In Manitoba, as I write this, we have completed our second week of critical level restrictions. “What? It’s only been two weeks?” is an understandable response to this statement. It seems like a lot longer. Of course, we have had numerous restrictions in place for months, but our experience of this most intense level has only been a few weeks. The provincial government put these restrictions in place to flatten the curve, because our health-care system could not keep up with the increase in COVID-19 cases—particularly the severe cases. I’m not going to argue for or against lockdowns, these particular restrictions, whether a drive-in church service is safe or what is an “essential good.” I have thoughts on all of these things, but mostly I have been thinking about how lockdown and a life of Christian discipleship are uncannily similar.
Now, let’s get this out of the way: followers of Jesus are meant to be together. It is actually part of our spiritual DNA as the body of Christ, the family of God, the priesthood of all believers, you name it. The metaphors are always collective! It is next to impossible and extraordinarily rare for someone to identify as a follower of Jesus and not be connected to other followers of Jesus. This connection, what we call community, most naturally manifests in gatherings. And this pandemic has greatly altered our traditional ways of gathering, and that is a significant loss. I don’t want to pretend that it isn’t. But we have also found alternate ways to gather, to support one another, to be together, to be apart. Nevertheless, I am looking forward with great longing to the day when we can gather, sing, touch, anoint, drink and eat together. I’m tired of this reality, and I long for a different one. This longing that I have is actually instructive—and a mark of a follower of Jesus, because as followers of Jesus, we already have a deep sense of longing for a different future. We are a people who are longing and watching for the return of Jesus.
Waiting and watching and preparing for Jesus’s return is the primary theme of the season of Advent. Don’t let those little chocolate countdown calendars deceive you! Advent is all about preparing ourselves for the second coming of Jesus, when he returns to make all things new by making new all things. I suspect that this year’s pandemic-Advent sermons and reflections will be much more attuned to the call to look for Christ’s second coming than in previous years—and that’s a good thing. (Obviously, so is chocolate. Go ahead and enjoy your Advent calendars, but remember what it is you are longing, watching, and waiting for.)
So lockdown has reminded me in a very real way what longing for a different future is all about. But lockdown is also distressingly similar to the life of Christian discipleship or formation. In Manitoba, the new COVID-19 numbers are announced every day at 12:30 p.m. via press conference. Looking up the daily numbers has become a part of my routine. And every day for the last few weeks as I read the number, my shoulders slump, and I am saddened and frustrated at the report. There have been too many deaths, too many hospitalizations, too many outbreaks, too many positive cases. Every day I wonder: Why aren’t these numbers going down? We’ve been dealing with such severe restrictions—why haven’t we seen the benefits yet? What’s the point of doing this if we aren’t seeing any results?
And then it hit me: I have expressed that “how long, O Lord” sentiment before. The slow process of spiritual formation is a lot like lockdown. We are doing it because we know it’s good for us, it’s the right thing to do, but it’s hard and we don’t seem to see any immediate results. We read our Bibles, we pray, we fast, we worship, we meditate, we serve, we take classes and read books about the Bible, we even call that person that we don’t particularity like because we feel that’s what the Holy Spirit is telling us to do. Shouldn’t we then notice some spiritual results? Shouldn’t we feel closer to Jesus—more holy, more equipped to deal serenely with life’s obstacles and curveballs? In other words, shouldn’t the benefits of our spiritual disciplines be a bit more immediate? Why does it take so long to be more like Jesus?
It reminds me of the title of a fairly popular book by the late Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. This beautifully evocative description of Christian spirituality has captured many people over the 40 years since Peterson’s book was published. But the subtitle must also be attended to as well: Discipleship in an Instant Society. In his work, Peterson advocates for Christian formation built on prayer and Scripture, specifically engaging with Scripture slowly, imaginatively, prayerfully and obediently. Peterson isn’t advocating for anything radical here; this is how the ancients and our spiritual ancestors engaged Scripture. But slow, imaginative, prayerful and obedient spiritual formation isn’t exactly in keeping with our “get it now/pay later, fix your life in three easy steps” kind of society. Deep spiritual change takes time, and even those we see in Scripture—like Peter, who experienced a radical re-orientation of life (fisher of herring to fisher of humans!)—needed time to grow and develop and change. And after Paul’s instantaneous and dramatic transformation on the Damascus Road, he took 14 years in Damascus and Arabia to slowly, imaginatively, prayerfully and obediently re-learn his Bible in the light of his changed relationship with Jesus, the Word.
We’ve been told by health authorities that what we do right now, the choices we make with regard to our behaviour in this pandemic, will make a difference in a few weeks, in a month. This is the exact promise of Christian discipleship: the choices we make, the spiritual disciplines we engage in do make a difference—in the long run. There will be change. Seeds will grow. Plants will flower and produce fruit. Trees will send down roots and send out branches. We just have to have patience and perseverance, not relying on what we can see in the immediate to gauge our choices, but living in faith that our spiritual disciplines are making a difference. We just have to be faithful. Our spiritual lives depend on it.
It gives another whole new meaning to “essential good,” doesn’t it?
The Rev. Dr. Kara Mandryk is coordinator of the Henry Budd College for Ministry in The Pas, Man. She is also an associate professor at Providence University College, teaching in the areas of worship studies and practical theology. She lives in The Pas.