COVID-19 Restrictions and Spiritual Practices

Storm clouds with sun shutterstock_96621118

You’ve heard the saying, “Every cloud has a silver lining.” For me, every cloud has a spiritual lining.

I used to think the “silver lining” saying was based on the metaphor of a coat or jacket that had an inner lining. If it was a wool jacket, for example, the lining would keep it from irritating your skin. My interpretation didn’t make much sense, but I got the idea there can be some good in the midst of not-so-good. But now I believe this saying is based on the image of the sun behind the dark cloud. It shines in such a way that the cloud is outlined (thus lining) the cloud.

Shift this image to one of a spiritual lining: We can look for a spiritual outline framing every aspect and circumstance. We need eyes to see and ears to hear.

Novel COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease) has disrupted life globally unlike any other catastrophe. Hurricanes, tsunamis, even wars are all devastating – but are limited to a geographic area, even if that area is huge. This is global, leaving no area and no person unaffected. We are being asked to self-quarantine, practice social distancing, and cancel all regular activities that involve gathering. Though we are not under Marshall Law, it’s like everyone is on house arrest.

So where is the spiritual lining? Where is the spiritual outline that gives us a frame of reference for these trying times?

It’s interesting that all this is happening during Lent, the season of the Christian year leading up to our Easter celebration. Lent (whose name comes from the lengthening of days in spring) is a time when we often give up certain things in symbolic fasting both to identify with Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-14) and to express our repentance and spiritual readiness to follow the Lord.

We are all giving up a lot these days. I’m suggesting the spiritual lining is to frame our new circumstances in light of spiritual practices or disciplines. Let me highlight four:

Fasting

The overarching discipline these days is fasting. Fasting is abstaining from things that are good in order to give greater attention to spiritual concerns. It is one of the most frequently illustrated spiritual exercises in Scripture, occurring in a great variety of situations. Fasting feeds the soul. Some have said fasting is praying with the body.

We are now being “forced” to fast from nearly all our normal away-from-home activities. This loss of control is one of the most debilitating experiences for the soul. When we lose control over how we work, what we do, over our use of time and money, we lose our sense of self-affirmation and confidence. The discipline of fasting is about control, or more properly, about what controls us. In spiritual formation, fasting has an immediate impact on a person, revealing what controls them.

Following his baptism, Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1-14). He fasted for forty days and nights. He identified with Israel hungering in the wilderness, both spiritually and physically. But when temptation came, another issue came to the fore: what would control Jesus and his mission? He was tempted to put other things before God’s will, including his own comfort and desires. Jesus won the battle through the power of the Spirit and the Word of God.

This “stay at home” crisis brings the opportunity for clarity, providing the opportunity to reevaluate what controls us. Approach this as a spiritual exercise so that your attitude shifts from resentment and fear to a framework for gratitude and understanding. Journaling is very helpful in this process. Check my index of topics for previous blogs on journaling.

I’ll be briefer on the other three disciplines.

Solitude

Working from home and cancelling group activities puts many in a place of solitude. I realize parents with children at home may feel there is anything but solitude!! Hang in there! But do find some time to be alone.

Solitude does not come naturally to us, with up to an estimated 70% of people being extroverts.

Solitude helps free us from the magnetic attractions of the world: attractions of materialism, of popular acclaim, of busyness and often-senseless activity. It puts us in a place where we can see more clearly what the world has been doing to us.

Sometimes it’s only by getting away from people that we can truly give ourselves to them. Those who are always available, soon have nothing to give. Time away in solitude can prepare us to serve God and others in more effective ways.

Sabbath

The change of pace will likely provide some additional time for rest. This can relate to the discipline of Sabbath. Think of Sabbath in terms of pacing your Work-Life balance to include one full day of rest weekly and parts of each day with intentional refreshment.

I have written several blogs on Sabbath and rest (check my index of topics), so I will just add the thought that we can use this time to learn to “work smarter,” developing a more sustainable, gracious, humane pace for our lives.

Simplicity

For many, the most stressful aspect of this crisis, beyond health, is economic. We are realizing how vulnerable we are. In no way will I minimize the great challenge we have to get through this. We are facing stress now and the stress of a long recovery.

The spiritual lining, however, is in clarifying our priorities and values so we live differently on the other side of this crisis.

The discipline of simplicity speaks to the stewardship of resources. Simplicity re-frames the discipline of poverty practiced by many monastic orders. Jesus never taught that all his followers were called to poverty. (Where would we get the resources to provide creative, expansive ministry if every Christian was impoverished?) We are called, however, to provide for ourselves and our families (1 Timothy 5:8) in ways that allow us to also “be rich in good deeds” (1 Timothy 6:17). A time like this strips away our wants from our needs. We focus on essentials and generosity for others in need.

This is a season of dark clouds, indeed. May the Lord give us hearts and minds to see the spiritual lining.

 

Containing the Fear Virus

Mountain Road Motion Sickness shutterstock_1327770098

We are living in anxious times.

The global spread of COVID-19 (the Coronavirus Disease–2019) is affecting every area of life everywhere, generating a crisis unlike anything most have seen in our lifetimes.

Fear is in the air. And it’s more contagious than any virus. Fear is a greater virus than any virus we fear.

Let me share three thoughts that can help contain the fear virus.

First, Find Your Horizon Point.

Coping with uncertain, tumultuous times is like dealing with motion sickness. Ever wonder why the driver of a car rarely gets sick, though that same person may be overcome by nausea if riding in the back seat?

I came across a study that concluded the nausea of motion sickness comes from “slippage of the eyes.” Our equilibrium is closely associated with our optic sense. When we are moving, especially at a high rate of speed and/ or with continual twisting and turning (like the mountain road pictured above), our eyes may have difficulty adjusting. They slip from focal points, and that upsets our equilibrium. The remedy? Look to the far horizon–to that which is not moving and shifting. The driver of a car usually does not suffer motion sickness because she continually looks ahead.

I see a spiritual principle here. When our equilibrium is shaken by life, a “slippage of our spiritual sight” occurs. We fail to maintain our focus on the Lord. Fear gains a foothold, and faith fades in strength. The only hope is to lift our eyes to the far horizon of faith.

When we’re overwhelmed with the unknown, we need to cling to the known.

Psalm 91, a psalm for dangerous times, rivets our focus on the Most High God as the unwavering focal point for our lives. (It would help to read it before continuing).

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High

    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,

    my God, in whom I trust.” (Psalm 91:1-2)

Our eyes of faith are fixed on a loving God in whom there is no darkness. While we are not immune from trouble in this fallen and failing world (see my blog “Trust Only in God,”), we are protected by the God who sent his Son to die for us and who brought him back from the grave!

Second, Diagnose the Fear Viruses That Threaten

Fear, properly understood and managed, can lead to insight, faith and freedom. That begins with naming our fears. Naming empowers us to process our fears directly instead of being controlled by them indirectly.

Psalm 91 mentions a number of fears. Commentator Derek Kidner wrote, “Most of these dangers are of a kind which strike unseen, against which the strong are as helpless as the weak.”

The psalmist refers to the schemes that others plot against us (like those trapping birds in nets), the threats of war and physical harm, the anxieties that plague our minds, and the threats of illness that attack our bodies. He even speaks of the threat of beasts, which may be literal creatures but often represent human and demonic evil.

Fears are meant to be alarms, awakening us to action. The fear response was not intended to bind us in anxious paralysis. For the psalmist, fear awakens faith:

You will tread on the lion and the cobra;

    you will trample the great lion and the serpent (Psalm 95:13).

We are not simply survivors who escape; we are victors who trample these deadly enemies underfoot.

Fear awakens faith when we use it as a mirror of our souls. Our fears reflect our inner state of being. We ask ourselves, “Fear, why are you here?”

What fears do you wrestle with? These fears are alerting us to genuine issues that need our attention.

When we feel the nausea of fear rising within, we know our vision is fixed too low. We need to look up from the jostling situation to the horizon of hope. Our horizon is the Word of God.

Fear is an alarm to awaken us, not a chain to bind us.

Third, Exercise the Choice to Trust God at All Times

Fear may initially be a reaction, but it becomes a decision.

That’s why I began with the statement that “Fear is a virus greater than any virus we fear.” Fear, left unchecked, can overwhelm our spiritual immune system and “infect” those around us.

The Bible tells us to expect the worst from the world. This is not pessimism. This is biblical realism that gives stability. Realistic expectations keep us from false security and self-reliance. In God we trust.

Hours before his crucifixion, Jesus described the trials his followers would suffer. “I have told you these things,” Jesus said, “so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

It’s as if Jesus were saying, “When problems come, you’re going to think I’ve left you. But I tell you that when problems come, it’s the sign that I’m with you. Learn to use your trials as triggers to faith.”

We are tempted to take trouble as a sign God has forsaken us, but Jesus teaches us to take trouble as a sign God has prepared us.

Fear may never leave us in this life, but it need not rob us of joy and confidence. In Jesus Christ, we become courageous people.

When fear threatens and the nausea rises, we train ourselves to look to the horizon of God’s sovereign rule and care.

Tap the energy of fear as a motive for trust in our Faithful God.

[NOTE: To hear the full sermon from which I developed this post, click on the link to my sermons at Trinity and and find “Containing the Fear Virus” on March 15, 2020]

 

Sometimes it’s just being there

L_AMBIANCE BUILDING COLLAPSE
The rescue effort to retrieve 28 men from the collapse of L’Ambiance Plaza in Bridgeport, Connecticut in April 1987

It happened a long time ago—but the experience speaks to me almost daily.

On Thursday, April 23, 1987, I turned on the television at the end of one of our delightful, sun-drenched vacation days in Florida to hear the national news report on the collapse of L’Ambiance Plaza, a 13-story building under construction in Bridgeport, Connecticut—about 4 miles from our home at the time. Of the 70 men working at the site, 28 were missing under the tons of concrete and steel.

When we returned from Florida on Monday, a few days later, I immediately joined the Pastoral Care Team that was providing a round-the-clock presence at the site. By Wednesday, seven days into the disaster, they had recovered 16 bodies and were still searching for the remaining 12. I went to the disaster site from 9:00 p.m. – 2:00 a.m. for my shift on the Pastoral Care Team to be available to the families, construction workers, police, fire-fighters and medical personnel.

In all candor, I felt helpless and unimportant at the edge of the pit. They had located 4 more bodies, but it would be hours before they could get to them. What could I do?

Around midnight I was talking with one of the union bosses I’d gotten to know who’d been there from the very beginning.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Mike said, “This place is like hell — and we need to know God’s still around.”

His simple affirmation chastened me. I had fallen into the lie that the twisted pile of rubble represented the “real world” and that my “spiritual resources” were of little use. Mike didn’t expect me to dig through concrete, use a torch, operate a crane or provide medical care. He had plenty of people to do that. He needed me to be there as a visible representative of God. Not to explain. Not to fix. Simply to express God’s presence in the midst of tragedy.

We often think too little of ourselves. We forget God can move through our simple, caring presence. I think this is, in part, what Henri Nouwen (professor at Yale and Harvard, author and spiritual director) means when he calls us “living reminders.” In the following quote he speaks of ministers and pastors, but the idea applies to all Jesus’ disciples. Nouwen reminds us that our primary value is who we are as witnesses of our Lord.

What are the spiritual resources of ministers? What prevents them from becoming dull, sullen, lukewarm bureaucrats, people who have many projects, plans and appointments but who have lost their heart somewhere in the midst of their activities? … Nihls Dahl, speaking about early Christianity, says: “The first obligation of the apostle vis-a-vis [in relationship to] the community– beyond founding it– is to make the faithful remember what they have received and already know– or should know.” [Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Living Reminder: Service and Prayer in memory of Jesus Christ, Minneapolis: The Seabury Press, 1977, 11].

“Remember what you have received and already know– or should know.” And remind others, too. What should we know?

The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged”  Deuteronomy 31:8 (NIV).

But now, this is what the Lord says—
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior (Isaiah 42:1-3).

In a world that emphasizes power, many things remind us of our lack of power: like severe weather, political conflict, terrorist attacks, buildings collapsing, addictions, “irreconcilable differences,” and natural disasters, to name a few. We, as God’s people, are living reminders to help the faithful recall the truth of the gospel and the resources of faith, hope and love God has provided in Christ. We are also witnesses to the watching world that, in spite of the worst the world can do people, God can meet them in the darkness and bring light.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…” Acts 1:8 (NIV).

There are many ways to witness. Sometimes it’s just being there– and responding as God leads.