“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)
“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.
**Spoiler alert** If you have not seen this movie, or read the book, I will be disclosing large portions of the plot in the paragraphs below.
I love the movie, The Princess Bride. Though it is not a “spiritual” tale, and not meant to be a Christian allegory, I find a lot of Biblical truth in this story. In my last post, I looked at the skeptic, Vizzini, whose exaggerated claims of intellect and trust in his own brilliance lead to his downfall.
Today, I want to look at one of his sidekicks– Inigo Montoya. Inigo is a reluctant mercenary. He works for Vizzini “just to pay the bills.” His only real ambition is to find his father’s killer and demand vengeance. This has been his guiding ambition for over 20 years, and he is committed to killing his father’s murderer in a duel– if only he can find the elusive villain!
Inigo knows three things– he knows the villain roams free and has never been brought to justice; he carries the scars from his own failed sword fight with the man, so he knows his skill and ruthlessness; and he knows the man has six fingers on his right hand. He doesn’t know the man’s name or rank, where he lives, what he does for a living, if he still lives, if he has a family– he really doesn’t know how or where to look for him, and he has no plan beyond challenging the man to a rematch to avenge his father.
I cannot condone Inigo’s thirst for vengeance https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+12%3A19&version=ESV, nor his half-baked plan to achieve his goal. But Inigo’s great love for his father and his belief in justice make him a likable character. Unlike Vizzini, Inigo seems concerned for the princess’s welfare and fate, and reluctant to be involved in something that could lead to her harm (or even death). Once he meets the “man in black” who comes to rescue the princess, he treats him with honor and admires his courage and skill, even as he is pledged to try to stop him. He allows his foe to catch his breath, prepare for battle, and even shares his sad tale in the hopes that the man in black can help him find his Nemesis.
Inigo isn’t a very good villain; he is too honorable, too ready to help others he meets along the way. But he attracts miracles along his journey, and I’d like to look at three-and-a-half miracles today.
Miracles come in different types. Some are miracles of preservation; some are miracles of healing; some of transformation.
Inigo’s first “miracle” is actually a series of miracles of preservation. Three times, Inigo is involved in sword battles, and three times he is preserved. At age eleven, he watches as his father is ruthlessly slaughtered by the villainous six-fingered man. Inigo tries to fight for his father’s honor, but is defeated. The six-fingered man leaves him scarred and humiliated, but considers Inigo nothing more than a “brat,” and considers that he has “taught him a lesson,” so he lets him live. It doesn’t seem like a miracle, but Inigo is given a chance to grow up, when he easily could have been killed. He uses this opportunity to become a great swordsman, so he can find his father’s killer and challenge him to a rematch! When Inigo challenges the mysterious man in black, he is formidable in battle, yet he loses. He is winded, scratched, and disarmed by the stranger, and expects to be killed. Yet, again, he is spared– this time out of respect. The stranger renders him unconscious, but does not kill him. Inigo recovers and finally gets the chance for vengeance against his nemesis, Count Rugen. He challenges the Count to a duel. But the Count cheats, and Inigo is gravely wounded before the battle even begins. Miraculously, he finds the strength of body and will to continue the fight. Struggling against the loss of blood, the taunts of his enemy, and his own sense of failure, Inigo continues to fight, gaining strength and momentum, until he wins–bringing justice to his father, and defeating his enemy.
The second miracle is one of guidance. Inigo needs help to reach his goal of finding and confronting Count Rugen. He needs the help of the very man he fought earlier– the mysterious man in black. But the tables have turned. The man in black has been taken captive and tortured. Inigo must find and rescue him. In desperation, he prays for guidance. He enlists God’s help in locating the man who can help him. But his prayer seems to go unanswered. He stumbles around in the woods, lost and defeated. Finally, he leans against an old tree–and in doing so, he triggers the secret door leading to the torture chamber where the man in black lies, left for dead.
The third miracle is one of revival and restoration. The man in black seems to be dead, so Inigo and his friend, Fezzik, take the body to a man named Miracle Max, to be brought back to life. Of course, this is a fairy tale (though a fractured one). We don’t expect to find miracle workers in the middle of a forest. But we often pray for miracles in hospital wards, courtrooms, and rescue shelters. God sends miracles– but he often does so through the skills and willingness of others. In this case, Miracle Max delivers a crushing blow– he does not have the power to bring someone back from the dead. However, the man is black is NOT dead; he is only “mostly” dead. Miracle Max concocts a restorative potion, delivered in a chocolate-coated pill. The man in black makes a halting, but timely, recovery, allowing Inigo to track down the evil Count and bring him to justice. (It also allows the man in black to finish his quest, rescue the Princess and defeat her wicked fiance.)
After three miracles, Inigo finishes his quest and faces a surprising new problem. His whole life has centered around revenge. Now that he has achieved his goal, he has no future; he has lost his sense of purpose. And this is where the “half” miracle happens. Inigo’s character is noble, even if his obsession with vengeance has been unhealthy. Along the way, he has befriended Fezzik, and rescued a man who was deemed to be an enemy. He has fought bravely and with honor, and has not been corrupted by money, power, or violence. His new friend, the man in black, offers him the chance to start over– as the Dread Pirate Roberts! (Lest this sound truly “dreadful”, it has already been explained that the name and reputation are what brings terror into the hearts of the other pirates..once again, this is a fairy tale, where pirates can be heroes.)
Inigo Montoya is a flawed character– he is a drunkard, a mercenary, living with years of failure and haunted by his thirst for revenge. He is not wicked in the same way as Count Rugen or the evil Prince Humperdink, but he is lost, confused, angry, bitter, and unable to save himself. He is a sympathetic character because he is a lot like many of us. But Inigo’s life is transformed by miracles– mostly unsought–giving him the opportunity to start a new life, make new friends, and explore new opportunities.
What unsought, and even unacknowledged, miracles have come into your life? How many times has God preserved your life, guided you in unexpected directions, provided healing or renewal to your physical, emotional, or spiritual being, and given you unexpected new opportunities?
God doesn’t always give us an instant or dramatic miracle– even when we pray for one. Sometimes, he allows us to collapse against a tree, or be scarred by our enemies, or spend twenty years chasing a quest only to find ourselves unfulfilled at the end of it.
One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” Based on a modern “fractured” fairy tale by William Goldman, it tells the story of a young couple whose “fairy tale” romance is complicated by his death, her kidnapping on the eve of her wedding to an evil prince, and rodents of unusual size…
One of the kidnappers is a Sicilian mercenary named Vizzini. Vizzini brags about his intellect, and claims to know more than anyone. He also claims that his plot to kidnap Princess Buttercup is perfect to the last detail. But when a mysterious stranger begins following them, and foils each of Vizzini’s efforts to shake him, Vizzini grows more and more rattled. His brilliant plan turns out to be less than perfect. In fact, the mysterious stranger (who turns out to be Princess Buttercup’s long-lost true love) succeeds in rescuing the princess and defeating Vizzini in a battle of wits.
As each of Vizzini’s efforts fails, he declares it is “inconceivable” that the stranger should win. Even in the face of clear evidence, Vizzini finds it unbelievable that his plan should have failed–and failed again! Finally, one of the other kidnappers turns to Vizzini and says, “You keep using this word; I do not think it means what you think it means”.
I often hear people scoff at faith in God– “it doesn’t make sense.” “There’s no proof that God exists.” “How can you believe all those old myths–Noah and the Ark; Moses and the Red Sea; David and Goliath–they’re impossible in ‘real life’.” “It’s inconceivable!” “Stop saying all that stuff about God!” “Stop saying you’ll pray for me.” “Prayer is nothing more than wishful thinking.”
And it can be difficult to have faith, sometimes. We don’t ‘see’ what God is doing in our lives and circumstances.” We don’t understand the bigger picture. We don’t believe that God sees or hears us in the middle of our struggles. But God tells us time and time again that nothing is impossible for Him; that He knows all that happens, and that He works all things together for the good of those who follow Him (Romans 8:28). God is able to do “exceedingly, abundantly, above all that we ask or think..”(Ephesians 3:20)
Those stories in the Bible; those “unbelievable” stories we hear or read about miraculous healings and lives transformed…we can choose to ignore them, or scoff at them. We can, like Vizzini, claim that they are “inconceivable,” or try to explain them away while trusting our own knowledge and experiences to get us through life. We can ignore the wise counsel of others, ignore our conscience, and laugh in the face of danger. But in the end, we are human. We are fallible. We are not all-knowing or all-powerful. And we are not immune to sin and its poisonous consequences. The only chance of escape is to be rescued by someone who is “immune” to sin– our Savior, Jesus the Lamb of God.
It may seem “inconceivable” that God would part the Red Sea, or save Noah in the Ark; it may seem beyond belief that Jesus would be born as a human, live among people who denied Him, die on the cross and be resurrected on the third day, so that He could take away the power of sin and death for anyone who will trust Him. But it is precisely this Good News that has transformed the lives of millions of people throughout the centuries since he came.
It may seem “inconceivable” that God would listen to our “little” prayers and care about our every need– but He does! His Love may be beyond our ability to comprehend or explain– His power extends beyond our wildest imagination. But if we have faith– even as small as a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20)– we can experience God’s Love, Power, Grace, and Salvation in miraculous ways.
I heard a phrase, an idiom, recently..one I hadn’t heard in many years: “I’m as good as dead.” It is an odd phrase, but English is filled with similarly odd sayings, like, “good as gold”, “good as finished”, or “a miss is as good as a mile.” “As good” in each case signifies being close to, or similar too, without being the same; nearly or akin to being. A child who is “good as gold” is one whose behavior is nearly faultless, whose actions and demeanor shine like gold. Someone who is “as good as dead” is someone who is either in very poor health or in dire trouble, and expects to die soon. “A miss is as good as a mile” refers to the idea that a miss, whether narrow or wide, is still a miss..an inch or a mile makes no difference. A puzzle of 1000 pieces, minus one, is still incomplete; missing one’s train by a minute or an hour still leaves one at the depot.
In hearing this phrase, “as good as dead,” I was arrested by the juxtaposition of “good” and “dead.” There is nothing good about death or dying, yet we don’t say, “I’m as bad as dead.” We compare being close to anything as being “good as..”
I think there is an important spiritual and psychological reason. Deep in our soul, we have a desire to be “good.” To be whole, and righteous, and complete. And we also know that we are not whole; not really “good” as we now are. We long to be “as good as” our aspirations; as good as…God. We spend our lives comparing and measuring and striving to be better, and closer to His perfection. And sometimes, we feel comparatively “good.” Other times, our goodness only seems to measure up to failure and death. https://www.theidioms.com/a-miss-is-as-good-as-a-mile/
But we cannot be “as good as dead” any more than we can be “as good as gold” or as good as God. Because “a miss is a good as a mile.” Being almost as good as God will never be enough to save us from the wages of sin, which is death. Being “almost dead” cannot separate us from God’s love, or His gift of everlasting life.
In the Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), there is a short story of a young man who struggles with this concept. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+10%3A17-27&version=NASB The young man asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” In asking the question, the young man already reveals a certain lack of understanding. An inheritance is not something that can be earned; it is a gift that can only be received by an heir after someone’s death. It can be accepted or rejected, or divided between many heirs. There may be stipulations or conditions– and this may be what the young man meant to find out–but inheritance is determined by the giver, not the conditions of the person or persons expecting to receive an inheritance. Secondly, the man assumes that whatever is required, he can accomplish it easily. He expects, in fact, the beginning of the answer Jesus gives him. But Jesus doesn’t begin with the answer. He cuts directly to the heart of the question: “Why do you call me ‘Good?’ No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18) At the heart of this man’s question is the desire to become “Good” like God– to earn eternal life– to be complete and whole through his own actions. This young man doesn’t want to be challenged. He wants to be justified, lauded, and congratulated on his own wisdom and performance. And Jesus starts by giving him the answer he expects. He lists several commandments– five things NOT to do, and one general principle (honor your parents). One can almost hear the sigh of relief from the young man. “I’m as good as guaranteed to get into heaven!”
But that’s when Jesus speaks again. He doesn’t offer a lengthy list of impossible feats; no pilgrimages or vows of silence, no special diets (not even a reminder to follow the Jewish dietary restrictions), no pledge to give more money to the Temple, or lead a rebellion against the Romans. Instead, He gives a single challenge– sell what you own and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven– followed by an offer to follow Him.
Jesus did not offer this challenge as a kind of “gotcha” to the man’s initial question. In fact, the Gospel of Mark says that Jesus felt a love for him as He responded, and a great sadness when the man walked away. But “a miss is a good as a mile.” The young man wanted to know what he could do to be (or if what he had already done was) “good enough” to inherit eternal life. He had done all the things he expected would be enough. He had compared his life and actions with others around him. But he had missed the heart of the matter– inheritance. When he walked away, he was depressed and discouraged– “as good as dead.” Not because there was no way for him to have eternal life, but because he could not hit the target; he could not do the one thing Jesus asked of him, and he could not trust Jesus enough to “follow” the “good” teacher.
The disciples, too, missed the point at first. Jesus had not given the young ruler a simple task in earthly terms. But it wasn’t the action that was difficult; it was the heart attitude. The young man wanted– he wanted the respect of the “good” teacher (not a relationship with Him), the acclaim of all those surrounding him, the honor and prestige his wealth had brought him, AND eternal life– because he was “as good as perfect” in his own eyes. He did not want eternal life more than any of these other things, but in addition to all of them, and by his own efforts.
Lord, forgive me for the times that I have wanted to earn eternal life for myself. Help me to seek you with all my heart, so that I may not miss the blessings you have for me by even the narrowest margin. And thank you, thank you(!) that in those times when I do stray and miss the point, I am not “as good as dead”, but you are always gracious and loving in showing me how to “follow you” and live!
For many years, I owned a cat named Galahad. He was not, as his name suggests, a brave, noble sort of cat. He was often skittery, nervous, demanding, or absent. As he got older, he was sometimes irascible, and hissed at strangers and children. But he could also be cuddly and engaging, playful, and present.
Like many pet cats, Galahad would “meow” when he wanted attention–if he wanted to play, or wanted more food, or wanted me to stop singing along with the radio (or wanted the radio to be silent). Recently, I read an article that analyzed the different types of “meows” of a pet cat, and claimed that cats do not “meow”, except to communicate with humans. See https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/all-dogs-go-heaven/201809/why-do-cats-meow-humans for more details. Cats have an entire language of “meows”– a language meant just for humans–to communicate their needs and moods more effectively. With other cats or other creatures, they communicate through scent, movement, growls and purring.
Galahad liked to “speak” to me, and I tried to respond to his needs and understand “his” language. But when Galahad was very happy, well-fed, content, or, late in life when we was in pain from arthritis, he would purr. This was intimate communication of a kind reserved for other cats and trusted humans. He would curl up in my lap, or near my feet, or on the bed by my side, and purr. Sometimes, he would lie, belly exposed, feet drawn up, head flopped back– completely vulnerable; completely relaxed–purring, snoring, drooling with absolute abandon.
When we pray, we often “meow”– we use formal prayer language, and try very hard to get God’s attention and express a variety of needs, as though God cannot understand an other expression. But God’s understanding goes beyond language. “26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27 NIV via http://www.biblegateway.com).
We don’t need to “meow” to get God’s attention. We can purr, content in the knowledge that God hears us, loves us, and knows our needs, wants, and moods– better than we know ourselves! In fact, God promises to keep “in ‘purr-fect’ peace” those whose minds are focused on Him; those who trust Him faithfully.
Several years ago, there was a popular song lamenting that, “all we are is dust in the wind.” The song evokes a feeling of helplessness– we are weak, small, and helpless as dust in the wind. It speaks of impermanence, brevity, sadness, and hopelessness in the face of forces greater than ourselves, and offers a warning not to “hang on” to earthly vanities.
The Bible speaks to this –God told Adam in the Garden of Eden that he would die and return to the dust from which he was formed (Genesis 2:7 and 3:19). Abraham was told that his seed would be “like the dust of the earth;” spread out across the earth and unable to be counted. The book of Job is filled with images of dust and ashes, as Job, homeless and afflicted, sits covered in them, talking of his life and death, and the emptiness of loss.
But there are surprisingly few references to dust in the New Testament. Jesus tells his disciples to visit cities, and where the people will not listen, the disciples are to leave and “shake the dust from (their) feet” as a testimony against them (Matthew 10:14; Mark 6:11; Luke 9:5)
There are two aspects of dust I want to look at today. First, as the song suggests, dust is carried along by the wind. It has no permanence, no weight, no importance, no resistance, and is swept away by a chance wind, or by design with a broom or dust cloth. Dust is not cherished, but discarded. But dust is not destroyed by the wind– it is carried, lifted, moved, and dispersed, but not destroyed. The dust of today will be somewhere else many generations from now, and the dust that settles on our floors, tables, and under the bed may have been blown there from thousands of miles and centuries away! In just such a way, our lives– fragile and brief, leave traces of words spoken, kindnesses shared, and sacrifices made, that live long after our bodies return to ashes and dust. There is an amazing glory in a mote of dust carried by the stillness into a beam of sunlight. It sparkles and dances and drifts in a graceful spiral, suspended in light and air. And there is glory in a life lived in the light, seeking stillness and grace, being carried by the slightest whisper of God’s eternal love.
Secondly, dust that is not in motion, not in the light, IS discarded, unwanted, corrosive, and dead. There is no glory in layers of accumulated dust covering the beauty of an antique dresser or building up in the corner of a room. Dust that is NOT carried on the wind sits, worthless and destructive. It gets absorbed into an unsightly pile of sad, dead matter, and it sits– going nowhere, doing nothing. We shake it off, brush it off, wash it off, sweep it away, and get rid of it.
Dust comes from death– dead skin cells, dead plant and animal matter–and I think there is a very real reason it is mentioned so often in connection with sin, sickness, unbelief, judgment, and death (though not in all cases). God does not want to leave us unmoved and dead– He wants to bring us to glory and give us new life in Him. We are dust in the wind– but that is not all we are. Instead, it is what we are for a brief moment in time– being carried to a new destination, or sinking and settling into despair.
I pray that we will be lifted up in prayer and faith today, to dance in the light of God’s glorious grace, and carry our mote of glory and grace to wherever God my send us.
As we approach the arrival of a new year, there is a lot of talk about vision–20/20 vision, that is. For the past few years, I’ve heard of companies, community groups, even churches using the year 2020 as a target date for planning, and using the phrase “2020 Vision” in their mission statements, fund-raising drives, and talking points.
The phrase comes from 20/20 vision, considered clear or “good” vision. Someone with 20/20 vision has no need of corrective lenses or surgery to improve their reading, or correct their sight. Figuratively, 20/20 vision suggests good planning or foresight. So it is desirable to plan with clear “vision” and forethought, rather than jumping into a project, or from one unmet goal to another.
But, while it’s clever to borrow the idea of 20/20 vision and tie it to the coming year, it doesn’t guarantee that our future plans will be wise or successful just because the calendar says 2020. In the same way, just because we have 20/20 vision, it doesn’t mean that we can see everything around us perfectly. We will see clearly those things on which we focus– those things that are right in front of us and not obstructed. Even with “good” vision, we cannot see things that are hidden from sight or things that are outside our scope of vision.
Even the old phrase, “Hindsight is 20/20 vision,” doesn’t mean that we will always gain clarity with time. Sometimes we understand past experiences in a different light after time has passed. But sometimes, we are still left wondering and asking about events from our past; no wiser or less damaged by setbacks or failures, and no better prepared for future trials and pains.
If vision, even good vision and planning, is no guarantee of future success, perhaps it would be better to trust to “blind faith.” After all, doesn’t the Bible say, “walk by faith, not by sight?” Except the Bible doesn’t exactly say that. Instead it says:
6 So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. 7 For we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.
This verse often gets taken out of context and twisted to suggest that “faith” is opposed to “sight,” and therefore faith must be “blind” to reason, experience, or reality. Many good articles and sermons have been written to clarify the concept (see one example here: https://www.biblestudytools.com/blogs/theologically-driven/walk-by-faith-a-misused-verse.html). Faith is not blind–or should not be blind. Rather, it utilizes the ability and practice of seeing what is hidden or indistinct in the present. If our faith is based on empty myth, rumor, conjecture, or cloud dreams, it is not faith at all–it is nothing more than a mirage. Faith is seeing beyond the obvious, the blatantly visible, and trusting more than just what we can immediately see. We don’t walk through life ignoring reality, or dancing across a superhighway full of speeding cars. But we see our circumstances as having hidden elements; our lives have unseen depths, and are lived on both physical and metaphysical spheres. There is more to life than meets the eye– and while faith may not always show us a clear picture of what lies beyond our sight, it causes us to know that something beyond our “20/20 vision” exists and matters.
The great old hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul,” speaks to this as well. No matter what our circumstances look like, we can have confidence that “It is well, it is well, with my soul!” “And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight..” We look forward, even as we look around, and look back to the finished work of Jesus our Savior. We see the present, but we walk in the knowledge that there is more than what our eyes behold.
Faith doesn’t negate the need to use our senses and common sense to navigate life. And using planning and vision for the future doesn’t negate the need for faith. Rather, they work together. And they work together best in prayer.
When we pray, we are exercising our faith– speaking to the One we do not see, though we know Him and trust Him. And we bring to Him our plans and visions and hopes and dreams. We lay them in His Hands, trusting that where our vision is “good,” He will empower and bless us; where our own vision is lacking, His Spirit will help us to refocus and see enough of what lies beyond to keep walking forward.
As we walk into a new year, may we have more than just 2020 vision– may we have faith and hope in the One who has perfect vision!
I spent a good portion of my adult life working in positions where my value rested in my ability to impart knowledge and answer questions. As a teacher, my job was to guide students into a base of knowledge about the English language (and especially spoken communication) so that they would be prepared to adequately speak, read, write, explain, defend, and use it. I was expected to know enough about grammar, spelling, connotations of words, nonverbal communication, sound logic (and fallacies to avoid), presentation, tone of voice, etc., to enable students to improve their communication and use language more effectively in their careers, academic endeavors, business dealings, and even in personal relationships. If they had questions about word choices, written or spoken directions, propaganda techniques, advertising tricks, euphemisms, or a hundred other topics, I was expected to have an answer– and one that would shape their ability to succeed. When I made the transition to working in a public library, my job was to have answers– which books were at the appropriate reading level for various elementary students; where could someone find information about manatees; who wrote the Captain Underpants books (Dav Pilkey); did our library loan out encyclopedia volumes or sets of early reader books; could our library borrow a rare book from another library; what was the capital of Uganda (Kampala); did we have books that might help a child coping with the loss of a pet, or a parent struggling with toilet-training their toddler; where could someone find … the list was endless and extraordinarily varied. My job was to have an answer– or know where to find it.
At no time was it expected that I would simply answer “I don’t know.” Even if I didn’t know in the moment, I was expected to search until I found an answer that was sufficient and satisfactory. However, in each case, I found situations where my “answer,” while satisfactory to me, and even to everyone else I had dealt with, was not enough to satisfy the person in front of me. Sometimes, I had misunderstood the question and given an answer to what I heard or assumed I had heard. I needed to listen some more, or ask for clarification before I could answer the question correctly. Sometimes, the other person was looking for an answer that didn’t exist– either they wanted confirmation of a falsehood they believed to be true, or they wanted a single, absolute answer to a question that was complex and open-ended. In rare cases, there were questions for which I could find no satisfactory answer– it doesn’t mean that there was none, but I had not found it, nor had I found someone else who could find it in the time allowed. I might find an answer that was not satisfactory, or I might find seven possible answers, but not one that stood out from the others, or I would find nothing but dead ends.
The Apostle Peter tells each follower of Christ:
15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
1 Peter 3:15 & 16 (NIV via biblegateway.com)–emphasis added
This does not mean that we must completely satisfy everyone who asks– the curious neighbor who knows nothing of the Bible and has dozens of confusing questions, or the nay-saying agnostic with a single “gotcha” question. Nor must we fight and fuss and pound the Bible until we “win” every theological and metaphysical argument–because we won’t! There are many things about the Bible, about Spiritual matters, etc., for which we will not have absolute or definitive answers–and neither will they! (That’s why they ask, sometimes.) And those things that satisfy our longings, our questions, our doubts– sometimes don’t meet the needs of the one who is asking, not because the answers are deficient, but because we are all different in our needs, and understanding, and experiences.
Some people will listen to us merely to scoff and try to make us lose heart or make us look foolish. Others are afraid that our answer will make them feel lost or guilty. Some people have been hurt by others who have used the Bible as a cudgel or a whip– bringing shame, judgment, and contention wherever they go. We must not expect that our answers, our arguments, even our favorite scripture verses– that WE are enough to satisfy the questions, the doubts, and the spiritual needs of everyone we meet.
What we should always have is an answer for the hope that is in us– why have we chosen to believe? Why do we choose to trust when we do not know all the answers? And our answers should be given with gentleness and respect– not arrogance and snide judgment. I don’t have hope because I know answers to tough questions. In order to have that kind of hope, I would need to know all the answers to all the questions– even those I haven’t asked or imagined! I don’t know about the future– I can’t explain why God allows evil (there are compelling arguments for some reasons, but no absolute answer that stops the question)–I don’t know how God’s Spirit moves, or why He drew me to Himself. I cannot “prove” God to someone who is determined to deny Him– not because God doesn’t exist, but because He will not force anyone to accept Him in this life, and especially not because I said a few words based on my limited understanding. My job is not to explain God–only God is big enough and wise enough to do that– but to reflect His character in a changed nature, and to explain what God has done in my life to effect that change. My hope is in the ONE I choose to trust– the ONE who does have the answers! God has not promised to answer all our “what ifs” or our “whys”– but He has promised to answer all our needs, and to BE the answer in every situation, no matter how daunting.