Calling into Question the Status Quo
All crises are judgments of history that call into question an existing state of affairs. They sift and sort the character and condition of a nation and its capacity to respond. The deeper the crisis, the more serious the sifting and the deeper the questions it raises. At the very least, a crisis raises the question “What should we do?” Without that, it would not amount to a crisis.
Deeper crises raise the deeper question “Where are we, and how did we get here?” Still deeper crises raise the question Churchill raised, “Who do other people think we are?”…But the deepest crises of all are those that raise the question “Who do we think we are?” when doubt and uncertainty have entered our own thinking.
Taken from A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future by Os Guinness Copyright (c) 2013 by Os Guinness. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Crisis Intensifies our Search for Wisdom
A life-threatening crisis came to my home when I was only 25. My wife suffered a near-fatal stroke and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors scrambled to keep her alive. Within hours, we were making decisions that face families countless times, every day. Our options included surgery, medical treatment and prayer. To make matters worse, two doctors adamantly called for two radically different courses of action. One proposed immediate surgery, while the other warned that immediate surgery would be the worst of all options. Both said my wife might die if their course of advice wasn’t taken.
A third doctor solved our dilemma by arranging a course of treatment acceptable to both of our first two doctors, and within a few months, that course of action proved to be the right one. Looking back on that time, the comparison is almost too much to comprehend. On Wednesday, my most difficult decision was what to choose for lunch. On Thursday, I needed to make a life-saving decision for my wife! Needless to say, crisis intensified our search for wisdom.
Crises Reveal God & Us
God uses our identity crises to reveal who we are and who he is. Sometimes these crises come out of nowhere. Something devastating happens. Someone close to us dies. We are diagnosed, or someone we know is diagnosed, with a serious illness. Our families fall apart.
We lose a job or don’t get the job we’re hoping for. We don’t get into the school of our choice. A relationship goes downhill or never happens at all. We look into the mirror and realize we’re old. We are thrown into painful disorientation. We start questioning everything. We’re no longer sure of ourselves or of God. An internal crisis occurs.
The Cycle of Upheaval
Every five hundred years, give or take a decade or two, Western culture, along with those parts of the world that have been colonized or colonialized by it, goes through a time of enormous upheaval, a time in which essentially every part of it is reconfigured.1 From the perspective of the twenty-first century, and thus from our own place in Western history, it is fairly easy for us to see that pattern writ large over the last two millennia.
The word krisis was used by the Greeks to refer to “a legal process of judgment.” Aristotle used it to refer to a legal procedure that secured civic order. In his case, it was a judgment that helped keep the city just and safe. A few hundred years later, Jesus used the same word to describe a coming day of judgment: “on the day of judgment [krisis]” (Matthew 10:15). He also used it to pronounce a future judgment that will separate the wicked from the righteous (John 5:22).
But this judicial meaning of the word stretches back even further, past the Greeks to the Hebrews. God created the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and placed it in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2). The tree served as a kind of organic courthouse, reminding its observers of right and wrong. Trees frequently serve a judicial purpose in other places in Scripture. Deborah, a Hebrew judge, sat under a tree to pass her judgments (Judges 4:4-5).
…Aristotle, Jesus, and authors of the Old Testament all used krisis to convey judgment. The apple has fallen far from the tree. In their fascinating study on the etymology of crisis, historians Reinhart Koselleck and Michaela Richter describe how the word evolved from its original meaning of “a judgment regarding right and wrong” to “a change in the course of things.” This change, they explain, is typically economic, medical, or historical in nature.
Over the centuries, crisis has been used to refer to matters that reach a boiling point, such as the coup of Napoleon III, German bankruptcies, English stock decline, and the American subprime housing crisis. This “boiling point” change in circumstances is often what comes to mind today when we hear the word crisis.
In the late twentieth century, crisis began to appear in news headlines frequently—in two hundred different contexts in 1980 alone. In 2019, we face an opioid crisis, a refugee crisis, a border crisis—and from a glance at my social media feed, a midlife crisis, a gaming crisis, a Captain Marvel crisis, and a bad hair day crisis.
Once a dense word referring to fixed moral judgments and powerful changes, crisis has devolved into a word that signifies momentary uncertainty. Will my hair turn out? Was Captain Marvel a good or bad movie? What will life be like after forty? We’ve relativized the meaning of crisis to such a degree that acceptable usage includes a tweet that reads “I’m in a parking spot crisis!”
Taken from Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes by Jonathan K. Dodson Copyright (c) 2020 by Jonathan K. Dodson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Fear of the Lord: Comfort in Uncertain Times
We’re afraid when we’re suddenly caught off our guard and don’t know what to do. We’re afraid when our presuppositions and assumptions no longer account for what we’re up against, and we don’t know what will happen to us. We’re afraid when reality, without warning, is shown to be either more or other than we thought it was. …
In the Hebrew culture and the Hebrew Scriptures … the word *fear* is frequently used in a way that means far more than simply being scared. … *Fear-of-the-Lord* is the stock biblical term for this either sudden or cultivated awareness that the presence or revelation of God introduces into our lives. We are not the center of our existence. We are not the sum total of what matters.
We don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Fear-of-the-Lord keeps us on our toes with our eyes open. Something is going on around here, and we don’t want to miss it. Fear-of-the-Lord prevents us from thinking that we know it all. And it therefore prevents us from closing off our minds or our perceptions from what is new. Fear-of-the-Lord prevents us from acting presumptuously and therefore destroying or violating some aspect of beauty, truth, or goodness that we don’t recognize or don’t understand.
Fear-of-the-Lord is fear with the scary element deleted.
I am Baptized
If you’ve read or watched any of the biographies of Martin Luther, you will already know that he struggled at times with bouts of anxiety, self-loathing, and perhaps even depression. Shortly after his unwillingness to renounce his views in front of an imperial meeting (the famous Diet of Worms), Luther was spirited away to a remote castle, where he would eventually translate the Bible into German.
It had to have been an extremely harrowing time. The Catholic Church had condemned him, labeling him a heretic. Alone for much of the days, Luther fought against his demons, perhaps literal and figurative. At one point he was said to have thrown an inkpot across the room at the devil.
But his response to these attacks was just as interesting. Luther would shout out loud Baptizatus sum, “I am baptized.” As Tim Chester writes, “His circumstances looked bleak. But his baptism was a fact, and it embodied the promise of God.”
When times were most tough, Luther leaned on the sacraments as a promise that Luther was saved, no matter what his demons might whisper in his ear.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
The Importance of Selective Change
Crises, and pressures for change, confront individuals and their groups at all levels, ranging from single people, to teams, to businesses, to nations, to the whole world. Crises may arise from external pressures, such as a person being deserted or widowed by his or her spouse, or a nation being threatened or attacked by another nation. Alternatively, crises may arise from internal pressures, such as a person becoming sick, or a nation enduring civil strife. Successful coping with either external or internal pressures requires selective change. That’s as true of nations as of individuals.
The key word here is “selective.” It’s neither possible nor desirable for individuals or nations to change completely, and to discard everything of their former identities. The challenge, for nations as for individuals in crisis, is to figure out which parts of their identities are already functioning well and don’t need changing, and which parts are no longer working and do need changing.
Individuals or nations under pressure must take honest stock of their abilities and values. They must decide what of themselves still works, remains appropriate even under the new changed circumstances, and thus can be retained.
A Life Changed by a Stolen Gideon Bible
Steve May tells the story of “Dee,” who grew up in east Tennessee in an affluent, but unchurched home. Dee’s time at college involved as much wild living as it did studying, and soon her life became a never ending search for a party.
One weekend, Dee and her friends rented some rooms at a local motel, and set about the usual activities involving drugs and alcohol. On this weekend, the group also devised a contest to see who could steal the most from the room. One of the things Dee stole was the Gideon Bible.
Since they all thought it was funny, Dee won the contest.
Several weeks later, Dee’s life began to fall apart. She discovered she was pregnant. Abortion seemed the only solution, and it was a solution she had used in the past. Her boyfriend left her, and Dee found herself all alone.
One night, in the midst of her fear and uncertainty, in the midst of her crisis, she picked up the Bible she had stolen and began to read.
She flipped the book open to 1 Samuel, and found the story of Hannah, who desperately wanted a child. It was the first time Dee had ever read the Bible, and the words seemed to have a life of their own. In a short time, as she read more of the Bible, and as she found Christians ready to help her, Dee accepted Christ. As the years went by, Dee grew deeper in her walk with Christ, and by the time her child was a teen-ager, both mother and daughter were telling their story to groups all around their community.
It was crisis that brought Dee to a point of searching for answers, and it was the Bible that took her to the only place where she’d find true wisdom. And immediately, that wisdom changed the way Dee lived.
St. Anthony and the Search for God Amidst Crisis
Given life’s unpredictability and the inevitability of pain and hardship, what do we do when that pain and hardship show up on our doorsteps? In roughly AD 270, there was a man in Lower Egypt named Antony. He was born into wealth and had everything going for him. He had access to a great education and two loving parents who owned three hundred acres of productive fruit trees.
In a region of the world that was difficult to tame because of the climate, his parents were self-sustaining, and Antony had the security of a great inheritance awaiting him some day. But when he was around eighteen years old, one of those life crises swept in on the young man: both of his parents died. He was now alone and heartbroken. Mercifully, financial security was not going to be a problem for him, though money could not replace the love of his parents. One Sabbath day, Antony, a God-fearing man, was going up to the Lord’s house and found himself reflecting on the early Christians.
He was pondering how many of them sold their possessions and gave the proceeds to the poor. As he walked into the temple, the priest was beginning his homily, and the gospel reading that day happened to be about Jesus talking to the rich man: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21).
Antony, cut to the heart by Jesus’ words, left the temple that day, arranged for the sale of his land, and distributed the money among the town’s poor. He then headed for the desert. We now know him as Saint Antony, one of the desert fathers, one of those John the Baptist–like cave-dwelling figures who gave himself over to the ascetic life. Sainthood, though, is often misunderstood. We think of it as an exercise in rugged individuality, a Lone Ranger’s attempt at holiness. Being newly orphaned and having given away his possessions, Antony was the perfect candidate to strike out on his own, but he modeled a different kind of sainthood. A biography written by one of his apprentices says,
If he heard of a good man anywhere, like the prudent bee he went forth and sought him, nor turned back to his own place until he had seen him; and he returned, having got from the good man as it were supplies for his journey in the way of virtue. . . . He subjected himself in sincerity to the good men whom he visited and learned thoroughly where each surpassed him in zeal and discipline.
He observed the graciousness of one and the unceasing prayer of another. He took knowledge of one’s freedom from anger and another’s loving-kindness; he gave heed to one as he watched, to another as he studied. One he admired for his endurance, another for his fasting and sleeping on the ground; the meekness of one and the long-suffering of another he watched with care, while he took note of the piety towards Christ and the mutual love which animated all. Thus filled, he returned to his own place of discipline, and henceforth would strive to unite the qualities of each and was eager to show in himself the virtues of all.
Saint Antony’s story is one of finding wisdom and help in the rubble, in the heartbreaking loneliness of an orphan’s life, and of finding these gifts even in the desert.
The Love of God Wrapped About Him
The sense of Presence! I have spoken of it as stealing on one unawares. It is recorded of John Wilhelm Rowntree that as he left a great physician’s office, where he had just been told that his advancing blindness could not be stayed, he stood by some railings for a few moments to collect himself when he “suddenly felt the love of God wrap him about as though a visible presence enfolded him and a joy filled him such as he had never known before.”
An amazing timeliness of the Invading Love, as the Everlasting stole about him in his sorrow. I cannot report such a timeliness of visitation, but only unpredictable arrivals and fading-out. But without doubt it is given to many of richer experience to find the comfort of the Eternal is watchfully given at their crises in time.
The Messy Middle
In his classic work Transitions, author and professor William Bridges shares an excellent anecdote about life in crisis: it can happen at any time and in a myriad of ways. It also demonstrates the “messy middle” of life. We all have a certain trajectory, but oftentimes that trajectory is disrupted, and the ensuing crisis requires a “taking stock” and a re-thinking of life as we know it:
I became interested in the subject of transition around 1970 when I was going through some difficult inner and outer changes. Although I gave up my teaching career because of those changes, I found myself teaching a seminar called “Being in Transition.” (Rule number one: When you’re in transition, you find yourself coming back in new ways to old activities.)
The twenty-five adults who showed up tor that course were in various states of confusion and crisis, and I was a bit at sea myself. I had, after all, left my career and moved my family to the country…I had imagined, I think, that the seminar would attract mostly other exurbanites and that together we could puzzle out this difficult transition. A few of these new country folk were in the class, but the mix was far richer than that…
There was a young woman who was living on her own for the first time. She was appalled to find that the rest of us, her elders, didn’t have our lives in better shape. “Its OK to be messing around when you’re twenty-three,” she said, “but I plan to get it all together by the time I’m your age.” (We all nodded sheepishly and admitted we had planned it that way, too.)
Only the Dead Go with the Flow
By illustration, I have been told that when a cow is born, she innately senses that her departure from her mother’s warm womb to a cold, scary, unknown world outside is upon her. In response, she will resist birth and try to stay in the womb. On the other hand, the absence of such resistance is often a sign of a stillborn calf.
Relating to our world of death, “going along” is a sign of death. Living fish swim against the stream. Only the dead go with the flow.
The Privileged Site of God’s Comfort
Especially in the Hebrew Bible, wilderness is the privileged site where God comforts the Hebrew people or their representatives at times of crisis in their lives. In the wilderness God calls and leads them to decisions and witnesses their shortcomings; and God disciplines and punishes them for their sin and rebellion. Throughout the gospels wilderness is important for Jesus as a place of encounter with the Father.
Stuck in the Houses Our Words Construct
All day long, all of us are framing and reframing our lives. We talk about the memory of our adorable but sexist grandpa. We label ourselves as movie critics or introverts or justice-lovers. We say that the future is full of doom and despair—or stocked with opportunities and adventure. Most of us sort out life well enough to keep moving along. Then something happens—a car accident, a promotion, a cancer scare, an offer of marriage, a terrorist threat, a retirement party—and our world gets turned inside out.
Our sense of order bursts with joy or unravels. Our words seem inadequate. They don’t say enough or they say too much. When these kinds of events happen, if we slow down long enough to examine our speech, we may see cracks in our frames and begin to search for ways to reframe. One disruption might lead a person to say, “I thought I trusted God for the future, but my anxiety about my children is so faithless.”
The way we describe reality matters because, as simple as it sounds, we cannot see through a window unless the window is there. We are stuck in the houses that our words construct. What if my windows are small and barred and leave me in a prison of prejudice? What if I realize that I can make my windows larger—to see more and appreciate the landscape before me? Specific language choices give us access to specific realities.
Times of Crisis: Reappraising and Rebuilding Lives
On November 28, 1942, a fire broke out and spread rapidly through an overcrowded Boston nightclub called Cocoanut Grove (the owner’s spelling), whose sole exit became blocked. A total of 492 people died, and hundreds of others were injured, by suffocation, smoke inhalation, or being trampled or burned…Boston physicians and hospitals were overwhelmed—not just by the wounded and dying victims of the fire itself, but also by the fire’s psychological victims: relatives, distraught that their husbands or wives or children or siblings had died in a horrible way; and the fire’s survivors, traumatized by guilt, because they had survived while hundreds of other guests had died.
Until 10:15 P.M., their lives had been normal, and focused on celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, a football game, and wartime leaves of soldiers. By 11:00 P.M., most of the victims were already dead, and the lives of their relatives and of the survivors were in crisis. Their expected life trajectories had been derailed. They felt ashamed that they were alive while a dear one was dead. The relatives had lost someone central to their identity. Not only for the fire’s survivors but also for Bostonians remote from the fire (including me as a five-year-old), the fire shook our faith in a world of justice.
Those punished weren’t naughty boys and evil people: they were ordinary people, killed through no fault of their own. Some of those survivors and relatives remained traumatized for the rest of their lives. A few committed suicide. But most of them, after an intensely painful several weeks during which they could not accept their loss, began a slow process of grieving, reappraising their values, rebuilding their lives, and discovering that not everything in their world was ruined (emphasis mine).
Where Were the Humanists?
Not long after the December 2012 Newtown shootings, and all the speeches by civic leaders, memorial services, and funerals were over, Samuel G. Freedman wrote a column in The New York Times titled “In a Crisis, Humanists Seem Absent.” Freedman observed the heavy use of explicit religious vocabulary and symbolism in all public ceremonies and by both political leaders and sufferers. Connecticut is hardly the center of the U.S. Bible Belt, yet every single family in Newtown who lost a child chose to hold religious services, which took place in Catholic, Congregational, Mormon, and Methodist churches, as well as in a Protestant mega-church and a Jewish cemetery.
A black Christian youth group journeyed from the Deep South to sing “Amazing Grace.” President Obama delivered a eulogy that was essentially a sermon, speaking of God “calling the children home.” He quoted extensively from 2 Corinthians 4 and 5 and used its hope for a world and life beyond this one to console and make bearable the losses we experience here and now. Freedman was one of many who found it startling that in an increasingly secular society, where now some twenty percent of the population told pollsters they had “no religious preference,” our society turned so visibly to God and faith to communally face the tragedy. Freedman said that it all “has left behind one prickly question: where were the humanists?
You’ll Get Through This.
You fear you won’t. We all do. We fear that the depression will never lift, the yelling will never stop, the pain will never leave…We wonder: Will this gray sky ever brighten? This load ever lighten? We feel stuck, trapped, locked in. Predestined for failure. Will we ever exit this pit?
Deliverance is to the Bible what jazz music is to Mardi Gras—bold, brassy, and everywhere.
out of the lion’s den for Daniel,
the prison for Peter,
the whale’s belly for Jonah,
Goliath’s shadow for David,
the storm for the disciples,
disease for the lepers,
doubt for Thomas,
the grave for Lazarus,
and the shackles for Paul.
God carries us through stuff:
through the Red Sea onto dry ground (Exodus 14:22),
through the wilderness (Deuteronomy 29:5),
through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4),
and through the deep sea (Psalm 77:19).
Through is a favorite word of God’s:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, Nor shall the flame scorch you.” (Isaiah 43:2 NKJV)
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Crisis. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!