Observation #3: We (and things) are complicated

If you have missed my previous posts (which, unless you are a family member of mine, is 99% likely), I am taking some time in this crazy season to think about some things that are normally true about life but are now especially clear due to COVID-19. This strange season that we are in is like a spotlight, illuminating things that are always there, but perhaps just less clearly visible during other times of life. The short list I came up with is this:

Observation #3: We (and things) are complicated. This might actually be one of my favorite topics. I’m a big believer in the idea that so much conflict, turmoil, and distress in this world comes from the fact that we tend to draw simple conclusions about complicated matters. Or more simply, we fail to recognize how complicated things truly are. We live in a world where we settle for tweetable answers to questions that deserve entire books to answer. That is why I love caveats so much. So many times in life, and in theology, the answer to a question is not a simple yes or no but a “Yes, and…” or a “No, but…” One specific, more obvious example: Is Jesus fully God or fully man? Christians would say he is both! How? Well, it is complicated and probably can’t be answered in a tweet.

We should also consider the fact that we ourselves are complicated people. We have an ability to act selflessly while still being selfish. We have an ability to think one thing but say or do another. We are full of contradictions and if we are honest with ourselves, often hold various viewpoints that are actually incompatible. We can have deep affection for the same people who drive us crazy. Even though we may do our best to attempt buttoned up, unified, singularly focused individuals – if we are honest we are complicated, complex beings.

Now, let me be clear. What I am not saying is that everything is relative, there is no such thing as absolute truth, or that each of us gets to decide for ourselves what is right and true. I would simply argue that the absolute truth is often more complicated, and deserves more nuance and discussion than we often allow. Again, we look for one-liners instead of thoughtful dialogue, tweetable quotes instead of lengthy novels.

The fact that things are complicated is always true. However, we are in an extremely confusing situation in which this has become abundantly clear. The question of what to do with the coronavirus or how to respond to it feels tense, divisive, and confusing. We desperately want to know where to land, or what to think about it. We read one thing that makes us feel hopeful about freely hugging your friends and family very soon and another that makes us feel like the world just might end tomorrow. If you are like me, this can feel agonizing! Somebody, anybody, give me a one-liner that will make this go away! But they can’t. Because it is complicated.

One way that being aware of this truth should inform the way we proceed is that it should cause us to have a lot of grace and empathy for folks. We are in unchartered territory as a world, and as a society. Leaders of all kinds, whether hyper-local, like your pastor, or globabl, like our Presidents and Prime Ministers of the world, have been making complicated decisions based off of complicated information in the middle of a complicated situation. This doesn’t excuse ignorance, apathy, or a failure to engage in the complicated matters. But it does mean that people are going to get things wrong. People are going to change their minds. People are going to confuse and frustrate us. Why? Because this is complicated. And we are complicated people.

We can even make it more personal. People everywhere are trying to make difficult decisions in the middle of this complicated situation, and I am almost positive you are among them. Whether that is determining how your business should proceed, whether you can have friends over for dinner, or whether you should feel comfortable going for a run in a park – these are all new, difficult decisions with a number of social and situational factors that make them even more complicated. So we should not be surprised that we feel stressed or troubled about them. We should also not be surprised when our friends come to different conclusions. And we should not be surprised when we, or those around us, change our minds about these decisions. It is okay. It is natural. Because this is complicated.

So what should we do? We should seek the truth, even when it takes some extra digging, research, reading, talking to try to figure it out. We should be willing to do the work of looking for thorough, thoughtful perspectives instead of quick, pointed one-liners that are simplifying a complicated situation. We should have grace for those who are around us and doing their best to figure this out. We should prioritize loving God and loving our neighbor, and seek this above all else as we make complicated decisions in the middle of a complicated time. Lastly, we should be wise, thoughtful, and considerate, placing others needs ahead of our own.

Observation #2: Significance and Security

This is a continuation of a series I started last week. I am examining a number of things that are always true, but are now especially clear in light of COVID-19. These aren’t meant to be statements of expertise or anything like it – just some observations that make up part of my worldview. Here is the list, with the other ones I have written linked:

  • We are not in control
  • We long for significance and security
  • We (and things) are complicated
  • We need grace from/for each other
  • We are deeply interconnected
  • We are more selfish than we think
  • We have a great capacity for love

This observation I can’t take credit for. It was actually something I learned in seminary last semester. The idea is that all humans possess a deep longing for two things: significance and security. Significance and security are really just two words that serve as short hand for two questions that are central to the human experience. Does my life have meaning? Am I going to be okay? (security) The theological idea here is that our hearts are discontent, unsettled, and experience a deep sense of longing because of these two powerful questions. And the only thing that offers true, unwavering significance and security is the Gospel of Christ. The idea of a perfect, just God who loves us with an unending, sacrificial, merciful love gives our life great meaning, and it offers us eternal security. Of course, we fail to remember this and look at all kinds of other substitutes to give us significance and security.

What I love so much about this idea of our longing for significance and security is that it is so easy to see this at work in all aspects of the human experience. We can look around and see how so much conflict, discord, or despair come from our sense of significance or security being threatened. We feel discouraged when we can’t find a meaning to our life, or see meaning in the suffering around us. We feel scared when it becomes unclear whether we will in fact, be okay. We make compromises and impulsive decisions in a desire to gain security or significance. This is always true, and I have seen it in a few specific ways over the last few months.

Significance. I have seen this one manifested in some kind of unique ways. For some, the coronavirus has threatened their sense of significance. Incomes lost, jobs that once seemed vital and honorable are now discovering they aren’t considered “essential.” Or just in a very simple sense, it can push us towards despair thinking, “What is the point of all this?” It all feels so chaotic, out of our control, and scary that it is hard to see how there could be meaning behind this. For others, the coronavirus has given them an opportunity to lead a meaningful life. I have seen this in the way that millions of people have rallied around the idea of social distancing, feeling incredibly motivated by the idea of making a change for the greater good. That alone gives us a sense of meaning. Now I’m not just sitting around at home all day for no reason; instead it is a sacrificial, others-focused decision. Loving others sacrificially gives us a great sense of meaning.

Another example I have seen is a podcaster/lifehacker/entrepreneur named Tim Ferriss. He was one of the first people I saw paying close attention to the coronavirus before it hit America. But rather than reveling in his accurate predictions, he has overall forgone the opportunity to say “I told you so!” and instead has started to look for opportunities to help in any way possible (such as using his closely followed podcast to invite others to help). He is using his platform and influence for the greater good. He seems especially passionate and fired up about this cause. He is doing everything he can to lead a meaningful life in light of all that is going on.

Security. This one is even simpler to explain and observe. The idea is that we all just want to know, on a literal, physical, and existential level – “Am I going to be okay?” And part of the fear and anxiety introduced by the coronavirus is that this question feels almost impossible to answer. And similar to how we are never actually in control, we never actually know for sure that we are going to be okay. But we can do everything in our power to live in a set of circumstances that make us feel safe, or in other words, secure. A quick diagnostic to think about what you look to for security is how you would complete this sentence: “As long as , then I will be okay.” As long as I get to go on that vacation. As long as I have a nice retirement fund. As long as I have some friends to hang out with. As long as I can go to the gym. The list could go on and on. And there is (almost) nothing you can fill in that blank with that can’t be stripped away. And we are always subconsciously aware of that. And because of that, we don’t ever fully feel secure. COVID-19 has just made that especially clear.

So this brings us back to where we started. The idea that we are all longing for significance and security is a theological idea. Meaning it describes something about the way that we relate to God. If our deepest longing is for significance and security, the greatest thing we can find is something, or someone who can eternally, unwaveringly, powerfully meet that need. The only one who is capable of holding the weight of that, who can not fail to provide these for us, is an eternal, unchanging God. If we attach our significance and security to literally anything else, it is always at risk of being taken away. The only way to experience true significance and security in our finite lives is by being united to an infinite God. It’s always true. May we see it even more clearly now.

Observation #1: We Are Not In Control

A couple of days ago (which is practically ancient history in this constantly evolving, 24/7 news consuming situation), I mentioned that one unique aspect of this extremely strange, difficult time is that it acts like a spotlight. It is illuminating things about our day to day life that are always true, but are now especially clear. If you missed that, it is right here. I want to spend some time talking through each of these ideas on their own for a couple of reasons. 1) Because a little extra project probably won’t hurt in the coming weeks. 2) Because I want to be sure to think carefully about each idea, as well as be sensitive to the fact that the coronavirus is not just a teaching lesson, but is causing real pain and suffering around the globe. Now, without any more of my beloved caveats, the first of a few things that are normally true but are now especially clear due to COVID-19.

We are not in control. This fact has probably hit close to home for you in the last couple of days. Our emails and social media feeds have been inundated with notices of postponements, cancellations, and closings, due to circumstances out of our control. Which is another way of saying, there is nothing we can do about it. Things canceled have included more “trivial” things such as vacations and concerts, but also things that come with great disappointment and heartache – entire sports seasons gone, long awaited weddings having all of their plans change, and some have even lost the opportunity to grieve the loss of a loved one in community. All the while, restaurants and stores are closing, and many are figuring out what in the world to do for work. In one way or another, big or small, we have all come face to face with the uncomfortable reality that there are so many things about this world that are out of our control.

Of course, this is always true. Our best made plans, hopes, and dreams are always subject to the countless variables of life that are out of our control: weather and natural disasters, disease and sickness, relationships and conversations that don’t go how we planned, errant drivers on the road and needless violence in communities. Our lives are always affected by these things that are out of our control. But at the same time, we want so desperately to be in control. On our best days, and in the best circumstances, we can almost trick ourselves into thinking that we in fact are in control. We schedule our days, we choose what we will eat, we choose what we will watch, we choose where we will go and who we will hang out with. We believe the lie that our fate is entirely in our hands. Until of course, some external circumstance that we can’t do anything about comes and wreaks havoc on our plans.

I’ve struggled with how to talk about this always true but especially clear now thing because this reality has been the cause of much pain, anxiety, and fear for so many. There is no getting around the fact that this is a really hard situation, that has already, and will continue to cause really hard outcomes. And so a reminder of the fact that we are not in control can almost feel insensitive, like rubbing our nose in it. What can we make of this difficult reality?

One of the Christian catechisms starts off with the question:

What is our only hope in life and death?

That we are not our own, but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our savior Jesus Christ.

This answer won’t satisfy everyone. It might leave you with more questions than it does answers. If you are not convinced that there can somehow be a good God in a world that seems to be filled with so much bad, this answer is probably especially not helpful. However, if what the catechism above says is true, and I believe it is, then it offers us an incredibly hopeful path forward. Because this answer allows us to be honest about the fact that we are not in control (which is true whether you believe in a God or not). And it tells us that someone who loves us, who has chosen to save us at a great cost, is in control. That gives us enormous freedom to enjoy the good (for we have someone to thank for it), lament the bad (for we have someone who is with us in it), and go through this life with open hands.

Of course, I don’t think this means that we should not ever plan or put in effort towards things. It does not mean that we shouldn’t do everything in our power to stop the spread of this virus. Instead, it means that we have somewhere, and someone to look to when our lives are turned upside down. As much as I would love to be in control, I am so grateful that there is someone who is infinitely wiser, greater, more loving, more perfect, and more powerful than I am who is. Again, it doesn’t fix everything, answer all our questions, or necessarily make things easier. But in a time which might cause us to try to clamp down on things and control as much as we can, let us move forward being honest about our lack of control, and faithful to the one who is in control.

A Few Things That Are Normally True But Are Now Especially Clear Due to COVID-19

These are strange times. If you are anything like me, over the last couple of days, maybe weeks, you have spent more time than you would like to admit scrolling, refreshing, searching, and scrolling again, looking for who knows what in regard to the coronavirus/COVID-19. The great thing about the internet is that anybody, can say anything, about any topic. So we scroll past countless non-experts giving their “expert” opinion on these wild times we are living in. This post is NOT that. I have no insight on the state of the pandemic, what we should do to stop it, how worried we should be on a scale of 1-10 (though I do love asking my friends that!), or whether mountain biking counts as social distancing (I hope so).

Instead, I have a few observations about life in general, that I think have become especially clear in this strange time. You see, it feels like this virus has shined a massive spotlight on modern life. It has caused us to spend time considering our daily habits, our patterns and practices of life, our cultural obsessions and, not to be dramatic, our deepest desires. With so much of the world as we know it coming to a screeching halt – we can’t help but to be a little reflective. It causes us to ask questions ranging from “What is the value of sports?” to “How should I be spending my money/time/resources?” to “Why is it so important for the church to gather as a physical body?” It causes us to think deeply about our priorities both personally, and as a society. In this way, the coronavirus acts like a massive spotlight.

The thing about a spotlight is that it does not magically cause things to appear. It simply illuminates the things that have been there all along. So while it does appear that the coronavirus may drastically alter our way of life for quite some time, I think that it is also revealing things about ourselves (as in human kind) that have always been true. This strange time has just created an opportunity for us to see these things more clearly. Truths about humanity that have remained hidden beneath the rushing waters of our fast paced, overstimulated, chaotic lives are now rising to the surface in light of a global pandemic. I have listed some of these truths (or at least what I believe to be truths) below:

  • We are not in control
  • We long for significance and security
  • We (and things) are complicated
  • We need grace from/for each other
  • We are deeply interconnected
  • We are more selfish than we think
  • We have a great capacity for love

Over the next week or so, I plan to spend some time discussing each one of these ideas, and how we are seeing it more clearly in light of our current circumstances. A few caveats: 1) I am bad at consistently writing on here, no matter how much I say I am going to change that. 2) The situation seems pretty fluid and things I say about the current circumstances one day may be totally different the next – hopefully these truths will transcend that, but I’m sure I will write things that won’t age well. 3) Even though I am claiming to be writing about some observable “truths”, I will probably give lots of caveats. Caveats are my favorite. 4) I also recognize that the coronavirus and COVID-19 is the cause of much suffering, pain, and anguish around the world, and I don’t want to minimize that in any way. I will aim to be thoughtful and attentive to this fact as I write, but I’m sure I will fail in many regards. Have grace.

Finally, I would love to talk with you about any of the things that I write! If you are reading this, it is probably because you are my mom, dad, spouse or sibling – so just text me! If not, feel free to comment your thoughts! I am excited to unpack these ideas over the coming days/weeks (months?).