Such a Time as This
Andy Black 

Words that we have memorized—especially words that we memorize at an early age—gain a powerful hold on us. I am not someone who believes that a prayer filled with “thee”s and “thou”s is more holy, but if I hear a version of Psalm 23 that doesn’t include “I shall not want” it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard.

When it comes to the Lord’s Prayer, I’m OK with “debts”, “trespasses” (or, as they say it in England, “TRESS-puh-sehs”), or even just “sins.” During the years I spent around many Catholics, I learned to bite my tongue at the end, since they do not continue on with (the extra-biblical) “for thine is . . . .”  But I have a hard time letting go of one of the tricky and even troublesome phrases of the traditional English version. 

“Lead us not into temptation.”

Since the earliest days of the church, teachers have struggled with this phrase. It can easily sound as if God is playing the role of the bad angel sitting on our shoulder, and we’re asking to avoid this scenario (“Please God, don’t be the cause of my stumbling.”). In order to prevent this misunderstanding, many have proposed alternative phrasings that go something like “do not let us be led into temptation.” 

In this instance, the emphasis is on the verb—i.e., what God is doing or allowing. But it’s more likely that the key to this phrase is in how we understand the noun—“temptation.” The New Revised Standard Version translates Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4 (the two versions of the Lord’s Prayer in the Gospels) as “do not bring us to the time of trial.” 

“Temptation” is intimately associated with usually more “spiritual” notions of morality and sin. But a time of trial is simply any situation in which we—our faith(fulness), our courage, our compassion, our honesty—is put to the test. As one commentator has put it, a “trial” or “test” certainly brings danger but also opportunity: “To see [a time of trial] only as the prelude to sin is like describing tomorrow’s game as a risk that our team will fall to its opponent and lose.”

The NRSV has been my go-to biblical translation for many years, but “lead us not into temptation” is seared into my memory. I’m not ready to lose those words. I am making a real effort, though, to do an instant mental translation into “do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Why does this matter right now?

* * * * * * * *

This short passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings is resonating deeply with many people right now. I’ve seen it shared on social media by all kinds of folks:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Whatever exactly is happening, whatever is in store, we are clearly not in life-as-usual, and that gives all of us a sense of living in a special, or uniquely dramatic time. What role will we play?

One of the challenging aspects of speaking in general about this particular time—and, really, of all times—is that we experience it in many different ways. Some have the unexpected gift of time with family, with long-abandoned but beloved activities or projects, or to enjoy the warm early Spring sunshine—but perhaps with a general sense of foreboding in the background. Some—maybe the same people– are trying to parent, teach, work, prepare, and pray simultaneously. Others send us reports from the front lines of the healthcare system, or from the day in the life of someone else providing “essential functions” during this time. Others spend the hours concerned about the health of loved ones and their own health.

In yesterday’s Democrat-Gazette, Shantell Hinton-Hill made a powerful plea, in the midst of the general concern, for us to recognize and take specific steps on behalf of those many Arkansans likely to be devastated by our current COVID-19 transmission mitigation policies: asset-limited, income-constrained, employed (ALICE) households. She writes: “according to the recent ALICE in Arkansas study . . . ALICE workers are the state economy’s ‘maintainers.’ In other words, their jobs keep the Arkansas economy running by building and repairing our infrastructure, educating our children and caring for our work force and seniors.” (For more on how the focus on “ALICE” households helps us better understand our neighbors that are frequently referred to as the “working poor,” see this article, as well as this Arkansas-specific data here.). Many of these “maintainers” are now required to stay home, or perhaps required to work, but struggling even more than usual to figure out childcare.

There are many urgent pleas right now, but it is not too early to begin asking how any “normal” we return to can be different from what we used to consider normal. This will not be easy.

When we pray “do not bring us to the time of trial,” we are praying with Jesus in the garden, and with his full blessing: “may we please be spared from being pressed to our limits.” But we also know that this desire will not always be fulfilled.

Today is two weeks from Good Friday. Two weeks until we retrace Jesus’ steps to the cross. Two weeks until we may also retrace the steps of many of his closest friends, who stole away at various points and did not remain with him until the end.  

Who knows where we will be in two weeks? For some time now, voices from Italy—living through the complete overwhelming of their medical system–have been telling us, “We are your future.” Now, voices from New York City are starting to say the same thing to their fellow Americans. Who knows? But Shantell has reminded us that, even today, many are already living in “such times.”

As we ask to avoid the “time of trial,” let’s pray for wisdom and courage to meet the times that are given us—together.

“But take courage. I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33).

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