For many, this Christmas will be bittersweet– we have suffered greatly; some of us are still reeling from loss and grief. Others are living with fear and confusion about the future. In many ways, our situation is not so different from that first Christmas in Bethlehem. We feel “taxed” by events and circumstances. The world seems dark and dreary and cold. More than ever, we need to listen for the song of the Angels– for “good news of great joy, which shall be to all people.”
And, maybe more than ever in our lifetime, we need to be like the shepherds–eager to seek out the gift of the newborn Savior; Eager to embrace the wonder of Emmanuel; eager to share the hope we find at the manger. Hallelujah! Unto US a child is given; unto US a son is born! (Isaiah 9:6)
I’ve been writing a lot about Advent and Christmas lately, rather than focusing on Pursuing Prayer. But they are part of the same whole. I pursue a life of prayer precisely because Jesus came in the flesh and lived and died and rose again. I believe in the power of prayer because Jesus modeled how to pray– even as He faced betrayal and death. I believe in the gift of prayer because Jesus prayed for me long before I was ever born (see John 17). I pursue prayer with confidence because Jesus keeps His promises.
It is important to spend time alone with God, but it is also necessary that we spend time with others. This may not always be possible in a physical sense. This past year of pandemic and lockdowns has kept many of us apart. Even church services, Bible study groups, and “fellowship” events have been limited or suspended. But we have other ways of being “together.” Phones, internet, and letters are just a few of the ways we can stay in touch. And prayer is another. This is nothing new, but I’ve been reminded recently that prayer is more than just a personal pursuit. It is also a corporate pursuit. We do not live alone, and we do not pray in a vacuum.
It can be tempting to feel isolated and even apathetic when we are forced by circumstances to spend more time alone. We often succumb to the lure of “escapism”– binge-watching, gaming, or other forms of mindless entertainment to pass the lonely hours. It is not “wrong” to relax or be entertained for a time, but we can lose sight of our purpose and “sleep-walk” through our days, losing opportunities to connect with others and be a blessing (and be blessed in return)!
The term, “esprit de corps” is used by tight-knit groups– military units, dance and theatre groups, etc.–to describe their unity, devotion, and camaraderie. It should be natural for us to apply this same phrase to Christ-followers. After all, we are the “corps”– the body– of Christ! To pray for and with one another should be a given, and a “core” feature of the Church. To stay in touch, to build up and encourage one another, to forgive, accept, and protect one another, to defend the honor of the Church and ALL its members– this should go without saying. But I’m saying it here, because I see so many examples of division, in-fighting, finger-pointing, shaming, and other nonsense. And I’m saying it because I see so many examples of people like me, who withdraw, stay silent, and allow ourselves to become weary and jaded, instead of reaching out and pulling together. (Hebrews 10:23-25)
I pray everyday for people from around the world– but am I willing to pray for those down the street who hurt my feelings last week? Am I willing to risk reaching out to call or write to someone who may be discouraged, or having doubts and struggles? Do I pray with gusto; eager to lift others up and bring blessing to them, even in difficult times? Do I cheer on fellow believers, even if we disagree about politics or music? Do I champion the Church, even when some believers or even congregations bring momentary shame to the name of Christ?
“Esprit de corps” is not a phrase of apathy, or discouragement. It is not just an idealistic motto. It is not a phrase of grudging duty to a group or idea. It is bold, and forward-looking. It is united and strong. Just as the Body of Christ must be in the days ahead. For more info on corporate/group prayer, see https://www.compellingtruth.org/corporate-prayer.html
BTW– There are several terrific prayer groups online–Groups that pray for your requests; groups that share requests locally; groups that pray globally for healing or intercession; groups that will connect you to local churches or Bible studies. *As with any online activity, please be careful. Not every group that calls itself “Christian” or talks about prayer is legitimate. Avoid sites that seek to get personal identifying information, or ask you to send a fee to join their group. Many local churches will be happy to add you to their “prayer chain” to pray for (and/or encourage or visit) people in your own community. Other church groups may have “Zoom” or “Skype” prayer meetings, or other corporate prayer opportunities.
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.
I know many Christians who cite Philippians 4:13 as their favorite verse: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” And while this is a powerful verse, and holds great promise, I think it has been misused and taken out of context too often in recent years.
The Apostle Paul wrote this– from a prison cell as he awaited trial and a likely sentence of death! And this thought is a summary statement. It follows a list of circumstances in which Paul had experienced needs, and questions, and setbacks, and lack of provision.
In this season of “sheltering in place,” I have a new appreciation for Paul’s letter. I am not in jail, but there are many restrictions (temporary, but seemingly endless) on where I can go and what activities I can pursue in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. I cannot “do all things” in any normal sense. My family could not gather for Mother’s Day this year. We cannot have friends over for a meal, or take our grandchildren to the movies, or meet together for a traditional church service on Sundays. I cannot open my little shop to customers. I can’t go and get a haircut or hang out at the bakery or coffee shop.
And there are others who are struggling, not just with restrictions, but with increased expectations. They cannot “do all things” to help a dying patient, or stop the spread of infection in their nursing home or hospital ward. They cannot answer frenzied questions about timelines and protocols. They cannot work effectively from home and still be available to their children as both parent and surrogate teacher. Or, they cannot meet the needs of their students without face-to-face interaction.
But Paul is not talking about the mere completion of a worldly task, or achieving a personal goal. Paul isn’t suggesting that he (or anyone else) can do anything and everything he might want to do or that others might wish him to do. He has just finished talking about times of lack, of wants and needs and facing uncertainties. Paul did not (even with Christ’s help) skip lightly around Asia Minor, making friends and influencing people.
So what DID he do? What did he mean by “all things?”
Paul speaks often throughout his letter of “running a race.” Paul learned that in all circumstances, with whatever resources, whatever restrictions, and whatever obstacles, he could “run” his race. Under persecution or in times of great success; in times of plenty, or in times of hunger; in prison or on the road (or seas); in Jewish synagogues or Greek amphitheaters; alone or in crowds– Paul could worship God. He could proclaim the Gospel. He could spread the love and grace of Christ Jesus. If he couldn’t travel, he could still speak. If he couldn’t speak, he could write. If he couldn’t write, he could pray. He could do “all things” that were necessary to accomplish his one goal– to run the race; to finish strong; to live a life of purpose and worship.
May we do the same today, through Christ, who gives us strength. I may not be able to gather with friends, but I have the blessing of being able to call, or e-mail, or IM, or send encouragement. I can still write this blog. I can still pray– in fact I have more time to do so! I can do “all things” that will fulfill my purpose and bring honor to God. And so can you. What a privilege–no matter where we are or what our circumstances!
In some ways, all days are the same. They are 24 hours long; they include a morning and an evening (though in some parts of the world one always seems to be shorter than the other as we go through a typical year); and they fall into predictable patterns of weeks, months, season, and years. So we can identify a particular day as Tuesday, the 4th of September, or the 73rd day of the year 2019, or even the first day of summer, but Wednesday will follow Tuesday, October will follow September, and the 73rd day of the year will follow the 72nd.
Lately, days seem to blend together and get lost, as predictable routines have been put “on hold” due to a global pandemic. People complain about having “too much time” on their hands, or getting confused about what day it is, because it seems more than ever just like the day before. But that is only perception. Each day still contains 24 hours, and still follows the patterns set up by God when He set the universe in motion. God’s incredible design means that we can find comfort and stability in knowing that there won’t suddenly be a day with 77 hours, or six Mondays in a row, or a year without a summer (though sometimes it may feel like it)! Seemingly endless winters or dry seasons may be discouraging and even deadly, and we need to be prepared and willing to adapt to the challenges they bring, but we don’t need to give in to panic or despair.
According to the prophet Jeremiah, in the book of Lamentations, God’s mercies are new every morning. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Lamentations+3%3A22-23&version=CSB God never gives us yesterday’s blessings, or tomorrow’s mercy. God gives us just what we need, when we need it (when we ask, and often even when we don’t)! God never loses track of what day it is, what season we are in, or what will come tomorrow. So if you’re stuck wondering if this is Sathursday, the 41st of Marprilmay, or if you missed summer because it was on Wednesday this year, know that God’s provision, His Mercy, and His timing are sufficient, perfect, and brand new for Today. You didn’t miss it; you won’t be locked out of tomorrow’s portion, and yesterday’s disappointments don’t have to follow you into next week.
God is ready to meet each of us in a new, pure, fresh way EVERY day. No expiration date; no appointment necessary. We don’t need to sign in, fill out paperwork, follow seventeen safety codes, show ID, or wait in line.
So whatever day it is–and whatever kind of day it has been so far–prayer brings us to a God of order and design, a God of renewal and refreshment, and a God of Mercy and Grace beyond all time and space.
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!
During the global COVID-19 pandemic, churches are being asked to suspend meetings– worship services, Bible studies, prayer meetings–all must be conducted via internet, or some other remote broadcasting option. This will be the first Easter in modern memory when millions of people will be unable to celebrate in church.
I miss going to church. I miss seeing and talking to my friends. I miss singing as a congregation, and praying together. I miss my weekly Bible study group, my Sunday School group, and I miss seeing the kids jumping and twirling and full of energy. I miss visiting the “house of the Lord.”
But there are three very important things this time is teaching me:
I miss “visiting” the house of the Lord, not “dwelling” there. There is a huge difference. As a member of the “body” of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), I live and move and have my being (Acts 17:28) IN Him. I do not “visit” the body– I AM part of the body– which brings me to..
The building is NOT the “Church.” Our church is still operating– just in different ways for the different circumstances. Members are making phone calls, sending e-mails, greeting cards, and creating web content to help share resources, provide encouragement and prayer support, and inspire others. We’ve been praying for those who are battling COVID-19— some are suffering from the disease; others are on the front lines– doctors, nurses, emergency workers, “essential” services workers in groceries, post offices, truckers, and more; some are suffering financially from lay-offs and losses. We are sharing specific names and needs as they arise–church members, neighbors, extended family, needs close to home or around the globe. Even if we are not meeting face-to-face in a particular building, we are still The Church, and I am “dwelling” there.
We have been asked to “shelter in place”– to stay in our dwellings. And that is precisely what God asks of us, as well. We need to dwell in the House of the Lord through this crisis. He is our shelter, our place of safety, and our rest. Instead of seeing this as a negative, or a set-back, we can use this time to celebrate the safety of our eternal dwelling place– safe in the arms of our Savior!
Finally, I WILL dwell in the House of the Lord– I already am a member of the body; I already dwell in unity with the Church; I already live in the presence of God and with His Spirit– someday I will dwell with Him face-to-face in the same kind of intimacy I am missing now with my fellow believers. What I am missing now should cause me to be joyful! This is temporary– what will be is eternal and will never be interrupted by disease, distance, or the imperfections of our current fallen world.
COVID-19 is the visitor– unwelcome, scary, dangerous, yes, but as a child of God, I dwell in the House of the Lord– and COVID-19 can’t change that for me or for anyone else who calls on the name of Jesus! Ever!
“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.
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?
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.
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)
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” (Psalm 23:4a KJV)
The world is waking up to a global pandemic as I write this. Over 100,000 cases worldwide have been diagnosed; thousands have died. Projections are dire, with the possibility of millions of people who will need to be quarantined or hospitalized, and several thousands more dead before the year is out. Panic has already set in– people are hoarding cleaning supplies, stealing medicines and masks from hospitals, demanding testing long before they show any symptoms, and spreading rumors and false information about how the disease is spread or ways to prevent its spread.
In the midst of chaos, fear-mongering, and panic, the Bible provides both comfort and practical wisdom to face times of struggle and crisis. Psalm 23, often used to comfort people in times of grief, actually says a lot more about life than death. We have no need to panic– even though we find ourselves in unknown, unfamiliar, and threatening situations.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
Yea, though–Not “if”, or even “when” I walk through tough times, but “though.” Death is inevitable and unpredictable, and the shadow of death, the threat of our mortality, will fall on us, often when we least expect it. Even without a traumatic event, like a pandemic, we all must travel this valley path at some point. A crisis like COVID-19 is unsettling, but death and disease wasn’t invented last year, and whatever steps we take to prevent or treat COVID-19 will not stop death or its shadow from touching our lives. Nor will panic and fear, denial, or wishful thinking make death’s shadow dissipate. It is wise to face the reality of this crisis with truth and the proper perspective.
I–Not “we.” We are surrounded by others who may share much of our fear, our grief, or our confusion at a time like this. But, when we walk through this valley, it is deeply personal, and our reactions, perspectives, beliefs, and emotions will be uniquely experienced. One of the most difficult things about times of crisis is the isolation we may feel when others cannot enter into our thoughts and hearts and painful emotions. Especially when they are dealing with similar fears and pain. Not only is this valley dark and low, it is often narrow. Even so, God is still present and powerful. We can turn to others for advice, comfort, or even excuses. But no one else can walk the road beneath our feet; no one else can choose whether we will focus on the shadows we see or the light beyond the shadows.
Walkthrough— There is a great temptation to try to hurry through any crisis– to look for the shortcut– the immediate cure; the escape hatch; the high ground; the detour. God’s love doesn’t give us the promise of ease and escape. God does not ask us to sprint through this part of our life’s journey. But God gives us the grace and power to keep walking– this valley is not the destination, but part of the longer race. This leg of the journey is difficult; there will be darkness, rocks and walls closing in on us; we may feel the cold finger of death, disease, and loss. Some days our walk may feel more like a crawl–but take heart and keep moving through.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death–Death is stark, uncompromising, cold, and overwhelming. Its shadow looms huge and oppressive. But the valley is not death; the shadow is NOT death; and even the reality of death is not bigger or more powerful or more eternal than God. COVID-19 will bring death to many thousands or millions of people, and it will bring sickness, fear, pain, grief, and distress to many more. But it cannot kill God– it cannot dim His great love for each person who suffers; it cannot catch God off guard and unprepared. We may question God’s timing and purpose. We may face hardship, loss, and confusion in the days and months ahead. But we will not face anything– even COVID-19– that can weaken God’s sovereignty. The same hand that raised Lazarus from the dead; the same power that rolled the stone away at Easter; the same Shepherd that led David all the days of his life–the One who holds galaxies in his hand and has numbered every hair on your head–He walks through this valley with us!
As God gives us wisdom, let us seek positive ways to reach out to those in crisis. Pray! Pray often, and fervently for those who are sick, and those who work in healthcare. Pray for wisdom, that our nations, regions, and communities will respond proactively and compassionately. And pray for opportunities to demonstrate and share God’s grace and mercy.