The economy is in the tank, or at least that is what we have heard most every day for the last several months. However, the reality of economic hard times is not something we need the newspaper or television to tell us. We know that the economy is bad because we know people who have lost their jobs, and we have seen people lose their homes.
The stress and anxiety produced by financial hardships impacts every phase of our lives. We cannot help but worry when our ability to take care of our families and ourselves is impaired by lack of work or rising costs. While economists and commentators discuss the situation in national and global terms, we experience it in cutting back on what we spend and how often we spend. That’s if we are fortunate; for some the situation requires far more than just cutting back and spending less. For them, job hunting, relying on friends and relatives and possibly relocating to a new city in order to find a job are all a part of managing tough economic times.
Why is this happening? The answers that the experts provide for us are not really the answers that we are looking for when we find ourselves facing such difficulties. That is true because our question is usually more pointed. What we really want to know is why this is happening to me?
Why this is happening to us? The answers to such questions vary. We may be able to look at some of our decisions and readily see why current economic conditions have had an especially adverse effect on our lives. Our spending practices may not have been as wise as they should have been. Maybe our job is in an industry hardest hit by the poor economy. Therefore, it naturally follows that our share of the pain would be greater than those who work in other fields less impacted by economic conditions.
Even those kinds of answers do not get at what we really want to know. Because what we really want to know is not so much why it happened, but why it happened to us. For some, after all the rational and reasonable explanations have been given, the answers can become more personal and painful. This would not have happened to me if I were smarter, if I were a better worker or if I were more likable. These sorts of answers can spiral out of control and result in quite a beating to one’s sense of self worth. There are times when our lives are impacted by events that are far beyond the scope of skills, abilities and choices.
Along the way, it would not be surprising to hear someone say, Why is God doing this to me? In the midst of difficult times that would not be an unusual question. God, where are you and what are you doing? This sort of question indicates an understanding of God that is magical and mechanistic. That is to say that God operates all the levers of our lives as well as the lives of others and magically bestows good outcomes on those of us who are good while those of us who are bad receive not-so-good outcomes. The problem with this approach to God is that we all know good people who have received not-so-good outcomes and we all know not-so-good people who seem to be doing just fine.
So what is the answer to the question? The answer, at least in part, is that God is incarnational.
Today is Ash Wednesday. It marks for us the beginning of Lent and our journey toward Jerusalem and the cross. We make that journey with Jesus, God incarnate. God, confronted with a broken and rebellious creation, took on flesh and dwelt among us. God, facing God’s greatest dilemma, came to us as one of us. The testimony of scripture tells us that there is no desire in the heart of God greater than God’s desire to be in relationship with us. God, in order to make that kind of relationship possible for each one of us, took on flesh and came to us. As we look forward to Holy week, we are reminded that this action on God’s part is no idle endeavor. The humiliation will be real, the pain real, the nails real and the cross rugged. God with us, Immanuel, endures it for us.
What is this God, who takes on flesh, doing in these challenging economic times? I think it makes sense to assume that God is doing the same thing now as God did at Calvary. God is being with us and still doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. At the same time, God is calling us to be the Body of Christ. To be the presence of Christ in the lives of people who have been knocked to their knees by economic hard times.
If someone is asking where God is or what God is doing as result of the impact of our nation’s current economic situation on their lives, that person ought to be able to look to the church and see what God is doing. That person ought to see a church praying for those whose lives have been turned upside down by job loss. That person ought to hear more than just words of encouragement from church members, but also see actions that help that person move from despair to hope, from unemployment to work, from being hungry to being fed and from worrying about family to providing for family.
That is a tall order. How can a church be expected to do something like that? Well, a church can’t do something like that, except that we embrace the ongoing reality of God taking on flesh and dwelling among us. We are the Body of Christ; as such we are called to be the presence of Christ in whatever situation we find ourselves. God calls us and entrusts us with an awesome and enormous task. Namely, that we live our lives in such a way that our very lives answer any questions about where God is or what God is doing.
Ed Sunday-Winters is senior pastor of Ball Camp Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. He blogs at Just Words.
Ed Sunday-Winters is pastor of Greensboro United Church of Christ in Greensboro, Vermont.