In a Time of Pandemic

A modern-day lament psalm

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Albrecht Durer’s Vision of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Woodcut, 1498

In this time when we are all living in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I find my thoughts returning to the tradition of lament psalms in the Old Testament. They expressed the fears and terrors of a people under severe threat.

What might a lament psalm look like in our current time of pandemic? I asked myself and then sat down to try my hand at drafting such a poem for our time. I would like to share it with you. Maybe it will speak to you.

The woman that I refer to in the poem is Lady Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century English mystic who wrote down her visions during a time when the Black Plague was ravaging England. It killed one-third of England’s population.

Her visions speak a powerful message of reassurance.*

Who can measure the strength of a virus?

            Who can assess its inner power?

No eye can detect its invisible colors;

            no skin can feel its crawl.

It lies hidden like a viper in its hole;

            it leaps and sinks its fangs without warning.

We shake hands with our neighbor,

            and it jumps from finger to finger.

We cough and it scatters on the vibrations of air;

            we sneeze and it rains upon the unsuspecting.

We turn the door knob and it attaches itself;

            we grab the steering wheel and it adheres.

Where comes the deadliness of such minuteness?

            We stagger in the face of its assaults.

The newscaster mounts the statistics

            on the television screens of our minds.

They feed our terror before a hidden enemy

            as if a guerilla band has attacked our village

            and gunned down indiscriminately.

How shall we defend ourselves?

            Where can we hide in safety?

Our only refuge is solitary isolation;

            we shed the bonds of neighborhood.

We confine ourselves to a world behind locked doors

            waving greetings through glass windows.

Yet in this retreat, without street noise, alone,

            without the distractions of daily commerce,

we may begin to hear the voice of mistress Julian,

            chanting her Jesus-word to a plague-drenched England:

“All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

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* If you find Lady Julian’s words too Pollyanneish, then I suggest you read her full visions to catch the context of acute illness and suffering from which they arise. She says they were the words Jesus spoke to her in her near-death experience.

The Foolish Wisdom of God

We misperceive the gospel if we miss its paradoxical character.

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The crucifixion of Jesus as depicted by Matthias Grünewald in the Isenheim altarpiece, 15th century

For one brought up from childhood in the church, like myself, it is easy for the fundamental points of the Christian proclamation to become common-place truisms. When that happens, we lose all sense of how extraordinary they really are.

That is especially true for all talk about the crucifixion of Jesus. We talk and sing about the power of the cross and the glory of the cross. We wear the cross around our necks. We hang gilded crosses from the ceilings of our churches. And yet how easy it is to lose consciousness of how extraordinary a thing it is that Christians make an object of gruesome execution the central image of their piety.

I count myself among them. That is, until I was recently reading the opening words of the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Christians in the church in Corinth. That church is undergoing a serious congregational crisis. Theological factions have broken out in its assembly, factions that seem to be out-shouting each other in their claims to hold the wiser and more eloquent understanding of the principles of their religion.

Paul is scandalized by the situation. In reality, he says, the factions are spiritually immature, not advanced. The proof of this is that they are engaging in such bitter rivalry with each other. The fruit of their rivalries is to counteract the momentum of the gospel.

In 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, he presents his own analysis of what’s happening. He zeroes in on the centrality of the crucifixion to the Christian gospel. He makes the extraordinary statement that the crucified Jesus is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). He then reinforces what he has just said by adding:

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:25)

Now these are standard motifs in Christian preaching. But as I was reading them again, I was struck anew about how extraordinary it is for Paul to say this. For we, too, live in an age when facility in persuasive speech and effectiveness in action are highly prized.

We see this especially in the world of politics and corporate business. We want our leaders to inspire us by their speeches. We want them to prove their competency by accomplishing exalted goals. One business manual has expressed these two values in the summary label “big hairy audacious goals.”* And if we cannot deliver on them, we will be consigned to the category of followers, not leaders.

The Lesson of the Crucified Christ

But this is not the lesson Paul draws from the Christian proclamation of a crucified Christ. Instead it is through the pathway of self-effacing service, rejection, defeat, and even death, that God is at work to transform the world.** In this respect the Christian gospel proclaims God’s way as being 180 degrees opposite to our normal expectations of how transformation works.

In another passage (Philippians 2:5-11) Paul will describe the way of Jesus as the way of emptying (Greek: kenosis) himself. It is such an emptying that releases the power of transformation. It also leads paradoxically to his exaltation.

For me, as I reflect on Paul’s statements, I find myself asking: Just how does this way of the cross, this way of emptying ourselves, release the power of transformation? And how does it differ from a pathological self-humiliation?

That is one of the central mysteries that I think that Christian theology is called upon to explore and elucidate, especially in its systems of spirituality. For in the end the gospel, as Paul sees it, is not about abstract intellectual brilliance and sophistication (although certainly some theologies have that), but about pragmatic power, a power to transform both minds and behavior. And if our gospel proclamation does not transform, then either the gospel is a fantasy that needs to be discarded or we misperceive how it works.

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* James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Harper Business, 1994.

** Transform is the import that the word save carries in this passage of Paul as elsewhere in his writings. He is less concerned about the eternal fate of individuals than he is with the fulfillment of God’s purposes and plans for the world.