A friend of mine commented recently about having “pandemic topic fatigue.” Many of us who feel responsibility for speaking encouragingly about what is happening in our culture right now feel like we are running out of things to talk about that anyone will want to hear. Most all of us have dealt with disrupted schedules and measures of frustration and fear, and many of us have felt the loss of uncelebrated events such as graduations, birthdays, and time with grandchildren and other loved ones. Many people I talk to are ready for all this social isolation to be over with, and yet, they still feel afraid. There are so many unknowns about this COVID-19 virus, and an effective vaccine and good “therapeutics” seem too far away to give much comfort right now.
One way that some people have chosen to deal with their fear is to latch onto conspiracy theories that claim the pandemic is not “real,” or that it was all engineered for political purposes. While following this kind of intrigue can give relief from weariness or fear, it’s not healthy or productive when we stop listening to our credible scientists and place confidence in circulating information of unknown origin or credibility. Social media in particular has exacerbated this phenomenon, but it’s an age-old problem; in the midst of crisis, we are susceptible to whomever tells us what we want to hear. Many would rather believe that the pandemic is not “real” or that it’s overblown, than to accept the fact that a new illness is circulating among us that is killing tens of thousands of vulnerable people and for which we don’t yet have a good solution.
It’s no wonder so many of us feel afraid. Fear is a natural human response to threat, but it can be taxing on us when it goes on indefinitely in the face of the unknown. Our fear response is helpful when the threat is clear and immediate, such as our ancestors’ facing wild animals, or when our child runs out into traffic. Our adrenaline rushes and we’re able to accomplish feats that we might not otherwise be able to carry out in order to remove a predator or to save a child from danger. But when our anxiety remains high over a period of time because of what “might” happen to us or to someone we love, it wears on our bodies, our minds and our spirits. That’s how many people feel right now.
I can’t wave a magic wand and make your fears go away. But I can direct you to the Source of all comfort. When we can center ourselves in the steadfast love of God in Jesus Christ, we can find peace. We can step away from all the “what ifs” and the “how longs” and the nagging anxiety of COVID-19 and other problems in our lives, and put those things in perspective as we simply enjoy being in the presence of God. To regularly experience God’s presence in this way through prayer gives us strength and wisdom for dealing with all that life brings to us, both now and in the future. It enables us to live out of love, rather than out of fear.
The earliest followers of Jesus faced threats that most of us can only imagine. To these followers and to us today, Jesus offered the promise of God’s Holy Spirit, whom he called “the Advocate.” This Advocate dwells with us when we accept the grace that God offers to us in Jesus Christ and as we seek to follow Christ's teachings. Jesus also offered his disciples – and us – his godly peace.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
If you are lacking in peace right now, present yourself to the Prince of Peace. Tell him exactly how you feel, and ask for what he has to offer. Then listen as he speaks to your heart and to all your fears.
With blessings for your journey,
We are in an unusual season of the Church’s life. All over the world, church leaders are having to make decisions about how to worship and work under threat of a global pandemic. A few have denied the imperative to cease gathering, claiming that there is healing power in the Eucharist or that God would protect them in some other way from the effects of the novel coronavirus if they continued to hold worship services. But most have understood that while there is indeed a great power of God to heal, there is also a moral responsibility to use the intellect God has given us to make good choices to protect the most vulnerable among us.
Hebron Church is among those whose leaders have chosen to suspend gatherings for worship until the greatest threat from the effects of COVID-19 have passed. We have done this out of care for one another and for our community, and for our health care workers who are on the front lines of fighting this disease. We have chosen instead to offer a live-streamed worship opportunity on our church’s Facebook page each Sunday, and to record the service for posting afterwards. Many have appreciated the opportunity to worship together in this way.
It has been sad to think of celebrating Easter without being able to gather as a church family. One thing we have encouraged people to do is to submit photos of something that represents “resurrection” to them. These will be compiled and presented as a slide show on our Facebook page on Easter Sunday. One photo I submitted is of my son, Henry, at the top of Volcano Baru in Panama at sunrise. It’s a recommended hike for visitors to the area, but it’s long and arduous and it begins in the dark. Henry was in Panama for a medical project with Floating Doctors. Several members of the team started out in the middle of the night for the top of Volcano Baru, so they could be there for one of the summit’s famous sunrises.
Henry’s photos showed that it was indeed a glorious sunrise, and well worth the hike. As stunning as it was, however, it was over quickly and there was nothing left to do except start the long hike back down the mountain and get back to work. The team was helping to provide medical care to remote river villages. It can be challenging work, but they did it that day with an eyeful of the astounding beauty and wonder of God’s creation within memory’s reach.
The celebration of Easter does something similar for us as Christians. It’s a glimpse of God’s glory and beauty in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ that interrupts our ordinary lives. If we’ve engaged it fully, then we’ve come through the arduous journey of remembering Christ’s suffering during Holy Week; his arrest, his interrogation, his torture and his excruciating death on the Cross. We make this dark and difficult journey with Jesus through the Scriptures, to come into the new light of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Then we “head back down the mountain” to continue God’s work. But our work has been strengthened by the memory of Easter Sunday.
We are finding in so many ways that this present interruption of our normal work and worship is a time of potential creativity, as we seek different ways to do the ordinary things of life. I pray that Easter Sunday will be a time when you will feel the closeness of Christ’s presence and get a glimpse of God’s glory that will empower you for the days ahead.
With prayers for your journey,
Every once in a while, someone will ask me, “What’s your favorite Bible verse?” I guess a pastor is expected to have a “favorite” verse of Scripture. But I never know how to answer that question. There are so many! And a lot of them are nestled inside marvelous passages of the Bible, such as the promises of God found in Psalm 139. The last time someone asked me about a favorite Bible verse, I thought about which verses I quote most often in conversation. That brought a few chuckles. I think the verses of Scripture we latch onto say something about our personal struggles. Because I grew up being taught and preached to from the King James Bible, that’s the version I most often hear in my head when I’m thinking about an oft-quoted verse.
One verse I’ll often say to myself and others is: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil, thereof.” That’s from the 6th chapter of Matthew, where Jesus teaches his followers to lay up treasures in heaven, rather than on earth. In other words, we should put our greatest energy into efforts that matter for eternity. Jesus reminds his followers that God’s care for nature indicates that we also will be cared for by God, as we seek his righteousness. The lesson then concludes: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought of the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:34, KJV) Translation? Don’t borrow worry from the future. I tend to do that, a lot. Do you? I think that’s why it’s one of my favorite verses from the Bible.
Another verse I’ll often quote comes immediately after the one above in Matthew, though I don’t usually think of them, together. Jesus says: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” I used to have a friend who would quote that verse right before sharing some bit of gossip! It was kind of funny, but certainly contradictory. Verses 1 and 2 of Matthew 7 say: “Judge not that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (Matthew 7:1-2, KJV) Translation? Being judgmental of people is like a boomerang – it comes back to us in the form of judgment from others. While we must at times make discernments about the actions of others for the sake of the public good, we’re to leave the judgment of other people in God’s hands as much as possible.
One other verse that often comes to my mind is not from Scripture, but from an ancient Christian prayer called Phos Hilaron (“O Gracious Light’): "You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices, O Son of God, O Giver of Life, and to be glorified through all the worlds.” This is a vesper prayer, and I think of it nearly every time I see a sunset. I also think of it when I hear happy voices in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. We are so blessed to be loved by a God who promises to care for us so that we don’t have to borrow worries from tomorrow; a God who takes on the burden of judging and who promises to judge rightly (better than we ever could!); and a God who calls us to look for his gracious light, so that we might share that Light with the world.
With prayers for your journey,
One of the fun things I did with our children when they were younger was to make up stories together. Our oldest son, Nathan, seemed to enjoy it the most. It started one night when he was a preschooler, and he asked for a bedtime story. I was all for reading books with our kids, but Nathan preferred books that weren’t really “stories.” He liked books about how things worked (trucks, helicopters) or about nature (a great topic, unless it was one of his favorites about parasites…). I longed to share actual stories with him. So, one night as I lay down with him at bedtime, I explained that we were going to make up a story together; I’d say one sentence, then he could say the next. We’d take turns until we’d created a whole story, together. Let me tell you, it was a wild ride. That child had an imagination. This became part of his bedtime routine, and some nights we laughed so hard I had tears streaming down my face.
In order for this team storytelling to work, a couple of things were required of us. We each had to be willing for the next sentence in the story to be different than we would have expected. In other words, we had to take the sentence offered by the other and figure out how to run with it; no arguing or contradiction that the next line was not what we would have wanted or predicted. Secondly, we each had to relinquish control over the final outcome of the story. By agreeing to tell the story together, we were allowing for the fact that the end would be something neither of us could have predicted. In reality, these stories Nathan and I made up together rarely actually came to an end. Most nights, I finally had to say, “Enough! Bedtime!” as we both looked forward to starting a new story together the following evening.
It occurs to me that this is a lot like what we do together as a church. We share in creating the story of our congregation, as we seek to be part of the Greatest Story. Sometimes we get bogged down in the “mechanics” of how things work, and we have to find new ways to be creative and to tell new stories. No one of us can create or dictate the best “story” of our congregation. We have to enter into that work together, each one of us contributing, and taking what is offered by the other and figuring out how to “run with it” and move our story forward. By sharing in the creative work, each of us gives up a certain measure of control over the final outcome of our story. In reality, the story of Hebron Church and its place in the life of the larger Church of Jesus Christ never truly ends. Each generation takes up the task, creating and moving our congregation’s story into the future, as we seek to be faithful to the call of our loving Lord.
With prayers for your journey,