Disruption (n) – “the action of preventing something, especially a system, process, or event, from continuing as usual or as expected.”
This has been the year of disruption. Things have been disrupted at church: Services, classes, gatherings, funerals, even offerings. In our private lives, our routines have been disrupted. Karen and I have had to go into quarantine twice, in each case at a very inconvenient time.
It has been hard to get any momentum going this year. Just when things start to click, the virus surges again, a new set of Health and Human Services guidelines is issued, and a new round of business closures begins.
I can only imagine what it is like to be in school or to have a son or daughter who is in school at this time. Talk about disruption! The old routine is gone and what has replaced it can hardly be called routine at all. Classes have been held remotely, then in-person, then remotely again. Parents need to take personal time. Students need faster internet speeds.
The only thing more confusing than being a student or a parent during the pandemic is being a teacher or administrator – especially one with their own kids at home, trying to learn how to learn all over again.
We’re liable to think of our situation as unique, but the Bible is full of stories of men and women who found their routines turned upside down. Abraham’s life, for instance, was interrupted by God’s call to leave his home and family and travel to an unknown land. During the process, his brother died and he and his wife took in their nephew. Then his dad died. After that, he went through a major economic crisis and a war. Thinking about Abraham’s life sets my minor COVID-19 disruptions in an entirely different light.
Or what about Moses – forced to leave his wealthy home and support himself as an ag worker – a job he probably knew nothing about. Or David, whose once-grateful boss turned against him, forced the daughter to whom David was married to leave him, and did everything he could to ruin his life. Or Ezekiel, the refugee prophet whose wife died during a force deportation and he wasn’t even permitted to grieve.
Or consider Christmas. We are used to recalling the beautiful parts of the story of Jesus’s birth. But consider how disruptive it must have been to the lives of Mary and Joseph.
(Luke 2:1-7) In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
God, the theologians tell us, is omnipotent, immutable, and incomprehensible. They should have told us that he is also inconvenient. The eternal and omnipresent God doesn’t step into our little lives without disrupting our plans.
Mary was probably a teenager when the angel appeared to tell her that she would conceive and have a son, the Son of God. No doubt Mary had other plans – getting married, for one (she was already engaged). Her fiancé was a great guy – she didn’t yet know how great a guy – but what man doesn’t leave when he discovers his fiancé is pregnant with someone else’s baby? Disruption.
Joseph was a stand-up kind of guy. He was the real deal. Righteous. Kind. A self-starter, who had what it takes to launch his own business. He too had plans, starting with getting married and having kids. Then he found out that his fiancé was already pregnant. Disruption.
One thing to know about disruptions is that they usually lead to more disruptions. After Joseph and Mary found out about the pregnancy, they didn’t just go on with their plans and their nice, quiet life. For reasons having to do with taxes and (quite possibly) scandalmongers, they decided to leave their hometown and move to Bethlehem, where Joseph’s family came from.
Moving is a disruption at any time. When we moved a few years ago, I considered it a major interruption – even though we only move two hundred yards to the east! Joseph and Mary didn’t move two hundred yards. They moved to a new town in a different province, almost on the spur of the moment. No job, no guarantees, and no moving van. They carried everything they had, either on themselves or on a donkey. We always picture pregnant Mary riding on a donkey, but most people didn’t have donkeys and the Bible doesn’t mentions one. Joseph may have had to carry their earthly belongings on his back to their new home.
But … what hew home? When they arrived in Bethlehem, they were homeless. It’s likely they ended up sleeping in one of the caves that dot the ridge that runs through the area. That is where the local shepherds “stabled” their sheep in inclement weather, and the earliest accounts of Jesus’s birth (after the Gospels themselves) assume that Jesus was born in a cave. When my wife was pregnant, she couldn’t get comfortable in our queen-sized bed. How did Mary manage a cave floor? Disruption.
After the baby was born, things slowly normalized. The couple found a house. Joseph must have found work, probably as a carpenter/builder. They were finally getting back into a routine. Then came the magi, who unwittingly brought danger to the young boy’s life, and their routine went out the window. For the second time in a couple of years, Joseph and Mary packed up their things on the spur of the moment and left, this time for a foreign country, where they again had to find housing and a job, among people who spoke another language. Disruption.
We may assume that such major disruptions happen to people like Joseph and Mary, but not to people like us. Yet, think about it: we are in the middle of a major global disruption – the pandemic. Much of the world is experiencing disruption. We are not exempt.
Everyone experiences disruption, even people who work hard to preclude disruption from their lives. In fact, those are the people who think of even minor inconveniences as major disruptions: the car won’t start – major disruption! Can’t go to the office because of quarantine – major disruption!
The truth is that no one escapes disruptions. Lockwood has lost people during the pandemic, though only two of them (so far) from COVID-19. There are always disruptions, including cancer, stroke, heart disease, accidents. If you were rich enough to hide from the pandemic on your own private Caribbean Island, even that would be a disruption. But no one is rich enough to hide from death. We are all going to die someday and dying is the biggest disruption of all – terribly inconvenient!
The fact is most of us need a good disruption from time to time. We may not like it – probably won’t – but that doesn’t mean we don’t need it. Without occasional disruptions, the priority of our convenience, our plans, our schedule remain unchallenged, which can leave us assuming a false independence from God. God uses disruptions for our good, to teach us to trust him, to break us out of our self-centeredness and enable us to know him better.
He also uses disruptions to move us in new and better directions. The business world has a term for systemic changes brought about by the introduction of a new agent. They call it disruptive innovation. God has been managing disruptive innovation since he banished our first parents from the Garden. No one understands it better.
When God interrupts our lives: through something difficult, like sickness, joblessness, or the loss of a loved one; or through something positive, like a job offer, a move, a new relationship, we must be careful to keep our feelings in line with our faith. If the disruption is a bad thing, we are liable to catastrophize, to feel this thing is so terrible that we will never recover. If it is a good thing, we are liable to romanticize, to think that this will make life perfect. In either case, such feelings can cause us to lose sight of the Lord who is at work in both good times and bad.
When major disruptions come, there are things we can do that will help. We can remind ourselves and those with us that we are part of a larger story. There is a big picture we don’t see; but the author does. He is constantly connecting the arc of our storyline back to the main story, which is the greatest story ever. We won’t always see it; in fact, we only get glimpses of it. But we can always believe it if we know the God who gave his only begotten Son.
Even during disruptions, we can trust God’s purpose if we know his character. But trust is a choice. We don’t drift into it. We choose it. That is what as Mary did when, in the face of disruption and uncertainty, she said: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 2:38). She chose to trust. We must do the same. We never outgrow the need to do this.
To trust God as Mary and Joseph did, we will need to submit our plans to him, knowing that he may take them off the table. As long as we insist on having things our own way, which is to say, as long as we make an idol of our plans, we won’t be able to trust God. It will simply be impossible.
Instead of trusting our plans, we can entrust our plans to God. If he takes them off the table, we’ll know it is to make room for something better. He took Joseph’s and Mary’s pleasant domestic plans off the table, but only to make room for them in the story of the salvation of the world. We can trust God – this God; the God who took our flesh and bore our sins – with the future, even when our plans have been disrupted, as they have this year.
Disruption does not have the last word. God does. Whatever the media may say, 2020 has not been the Year of COVID-19. It has been the Year of our Lord, as 2021 will be. COVID is not king. Jesus is.