This commentary first appeared in “Phronesis in Pieces,” at billschmitt.substack.com, on Feb. 27, 2023.
As Lent 2023 begins, it’s time to book another tour with God. Such excursions can be customized—by Him, not us. He’ll give us glimpses of glorious vistas; expose us to scenes that show an urgent need for His mercy and truth; and challenge us with closing remarks: “You are now sent.”
For those who will take the sights, information, and missioning seriously, for those who will welcome the discoveries and implications with a full-throated “wow,” this tour can gear us up for personal growth and more focused attention on society’s well-being.
The metaphor of a tour occurred to me in 2020 when the Covid-19 lockdowns started during Lent and we were beginning to see cultural confusion and disruption accumulate more aggressively.
I saw the “tour” partly as an invitation to inquire more deeply into the spectrum of matters addling the world—and partly as a spiritual “retreat” to help us reflect and ground ourselves for efforts to solve some of the problems. A better response to quarantines than binge-eating or binge-watching.
I did some of the latter, but I aspired to read and write, to pray and plan, to thank God in advance for a renewal that would emerge from such Corona-viral questions as, “What the heck is going on?”
The idea of a tour returned to me in 2022 when Lent began amid newfound fears about war in Europe and signs of an intensifying “culture war.” Questions remained: Lord, what do you want to show us? Help me make sense of the world.
This year, I thought about something cheerier: a recent podcast featuring Christian talk-show host and author Eric Metaxas. He discussed his book, Is Atheism Dead?, in which he explored the idea that the heavens are declaring the glory of God (Psalms 19:2), almost literally.
Metaxas prompts readers to ponder the cosmos as a place of abundant love. Jupiter’s hefty gravity pulls away 99 percent of the comets and asteroids that could otherwise strike Earth, he points out.
Our moon’s ratio of distance and diameter relative to the Sun allows for the unlikely, numinous spectacle of a solar eclipse, complete with corona.
Earth’s air and water are precisely suited to the existence of human beings, Metaxas continues. Science itself is pointing to examples of beautiful orderliness.
The witty broadcaster is not saying anything new here; scholars such as Father Robert Spitzer, SJ, have gone before him with even more detailed proofs of God’s existence.
“The universe is gorgeous,” adds renowned physicist Michio Kaku in a video-interview by the Commonwealth Club about his book The God Equation. He says science and religion should stick to their knitting in their interpretations of physical laws. But, “as long as we keep these spheres separate but complementary, there’s no problem at all.”
Metaxas chooses to use the image of an expedition: “God is saying, now look at this, now look at this, and this,” he said on his podcast. He tunes into God’s sense of humor, noting we get to learn more about the spiritual plane as our earthly science advances.
This is the fun part of the trip I have embarked on for Lent 2023, the stuff of joy we spotlight on Laetare Sunday.
However, God never promised us a tour of rose gardens. He presents beautiful examples of His love for us, but He also wants us to see the everyday indications that we’re taking the love for granted, or resisting it as an affront to our freedom. This second part of the excursion into truth is more difficult for conscientious followers who remain focused on their guide. God sends an ongoing stream of information that serves to humble us, to call us back from worldly attractions and distractions.
We witness the vanity and foolhardiness of a secular society trying to solve financial, political, and personal problems it has caused.
Scientists, government leaders, big-tech gurus, professors, and pundits have shown us their knowledge is incomplete. Their wisdom deserves a complement—such as Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life—whom we all can study and emulate.
On tours tailored for us, God can use his laser-pointer to shine light on the countless people in many forms of distress, disillusionment, anxiety, and confusion—situations where we can offer aid in small or large ways if God is shedding light in our lives.
Our neighbors are burdened by the specter of war, disease, poverty, marginalization of individuals and whole groups, and bullying at the micro or macro levels. Many hearts are either hardened or breaking.
Some folks rise to the occasion and step forth to solve problems, strive to improve the common good, or simply share in the common pain, offering it up. God can help us to see that He overcomes the darkness. We can also notice that, in many situations, evil plants the seeds of its own destruction, so there is good reason to hope and work with Him in overcoming.
As a participant in the “tour group” I imagine for journalists and news addicts, I am observing the infotainment media with increased diligence.
What do I see? Some serious reporters, in fits and starts, have tried nobly to confront the tsunami of complex stories by reaching beyond their bubbles of audience metrics and hot-take simplification.
Public-affairs fans who pursue a variety of solid information resources are actually receiving graduate-course quantities of coverage that digs into the background of breaking news.
As policy-makers’ houses of cards totter in tandem and chaos dulls many people’s abilities to think things through, avid curiosity-seekers privileged to afford multimedia subscriptions—and the time to consume them—undergo the painful, useful process of being “schooled.”
We’re learning tons about the U.S. Constitution, geopolitics, history, medicine, criminal justice, education, psychology, political philosophy, and human nature. not to mention moral concerns. We’re hearing more experts talk about existential dangers, extinction-level events, and great resets.
Ideally, we see God’s blessing in this knowledge. Thorough exploration of the negatives usually yields insights into the corresponding positives. We can integrate these insights with values we hold as Catholics and then can share this package in the public square. This is practical wisdom, or phronesis, potent to uplift others.
In a universe where love drives the metrics, we bear real responsibility. So God our tour guide sometimes steps back and goes Socratic. Again, He’s saying, “look at this, look at that,” and He follows up with questions to drive our explorations deeper.
Even as He informs us, He wants to keep us humble and on our toes:
Have you used your downtime to consider principles that might answer today’s challenges? Are you compassionately engaged in making sense of the polarized, post-truth, pro-death realities you see? Are you asking for my help in doing so?
Do you think you know better than me? Where were you when I founded the Earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its size? Surely you know? (OK, these latter questions are from Job chapter 38 in the Bible, but all good tour guides refer back to original sources.)
By this time, I and most tour participants are fidgeting. But this year’s uncomfortable Lenten tour will come to a close soon enough, so be not afraid. With Easter on its way, God will show us we need Him and will not leave us as orphans. (John 14:18)
Imagine Metaxas returning to encourage us with anticipation. He says, as he did in the podcast, “We’re on the verge of a paradigm shift” where science and faith together will give us the trust in God that helps us see the sunrise as well as the eclipse.
I recall a preview of enlightenment that God provided earlier this February, before the Lenten tour began.
It was around that time when Michael Brown, the author of Revival or We Die: A Great Awakening is Our Only Hope, put pen to paper for an article in The Stream, an evangelical, ecumenical publication. The headline caught my eye: “After Our Corporate Humiliation, God is Pouring Out His Spirit on the Church.”
I don’t know much about this educator and radio host, but I appreciated his resilient hope.
Like me, Brown harked back to 2020 as a watershed, calling it a year-long crisis on many fronts, during which God “put the cry in our hearts and moved us to pray.”
Ever since, Americans have experienced an endless period of social travails, cultural disillusionment, and medical anxiety, Brown wrote. The only reasonable response has been eager expectancy, he argued—asking our troubled questions, pleading for assistance, and preparing to be surprised.
“Why would He move us to pray if He didn’t intend to answer our prayers?,” he asked. “Why would He raise our vision for revival and build our faith for awakening if He only planned judgment and destruction?”
Somehow, he was prescient. Thanks to open-minded news coverage, I discovered “the rest of the story.” It made me say “wow.”
You’ve probably heard about the spontaneous marathon of praise and worship that spanned February 8–21 at Asbury University in Wilmore, Ky. People called this event, which attracted 50,000 people to the Christian school’s campus, a revival or a portent of revival.
Writing in Christianity Today, Tom McCall, a professor at the adjacent Asbury Theological Seminary, described the 24/7 prayer meeting as it was still going on. He told of students beseeching the Holy Spirit for an outpouring of active love for themselves and the world.
I surmise the students have traveled on God’s tours through their gatherings and Bible readings many times before. Their faith helped them connect God’s greatness and His responsiveness to humanity’s needs. They offered up their generation’s own burdens of despair, disillusionment, and anxiety, and the Lord heard.
The answers received must be sorted out in the depths of each person’s soul. McCall’s Feb. 13 article about the “Asbury revival” avoided sweeping claims or sentimentalism, but he suggested this was a sight everyone should see.
“As an analytic theologian, I am weary of hype and very wary of manipulation…. And truth be told, this is nothing like that,” he reported from the student event. “There is no pressure or hype. There is no manipulation. There is no high-pitched emotional fervor.
“To the contrary,” McCall said, “it has so far been mostly calm and serene. The mix of hope and joy and peace is indescribably strong and indeed almost palpable—a vivid and incredibly powerful sense of shalom. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is undeniably powerful but also so gentle.”
We are wise to allow our spiritual tours around Christ’s kingdom to include scenes like Asbury University. They can help us remember there is a God, and He’s exactly what we need, and we should be looking for him everywhere there are problems to solve.
The effort to look upward, inward, and all around sets the stage for that “paradigm shift” which is really the purpose of Lent for Catholics.
As with all our pondering of God’s revelations, exploring the wonders of creation as well as the messes made on earth, we need to seize opportunities to diverge from the secular script and our mundane presumptions. This will clear the decks so we can cultivate practical, yet transcendent, wisdom—something old, yet surprisingly new.
It is good that we are here, beginning our 2023 excursions into the mysteries of love. The next step? That’s up to God. But let’s keep our bags packed, ready to wander off-script again, poised for more “wow” moments that might occur at about this time in 2024 and beyond.
Addendum: An Earlier Preview of Coming Attractions
What is it about the shortest month as a time of fresh starts? On February 17, 1967, a group of Catholic students from Duquesne University gathered near Pittsburgh for a weekend of prayer inspired by their recent experiences with “charismatic” prayer in Protestant churches. These Christians were discovering compelling relationships with Christ through His spirit.
You can see a video telling the story of how The Ark and The Dove retreat center that weekend became the Catholic origin point for “baptism in the Holy Spirit” and a landmark for the Charismatic Renewal. It continues to nudge people toward new vistas today.
Image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs.