As the Covid-19 crisis continues, I find myself thinking and praying for those of you who live in the world Diane and I have inhabited for most of our adult lives, the world of the middle-class. Most of you know our story. After 25 years of pastoring and living in a comfortable middle-class community, we began our ministry along East Colfax, among some of the poorest and most broken people in the Denver metro area.
What a contrast between those two worlds! There are certainly problems of every sort in the middle-class, but in that world, most of us are functional. We maintain jobs, raise kids, serve in the church, have hobbies and generally are able to manage our lives. Here, among the poor, the most functional are barely able to manage even a handful of those things. Most are out-of-control, careening between disasters, flailing at the dark. I struggle to find words to explain the contrast.
The writing I do has been aimed at helping those of you from our former world understand our current world, how Jesus loves the most broken and shows up here regularly. My last post was about our friend Larry* as one example of the extra vulnerability our Colfax friends have when it comes to Covid-19. Not only are they deeply vulnerable to this disease, but the short and long term financial realities will make their already hard lives that much harder. That will linger long after the virus is gone.
But during this my thoughts have also been on you, my middle-class friends. How are you doing? How are you feeling about this crisis? How is it impacting you?
We are in a unique moment, the world virtually shut down, threats to health and income pounding at our door. Comparisons are drawn to other plagues, also—more worrisome—drawn to the Great Depression. What might happen? When will we come out of it? Will we come out of it? It is an unsettling and threatening time for all of us—rich, middle-class and poor.
Diane and I have a unique perspective, having lived now for several years with a foot in two worlds—middle-class comfort and poverty. That said, even though we serve and even live part-time among the poor, we are still very much a part of the middle-class. Proof of that is that when it became clear that mostly we needed to stay inside, we chose to head to our
comfortable home in the burbs rather than staying holed up in a motel room. Our friends don’t have that choice.
This question: What might God be saying to those of us who inhabit the comfortable middle-class via this crisis?
I noticed something early in this crisis: Our Colfax friends are nowhere’s near as whacked out as our middle-class friends. We in the middle-class have seen our world rocked and have had to make radical changes. More, we are facing a threat to things that are central to us—work, income, health, life-style, comfort—a threat that raises fear. And, it almost seems that the more we have, the more afraid we are. I am already hearing stories of suicide among some of the wealthiest, those who have lost millions.
Our Colfax friends, in contrast, keep living pretty much the same way as ever, even as their health is threatened and the tsunami of the economic collapse will bring deep devastation. They just don’t seem all that worried.
Partly, they simply don’t grasp the danger and the needed steps. Viruses and social-distancing are hard for them to get their brains around, so their efforts are minimal.
But there is another reason they seem unconcerned about the chaos of Covid-19. Their lives are chaotic and dangerous all the time. Even the few who find some slender thread of functionality live with the awareness it could be gone in a second. When your life feels hellish and chaotic already, having someone come along to tell you about an impending disaster, you tend to shrug shoulders and say, “Whatever.” For them it is just another day in the hood. When you don’t have much, you don’t have much to lose.
Not so for us. Most of us have had and in many ways continue to have a comfortable life. Colfax taught me how spoiled we are, especially regarding money, stuff, health and opportunities. Not that our lives are perfect—trouble lands in the middle-class as well—but our lives have been sweet and comfortable.
Now, along comes a virus and sits down beside us and frightens our comfort away. Fear rises. True, we are seeing some positive signs regarding the virus, but many questions remain. More sobering are the
long-term financial implications of this. I have noticed in my conversations with people that the more people grasp how the economy works, both here and around the world, the darker the prognosis. Smart people talk seriously about another Great Depression.
In short, we face a head-on challenge to the things we often hold most precious—health, comfort, wealth. Comfortable middle-class life is under attack. If we aren’t sobered by that, we probably should be.
Let me go back to my question: What might God be saying to us, those of comfortable and middle-class, those of us who also follow Jesus? I do not believe God caused Covid-19. As followers of Jesus we should grieve this great plague and its outcomes, doing all we can to fight it, even if that means sitting on the couch for awhile.
But surely God in His sovereignty has a purpose in this, no doubt many purposes. Even for middle-class followers of Jesus. What might they be?
I cannot escape this thought. I believe God is shining His searchlight on our relationship with health, wealth and comfort. And as He does, I believe he is making it clear that for so many of us—myself included—we find much of our security in health, wealth and comfort. The fear we face, fear greater than that of the poor, points the painful truth that many of us are overly attached to our comfort.
This moment is teaching us just how fragile all those comfortable things are, easily lost, shaken and rattled virtually overnight by one little bug. Some part of that is good; they were never worthy of our trust and confidence. God is giving all of us a sobering and pain-filled chance to probe our hearts and ask whether we have allowed our lives of comfort to take the place of Jesus.
For those of us who have lived lives of middle-class comfort, that is a hard question. But ask it. Search your own heart. What matters more to you and me, our lives of comfort or Jesus?
In times more normal, living in that comfort, it is nearly impossible to see how attached we are to health, wealth and comfort. Colfax helped me see that. Once I was around the harsh realities of the poor, even trying to
participate in it in some small way, I came to see that my middle-class life was abundant and luxurious compared to their reality.
I often use this image: Those of us in the middle-class live in an enormously comfortable bubble. Yet we are so used to it, we don’t recognize it. Like a goldfish would struggle to describe water, we struggle to see how comfortable we are. It just seems normal. Even worse, it is hard to see that our comfort can be idolatrous competition for God’s place in our hearts, hard to see how comfort can deaden our hearts to the things of Jesus.
But now, God is blowing up our comfortable bubble and we stand here, rattled and fearful at what might happen. How long will the bug last? How bad will the economic fall-out be? How will it impact the world? How will it impact me?
Can I suggest this: Whatever else God might be doing, I believe that he is rattling our lives of comfort. And I believe that is the great gift for those of us who inhabit the comfortable middle-class. We have a chance to search our own hearts, to do a spiritual inventory, especially as it relates to our comfort. Were we to lose that comfort—stuff, money, retirement accounts, jobs, health—would we know that we would still be ok? Would we understand that there is no security for either this life or the life to come but the security we find in Jesus? Will we use this time to shake off much of the shallowness that flows out of our comfortable lives and instead dive deep into the heart of God?
And, should God convict us the sin of worshiping the comfort of our lives, will we repent? Will we invest in a new way of living? Will we loosen our grip on comfort so that we can tighten our grip on Jesus? Will the end of this crisis find us to be deeper in our faith, bolder in our obedience, more willing to take up our cross and follow Him? Will we come out of this more generous, more peaceful, more attuned to the suffering of our world, the plight of the broken, the poverty of the poor?
Those are the questions I am asking the comfortable, middle-class part of myself. I hope that they are also the questions you are asking the comfortable, middle-class part of yourself. Let’s seize this moment to grow deeper in Him.