Letters from Lockdown: Faith, Hope and Love

What will get us through a lockdown, pandemic and Afghanistan

1 Corinthians 13:12–13 (ESV): For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

When lockdown started I wondered how I was going to cope with isolation. Well it’s been two months now. And the result is: pretty well. That’s not to say I’m thriving. But I’ve been able to use it to recharge and focus on my responsibilities. Daily tasks have been more convenient. And though it’s a struggle to be self-disciplined, I’ve had a wonderful wife who helps me structure my life more effectively. Most of all, I’ve had more time to enjoy her. Excluding our Sydney elites and the professional middle class, I would say that I’m okay. Not good or great, just okay.

That’s the problem of contemporary life though isn’t it? We live in these self contained silos. It just serves to reinforce whatever we already think life is like. No wonder the protestors hate the anti-protestors and the vaccinators the anti-vaxxers. If self-righteousness wasn’t a problem in the past, it’s unavoidable now. It wasn’t until I encountered the stories of how others were doing through close friends and family and those they work with that I realized that I had become a cold-hearted chad. I mean I was burnt out. Maybe this didn’t make me any less selfish. It just revealed my self-centeredness more. Enjoying Amazon deliveries and Ubereats while people protested on the streets was solipsism at its finest. If a man killed himself during COVID and I wasn’t around to see it, then he wasn’t really a man.

In the nursing homes, the lockdown is taking its toll on the elderly. Isolated from family, some have stopped eating. They would rather die. Some have faked illnesses to draw attention even from staff because they’re so lonely. Others have become a shell of themselves and lost all personality. My wife cried as she performed a physical assessment of an old man with dementia. As she checked on him, she held a phone to his trembling face. And as he heard his daughter’s voice, he couldn’t stop weeping. He was blind and mute.

I watched as hundreds of Afghanis flooded Kabul’s airport attempting to escape the Taliban. I watched as many clung onto the wheels of the airplane, knowing that it was certain death. And I watched as they fell hundreds of feet from the air. They were in such fear from the Taliban that they would rather have dropped to their deaths. I watched as the president of the most powerful country on earth turned his face away from a country his nation had shaped for 20 years. He blamed his predecessors. And he explained that his motives came from a desire to protect American lives.

I listened as a relative of mine narrated her struggles through the lockdown. I felt her loneliness, her anger and her question of “why?” I saw that such isolation for her was torture. And the longer it went on for, the dimmer her hope grew. Because life as she knew it, was disappearing from her eyes. Though she was doing all she could to stay home and stay safe, in her heart, she was there with the protestors, fighting for their homes and businesses and livelihoods and freedoms. And yes even amidst the anarchists and conspiracy nuts.

But all I could do was #staysafe. What I realized is that we need to face the reality of the situation. Lockdowns benefit those who can work from home. They drive up property prices. They increase debt to those who can ill afford it. And they increase the gap between rich and poor drastically. So with the courage of honesty, maybe we need to explore some ways of navigating through this together at a community and state level rather than just muzzle dissenters, professors from UNSW included, to claim that “the experts are on their side.”

This is not an anti-lockdown rant. But maybe it’s a plea. I don’t know to who. To God perhaps? I doubt Gladys would see this. With some help from the apostle Paul, we need to think about the state of the world as it is. We need it to drive us to seek the knowledge of both God and ourselves. And we need that knowledge to transform this world, in faith, hope and love.

What we need to stop doing is pretending that hiding in our homes, ordering take out, and online shopping are moral badges to be proud of while we blame the pandemic on everyone outside today. The ones outside are the ones delivering our food and parcels. Faith in God, hope in Christ and love for him and our neighbor. After all our toys and things, and our skills and competencies, that’s all that remains. Those are the essentials. So in earnestness you can pray for the lockdown. But pray more for the elderly, for the vulnerable and most of all for yourself. Because how we’re responding is showing us who we are.

There Is No Magic Pill: On Waiting For Grace

Some people are drawn to despair and destruction. Solitude and loneliness beckon to you like the abyss under a skyscraper on a windy night when the moon shines but nothing is illuminated. And as you stand on the precipice of the roof you feel yourself pulled to stand on the edge…and maybe even jump? The prospect is exhilarating yet nauseating, knowing that you are one-second away from oblivion.

Is this me? Will I have to tread the road not taken? I was reminded of this in a film called Lucky Per about a Danish prodigy who leaves his clerical family to become an engineer only to throw it all away. Not even a woman’s love could save him from his destiny. He ends his life poor, in a wilderness of his own, working the land from his cabin, slowly dying from disease.

I’m reminded when I read the biblical story of Cain, who was condemned for a sacrifice that wasn’t good enough for his Father. The unbearable pain of rejection became resentment for his brother Abel because he was loved. Then resentment became bloodshed. And Cain became doomed to wander the earth forever because he added guilt on top of guilt. With every step his brother Abel’s blood cried out for justice. Could he have helped it?

There’s something about nothingness that is alluring. It’s not so much that you want to die, you just don’t want to live. Life is so painful let alone when you’re haunted by guilt! Why bother? How do you find rest? Emptiness haunts you left and right. Dread and alienation dog every step. It reminds you that you’re different from everyone else and everything else. So being nothing can seem more attractive than being itself.

It’s almost like a primeval call harkening you to return to where you came from. “Naked you were born into the world and naked you shall return.” Is it a curse from God? A pig farmer who once cursed God upon a hill and became the richest man in Copenhagen. Yet his son Kierkegaard became the most anxious man of Europe. His father forever believed that his family was cursed by God. Perhaps like Kafka, it’s the disappointment of my father that always follows me. And my sensitive childhood only serves to remind me that someone is coming for me. I don’t know who. But one day they will find me out.

These questions run through my head at night. Where have I gone wrong? And what can be done? What can possibly wash my hands of the unknown crimes I’ve committed blindfolded? Is God dead? Have I killed him? It certainly appears that way. Out damned spot! Out. But no amount of washing is sufficient. I think that Lady’s Macbeth cries would be more heard than mine.

These days I find the solace of friends the most soothing to this emptiness. Yet as I fill it up with friends, it drains just as quickly away. It leaves me even more exhausted. It’s a hell of a drug. I can’t exactly define what this emptiness is. Maybe it’s a haunting of death in a broken world exiled from Eden. And sometimes I think I love it too much because it’s all I have. Still… what am I meant to do with it?

Maybe, just maybe, there’s nothing I can do. Maybe I don’t need to do anything. Maybe what is required is an act of faith — to seek and humble myself under God, to recognize that only God can provide joy and fulfillment in his own time and in his own way. Maybe faith is the true defense against anxious and weary living, a pursuit of life that only takes from you until you have nothing left to give. But how can I rest in something that doesn’t even seem real in this moment? That’s the real leap of faith — to rest and wait.

Sometimes we think there’s a magic pill. We’re so results oriented. We want a solution to our life’s problems and a fix to it. But maybe there is no fix. All other fixes are only means of escaping and running away and hoping the problem doesn’t resurface whether its Netflix or alcohol or shopping and even Christian ministry.

Maybe God means for us to face this head on. After all, the story of the Exodus reminds us that there’s a rock in the wilderness where springs of life flow from. Maybe in the midst of darkness is light. Only in confronting this nothingness will we become ourselves. We will overcome as a light in the darkness for others. And the darkness will not overcome it. We will truly be.

I have read in Lewis, in Kafka, in Steinbeck and in Dostoevsky sayings that are wise and beautiful. But never have I read in any of them, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” The grace that God gives and the rest he lays you down to is a life and a joy that never stops giving. It gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. It raises you up on eagle’s wings. Though even youths grow weary, you will run and not be tired, you will soar even amidst a fragmented and forsaken world. You will know who you are and who God is in the midst of it all. You can wail and pour out your soul because weeping may tarry for the night but joy comes in the morning. We just need to wait.

”Other People Have It Worse”: Modern Stoicism and Self Pity

Does knowing that someone else has it worse than you really ease your suffering? As I thought about this, I was seared with a memory from years ago. I had just broken up with my first girlfriend. “It’s okay Nathan. There’s plenty more fish in the sea.” The Confucian advice was from my well meaning dad. I just sat crying into my rice as my mom and sister exchanged glances and shook their heads. Another memory flows from its subconscious dregs into my mind — a recent friend of mine became a pastor in a rough area. Being from a more privileged background, the suffering and disorder he encountered was overwhelming. One way he continued to keep himself going was by minimizing his difficulties. After all, how can he complain when so many of his flock have it worse?

Thinking through this matters because suffering is real. In fact, it may the most real part of life. Life is suffering. Unless you close your eyes. So how do you find comfort? How do you counsel? And how do you understand what you will inevitably go through at some point in life? Without understanding suffering you may find yourself broken, shipwrecked, and damaged beyond recognition. You may become someone you never knew.

This was the case for many wives and children waiting to welcome their dads home after the Vietnam war, only to receive someone who was dad half the time and a raging alcoholic the other. This is the case for every single guy and girl after a break up or divorce. Who will they be now? The gym provides little answer.

While reminding yourself of the triviality of your suffering keeps self pity and pride in check, its objectivity doesn’t help you suffer well. It doesn’t give you the resolve to overcome it or to ease its sting. Suffering is costly. It eats you up the more you have it. Everyone has a breaking point. At its worse, such a stoic saying simply denies it and leads to the pretense that “I’m fine. And you’re fine.” And therefore nobody is.

It is written somewhere in the Psalms that those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy. As I listened to pastor Tim Keller preach from this Psalm I realized this: that what comforts and heals and changes you is not knowing that people have it worse but that no one had it worse than Jesus. This man was a man of sorrows. But his sorrows were for you. His life was one trial after another and ended in agony – forsaken by God and condemned to die nailed on a tree by men. And it was all for the joy set before him.

Just as he wept for the death of his friend Lazarus, he wept bittersweet tears on that cross for us. His pain was undiminished. But his resolve was firm. And his joy was magnified. Because he knew it would reconcile humanity to God and ultimately fix this broken world. The darkness of alienation from God and men was worth every tear if it meant we could share his joy.

So when I suffer, without denying what I experience, I can remember that Jesus had it worse. I can continue to live, sowing tears and knowing that not one will fall to the ground and be wasted. Each drop will be reaped with joy. And though we don’t quite know what suffering will do to us, we know that we will be like him and see him as he is – one who suffered and triumphed and laughed over life even in death. This is the hope of redemption and the immeasurable glory that no suffering can overcome.

The Belly Buster

Around Christmas time, I saw a man with cropped hair, olive skin and arms that tried to squeeze out of his gray tank top. As he ducked and weaved his way through the crowds at Westfield shopping center, one bright Unicef worker dared to break through the blur and stand up to the tanned hulk.

Commence the pleading! First came the convenience: “just 2 mins of your time sir.” Then as his clipboard rattled, the cause was put forward — “a cure for AIDs.” But it was too little. And too late. The tank top’s bags had too much momentum. They propelled him forward rolling past the clipboard and spectacles with the polite flash of pearly teeth. Maybe he was shopping for a girlfriend. Then there would be no stopping him.

I shook my head at the man. Now I wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t even the most generous person. But at least I wasn’t like that man. That’s what I thought. I enjoyed the amusement fo a second and then used the distraction to skip past the Unicef booth — hopefully unnoticed. The booth was an island among the 7 seas. Currents of people would ripple away from it. And there water often dried.

So I escaped. I survived not just the harassment to my schedule but the pangs of my guilty conscience. After all, who were they to ask for my money? How did one choose between all the noble causes that existed? What about the money I already gave? The entrance to Platypus shoes ended my day time reverie. I slowed my pace as I relaxed into the glassy cases of Vans and Timberlands and Converse. Not even the shop assistant’s questions fazed me. I was there to do my Christmas shopping. I was there to find the right Vans for me.

The Vans expressed how I felt about myself at the moment. Black and white. Size 10s. Lows. They are me. I am them. I would get around to other needs eventually. But 1st I needed to be me. I checked the label for its authenticity and satisfied with it, walked out with a black box. At least I’m keeping it minimal. So I thought.

Today We Said Goodbye: On Leaving St. John’s

Is it harder to lift your eyes to lead a service or to say goodbye? Today Sophia and I formally we were leaving St. John’s Anglican Cathedral. I’ve never enjoyed public speaking and I was definitely not going to enjoy it now. St. John’s had been my home for the last 4 years and Sophia’s for the last 11. I’ve said goodbye many times in my life. I’ve moved around 10 times. It never gets easier. But today announcing that we were leaving our church was one of the harder goodbyes I’ve had to say since I became a Christian.

St. John’s has been a home away from home this side of eternity. And it was a good home for 4 years. It wasn’t perfect just as no hotel or roadside inn is. There are some doors that need mending. And sometimes the roof would leak. You didn’t always like those you ate dinner with. And you would sometimes wonder whether the inn down the road had a better bed and breakfast. We are a weird bunch. And yet we were still together.

Our lives had intertwined for a brief period. Yet we find ourselves coming away from St John’s bearing the marks of every person we have met. Like soldiers who have gone through a war together and survived, we served together for a common cause: to see the city of Parramatta transformed by the hope of the risen Christ. Sometimes in those few short years it seemed to me like every day was the same. And yet looking back, I can see glimpses of God at work in our city, in maturing our growth groups and in drawing people of all colors and ages to him. There was no big battle. There was only the quiet hum drum of St John’s on Hunter St. We met countless toddlers, youths and university students and elderly folk who had come to meet Jesus.

But what ultimately bound us together was not what we did. We were soldiers who had survived. The resurrection of our souls brought this weird eclectic bunch together and continues to do so today, tomorrow and in eternity. I know we’ll be united again some day because we’ve been raised to new life with our Creator. And that day will make today a momentary pause; just a gentle breeze that passes through life. It would as though we had never said goodbye.

Here and now we’re separated by time and space, near yet far. I may see someone from St. John’s on the street again someday. And if I do I hope it’ll be like old times. And we might say ‘hi’ and ‘how’re you doing?’ And some I know I will never see again at least in this lifetime. So for now it’s not so much goodbye, but ‘till we meet again’, when we will see one another through clearer mirrors than we have ever known.