Loving Those Who Are [Still] Before Us

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One of the great joys and privileges of my life have been elderly folks who I can call friends and mentors and kin. These are the sorts of people who I have turned to for insight and perspective and to express my own frustrations knowing that they have probably, in the course of their life, experienced some taste of the same disappointment and seen the other side of it. These are also people who have blessed my life simply by who they have become to me personally.

Given the news regarding COVID-19, I have been anxious. Not so much for myself, but for folks who are at high-risk for such a virus, for older friends, family, and mentors of mine, spiritual mothers and fathers of mine that I know and love.

Frankly, the thought of losing them has filled me with fear.

Before college, I did not have many friends of an older generation than my own, and it wasn’t until I became an active member of a local church during my Junior year of college that these sorts of relationships started developing in my life. I can think specifically of my former pastors, members of small groups, elderly women who have hugged and encouraged me on Sunday mornings, and elderly men who have consistently prayed for me and welcomed me into their homes for lunch. These are folks I got to know regularly, and I owe it to the church for helping me see what life can look like relating to other people outside my own age range.

There seems to me to be a great dearth of opportunity for intergenerational friendships and communities in our culture. I can’t give you a reason for why (perhaps there are a multitude of reasons), but what I can tell you is that without these relationships, I would not be as worried as I am right now. And I consider that worry an appropriate response simply because I see within it a compassion that has not always been there. It is the sort of compassion that has been birthed through relationship and partaking of the means of grace together. It’s a gift provided to me by the church and a gift that I hope many more might come to know and receive.

A recent piece in The Atlantic, titled “The Staggering, Heartless Cruelty Toward the Elderly” argues that crises (like COVID-19 specifically) often “elicit compassion, but they can also evoke callousness” resulting in the “dehumanization” of the elderly. The author mentions that in this rhetoric, the elderly are robbed of “a distinctive face and voice, each with hopes and dreams, memories and regrets, friendships and marriages, loves lost and loves sustained” providing examples of real life exchanges of such degradation. The elderly have worth, as the author mentioned, not because of what they can offer economically but simply because they are “created in the image of God”—each distinct and each worthy of our time, love, and deep respect.[1]

The Apostle Paul wrote to the relatively young Timothy saying, “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters…” (1 Tim 5:1-2). John Calvin commented on this point of compassionate exhortation mentioning “It is impossible not to be moved with reverence, when we place before our eyes our father or our mother.”[2]  I don’t believe this is a simple rhetorical device that Paul is using given (among other broader theological themes) the parental (Rom 16:13), fraternal, and filial relationships he had including Timothy at the start of his letter who he refers to as his “own child in the faith” (1:2). In this family, there are certain blind-spots that we need addressed in both directions for our own edification, and I believe one reason for this lack of compassion (as evidenced in the aforementioned article) is due to a lack of intergenerational communities to place us in conversation and proximity with people unlike ourselvesto see that these are specific people with specific stories just like our own flesh and blood parents.

Unlikely friendships are opportunities for empathy, and by its nature, the church is highly conducive for such unlikely friendships. I firmly believe the church is a place where Millennial “snow-flakes” and Baby-“OK-Boomer”s can live together in mutual encouragement of one another given their union in Christ and adoption into the family of God. Of course families bicker and argue, but that does not make us any less family.  Alan Jacob’s wrote yesterday that “If you don’t care what happens to people, then you are unlikely to seek out more knowledge of their condition; and the less you know about their condition, the less you will feel called to compassion for that condition.”[3] I believe friendship can produce both. Because as we come to know each other’s lives, often we come to know compassion for one another as well. And as we come to grow in compassion, perhaps we may come to know their condition more.

Where our society is often lacking in providing venues for intergenerational friendships (and thus empathy), the church is uniquely capable for helping produce such relationships and compassion. And now is a good time for us to demonstrate this compassion by taking seriously the reality of this virus’s effects and the folks that are at serious risk, as the Apostle Paul also said, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith” (Gal 6:10).

I am no expert on this virus, but I trust much wiser folks like Andy Crouch on this. And I would urge you to read this piece “Love in the Time of Coronavirus” for more, especially pertaining to this: “The reason to alter our practices, especially the way we gather (see below), is not self-protection. For one thing, in the case of this particular virus, if individuals are young and healthy, infection may pose not much more threat than the ordinary seasonal flu. The change is needed because our vulnerable neighbors — those of any age with compromised immune systems, and those over 70 years old — are at grave risk. One of the basic axioms of the Christian life is that the “strong” must consider the “weak” (see Rom. 15). We are making these choices not to minimize our own risk, but to protect others from risk.” 

More here: https://journal.praxislabs.org/love-in-the-time-of-coronavirus-26aaeb0396e3 

Stay safe friends.

Jeb



[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/respect-old/607864/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=share

[2] Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (p. 119). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[3] https://blog.ayjay.org/incuriosity-and-indifference/

Lent, Finitude, and the Ebb of Life

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Slowing down is not easy for me. There is always something I want to do or something that seems to be looming over me to get done. We live in one of the busiest societies ever despite all our technological progress to help us be more efficient. It is a strange irony that given the tools to do our tasks more quickly, we have found ourselves with even less time than we did before.

Somewhere along the way we’ve convinced ourselves that greater efficiency would give us space to slow down, but instead, all it has given us is the time to be more efficient with other things. The problem is not that we don’t have enough time. The problem is that we are finite creatures operating as though we are not.

Whether it’s my third cup of coffee to keep me going or the generous pour of whiskey to force me to stop, our lives have been robbed of a natural ebb & flow. A characteristic mark of a mortal creature is one of up’s and down’s. Times of real joy and real sorrow. Moments of deep rest and painful labor. Feelings of love and loneliness. Satisfaction and disappointment. Give and take. Life and death.

Life can feel like a constant, breathless flow. We work incessantly. We are constantly connected. We listen to the radio to keep our moods up. And we numb out with whatever we can so that we can finally go to bed. We live like creatures that will never die, but hurry is foreign to what’s eternal.

Lent season has forced me to ebb and exhale. It starts with Ash Wednesday’s existential reminder that “we are dust and to dust shall we return” and involves the conscious deprivation of something that will leave a noticeable hole in our day-to-day lives. As someone new to these past seasons of Lent, it feels like a disruption to my own delusions of independence and infinite limits.

It has punctured holes in my routines and forced me to meet with God in the gaps and exposed to me my own deeper longings. Where I would normally distract myself, I am forced to engage with myself. I am forced to pray in these areas of lack. St. Augustine once wrote that “the continuance of your longings is the continuance of your prayer” and that’s probably why prayer is often hard for me.[1] I’d rather fill the gaps of my life than have to sit in my own emptiness and experience my own longings. In other words, it’s too hard for me to pray when I’m too busy to desire anything.

Desire is another mark of a finite creature. We eat, we get full, we get hungry, repeat. We see friends, we need solitude, we feel lonely, repeat. All of us have routines of longings which ebb & flow. The delusional creature is always full and always connected: we overdesire and do what we can to prevent the ebb. But the consciously finite creature can stick out his or her hands in desirous prayer to makes space to receive what she knows she needs.

It is with empty hands that we come to see the love and grace perennially extended to us. As my friend Wes recently wrote, “Unclench your fists. Breathe deeply. Let your heart rate decrease. Know that you’re already bathed in the Father’s love, and ask simply for what you need, in the assurance that the One to whom you’re speaking is already cupping His ear in your direction.”[2] Like the prodigal son with his empty pockets stumbling on home only to be met by a full embrace and a full feast, it’s in the ebb of our lives that we come to see the great provisional grace of Another’s flow towards us.

 

[1] St. Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, Psalm 37:13.

[2] Wesley Hill, The Lord’s Prayer, 3. You can buy his book here.