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 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.

I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post to be of value, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks a bunch!

The Answer to a Painful Christmas is…Christmas

If you’re one of those people for whom it takes everything you’ve got to not hate this season’s guts, I understand.

When I was seventeen, life and Satan hit right where it most often hurts this time of year: family. After that year, we would never again celebrate the holidays as a family. The head count is always one short now.

Some don’t even get the first seventeen years. Others got fifty, yet are now going through their first Christmas without, and finding it just as shattering. It’s difficult to keep our seasonal joy from being diminished by those losses.

Have you ever noticed how vulnerable Christmas is? As inevitable as its arrival is every year, it doesn’t actually offer everyone refuge. For some, it’s the reverse – a reminder of what they don’t have. As long as Christmas is about perishable things, it will be perishable itself.

It’s a good thing that the true Christmas has something to say about those very losses, then.

Imagine if the manger pointed to nothing but another Jewish prophet standing around on hillsides and boats, telling stories and handing out advice. Awfully anticlimatic, don’t you think? Not much worth celebrating there.

But the manger points to much more. It points to the cross that will triumph over the very things that shatter us today. It was the birth of the Conqueror of death and loss, who will return on a white horse to make all things new.

If we make a soft-focus Hallmark family mentality the central purpose of Christmas, we leave it vulnerable to Satan’s attacks. Though God is powerful and good, he has not promised to always protect even that precious jewel in this life.

But if we make hope the central purpose of Christmas – the hope of redemption – then the season becomes as unshakeable as every other promise of Christ.

Christmas isn’t a family reunion, as wonderful as that is. It’s the promise of greater reunions down the road, the reversal of all the theft and death and destruction the enemy has wreaked upon us. It looms large over the damages looming over us. The properly interpreted Christmas heralds victory over its own oppressors.

This is why Christmas is bigger than our opinion of it. It’s why we can truly celebrate: its promise never lay in the present, but in the future. It may be difficult to find joy now. But perhaps the cure to finding that joy, is delving ever deeper in.

 

I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post to be of value, feel free to share it on social media. Thanks a bunch!

Sometimes You Just Have to Declare

I asked a co-worker today if there was anything I could pray for him about this coming week.

He looked at me for a moment, then dropped his eyes to his phone, shook his head almost imperceptibly, and mumbled words no doubt borne from decades of unremitting disappointment: “There’s nothing anyone can do.”

Lord knows those words have tried to gnaw their way into my soul. Too often, I’ve let them.

But something about hearing them from outside my head, from another’s lips, lit a fire in me. And I’m glad for that.

I do not know why some people are asked to walk this earth without basic love, without functioning bodies, without full bellies.

But I know my God is the God of mid-life crises – and all-life crises. The God who healed ailments of twelve (Luke 8), eighteen (Luke 13), and thirty-eight years (John 5). Who healed people blind and lame from birth. Imagine waiting for your answer that long. Most of us would go about our business in that time, give up, cut our losses, buy the wheelchair and accessible house and call it final. Or maybe walk away from God entirely.

Not us. I pray it is not us.

Sometimes we need to get angry…not at God, but at our disbelief. We need to stand straight, face the letdown, gird ourselves, and slap back. We need to claim and declare that the Lord is faithful.

Not claim and declare the outcome we want – claim and declare the character of the one we’re beseeching. They’re different things. The first leaves room for, “I am dependent on this answer for my well-being and might shelve God in weariness if it doesn’t come.” The second says, “I love God.”

At some point, the answer is irrelevant. What matters is what we believe.

Sure, we struggle to be satisfied with making it a “mere” soul exercise, especially when the tragedy actively burns your soul on a daily basis. So try this: which statement gives the better chance of eliciting the miracle from God? I’d say the latter. It loves the giver rather than the gift.

But I’ve found it’s an iffy question to ask. It invites a mercenary, transactional attitude.

At some point, like William Wallace rallying the Scots, we have to admit that the stand matters more than the result. If you run, throw in the towel, or shelve your faith, how will you look back on that decision for the rest of your days?

I want to stand. I want to shout into the howling dark that God is coming for it, treat it like the glass-chinned bully it is. I want him to have my best love, one that’s given even when hope is deferred.

So I will snarl at the lies this week. May God give me breath. And I will pray for my co-worker, that God might surprise him.

I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post to be of value, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks a bunch!

Let Your Inner Rhoda Talk

storm-4582219_960_720For this I’m grateful: my denominational tastes put me in position to drink a lot of sound Bible.

My social media feeds are culled inlets of soulful Scriptural truth. I get a foundation of obedience and surrender. Names like Tozer, Chambers, Piper, ten Boom, and Elliott roll through my feed, highlighting the narrowness and ache of Jesus’ path. I get it. Life is not a flowery bed of ease, a get-rich scheme, or a catapult to political power, or about me. Though this isn’t pleasant news, it’s true, and I would rather know up front than blindsided later.

But on occasion, it can be such a drag. (Yeesh. Is that okay to say?)

There’s plenty in this vein on how to handle a “no” from God. We know he is not a vending machine. We learn that sometimes perseverance in prayer is needed. We understand that God has his sovereign reasons, that he’s up to things above our pay grade. We accept the immense value of patience and suffering in shaping and refining our souls, in teaching us to rely on the giver rather than the gifts. It worked for Jesus (Hebrews 2:10).

To be in both worlds full

Is more than God was, who was hungry here

– George Herbert

And if we read Scripture with ice-cold objectivity for long enough, we eventually pick up the idea that, quite frankly, disappointment in our lives is sometimes the only thing that will keep our wandering hearts bound to God.

See, I’ve learned my lines.

Meanwhile, we broach the topic of miracles and answered prayers oh so gingerly. Certainly not with boldness. We’re too uncomfortable for that; it feels vaguely immature. Risky. You know what I mean. Perish the thought of that health-and-wealth business. We’re determined not to get our theology wrong, and that’s excellent, because we value getting Jesus’ words right (not always a fashionable practice).

But sometimes I wonder…

Are we just having a hard time hoping?

Are we just making excuses for our unbelief?

Are we just trying to muffle a voice deep down that’s wearily confessing, “I just don’t expect much from God. He doesn’t work that way anymore. Let’s just obey now and we’ll get heaven later.”

It occurred to me that I feel better equipped to handle a no from God than a yes.

Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel and rescued me from Herod’s grasp and from all that the Jewish people expected.” When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many had assembled and were praying. He knocked at the door in the gateway, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer. She recognized Peter’s voice, and because of her joy, she did not open the gate but ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gateway.

“You’re crazy!” they told her. But she kept insisting that it was true. Then they said, “It’s his angel!” Peter, however, kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astounded. (Acts 12:11-16)

It’s hilarious. The fledgling church is praying, but when God answers, there’s no confident grinning, no “yep, I knew he’d come through.” They’re floored. God supernaturally keeps Rhoda from bringing the evidence inside so that the story will record them almost resisting good news, coming up with alternative explanations. These downtrodden Roman citizens weren’t used to shining angels and chains falling off wrists.

I can relate. It’s not a “no” that would surprise me from God these days; it’s a “yes”.

How bad is that?

Miraculous events have taken place in my church in the last year and I hardly know what to do with it. God is moving powerfully through South Asia and I’m shaking my head like a dog getting out of the water. He really does this stuff?

But I know why. I’ve witnessed my share of “no’s”, as have we all. Perhaps it’s that disappointment that I’ve wrapped around myself like a cloak for my heart. It’s a practice that walks a very fine line between guarded heart (Proverbs 4:23) and lack of faith.

There are days when I need to read less about the lack of a miracle, and more about miracles.

Fortunately, Scripture’s up for that. Remarkable displays of power, signs and wonders –  Scripture loses vast swaths of its educational value to us if they’re no longer active. They’re for God’s glory, of course, for pointing people to him. But they’re also out of his generous heart and his desire to come through. Why cannot I simply sit back like a little child and let him…?

Like water sloshing back and forth in a pipe seeking its level, I find myself sliding back towards balance in God’s Word – its hope and its surrender.

I won’t accept a fortune-cookie Christianity that outdoes itself every week in predicting exciting new bombshells for your life and never presages anything bad. But neither am I going to truss up my heart in resignation and call it holiness.

How, Lord? How will my inner Rhoda convince the rest of my heart?

Through his Spirit. Only way.

So I will pray, study, and let God do the answering.

Who knows what will happen?

 

I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post to be of value, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks a bunch!

 

Delight Amidst Mordor: the Hard Part of Psalm 37:4

Take delight in the LORD, and He will give you your heart’s desires. (Psalm 37:4)

Hoo, boy. Few Bible verses carry as much potential to turn us into mercenaries.

“Love God and he’ll give you things” – yeah, that’s just begging to go down the wrong alleys. How do we handle such a verse? How do we treasure God and his opinions on things in light of such an offer? It’s Scripture. It can’t be wrong. So there must be a solution to this conundrum.

Don’t obey God to get things, obey God to get God. – Tim Keller

For me, it is the sheer intensity of “delight”.

1378807888_1c49b58b1b_z“Delight” doesn’t just mean a vague affection, certainly not a conditional one. It means delight. An intense love that crowds out other considerations. I don’t just like my mom – I delight in her, such that I’d make her a priority over a great many things. Same with my friends. (That’s why they’re friends.)

Delight can’t be faked. God sees right through it, and we’d never trust our own motives without it. When we delight in God, the first half of Psalm 37:4 outshines the second half, which sidles up to us out of nowhere while we’re absorbed with God.

I know – tall order.

How do we delight in God so freely when we have so many beefs with all he has allowed? It’s the question instantly begged upon the word “delight”.Some of our lives resemble Mordor – ashes and geysers everywhere you look.

That was the fork at which I stood.

All I can say is, I chose delight. It wasn’t some saintly nobility – I just knew the way back was cut off.

Simon Peter answered, “Lord, who will we go to? You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:68)

And I found that things really do operate the way God describes.

The Christian who desires more money must release it, trusting so fully in God’s creative provision that charity becomes the greater joy.

The Christian who desires upward mobility must instead wash feet.

The Christian who desires more friendship must offer it, gushing like a spring upon those around him (as Christ did) rather than incessantly drawing inwards.

The Christian who desires a spouse must be filled with Christ now, so that they will not grasp like an empty one.

The Christian who desires justice must not seek it by his own hand, but depend on God’s watchfulness and convicting power. (You might be interested to know that justice is actually the strict context of Psalm 37).

At each point, our desire is tested to determine its worth. Some would survive the fire, others would not (Psalm 37:4’s applicability to Lamborghini’s is doubtful), but all must be sublimated to Christ.

And no matter what the cherished object, we must delight in his timing.

God has a funny way of keeping dreams alive. It’s one of the great paradoxes. He brings our dreams around. But they happen in his way, according to his calculations and machinations, and often with a more eternal reach (like the artist whose future work might raise souls instead of curtains).

It is difficult to delight amidst the Mordor of this world. But if we choose it anyway, we will be rescued, pulled out of the cataclysm and awakened in a new home.

The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord;
    he is their stronghold in time of trouble.
The Lord helps them and delivers them;
    he delivers them from the wicked and saves them,
    because they take refuge in him. (Psalm 37:39-40)

A Week on the Plains and Plain Truth about Reservations

Last week, fourteen high school students loaded up a van and drove across Montana with three leaders – including myself  –  for a week putting on VBS’s on a distant Native American reservation. It was our second annual mission to this site. We went with God preparing the way ahead, his glory as our rear guard, and the fervent prayer and support of our congregation going up to him.

I did miss the opportunity to spend the week blasting Audio Adrenaline’s “Blitz” with its refrain “Fourteen kids in an old church van”, but que sera sera.

(For those who don’t know our church, we’ve long run a tiered youth mission program intended to get students out of their middle-class comfort zone and set before them the struggles of impoverished and unchurched corners of our world. Tier 1 trips are our shortest, most in-culture and structured. This was a Tier 2, remaining on continent but removing students further from cultural norms and controlled conditions, demanding more work and initiative. Tier 3 is off-continent; Tier 4 is long-term.

The program has availed much. So many testimonies of youth setting hammer to nail, shovel to dirt, or Windex to window in a darkened battleground somewhere, returning home with their worldview flipped on its head, and finishing growing up that way. It spurs gospel and generosity, loosens their love of their material bubble. It’s one of my favorite features about my church.)

TLDR for those wondering how their prayer and money was used: the trip was terrific. Fruitful, providential, and foundational for the future.

peckGod had clearly positioned us for this mission. Just weeks prior, huge, potentially deal-breaking questions had loomed about manning and housing. They were all solved, albeit in that on-the-run fashion that God so often favors. In fact, some of God’s answers turned out to be improvements on last year’s situations.

The students did top-notch work planning and executing their VBS curriculum and activities. Several were visibly stretched, and welcomed it. Our team was solid and fairly inclusive; no real problems regarding unity.

The unpredictability so inherent to this kind of mission trip showed up for sure, given the tendency of reservation life to start at noon and the fact that we were running separate VBS’s in towns 45 miles apart. Schedules and key information were blurred and juggled. The students met it all with a deft willingness to pivot and adapt, to jump to unexpected tasks and fill in shifting vacancies. Few complaints. It was eye-opening to watch them embrace the whirlwind as a cost of doing business.

I heard some students, veterans of last year’s trip, remarking to their parents about how God was maturing and deepening their understanding of reservation life – the challenges of poverty, the darkness of abuse and addiction, the complex way in which social ills beget other social ills, the lack of easy solutions. There were moments that silenced them. Prayers were not skimped upon. You could see their resolve growing.

The team’s adult leaders got a chance to dream and pitch ideas with the local pastors. That was exciting. There are actionable possibilities to return and grow our partnership.

The work will not be easy. Satan holds these grounds and the barriers are considerable.

But there is progress. The local churches have secured small teams of workers, prayer warriors with rough stories of their own, who are building inroads in these communities. Thanks to the tougher moments, we have clear strategies in our pocket. Most of all, we know that God’s Word does not kneel or fade but accomplishes what he intends for it – and that he intends much.

For those who prayed and supported us, God used it. Thank you so much.