by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
In recent days, I have noticed my long-standing morning routine being disrupted. It has nothing to do with Lent. Rather, instead of spending my usual first waking hour in prayer, Bible study, and devotional reading, I have been immediately picking up my phone to look at various news feeds for updates on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is a calamitous event unfolding on our screens in real time. It has the feel of a hinge moment in world history; geo-political realities are turning (or returning) to a more dangerous state. There is a disquieting sense that events may spiral and get worse before things get better. Who knows what the coming days will bring? And it is very easy for me to be consumed by the news of the moment.
Obviously, I have no worldly influence on matters in Ukraine. But as a Christian, I have spiritual influence. I am called to pray for peace, for the victims, and for the perpetrator of this atrocity. Indeed, I yearn to do so. I believe our prayers for people, events, and outcomes in far-away places are effective; they have an impact on God who responds as God wills if also mysteriously.
Also, I do not want to be so absorbed by the constant news reports that I fail to situate this terrible crisis within the broader perspective of the Kingdom of God. It may help somewhat to remember that we are hardly the first Christians to witness a massive geopolitical culture shock.
I often reference the great theologian of the early church, St. Augustine. Augustine was a bishop in North Africa when, on August 24, 410, barbarian Visigoths sacked the city of Rome. As this news spread to people throughout the Empire, many were disbelieving. The fall of Rome was a stunning blow to Rome and in the end a decisive one. Roman citizens far and wide had a hard time making sense of the event.
Earlier in his life, Augustine had spent much time in Rome. A very early response we have of Augustine to the sack of Rome comes in a sermon he preached on September 22, less than a month later. In it he reminds his hearers that almost every age suffers calamities that make it wonder if the world is coming to an end, to think its own times uniquely awful. He himself wondered about the end. But he urged his hearers that day to persevere in faith, putting trust not on earthly cities but on the heavenly city where Christ reigns forever.
Making sense of the things falling away would occupy Augustine for the rest of his life, inspiring his last great, magisterial work, The City of God, wherein he argued that although civilization had suffered a great defeat, God was still actively at work in human history:
These are the considerations which one must keep in view, that he may answer the question whether any evil happens to the faithful and godly which cannot be turned to profit. Or shall we say that the question is needless, and that the apostle is vaporing when he says, “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God?” (Romans 8:28) The City of God, Book X.
I do not believe St. Paul was “vaporing” when he wrote Romans 8:28! I believe he was inspired by the Holy Spirit to share a deep if sometimes hidden truth. There is the potential in every human situation, even in calamity, for God to work out new, good things among those who love him.
As Christians seeking to live out our faith locally as war is being waged in far-away Ukraine, perhaps now is a time to consider anew how to be peacemakers for our city. As a county invades a neighbor in Eastern Europe, we might ponder creative, fresh expressions of loving our neighbors close by. As we are aghast at the hubris and malevolence of a dictator abroad, perhaps we might seek out blessed ways of humbling ourselves at home.
And lastly, as my newsfeed seems to beckon my attention more than ever these days, perhaps now – and yes, especially in Lent – is time to turn first to God’s word, to prayer, and to worship. What if these local and personal practices are the very means by which we will be given new grace to discern God’s goodness issuing forth in all things, even the terrible things?
"Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree today."
Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News by Jeffrey Bilbro (InterVarsity Press, 2021)
If there is hope for the return of social health, I believe it will be renewed by flourishing close-knit neighborhoods, civic and volunteer groups, non-profit service organizations, local schools, and healthy religious communities. This excellent book invites modern Christians to a fresh engagement with our Lord’s Great Commandment to love God and “love your neighbor as yourself.” What shape might genuine neighborly love and concern take in your life and in mine? First, before we can love our neighbors as ourselves, we have to get to know them! Second, visible new expressions of simple neighborliness might just be one of the greatest gifts the church can offer our broken world.