May 10, 2020


Our New Identity

Preacher:
Passage: Psalm 31: 1-5; 1 Peter 1: 9-10

 

Synopsis: During this time of coronavirus social distancing we naturally impatiently wait for this to end. Stephanie Paulsell, however, reminds us that we should not long for things to return to how they were before. That way was marked by social and economic inequality that made the burden of this virus fall hardest on the most disadvantaged. This time should instead motivate us to work for a more just and inclusive society and church that are defined by love.

 

I try to cope as our mandatory social distancing drags on week after week. I’m finding new ways of connecting through social media as well as old and tried ones like phone calls. Last week Ruth and I met with a friend on her outside patio while maintaining at least 6 feet of distance. Our family has started a ritual of all joining in on a Zoom call each weekend, where our grandkids love showing off the projects they’re working on. Our granddaughter even adopted two pet white rats.

To be honest, all of this is beginning to get old as one week drags into the next. My hair’s getting longer and longer. Even my daily walks are beginning to feel repetitive. Ruth and I are searching for new places to walk while trying to be careful about not walking in places where there are lots of people. Thankfully, I have my garden to work in. I now recognize that the fight against this virus will be a marathon rather than a sprint.

When I consider how much worse this has been for millions of people, I feel bad about my impatience. I have so much to be thankful for. Ruth and I both have jobs and have not been laid off as millions of Americans have been. We’re healthy and have not contacted Covid-19. We’re not frontline workers in this pandemic who need to risk our health every day. As Stephanie Paulsell puts it so well:

Time has been fearfully compressed in these weeks, with epoch-making changes happening every few days. We’re experienced something that people living through wars and other harrowing events know all too well: the way history can barrel forward so quickly that it threatens to swallow up the distinctiveness of our lives and press on us its own defining mark.[1]

Psalm 31 is especially meaningful to those of us who have been experiencing the worst of it. “I take refuge in you, Lord. Please never let me be put to shame. Rescue me by your righteousness! Listen closely to me! Deliver me quickly; be a rock that protects me; be a strong fortress that saves me!

I think of those who have had to say a final goodbye to loved ones without being by their bedside and holding their hand. I think of those who have lost their jobs and don’t know how they’ll pay their rent or even put food on their tables. I think of healthcare workers, grocery store clerks, farm laborers, and factory workers all taking risks to care for us and to supply our basic needs, often without adequate protective gear or compensation.

How is God our rock, our fortress, and our listening ear in times like these? And as God’s own people, how are we there for to each other. Sometimes we don’t do very well. When our fears and prejudices dominate, we become especially inadequate in listening with empathy. It’s not that hard. All we have to do is love people no matter who they are.

On the matter of keeping time during this pandemic, Stephanie Paulsell says that we’re tempted “to keep account of time these days in increments of how long it will take for things to go back to the way they were. Will it take four weeks, eight weeks, all summer, a year? How long before we can put all this behind us?”[2] She says that we should instead keep account of time by love, which means resisting going back to the way things were-

Because that way is marked by economic and social inequality that has made the burden of this virus fall hardest on the most disadvantaged, by a health-care system that leaves so many unprotected, by the ridiculously low pay that people doing the most necessary jobs receive. None of this can be accounted for by love. . . If there’s one thing we’ve learned through the work of social distancing, it’s that everyone’s life matters to everyone else’s. As we struggle to inhabit the time we have been given, that’s a measurement by which to keep account of our days.[3]

One of the valuable lessons I’m learning through this crisis is how important our social identities and interpersonal relationships are. We know that, even before this crisis, things have not been well for many white working class Americans (especially men). This is reflected in the epidemic of drug addictions, suicide, and falling lifespans over the past decade.

Mental health professionals predict that this will become much worse following this pandemic. Loneliness has been identified as a key indicator of such social pain and isolation.

The former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy has written a profound book about this with the title Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection. It’s a must read for anyone in the helping professions.

He says that loneliness is a helpful emotional prompt telling me that I need to reach out to others, just like hunger is a prompt that I need to eat. Unfortunately, it can do the opposite when we internalize it and then withdraw because we think that nobody would want to be our friend. It can become a vicious downward spiral. The more depressed and disgruntled we get the more isolated we become.

Dr. Murthy says that traditional cultures bond more closely than modern individualist cultures do. He describes being at the bedside of an elderly beloved dying Ethiopian woman where her whole extended social network of family and friends were at her bedside. He talked about the South African Zulu phrase “I am because you are, and you are because we are.” This is captured by the word ubuntu which stresses social harmony and our connection to the group.[4]

Though such traditional cultures can be very comforting and have the support of mutual family members, friends, and neighbors who you’ve known your whole life. He adds, however, “they can also be painfully lonely, even lethal, if your skin color, sexual orientation, or ethnicity differs from everyone else’s—or if you’re drawn to a prohibited vocation, religion, or lifestyle.”[5]

These cultures will ostracize you even as they try to pull you back in. I know this personally as someone who grew up in an Old Order Mennonite world and left it as a young adult. The Netflix movie Unorthodox is a moving story about how this happened to a young Orthodox Jewish woman who left her husband and her Orthodox community in New York City. It skillfully depicts the trauma and confusion of moving between these cultural worlds.

Dr. Murthy describes culture as a bowl in which relationships are formed. Traditional cultures are narrow and deep while modern, individualistic cultures are broad and shallow. The tantalizing question is if it’s possible to create a third bowl that brings together the best of the two. Think of a culture that’s both broad and deep with pockets for bonding.

The intriguing challenge for us is to create a church that can be that kind of culture. I think of the early church as a community that was able to set aside social, cultural, and religious differences to form a third community that was both broad and deep.

As Dr. Murthy says, “Christianity, like the other major religious traditions, emphasizes connective qualities such as care, humility, and empathy because they help bond congregants to one another and to God.”[6] With this in mind, lets reflect on Peter’s description of the church with images such as a chosen people, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation, all drawn from the Old Testament scriptures.

On one level, this is narrow and deep. On another level its broad and inclusive, bringing in many different people. In Peter’s words, “Once you were not a people but now you are God’s people. This is our new identity. It’s what I have given myself to as your pastor in our diverse Northern Virginia community. My hope and prayer is that, through God’s grace, we can keep growing into such a deep and inclusive church where all are welcomed with open arms.

 

[1] Stephanie Paulsell, “Faith Matters,” The Christian Century

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Vivek Murthy, Together (HarperCollins), 65-66.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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