Discussion Notes || Sunday, April 26, 2020

These discussion notes were written by Pastor Jacob and used to lead the conversation on Sunday, April 26, 2020 during our virtual service of Worshipful Conversation and Fellowship. Feel free to use these notes to start a discussion with your small group, family, and/or friends. This conversation is based on a reading from Joel 1.

Finding a New Normal:
The Crisis Now

By Rev. Dr. Jacob W. Juncker

I spent the better part of the last few weeks searching the scriptures to try and find a biblical book or story that might ground our discussion about the current novel-coronavirus pandemic that has so drastically changed all our lives.

To be honest, it was tough going.  While I won’t pretend to have perused all of the Bible in the last few weeks, I did search and skim and read significant hunks of it.  The fact of the matter is, the Bible speaks nowhere of global pandemic.  In a few places great sickness comes across the land, generally in a very localized context (think the plagues on Egypt), but the problem with those stories is that these sicknesses come at the direction of God.  God causes the sickness.

In my own thinking about the current global pandemic, I refuse to believe that God has inflicted a sickness on our world that has, to date, infected over 2.9 million people and resulted in over 203,000 deaths[1] worldwide including over 2,700 deaths here in Massachusetts.[2]

It is inconceivable, to me, that the God who created and wills life would impose a global pandemic, sentencing death on thousands, to make some divine point.

For sure, there are people who believe this.  There are those who believe that God is using this virus to cleanse the world of people who had it coming for one reason or another.  Such thinking is bullshit dangerous.  I once heard it said that those who believe in hell often think they know who should go there.  I think the same may be true of those who think that God works through global crises, including pandemics: if you think God works through divine retribution, harming people who have offended God, then you probably have certain people in mind who you think have offended God and stand under divine judgment.

Let me be clear—I do not believe that God has caused the current global pandemic.  I do not believe that those who have died have offended God any more than I have.  And, I do not think that we, as people of faith, should try to be reading into this global pandemic some sort of divine judgment or apocalyptic end.  Such thinking is bullarkey.

So what, then, are we left with?  How can we understand what’s going on?

It is at this point that I thumbed through and found the book of the prophet Joel.  Joel’s writing is found in the part of the Hebrew scriptures known as the Twelve Prophets, or the Minor Prophets.  It was written approximately 2,500 years ago (between 500 and 350 BCE) and is comprised of a series of poetic oracles.  Unlike other prophets in the Hebrew canon, Joel leans heavily upon a wide array of Hebrew prophets and writings using images and phrases from Obadiah, Malachi, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, Nahum, Exodus, and others.

Prophetic writings in scripture follow a pretty standard rubric.  Something is happening, the people are disobeying God, and the prophet calls them to change their hearts and lives (repent!)and return to God.  What is unique about Joel is that he does not follow this familiar formula.  The book of Joel does not call out God’s people for a specific sin.  He doesn’t accuse them from wandering away from God. Instead, Joel is trying to make sense of a devastating crisis that has occurred.  He uses the scripture he has at his disposal to make sense of what is going on around him.

In the opening chapter (our reading for today), we do not find Joel calling out the people’s sin.  Instead, he is calling the people to look around and acknowledge the devastation: to bear witness to the crisis that surrounds them.

Pay attention, everyone in the land!  Has anything like this ever happened in your days, or in the days of your ancestors?

Joel 1:2b, Common English Bible

It is hard to underestimate how devastating the locust swarm was on Joel’s community.  It decimated all the crops, the vineyards, and the grain in the land.

Be shocked, you farmers; howl you vinedressers, over the wheat and the barley, for the crops of the field are destroyed.  The grapevine is dried up; the fig tree withers.  Pomegranate, palm, and apple—all the trees of the field are dried up.  Joy fades from the people.

Joel 1:11-12, Common English Bible

Joel tells the people to pay attention, to acknowledge the crisis that is right now; and, he calls them to mourn what was lost.  Joel recognizes that the normal they had all gotten used to—the fruitful land and the full barns—is no more.  There would be no return to “normal.”  The people would have to find a new normal.

To begin the process of finding a new normal, we must first acknowledge what we are going through now.

How do you understand what is going on?

We are each experiencing this pandemic differently based upon our family structure, economic status, where we live, and what resources (medical and otherwise) we have access to.

This global pandemic is (we hope and pray) a once in lifetime experience.  What has been your experience of this pandemic?  What will you tell your children and have your children tell their children, and their children tell their children?

Do you find yourself mourning during this time? about what?  What have you lost?

These are challenging times. Now is not the time to hide your head. We need to be aware what is going on around us, if we are ever to get through this crisis and find a new normal.

Amen? and amen.

“We Shall Overcome,” sung by The Aeolians (Oakwood University, Huntsville, Alabama)

[1] information pulled from the Johns Hopkins University and Medicine “COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU).”  Accessed April 26, 2020, at 8:35am.

[2] information gleaned from “Massachusetts Department of Public Health COVID-19 Dashboard—Saturday, April 25, 2020” (https://www.mass.gov/doc/covid-19-dashboard-april-25-2020/download).