Small essays about faith and life to lift your spirit and give you hope.
Small essays about faith and life to lift your spirit and give you hope.
Fear seems to be built into us. Even in the best of times, it lurks deep in our being. Like a stranger hiding in the bushes, it could leap out at any moment and snatch our predictable lives away. Well, in a sense, that’s what’s happened. In little more than an eye blink, we find ourselves facing a rapidly spreading, fear-inducing new virus, one that's flung our everyday expectations into an existential abyss while medical experts develop schemes to retard its spread, governments struggle to explain it and change continues to engulf nations, cities, neighborhoods, homes and lives.
Your favorite restaurant closes without warning, and the folks who worked there--people we knew and liked--stand on the sidewalk bewildered, without a job; families get quarantined; flights get cancelled; cruise ships can’t find a port that will take their passengers while churches close their doors, sports figures stand idle and governments grapple with economies that have fallen into a tailspin. People suffer. So we practice “social distancing” to "flatten the curve" and relieve the suffering, although we aren't quite sure if social distancing includes our parents, grandchildren and kindly Aunt Esther, who lives by herself on the far side of town. What’s more, the kids are housebound, bored with their digital babysitters and threatening to go over the wall (as we consider for a wild moment whether to let them). Overarching all of this, of course, is a word that heretofore had remained quietly in the background, except for its occasional appearance in history books, research studies, science fiction and chilling apocalyptic movies. Until now:
Pandemic. And there are so many questions!
Will there be work? Will there be school? Will there be travel? Will there be groceries? Will I get the virus? Or my family? Will there be toilet paper, for heaven’s sake?!
Even normal fears can upend our world--accidents, sickness, money problems, shattered relationships and other personal tragedies. But when something truly abnormal comes along, a turn of events so unlikely that it seems practically impossible (like a black swan), we can be stunned into becoming even more fearful.
It's fascinating to note that the word fear appears almost 400 times in Scripture (KJV). And, as if to punctuate that fact, Jesus promised his followers that they would see trouble. Yet, here’s something even more fascinating, pointed out by noted theologian R.C. Sproul in a radio broadcast shortly before his death in December of 2017: “The number one negative prohibition in the New Testament is ‘Don’t be afraid, fear not.'” Christ says it so often that “we miss it,” Sproul says. “It’s like hello and goodbye. Every time Jesus shows up it’s ‘Fear not’.”
Jesus knew all about fear. Picture him splayed on the ground, face down in the dirt of Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion, abandoned by his sleep-besotted friends and in anguish to the point of sweating blood. Jesus knew the cross was coming and, in his humanity, was still afraid. His disciples had no hint of the cruelties that soon would beset their Teacher, but neither could they see the new Truth glimmering unseen over the horizon, a Light that eventually would comfort them and, in time, reach through the centuries to comfort us, as well: "… the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding." (Philippians 4:6-7)
I experienced several emergency hospital stays during 2019. As I lay there connected to one medical device and then another, I felt unusually calm as the peace of God expressed in Philippians made its home in my heart. Isaiah also has spoken of peace to me over the years, especially during difficult times (26:3-4), so I knew that if I kept my thoughts on God instead of dwelling on my immediate circumstances, I likely (although not certainly) would be home from the hospital and recuperating within a few days.
Charles H. Spurgeon, the acclaimed Reformed Baptist preacher, told Londoners in his New Year’s message of 1884 that “If we will believe our God as he deserves to be believed … we shall be prepared for trials, and shall even welcome them as black ships laden with bright treasures.” When fear comes in the night its presence can batter our faith against the rocks. Yet, we know morning will come at last and spill its welcoming light over the horizon, pouring it into our lives, extinguishing the chill of night and banishing the darkness--just as Christ’s divine Light has done in the past, does now and promises to do in the future. It is this Light, this Bright Treasure, that gives believers the confidence to say with our Lord, even in the time of coronavirus,
As I was working on this essay, Pandora presented me with Natalie Cole’s version of one of the most recorded songs in American musical history, George and Ira Gershwin's “Love is Here to Stay”, written in 1937 during the waning years of the Depression. These lines caught my ear:
The more I read the papers
The less I comprehend
The world and all its capers
And how it all will end.
Nothing seems to be lasting …
(It all sounds so familiar here in the Spring of 2020 …)
The radio and the telephone
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies
And in time may go!
But our love is here to stay.
Sure, it’s a love song. Yet here we are in a situation where love is very much in order, a time when so much of what we’ve come to know as “normal” has flown far afield--so much so that it’s no stretch to suggest that at least some of the change being stirred up today will blend into a "new normal" that may in itself prove discomforting. But there is a Truth that never changes. Come what may, Light undiminished also reigns, an unchanging Gospel Truth anchored in a Love that over arches plagues and pandemics, failed businesses, fractured families or even diminishing freedoms.
“These things I have spoken to you,” Jesus tells his disciples at the end of John 16, “that in Me you may have peace (despite the world’s) tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
Some years ago I heard about a young woman who had lost some small object - a key, a ring, money; I don’t remember. What I do recall, however, is the way she set about looking for it.
At first, I was told, she was rather beside herself; the thing was valuable and appeared to have vanished. After a while, however, she made a choice that shocked me to my non-believing core: she turned her treasured object over to Jesus. I don’t remember much after that, whether she found what she was looking for or didn’t. I do recall thinking how passive and silly the woman appeared – bordering on superstitious. I didn’t get it. I didn’t know God or how God works.
In the parable of the lost coin, we see how God is thinking about people like me. Wanting us (or wanting us back). Wooing us even. Showering us with loving pursuit. Incessantly. It’s a minor miracle … maybe even a major miracle … that the Creator of the universe has his mind set on us.
“I will search for my sheep, and will seek them out,” God declares in Ezekiel.
No matter how deep we crawl back into ourselves during time of trial (or sin), God is there. No matter how deep the pit we find ourselves in, he is there – even as water in the pit keeps rising.
But God is waiting. Willing. Wanting … me.
“As shepherds seek out their flocks … so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” The Lord’s words.
Sheep are famously dumb. Guided by the intelligence of a stump, they will travel in circles through thickets of briars (while at the mercy of every wolf in the area) in search of some new patch of grass. That sounds a lot like us, wandering in circles in search of our own fresh patches of green. Like innocent little lambs, which is how we sometimes view ourselves, we get caught up in all sorts of thickets, while the devil sits on a tree branch grinning down at us (imagine the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland).
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” asked Alice.
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” replied the cat.
“I don’t care where,” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the cat.
My father-in-law, who occasionally flashed a Cheshire Cat grin, once told me, “If you don’t know where you’re going, it doesn’t matter how you get there.” I think he may have cribbed that from Lewis Carroll, but no matter. The truth sticks regardless of where you hear it.
But God knows his sheep and pursues them – no matter where they go.
I recall having gone into an empty Catholic church some years ago, decades after I had left Catholicism behind in a fit of pique, and my eye was attracted to a bit of Scripture tacked to the back of a pew:
“You did not choose me. I chose you.” Which turned out to be John 15:16.
The possibility that God had chosen me, had pursued this wandering sheep through deep thickets of disdain and doubt, never occurred to me. If only I’d figured that out earlier and acquiesced to the Lord's purposes, how different my life may have been.
I once read in a little paperback called God’s Little Instruction Book that “Most people wish to serve God – but only in an advisory capacity.” In other words, “My plans are set, Lord. So please ratify them!” That’s not the way it works, I have discovered through considerable error and pain. As if to confirm the truth of this matter, the little book proceeded to quote Proverbs 16:3:
“Commit thy works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established.”
God’s ultimate triumph is in living his life through us, a process during which we are called to abandon any pretext that we are in control and trust him instead, turning all we are (and all we can ever be) over to the Lord and then letting him work our lives out as he will.
It can be unsettling, but the truth of Christ’s message is this: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25) Surrendering your life to God is not about losing all the good stuff about your present life and becoming some kind of boring religious automaton. It’s about living a transformed life – not a life of perfection, but one in which even our imperfections and disappointments can be used for the glory of God.
Non-believers, of course, will stand aghast upon hearing so radical a concept, like I did after hearing about the young woman who called on Jesus to find her vanished valuable. But we are so much more than some lost coin or wandering lamb to a sovereign God who has promised to find us and lead us to whatever patch of green he has in mind.
“For thus says, the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.”
And to a wanderer like me, that’s no minor miracle!
Some days it's not easy to write, especially when words seem to have deserted you for the time being. It's not easy to go to school when a test looms or there's a bully on the playground. It's not easy to go out and jump your car battery on dark mornings when you'd rather stay in bed than go to work. Some days, it's even hard to pray. We've all been there. We may be there now.
Maybe especially believers, because when we cede our lives to Christ, we expect things to turn around like we’ve taken some kind of magic pill. Trouble is supposed to vanish like a lifting fog, and as soon as possible! But then, when illnesses don’t get healed and businesses still go bust and marriages crumble and your kid's college application gets lost in the mail and life’s disappointments continue unabated, what’s a believer to do?
Proverbs 3:5 suggests that we should trust in the Lord with all our hearts and lean not on our own understanding, which is where I go to get buoyed up when the world presses its weight down on me, those all-too-frequent times when neither reason nor prayer seem to be working. I know the truth of that verse from long experience, which goes on to say that if you acknowledge God’s presence in all your ways, he promises to make your path straight – though sometimes his "straight" can seem more like a maze to you.
When doubt assails and discouragement stalks the corridors of your mind, know that the promises of God are real promises. You don't have to feel they are just then, but know they are. And then behave like you believe them, because your behavior is part of your testimony.
When I was in the Army, a very long time ago, there was a middle-aged man who worked the morning chow line at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He was a civilian who was getting paid to do the job, not a soldier who’d been shanghaied into doing it. This guy acted like he resented every scoopful of scrambled eggs or cream chipped beef he ever plopped on a soldier’s tray. So I decided to experiment on him.
“Good morning,” I offered the next day, rather matter-of-factly. He said nothing.
“Good morning,” I suggested the following day, with a bit more energy. The rest of the week went on like this, and on toward Friday he looked up with at me with a glare that said “Stop bothering me with this Good Morning routine.” It took ten days or so to get a reluctant smile out of the guy, which finally became a pleasant one that I actually missed on his days off.
Joshua Warren writes about a time he gave an upbeat national television interview when his heart wasn’t in it:
“My body was exhausted from an intense treatment for a chronic illness; a doctor had just reported that my dad would probably be dead in six months; and I felt like I was failing as a dad because I was spending too much time at work. I was lost in sea of depression and I couldn’t find my way home.”
But he put on a smile anyway. All appeared well.
“I pulled out my earpiece, thanked the producer, left the studio and felt the weight of the world creeping back onto my shoulders …”
We’ve all had days like that, when we have to put our best face forward despite the worries churning inside. And we’ve all had days when its hard work to muster a smile – at least if you’re anything like me.
A couple of years ago, my vacuum cleaner stopped working and not for the first time. Vacuuming has a way of wiping me out, so I was more than a bit grumpy, an attitude I decided to take along on a trip to the vacuum cleaner store, where I was prepared to vent years of frustration on whichever clerk was unlucky enough to greet me.
When I arrived, Clerk #1 was chatting on the phone and ignored me. Grrrrr! Clerk #2 was doing a demo for a harried-looking couple with a bored child – and I had to admit, her demo was unusually good and filled with useful product benefits. After a minute or so, she looked up from the pile of dust she’d just tossed on the carpet for her prospect to vacuum up, caught my eye and walked to the service counter. How can I help you today?” she chirped.
“My vacuum isn’t doing a good job. “
“How’s that?” (gently stated)
“It picks up practically nothing – just blows air around. I have to pick stuff up with my fingers.”
“How long has it been doing that?”
“Years. Almost forever.”
At that, she reached down under the counter and retrieved something, which she held up between two fingers, swinging it tantalizingly back in forth in front of my eyes. A belt, about four inches around.
“I think your belt is broken.”
“I didn’t know I had a belt.”
“If the belt is broken, the beater bar won’t turn and the motor will just suck air. Like you said.”
Hmmm … “How much is a belt?”
“Two for ten-bucks.”
“How ‘bout one for five bucks? I only need one.” (with only the tiniest hint of grumpiness).
She placed the belt in one hand as I fumbled for my wallet with the other.
“Put that away.”
“You’re GIVING me this belt?”
“Yes,” she said, eyes darting back to where her prospects had finished cleaning up the demo carpet and were about to convince their kid that the upright vacuum they were about to buy was, in fact, a dust robot.
“Why … thanks!” I said (really meaning it). “You’ve made my day.”
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4 that, “since we have received (Christ’s) ministry, we do not lose heart … For it is the God ‘who commanded light to shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts …” He goes on to speak of a “treasure in earthen vessels,” and even though we may be “hard pressed on every side,” we carry the life of Christ in us ready to shine forth -- despite our earthly distresses and discomforts.
“So let’s be good to the cashier,” Joshua compels in his article, “our child’s teacher, the person driving poorly in traffic, our co-worker and/or our parents. Let’s give others the grace we all need (because) everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Including the grumpy guy working the chow line. And possibly even the grumpy guy inside me!