We’re right on the cusp of the holiday season. Except this year it doesn’t feel much like it. Each day this month, thousands of Americans—record numbers—have tested positive for COVID-19. Even as several vaccines are now on the horizon, many public health authorities have asked Americans to not reunite with extended family over Thanksgiving, requests that will no doubt continue during the Christmas season.

Millions of people have already spent hours more this year inside, apart from their loved ones, houses of worship, and beloved activities. While the summer offered many a respite from their homes, the arrival of cold weather will likely keep people there. This bleakness, of course, comes on the heels of a year of postponed weddings, never organized baby showers, and drive-by birthday parties. And, of course, one of the year’s most agonizing elements has been the disparity with which community and individuals have adopted and practiced social distancing and mask-wearing. These relationship tensions have had both personal and societal polarizing effect.

This week on Quick to Listen, we discussed the reality between the joyous expectations of the holidays—and the darkness we’re all feeling this year with Chris Hall, the president of Renovare, the spiritual formation organization started by Richard Foster.

Hall is also associate editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and has written a great four volume series of books on what we can learn from the early church, and was one of CT’s theology editors and advisers. He joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to talk about growing in your relationship with God and practicing spiritual disciplines during a pandemic.

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Music by Sweeps

Quick to Listen is produced by Morgan Lee and Matt Linder

The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola

Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #239

How do you see the church wrestling with the question of suffering? How do we understand suffering because we’re Christian versus suffering because we're humans in a broken world?

So I have a friend—he's been dead for a long time—named Cyprian. And Cyprian was a church bishop in the third century. And the third century was a very hard century for all human beings in the Mediterranean basin and North Africa, but particularly difficult for the Church. Cyprian was beheaded by the Roman government, but the last years of Cyprian's life is an example of perseverance.

Now imagine this: During his time, the church is being persecuted by the Roman emperor. And it's horrendous persecution. Families being imprisoned, Christians being sewn up in bags of snakes and tossed in the rivers, crucifixions, beheadings—there's all kinds of nastiness going on that Cyprian's having to deal and encourage his church, the image-bearers he's shepherding, to remain faithful and to be encouraged in this time of deep testing.

So you would think that would be enough, but at the same time, Cyprian has to lead the church amid a terrible plague that breaks out. So not only is he dealing with persecution, he's dealing with plague. He’s surrounded by people who are suffering from the Roman government and they're suffering from sickness. It seems to me that he navigated it well.

He navigated it well by taking things one day at a time, and by trusting that what the Lord was offering to him in his particular vocation, what God was asking of him offering to him was the right and good thing for him. Not that the plague was a good thing, and not that the persecution is a good thing, but that the vocation was a good thing. And that the Lord would provide Cyprian with what he needed to carry out his vocation.

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So if Cyprian was sitting around the table with us today, I think he'd say, “God will provide what you need to live well—before God and with Jesus—in the midst of what you're encountering.” And I think that's a message across the history of the church.

So one thing that helps me, and maybe I can encourage folks who are listening, is to try to lengthen your historical memory. This kind of suffering, this kind of call to perseverance, is nothing new in the history of the church. It's just that we in the States have been shielded from it for a long time. And now we're experiencing what a lot of image-bearers have experienced throughout the history of the church.

The second person I think of St. John Chrysostom, who was Bishop of the Church in Constantinople in the late 4th and early 5th century. What John had to deal with were people in the church that increasingly opposed what he was modeling and what he was teaching. And then, he had deeply offended the Roman empress, and she exiled him to a little Armenian town.

So there are letters of John that I've read—when he's exiled from his beloved community—and he writes, “I've got headaches all the time. Constant vomiting. I can't eat. I've got insomnia. I can't sleep.” It's going on day after day after day for John. And then, the empress is so angry with John that she sends Roman soldiers to take him further out, to the Black Sea. So they take them out, they treat them roughly, and he dies on that journey.

Now the one thing that he kept saying to the church back in Constantinople—and I think it applies to us today—was, “Don't judge on the basis of appearances.” He would say, you've got John the Baptist and Herod. By all appearances, who is victorious? Herod had John beheaded, by appearances John is gone. John is defeated. But the reality is that John is still heard today. His life still speaks to it today. How many people are writing speeches or preaching sermons about Herod Antipas?

Don't judge on the basis of appearances.

During a time like COVID when many of us are feeling disconnected from friends and feeling lonely, which is healthier: figuring out ways to pursue community or figuring out ways to practice the presence of Christ? Which spiritual discipline—community or solitude—do you think we should be learning?

Chris Hall: So spiritual formation is deeply relational. And theologically that's based on the relationship and communion between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So to be in relationship with God is to be in relationship with the intensely, personal wonder and beauty. So spiritual formation is deeply relational.

So what am I leaning into? Well, in the morning, I get up, I wander into the kitchen, make some coffee, I go into the living room, and I just hang out with God. I might use a Bible app, I might listen to prayers and a meditation—no specific agenda of something to get accomplished, just simply leaning into the presence of Jesus brought to me by the Spirit and inseparable from the Father. Then throughout the day, I have to be taking whatever means that are available to me to be relational with others—like Zoom with my colleagues.

I think anything can be a spiritual discipline, and what's helped me during those times where I wake up and there’s just that sense of frustration and dispiritedness is that I have to concretely remind myself of what God's given me. When I come to the end of the exercise like that, I do find that my perspective has changed.

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One element of this pandemic is that our relationships with people are causing a lot of conflicts—we’re in this season of tense family relations as many aren’t on the same page of how to safely observe Thanksgiving or Christmas. Can you talk about how conflict can also help us grow spiritually?

Chris Hall: What the pandemic has done, and is doing, is it's magnifying our experience of conflict, and sometimes in unexpected ways. The pressure of a pandemic presses against our personalities in such a way that the cracks in our personalities are more likely to appear. And they're more likely to appear because my normal rhythms of life are disrupted.

So how do you navigate that? I think you navigate it pretty much the way you would when there’s not a pandemic.

We need to think the best of the people that we're so tempted to think the worst stuff. I need to remember my own inclination and disposition toward immense self-deception. I need to remember my tendency to point my finger at somebody else and say “you're the problem” when I should be thumping my finger on my own chest. I need to remember that the core of what Jesus taught is to love God and to love our neighbor.

I'm called to love my neighbor. I'm called to love my enemies. So when I get into situations of conflict is to know that what Christ is calling me to is forgiveness. Christ is calling me to tell the truth about myself. What role are you or have you played in producing this conflict?

So I think it's just taking some of the principles about forgiveness and then apply them within a pandemic setting.

During these intense circumstances that we're in, a lot of Christians are talking about the importance of self-care—almost as if we deserve a reward for going through a hard time. It’s a concept that also comes up a lot within the American culture at large. Where do these attitudes come from, and how have they been challenged during this pandemic?

Chris Hall: On the one hand, I think it's important to make sure that, to the greatest extent possible, we're getting it the rest we need, to be eating well, sleeping well—that kind of self-care. But I think we all know that Americans are highly individualistic. And now we find ourselves in a situation where what's being extruded to the surface of our lives is a virus, and the virus doesn't care one wit about American values concerning individualism and independence.

And so, if we continued to struggle to move beyond that deeply, deeply embedded individualism, and in some ways self-reliance, we're not going to navigate this well. If there were ever was a time when we have to say no to an independent self—which in some ways is praise-worthy—this is the time when we have to live a new way.

I think the Lord, in some ways, is offering us a different way, and it's a more relational way. It’s a way of living where we say to someone else, “I need you. I can't make this on my own. And as much as possible, I'm going to care for you.” For example, this virus is not worried about my political philosophy. I'm going to care for you by wearing a mask.

How should that relationality co-exist at the same time as when many people are burned out and feel like they do need to practice self-care and looking out for themselves? How does that tension shape out?

Chris Hall: Well, let's just let's think about the word “self-care.” How can I care well for myself? “SELF” in block letters. Now, what would Jesus say? Not what the culture would say, but what would Jesus say? Some of the time culture and Jesus would agree and sometimes not agree.

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I think there's a kindness that we can show to ourselves where we don't become discouraged because we find that we're not as strong as we might have thought we were or that we’re not navigating the pandemic as well as we thought. So there's that kind of self-care.

Self-care is not an isolated phenomenon, meaning I can't take care of myself well apart from the relationships that the Lord has provided me with.

What’s hard during a pandemic is that those relational connections get so strained. They're strained in some ways because we can't have the contact with people that we want to have. They're strained because we're stressed. And when we're stressed, we have a toward impatience, a tendency toward a short temper.

There's something that I call “The Circle of God's Providence.” And what I mean by that is my family. So how can I care for myself and that inner circle of God's Providence in my life? And then I move outward and the next circle would be my church. So how can I be engaging with people in my church in whatever way I can help them and allowing them to help me?

And then I have my neighborhood. What's going on in my neighborhood? Having a mask on, does somebody need a meal? Who's discouraged or depressed? What’s going on in the families around me?

I've found that the “Circle of God's Providence” thinking and practice has been helpful to me.

Is there a forgotten or lost spiritual discipline that we can rediscover in this period of being isolated? Something where we could discover our connection to God a little bit more?

Chris Hall: Our lives have slowed down. And there's something like the discipline of slowing. Because of the pandemic, our lives have slowed down, which in some ways is a good thing because we can so easily lead lives of constant distraction.

So we can slow down and ask what’s going on that’s a new normal for me? Now some of the new normal are not helpful, but if I slow down and take a look, what's the part of the new normal that I want to take back into the old normal? Maybe I'm more aware of the need for exercise. Maybe I have time for prayer that I've never had time for before. There’s time to learn, to be compassionate. And then ask a second question: What are the aspects of the old normal that I don't want to take back?

What do I want to embrace and what do I want to discard when all of this finally gets back to some new normality?