The church I lead in Seattle is embarking on a series through the Psalms for the season leading up to Easter. This year, the Psalms seem particularly poignant because, as one author reminds, these poems are structured as a narrative of order, disorder, re-order. You see it in individual Psalms, groups of Psalms, and the book as a whole. Things are going along nicely, with much to celebrate. Suddenly there’s a disruption, creating chaos, or loss, or uncertainty. The harsh new realities of disruption though, shake us awake, attuning our hearts to things that matter most, and realigning our lives, hopefully, with God’s eternal and life giving purposes. We come out on the other side wiser, humbled, better at mercy and intimacy.
This three act play of order, disorder, re-order, permeates the entire Bible. It’s the macro story of creation, fall, redemption. It’s the story of the nation Israel. It’s the story of Peter, and Jesus, and the early church. By the time the book of Revelation comes along, we see it as the story of all history from the back end.
The disorder act in the middle is critical to our transformation. It’s our wake up call, shaking us out of the complacency and blind spots in our world view so that we’re open to reorder. It’s where pride, prejudice, and deeply entrenched pathologies are exposed in the light of discomfort. At their best, seasons of disorder become soul in which our transformation is empowered to grow and deepen, so that more of Christ’s life finds expression.
The church in the west though, doesn’t look very favorably on disorder sometimes. We like to move from strength to strength, higher and higher, without ever being shaken. This is prosperlity gospel. This is cheap grace. This is the ironic and tragic addiction to political power in the name of the one who calls us to empty ourselves. We perhaps think that more singing and praying and claiming and right believing and legislating are the keys to our continued un-impeded spiritual (which is too often code for “financial”) upward mobility. Right?
Nope. Growth always requires disorder. Moses fails, and faces a congregation who want to kill him. Peter fails, and faces persecution. Paul fails, and faces hunger famine, beatings. Jeremiah fails, and faces rejection. David fails. and his throne is stolen by his son while his right to the throne was initially contested by his predecessor, who tried twice to kill David. If you’re reading a Bible without a good dose of failure, trial, and downward mobility, you’re not reading a real Bible.
I bring all this up because the present response to the Corona Virus is an opportunity to learn from disorder. Instead the response seems to largely fall into two camps. Either “this is a common cold, politicized to attack the president of USA”. Or, “this is the beginning of the apocalypse”. Both views are rubbish because the reality is, it’s too early to tell much. I just finished teaching in Switzerland, next door to Italy, and can promise you the concerns over here are real, having nothing to do with inflating the matter for American political reasons, so let’s take that off the table. It’s a real crises. We don’t know, though, whether warm weather will end the spread. We don’t accurately know the fatality level. We don’t know precisely how its transmitted, so we don’t know, as of this writing, if by a week from now it will be the beginnings of the great plague or something much less. We will know. We should prepare, and be careful, and wash our hands. But we don’t know.
What we DO know though, is that even if it turns out to be mild, it’s already created a global season of disorder. If you’re invested in the markets, it’s created financial disorder. If you’re in Europe, as I am right now, it’s created travel disorder. If you’re in Seattle, it’s creating questions about public policy to help containment, which may affect schools, churches, workplaces. Disorder - everywhere - for all of us, with or without a cough.
When there’s disorder in our lives, we have a few options of response. We can “hunker down” as they say and seek to save ourselves. Lock the doors, load the guns, stave off the zombies. We can post cynical articles about failures at a public health policy level (articles which serve nobody at this point), or conspiratorial articles about bring down the president. We can get afraid. Or, we can stop and ask, as God’s people have rightly done through the ages: “What is God trying to teach me, or us, in this moment?” Of the three options, I’m choosing the third, because it’s the posture of humility and curiosity, and it creates questions for me:
Am I willing, like members of the early church, to serve in the midst of a plague because I’m truly free from the fear of death? The early church lived with the prospect of an untimely death as a daily reality. We don’t, and so can easily convince ourselves that we’re bolder than we are, when loss is only hypothetical. I can tell you as a pastor, that those who face life threatening cancer are brought to this disorder in every case. It’s valuable.
Am I willing to see that I’m actually more connected to other people than perhaps I thought? Maybe the grocery story worker without health care/sick leave options who comes to work sick out of financial necessity, and avoids early treatment due to lack of insurance, has a well being deeply connected to my well being. Maybe I need to shift my paradigm away from the prevailing ”every person for themselves” model that, if lived out now, will only worsen the impending pandemic. What does “the common good” mean in light of this, not only for this moment, but beyond? Maya Angelou said, “Therefore we pledge to bind ourselves to one another, to embrace our lowliest, to keep company with our loneliest, to educate our illiterate, to feed our starving, to clothe our ragged, to do all good things, knowing that we are more than keepers of our brothers and sisters. We are our brothers and sisters.”, which is just another way of saying what Jesus and Paul said: “When one suffers all suffer!”
This outbreak reveals our global connections. “Going viral” takes on a whole new meaning here, and I need to prayerfully consider my views on a global economy where, literally, if one person sneezes, the the whole planet can suffer a plague. Is this God’s design? Supply chains scattered around the globe in search of raw materials and cheap labor; transportation networks consuming vast stores of resources, and imposing carbon on the atmosphere? Overfishing and soil erosion so that people can food from anywhere, any season? These economic philosophies have a long history of creating displacement, poverty, and environmental destruction in the name of progress. The map below for example, shows the reduction in pollution as the sickness spread and the economy slowed. Nobody’s suggesting poverty, but maybe a virus could wake some of us up to reconsider if more localized models have merit.
Humble wisdom might also ask about health habits. Alcohol lowers immunity. So does sugar. So does sleeplessness. What lifestyle choices am I making in a higher risk environment and why? Who knows? People may make lifestyle changes permanently, for the better as a result of disorder. That’s the way it should work.
Nobody likes disorder. But people in the Bible who met disorder with honest lament, and enough humility and curiosity to ask God what they should learn are the ones who come out on the far side with a more spacious re-order: healthier, wiser, more whole. Yes, we’ll put out hand sanitizer for public gatherings, and I’ll probably wear a mask on my flight. But come what may, I know from history that, for those with hearts to continue growing, no disorder need be only pain. It can be transformation too. May it be so for you, for us. Amen.