As the hart, about to falterGenevan Psalm 42 (Dewey Westra’s versification)
in its trembling agony,
panteth for the brooks of water,
so my soul doth pant for thee.
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.