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Three signs and rules for these times

Signs of the times

The Rev. Jerome Devine turns to our Wesleyan heritage to interpret signs of the times and to learn from the global pandemic.

Superintendent, Mid-Michigan District

Jesus said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so, it happens.  …  You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” ~ Luke 12:54-56, NRSV

I am not a “zombie apocalypse” kind of person. I do not try to read interpretations into most life events as if they are a part of some cosmic scheme. Yet, I do take significant life events seriously, especially when they unfold nationally or globally. 

We live in this world and are both affected by it and have an impact on it. Attentiveness during such events matters, particularly attentiveness to how we respond as people of faith. One of the distinctive aspects of our Wesleyan heritage is the emphasis on sanctifying grace, that ongoing work of God in us as we live in the world. How do the changes swirling around us change us as followers of the Christ?

Like many of you, I find myself wondering what I am learning or need to learn from living through a global pandemic that has altered nearly all of my usual patterns of living? I also am wondering what could change or should change within our national consciousness and global identity?

I am asking myself, what might God want me and us to learn? God certainly did not cause this pandemic, yet I also know that God is present with us during this time. The challenge is more about our presence to God or lack thereof during this time. Jesus’ probing question in the Gospel of Luke troubles my soul in a good way: Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

When I peruse social media sites, I chuckle as people post that they finally have “cleaned out” the closet or garage that they have avoided for years. Many are using their time wisely. One of my Facebook friends has a group of 50 of us posting our nightly dinner menus, complete with artistic photos. It has encouraged me to become more mindful of my dietary habits. I have lost five pounds thus far and have found things in the cupboard that I did not know we had! I am more aware of food availability and scarcity than I had given thought to in the past. I fully recognize that my not needing to be mindful of food supplies in the past readily comes from living with privilege. Millions of people face such scarcity every day, even when there is no pandemic.

I have family and friends that work in healthcare and first-responder networks. Like all of you, I have seen the stories of the compassionate commitment of these people. Their lives will be different as we emerge out of this pandemic. I worry about their health, and I self-isolate so that I do not add to their workload. 

As of the writing of this reflection, I am on my 28th day of not having left my house or yard. Apart from my interaction with my wife, my involvement with others is almost entirely online. I joke that I am getting the best gas mileage I have ever gotten — 28 days to the gallon and counting. It is inconceivable to me why some people arrogantly refuse to take any protectionary precautions. One of the three simple rules of our Wesleyan heritage is “do no harm”. To follow Christ is to put the safety of others before our interpretation of freedom.

When I see photos of cities around the world that now have clear skies or photos that reveal that we can now actually see the Himalayan mountains, I am deeply moved. I yearn for that to be sustained and wonder how long it would take for the earth to be healed if we altered our ways of living. A second of the three simple rules is “do good.” The slowing of the world’s human activities, especially those conducted in the pursuit of wealth through industry, while making our personal and national economies strain to a breaking point, has done good for the planet home where we dwell. April 22, 2020, is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and the theme this year is “Climate Action.” Will we be willing and able to “interpret the signs of these times” in time to live differently as we emerge from this pandemic?

I am grateful and not at all surprised at how quickly the vast majority of our clergy sought new ways to continue to share God’s good news to their congregations as the stay-home order took effect. It has revealed the goodness of their hearts and the depth of their callings. Their worship teams have extended themselves in new ways as they lived out their own discipleship. I have been equally grateful for how quickly the conference staff mobilized to provide training resources for the adaptive challenges our local churches were facing. Each of these servant leaders is helping all of us fulfill the third of those three simple rules: “stay in love with God.”

Without question, there have been individuals and groups that have clearly ignored these three simple rules of “Do no harm—do good—stay in love with God”.  It would seem that they have failed to pay attention to Jesus’ question about “interpreting the signs of the times”.  What I am learning, and perhaps already knew, is that my primary task and responsibility is to support those who do respond faithfully during such times as these, and to monitor my own responses as well.  There is a wise saying attributed to the great Hunkpapa Lakota leader, Chief Sitting Bull, that seems apropos:

“Inside of me, there are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins I answer, the one I feed the most.”

The changes that have been the result of the pandemic have changed my patterns, yet the real change comes from the Holy Spirit deepening my attentiveness to God in those patterns.  Thanks be to God.