To say it’s been a strange few weeks would be like saying the sky is blue.
For me, it started with a trip to New Orleans with my childhood best friend to celebrate his 40th birthday. We had the time of our lives palling around our favorite city, eating and drinking some of the best food and drink in the world, without a care in the world. At least for 48 glorious hours.
But it was hard, too. My best friend had a devastating stroke this past August, and he’s six months into a long road of recovery. Physically, he has come so far. But his speech still has quite a ways to go. He likes to say, “I know my words aren’t good yet.” So much heartbreak in the “my words.” So much hope in the “yet.”
After dropping him back at his house in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, I hugged him goodbye and set my face to my rental car, trying to choke back a flood of tears. It felt like my world had changed. When that happens, a strange homesickness sets in, a longing for things to be the way they used to be: whole, and in their right place. A longing for my friend to be fully himself again. A longing to joke, laugh, and talk with him the way we used to with complete freedom.
As I made the trek back to Columbia, South Carolina, I kept thinking about how much things have changed for my friend. How different, and how much harder his world is now.
Then, in what felt like the slow opening of a black hole, the entire world changed. COVID-19 pushed its gnarly tendrils farther into the world, gripping our hearts with fear, upending our lives as we knew them. Will things ever be the same again? How will they be different? Will we be ok?
Where’s Jesus in Our Broken World?
It doesn’t take living in this world very long to feel the weight of its brokenness. Whether it’s a stroke or a deadly virus, we know the world is not as it should be. Everything is not whole. Everything is not in its right place. We do our best to manage things with some semblance of control—only to find out (often quite suddenly) that the control we thought we had was a laughable illusion.
COVID-19 pushed its gnarly tendrils farther into the world, gripping our hearts with fear, upending our lives as we knew them.
All of life is a gift. Yes and amen. But where can we return those parts of life that change our lives forever, and not for the good?
Years ago I was meeting with a counselor about my depression, and he asked me a question that has become a pastoral go-to when I meet with students: “Where do you think Jesus is in all of this?” It’s a simple question that cuts straight down to the heart of spiritual reality. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot this week. It’s the kind of question found frequently in the Psalms, as the psalmists penned words like, “Wake up, O LORD! Why do you sleep?” (Ps. 44), and “Why, LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” (Ps. 88).
At the risk of being like Job’s “counselors,” I don’t want to say too much about how I’ve wrestled with this question in my own heart, as if I’ve settled everything. If we learn nothing else in this season of suffering, I hope we at least learn to accept that sometimes life is unspeakably hard, and we don’t have all the answers. Sometimes we struggle to squeeze any juice out of the ancient answers we do have. They often feel so dry, too cliché, or dispassionately rehearsed.
Jesus Is Weeping and Working
As I’ve tried to answer the question in my own heart, I keep coming back to two comforting truths. Where is Jesus in all of this?
First, he’s weeping. His heart is not numb to the brokenness of the world; far from it. Our hearts, with all their calluses, scabs, and self-protective measures, might be numb right now. But the heart of Jesus, which knew no sin save that which he experienced from others, breaks all the more for sickness, and loss, and pain, and death—not despite his holiness, but because of it. All is not well, because all is not yet set right.
To watch Jesus in John 11 is to see him weeping at the death of his friend, Lazarus; weeping at the anger and grief of his friends, Mary and Martha. It’s not that he’s powerless to do anything. It’s that he loves his friends deeply and feels for them. Is he not still the same? Does he not still weep for those he loves? As he sits at the right hand of the Father, does his heart go unmoved, or does it still beat for his beloved image bearers?
Frederick Dale Bruner perhaps says it best: “We sing ‘Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my God wouldst die for me.’ But we can also sing, ‘Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my God wouldst cry with me.’”
If we learn nothing else in this season of suffering, I hope we at least learn to accept that sometimes life is unspeakably hard, and we don’t have all the answers.
Where is Jesus in all of this? He’s weeping. But, second, he’s also working.
What Jesus is doing remains to be seen. It seems he is breaking our illusion of control, and reminding us how deeply we need each other. We’ve seen this so beautifully in the videos of foreign neighbors hanging from balconies to make music together. We’ve always needed each other, but now we know it beyond a shadow of a doubt. We will not make it through this by ourselves. We were made for a community that goes well beyond niceties and water-cooler small talk.
For those tempted to tie our worth to our work, perhaps he’s offering us a forced rest, a strange sabbatical. The reset button of our lives has been pushed. How might our complicated relationship with work and rest look different as we come back online? Lynn Ungar poses this question in her poem “Pandemic”:
What if you thought of it as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel. Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is. Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Because God is at work, we can indeed center down.
Weeping (Not Arguing) with Those Who Weep
Then there are the harder questions. As I sat with my friend on a restaurant patio in the French Quarter, he quietly asked, as much to himself as to me, “Why did God let this happen to me?”
What he needed in that moment wasn’t for me to whip out a copy of Tim Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, as helpful as that book is. He needed me to simply sit with him in a hard question, with nothing to give but my quiet presence. Maybe in a world without touch (at least for a while), this is the gift God is teaching us to learn to creatively give. The quiet presence of being still in this painful disruption of our lives, and knowing still that he is God (Ps. 46:10).
Ungar ends her beautiful poem with these words:
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart. Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love—
for better or for worse, in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.