When I attended Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, there was a history professor who was famous for asking one question on his final. Usually the question was broad enough to force the student to pull from every subject discussed during the semester, but still, it was just one question.
Andy, my fraternity brother, boiled it down to two questions. He was sure the final would be one of the two questions he had selected. Now, this wasn’t a casual guess for Andy. He had carefully analyzed his class notes. He had looked at past exams given by this professor, and in a thoroughly scientific way, he had found two questions the professor would most likely ask. He studied for one.
And Andy guessed wrong. The professor asked the other question. Seeing the other question on the exam, Andy didn’t panic. He just answered the question he had studied for. His essay went something like this:
“You have asked a great question, but another great question to consider is” and he answered the question he was prepared to write about.
Talk about cool under pressure, but that’s not the coolest thing about this story. Andy got a “C” on the final. The professor wrote to Andy, “You get an ‘F’ on the question I asked. You get an ‘A’ on the question you answered. Your average is a ‘C’ for the exam.”
I think about Andy almost every week. I think if we asked the world, the world would say to the church, “you get an ‘A’ on the question you answered. You got an ‘F’ on the question we asked.”
Most churches I know get a “C” from their communities.
They come to our worship services and hear wonderfully crafted, theologically sound and masterfully delivered sermons about things they never think about during the week.
The pandemic has scrambled everyone’s eggs. No one was ready for this, and what’s more, no one is sure they will be ready for what will happen next. Our lives--businesses, schools, travel and more -- have all been shut down for the past year. We’ve had to work from home, attend Zoom meetings from home, and have our children attend virtual school from home. We’ve moved our entertainment to our homes.
Marriages are stressed to the breaking point. Parents are struggling to stay on top of work, childcare, and household chores. People have lost touch with their communities.
And in it all, we have lost touch with those things that give our lives meaning. We’ve lost connections with our neighbors, our classmates, and our friends at church. We don’t get to see our familiar servers at the local restaurants.
We don’t participate in those rituals that tell us what day it is. For me, I know what day it is measuring from the time I last preached. (Must be Monday because I preached yesterday). On those weeks I don’t preach, I’m lost every day of that week until I preach again. The pandemic has taken all of the rhythms from our lives.
And with that, it's taken all of our meaning as well. Viktor Frankl famously discovered those people who survived the Nazi death camps were those who had a reason to live. They were going to find their family. They were going to take care of their friends -- everybody had a “why” to live. If you couldn’t find your “why”, staying alive was much tougher.
Frankl started what he called “logos therapy.” The Greek word for “meaning” is “logos.” Thus, Frankl saw his role as helping people find their meaning. If they knew their “why”, these people could get through any “how.” It wasn’t the lust for power or the need for love that drove people, but the need for meaning.
All of us have been shocked by the increasing numbers of suicides and the sharp increase in illegal drug use. People, trapped by the pandemic, have lost their connection with their why. If I can’t do my job, then who am I? Why am I here in the first place? Why am I going through this? Why is this happening? Why am I so lonely? What’s the meaning of all of this? Where’s God? Why isn’t God doing anything?
And there’s no better place to find these answers than in church. Only in church will someone talk to you about how life is supposed to be, why it’s not that way now, and how you can live in the meantime between now and when God restores everything. Yes, there is pain, but pain can have meaning. Yes, there is suffering, but suffering can have divine value, only if you know your why.
A woman suffers in labor but celebrates the birth of the child. The pain is worth it for the sake of the baby. We endure pain, but for what? We suffer, but why? Can someone tell us what this all means?
Pandemics remind us something is broken in our world. There’s something so messed up we can’t fix it on our own. We suffer because the darkness keeps stalking our world and, in truth, sometimes it seems to be winning.
But Christ is risen, and Christ will return. This isn’t easy escapism. This is our reason “why.” I don’t believe God has given up on His world. I don’t believe He has given up on you and me. I believe He’s working His will in everything -- even COVID -- to bring all of creation into His perfect completion.
Like everyone who’s suffered before us, those who survive -- those who thrive-- are those who know their “why.” This is the question the world is asking for which they have no answer.
We do. We’ve had the answer since John wrote the prologue to his gospel. “In the beginning was the Word…” In the beginning, was the “Meaning.”
Jesus is our “WHY” and He has been from the beginning. This is the question our world is asking. Let’s be sure it’s the question we’re answering.