The Feast of Booths

I could never have imagined that so much human knowledge could prove to be of so little use in such a short period of time.

Just think about the variety of things that have flashed across your news feed or TV screen in the last 21 days. It’s bad enough that the world is suffering from a plague of what one group of essayists call “armchair epidemiology.” What’s worse is that the globally recognized experts who know more about the current state of the pandemic than anyone else in the world also can’t seem to concur.

Flatten the curve. No, that won’t work. One scientific study shows that only 1% of coronavirus cases have no symptoms at all and that most patients develop symptoms within seven days. Other investigations seem to suggest that a large number of cases are asymptomatic and that a person can be contagious for up to five weeks without knowing it. Well, which is it? In a matter of minutes I can find one reputable source that predicts a multi-year health crisis and another reputable source that expects the world will be back up and running by early summer. I’d really like to know which one is right.

Polish Airlines is offering a few specially-coordinated charter flights to Chicago next week. Should I buy a ticket? And if I don’t leave now, will I be able to get a flight out of the country when it’s time to return to the United States in June? But if I do leave now, will I be able to get home safely to New York without getting quarantined along the way? And what might I catch in the airport or on the plane? And even if I never get sick, what might I unknowingly pass on to my family? And given the state of the epidemic in New York, isn’t Poland a safer place anyway?

I’m drowning in data and gasping for information, and I’m not the only one. New York governor Andrew Cuomo basically admitted during a press conference earlier this week that his total quarantine policy was a bad idea. Oops. What other time in history can you think of when knowledge changed so quickly that an elected official would make a total about-face in policy in a single week? And while many New Yorkers probably feel a mixture of frustration and vindication with Cuomo’s admission, would you have made a wiser decision at the time in his shoes? Would I? If you had the right information, you might have. But where can you find that information?

I’d like to know how many people on a given day in a given city with absolutely no symptoms would test positive for COVID-19. Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t that help us get better estimates of the profile of the disease and make better policy decisions to contain its spread? But we can’t get that information right now. I’d also like to know how many people in the world have developed an immunity to COVID-19. I’d like to know whether immunity is even possible and, if so, how long it would last. Wouldn’t you?

I’d like to know why mortality is so high in Italy and so low in Germany. I’d like to know what mortality will look like in the U.S. in a few weeks. I’d like to know how my grandparents will fare through this ordeal. Wouldn’t you?

I’d like to have total confidence that doctors and governments around the world are quarantining the right people and that those people are actually staying in quarantine. I’d love to know that the epidemic really began when the data says it did. But can we be sure the data is complete and the quarantiners have been thorough? And then there’s those anecdotal conversations floating around in cyberspace, so tantalizing yet so unprovable, about how many people came down with a weird flu-like bug that their doctor struggled to diagnose before coronavirus was even on the radar outside China. “Elephant on the chest” is how they describe it. I know I had a strange cough that persisted through most of February. Several other people I know did too. Did you? But even if you did, what good does that knowledge do you now? You might have already caught the bug. You might be immune. You might be able safely to go back to work. But who knows?

We are coming up hard against the inadequacy of our information. The best epidemiologists in the world don’t have that data. They’d be God if they did. But for now, we’re stuck in an agonizing cycle of having to make wise decisions despite glaring insufficiencies in our sources of information.

Which is human life on a good day.

Making wise decisions in the face of insufficient information is what we’re supposed to do all the time. It’s what Aristotle described as phronesis: practical wisdom. Uncertainty is our lot in life. It’s part and parcel with who we are. The difference is that in the normalcy of our taken-for-granted routines, we assume that we operate on far bigger margins of certainty than we actually have. But you had no guarantee that you would be able to roll out of bed this morning. Nobody promised you access to quality healthcare or security in your job or the freedom to travel internationally or any of the other things that all of us blithely took for granted–until now.

Even now, in a gesture of hope, millions of people around the world, including me, are pining away for a time when things will go back to some semblance of normal, when we’ll be able to hang out with our friends once more or finally go on that vacation we’ve been planning for months. And we’re proving that we haven’t learned the lesson yet. Nobody promised you the world will go back to your idea of “normal.” Nobody promised you your friends will still be there to hang out with. Nobody promised you that traveling the world will still be an option in a year or two.

Again, that’s not because of the coronavirus. That’s human life on a good day.

Not a lot of comfort, is it? So what have you been promised?

Amongst all the inescapably odd ceremonies which are described in the Old Testament, one of the oddest is the Feast of Booths. Here is how the Lord describes it to Moses: “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, On the fifteenth day of this seventh month and for seven days is the Feast of Booths to the LORD. . . . All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 23:34, 42-43 ESV). Older translations call it the Feast of Tabernacles. Basically, it’s liturgical camping. Throughout their generations, the Israelites were commanded to spend one week each year in tents, in order to remind themselves of the years spent wandering in the wilderness.

Now what adds to the strangeness of the Feast of Booths is that the only place I know of in the Old Testament where it is specifically described as being celebrated is in Nehemiah 8–after the Davidic monarchy, after the exile, after the return to Jerusalem. As Ezra and Nehemiah instructed the returning exiles in the law of God, “they found it written in the Law that the LORD had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month.” We get the impression of surprise and embarrassment, even on the part of Ezra, whose job it was to know these things. In fact, Nehemiah seems to indicate that Israel had never actually kept this feast since they first arrived in the Promised Land: “for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so” (Nehemiah 8:14, 17). If that’s what he’s really saying, then Israel had forgotten to commemorate their status as aliens and strangers as soon as they reached a stable dwelling place. Oops. Should have been doing that.

And this is exactly what the Lord had warned them about.

Take care . . . lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end.

Deuteronomy 8:11-16

The danger of having a dwelling place was forgetting the wilderness. And the danger of material blessings now is an inability to cope with reminders of the times when we really, honestly, must wander through the desert.

Recall for a moment the condition of the Israelites in the wilderness. They wandered for forty years. They faced mutliple plagues. They were attacked by rival nations. Kings hired sorcerers to curse them. They wandered through the desert in times of thirst and hunger. At times they wondered where their next meal would come from. When they did receive food, they attempted to hoard it. Silly Israelites! Who would hoard things in the face of uncertainty?

Actually, this turned out to be a lesson for the Israelites. The Lord tells them that he gave them manna to humble and test them. The Israelites who tried to save some manna for the next day found that it had spoiled overnight. Think of that, bread from heaven with a shelf life of less than 24 hours! Yet the manna spoiled not because God had planned too little, but because the Israelites had tried to plan too much. The important thing about manna was the fact that it could not be planned ahead; the Israelites were to gather it “morning by morning” (Exodus 16:21). They had missed the point. They were grasping for certainty where the Lord sought to teach them wise living in the face of uncertainty.

What were the Israelites promised in the wilderness? Two things are relevant here. First, they were promised the Promised Land in the future. Second, they were promised the present presence of God. The Lord, the God of heaven and earth, promised to go with his people through the wilderness.

“My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest,” says the Lord to Moses.

“If you will not go with me, do not bring us up from here,” Moses replies (Exodus 33:14-15).

Moses got what the Israelites still struggled to grasp: If the covenant-keeping God of heaven and earth will not go with you through the wilderness, then no amount of earthly treasure or security can compensate for that lack. And if he does go with you, then no amount of affliction can separate you from the joy and abundance that his presence provides.

Good thing we can look back on the wilderness wanderings of Israel from the comfort of the New Testament Promised Land, right? Except that the author of Hebrews places us right back in the desert alongside them (Hebrews 4). Oops. We, too, are confronted with the choice of the manna–hardheartedness or softheartedness, hoarding haste or humble hope, faithless certitude or faithful uncertainty.

The point isn’t to defend a proud sort of agnosticism or a blind naivete that throws caution to the wind as we navigate difficult circumstances–I don’t know what’ll happen and I don’t care. It is, however, an admission that there is an ethical responsibility involved in confronting uncertainty, and that there is a Place and a Person in whom the anxious turmoil of that uncertainty can be laid to rest.

In short, what we discover as we skitter this way across the surface of redemptive history is nothing other than the promise of Emmanuel–God with us. “If you will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.” The incarnation of Jesus Christ is a promise of our heavenly home. But, as the author of Hebrews emphasizes, it is also a promise of his present help as we navigate through a world that sometimes feels an awful lot like the wilderness of old. The promise that sustains us through days like this is the promise that we aren’t in the Promised Land yet, and that Emmanuel will go with us each step of the way–a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night–until we arrive.

“How the Lord loves all the righteous!” exclaims the Reformed Presbyterian Psalter in Psalm 146: “He protects the stranger’s stay.” Or, in the words of the old hymn, “Morning by morning new mercies I see.”

 

Bigger Appetites

As the hart, about to falter
in its trembling agony,
panteth for the brooks of water,
so my soul doth pant for thee.

Genevan Psalm 42 (Dewey Westra’s versification)

Last week, before the real effects of the coronavirus epidemic hit the fan in the West, I said on this blog, “The Christian life is about learning to feel out of place in what should be our home, and it is about cultivating homesickness for a place we have never been.” Apparently the Lord saw fit to follow up that statement with an experiential learning activity.

Here we are, only a few days later (but how long they have seemed!), trying to figure out on a national and international scale what it means to be on lockdown. I’ll give you the situation in Poland, but I know it’s not much different across the rest of the civilized world. The university is closed and will be moving to online instruction. Foreigners may not enter Poland. All cultural establishments and non-essential stores have been shut down. Only pharmacies, laundromats, and grocery stores are open; restaurants are allowed to operate take-out and delivery services. Gatherings of more than twenty-five people are prohibited. Now the students who are unable to return safely to their homes have been instructed to remain in their rooms as much as possible and to venture outdoors only to get necessary groceries.

Assuming the circumstances are similar where you are: Did you expect that you would miss the freedom to go out to a movie theater? Did you expect that you would long for the chance to get a cup of coffee with a friend? Did you expect that you would look forward to school being back in session? Did you think missing church could be so painful? Did you think an empty street could be so lonely?

The American scholar and literary critic Kenneth Burke defined rhetorical form as “the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite” (Counter-Statement, U of California P, 1931/1968, p. 31). I’d like to try to unpack this definition a little bit.

Rhetoric is about moving people. But it is more than that. Rhetoric is the art of practicing prudent collective decision making in the face of uncertainty. And in order to facilitate prudent collective decision making, rhetors must gain skill at swaying an audience to consider the merits of a particular position. The way in which that suasion occurs, in Burke’s understanding of rhetoric, is by connecting with the “motives”–the ethical, logical, and emotional motors that drive our attitudes and actions.

“Appetites” is perhaps a cruder word for “motives,” but the point remains: Rhetors move people by tapping into their fundamental desires. Teachers move their students toward greater knowledge by seeking to awaken their innate desire to learn. Musicians move their audiences by homing in to the latent emotions of the crowd.

But our desires lead in conflicting and often unhelpful directions. Not only must we move, but our motors themselves must be changed. And the way that God transforms the desires of believers is first by renewing their minds, and second by placing them in situations where they must choose between the competing demands of their hearts (Romans 7). It’s a clumsy way of explaining justification and sanctification from a rhetorical perspective. But consider what the Heidelberg Catechism says: Not only has Christ redeemed us by his blood, he is also renewing us by his Spirit to be like him (Lord’s Day 32, Question & Answer 86). Believers are in a period of training in this life as they learn to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives” (Titus 2:12). And we cannot hone that desire for godliness unless we are regularly placed in situations of discomfort, uncertainty, and sometimes even danger.

That’s what is implied in my phrase from last week about “cultivating homesickness.” We are not naturally homesick for the kingdom of God. If anything, we long for the pleasures of sin and the comfortable surroundings of Egypt (the “leeks and onions” of Numbers 11). So the Lord, the master rhetorician, the Word made flesh, must fan into flame our sputtering and smoldering desire for him and his glory. He does so using methods that would not surprise any earthly teacher: with lectures, assignments, examinations, and tests. But, unlike earthly teachers, he does so with infinite patience and infinite wisdom. And he promises that through his perfect but often unpleasant methods of instruction, every student in what Charles Spurgeon called the “college of grace” will pass unharmed.

And we, like the good students that we are, so often seem shocked by the tests. We thought we just enrolled for the seminar. We thought by memorizing a few key terms and doing a few homework assignments, we could pass the class. But the Lord wants more than our vain repetitions. He wants us to think, speak, and act with the attitude and the inflection of Christ. He wants our minds to be set on things above. And so he appoints opportunities for us to experience longings we cannot explain and thus to grow into people we could never comprehend being.

Can you comprehend being the kind of person who sheds tears–actually, literally sheds tears–because you were kept from worshiping God? That’s the kind of person King David was, as he reflected on “how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival” (Psalm 42:4). His longing for fellowship with God and his people was as real to him as hunger and thirst (see also Psalm 63). Perhaps that level of longing is still outside your horizon of imagination. But can you imagine it a little better, perhaps, after having to livestream church this past Sunday? Can you imagine it a little better still if you end up livestreaming church for the next several weeks or months?

If so, the Lord has awakened a desire in you that conforms you ever so slightly more to his image. Not only do you look and sound a little more like King David, you look and sound a little more like Jesus. I’m not asserting that this is the only or even the primary spiritual lesson contained in the coronavirus. But it has been one for me, and it may, perhaps, be one for you as well.

It is unsettling to reflect on how heavily we have been required to lean on digital technology in response to this global crisis, especially in the face of so much research that confirms the anxiety, solitude, and loneliness that result from excessive social media use. But I also wonder, with hopefulness, if this time of forced social deprivation will remind people how important face-to-face relationships really are. By temporarily exaggerating our technophilic tendencies, it might prevent us from bringing them to full fruition. That, too, can be a merciful lesson from our sovereign God.

The creation and satisfaction of an appetite–this is the central promise and goal of the Christian walk: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). For at his right hand, we are told, are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16).

I have been hoping to do some pipe organ recordings while here, but as long as the churches are closed and students are supposed to stay inside, that will probably remain a distant dream. Instead I will leave you with this fantasy on Psalm 42 which my favorite organist, Gert van Hoef, posted today in light of a string of cancelled concerts.

O my soul, why art thou grieving;
Why disquieted in me?
Hope in God, thy faith retrieving;
He will still thy refuge be.

On Social Distancing and Public Worship

The coronavirus poses serious threats to the physical health of the elderly and those with complicating health conditions, which is why it is in the best interests of our communities and nations if we temporarily suspend face-to-face contact.

Yet this suspension of face-to-face contact also poses its own grave threat to the mental and emotional health of our communities. I study communication, which makes me keenly aware of the power of relationsips. And living in almost total isolation from others (and “social distancing” when they are present) makes the temporary removal of those flesh-and-blood relationships acutely felt. I live in a dormitory with literally hundreds of other people. I have seen three in my building in the last 24 hours. Actually, I saw two. I only heard the voice of the third through the wall.

People are beginning to feel the pressure of this isolation, as evidenced by recent videos of Italians singing together from their balconies along a deserted neighborhood street–a beautiful example of human solidarity in the midst of suffering.

Social media can do a lot to bridge this interpersonal gap, but it cannot remove it completely. And what about those with no access to communication networks? If our elder loved ones do not die because of coronavirus, will they nevertheless pine away when no one visits them for months? If a shut-in’s immune system is compromised by exposure, is it not also compromised by loneliness and isolation?

This is a particularly thorny question when applied to local churches, a topic of great controversy in Poland as well (I imagine) as in other parts of the world. It is not a question of whether or not the goverment has the authority to forbid believers from worshiping. It is merely a question of whether ceasing to worship the Lord in community actually poses a graver danger to our health and well-being than the disease it is intended to alleviate.

I have been reading a lot of Abraham Kuyper in recent months, and one of his most emphatic points is that the church is the assembly of believers. The Old Testament tabernacle was called the “tent of meeting,” where the Lord met with his assembled people. By its very nature the church is the ekklesia, the called-out ones, the assembly of saints. It is the con-gregation, those who have gathered together. In short, the church is precisely the thing that public officials currently warn us is the most detrimental to our health.

To some extent, we cannot cease to worship together without ceasing to be the church. I recognize that this sounds overstated. But Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). Physical gathering is the crucial activity. Even at the peak of the disciples’ fear after Jesus’ crucifixion, they continued to gather secretly (John 20:19). We are told that the fish symbol associated with Christianity has its origins in the Roman catacombs, pointing the way to a place where Christians gathered to worship. Through times of persecution and warfare in the years following the Reformation, groups of the faithful continued to gather in “conventicles” in the meadows of Holland and the moors of Scotland. Throughout history, the most stubborn tyrants and the most subtle spies have not been able to prevent the church from gathering. Even today, the persecuted church in many countries continues to meet. They must meet. It is who they are.

This is not merely a concern for believers, those within the church whose spiritual health is compromised by ceasing to fellowship together. It is also a concern for the watching world. How can we proclaim our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven without public worship, the most concrete and unchanging expression of that citizenship? How can the church offer solace and comfort to the needy and afflicted when its doors are shut and its own members are (at least by appearances) cowering in their homes to avoid a virus? Jesus touched lepers, yet we wear gloves and imaginary six-foot-wide hula hoops?

Of course we need to be prudent. Of course we need to practice isolation when necessary as an expression of love for others. But we need to think carefully about how to do this in a way that compensates for physical distance with spiritual intimacy–in a way that does not communicate the very opposite of what we preach.

This is why my heart goes out to congregations such as the Reformed church in Milan, Italy, which has been required to suspend worship services for many weeks now. Polish churches are now also forbidden from meeting, and I suspect the same already holds or will soon hold in parts of the US as well. But instructing congregants to listen to a sermon on YouTube is not public worship; it is private worship conducted by multiple individuals at the same time. Even a video chat with other members of a congregation lacks the face-to-face intimacy that is so central to the nature of the church.

But there are options. There are creative, intentional, committed things that we can do as the body of Christ to proclaim our unity and solidarity while honoring the counsel of our governments. Geneva College’s president recently released a creative video that seeks to strengthen the college’s sense of identity and community even in the midst of isolation. It sets a helpful tone for churches to consider. I am not equipped to offer specific solutions, but there are some questions that come to mind.

  • What are the channels of communication for the shut-ins and elderly in your congregation? How can they regularly hear the voices of people who care about them? How will you periodically ensure that they are healthy and cared for?
  • If your church building is closed, is there a sign on the door that directs passerby to a phone number or email address where they can reach a pastor, elder, or deacon for assistance? Is there information about online services?
  • Although large gatherings are unwise, does your church have small fellowship groups of 5 to 10 people each which can meet periodically to sing, read, discuss, and pray with one another? As the weather gets nicer, a local park would be a perfect place to hold these small meetings while minimizing the risk of contagion.

Moreover, I return to my earlier plea for a committed time of prayer and fasting to be shared simultaneously by God’s people around the world. In biblical terms, the main differences between fast days and feast days are the presence of food and the letter “e.” Both are spiritual activities which offer up prayer and supplication to God and build up the participants in their love and commitment to one another. And both happen in community.

There is no such thing as an individual feast. You can gorge yourself, but you cannot feast without other people. And while there is certainly a place for individual fasting and devotion, this circumstance calls for community as well. Fasting together teaches us to long together for the satiation that can only come from our heavenly home. Fasting is something that can be done in isolation, yet in solidarity with believers across town and across the world. And fervent corporate prayer is something that God promises to reward. “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19).

Americans’ ears should be attentive, then, when the civil magistrate has called for an extraordinary national day of prayer tomorrow, Sunday, March 15.

Such a proclamation does not happen often. And it leaves the church with a clear responsibility. Article 66 of the Church Order of Dort states:

In times of war, pestilence, national calamities, severe persecution of the churches and other general difficulties, the ministers shall petition the government that by its authority and order public fasting and prayer days may be designated and set aside.

In the midst of terror and fear on every side, the church of Jesus Christ in America has been provided with a public platform on which to stand as it proclaims its reliance upon the Lord through every storm and trial. Through this act of faith the church can continue to exhibit its identity as the church, putting into the practice King Solomon’s prayer: “that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other” (1 Kings 8:60). If we shoulder this responsibility, seeking God’s face and praying not just for physical but spiritual revival, this pandemic may prove to be the most important thing that has happened to the human community in a long while.

Fear

In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became severe. Yet even in his disease he did not seek the Lord, but sought help from physicians.

2 Chronicles 16:13 (ESV)

I have avoided talking about the coronavirus as long as possible. I wish I could say that this was because of my superior level of faith and courage in the face of adversity. More likely it was because of a childish hope that if I didn’t talk about it, it would just go away.

Ignoring this global crisis is becoming less and less of a sustainable option, even in an out-of-the-way Polish city like Poznań. It is reassuring, in a small way, to know that many of these emergency measures are already in place around the world. For the next few weeks conditions likely will not be much worse, and may even be slightly better, in Poland than in the United States. But so that you can be reassured as well as know how to pray, here are some facts that have emerged in the last few days:

  • As of this writing, Poland has approximately 50 confirmed cases of coronavirus, placing it quite low on the list of European countries in terms of coronavirus cases.
  • All universities, schools, museums, and cinemas in Poland must remain closed for at least two weeks. Locally, we are noticing that some restaurants are closing as well. As of today, grocery stores remain open and well-supplied.
  • My institution, Adam Mickiewicz University, has cancelled classes and events until at least March 24. Dormitory residents can move about freely, but visitors to dormitories are prohibited.
  • President Trump’s travel ban yesterday on Europeans arriving in North America leaves U.S. citizens exempt, but finding a flight home will likely become increasingly difficult if not impossible.
  • The predominant advice I have gathered from a variety of sources, including from a personal visit to the U.S. Consular Agent in Poznań, suggests that I should stay in Poland until conditions improve.

As you can see, my situation is not currently serious, but it can become serious quite rapidly depending on how the virus spreads here. Yet on average, it seems that the global situation is far more serious, and I am comfortable remaining in Poland and trying to get some semblance of academic work done while the pandemic plows along on its ugly path.

Although I am as clueless as everyone else about where this disease will lead, as well as thoroughly fed up with the completely contradictory and equally unhelpful opinion pieces spreading around on the Internet (Panic! Don’t panic! Wear a mask! Don’t wear a mask! Get a flu shot! Drink elderberry tea!), I will share a few of my own devotional ponderings here.

I’ve seen a lot in recent days, much of it well-thought and well-written, to the effect that the Bible’s most frequent command is not to fear. That’s true. But the Bible is also filled with commands to fear. Yes, really, it is. “It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear” (Deuteronomy 6:12). “Fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Luke 12:5). “But with you is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Psalm 130:4).

Fear is an integral aspect of the Christian life. As Rev. Jeremy Veldman so memorably preached at a Reformed Youth Services retreat almost a decade ago, the defining motto of the believer should be not “No fear,” but “Know fear.” And what alarms me about the coronavirus is not that we have begun to fear a pandemic but that we have ceased to fear God. Like Asa, in our distress we have turned to physicians.

Obviously this is not a critique of following medical advice, practicing good hygiene, and using the best technologies available to care for the sick. It does, however, involve the admission that this bug is out of human control. It always has been and always will be. And the combined hubris of scientists, doctors, and enlightened bloggers who think that particular international policies or a homemade hand-sanitizer recipe will put this pandemic in the bag must rise up as a stench in the nostrils of our almighty God.

One of the most unnerving things about the coronavirus is its new and unpredictable nature. The best researchers are struggling to discern a pattern behind the spread of the disease. But there is a longstanding biblical pattern to plagues, and it is simply this: Plagues are signs. They are exhibitions of God’s power sent to warn rebellious people when they are in grave danger of forgetting the one who created them. And they are also litmus tests by which to measure how those people respond. This does not mean that an individual’s sickness is a sign of judgment from God–Job would have something to say about that. It does mean, however, that the Lord is offering individuals, communities, and nations a chance in the midst of the coronavirus. And if we fear him, we must take it.

What is that chance?

There is a rich thread of symbolism woven through Old Testament history which I would love to hear expounded by theologians in more detail. I will give just the contours here.

On Mount Moriah in ancient Palestine, Abraham stands with his knife poised over his son Isaac, ready to kill him in obedience to God’s command. And just at the crucial moment, an angel from heaven cries to Abraham to stay his hand. His faith is counted to him as righteousness. But God does not cancel his demand for an offering. Instead he provides a ram which Abraham offers in Isaac’s place. “On the mountain of the Lord it shall be provided” (Genesis 22).

Fast forward to the kingdom of David over Israel. In a moment of hubris, David orders a census of the nation–presumably forgetful of the God upon whom that nation’s prosperity depended. A prophet confronts him with a choice among three divine punishments: three years of famine, three months of war, or three days of pestilence. David says, “I am in great distress. Let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is very great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man.”

So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel, and 70,000 men of Israel fell. And God sent the angel to Jerusalem to destroy it, but as he was about to destroy it, the Lord saw, and he relented from the calamity. And he said to the angel who was working destruction, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” And the angel of the Lord was standing by the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. And David lifted his eyes and saw the angel of the Lord standing between earth and heaven, and in his hand a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell upon their faces. And David said to God, “Was it not I who gave command to number the people? It is I who have sinned and done great evil. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand, O Lord my God, be against me and against my father’s house. But do not let the plague be on your people.”

1 Chronicles 21:14-17

The Lord hears David’s prayer, and David builds an altar to him on the site of the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.

What ties these two stories together? An out-of-the-way verse in 2 Chronicles 2: “Then Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to David his father, at the place that David had appointed, on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.”

Two stories, one mountain. Where Abraham stands poised to slay his only son, the Lord’s angel stands poised to destroy his covenant people. And what stays the destruction is the mercy of God and the penitential sacrifice that results.

And on this same mountain the temple was built, where animals would be slaughtered daily as a reminder to the people of the plague that had been averted and the sinfulness that had brought it about. And on this same mountain, hundreds of years later, the temple curtain would be torn in two by a truly perfect sacrifice that broke open the way for true and complete reconciliation with God.

True and complete reconciliation with God, that is, for those who bow the knee to his Son, Jesus Christ. For those who stand in rebellion, the angel still stands with his sword unsheathed and stretched out over the city. In times of prosperity, the mists of affluence and the fogs of distraction may shield him from view. But in moments of crisis he stands in stark contrast against an ominous sky, in the most horrifying sunset known to man.

The sword is not just brandished against an individual. It is brandished against the city, against the microcosm of civilization as a whole, against the whole world.

For Abraham and for David, God relented. But he never revoked the need for a sacrifice. The angel stands as a constant reminder: There must be a sacrifice. There must be a sacrifice. There must be a sacrifice. Who will be sacrificed? Will it be the Lamb of God? Or will it be you?

As for me, the Lord says in Psalm 2, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill. He shall rule the nations with a rod of iron. So be wise, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear. Rejoice with trembling. Bow and kiss the Son, lest he be angry, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

The coronavirus is not the sword. The coronavirus is the merciful warning before the sword.

And the most effective prevention against that sword depends not on nutrition, lifestyle, or vaccination. Where hand-washing appears in the Bible, it represents a failed attempt to maintain one’s own sense of righteousness before God. Hygiene will not help; only posture will. The answer is in your knees. Bow! Bow to the Lord! Serve him with fear! For too long we, as individuals and as nations, have blundered on in catastrophic disregard of our tenuous status before God. And if we miss this chance, how many more can we expect to receive?

Fear–fear is the spiritual answer to the coronavirus. We must fall on our knees and beg for the Lord’s mercy in light of a global catastrophe over which we have absolutely no control. We must do this not just individually but together. Our churches and communities, and, if the Lord grants us this mercy, even our governments, ought to call for a shared day of fasting and prayer to implore God for forgiveness and for help.

For there is a promise associated with Mount Moriah and, spiritually, with the deliverance that it represents:

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

2 Chronicles 7:13-14

I really don’t know what to do at this point other than just that. That’s where I must begin and end. Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is very great. Let us not fall into the hands of man.

Michael

Ojczyzno moja!

The aula (hall) in Collegium Minus, where last night’s performance took place

Last night my academic hosts in Poznań invited me to a choral and instrumental concert commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Karol Józef Wojtyła, better known as Pope John Paul II. Wojtyła’s election as pope and his subsequent visits to communist-ruled Poland catalyzed the oppressed nation and contributed significantly to the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Among the diverse selections performed at this event was an anthem for choir and organ by the Polish composer Feliks Nowowiejski (1877-1946) entitled “Psalm 136: Ojczyzno.” With only that description, and with the lyrics entirely in Polish, I was left guessing as to the meaning, although I could tell that it was a stirring and pathic text. A little investigation this afternoon added an entirely new dimension to this dramatic anthem.

As it turns out, 136 is the Vulgate numbering for Psalm 137 in English and most other Protestant Bibles. Now, choral settings of Psalm 137 are rare enough; it is one of the most tragic songs in the psalter, and its violent conclusion leaves many Christians unsure of its propriety in the New Testament. (That is a conversation for another day.) But there is also a poignant beauty to Psalm 137 which captures the longing of afflicted believers for their true homeland. My classmates from Geneva College may remember that Dr. Sinclair Ferguson delivered our commencement address on a text from Psalm 137: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” The psalmist continues:

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!

Psalm 137:5-6 (ESV)

As it turns out, this is precisely the text that Nowowiejski chose for his anthem. In Polish:

Jeżeli cię zapomnę Jeruzalem, ojczyzno moja,
Niechaj zapomniana będzie prawica moja.
Niechaj przyschnie, język do podniebienia mego,
jeślibym ciebie nie kładł na czele wesela mego.
Jeruzalem! Ojczyzno moja!

With the translation in mind, you may be able to follow the significance of the music better than I first did. Here is a recent performance by the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir (incidentally, led by a conductor who also took part in last night’s performance in Poznań).

All very well, but what does a song about Jerusalem have to do with Poland, and what does John Paul II have to do with Feliks Nowowiejski?

Let me tell you about this morning’s sermon at the Evangelical Reformed church in Poznań (translated for me, once again, in real time). The text was from Hebrews 11:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. . . .

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

Hebrews 11:8-16 (ESV)

Insofar as I am currently experiencing a small taste of what it means to be a “stranger and exile on the earth,” this text already resonates powerfully with me. Having a partly Polish heritage does not guarantee always feeling at home in Poland. But this is precisely the paradoxical situation in which the life of faith finds itself, as Rev. Polaszek emphasized. The Christian life is about learning to feel out of place in what should be our home, and it is about cultivating homesickness for a place we have never been. And if you would like to find an earthly example of this homesickness, you need look no further than the history of the Polish people.

There is a dimension of Poland that cannot really be taught, only felt. But it vibrates all throughout the music, literature, and art of this nation which, for so many painful years, has been a people without a country. For 123 years, as both old and young citizens have reminded me repeatedly, Poland was wiped off the map of Europe, and even after it regained independence it was brutally terrorized by the Nazis and then by the communist regime. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that you can feel that history in the streets and buildings of Poland. Here you can still see tenements with chunks of missing plaster from World War II bombings. It is all astonishingly fresh.

Patriotism and religion, as the ABC interview linked to earlier in this post noted, are inextricably linked in Poland. And I suspect that part of that connection has to do with the need for the Polish people to hold their national identity in their hearts, in the only place where political oppression and indoctrination could not reach. There is a patriotic fire that still burns in the hearts of Poles, carefully guarded for so many years against the Nazis and the Soviets, which occasionally blazes forth in ugly displays of nationalism, but which also sustains the cultural heart of this place. When John Paul II visited Poland in 1979, at the height of communist power, he stoked that inner fire in millions of Polish hearts.

There is a word for this phenomenon which will be familiar to scholars of rhetoric. That word is enthymema, a term that points to the persuasive power of rhetorical argumentation. But quite literally, enthymema means “held in the heart.” Those heart-held beliefs are what drive an audience’s motivations, attitudes, and behaviors.

Psalm 84 says of believers that “in their heart are the highways to Zion.” The Christian has a compass in his heart that points him to the heavenly Jerusalem, even as faithful Jews living in exile could still pray toward the temple and faithful Poles could still hum the national anthem softly to themselves during days of terror. And that fiercely guarded hope for the promise of a homeland is what sustains our pilgrim walk through this vale of tears.

In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton writes:

The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.

Perhaps now you see how a setting of Psalm 137 could become such a beloved anthem in Poland and find its way into a celebration of the legacy of John Paul II. Ojczyzno is the Polish word for “homeland,” and though I am the exact opposite of an authority on Polish etymology, I am not too dull to miss the connection with the word for “father,” ojciec. The Lord’s Prayer in Polish begins with the words Ojcze nasz. Moreover, ojczyzno is precisely the word used in the Polish translation of Hebrews 11 to speak about the heavenly land for which Abraham longed. It was not merely his homeland but his fatherland, the place of his birth–though he had never seen it. And if it seemed unfamiliar to him, it was only because the gospel of grace alters census records. In the heavenly Zion the Lord places his adopted children from the families of the nations and declares, “This one was born there” (Psalm 87:6).

Jeruzalem! Ojczyzno moja! “Jerusalem! My fatherland!” So Polish history illuminates for me what should be a fundamental attiude of the Christian life: setting the heavenly kingdom to which I am headed above my highest joy. It means participating in something broader than myself. It means learning to speak in the language and inflection of Christ my King. And although I often shame him, I go forward in his promise: “for he has prepared for them a city.”

Michael

The Mystique of the Bajgiel

One of my deepest disappointments when I moved to western Pennsylvania several years ago was the dearth of bagels. And when I expressed this disappointment to friends, they would usually furrow their brows and say, “I don’t understand. You can get a pack of bagels in any local grocery store in any variety of flavors. What are you talking about?”

No, I mean real bagels. Not a dense and rubbery roll-with-a-hole, packed with preservatives to give it a three-month shelf life and dusted with poppyseed husks to give it the impression of elegance. Pre-sliced, for convenience and for staleness. Or, if you prefer to go one tier higher, you can go to Pittsburgh’s most popular bagel chain and receive a donut with the texture of a hockey puck for an exorbitant price (they forgot not to charge you for the material in the middle). Other nationwide cafes cover up the hole with cinnamon sugar or burnt cheese and market this to unsuspecting customers as a bagel. This is a high-handed violation of everything decent.

A proper bagel is not a breakfast snack. It is an event, an experience, a phenomenon. A proper bagel shop is a greasy little hole in the wall where the first sensory impressions that confront you are the smell of burnt coffee and the sight of poppy and sesame seeds strewn about on the counters and the floor by loyal customers for whom the taste of a fresh bagel outweighs all considerations of propriety and restraint. A proper bagel shop is a place of boisterous greetings, precariously balanced wire racks hanging on the wall behind the counter, and piles of sloppily and lavishly slathered cream cheese. Ideally, a proper bagel shop stays open for lunch and doubles as a Jewish deli. Some of my most vivid childhood memories occurred with a sesame bagel in my hand and a schmear of cream cheese on my lip. When my mother and I would stop at our local bagel place after my weekly piano lesson, the owner would rush out from behind the counter and give us huge hugs. That, dear friends, is what a proper bagel entails.

Where in the grand old U. S. of A., you ask, can I atone for a lifetime of deprivation and experience such a phenomenon for myself? A helpful bagel connosieur, through extensive research, has prepared the following map:

Yes, that’s right, there is only one place in the country where you can find pure bagels that satisfy the above requirements. (Please do not say New Jersey. Nothing inherent in New Jersey, besides its fortuitous proximity to New York, makes it a haven for good bagels. Where they exist, they exist in defiance of it. When placed upright on a flat surface, bagels baked in New Jersey will always roll north and east.)

The point of this bagel-in-cheek post, however, is not a plug for New York tourism. Because, however much New York can take credit for, it cannot take credit for inventing the bagel. The bagel came from somewhere. Where, you might ask?

From Poland.

I quote now from Wikipedia: “A bagel . . . is a bread product originating in the Jewish communities of Poland. . . . Though the origins of bagels are somewhat obscure, it is known that they were widely consumed by Ashkenazi Jews from the 17th century. The first known mention of the bagel, in 1610, was in Jewish community ordinances in Krakow, Poland.”

Besides the atrocity of calling a bagel a “bread product” (tantamount to calling Michelangelo’s David a “person rock”), Wikipedia backs up my newfound conviction that the bagel ought to supplant kielbasi and pierogi as the most famous and most important culinary export from Poland. It also makes the following personal credo sound a little bit less outrageous.

There is something better than a New York bagel, and it is located in Poznań, Poland.

Here is a crummy cell phone picture of this O-shaped marvel. I got it at a place called Bajgle Króla Jana, a recently opened shop a fraction of a mile from where I live. On their website, Bajgle Króla Jana recounts the mysterious history of the bagel (Polish bajgiel) as well as its fateful journey across the Atlantic (perhaps its life-preserver-like shape was the key to a successful voyage).

There is a somber, even tragic component to the story of the bagel. Since the end of World War II, Poland’s Jewish citizenry is all but gone–emigrated, relocated, or in most cases, exterminated. Today’s Poland is 96% Polish, meaning that its once-thriving Jewish communities and cultural artifacts have been almost entirely forgotten. The bagel is a symbol of this national loss. But it is also a symbol of resilience: surviving and gaining new significance in its American exile, just like New York’s Polish Jewish communities, and now returning to bring beauty, diversity, and delight to its homeland.

Today, Bajgle Króla Jana is one of only a few places in Poland producing bagels the old-fashioned way, and their dishes are explicitly inspired by New York. In this case, they have outdone themselves (unlike the mediocre proliferation of “New York style” establishments in other parts of the world). Perhaps the bagel knows its true homeland. In any case, I’m glad that this brief lesson in Polish history and culture comes with such large and immediate dividends to me. If I return to the states with a circular profile and an empty wallet, Bajgle Króla Jana will be to blame.

Another day, I will embark on the delicate philosophical question, which I have up till now avoided, about what the hole of a bagel tastes like. It is something like the sound of one hand clapping . . .

Michael

A Fara Field Trip

Do you ever wonder why they call it “sightseeing”? It’s such a curiously redundant expression. If you were to tell me that you saw a sound or heard a vision, I would be all ears (so to speak). But if you simply want to tell me that you saw sights, I will simply congratulate you on having eyes.

So I did not go sightseeing today. I did, however, visit the historic Fara church in the middle of historic Poznań, where I saw the glories of the Baroque era in Poland and heard a tantalizing teaser of an organ concert.

I will not tell you much about the history of the church, because Wikipedia can do a better job of that. I will tell you that the organ (built by Friedrich Ladegast in 1876) is a beautiful specimen of German organbuilding, and I will simply leave you with a few pictures.

One fun note for pipe organ nerds: the Ladegast organ is one of a handful of instruments in its era and region that included uncommon “free reed” stops–basically, an amplified version of the sound that a harmonium or an accordion makes. The free reeds were not used during the concert today, but you can hear them here at approximately 0:46.

Until next time!

Michael