BY BRETT ASHTON
The Church across the globe is trying to figure out what connection looks like in this unprecedented time. How do we remain connected to the body of Christ when we cannot meet together? It has led to multiple livestreams on social media, online resources, video conferencing, and in our case at Southview, online liturgies in place of weekend gatherings. All of those things are good and helpful. After all, the Church is a community. We are meant to live in community. At the same time, it seems like we may be missing an important opportunity to reach out to God in our weakness, as individuals.
It is certainly fascinating that this would happen during the season of Lent: a time in the Church calendar where we hold up self-examination, times of quiet, and (hopefully) see our own reflection in the story of Jesus in the wilderness being tempted. Never before had Southview collectively experienced such a pure Lenten season—where our circumstances force us to not just experience the season intellectually, but now physically and emotionally as well. We experienced Lent not just through a reading plan or reminders on the weekend, but every day as we faced the unknown in isolation. And now in the season of Easter, we are still separated: a sense of being alone resonates as we read of Jesus obediently approaching his own crucifixion.
So how do we engage with this reality? What does God have for us in this — both as a church, but also as individuals?
It is always important to remember that our faith wasn’t formed only in the last 50 or 60 years; in fact, that time period wasn’t even the most important period in Christian history. As Evangelicals, we easily forget this.
Our faith’s roots are set deep in the context of the desert. After leading the Israelites out of Egypt, God immediately led them into the desert to learn about who He was and how he was to be worshipped. In the New Testament, John the Baptist spent time in the desert in preparation for his “public appearance to Israel” (Luke 1:80). And Jesus himself was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert immediately after his baptism (Luke 4). It is in the desert where the normal distractions are removed, and we look to meet God. Metaphorically for us, the desert is where we find our struggles of self, obstacles, addiction, and heartache. It can be the times where we feel we cannot hear God, and don’t understand where or if He is at work.
Around the third century (AD), we get our first look at the desert fathers and mothers that sought to isolate themselves and seek God. They had an enormous impact on the practice of Christian monasticism, but also on the mystical elements of our faith. Perhaps one of the better-known desert fathers was Anthony the Great (AD 251-356), often seen as the father of desert monasticism. From these men and women, we gained a number of spiritual disciplines that we’re going to put into practice in the coming weeks.
Not unlike the desert fathers and mothers, we find ourselves in a sort of desert place now: isolated from our friends and family, removed the normal busyness of life, and faced with many unknowns. We have been forced into this space – we didn’t really choose it. So how can God use this time?
I was reading recently the book Taste and See by Margaret Feinberg, and found myself resonating with one section in her chapter on figs. In it she talked about how the only way to know when to harvest figs is not by sight necessarily, but rather by getting up close:
The figs can easily be missed. Instead of simply noticing showy blossoms, we must actually feel the branches to test their pliability. Then we must closely inspect them to detect the presence of developing fruit. We have to be close to the tree and engaged with its growth to reap the sweetest of harvests. (Feinberg, 62)
As a way of illustrating this, Feinberg spoke of something (psychologically) all humans are susceptible to: change blindness. It is simply impossible to notice all the visual changes that are happening around us—and it is made even more difficult when we are focused on a particular task, preconceived notion, or thought.
…these kinds of changes slip by us in films ever y day. Have you ever noticed in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo’s jacket disappears and then reappears as he says good-bye to Princess Leia? And did you see the white cars tootling through the background of medieval Scottish countryside during the epic “ancient” battle scenes in Braveheart? (Feinberg, 62)
So why does this matter to right now?
My thought process when reading this as family, was that each of us were so laser-focused on when things would return to normal, that we may be unintentionally missing what God is doing in us through this time.
We can’t notice what he is doing without looking closely and focusing our attention on Him. We talked about what we could be doing to make the most of this time — each of us individually — to better hear what God is saying, and to learn more about him. Could we seek to focus our attention not on escaping this hard time, but rather on Him?
A great way to do this is learn more about the spiritual disciplines that have been tried and tested through history by many men and women that came before us. We should take advantage of this desert time and seek God, putting aside ourselves and our sense of self and leaning into His grace and presence.
In the coming weeks, we’ll be posting a spiritual discipline – both a bit of its background and how to get started practicing it. These posts are written by people in our body that have made use of these practices. We’re making them available as an encouragement for all of us even though it may feel different and is all but guaranteed to be difficult.
Blessings as you embark on this journey — God is good! May we be formed by Him together.