This pandemic sucks — the life out of us

To say it out loud — especially to my single friends: “it is not good” to be in a world full of “alone” people, left all to themselves.

In his 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, political scientist Robert Putnam noted a reduction all forms of in-person social interactions that enrich and underpin our social. Putnam argued that this undermines the “social capital” on which a strong democracy depends.

It’s gotten so much worse. This covid pandemic truly sucks, literally. It siphons off the vitality from life-sustaining, in-person communities. Social clubs, service organizations, civic groups, work associations, churches, and other faith communities. All have been eroded. Our society is fraying. Needing someone to blame, we vent anger and launch verbal missiles from politicized silos. We don’t converse face-to-face with one another. We tweet-bomb. Our interactions are reduced to 280 characters, memes, and slogans.

My wife and I are totally committed to personal and public health (we follow all protocols — masks, vaccines, the outdoor dining). But after almost 20 months of viral vulnerability and claustrophobia, the social isolation is suffocating to our souls.

All the delicious home cooked meals, projects, movie streaming, hobbies, indoor rowing, good books, or trivial posting on Facebook and Instagram can never compensate for the malaise. It’s not due to an unhealthy marriage (though sequestering does magnify our “issues”). We simply are starved for more time with family, friends, for short excursions, and retirement travel. But each option that presents itself requires another “benefits-risk” analysis. Even time with school aged grandchildren requires covid-tests.

God’s assessment of a primeval, pristine, unstained creation was, “It was good … it was goodfive times good even before there were humans. But creation became “very good” when God made royal image-bearers to build beautiful community on earth.

Nevertheless, “it was not good” for the image-bearers to stay alone: alone without a peer; alone without helpers. Without face-to-face “mirror image” bearers. Our emotional, social health requires much more than a good traditional marriage.

The Creator eternally exists in inter-Personal community. So God’s “let us make” created reflective vital communities on the earth. Not just couples; also what this pandemic has stolen from all of us: face-to-face, in-person, social vitality.

So, get vaccinated — and find creative ways to get connected!

The Lives of Early Christians (Diognetus)

I was honored to preach for Church of the Redeemer, in Sandy Springs, Georgia, on August 1, 2021. My message was from Jeremiah 29:1-14: "God's Foreigners." The message was an overflow of my 20+ years of ministry with internationals living and studying in the USA.

For friends who requested links, the church livestream video archive is here [8/1/21 starting @30.00]. Audio-only link is here.

I opened my message with selected quotes from the Letter to Diognetus, an early testimony to the lives of the first Christians — observed by a sympathetic Roman official. Jesus' first followers had no legal standing or political means to promote the Gospel. But their lives became "living epistles.”

A downloadable PDF of my short excerpts from the Letter to Diognetus is found by clicking here. The longer, complete ancient text (all chapters) can be found here. View photos of Babylon's Ishtar gate, through which the captive Jewish exiles were marched here, from Berlin's Pergamon Museum.

By God's mercies, may twenty-first century Christians (individually, as "Christ's ambassadors" and in church communities as "kingdom embassies") live as God's resident-foreigners. With the mind of Christ, let us love God, not clutch onto our rights, status, or privileges. Let us love and serve our neighbors as ourselves. Let us "sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land" (Psalm 137:1-4).

Regarding PCA General Assembly 2021 - Précis and Postscript

As the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) gathered for its 48th General Assembly, I earnestly prayed. Now honorably retired, I did not attend or vote, but carefully reviewed the Report on Human Sexuality and related Overtures coming from area Presbyteries. I followed discussions in denominational and para-church media. Since not all accurately represented others' viewpoints, I signed an Open Letter, "Looking Forward - Together."

I am indebted to wise fellow elders who identified the focal issues as identity (what — or who — defines who I am) concupiscence (both corrupt desires and corrupt actions are sinful) and sanctification (growing in personal holiness, dying to sin, renewal in Christ-likeness). I wrote a personal Précis, or a summary of issues, that are linked to Bible doctrines of the Christian Life:

  1. PAST. Personally and collectively, I was (we all were) born with disordered desires that corrupt all of my (and our) acts and deeds. Original sin corrupts, disorders, and misdirects all of our desires. MY QUESTIONS: Are the disordered (heterosexual) desires in my flesh any less sinful than the (homosexual) desires in my brothers? Does faith in Christ justify us from all our sins? If we don’t put to death (or “mortify”) all misdirected desires, does that disqualify any from leadership, or only those with misdirected homosexual desires?

  1. PRESENT. I must die daily to my remaining (internal) sinful desires and (the external) cultural temptations to self-define or self-indulge myself. MY QUESTIONS: Do I lean into my sanctification, daily denying myself to follow, live in, and live for Christ — to fruitfully honor, serve, and please God? Is the power of the Gospel progressively expelling all of my idolatrous desires? Am I growing, erratically but assuredly, in unselfish love for God and my neighbors?

  1. FUTURE. Our sin struggles will differ from our fellow Christians, in both specifics and how we describe them — contextually, culturally, ministerially, personally, and sexually. But our shared hope is in the resurrection and glorification of the body, in union with Christ, the complete deliverance from our sinful flesh. MY QUESTIONS: Do I (we) find our ultimate identity and destiny only in God’s Story? Is God's Gospel my (and our) only hope in life and in death?

These deeply pastoral and theological issues require us to "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15) so that the beauty of Christ, full of grace and truth, will be reflected in our PCA church. The General Assembly adopted the Study on Human Sexuality. I find it to be a truth-in-love statement. But the affirmative answers to the related Overtures deeply disappointed me, in both content and tone. As these must now be approved by 2/3 of Presbyteries and the next General Assembly, I ask these questions:

  1. WHO DO WE SERVE? Church moral statements can define what is "right" for "insiders," but can deprive others a welcoming and safe church environment there they can share their sin struggles and receive support for growth in grace.

  2. TRUTH and LOVE? As noted by Rev. Sammy Rhodes: "There is a way of choosing fear over love that looks like choosing truth over compromise."

  3. ARE ALL SINNERS SAVED BY GRACE? Rev. Tim Keller notes that Westminster Larger Catechism (139): "puts 'all unnatural lusts; all unclean imaginations, thoughts ... affections' in a single list all violating the 7th command. No gradations. To argue some sinful sexual desires are disqualifying for office but others are not, you can’t use the confession."

In Christ's church, everyone must be allowed to confess their sin struggles, honestly and sincerely, without fear of rejection or slander. We share in a common source of personal Identity and Growth in God's Story. We must believe the Gospel for ourselves and become Good News for others. Our identities are not in our unique broken stories, but in God's Gospel.

I fallibly pray for “my church.” Only Jesus prays perfectly for “His Church"

As a now “honorably retired” elder in my church (the PCA), I will not attend or vote in its annual (pandemic-postponed) meeting (June 28-July 2). But I will spiritually participate through my fallible prayers. The Lord Jesus Christ is the only head of His Church. So I am drawn to how He intercedes for His Church — in John 17.

I’ve re-read John Stott’s exposition of John 17 from the 1970 Urbana missions convention. This teaching was part of my spiritual formation as a young minister. For example, the church in relationship to the world must be “spiritually distinct … not socially segregated.” Or, to rephrase in current terms, Christ’s church is called to be “on-mission, but not in-silos.

The Son has returned to heaven to be glorified with his Father. Now the Son must be glorified through His church. Jesus glorified the Father by perfectly accomplishing what he was given to do. Now the church must imperfectly glorify Christ by fulfilling what the Son has given us to do, before a watching world.

Stott focuses on the four main prayers of Jesus for His Church: for sanctification, protection, mission, and unity. As Jesus prays, “Sanctify them in the truth”“keep them from the evil one”“I have sent them into the world”“that they may be one.” Stott observes: “Of these four, truth predominates, for it is the truth which sanctifies, unifies, and compels the church to evangelize.”

As my denomination convenes, I note John Stott’s observation: “Christ’s vision for the Church is far more balanced and comprehensive than ours tend to be.” Ouch! That observation hurts so good! And I am been very encouraged by this Letter from former PCA General Assembly Moderators.

Looking back on graduate school, I recall American church history. During the First and Second Great Awakenings, Presbyterians divided between the “Old Lights and New Lights,” then the “Old Side and New Side.” Would the church align with the “missional” or with the “traditional” parties? I remember thinking: “But these groups needed each other! That is, to avoid missional compromise with the world, or traditional withdrawal from the world.

A wise elder, and a PhD psychologist, once said to me, “Psychology often hides behind theology.” God can use our dispositional differences to mutually benefit each other and balance the church. Analogy: vibrations in auto engines must be “dampened” to avoid destructive wobbles. We need each other to avoid destructive imbalances and oscillations in the church, so that we display the beauty of Christ, and glorify God the Father in this world.

Attractive Community

King David humbly wrote "I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me." (Psalm 131:1) Maybe less wisely, I'm pondering the Trinity. No one can explain the divine mystery, as Augustine of Hippo, in his On the Trinity, confessed.

But this much I know: God can't be defined (God's "incomprehensibility"), but God has been truly revealed: perfectly and historically, in the person of Jesus Christ (God's "incarnation").

God can be imaged in Christ's Body, the visible church before a watching world. The reflection is imperfect. When corrupted with lies or hate, beauty can be distorted and become ugly.

Reality is ultimately Relational. The divine Persons ("three-in-one") relate in an Ultimate Community of Truth and Love. And when God's people relate with Truth and Love, the world sees an (imperfect) reflection of mysteriously attractive community.

God's people are commanded: "speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ." (Ephesians 4:15) The Bible alludes to the beauty of the mysterious Trinity reflected in an attractive Christian community. Jesus prayed: "I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17:22–23)

Abiding in God's LIGHT (truth) and LOVE (for each other), we cultivate eternal LIFE with God. The Letter of 1 John warns against the deception of the evil one. "We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one." (1 John 5:19)

In the Orthodox tradition, an iconic image of perichoresis (cf. choreography) depicts the relationship between the persons of the Trinity as a "dance." Since humans are created in God's image, Christ's people can reflect a relational reality that is attractive, inviting others into a dance of eternal life, light, and love.

But society today reflects an ugliness caused by Lies (not Truth). Post-modernism replaces God's Truth with "my narrative vs. your narrative." The person's story with the most political power "wins." Society is distorted by Hate (not Love). From inside preferred tribes and "silos," people lob missiles of hate toward those with whom they disagree. The world is robbed of a vision of attractive beauty.

My Christian denomination meets this month. I pray for an attractive community. I am grateful for over 600 PCA pastors and elders who have signed a Public Letter: an appeal for our church to be a community of TRUTH and LOVE, not Truth versus Love. That is, to reflect the beauty of the Trinity.

John R. W. Stott echos both the Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul: “Love becomes sentimental if it is not strengthened by truth and truth becomes hard if it is not softened by love. We need to preserve the balance of the Bible ... to hold the truth in love, to love others in the truth, and to grow not only in love but discernment.” (What Christ Thinks of the Church, 1990)