A Very Present Crisis
Twenty years before Fort Sumpter, the abolitionist poet, James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) penned The Present Crisis to confront the issue of slavery which he could see leading to the Civil War. Verses from the poem became the old hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation.”
The poem opens with this stirring affirmation.
When a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth’s aching breast
Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from east to west,
And the slave, where’er he cowers, feels the soul within him climb
To the awful verge of manhood, as the energy sublime
Of the century bursts full-blossomed on the thorny stem of Time.
Lowell ended with these words which persistently unsettle any comfortable complacency in my life and speak to the present crisis through which we as a nation and as individual followers of Christ and are living.
New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth;
Lo, before us gleam her camp-fires! we ourselves must Pilgrims be,
Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea,
Nor attempt the Future’s portal with the Past’s blood-rusted key.
The “new occasion” of our “present crisis” has led me to a few observations.
Every crisis is “apocalyptic.”
The original meaning of the word is “to uncover or reveal.” A crisis uncovers things that were always there but which we may have missed or tried to avoid. It also points to the consequences for the future in the choices we make today.
The multiple crises we are going through have uncovered disconcerting issues that were lurking beneath a highly polished veneer of what we thought was success and social progress. They have disrupted most of the ordinary patterns of our lives. Our forced isolation has pushed open doors to some of the hidden chambers of our culture and our own souls, in some cases revealing the all too shallow depth of our spiritual resources.
Every crisis is a terrible thing to waste.
Every crisis is an opportunity to dig deeper and stretch farther than before. A crisis can push us down or lift us up. It can lure us back into the cozy myths and convenient assumptions of “ancient good” that is now “uncouth,” or it can urge us forward to “keep abreast of truth.”
The present crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic is the opportunity for each of us to wrestle with what is most “essential” for our lives even as it uncovers the challenges and injustice of our current health care system.
The crisis of what to do with monuments that were erected after Reconstruction to honor heroes who attempted to divide the nation in order to protect the institution of slavery calls us to the “new duty” of confronting the issues of systemic racism that continue to undermine the highest, though still unfulfilled, ideals of our Founders.
The present crisis of the Presidential campaigns is forcing us to ask deep questions about the character of our leaders and the soul of our nation. It is, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Every Crisis Presents A Compelling Urgency
The compelling urgency is find a center of certainty that is rooted in the past, provides stability in the present, and will lead us into the future. It forces us to decide what is essential for our journey and what we need to leave behind. It challenges us to take hold of a fresh vision of the end or goal toward which we are moving. By the alchemy of God’s grace, a crisis can also become the crucible in which we find hope.
Thoughts about the very present crisis, reminded me of the Psalmist’s promise of “a very present help.”
1 God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
The “present crisis” will eventually pass. We will pick up the pieces and move on. But other crises will come. Our confidence is that in every very real and present crisis, we can know the very real and present help of a very real and very present God.
Grace and peace,