Encouragement for the Lonely During Quarantine

Despite the memes reminding us that personal quarantine is not the end of the world, social distancing is going to be rough on some people.*

Yes, we should keep perspective and praise God that we are not fighting another world war (or an infection). But if you’re going to trot out that line every time someone struggles, it gets hard to have a conversation. Loneliness is real. And we are all – accustomed and unaccustomed alike – going to learn new things about it in the coming days.

Scripture acknowledges loneliness. David cries out “Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am alone and afflicted” (Psalm 25:16). Well-known verses like Ecclesiastes 4:10 – “For if either falls, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to lift him up” – reveal that God meant us to need each other and record the pain when it doesn’t happen. We are meant to need God more, but if you were to interpret that as license to run off to a cabin in the woods and commune with God alone for forty years (something my Montana people might know about), theologians would hasten to correct you. We were not meant to live this life alone.

When community is denied, struggle comes. Someone has said “Joy shared is multiplied; sorrow shared is divided.” The mathematics of fellowship, if you will. The church was meant to do good things in the world that few pairs of hands can’t, as the disciples acknowledged in Acts 6. My state and local guidelines still permit me to visit friends (for the moment), but even if we were to mutually agree on it, most of my friends have small children. That makes me hesitant to seek out companionship right now. I think that’s probably right.

Our elderly, currently the most at-risk demographic, are lonely already. We are not a country that honors its elders, unless they’re celebrities. That’s our loss and always has been (and it also happens to make us an exception amongst people groups). But we aren’t doing much about it, and they feel it in their assisted living homes and empty nests. And now, most states have ordered or strongly advised them to self-quarantine regardless of the advice given to younger citizens.

Singles are not the only lonely people, but I have a heart nonetheless for my unmarried brethren. Its not just that the common and usually fair encouragement of “it could happen any day now!” has hit a rare suspension for you. Some of you know what it’s like to spend a weekend alone with a cold. Or spend your days with no family in your immediate area. Or attend a church that doesn’t pay much attention to you. Depending on your personality and circumstances, singleness can be a socially isolating experience.

Or perhaps you’re the type who’s been feeling alone in a room long before pestilences usher everyone else out.

And, most of all, there are those who have actually gotten sick. Or those for whom “watching Netflix for a couple straight weeks” also happens to mean losing a job.

These are the people we can love and serve and pray for.

Right now, quarantine doesn’t seem too bad. This is partially because it’s still novel (any “shelter in place” orders are only days old), partially because everyone else is ignoring them, and partially because many states haven’t gotten there yet.

That will all most likely change. If other states inch closer to stricter measures and quarantine becomes more strongly enforced, Satan will not miss opportunities to oppress people in their homes. I say this sincerely not to scare, but to prepare. The church should be ready to care for people’s emotional health as well as their physical and material health.

I have a few thoughts that I hope will lift you today. They’re honestly kind of random, but I offer anyway.

1. No hole is too deep for God.

As you can tell from the article, I don’t believe in airbrushing or diminishing hardships. If a hole is there, let us admit it. God seems to.

But even as God grants the greater depth of a hole, he shows his reach is still greater. Through any storm, he is able to reach us, calm our turbulent seas, and set our feet on dry ground (or water!).

It will require vigor and intentionality to secure that piece. Don’t cop to self-pity. Believe it and receive it.

2. No permanent solutions to temporary problems.

Sadly, suicide and self-harm hotlines are recession-proof institutions. I pray desperately that those who face these demons will not succumb amidst their isolation. Use the phone and internet lines. Stay connected. Heck, send me an email. I’d rather answer them than see you hurt.

3. Better days are coming.

I’m not talking about the passing of this darkness, when we all emerge from our holes, rediscover each other, and get it on like Endgame. I’m speaking of the next life.

I personally believe that God has configured heaven to cure and renounce every defining hardship. For illness, we get new bodies; for poverty, we shall never want again; for injustice, God will right all wrongs.

It’ll happen for loneliness, too. We shall enjoy perfect communion with God and with each other, never to feel isolated again. We will be known.

For some, the isolation might prove a restful and much-needed pause, a chance to get back on the spiritual disciplines wagon and move closer to God and family. For others, it might be the thing they’ve most dreaded. The two groups should not judge each other. Let’s all just love instead. God has given us incredible tools at our fingertips; let’s be intentional, gracious, and available during this time, and let us hope. We have no shortage of it in Christ.

* Despite the hardships quarantine may cause, this blog does not endorse modifying or disregarding federal, state, or local guidelines regarding public health and safety. We should put others before ourselves, show the Christian witness, and “submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). Do this, and God will see to our affairs.

The Value of Knowing Your Value

Can’t be said enough. The one who doesn’t know their value in Christ is dangerously vulnerable.

Brandon J. Adams

I ran across the following meme the other day (who says the Internet is useless?):

value

It is an incredible quote, for it brings many of our lives into sharp relief. It went straight onto the Facebook page for my blog, for it was propulsive and illuminating, at least for me. All of a sudden, through this idea, many of the regrettable actions we take (or see taken around us) gain an interpretation they never had before.

Most of what we interpret as immaturity are unhealthy attempts to prove our value.

The office worker who stirs up drama is trying to prove his value by bringing others down.

The family member who deflects or passes the buck when called out on a mistake does not realize that she can be valuable and wrong at the same time.

The one who turns every conversation towards themselves is too busy securing their…

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What’s Your Ask-to-Thank Ratio?

I’ve gotten two terrific answers to prayer in recent months. One within my family, one within my church that has been shared by many (which I’ve cryptically alluded to).

The number of individual entreaties I made of God in these two matters are well into the hundreds for both. When the answer came back from the throne, I committed myself to thanking him. I didn’t want it to be another “thanks God, see you next crisis” on my already considerable list.

But it occurred to me…how much thanks is enough?

What if God got one thanks afterward for each request beforehand?

For a fleeting moment, I thought that was a great idea. Until I remembered that this is probably exactly what God’s been getting at in the Bible this entire time.

Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:6)

Nobody is without grounds for thanksgiving. Every one of us can look backwards to something we once spent hours on our knees for, something which once gripped our hearts with a fierce desperation, something which we’d give anything to see God grant us.

Maybe that’s one reason we’re constantly commissioned to give thanks: we’re being urged towards a respectably low ask-to-thank ratio. Doesn’t every pleading, every session, every “amen” deserve its own thank-you? It seems to fit the rich, vigorous, austere tone that the true faith always holds.

I won’t let that desperation evaporate into complacency, as the enemy would desire. Tonight, I will go to bed and give thanks for these two things and others, not because I must to earn his grace (though that grace will also get its thanks), but because I wish it. Because God deserves it.

It’s the least I can do. Because there was once nothing I could do, and God did it instead.

 

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Leave Your Egypt Behind

It can be quite fun to view our Christian faith as a long, extended defeat of external enemies, and one of the most familiar stories is the exodus. God’s people are enslaved by Egypt for four centuries, and the day finally comes when they pay the price. While instructing the Israelites to protect themselves from the angel’s wrath by spreading lamb’s blood on their doorposts – a ritual installed as Passover – the Lord’s hand moves against Egypt in ten plagues and then the destruction of their army in the Red Sea. The lesson: “The Lord will fight for you; you must be quiet” (Exodus 14:14).

But that is not Scripture’s final lesson on the exodus.

Centuries later, there is a new Passover lamb. Where once blood on the doorposts served to guard huddled Israelite families from God’s judging hand, it is ultimately revealed as a foreshadowing for a much greater protection. As with so many things in Scripture, something in the Old Testament is taken up and given fulfillment in Jesus: “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch. You are indeed unleavened, for Christ our Passover has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7).

Glory to God. Our personal taking up of Christ has spared us God’s judgment once and for all.

But it begs the question: If Jesus is the new Passover, then who is the new Egypt?

The answer is not so pleasant. Some flavors of church love to emphasize the destruction of our enemies, giving it a prominent place in their teaching, and people love to hear it. It’s not that it’s un-Biblical.

But like any matter of discernment, the problem is often what’s not there. We like to talk about our enemies’ defeat, but we miss the one enemy that matters most. We’d rather not hear about that, for the revelation is disruptive, tense, exposing.

For the exodus story ultimately had a sad ending. What happened to Israel once they were freed? Did they file straight to Canaan without hesitation and conquer it in God’s name and power? Did they honor God’s deliverance with faith and trust? They didn’t. They doubted, grumbled, set up golden calves. They ate quail as a concession from God, then quailed from his mission. They never saw the promised land.

For although triumph of our enemies is part of the faith, what does Scripture always guide us back to if not our own hearts?

If Jesus is the new Passover, then who is the new Egypt?

We are.

You and I.

For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by His life! (Romans 5:10)

It’s easy to focus on external enemies. It spares us from having to look inwards and admit the gossip we’ve been partaking in, or the white lies we’ve told our clock punch, or how long we’ve neglected to crack a Bible.

But sin isn’t an external enemy. It’s internal. The New Testament ultimately guides our vision back to our own hearts, and reveals us – all of us – as God’s enemy. Such stark words! And God’s greatest mission is not to deliver us from external enemies, but from the sinfulness of our own hearts. That’s why the best teachers remind us that the greatest enemy is not without, but within.

And God tells us to leave that Egypt.

Leave self.

Leave sin.

Leave the idols and doubts and grumbling.

And walk to the promised land of faith, selflessness, and peace.

Next time you read the exodus story during the upcoming Easter season, remember that its ultimate fulfillment was in Christ and his deliverance of us from our sin. Choose to leave your Egypt. Leave your sin behind. Use your life to honor Christ and all he’s done for you.

 

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The Willing God

The following words aren’t meant to be a definitive theological treatise or anything. I just wanted to talk about a little crisis of faith.

My Bible fell open to Matthew 8 today and what I saw astonished me. After he finishes the Beatitudes, no sooner does Jesus come down from the mountain than he starts to heal, beginning with a leper: “I am willing. Be clean!”

Wow, where’s my Staples button? That was easy.

And it’s not just one. He doesn’t stop after the leper, going “Okay, that’s enough for now, I don’t want you to get carried away” with a knowing wink. He keeps at it. The stories pile up. The centurion’s servant. Peter’s mother-in-law. The two demoniacs in the Gadarenes. The paralytic on the mat. Jairus’ daughter. The bleeding victim. The two blind men. The demon-possessed mute.

All our well-practiced talk of “all the people in Israel God didn’t heal” seems odd when you read Matthew 8:16,

When evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed. He drove out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick…

It all seems radically opposed to our own experience. When WILL our longings happen to coincide with God’s plan?

And already I sense our discomfort. Is this headed in the health-and-wealth direction? We can’t even talk about this without our hackles getting up.

The purpose of Jesus’ miracles was to reveal and confirm his identity as the Son of God. But Jesus – and his Father before him – could have chosen any class of sign for the unveiling. It would have fit perfectly within the Jews’ expectations for Jesus to use signs from heaven, as we see in Chapter 16. Yet he – and his Father before him – chose signs that helped people, even when it made the kingless people impatient.

It isn’t ultimately about the blessings. It’s about knowing the heart of God.

It’s a challenge to see God as willing. It’s something God’s been talking to me about lately. Does the phrase “willing God” trigger something deep discomfort, like a radar pinging? I can’t be the only one. Hear “God is not a vending machine” often enough, by itself, and you’ll just lose your view of his generosity.

When God doesn’t heal, the first instinct of the mature believer is to question whether God’s plan – wise, sovereign, and in our best interests – included the healing. I think that’s a very good place to go. I also think it can make a neat disguise for simple unbelief, as it often has in my own heart. I find myself doubting whether God’s plan will include my requests – before the request is even out of my mouth.

Because of that, I sometimes don’t often even pray, or pray with any fervor. It’s difficult to pray enthusiastically and confidently to a cosmic IRS agent or a byzantine computer program that needs to be coded and reverse-engineered.

Seeing God as willing changes the game entirely. It changed our very posture.

His willingness may manifest itself in a way or time I wasn’t expecting – or he may be unwilling to grant a request that would harm me in the long run. But it’s still a willing heart. And it’s a far cry from the IRS agent or fourth-dimensional Rubik’s cube. It’s a heart I can approach, beseech, and trust. And it’s also an easy heart to trust a difficult answer with.

Do you see the difference?

…so that what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

He Himself took our weaknesses
and carried our diseases.

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The Thing I Most Ask to Be Delivered From

A book I’ve been reading posed a whopper of a question: “If God were to remove one of your greatest sources of pain, what would you ask him to take?”

Now, this was not followed by another ill-fated health-and-wealth excursion, no tired treatise of living your best life now through positive thinking and self-actualization. The author was actually framing it as a teaser for heaven, one of whose rewards will be to wipe away every source of pain.

But when I read the question, I found myself applying it to my life here, on earth.

What would I ask God to take?

My mind riffled through any one of countless prayer requests, obstacles, and disappointments, both for myself and those closest to me. If I could pick only one, what would it be?

I know a handful of things I probably would have settled on, in years gone past.

Now, I wouldn’t pick any of them.

Instead, one goal now overrides the rest.

I would ask God to remove my inability to know his love.

Scripture and its teachers keep on telling us that we can find true purpose, joy, and safety only in God, but do we listen? Not particularly. We’re the stubborn teenager who just has to find things out for herself.

We look for satisfaction in being selected for projects and leadership. It lasts for an instant. Then we’re wondering why we didn’t get selected again, or whether we did well the first time. It crumbles to ash in our mouths.

We look for satisfaction in relationships. It lasts for an instant. Then we’re overanalyzing, navigating hurdles, finding ourselves in need of constant reassurance. It turns to sand in our hands.

We look for satisfaction in food, drink, or distraction. It lasts for an instant. Then we wake up to the consequences, sending much of it literally into the toilet.

I’ve tried these things, in varying degrees. I’m glad to say I’ve never committed any grievous sins in them. But there was one: thinking that they’d be better than God.

We don’t always wake up explicitly thinking “these things must be better than God”. It’s not that we high-ball the Other Things; we just low-ball God. It’s hard to cultivate a relationship with the unseen, so we gravitate towards the seen. And oftentimes, we find what we think is a “safe zone” within our Other Things (enjoying lots of food but not alcohol, seeking a godly marriage rather than just any marriage, looking to bring your talents to ministry rather than the corporate meat cleaver). It’s still not God. Not necessarily.

When God says he’s the source of life, he’s not being insecure. He’s not giving a big cosmic “you’ll get nothing else and like it”. He’s not being the psychotic parent who goes out and sabotages a daughter’s relationships so she’ll stay home. He’s rescuing us from disaster. As long as we build anything without his love as the foundation, it will collapse in on itself, taking us with it.

For that reason, and for his own glory, I really do want to know his love more than anything now. Seriously. He’s convinced me.

So I ask him to remove the barriers. He has erected none of them; they’re all of my own construction. But he can show us what they are, help us tear them down. All that’s left is beating the illusion, destroying the images of worldly goodness that crop up all around us, even good gifts that God has given us, or wishes to. They look so good. So we must endeavor to fill our minds with God instead. Meditation, Scripture, the spiritual disciplines…only then will he look good to us.

 

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I Opened My Mouth Too Big About God’s Love

“Do you guys know how much God loves you?” asked my fellow youth leader, whose red-on-black vest that day, I might add, happened to make him an unavoidably spitting image of a younger Jean-Luc Picard.

Our teens bounced some answers back and forth, solid as ever. They’ve got great understanding.

I ventured my own. And I should have known God would call me on it.

I said, “I believe it in my head, but not in my heart.”

I went on to describe how we often have another set of beliefs, this one existing subconsciously as something closer to instincts than to something you say out loud. We can believe God’s love consciously, as in process it as intellectual fact, without actually living like it. If we did, we’d take risks when God leads us. We’d avoid traps when God labels them such. We’d turn from sin. Nothing else would be important.

“My life would look a lot different if my heart believed God loves me,” I said. “By his grace, I’d like to think it’s getting there.”

I should have known God would call me on it.

Not an hour later, another youth leader was sidling up to me and enthusiastically volunteering me to lead a sprawling, daunting, risky ministry project on a scale I’ve never tried before. One which would require – well, believing in God’s love. On a heart level.

It’s like he heard me teaching those youth and went, Great words. Pop quiz?

Ay-yay-yay.

I don’t know if it’ll even happen. It just got proposed today. A few stepping stones do appear to have been laid already.

But it forced me to confront ever more starkly the reality of my own words: if we lived as if we believe God loves us, our lives would be extraordinary. We would be living fireworks, as daring as the battered Hollywood stunt double or the suicidal YouTube extreme sportsman, as confident as any politician, and as steel-eyed and determined as the most grizzled solider. More so. And all, perhaps, without ever being seen by the masses.

That’s what happens when we’ve been with Jesus.

When they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they marveled and took note that these men had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)

“They” is the Sanhedrin, the religious enforcers of Jesus’ day, far beneath the kingdom of God and not above blows from the fist. Months before, while Jesus stood at his show trial toying with these power players, Peter had been lying about knowing him to mere streetfolk. Now he faced these power players himself – and they could see Jesus’ boldness in him. Jesus’ love transformed him. He didn’t care what the world thought anymore, because he’d found meaning in Someone else.

Maybe you’ve never felt bold. Maybe you’ve trotted out the whole “I can witness to people here in America” line a little too often, knowing you’re not actually doing it that much, while unreached people groups across the globe lack access to a Bible. God has grace for you. He also has boldness.

Go be with Jesus. It makes a difference.

 

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