Like many of you, I am at the point in this year where, if CNN reported that an intoxicated purple dragon wearing Carhartt overalls was stumbling down the streets of San Francisco, eating popcorn and chain-smoking Marlboros, I would probably just shrug and say, “Well, it is 2020,” and go back to whatever I was doing.
Shocking me is a hard sell these days.
Part of the reason is that I lived through my own 2020 years ago. I slogged my way through years that, for me, were a toxic cocktail of job loss, a shrinking bank account, heavy alcohol consumption, loneliness, suicidal thoughts, and a handful of other nightmares (sound familiar?).
Back then, God took pity on me, threw me over his shoulder, and lugged my scarred and stinking soul out of that hellhole of a ruined life.
After some serious healing, I dared to gaze back on those lost years. In time, I began to ask: What did I learn from that raging dumpster fire I lit? What was God teaching me? How can knowing that help me in the future?
These are always helpful questions to ask ourselves, of course. And questions such as these are appropriate not only for individuals and families but for the church as well. So, as part of the church, I’ve been pondering them, as I hope you have, too, relative to this 2020 in which we find ourselves. What is God teaching us? What can we learn? What can help us as we navigate the future?
Rather than make you wait, I will cut to the chase: as weird as it sounds, I think 2020 is a great year for the church. If you’re interested in why I think so, read on.
Let’s first get the ugliest truths out of the way. Neither this global pandemic, the gross injustices, the racial tensions, the mad riots, the macabre political theatre, not even Tiger King should have shocked anyone, especially those schooled in the Torah and the prophets. All human history, from Cain and Abel onward, has amply demonstrated that destruction and stupidity, navel-gazing and bloodshed, the ubiquity of fools, and the thin veneer between civilization and anarchy is the norm, not the exception.
This year just happens to be a rather colorful sampling of our commonly shared low anthropology. Welcome to Humanity 101. And don’t worry: it won’t get better. If anyone tells you humanity is progressively improving, gently remind them of the 20th century then place Solzhenitsyn in their hands.
Speaking of our Russian friend, let us remember that “line separating good and evil” that he spoke of. In years like this, it’s far too easy to slip into the mob mentality of the world that’s addicted to the supposition that some people are straight-and-narrow folks and others are rotten bastards.
We like to draw hard and fast lines between people who torch buildings; those holed up in their homes cradling 12-gauges; first responders; police ambushers; organ donors and pedophiles. Those differences exist externally, to be sure, but let us never forget this sober fact: we are all in the same human mess that we all made together. No exceptions.
When the law of God shines its UV lights on us, splatter stains show up on us all.
The “other” we might be tempted to hate, or at least snub, because of his politics, skin color, or nationality has a heart that mirrors our own—a heart just as worm-eaten by iniquity as ours is. Be not deceived: sin and evil have shacked up in every single human soul. Of course, one person might lead a more law-abiding life than another person, be nicer, the moral doppelgänger of Mr. Rogers or Mother Teresa, but on their shadowy inside monsters prowl unseen.
If you don’t believe me, grab your Bible and read Romans 1-3.
That dire prognosis of our common human plight is a good segue into four, briefly stated truths that express a few of the things we can (re-)learn during this bizarre year. Beneath them all is this singular, foundational conviction: we are of no use to this world if all we do is ape the world’s rhetoric, antics, and actions. The church is a unique community with a unique message heard nowhere else in the world.
One, we call all to repentance, no matter their skin color, sex, political affiliation, or any other factor “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The law of God takes no prisoners, makes no exceptions. If you are a human, you are part of the problem of which you are not the solution. The solution is a unique human, Jesus of Nazareth, who is God made flesh. He is the solution, for in his perfect humanity our imperfect humanity comes into living and vibrant communion with God himself, our true and only Healer.
Two, we teach that we are in the midst of a spiritual battle in 2020. Unseen forces and malicious angelic powers are manipulating sinners of all kinds to do their bidding. We delude ourselves if we suppose that what plays out in our streets or on our social media feeds is a mere human conflict. It is not. Revelation reveals—not to mention the entirety of the Old Testament—that human history is the battlefield of sacred and sinister powers. In this world, there is no DMZ. Every morning we rise to serve on the front lines. “Have no expectations except to be tempted to your last breath” (T. Hopko). Thus we pray without ceasing, “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.”
Three, justice and love between people cannot heal our fractured society. Work for justice? Yes. Love your neighbor? Of course. But dialogue with most religious people—be they Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or the vanilla “spiritual” types—and they would all agree that justice and love are of paramount importance. I suspect atheists, too, would nod in assent. You see, there is nothing uniquely Christian about working for justice and love and the betterment of society. The church has a better, more important message to proclaim: only God’s love in his crucified and resurrected Son, Jesus Christ, can heal broken hearts, restore shattered communities, and give us the grace to forgive even our enemies. If the main mission of the church is no longer proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, in all its richness and depth, well then, we have failed the world and are in dire need of repentance.
Four, we are not the Church of Chicken Little but the Church of Jesus Christ. We do not run around screaming that “the sky is falling.” There is no panic in heaven. Jesus has no sweaty armpits as he surveys our world. Over the chaos of this world reigns the King of kings, Jesus the Resurrected, before whom every knee will eventually bow, whether they like it or not. Every governmental authority now—presidents, kings, prime ministers, you name it—are in lame-duck administrations. Their time is ending. Put not your trust in politicians or parties or ballot boxes. Christ and his kingdom are everlasting. And into that kingdom he calls us all to find forgiveness, life, and peace.
2020 is a great year for the church, amidst the cacophony of craziness, to focus in on the voice of Jesus. To say with young Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And what is he telling us to do? The same thing he’s been telling the church to do from the beginning: Go and make disciples. Baptize. Teach. And know that he is with us, a mighty Warrior, strong to save.
Fear not, my friends. This year will end. As will this dying world. But the church, resurrected to reflect the glorified body of Jesus, will never end.
In 2020 and beyond, let’s keep first things first.