For Thou Art With Me…

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“Social Distancing” is the latest buzz-phrase in the media. With the spread of COVID-19, governments and health officials are asking people to avoid meeting in groups, avoid physical contact, and keep our distance from those outside our immediate family. Those who are most susceptible to the disease are being asked to self-quarantine; those who contract the disease are put in isolation. This is causing many people additional suffering, because they feel alone and even abandoned.

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But God assures us that He will never leave nor forsake us. No matter how “distant” we may be from others, God is always with us– ALWAYS. Prayer does not summon God to our side, or capture His focus and attention from someone or something else. Our God is omnipresent and omniscient– He know our every thought; He is with us through every moment and every breath.

So why do we feel so alone and frightened at times like these?

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I think there are several reasons:

  • Disaster, disease, hardship– especially when they come unexpectedly or develop rapidly– remind us that we live in a fallen world. We KNOW our world isn’t perfect. We know that life is fragile. We know that health and comfort are not guaranteed. But sudden tragedy leaves us unable to deny that our world is broken and we cannot, by our own efforts, fix it. We expect that God’s presence means God’s perfection will surround us, protect us, and shield us from the reality of Sin and its consequences– including the reality of Sin in the natural world around us. Hurricanes, earthquakes, infections, climate change– God allows them to happen. They will continue to impact our fallen world until God chooses to step in and put a permanent end to them. But He is still here WITH us through the storms and sicknesses and trials of life.
  • God’s voice is often gentle and comforting. Panic and fear are loud and insistent. We will hear the voice we focus on most. God whispers in our ear if we are listening to Him– if we concentrate on spending time with Him. How much of my time today was spent in Scripture and prayer? How much of it spent listening to the news or reading FB posts full of anger and confusion?
  • Sometimes, in the good times, we pay God lip service; taking for granted that He is there, but not acknowledging His presence. Sure, we say that He walks with us (or we walk with Him); but we don’t take a moment to look up and see where He is leading us. Instead of being close to God by following our Shepherd, we are close to Him because He is chasing us down to bring us back to the right path. He is right there, but in our panic, we don’t see Him, because He is no longer leading us.
  • Fear and panic draw our attention inward. It’s one of the reasons “social distancing” causes emotional distress. We are social creatures, but our focus is easily drawn inward, and more so when there seem to be no other people around. Our own thoughts, fears, and questions grow bigger– enough to consume us if we are not careful.
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God IS with us–let’s rejoice and embrace it:

  • Pray. Pray some more. Pray without ceasing! (2 Thessalonians 5:17)
  • Let God speak– meditate on God’s word. Meditate on His names and His character.(Psalm 19) Seek out websites that magnify God. Call or e-mail friends who can pray or praise with you.
  • Sing! Worship the God who is bigger than any crisis we may face. Sing at the top of your lungs– if you are alone, there is no one else to hear you, but the one who adores your “joyful noise” (Psalm 100)
  • Encourage others– Be the reminder that someone else needs today. (1 John 4)
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I Will Fear No Evil

These are fearful days. As I write this, the world is reeling from the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. There are travel bans and business closures; people are hoarding hand sanitizer, soap, and toilet tissue, bread and bottled water.

But what do we really fear? The Coronavirus is dangerous– even potentially deadly–but so is the “regular” flu (to a lesser extent). Many people will suffer from the Coronavirus for a few days, only to recover and return to “normal”life. The economic reverses and closures, while temporarily devastating, will come to an end, as well.

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In many ways, the real fear is, as Franklin Roosevelt once said, “fear, itself.” Panicked people hoarding basic supplies leave us wondering if we will face food shortages, or be left without any way to protect ourselves from the spread of this disease. We fear the rumors, the exaggerated stories, the dire possibilities and predictions. We fear over-reacting and inviting unnecessary dangers, and we fear under-reacting and taking unnecessary risks. We even begin to fear those close to us– are they telling us the truth? Are they giving us helpful advice? Do we trust their sources of information?

In the midst of this atmosphere, there are three mistakes I think we need to avoid as Christians:

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  • Panic– the world around us reacts with fear. We are told, again and again in scripture, not to be afraid, not to worry, and not to fret. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” (Psalm 23:4) Why can we keep calm when the rest of the world succumbs to fear? “For Thou art with me..” (v. 5a) No set of circumstances– even a worldwide pandemic– are a match for God’s omniscience, His power, or His mercy. We may not know the future, but God does. He knows how this chapter of the story ends. He knows what we need, and how to supply it; He knows every cell of our bodies, and every virus in the atmosphere. And, while He may not supernaturally stop this disease in its tracks, He will give us wisdom to respond in ways that may limit the spread and severity of COVID-19– and even teach us lessons to face the next crisis.
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  • Over-confidence–the Psalmist says, “I will fear no evil.” That doesn’t mean that I will take no caution, make no plan to protect my loved ones and myself, or feel no concern over adverse conditions. It is very tempting to put on a show of bravado in the face of worldly panic; to project confidence in ourselves and disdain for danger. Our confidence doesn’t lie in ignoring the very real dangers and struggles ahead– our confidence lies in knowing that God is ALWAYS in control. We should have a healthy concern in the weeks ahead. We should not berate those who express worries–we should direct them toward our source of comfort and strength, not waste time bragging or sneering.
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  • Isolation– times of crisis bring out the best or worst in us. Panic and over-confidence can make us step back and close ourselves off to those in need. We need to be wise to ways that we can offer practical help and spiritual guidance to those around us. How can we offer to share burdens? Ease financial difficulties? Help deliver food or medicine to those in quarantine? Offer shelter or hospitality to those displaced by quarantine or travel bans? Help those who are grieving or stressed?
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Finally, notice that the Psalmist singles out the fear of evil. Panic will bring evil in its wake. Evil will need to be confronted and checked by those willing to fight it. We need to confront those who try to take advantage of others; we need to hold thieves and liars and fear-mongers accountable, as we combat their message of greed and panic. Not because we are here to judge; but because we are here to spread Grace and Peace, Blessing and Kindness. May we be more contagious than Coronavirus in bringing God’s power and Love to those who need it so desperately at this time.

Helpful links:

https://www.who.int/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/03/15/hospitals-are-overwhelmed-because-coronavirus-heres-how-help/

https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/15/success/small-businesses-coronavirus/index.html

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-51821470

https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/proclamation-national-day-prayer-americans-affected-coronavirus-pandemic-national-response-efforts/?utm_source=link

Paying for the Privilege

I read a most astonishing article the other day. Wealthy white American women are paying up to $2,500 for a meal and a gut-wrenching session about how racist and bigoted they are. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/03/race-to-dinner-party-racism-women?fbclid=IwAR12AvWdTyht5RV0vfBfZ5XUEnA4441GU8efLSX8xtdfePI2R9KEesCipI8 Over a fancy dinner, they discuss how their privilege has caused them to ignore and deny the needs and rights of others, based largely on prejudices and fear.

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I won’t waste space to analyze all that I think is wrong with this scenario– but I will say the following:

  • $2,500 is a lot of money for most Americans, let alone many others around the world.
  • Talk is (according to the old phrase) cheap.
  • If having difficult talks over a plate of overpriced pasta and wine could solve major problems, I’m shocked that no one else has tried it.

I’m dismayed by this article. I hope that some good comes from these efforts, but I don’t expect such tactics to end racism, bigotry, or ignorance. These women are paying for a privilege on top of all their other privileges– the right to feel righteous and “woke” to lingering problems that have never personally touched them. It would not occur to them to invite 10 women who don’t look like them, don’t live like them, don’t speak like them, and don’t dress like them to come to dinner. They would not share their hospitality, their fine china, or their fancy dessert with a working-class woman with olive skin and an accent, or a single mother fighting to make ends meet and losing the battle– of any skin color. They might give another $2,500 to a homeless shelter or soup kitchen– they would not befriend anyone who needed those services, however.

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Most importantly, they are likely to believe that by “owning” their prejudices, they are absolved of their responsibility to “love their neighbor as themselves.” They can be comfortable in the belief that their feelings “do them credit” and make them better than others who “are in denial” about their “subconscious biases” and “micro-aggressions” toward the people with whom they interact. They may take high-minded actions to force the government to “deal with” people less fortunate than they, but they will take no steps to get involved personally with the families who suffer from injustice and poverty just outside the gates of their exclusive communities.

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But what about me? I may sneer at the hypocrisy and foolishness of others, but what am I doing? Am I any different from the ladies who leave me shaking my head? What do I say and do to combat ignorance, hatred, racism, classism, and injustice?

Lord, my prayer today is that I would pour out compassion– even on these ladies–and on those who need it most. Your heart is that all of us would live in peace and lovingkindness. Help me to see my neighbors as you see them–ALL my neighbors. All the time.

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The real privilege is not of wealth or comfort. The real privilege is to learn to love and be loved as Jesus loves– freely, sacrificially, whole-heartedly and without limit.

Solitary Prayer?

So often when I pray, I do so in isolation, and I think of it as a solitary activity.  I am communicating with God– often silently–it is a private conversation.  Or is it?

At any given moment on any given day, millions of prayers are ascending to Heaven.  Consider the arithmetic of prayer– millions of prayers, millions of pray-ers, and God is part of each one–twice the number of participants.  But God is triune– so now there are four participants in every “personal” prayer, and four participants for every one in a group prayer!  It’s mind-blowing to think of all the spiritual investment that is happening through prayer at this very instant around the world.  And in heaven?  Our prayers ascend; God likens our prayers to incense– a pleasing aroma.  If I light a scented candle, or burn incense, the aroma is not personal– it permeates the air, penetrates my clothing, clings to my hair, lingers and touches on all who are nearby.  This doesn’t diminish the intimacy of prayer, but transcends it, and transforms it.  God is relational– from the intimacy of private prayer to the glory of his kingdom– he wants us to belong, to share, and to love.  Love doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  It is not a solitary activity, nor one in which anyone is “just a number.”

I think we are often deceived and intimidated by numbers and statistics.  We sometimes feel very small and powerless and alone.  We measure our prayers by their duration or the number of our words, or how small our perceived influence.  We pray alone or in a tiny group, or seem to get swallowed in a crowd, and we think our prayers travel a linear path to God’s ears and they are ended.  May our eyes be opened to the reality that we are never alone, never helpless, and never unimportant to God–that our prayers, like incense, linger, radiate, and echo as they ascend.

God uses the small and humble things in life to confound those who think they are wise and powerful and important.  He is the God who changes our suffering into sufficiency, and our abiding into abundance.  He multiplies our faith, and increases our joy; he divides our sorrows and cancels out our sin.  He hears our every sigh.  He dries our every tear.  He knows our every thought.  He inhabits the praises of his people– let that sink in as we pray today.

 

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Prayer In the Digital Age

Wilt thou love God, as He thee? then digest,
My soul, this wholesome meditation,
How God the Spirit, by angels waited on
In Heaven, doth make His Temple in thy breast.
The Father, having begot a Son most blest,
And still begetting (for he ne’er begun),
Hath deigned to choose thee, by adoption,
Coheir to His glory and sabbath’s endless rest;
As a robbed man which by search doth find
His stol’n stuff sold must lose or buy again,
The Son of glory came down, and was slain,
Us whom He had made, and Satan stol’n, to unbind.
‘Twas much that man was made like God before,
But that God should be made like man, much more.
John Donne, Holy Sonnets 1633, No. 11

 

In the Garden

1 I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses;
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.

Refrain:
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

2 He speaks, and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing. [Refrain]

3 I’d stay in the garden with Him
Tho’ the night around me be falling;
But He bids me go; thro’ the voice of woe,
His voice to me is calling. [Refrain]

Baptist Hymnal, 1991

 

Sanctus Real– Pray (You Tube)

 

Times have changed– God has not.

God does not have a Facebook or Twitter account; he’s not in Pinterest or Instagram.  He doesn’t post selfies or have a blog.  But he is the same God that Adam and Eve walked with in the Garden of Eden; the same God who spoke to Moses as a man speaks to his friend.  He is the same God who listened to the impassioned Psalms of King David, and the lamentations of Jeremiah.  He is the same God who has inspired awe and fear in the hearts of apostles, poets, philosophers, songwriters, and evangelists over the centuries.

When we come before God, it is tempting to see him through the lens of our own times– we want him to be one of our “peeps”, accessible, someone who will answer a text or voice mail, “like” our post or “follow” us as we babble about our hours and days and show pictures of what we had for dinner or what we looked like heading out to the concert. We want him to be about US, instead of us laying down our lives for HIM.

Media– especially social media, can help or hinder our prayer life.  We can access all kinds of helpful tools to focus our prayers, link up with prayer partners and groups, listen to inspiring music or peaceful slide shows for meditation…  But more often than not, media becomes a distraction or even a substitution for real, serious, personal communication with God.

God is not our virtual friend; he’s not one of our “peeps” or “the man upstairs.”  He is the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe– every galaxy created at his command; every particle obedient to his whim.  And he has given us the privilege to come before him as his adopted and beloved children to lay our hearts before him and receive his wisdom, forgiveness, strength, and joy.  “Liking” your friends’ posts with Bible verses, sending a thumbs up or an emoji when someone puts up a picture of Jesus on their wall–if that’s the sum total of what you call worship, God has another name for it– Idolatry.

That may seem really harsh, but Idolatry is ANYTHING that we are worshiping in place of God himself.  There’s a reason we don’t have statues of God the Father in temples and churches, synagogues, and chapels around the world.  God warned us thousands of years ago about the dangers of creating substitutes.  Even things that are meant to remind us of him can become substitutes for worship.  That doesn’t mean that the crucifix necklace or the picture of Jesus knocking at the door are automatically evil– but when we stop reaching out to the real God, and focus on a false image, no matter how lovely or touching, we can fall into idolatry.  And the distractions of the digital age have been shown to create isolation and depression, and become impediments among our human relationships..  We don’t have meaningful meditation or intimate conversations online with people at the other end– what makes us think that wireless devices will bring us closer to God?

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use technology to enhance our worship–just don’t make it an entertaining substitute for the real thing.  You wouldn’t (or at least I hope you don’t) text and catch up on Twitter while having a face-to-face and heart-to-heart talk with your spouse or child..give God the honor, the time, and the respect he deserves.  You don’t have to live like a stone age hunter to get some alone time with God, but it is a great idea to set aside some time to unplug from media and the noise of this world, and plug into the wonder of meeting with God in the Garden.pexels-photo-130154.jpeg

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