It’s our first full season of Lent since the pandemic.
Just think about it. Pandemic. That’s a term I used to categorize neatly for history books or “over there.” Never did I imagine that a full on pandemic would come upon us like this. I mean, aren’t we too medically and technologically advanced to worry about a pandemic?
We can cure things. We can fix things. Pandemic. Well, it turns out that my naive hopes were met with reality: disease plagued our world … and it still does.
So what does this mean as we begin Lent?
Lent During a Pandemic?
Traditionally, Lent is a time when we fast from something to focus on the abundance we have in Jesus. We might give up an item of food, coffee, etc. Some might even fast for a period of time or for one day each week. Others give up social media, TV, news media, and other things—many of which may not necessarily be inherently bad.
Just like Jesus in the desert, stepping into the 40 days of Lent (we don’t actually count Sundays since this is a celebration of the resurrection) is an act of resistance. We resist the forces that seek to shape us into any image other than the image-bearers we are designed to be: we resist the things that keep us from pursuing Christlikeness.
Amen. Good stuff. Absolutely. That is a great posture for a typical Lenten season. But, my friends, this is no typical … well … anything. Everything is upside-down—and not in the sort of Kingdom of God way—but flipped out of whack.
- Many people haven’t hugged anyone outside of their household in nearly a year.
- Too many people have gotten sick.
- Some people have died.*
- Even those less affected by the pandemic, per se, describe life as isolating, depressing, limbo, “Groundhog’s Day” (as in, repeating the same mundane thing over and over), anxious, neverending, and … hopeless.
The Pandemic of Hopelessness
Hopelessness is a spiritual pandemic infecting many of us at varying degrees. Hear this first: no guilt or shame need be attached to this experience. Hopelessness is real.
Maybe you resist this label. “I’m not hopeless. I have Jesus.” True, but are you sure? Not about the Jesus part but about the hopeless bit. You can be all in on Jesus and struggle with hopelessness. How could you not? This world, without the pandemic, is full of suffering and injustices that are more than enough to push us to hopelessness.
Even those of us who perhaps aren’t hopeless because Jesus will be with all who suffer into eternity (you know, that idea that this life is short compared with life-after-death with God), can we get real for a minute? By deferring only to the state of our experiences after this life, we do nothing to rid the real ‘here and now’ hopelessness we face.
Instead, we’ve found a way to cope with hopelessness by ignoring it as we focus one what is yet to come. (I know I’m speaking in generalities, but I hope I’m making a point that might be helpful for some readers.)
So, we are still left with little hope for our daily lives.
Jesus in the Desert
We often imagine that Jesus went to the desert to experience the hardest moment of his life up to that point. He goes to the desert to be tempted by the devil. Of course, we know how the story ends: after being tempted in the devil’s courtroom, Jesus overcomes evil with his goodness.
For years, I’ve imagined only a great contrast between the story that comes just prior to his 40 days in the wilderness: his baptism. According to the accounts in the Gospels, Jesus is baptized by John the Baptizer. At once, the Spirit comes down and hovers on Jesus like a dove. Then God the Father’s voice says, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness” (Mark 1:11 CEB).
Jesus goes immediately from that space of beautiful affirmation, the abundance that God the Father offers to all of God’s children, and then goes into the wilderness where he will be tested. Jesus will fast. This is why we fast during Lent, to enter the darkness and spiritual wilderness of our lives with Jesus. This is a beautiful and necessary space for us to inhabit from time-to-time.
But I now believe that I’ve been partially wrong when I’ve read this story. Jesus doesn’t go from “affirmed” by the Father to merely being the devil’s weakened prey. This is no mere contrast. Jesus steps into the wilderness differently than he would have if not for that moment of baptism. He steps into the moment of trial armed with an overwhelming love from God the Father. While his hope is tested, it will not be broken. In fact, as Dallas Willard (author of The Divine Conspiracy) pointed out years ago, by the end of 40 days, Jesus is stronger than he’s been up to that point. By fasting from food he has had only the feast of God the Father’s spoken affirmation to delight in. Jesus is strong in the wilderness, not weak. He is full of hope.
Give Up Hopelessness
I’ve heard a few people say that they aren’t going to be giving up anything this Lent because of the pandemic. This has been a year of the worst sort of Lent. I affirm this impulse, but am finding an invitation to modify it ever so slightly. I’m giving up hopelessness for Lent.
- I’m giving up the need for things to be fixed for this day to have meaning.
- I’m giving up the impulse—as grace-oriented as I possibly can—to only see the limitations and inconveniences of regular life.
- I’m giving up the desire to see hope as existing “over there” where the grass is greener when my circumstances will be freed-up by a post-pandemic world. (Practically speaking, we don’t yet even know when that will be and what that will look like.)
- I’m giving up my inability to stay present to the gifts in my life, my wife, kiddos, and friends (even if they are mediated by a screen for now).
I’m giving up hopelessness. Somehow, Jesus showed up in the desert differently than he would have on a previous day. He showed up, vulnerably broken open by the thunderous voice of Love which empowered him to walk in the wilderness, nourished by God’s abundant offer of hope.
We can do the same. We can sit with God, imagine our life is worthy of God’s affirmation, and soak in God’s goodness. We can discover a fresh supply of hope, not only for when the world is reshaped to our liking, nor for a future far off time in the afterlife, but for this day. We can step into Lent, with Jesus, armed with God’s love and a hope that there is goodness and abundance alongside the devilish pandemics or any other wilderness we find ourselves in.
We can give up hopelessness for Lent … and maybe for every day forward beyond it.
* It matters that we name the reality that while illness is impartial, avoiding illness has been a privilege for some more than others. Socio-economics and race have predisposed marginalized communities to greater challenges than those from majority culture.
Author: Kurt Willems
Kurt Willems is a pastor, author, and spiritual director. His first book, Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain, releases in March 2021. Kurt is also the host of the Theology Curator podcast. He has a master of divinity degree from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and a master of arts in comparative religion from the University of Washington.
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