Lessons Learned from 2020
Bulletin Roundtable Question
In this Bulletin Roundtable, our contributors answer the question: Thinking back on this uniquely challenging year, what spiritual lesson(s) have you learned? There was also a bonus question: What were your favorite movies or television shows in 2020?
Paul M. Gould
What spiritual lessons have I learned this year? What a year! We moved from our beloved Texas in the middle of a pandemic. I started a new job (for which I’m extremely grateful) at Palm Beach Atlantic University and left two of our kids, and part of our hearts, back in Texas (thankfully they are both together at Baylor). Change. Fear. Anxiety. Loss. We’ve experienced all this, like many this year. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned throughout this year is to seek consolation in God. I’ve returned many times to Psalm 94.
When I said, “My foot is slipping,”
your unfailing love, Lord, supported me.
When anxiety was great within me,
your consolation brought me joy.
God’s unfailing love supports me. This is comforting. When I’m anxious—about finances, our kids, our marriage, our health, our jobs, our plans—the Lord’s consolation brings me comfort—and joy. I guess I’m learning to rest in God. This is, after all, what we’ve been made for: rest in God. The journey is rough, we are homo viators, pilgrims on the way, but we have God as our guide. And he gives us rest even while we travel.
The second lesson I’ve learned this year is the importance of regular devotionals. I’ve become more consistent. I’m not sure why, or how. Maybe I’m growing in spiritual maturity (yahoo!!). But for whatever reason, I’ve become very protective of my morning devotional time. It’s the first thing I do, or the second thing I do (see lesson number three) most mornings. I look forward to my cup of coffee as I sit on my front porch and look at the beauty around me on a Florida morning. I open my journal and say hello to the Lord. I flip through my Scripture memory cards, nourishing my mind and heart. I read more intently a passage of Scripture and seek to apply it to my life. I work through my prayer journal. And then I read something devotional that is not the Bible (usually a theology book, usually from someone ancient like Augustine). Then I get to my day. A moment of reset. A time of rest.
Third, I’ve realized the generative power of running. I’ve logged 124 runs this year, for a total of 375 miles, according to my Nike-Run App. I really shouldn’t run. I’ve got two bad knees, thanks to basketball injuries when I was young. But I love to run. It is renewing. I feel good. And I think and think well when I run. I work on writing projects (in my mind) when I run. I pray for others when I run. I think over a problem and find a solution when I run. I listen to music when I run. And I am refreshed when I’m done. I noticeably miss running on my days off. I know I need to stop soon, for the sake of my knees, but I’ll need to figure out some other activity that is both healthy for the body and nourishing to the mind first.
Finally, we were asked to share our favorite movies or TV shows of the year. That’s a tough one. My favorite is usually the one I’m watching (I just finished and loved season 3 of Absentia). I’ll just report without comment some of my favorites from this past year: Cobra Kai, Money Heist,Queen’s Gambit, The Expanse, The Last Kingdom, and anything in the Walking Dead universe. This week, with our family in quarantine because of Covid, we finally broke down and got Disney-plus. So, Mandalorian (and for my daughter, Mulan) here we come!
For many years, my wife and I had been avid listeners to Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion on National Public Radio. Week after week this gifted storyteller would begin his fictitious, humorous radio tale with “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown, out there on the edge of the prairie.” Apart from his reports on local kerfuffles, tensions in this or that family, Lutheran-Catholic differences, and the gossip at the Chatterbox Café, we wouldn’t get much information on the national—let alone, global—scene. The focus was on Lake Wobegon, and it was a sweet, sometimes poignant, escape into another world that seemed so familiar and human. By contrast, this 2020 COVID pandemic has inserted itself into every facet of life, and we can’t get away from its wide-ranging, often-disconcerting, and sometimes-devastating implications.
Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 1:9: “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” Despite this ominous sense, Paul saw the bigger picture. Likewise, despite its awful consequences, the bigger redemptive picture is that God uses fallen conditions such as COVID to teach valuable lessons—just how contingent life is, how we must make significant adjustments, how valuable human relationships are.
First, all of us have no doubt learned afresh that many things we used to count on—like a fairly predictable schedule and set of routines—should be held lightly. As James reminds us, we should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (4:15). As a professor, speaker, and author, COVID has created plenty of upheaval all around—online classes and Zoom meetings, canceled or postponed engagements and lectures, slow-downs and hardships in the book publishing industry, and much more. A pandemic reminds us of the need for a truly stable, permanent focal point to orient us.
As a boy in Cleveland, Ohio, I grew up with a plaque in the dining room of our home—a quotation by the missionary C. T. Studd: “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.” This very plaque now hangs in my home, reminding me—particularly during this COVID pandemic—that what’s done for Jesus will last and won’t perish. As 1 Corinthians 3 reminds us, we must take heed how we build our lives, callings, and ministries—to build on the true foundation, which is Christ (3:11). Whatever the contingencies of life, we must build well and prepare ourselves for the life to come.
Second, we may find opportunities to make necessary—and perhaps even creative—adjustments in life. While people I know—and don’t know—have faced serious loss and privation during this COVID time, the adjustments my family and I have had to make have been fairly minor in comparison. In the early days of COVID I appreciated John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” videos (Krasinski plays Jim Halpert of the widely-viewed TV series, The Office). In the midst of much bad news, he encouraged many of us by helping us see much good that life can hold.
A practical application here: my wife and I had planned to go to Oxford, London, Edinburgh, and Paris in May and June of 2020—for speaking and ministry opportunities as well as visiting our daughter, son-in-law, and newly born granddaughter in Paris. Alas, these plans had to be postponed. However, my wife and I embarked on a seven-week, seventeen-state, 7000-mile road trip instead; we visited family, friends, our former church in Schenectady, and our recently-born grandson in Detroit. Summer plans didn’t go as we had planned, but we had a joyous, memorable, encouraging time of both personal reconnection and sight-seeing.
A happy side-note: a byproduct of our travels was that it turned into something of a Jonathan Edwards tour. We ended up visiting significant places that marked his own life: Princeton, NJ (where he served as a college president and is buried); New Haven, CT (Edwards graduated from Yale and gave a memorable commencement address there—and the Jonathan Edwards Collection is at Yale’s Beinecke Library); East Windsor, CT (where Edwards was born); Northampton, MA (where Edwards served as pastor of a church and where a number of his relatives were buried); Stockbridge, MA (where Edwards was a missionary to American Indians), and eventually to Schenectady, NY (where one of his sons Jonathan Edwards the Younger is buried—in the First Presbyterian Church cemetery).
Third, the COVID pandemic has meant more cancellations of events and even making online adjustments for classes. I don’t like online classes; I love face-to-face interaction with students—not to mention gathering with God’s people on Sundays and other days in person. As a professor, one benefit of online classes and of scaling back on campus meetings is less commuter travel time. Many of us have been forced to be creative about taking time for relationships. Through the initiative of my brother Vic and thanks to Zoom as well, my siblings (there are seven of us) have a weekly video call. Though we are all close, this weekly event has helped us keep in closer touch with each other. COVID has also meant greater ease of meeting with other people via Zoom or Skype—whether it’s helping a student with a paper, addressing someone’s doubts or apologetics questions, or speaking to churches or conference groups. Though not the same as face-to-face, such opportunities have proven to be quite enriching.
These are a few takeaways from my experience with the COVID pandemic. Much more could be said about learning lessons from COVID and responding in Christ-like ways to it. If you are interested in reading more about this, here is one book to which I contributed along these lines: https://www.amazon.com/Healthy-Faith-Coronavirus-Crisis-Bannister-ebook/dp/B086YJV575.
Perhaps the most significant lesson that stood out to me during this most harrowing and tumultuous of years contending with the scourge of the coronavirus is the need for connection with others. Even if it was only at a distance, over the phone, or on Zoom, we needed, and still need, to keep in touch. The spiritual and psychological problems riddling many as a result of honoring quarantines, maintaining social distance, and growing reclusive are legion.
I am not, in the least, lamenting folks taking precautionary and prudential steps for the sake of the safety of themselves and others. I regret when people do not! I couldn’t agree more with Paul Gould’s piece on this matter. My point instead is that, while we wear masks and avoid large gatherings, we have to be intentional to forge connections and engagement with others—in socially responsible ways, of course. We are hardwired by God to require interaction and fellowship, and we simply cannot flourish, individually or collectively, without it. Sharing our vulnerabilities, confessing our sins, and engaging in koinonia are vital for our emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
My wife and I recently read Andy Crouch’s terrific little book Strong and Weak. I can’t do the book justice in short compass—I urge you to read it—but he makes a compelling case that flourishing happens when our lives feature both vulnerability and authority. Vulnerability without authority leads to suffering; authority without vulnerability leads to exploitative authoritarianism. But worst of all is when our lives feature neither authority nor vulnerability, and the result is withdrawal. With withdrawal typically comes depression, dysfunctia, and discouragement—anything but the abundant life for which we were made.
Crouch worries that if there is one temptation endemic to the emerging generation of young adults, it is to choose to withdraw—to retreat from authority and vulnerability alike. Jesus modeled a wholly different path, integrating profound authority with great vulnerability. In the transfiguration Jesus transformed into a being of dazzling glory, accompanied by Moses and Elijah. His authority was evident, but there was something else. What were Jesus, Moses, and Elijah discussing? Luke tells us: “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). As Crouch puts it, “They speak together, not about Jesus’ power, but about his impending condemnation and crucifixion.”
Rather than withdrawing, let’s be willing, like Jesus was, to express authority with hidden vulnerabilities, and on occasion, if need be, to choose the way of suffering, vulnerability without authority. On the mountain of transfiguration we see authority with vulnerability, power with self-denial, divinity with humanity, “unconquerable life with imminent death.” And Jesus forging community. Crouch adds, “the transfiguration reveals the absolute necessity of communion with others to sustain a life of flourishing.”
Lastly, we were charged as well this month to identify a favorite show or movie. I have to go with Apple TV’s Ted Lasso. Michaela Flack has done a nice job encapsulating much of what this show has going for it; see her Ted Lasso is Rooting for You. In short, the show is more than a little like watching what it would be like if Mister Rogers were a soccer coach, and how can you go wrong with that? It’s a show about a character who allows himself to be engaged by and with others, exhibiting both authority and vulnerability. As Flack puts it, “What makes Ted truly great as a character is that he not only chooses to see the best in people, but that he also actively works to help them become better. Ted is not optimistic for the sake of optimism, but for the sake of the other. He strategically works to elevate others, sometimes to his own detriment.”
While considering how to respond to this question, the first thing that came to mind was the first point that Paul Copan mentions above—the spiritual principle of holding all things loosely. Scripture doesn’t use this phrase, but the idea is apparent in the passage Paul referenced from James. I’ll quote the context here:
“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’” (James 4:13-15)
The first person I heard articulate this principle was the late author and speaker Ron Dunn. He spoke one evening at the church I attended when I was a college student, and it was one of the most powerful messages I had ever heard. I can’t recall most of the details now, but all these years later the key point has stayed with me—hold all things loosely.
I did some research and turned up a sermon that Dunn preached that dealt with this principle, and I’ll quote some of it below. The message centers on Genesis 12:1-3, where God calls Abraham to “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” I think some of the points Dunn makes in this message are very relevant to this year of pandemic, where something totally unexpected happened, and we were required to follow God into the unknown—as Abraham did.
God was saying, “Abraham, I want you to let go of everything in your life that means security and identity to you. I want you to let go of all that you have so that I can give you a special country.” God had a land He wanted to give Abraham, but He could not give him the Promised Land until Abraham let go of the land he had.
I’m convinced that the thing that keeps God from giving us all He wants us to have is the fact that our hand is tightly clenched around something we’re not willing to let go of. In growth, the matter of letting go is always involved. The only way to grow up is by giving up. That’s true, not only physically, but also spiritually. All the days of your life, you’ve grown by giving up certain things—you have to give up the bottle, the diapers, the toys eventually. We call those people who are not willing to give up those things immature.
. . . Basically, I think God was doing two things in the life of Abraham. I think He does the same two things in your life and in my life.
1. God is seeking to isolate us.
I have no doubt that what God is constantly trying to do in our lives, in a sense, is to isolate us so that we will not be conformed to this present evil world, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind. . . . I’m not saying that you and I should become isolationists or withdraw from the world and live in the mountains somewhere. But there is a very real sense that God is wanting to draw us out of the world so He can be the shaping influence in our lives.
If God wants to start a new work in my heart, He has to start it in a situation where He has me all to Himself. God knows that He cannot do all He wants to do with you and me as long as we are living under the powerful influence of this world. . .
2. God is getting us to walk in the unknown.
. . . God is saying, “I want you to go into a country that I will show thee. I want you to walk with Me in the midst of mystery. I want you to trust Me even when you don’t know what’s going on. I want you to trust Me even when you don’t know what’s happening in your life. I want you to trust Me even when you don’t have the slightest idea where I’m taking you. I want you to be willing to walk with Me, even in the unknown.” I believe that you cannot miss this aspect of faith and understand what it means to walk with God.
I used to wonder why God didn’t tell Abraham where he was going. I think I know. If God had told Abraham where he was going, then Abraham would have kept his eye on the destination. However, if God is the only one who knows where you are going, then you’re going to have to keep your eye on God. If you are following someone, and he’s the only one who knows where you’re going, you’d better work to keep him in sight. I’m convinced that God did that with Abraham so he’d have to keep God in sight. I believe that’s why God doesn’t always lay out everything for us. God doesn’t always tell us in advance what He’s doing in our lives, so that we have no choice but to keep our eyes on Him.
For me, these points summarize much of what I’ve thought about and experienced during 2020.
About movies and TV, the best movie I saw in 2020 actually released in 2019, The Farewell. I think anyone who has been especially close to a grandparent will find this movie poignant and moving. It also reveals how similar family dynamics are, even across cultures. I also enjoyed Greyhound a great deal. It portrays a harrowing cat-and-mouse game between a convoy of Allied ships and German submarines during World War 2. Another plus was the positive portrayal of the Christian faith of the main character, played by Tom Hanks.
For TV, The Mandalorian has been top-notch, and following the recommendation of some of my Bulletin comrades, I’ve also enjoyed Cobra Kai and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The 80’s references in Cobra Kai are a gem themselves. It was also fun going back to another older series that I had never watched till now, Star Trek: Enterprise. All I can say is that T’Pol and Trip should have gotten married!
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Books and Resources
Receive a free 30-day trial subscription to Zondervan’s MasterLectures. They have lots of great lectures available from leading evangelical scholars. You can listen to or watch the videos on your computer or phone, or on your TV through Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and Android TV.
Save 40% on a streaming subscription to Seminary Now. Use code HOLIDAY40 at checkout. There’s also a 7-day free trial.
From Peter S. Williams on Twitter: “Here's the first open access issue of the Nordic Journal 'Theofilos', a special Supplement issue on "Science, Natural Theology, and Christian Apologetics", to which I contributed several pieces and which I was privileged to guest edit.” https://theofilos.no/issues/theofilos-supplement-2020-1/.
See the trailer for Against the Tide, featuring John Lennox and Kevin Sorbo. “Against the Tide is a travelogue, an examination of modern science, an excursion into history, an autobiography, and more. But at heart, it is the story of Prof. John Lennox’s stand against the tide of contemporary atheism and its drive to relegate belief in God to society’s catalogue of dead ideas.”
If you’re looking for good reading recommendations, David Dockery has published his annual roundup of the best books of the year.
Logos is still running a Christmas sale with lots of great deals on the newest version of the software (Logos 9), commentaries, books, lectures, and other resources.
Look here for Faithlife’s free eBook of the Month. Visit here to get the Logos Free Book of the Month. You can download the free version of Logos which will allow you to access the monthly free books. Logos 9 is a great investment, though, and has tons of tools that make Bible study easier and richer.
Save up to 70% on commentaries from Lexham Press, while supplies last.
Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane C. Ortlund, $3.19. This volume won a Gospel Coalition Book Award this year in the category of popular theology.
Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World by Mike Cosper, $4.99.