Text Study for Luke 21:5-19 (Part Four)

“A crisis,” the Stanford economist Paul Romer once said, “is a terrible thing to waste.”  Romer’s oft-quoted quip is a play on the 1980’s advertising motto of the United Negro College Fund – “a mind is terrible thing to waste.” A crisis requires us to think about, talk about, and bring about changes that we would not think about, talk about, or bring about in so-called “normal” times.

In our text, Jesus points to a coming crisis for the Temple, for Jerusalem, and for Israel as a whole. By the time the Lukan author tells the story, that particular crisis has come and gone. But it is likely that the Lukan communities are facing their own crises. Our text serves, then, as teaching, warning, and encouragement for Christian communities facing and responding to their own crises.

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It is a well-worn cliché to refer to the Chinese ideogram that represents the English word, “crisis.” The cliché is that the ideogram is composed of two characters. The one represents the idea of “danger.” The other represents the idea of “opportunity.” This rendering of the character was noted in English as early as 1938 and was adopted by Lewis Mumford in 1944.

The cliché gained its current status as a truism when John F. Kennedy referred to it in campaign speeches.  After that, the cliché has appeared everywhere, especially as a way to encourage organizations to consider constructive change in the face of challenges. In fact, linguists say that the character is not quite so optimistic. It really refers to something more like a precarious inflection point.

That doesn’t rule out the idea of “opportunity.” But it does remind us that a “crisis” can go either way – toward constructive change or toward inaction. The truth of the cliché remains important. It’s not the presence of the crisis itself that matters. What matters is how we respond to it.

A crisis can make constructive responses possible because the system has loosened up a bit. I’ve always appreciated Kurt Lewin’s three step change management model. I’ve taught it to church groups and applied it in my own thinking. There are moments when an organization, especially in the face of severe challenge or disruption, “unfreezes.” That is, the normal structures, procedures, priorities, assumptions, and values of the organization can be called into question.

This unfreezing doesn’t last forever. But it is a time when real change can be made. As the challenge or crisis passes, the organization tends to “refreeze.” If no changes have been made, the organization refreezes into something close to the previous condition. That’s what we mean when we say that we want things to “go back to normal.” If constructive changes have been made, then the organization will refreeze, but in a different configuration. Hopefully the new configuration is better adapted to the changed environment.

The pandemic has challenged Christian congregations to “unfreeze” in order to deal with the challenging and changed environment. In a matter of weeks, congregations shifted from face-to-face worship to online interactions. Church leaders became content producers and managers. The reach of many congregations was multiplied many times over. Religious communities made changes and accomplished tasks that would have been unimaginable in “normal” times. Organizations were fluid, experimental, and innovative.

That was exhausting for those tasked with exploring and executing those changes. The consequences of that exhaustion continue to surface and impact congregations and church leaders. Clergy in particular, and especially in small and medium-sized congregations, are exhausted to the point of burnout. Yet, there is also a surprising amount of vitality and hope coming out of this crisis.

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research has been studying and continues to study how the pandemic has impacted and is impacting congregations. I’d recommend the YouTube talk by Hartford Institute Director, Dr. Scott Thumma. It’s an interim report but offers some interesting insights into both the challenges and the possibilities within and coming out of the Covid crisis.

Thumma argues that we need to see the “Pandemic” as “endemic.” When a disease or condition is endemic, it is an ongoing reality rather than a finite feature of the moment. While the coronavirus will at some point fade into the background at some point in the future, the impacts of the pandemic experience will not go away.

Those who spend time with American religious communities know that these communities have been changed in ways that are not reversible. No matter how much we would like it, there is no “going back to the way things were.” Thumma argues that the pandemic experience has not introduced new elements into the lives of those religious communities. Instead, the pandemic experience has accelerated changes and amplified challenges that we had been, to some degree, ignoring up until March of 2020.

Those changes and challenges include declines in median worship attendance numbers among American congregations. That median moved from 137 in 2000 to 65 in 2020. Notice that this median was measured prior to the pandemic experience. In mainline congregations, that media in 2020 was fifty. Therefore, half of the mainline American congregations in 2020 had fallen below the threshold of being sustainable as solo institutions. Some one hundred and fifty thousand congregations fit this profile.

It’s not that those small congregations are destined to disappear. However, the model for ministry that sustained those congregations for the last two centuries will not work. Those congregations and leaders who have embraced the crisis as a chance to change, will likely continue to serve their communities. Those congregations and leaders who plan to go back to “business as usual” will not.

Thumma enumerates the likely challenges that are endemic as congregations and leaders face the future here in America. In most places, face-to-face attendance numbers will not return to pre-pandemic levels. Virtual participation in congregational life is no longer regarded as optional by many people. The needs for physical space for congregations is changing. Alternative uses for the space should be explored. New patterns for both professional and volunteer ministry are needed.

In the face of these demands, leaders and volunteers will be challenged with exhaustion and burnout. And a number of congregations will face the realities of closure in the next five to ten years.

On the other hand, the pandemic has unfrozen many congregations. New ways of doing things have been adopted. And congregations have realized not only that they must change but that they can change. New models and methods are in place and being used. Congregations have been forced back to first principles in order set priorities and form practices. Partnerships with other congregations and other organizations have been forged and are bearing fruit.

Thumma reported on the importance of optimism for congregational flourishing. While attitudes generally cannot change the physical and fiscal realities of the moment, attitudes can certainly change how we respond to those realities. His talk reminded me of the power and importance of Appreciative Inquiry as a tool and process for organizational change. And it’s a set of practices that I’m bringing to the congregation with which I’m journeying for now.

Appreciative Inquiry reminds us that everything we do as leaders is intervention, especially in times of change. The intention to look at ourselves is intervention. Choosing to look at our reality will begin to change that reality. Inquiry is intervention. Asking questions about our reality will begin to change that reality. Interaction is intervention. Choosing to talk about our reality together will begin to change that reality. And imagination is intervention. Positive propositions about our future will change that future.

What does this have to do with our text? A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. As we face a crisis, we can learn from those who’ve gone before us. God is faithful. The resurrection of Jesus is the triumphant sign of that faithfulness, even in the face of death. There’s more going on than meets the eye, and we can trust the Holy Spirit to be at work.

As a result, we can live with patient endurance. That’s more than just hunkering down and holding on. That’s acting as if the future is already here, and that future is what God intends. It is not our task to predict the future. That’s for others (who will likely get it wrong). Instead, our task as Jesus followers is to discern where God is leading, now and in the time to come.

Resources and References

Christian, David. Future Stories. Little, Brown Spark: 2022.

Throwback Thursday Books: Man’s Search for Meaning

I bought a copy of Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, my sophomore year at Central College. It was for one of my history classes taught by Dr. Mike Schrier. I don’t remember the class, but I am grateful for the book. I still have that copy and have read it at least a dozen times over the years. I have often wished I could have learned something from Frankl the first time I read it rather than merely studying the book because it was assigned. I continue to learn from Frankl each time I read his words.

Frankl wrote before inclusive language was a consideration. I apologize in advance for the quotes which use masculine terms to describe human realities. It is true that he dealt almost exclusively with men in the camps, but he wrote with all human beings in view. I will amend some of the quotes where that is practical, and humbly suggest that Frankl did in fact value all human beings as ends in themselves regardless of the terminology.

Frankl, as I’m sure you know, wrote as a survivor of the Nazi death camps. He was a practicing psychotherapist before his enslavement, and he brought his clinical and theoretical insights to bear as part of his struggle to survive. He tried to understand how it was that he survived when so many others did not.

He confessed with no false humility that the survivors know that the best of them did not make it out alive. Those who did, Frankl suggested, did so because they found reasons to continue living. He saw the workings of chance, of history, and of (for lack of a better word) fate in the the realities of survival. But this search for and discovery of meaning in the midst of a massive and unspeakably cruel absurdity was, in his view, one of the most significant factors in his survival.

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Frankl wrote, “any attempt to restore a [person’s] inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing [that person] some future goal.” More than once Frankl quoted a line from Nietzsche to the effect that the one who has a “why” to live can endure almost any “how.” This fundamental orientation toward the future was central, in Frankl’s view, to survival in the camps. He saw it as “the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners” (page 121).

Frankl saw links between this future orientation and physical health outcomes in the camps. He noted that it was essential to enduring the torture and abuse handed out by the guards and between the enslaved inmates. It was central to maintaining one’s sanity and stability in a radically insane and unstable environment. This insistence on hope for the future gave him power to survive in the present.

But this future orientation required more than wishful thinking or fantasies. Frankl put it this way, and I quote at length. “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and furthermore, we had to teach despairing men that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life,” he concludes, “and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly” (page 122).

In hindsight, that was what I needed to learn from Frankl in that first reading — and what I missed altogether. Had I caught even a part of what Frankl intended, I might have been spared some unnecessary pain and suffering. I know my dear professor hoped that some of us might catch a glimpse of Frankl’s insights into a life well-lived, but I’ve often been a bit slow on the draw in that regard. “Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems,” Frankl argues, “and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual” (page 122).

The Nietzsche quote was one anchor for Frankl’s reflections. The other was a quote from Dostoevsky — “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” A relentless battle for meaning had to be coupled, in his experience with an acceptance of the reality of suffering. “If there is a meaning in life at all,” he wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death,” he asserted, “human life cannot be complete” (page 106).

Frankl did not advocate either martyrdom or the passivity of the victim. Instead, he pointed to the power we have no matter what circumstances we must endure. “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread,” he wrote. “They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (page 104, my emphasis).

During his enslavement, Frankl often thought of his wife. They had been separated as they were herded off the cattle cars, and he never saw her again. She died in the camps. But Frankl maintained an image of her in his mind and a relationship with that image which was often quite vivid. That relationship brought home to him “the truth that is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers…that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which [the human] can aspire.”

Many times over the years I have recalled this “greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart:” that the salvation of human beings and of humanity “is through love and in love.” (pages 58-59). When I remember that this insight settled on Frankl’s mind, heart, and spirit in the midst of some of the most developed machinery of hate in human history, I am stunned into silence. And I tremble in gratitude for the gifts of love I receive.

Frankl anticipated nearly every trend and topic in what is now called “Positive Psychology.” For example, he noted and explored the power of humor in the battle for survival. “Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation,” he wrote. “It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human makeup, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds” (page 68). In our time, the witty scalpel employed by Trevor Noah on the rotting corpse of Trump administration has demonstrated the truth of Frankl’s assertion.

I have returned numerous times over the years to Frankl for both inspiration and pithy quotes. But his work was most powerful for me as I struggled to come to terms with the sudden and untimely death of my first spouse, Anne, ten years ago this past November. Only two books spoke to me for months — Frankl’s little book, and C. S. Lewis’ searing words in A Grief Observed (I’ll come to that one on some other Thursday). At first, it was my memory of Frankl’s thoughts about his wife and the power of love. But over the weeks and months, it was the words about suffering and meaning that sustained me.

Frankl teaches us how to choose hope. He has no interest in the power of positive thinking as a discipline of denial or a placebo of platitudes. But he leads us to see what many wisdom traditions (including positive psychology) say to us. We can indeed choose hope, and must choose hope, especially in the most desperate of situations. Pessimists may have the most accurate descriptions of reality, but optimists have the best survival rates.

There’s much to gain from Frankl in our own times of being locked in and locked down. There is no comparison between our current limitations and life in the death camps. But we can learn much from such an extremity of human experience to sustain us in our own times of pain and despair. We can, indeed, find ways to choose hope. We can indeed take responsibility for the future.

My copy is the paperback revised and expanded edition from 1976, published as a Pocket Book by Simon and Schuster.