Reflecting on COVID-19 through the Lens of John 9
“Surely we are not blind, are we?” John 9:40
That the Works of God Might be Revealed
Here at the Transforming Center, we are John 9 people. What I mean by that is that this story has shaped us profoundly over time. So much so that it has become a lens through which we look at our world and process what we see.
The story begins with Jesus healing a man who had been born blind, but unlike other such stories in the New Testament where the healing is the main event, in this account the healing itself is only briefly the focus. The bulk of this lengthy chapter is about all the characters in the story who witness the healing but fail to recognize the work of God in their midst. For all sorts of reasons, they all have trouble discerning what is really going on. This is often our struggle as well.
Asking the Wrong Question
One aspect of the John 9 story is that the disciples, in particular, engage the situation by trying to affix blame: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus responds by refusing to engage the question as they have asked it, and totally reframes the situation with this statement: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that the works of God might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”
In effect, what Jesus is saying is, “You are asking the wrong question.”
Why am I calling attention to this now, in the midst of a global crisis created by the corona virus pandemic? Because the blame question is as unhelpful today as it was back then, but what is helpful is the way Jesus reframes the question. With this reframing, he helps us get in touch with the deepest cry of our hearts—as Christians and as leaders: God, what are you doing in all of this and how can I join you in it? What are you saying and how can I hear you better? What are the works of God waiting to be revealed in me and in each of us through this covid-19 global crisis that affects each of us so intimately and personally?
I think if we knew the answer to that, we would know what to do on any day. Even as we navigate the most significant crisis most have ever seen, we must not forget to ask this all-important question, What is happening right now—spiritually speaking—and how can we join God in it?
Tied in a Single Garment of Destiny
One of the truths that keeps pressing in on us in so many different ways is the one Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states,” he says. “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham… We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects us all indirectly.”
Of course, I have left out the all-important statement that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” not because I am trying to ignore it or set it aside but because at this moment it is the experience of our interrelatedness in all matters that is so riveting. Justice, yes, but right now it is our interconnectedness and how we are navigating that reality that is a life and death issue, impacting every aspect of our existence together on this planet. Right now it is “the inescapable network of mutuality” that has our attention. It’s this being tied together in a single garment of destiny that we can no longer deny. The systemic nature of things—the fact that whatever affects one directly does indeed affect us all indirectly—is now both obvious and beyond comprehension all at the same time.
Has there ever been a moment when we have experienced so profoundly the truth of what Dr. MLK, Jr. was saying? I think not.
So how do we steward this moment? I have been wondering if one of the works of God being revealed in this situation is that it will change forever how we understand and experience ourselves within the human community. If we work it right, this experience of knowing that each and every decision we make or don’t make about social distancing, hoarding toilet paper, over-buying groceries, following federal and state mandates about sheltering in place, disinfecting our spaces, staying away from friends and loved ones even when we want to be close…will change us. We will never again be able to think of ourselves as being separate from one another, even across the lines that usually divide us. Dr. King was right, and now we know it for sure.
I can’t help wondering how this experiential knowing might impact what God is able to do in and through us–both now and later!
It is to Your Advantage that I Go Away
One of the strangest moments in the disciples’ life with Jesus might have been that conversation where he is trying to talk to them about his impending death and then says, “It is to your advantage that I go away.” At that moment I’m sure they could not have imagined how that could possibly be true. To them, the physical presence of Jesus right there with them had been their greatest good; but they would soon learn differently.
For us as Christians, one of the most confounding things about this pandemic is the need to practice social distancing and almost complete withdrawal into our own homes. And yet, to refrain from gathering and hugging and passing the peace and ministering with the sign of the cross goes against everything we know and practice. The cancellation of group gatherings where we can be physically, emotionally and spiritually present with one another along with being prohibited from participating in our normal in-person connections with family and friends is excruciatingly difficult, in part because it feels unloving.
And that is why this statement from Jesus is oddly helpful and encouraging. It points out that there are moments when it IS loving to “go away”—and clearly this is one of them. In our current situation, to stay away is as an expression of love and care for others as much (if not more) as it is protection for ourselves; seeing this “staying away” as a loving gesture helps somehow. Henri Nouwen comments, “In Jesus’ absence a new and more intimate presence became possible, a presence which nurtured and sustained and created the desire to see him again.” My guess is that once we make it through this crisis, we will never again take for granted the ability to gather, the privilege of being together body and soul. Our desire to be together again will be strong and sweet and will nurture something new among us.
The Strength of Spiritual Community
We know what happened to the disciples after Jesus went away: his Spirit came to them in a most dramatic way as tongues of fire resting upon their heads in the Upper Room. Against the backdrop of Jesus’ physical absence, they experienced a new reality—the reality of presence in absence.
So I wonder if this, too, is something God wants to be teaching us—what it means to be present even when we’re absent. Even as we seek ways of staying connected with those whom God has given us and continue to do ministry in creative and caring ways, we might also trust that absence can foster a different kind of intimacy and presence. By prayerfully holding those we love in God’s presence even when we can’t be physically present, we might experience something of what Rosemary Dougherty describes: “In spiritual community, there is a bonding that goes beyond human expectations…At times the strength of spiritual community lies in the love of people who refrain from getting caught in the trap of trying to fix everything for us, who pray for us and allow us the pain of our wilderness and our wants, so that we might become more deeply grounded in God.”
As leaders, could we enter more deeply into this reality—that sometimes it is good that we go away, so our people can become more deeply grounded in God rather than being so dependent upon us? In this season when the balance of presence and absence is, of necessity, going to be weighted a little more toward absence, can we trust that absence, too, can bring its own gifts?
Invitation to Solitude, Silence, and Retreat
Last week I saw Invitation to Solitude and Silence tagged in an Instagram post as #quarantineread. It caught me by surprise AND it made so much sense! I had already been sensing that this devastating season contains a strong invitation to seek God and listen deeply for what he has to speak deep into our souls at this time. It is not lost on me that here we are in the middle of Lent and like Jesus we, too, are being driven into the wilderness. We do not have a choice about being in this wilderness; in a very real sense retreat is being forced on all of us and the only choice we do have is whether we will cooperate and lean in.
So I have been wondering if God is calling us to approach this time of social distancing and sheltering in place not merely as something to tough out and get through, but to see it as an invitation to intimacy with God—a time of quieting ourselves and seeking to hear what God has to say to us now that our normal distractions and activities are being stripped away.
I also hear God speaking to me about discipline and refusing to squander this opportunity. “Don’t let yourself get drawn into a boundary-less existence—working remotely all hours of the day and night just because you can, watching the news incessantly just because it’s there, vegging out with Netflix just because distraction from hard reality feels good. I am calling you. I have things I want to say to you. I am inviting you to craft the minutes and hours of your days so there is some time for us to listen and commune together. I am calling you to establish sacred rhythms for this season because I am longing to be with you and we may never pass this way again.”
Making Space for Grief and Gratitude
I never thought I would see a day when I was so grateful for a package of toilet paper. I had just begun hearing about the hoarding that was going on—toilet paper, in particular—and I was late to the game. So I thought, “I’d better get out there and get toilet paper.” I went to Target and tried to act nonchalant as I walked by whole shelves where toilet paper had once been that were now completely empty. I happened to notice a Target employee who had a rather beaten up 6 mega roll package in her hands and seemed to be trying to figure out what to do with it. I watched carefully as she ended up putting it back on the shelf—one lonely package of toilet paper in a vast wasteland of empty shelves. I snapped it up, feeling a strange sense of elation that I eventually recognized as gratitude!
Even in these difficult days, we all have occasions for gratitude each and every day and we can create space to practice thanksgiving. Gratitude is a powerful energy in the spiritual life and God knows it will take as much of that as we can find to get us through. And mostly it will be the simple things—that you like your spouse and realize there’s no one else you’d rather shelter in place with. That your kids behaved and didn’t kill each other today. That if, like me, you are someone who travels a lot, it feels so good to be home. That the weather was nice and you got to take a walk. That you’ve been playing games as a family at night. That you found what you needed at the grocery store and had the money to buy it. That you are in touch with God at the center of your being.
Of course, each of us has our own occasions for deep sadness as well—whether it’s in response to what we see in the news or whether it’s what’s happening to us personally: Commencement exercises that will not take place and graduating seniors who will not get to walk. A championship season that must end before the final game can be played. Weddings and birthday parties that have been postponed. Long-planned vacations that must be cancelled. Massive unemployment and lost wages. Businesses and not-for-profit ministries that will not survive. Retirement savings lost. Whole industries that may never recover. The physical suffering and death of loved ones. This is the stuff of our lives these days and they are just plain sad. So let’s be sad together.
One of the points of connection we can make with each other during this time is to create space for being with gratitude and grief—alone, together and with God. During these days when nothing is as it was and so much is happening each day, it would be a great gift to structure at least part of the dinner time conversation around these questions: What are you grateful for today? What made you sad today? What are you afraid of? And then like Jesus with the two disciples on the Emmaus road, we can stand still looking sad, at least for a few moments—long enough for Jesus to stand there with us, knowing that he knows, and feeling the comfort of his presence.
From Where Does my Help Come?
If we are paying attention, we might also notice that our sadness, fear and anxiety can become an occasion for asking the deepest question of the spiritual life and that is—where am I placing my trust? Is my deepest trust in my job, my 401K, the stock market, in my own ability to control things or be present with people?
I’ll never forget a startling (if not, shocking!) cover headline from the Christian Century a number of years ago that proclaimed—”God doesn’t love your 401(k) and other hard truths.” It is startling because it immediately calls into question where we are placing our trust. For some of us a significant source of sadness and anxiety has to do with what is happening with our investments. I do not mean to be insensitive but noticing our anxiety about these matters can cause us to reflect at least a little bit on where we are placing our trust for our futures and for our ultimate security. We might be able to loosen our grip just a bit and drop into a deeper place of trust in God for our survival.
One of my great sadnesses right now is that just as the corona virus was causing nursing homes and long-term care facilities to lock down and close their doors to visitors, my dad began the last leg of his journey. While I/we were able to be with him to make the transition, we are now not allowed to make the daily visits that are so important to him and to us. As the one who has been local to my parents all these years, it is unthinkable that I am not seeing him and that he is alone right now. I cannot fix this; I can only bear it. There is a silent river of sadness that flows underneath everything else and all I can do is let it flow.
So when the sadness comes I have to drop into the deepest place of faith within me and affirm one of the simplest aspects of that faith, that the Lord is my shepherd and the Lord is my dad’s shepherd, too. Even though I cannot be there to shepherd my dad in person, the way I always thought I would, he is being shepherded by the One who has loved him longer and better than I ever could. I must trust God with my dad’s journey, in a way I never thought I would be asked to do.
So what is it for you? Where is your deepest sadness, your most troubling anxiety in these days—and does that surface the question of where you are putting your trust?
A Future with Hope
During these days we here in the Transforming Center are praying and seeking to discern the works of God among us. We are cancelling events through mid-May, we are working remotely, and we are reaching out to those—like you—whom God has given us to love. As we try to envision our future, we are finding ways to continue offering what is ours to offer in the world—like a virtual Good Friday service we will be announcing shortly. Even though there is so much more that could be said and will be said in the days to come, for now I close with these words forwarded to me by my lovely daughter, Charity. They are from retired teacher Kitty O’Meara.
“And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and grew gardens full of fresh food, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they themselves had been healed.”
These words touch me deeply with the vision that we will get through this, that beauty will rise from the ashes, that faith will conquer fear and we will be better people on the other side, if we can keep asking the right question: What are the works of God being revealed in this time and place, and how can we join God in it?
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2020. Not to be used without permission.