Seldom have I ever been drawn to seriously and/or deeply consider Paul’s words as they come to us here in his first letter to the church at Corinth. For it appears, doesn’t it, that what he offers in these verses is not particularly helpful. Clearly, he expected that Jesus would return in his lifetime, which did not happen. And in light of that hope he urged people to suspend all sorts of ‘worldly endeavors’ from marrying to grieving to rejoicing to making every day and momentous purchases alike. In Paul’s imagination, the world should stand still, attentive to the certain truth that the ‘present form of this world was passing away.’
I have always taken Paul at his word and in this case, his word was not particularly helpful.
Or so it seemed to me.
And then in these last days, weeks, months, I have sensed that the ‘present form of this world is passing away.’ To be sure, something has shifted, at least for me.
- It began with a pandemic which threatened and isolated and in countless ways changed just about every human interaction I have taken for granted and cherish. A pandemic, the effects of which raised to the surface once more the vast inequities present in our system: from access to health care to economic opportunity to education.
- It continued with the entirely understandable racial unrest which called out into the open the innumerable ways in which life in the world we share is so much harder, often impossible, if the color of one’s skin is of a darker hue than my own.
- And yes, it has deepened in these last days, some would argue as a culmination of years of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric which has found far too many receptive hearts, even among neighbors, friends, yes, fellow children of God.
Indeed, given all this and more, it would seem that the ‘present form of this world is passing away.’ Nothing seems the same as it did not all that long ago.
Or maybe not.
- For maybe it is so that the way in which the world is shifting is not in the actual foundations beneath us now, but in my/our perception of it.
- Maybe it is so that that what has always actually been is just something which I have not yet experienced, before now not really been able to see.
- Maybe it was but a ‘false kind of peace’ which marked my world before.
- Indeed, maybe the shifting is not in the world, but in my own heart. In what I can see now that I could not see as fully before.
For this is is how it has come to me now.
The word came late on Friday night that in the midst of all that is threatened in these days, churches, at least some of them, have also become targets for the hatred which is boiling over now. Especially churches which are understood to be ‘liberal.’ United Church of Christ churches in particular. Indeed, the alarm was great enough that on Friday night denomination leaders urged those who were still worshiping in person to consider not doing so this week-end. And to be aware that the threats are not only for Sunday, but also for Wednesday.
I shook my head to hear this news. But truth be told, even as I heard it, I tried to distance from it. I don’t serve in the United Church of Christ, for one. But even if I did, I could not imagine it happening here.
I woke up Saturday with my heart quaking, however. For it occurred to me then that on Monday, on the Martin Luther King Holiday, I would be participating in a live streamed service which will be hosted by our largest African American congregation in town. Only a small group will be gathered, yes. And probably relatively few even know we are doing so. And yet, if any church in our community would be a likely target in this time, it would be this one.
So I got on the phone with my friend who serves as pastor there. He had not yet heard what I had about churches being potential targets, but he was not surprised. In fact, this has been part of their way of thinking — borne of hard experience — for some time now. For I recall him telling me some time back when we were still able to gather in person, that their ushers were on high alert every Sunday. If a stranger who happened to be white walked through the doors they kept a particularly close eye on them. Given what has happened in other places, it seemed only wise to do so.
Within minutes of our phone call ending he let me know that he had arranged for extra security for Monday night. Just in case.
And again, though the Lutheran Church at the corner of Third and Pine in DeKalb is not likely to be a target, apparently mainline churches in general had been named, and so I spoke with some of our staff, arranging for us to work more from home than at church in the next few days. Again, just in case. Because one never knows.
And I ended that siege of phone calls uniquely exhausted.
Now, in the end, it turns out that the warning which was issued possibly had no actual credible threats behind it, but of course, as of this writing, we cannot yet know for sure. Either way, I lived for the better part of 24 hours believing otherwise. Surely at the very least this says a lot about the very anxious times we are living in and perhaps about my own willingness at this juncture to believe the worst. At the same time with all of this, I came to a deeper understanding of the world we share because of it and whatever else may be true, I do not regret that.
For I realized once more that although, as a woman, I know what it is to walk in this world with a different sense of alertness to danger than most any man — at least any white man — will ever know. Even so, I realized that neighbors and friends, yes, fellow children of God, live with that sort of terror inducing vigilance all the time. In a way I likely will never know.
So again I wonder: Is the ‘present form of this world passing away?’ Or is it just my understanding of it? Whatever else might be true, might God be using this time of unique hardship and challenge to open my eyes, soften my heart, somehow build up my courage, and even increase my hope for a different world than the one I have taken for granted? With all of this I can’t help but wonder: would it be so terrible if the ‘present form of this world’ actually did pass away? At least the world I was accustomed to which had me not seeing beyond my own comfortable existence? More and more, I think not. More and more…
I do believe these times are unique. At least they are in my experience.
And I do believe God is present in them and even through them. Lifting the veil which has too long clouded my understanding, yes. Revealing in and through this painful time the truth that God wants so much more for us all than what has been.
For now, I do not expect that you and I are called to heed Paul’s urging to completely suspend our lives as we wait for the return of Jesus. At the same time, the events of these days do call for something different. For while I expect these are not necessarily the precursor of Jesus returning in an ultimate way? The essence of who Jesus is as one of love and sacrifice and servanthood is becoming more and more clear as we seek to follow in this particular time and place the very one who we hear first calling Simon and James and John in today’s Gospel reading from Mark (Mark 1:14-20). And perhaps even in that deepening understanding which is ours as our empathy grows for those whose paths in this world differ so from our own: I expect Jesus comes in that, don’t you? And in that, isn’t the ‘present form of this world as we have known it already somehow passing away?’ As hard as it is, I for one, think that is a good thing. And, indeed, this, all of this, especially this, I believe, is of God.
- Is the ‘present form of this world passing away’ for you? Why or why not?
- If we are not called to suspend everything as Paul suggests, does this particular time call for us to pay attention in new ways at least?
- How might God be using this time to deepen your own growth in faith, in life, in understanding? Do you sense ‘Jesus coming again’ in this?