2020, High School, and Awe

Remember high school?  It’s this strange world all its own.  When you’re on the inside, it’s all that seems to exist.  The events have staggering implications. We have to know who’s dating who, whether or not that person likes us, and our decisions are often driven by the need for acceptance.  We talk about graduating and going out to the “real world” but when you’re in high school, that itself feels like the real world.  The people that do graduate disappear (hopefully).  They can come visit, but they never re-enter that strange bubble.

I can still remember coming out of the bubble. Suddenly people that didn’t get along before were friends.  Old divisions didn’t make much sense anymore.  Similarly, I looked back and was startled that my world had been so small.  Events that previously seemed “of great pith and moment” (sorry for the Hamlet reference) were now revealed to be mere blips in the much larger story of my life.  

When we’re teenagers, there are a couple unique facts about our brains. The first is that they’re swimming in a sea of hormones that slowly starts to ebb as we get older. The second is that our frontal lobes (that do the higher order thinking) are not fully developed until we’re about 25.  Consequently, when we’re young, we often make far more rash decisions and sometimes don’t fully appreciate the big picture.

When we’re adults, stressors can push us back into that adolescent mindset.  Our fight or flight mechanism can kick in, shutting down our critical thinking and causing us to react emotionally rather than respond thoughtfully.  Having a baby is a small crisis.  I’ve had four. Each time, the exhaustion tends to cause my world to constrict. I can lose sight of context, have less patience, and incidents that normally wouldn’t be a big deal suddenly feel like the end of the world.

I want to suggest that the horribleness of 2020 may have created a new version of high school.  The very real pain of this past year may be narrowing our field of vision, restricting our processing power, and making everything seem apocalyptic.  When that happens, we are often the worst version of ourselves. We lose context, forget history, and react in anger and fear.  

Like many of you, I’ve been watching all the election coverage and feeling the weight of it.  Regardless of what side we’re on, we’re being told that if the other side wins it is a calamity beyond repair.  It feels real because of the emotional trauma from the past 9 months and the ceaseless doom preached by media of all kinds. 

Doom sells. Doom captures our imagination.  This is why we all watch disaster movies.  But is it rational?  Is it Christian?

It is certainly true that the election will have an impact on our near future. It is certainly true that Godly government is better than ungodly government.  Therefore, I would never advocate apathy or disengagement.  

However, I would also caution against allowing the stressors of the present to constrict our big picture view of human history.

Solomon lamented in Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun, and that humanity seems to experience this never-ending series of cycles.  The prophet Adama from Battlestar Galatica said, “All of this has happened before, all of it will happen again.” (There aren’t too many pastors referencing Shakespeare and Sci-Fi TV in the same blog post are there?) In Eastern thought, time is often seen as a series of cycles. In the West, we tend to see it as linear and progressive. (I’ve come to believe both are partially correct, but that’s a story for another day.)

Solomon’s point is that there is something so inherently foolish about human existence.  We live with such sound and fury (Macbeth this time) but have little overall effect on the world. The rich and poor alike die.  There is justice and injustice, joy and sorrow, peace and war.  In the moment everything seems so vital and meaningful, but then we all fade away like grass, and history mostly forgets us.  Kingdoms won through great bloodshed and sacrifice are often lost the same way. A man spends his life acquiring great wealth only to die alone without an heir.  It’s therefore folly to assume we’re experiencing something unique that God hasn’t already fixed a thousand times before.

All of this frustrates Solomon to no end.  It frustrates me too, and is pretty depressing on the surface.  Until you read the last part.  Solomon tells us how we’re meant to live in this crazy world where everything is always changing, and yet it’s always the same. We are to “fear God and keep His commandments” (Eccl 12:13).

For a long time, I thought that was rather legalistic and boring.  That’s the point of life?  I’ll stick with Paul’s theology.  The trouble was, I simply didn’t know enough about Jewish thought.

For Jews in Paul’s day, you studied the Torah, the Bible, not to be afraid of God, but to be in awe.  Awe leads to obedience.  In the West, we often study the Bible to know the right answer, to create a systematic theology that we can explain.  In Judaism, and in the early church, you studied the Bible so you could encounter the majesty and mystery of the Creator and be conformed into His image. You studied so you could live and enjoy the few evanescent moments that you have in this beautiful, crazy world.  

The point wasn’t to understand.  Understanding is okay, but God and the world are ultimately too big to fully comprehend.  What we need is astonishment.  This is why Jesus told us to receive the Kingdom like children. Children can live under God’s rule more easily because they’re accustomed to wonder.  Mostly they don’t know what’s going on. They just trust their parents and try to enjoy the ride.

Right now, we’re all strapped to a beautiful rocky ball that is hurtling around a miraculous fusion machine, traveling about 32 million miles every day. We’ll be here for a few seconds.  There will be joy and pain. Kingdoms will rise and fall. There will be justice and injustice. I’m meant to be involved. I’m meant to care and live boldly and radically as my best self, but I’m unlikely to be able to accurately assess what’s going on. 

Everyone wants to know what 2020 means and why everything is crazy.  Those may be the wrong questions.  Nothing has come upon us but what is common to man.  What I’m meant to do is hold Dad’s hand and enjoy the ride as best I can. I don’t have to be afraid. Not because no calamity can occur (this is a false faith that will leave you empty), but because I’m in awe of the Beautiful One who reverses all calamity through His staggering, self-sacrificial nature. 

I know the One who killed darkness by dying, who triumphed over lies by openly displaying who God is, who saves the suffering by entering personally into their pain, who sums up the story of humanity and God all in one person, who loved me enough to face torture, emptiness and death!

Real life is possible through that wonder.  That’s why I can’t yield to the spirit of this hour. I want to be alive.  I can’t be in awe of God as long as I’m worried about electoral outcomes, pandemics, or social unrest, and I can’t really live unless I’m stunned by His beauty.  

This election, the pandemic, this crazy year—in the scope of human history, they’re a very recent blip.  What happens now matters because people matter, but as far as the overall narrative?  It’s like high school.  It’s part of the journey. One day we’ll graduate.  Old enemies will become new friends.  Earth shaking disasters will be forgotten.  We’ll be stunned that our world was so small. The brilliant light of God’s future kingdom is already shooting rays back here.  If we want to, we can live in that light right now.

So, what should we do?  Unplug, calm down, and do the things that really matter. Marvel at God, the world He created, and the people around you.  From that place of wonder, love God, and love your neighbor (who Jesus defined as your enemy).  That, Solomon and Jesus would say, is the whole duty of man.

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