I don’t know why… God didn’t stop the bullet that took the life of a seven-year-old girl in Chicago last weekend; God allowed for miraculous births in the same weekend in multiple hospitals around the world.
I don’t know why… Hundreds of people flocked to my hometown to defy social distancing measures and put others at risk of COVID-19 so they could drink and splash around in the shallows of a small lake. I don’t know why they left garbage and excrement in the lake and in people’s yards and in the high school parking lot. Thousands of men and women risked their lives to maintain order and serve the public–donning their uniforms and braving the heat and the chaos to serve people who despise them, spit on them, defame them, and vilify them.
I don’t know why… God made snakes. And mosquitoes. And moles. And giraffes.
I don’t know why… On some days God feels so distant and silent; and other times He seems to be surrounding me and permeating me and holding me tight. I don’t know how His word can sometimes feel stale and sometimes cut right through me. I can’t fathom how God can be everywhere—every-when! That He knew me before all the history books and ancient empires and cities and shipwrecks and wars and all the stories I take for granted were even imagined…that He knows me now– every thought; every cell; every hair, every breath…that He knows me a million years from now. I don’t know why He chose to make me, and preserve my life, and bless me with days and hours, with friends and family, and teachers and tasks, challenges and changes.
I don’t know why. I don’t know how.
But praise God, I know WHO. I know who made me. I know who holds me. I know who has the power to make good come from even the worst circumstances. I know who wins the ultimate victory over death and sin and disease and destruction.
And He walks with me and He talks with me—And He tells me I am His own!
We just celebrated Memorial Day in the United States–a day when we remember all those who have given their lives in service to their fellow countrymen and women. People decorate the gravestones of soldiers who were killed in action, they march in patriotic parades, and they hold memorial services, with military rites, prayers, and speeches.
Not everyone celebrates in the same way. Some just use the day as an excuse to have a pre-summer cookout or swim-party. Some don’t commemorate the day at all. Some people use the day to honor veterans of the armed forces, or even those who risk their lives in emergency services– EMT’s, Firefighters, Police officers, and others. Others use the day to honor their ancestors, regardless of whether they served in the military.
My husband and I fall on this end of the spectrum. We like to pay tribute to those who came before us– to those who left everything behind to start a new life as “pioneers”; those who lived through wars and diseases and struggles; those who left a legacy to our grandparents and parents–a legacy we hope to pass on. But we don’t worship our ancestors; we don’t worship the soldiers who died. We honor them, we remember their sacrifice, but we recognize that they were human, just like us. They may have died in battle or as the result of battle, but they died, just as we will. Their sacrifices may have been heroic; their efforts may have preserved freedom for us, or brought freedom to those who were oppressed. And that is what we honor. That is what we remember.
Jesus Christ was not a soldier. Yet He sacrificed His life for a purpose much greater than the honor of a nation, or the freedom of family and friends. His sacrifice opened a way for us to be reconciled with God– to be declared righteous and Holy, in spite of what we have done (or failed to do). Our best efforts may end in tragic death on a battlefield– or in a hospital bed fighting cancer or AIDS. But our best efforts end in death. His best efforts destroyed the power of Death, and offered hope to all the world.
Memorial Day comes once a year in my country. Other nations have similar days. It is important to remember those who have come before– those who have made sacrifices, and paved the way for future generations to live free. But around the world, Christians have reason to celebrate every day– to remember the death AND resurrection of our Savior that gives us eternal freedom from the sting of Sin and Death.
Before His death, Jesus gave his disciples a rite– a ceremony– to remember His death, and what it would mean in light of His resurrection. We call it Communion or Eucharist– the “body” and “blood” of Christ–consumed and memorialized each time we take it. We don’t hold parades or play Taps or plant flowers. We don’t have pool parties and barbecues. But we reflect with solemnity and gratitude on the sacrifice that conquered the grave once and for all!
We are living in dark days– days of death counts, and dire predictions; of fear and grief and chaos. Masks, social distancing, angry outbursts, collapsing economies, job loss, political unrest, disease, plague–we are in the grip of a global pandemic. “Bring out your dead.” It’s a phrase from hundreds of years ago, and the horrors of other plagues and other disasters. Tombs, graveyards, skulls and visions of death abound. And yet, as Christians, we celebrate an empty tomb…
It’s been over a month since many Christians celebrated Easter (and almost a month for Orthodox Christians). How soon many of us forget the power of the resurrection. Our world is gripped with fear and anger. But we should be gripped with hope and healing. We celebrate an empty tomb– a testament to the victory of life over death, and hope over chaos!
Even when we use the symbol of the cross, it is not about Christ’s death, but his ultimate victory that we celebrate. Jesus himself even referred to the cross in these terms in John 3:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and religious teacher. He is referring to an historic incident in the wilderness, when the Israelites had rebelled (once again), and the Lord sent venomous snakes among them. Nicodemus would have known about this incident, but Jesus presented it as more than just history– it was a foreshadowing of God’s perfect plan of salvation! https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Numbers+21%3A4-9&version=NIV God had Moses make a bronze snake to be lifted up on a pole. When the people looked up and saw the bronze snake, they could live. In just such a way, when Jesus was “lifted up” on the cross, he didn’t just die. He battled death to bring life to anyone who “looks up” and believes.
That ancient symbol of a snake on a pole is used by physicians to represent healing. The ancient symbol of Christ on the cross is used to represent redemption and eternal life. Combined with the reality of an empty tomb, we can celebrate life in the midst of any circumstances.
These are difficult days–even with the hope of eternal life, we still have to face the sadness and grief of death, the confusion and hardship of economic chaos, and the uncertainty of what tomorrow will look like– socially, politically, economically, and physically. But we need only “look up” and beyond our circumstances to be reminded that this is not the whole story. There is an empty tomb– ours! There is victory–ours! Won for us by the perfect plan of God, and the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ.
139 O Lord, You have searched me and known me. 2 You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. 3 You [a]comprehend my path and my lying down, And are acquainted with all my ways. 4 For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether. 5 You have [b]hedged me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? 8 If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in [c]hell, behold, You are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall [d]fall on me,” Even the night shall be light about me; 12 Indeed, the darkness [e]shall not hide from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
13 For You formed my inward parts; You [f]covered me in my mother’s womb. 14 I will praise You, for [g]I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well. 15 My [h]frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, The days fashioned for me, When as yet there were none of them.
17 How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! 18 If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; When I awake, I am still with You.
19 Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God! Depart from me, therefore, you [i]bloodthirsty men. 20 For they speak against You wickedly; [j]Your enemies take Your name in vain. 21 Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? 22 I hate them with [k]perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; 24 And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.
We can’t hide from God. We can ignore Him, deny His existence, even rage against Him. But we cannot escape His Spirit. We cannot hide who we are or what we think from Him. And we cannot flee from His goodness or mercy; we cannot run beyond His ability to restore us, heal us, or save us. He knows the worst about us, and He calls us to the very best we can be. Which begs the question– Why would we want to escape from God? Why do we try to hide from Him? What is it about God that would give us a reason to flee?
There are many terrifying things in this world–right now, we are faced with a global pandemic; a plague that brings sickness and death. Now THAT is something worth hiding from! Many of us are “sheltering in place,” trying to hide out until it is safer to interact with others. The disease seems to be everywhere–but it really isn’t– it cannot go where there are no hosts to carry the virus. It can be spread wherever we find other people who are infected, or where the virus lingers on surfaces. The disease does not seek us out or come searching for us if we stay put. Unfortunately, “sheltering in place” comes with its own dangers. We cannot survive long in a bubble. We are interdependent. We need food, medicine, fresh air, and interaction with family and friends to survive and thrive. Hiding away from a tiny virus is only effective in the short term. And there are other diseases from which we cannot hide– cancer and heart disease, and even other viruses that are active, but haven’t been traced or identified.
There are other terrors that we try to escape by fleeing– hurricanes, fires, floods, war, etc. And we may escape immediate danger from such terrors–if we have advance warning or if we have the means to escape. But there is no place of absolute safety: no place on earth where such dangers cannot exist. There is no Utopia– no earthly dwelling, community, or settlement where there is only goodness, harmony, peace, and plenty. There is no place to hide, and no place of escape.
It is understandable that we should want to hide from danger or flee bad things, even if such escape is impossible in life. But why should we wish to hide from a loving and merciful God? Is He as bad as COVID-19? Is He as threatening as a hurricane or an air raid?
Certainly, He is as powerful (and even more) than any of the dangers we fear. God has the power, and the authority, to judge, punish, and destroy all who live on the planet. He has the power to obliterate all of His creation, and none of us could stop Him or challenge His right to do as He pleases. And if we should challenge God’s authority, we would be wise to want to run away, hide, or escape the consequences of such foolishness.
Adam and Eve tried this long ago. After they sinned by eating the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they hid from God. And God’s response was not instant obliteration. He didn’t storm through Eden, destroying everything in His righteous anger before torturing Eve, making Adam watch in horror before He killed them both. Nor did God negate His Holiness by changing the consequences of sin. Death DID enter creation– along with disease, pain, guilt, envy, hatred, lying, greed, destruction– they all exist, persist, and continue to plague all of God’s creation to this day.
But God’s first act–His first words to Adam and Eve after their rebellion– was to seek their presence. God came to walk in the Garden; to meet with Adam and Eve. He called out to them, “Where are you?” He wasn’t asking because He didn’t know that they were hiding. He knew where they were, and why. And even in assigning their punishment, God did not throw extra guilt and recrimination at the fallen couple. He didn’t shout, “How could you do this to ME?!” “How dare you!” “I wish I’d never made you!” “You’re worthless. What a waste of time and energy. Get out of my garden! I never want to see you or hear from you again!”
God’s Spirit is always seeking reconciliation, communion, restoration, and love. God is Holy, and God is Merciful. Holiness desires Whole-ness. Mercy desires Peace. God pursues us, not because He wants to infect us or devour us or destroy us– God wants to hold us, heal us, and give us Life.
The danger is not in God’s presence, but in our ability to reject it. God is everywhere, but not everyone will see Him, accept His authority, or welcome His mercy. Some will spend a lifetime hiding and fleeing, only to discover that God will, reluctantly, give them what they want– an eternity without Him. Without Grace, without Love, without Peace, without Wholeness, without Hope.
That is a fate far worse than waking up to “shelter in place,” or even suffering through a virus that can separate us from loved ones for weeks, months, or even a short lifetime.
There are many things worth fleeing in life– But we can find joy, hope, and peace in the presence of a Loving and Omnipresent God.
I have a friend who is very keen to study if prayer “works.” His theory is that if someone were to measure the number of prayers said in various regions of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, and compare those numbers to the rates of infection, numbers of deaths, etc, for the same regions, one could “prove” whether or not prayer is effective.
I don’t think my friend is being sarcastic or overly cynical– I believe he is sincere in wanting to study prayer. I accept his desire to study prayer–to quantify it, even to “prove” it, or legitimate it for those who are skeptical. Unfortunately, he wants to study it as an observer, and not a participant, and he wants to conduct a physical study of a metaphysical practice.
Scientists are conducting several studies during this time, to see what “works.” Does social distancing “work” better than building up “herd immunity?” Is there a treatment that works better, or faster than others? Can we develop an effective vaccine? What practices– social, hygienic, medical, political– might help mitigate the spread of future viruses? Even these studies will not be definitive. The results will depend a great deal on methodology, and the conclusions will be open to interpretation.
There are additional problems in studying whether or not prayer “works” or not, because prayer is metaphysical. Here are just a few of the “measurement” problems:
How do you measure prayer? By length of time? Number of words used? The number of prayers prayed by each person over a certain period of time?
Do you count ritual prayers? Mantras? Meditation? Unspoken “thought” prayers? Recitations? Prayers spoken “in tongues” or in ecstatic states?
Do you count corporate prayer as a single prayer or by the number of people in the group?
What about social media? Do you count all the people who say they will send “thoughts and prayers?” Do you count those who say they “will pray,” or only those who are “praying,” or “praying now.”
If you are testing by geographical region, how do you account for people who are praying for others around the world?
How do you measure the efficacy of prayer (as opposed to other factors)? If a region has a higher mortality rate, even though many people prayed, does that mean that prayer “doesn’t work?” Or does it mean that the mortality rate would have been even more devastating (given other factors) without prayer?
More than just measurement problems, there are problems with the very nature of prayer that make such a study impossible:
Even if you could come up with a standard definition of “prayer” in order to get a count, prayer is not a physical substance or action. Prayer is not a “cause and effect” exchange. It is communication. If ten people say the same thing at the same time to the same person, it is not necessarily “more effective” than a single person-to-person exchange. If a thousand people pray to the same “god” who is not a god–“Mother Nature” or “The Force,” for example, it cannot be compared to a single person praying to a Loving and All-Powerful God.
God’s ways are not our ways. If we are measuring for one thing, God may be working for a different, unseen outcome. If more people contract the virus during the “study period”, we see that as “failure.” But God may be preparing that region to build up a resistance or immunity for a future outbreak. God answered prayer in a mighty way that we won’t see immediately. I have known a great many people, and prayed for a great many people who have not received physical healing in this world. They have suffered. They have died. But that doesn’t mean that prayer “didn’t work.” Their sufferings and eventual deaths have often brought about unbelievable works of God– salvation, families restored, friends discovering renewed purpose, strengthened efforts to fight disease, injustice, poverty, etc., and communities coming together in unity and hope.
Prayer is not about measurable results. Prayer is a heart-cry to a caring Creator. It doesn’t just involve asking for healing or miracles or “wish fulfillment.” Prayer involves thanksgiving, worship and adoration, repentance and confession, sharing burdens, asking questions, and building an eternal relationship with God Almighty.
In the end, any study results will be interpreted differently by different people. Some people will be convinced by numerical comparisons to re-consider their view of prayer. Others will never be convinced, no matter how much “evidence” someone else presents.
Prayer isn’t like taking an aspirin, or holding a protest rally, or doing research for a cure. Prayer isn’t about “winning the battle.” It isn’t about “what works.” It isn’t about “what” at all. It’s about WHO.
God “works.” God is sovereign, loving, and wise beyond what we can imagine. His ways endure. And He has vanquished the power of death and disease. Yes, it can still touch us in the here and now, spreading havoc and pain and mourning. But it will never triumph over Hope, and Life, Truth, and Faith. And when we pray, we connect to the source of all that is Eternally victorious! Beyond ANY measure!
We just celebrated a most unusual Easter– traditions, like gathering at church for sunrise services or grand cantatas, big family meals, Easter Egg hunts, and parades had to be re-imagined, or cancelled. And one Easter tradition that didn’t get a lot of press attention was the damage done to the Easter flower market. Lilies, hyacinths, daffodils, and other spring flowers–some grown locally, others imported from around the world–were unable to be shipped or sold as people are in quarantine. Churches and restaurants, two of the largest consumers of Easter Lilies, had to cancel their orders for this year. People who normally buy lilies from garden centers or florists were unable to do so, and those who grow them were unable to ship them out or sell them. Literally millions of flowers had to be burned, composted, and destroyed during this season of “new life.” Flowers for funerals, weddings, and birthdays were also lost, and millions more will be lost as we approach Mother’s Day next month. What a waste of beauty and life!
Some will say that it is a waste of time to mourn the loss of flowers when we should be mourning the loss of human life to COVID-19. I don’t think it is an “either/or” kind of mourning. There is a lot to mourn during these days, and we should not be ashamed to mourn–loss of connection, loss of beauty in the form of flowers, loss of jobs and prosperity, loss of opportunities– many of which we take for granted.
But Easter is not about our loss– in fact, it is not about loss at all. It is about victory and hope and ETERNAL life– not the life of a lily or even a human body– eternal, joyful, victorious life given to us as a gift for all who will receive it! If we are missing a beautiful symbol of that victory this year, we can never be deprived of the reality the Lilies represent!
In this season, many of us are feeling very much like the “lilies of the field.” Our lives seem uncertain, our days unproductive, even futile as we wait for this crisis to pass. We miss these symbols of beauty and new life, but we must not place our hope in the symbols. We must not place our hope in what we know or what we do or what we own. Jesus reminds us that we are– our souls, our lives, our hopes, our thoughts, and our longings– worth far more than lilies or sparrows– God knows what we need, and His love for us doesn’t depend on our being “essential”, or healthy, or having all the answers.
This season reminds us that our lives here are precious, and temporary as the grass. But our existence is both precious and eternal–and thanks to the very God who clothes the lilies of the field, we need not worry or fear what lies ahead. All who turn to Him will be saved. We are not destined to be burned or composted or forgotten. We may face uncertain days ahead, but God has a purpose and a plan for us to bloom– not just for a season, and not just to adorn a building or a home, but to bloom for eternity in His very presence!
On this Good Friday, it may seem redundant and unnecessary to point this out, but Jesus died. As the world around us faces a global pandemic, we are forced to face our own mortality. People are dying from COVID-19– people we know; people we know about; people we have never met. Their deaths are more than just statistics. They represent personal loss to all their friends, family, and people in their communities. Jesus’ death was more than just another execution– more than just another dead body to be disposed of before the start of the Sabbath.
Jesus. Died. Emmanuel– God with us– died. Ceased to live. Bled out and stopped breathing. His body was cold and lifeless, wrapped in burial cloths and laid in a tomb. This was not just like sleeping, or missing a heartbeat. He was gone. This is not normally cause for celebration– this was not a “Good” Friday.
Jesus was not the only religious leader to die at the hands of enemies or rivals. The fact that his followers would commemorate or memorialize his death is not unusual or incomprehensible. But Jesus wasn’t just assassinated. He was condemned to die as a criminal. His death wasn’t just shocking or violent– it was humiliating, vile, excruciatingly painful, and involved public ridicule and anguish. There is nothing glamorous or brave or victorious about a cross. Christians who wear cross necklaces or t-shirts with blood-covered spikes might just as well wear handcuffs or ankle bracelets, or a picture of Jesus in an electric chair to show their devotion to a man who died as a criminal. Even though Pilate declared that he could find nothing wrong, he still allowed the conviction and death sentence to stand. Jesus didn’t win against his enemies– he lost, and he lost everything.
In our rush to celebrate Easter, and the “rest of the story,” sometimes we lose sight of the cross. Jesus– creator of the universe, perfect in the eyes of the law, beloved by God the Father–died a cruel, humiliating, senseless death. Those who are dying today of COVID-19 are struggling for their next breath, exactly as Jesus did so long ago. Jesus did not just “give up,” he didn’t just go into a coma as a gesture, knowing he would wake up in three days anyway, so why struggle for that next breath, or push through that cramp in his arm or leg, or let the sweat and blood from his forehead run into his eyes, unable to wipe them away or keep the flies from landing around his nose or ears… Jesus died– He heaved and strove and agonized until his heart and lungs and muscles could do no more.
We talk about Jesus as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Earlier in Israel’s history, God rescued the entire nation of Israel from their slavery to the Egyptians. He caused the angel of death to visit all of Egypt and kill all the first-born throughout the land. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus+12&version=ESV)
All of Passover is a foreshadowing and visual representation of what was to happen at the crucifixion. Jesus became the sacrificial lamb, whose life would be given, and his blood be used, to save us from death and destruction, and allow us to be free. His body was broken, just like the bread of the Passover, to give us life.
Just as the lamb’s blood was placed on the sides of the door posts, Jesus’ blood stained the two ends of the cross where his hands were nailed. It stained the top and bottom of the cross where his head and feet bled, just as the lamb’s blood was placed on the top of the door frame and dripped to the ground beneath.
Jesus became a metaphysical “doorway”, painted with blood, through which we can enter into a place of safety, forgiveness, and promise. But only by going through the door– only by trusting fully in the work of Jesus’ death (and resurrection)– that we can be saved.
It wasn’t merely the act of painting the lamb’s blood on a door that saved anyone– it involved going into the house, and obeying the word of the Lord. It was wrapped up in preparing for a journey in which they would leave behind their slavery and old way of life, and walk through uncharted territory, led by God’s spirit, to a land of promise they had never seen. No Egyptian, by merely smearing blood on the doorposts or wrestling with the angel of death, or wearing a mask or staying behind locked doors, could defeat the plague. No Israelite could ignore God’s instructions, and roam the streets, trusting the the blood on the doorposts would cover him three blocks away. Death–and life– came on God’s terms. Wearing a cross necklace and “looking the part” won’t substitute for true faith that results in repentance, obedience, and discipleship.
Jesus died. And he rose again! But he didn’t do it so we could sail through life on our own terms. He came to show us that God can take our slavery, our sin, our failure, our sickness and sorrow, even our death– even senseless, humiliating, forsaken death– and give victory, life, and peace to those who follow Him.
Psalm 23:6– And I will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.
Forever is a concept we acknowledge, but we don’t fully understand. We talk about difficult circumstances, like the current pandemic, lasting “forever.” But they won’t. Such circumstances may last longer than we would like; they may be more difficult than anticipate; they may bring more pain and grief than we think we can bear, but they will pass. Even if they last throughout our lifetime, they will not continue indefinitely.
But God IS forever– He is eternal. And He has created US to be eternal– to live with Him (or apart from Him) FOREVER! Our experience does not prepare us fully for this reality– we only know an existence that is limited by time and space. But deep within, we have an awareness that there is MORE– more than our brief time here; more than the difficulty and disappointment we experience. God has planted this awareness in each of us; this desire to know what comes “after” death; what “forever” really means.
David reminds us that forever is not just a desire for those who follow our Good Shepherd– it is the reality He has planned for all of us.
And that should give us abundant hope and comfort in times like these. What we face today is temporary. This is the “valley of the shadow of death.” We cannot see what is directly in front of us. It continues to bring anxiety and pain, and even death. But, death is not the end. It is only a shadow hiding the light of Eternity. And “Forever” cannot terrify us; it cannot hold terror for those who belong to the one who holds forever in His hands!
Someday, we will not need calendars. We will not need to worry about next week, or our 5-year plan, or deadlines. We will have unlimited opportunities, unlimited possibilities, unlimited life with the source of all good things!