During my first devotion-time in this New Year, I read Joshua 24:1-15. The pericope is a familiar one to many. Joshua gathered the tribes of Israel for a solemn, covenant renewal ceremony. He highlighted God’s saving activity among the Israelites, beginning with Abraham and his descendants, through to the giving of the Promised Land. According to Joshua, it is in the act of remembering God’s saving activity in the past that Israel is graced with the opportunity to respond to God by putting away other gods and renewing the covenant with God by serving him.

The pericope is a significant one for this first day of the new year. This day affords us the opportunity to remember God’s saving activity in our lives over the course of this past year. In remembering what God has done for us, we are free to respond with a renewed commitment to serve God in 2019.

A renewed commitment to serve God each day in the ordinary activities of our lives might involve something as simple as the following example: Instead of complaining to God about the inclement, cold, snowy weather; give God thanks that you are blessed with health to shovel the snow off the sidewalk—thus giving you the opportunity to exercise after a large dinner on New Year’s eve.

Brief thoughts and quotes on humility and faith

Today, as I came across the two quotes below, it got me thinking a bit about the importance of humility and faith.

I wonder, if we could turn back the pages of history when religions legitimized violence, hatred and war; if instead those who were such certain advocates of these had been more humble in their faith in God and practice of their faith whether much of the darkness of religious history would have been avoided and humankind may have moved a bit closer to perfect shalom; a more concrete manifestation of the realm of God; of God’s will being done on earth as in heaven.

I wonder too, if, as we look at all of the troubled spots in the world today; whether a greater mixture of humility and faith would turn around the violence and evil that seems so prevalent in far too many places; carried out with the pretext of knowing God and knowing and doing God’s will in the name of God and of what is believed to be the only true faith. I wonder…

“Those who believe they believe in God without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, not in God Himself.” –Madeleine L’Engle

“Men [and women] never do evil so completely or cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” – Blaise Pascal