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]

 

My Most Empowering Prayer

Open Hands shutterstock_339631844

Many people limit prayer to their understanding of what is “spiritually important.” They don’t want to bother God, or they don’t think God is really interested in everyday matters.

What, then, do we make of Jesus’ words, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:6-7).

Here’s my working principle: If it matters to me, it matters to God.

So how do we apply this to our daily responsibilities?

What burden(s) do you feel as you live for the Lord in daily life?

One significant aspect of my vocation is communicating God’s Word through preaching, teaching and writing. The burden of this responsibility has grown as I’ve seen how powerless I am to change human hearts and minds. I may be interesting or even inspiring for a moment, but that falls far short of “taking every thought captive to obey Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

My work as a pastor is like many other careers. There is, however, a unique dynamic to ministry that affects us all, whether we serve as “volunteers” or as our vocational calling. It’s expressed well by P. T. Forsyth (1848–1921), a Scottish theologian.

The work of ministry labors under one heavy disadvantage when we regard it as a profession and compare it with other professions. In these [other professions], experience brings facility, a sense of mastery in the subject, self-satisfaction, self-confidence; but in our subject [of ministry], the more we pursue it, the more we enter into it, so much more are we cast down with the overwhelming sense not only of our insufficiency, but of our unworthiness.

No wonder Paul asked, “Who is sufficient (competent) for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).

I have found hope in Jesus’ words to his disciples, “When they drag you into their meeting places, or into police courts and before judges, don’t worry about defending yourselves—what you’ll say or how you’ll say it. The right words will be there. The Holy Spirit will give you the right words when the time comes” (Luke 12:11-12, The Message).

Based on this promise, I have developed a prayer that has energized my preparation and presentations for many years. “Lord, give me what you want to give me for your people.” And before I speak, I pray, “Lord, give us what you want to give us in this time.” (I mentioned this briefly in my blog “Pray with Open Hands,” September 23, 2019).

It’s a joy hearing people comment, “That message (blog, teaching) was just what I needed. I felt like you were speaking right to me.”

Recently, I spoke at a men’s gathering at our church we call Man Night. The next day I received this email:

Doug thanks for last night. After a very long day yesterday, while getting the kids off to the High School group and my wife off to her Bible study, I told her I was fried and would probably skip Man Night. I was worn out and just not feeling it for some reason.  Then God tapped me on the shoulder, telling me I ought to go.

Then this man, whom I’ll call James, described how he remembered my talk was on staying motivated as Jesus’ disciples—and that he really needed motivation. In my talk, I presented Jesus’ strategy of invitation, not condemnation. I departed from my notes and made some applications to parenting. I shared how it’s easy for parents to become anxious and pressure our children. We condemn them instead of discovering how to invite them into God’s better way. “James” continued his email:

I feel like we’re continually condemning our high schoolers, which just causes more of arguments. So, the power and confidence to back off on the condemnation and instead model Jesus, guiding more through grace, like the examples you gave, was powerful medicine. Thanks be to God.

So, I came for one message, but was moved by another that I wasn’t thinking about, but I really needed help with.  Sounds just about the way God works.  Sometimes the most important thing is just showing up.

I had not planned to speak on parenting, but that was what the Holy Spirit gave me to give these men, especially James.

Prayer can empower us to fulfill the most significant responsibilities of our lives.

The Lord is ready to give his blessings to others through us. The big question is: Are we ready to receive them and pass them on?

“Lord, give us what you want to give others through us. In the strong name of Jesus. Amen!”

Pray with Open Hands

Jesus Gethsemane Duane Unruh_IMG_4941
“Jesus in Gethsemane” sculpted by Duane Unruh

Sometimes I forget what I’ve said in my preaching. That’s not unusual. But what often surprises me is when others remember what I said—and communicate how God used it in their life.

Several years ago we received a fairly large package that was unusually heavy. We weren’t expecting anything, so we were intrigued. I looked at the return address and saw it was from a dear friend, Duane.  Duane was one of the “pillars” in our previous congregation in Kansas City. A wise, gracious, deeply spiritual man. He was also a Hallmark artist and had his own “signature line” of Christmas ornaments. Quite an honor.

We opened the box and saw what you see in my (amateur!) photo above: a bronze sculpture of Jesus kneeling in Gethsemane. Look closely. Do you notice anything different in Jesus’ posture? He is most often pictured with his hands either folded or facing downward in prayer.

I have a different concept for our posture in prayer—and Duane remembered that.

Duane was in a prayer group I recruited and trained to pray during the worship services. We talked much about principles, practices, and postures for prayer. “What I remember most,” wrote Duane, “was that you prayed with your hands open and invited others to do the same. That has changed the way I pray.”

Open hands: We are empty.

Ultimately, we come to God with nothing but ourselves. And that is enough.

The Bible assures that, in spite of our emptiness, the Lord God, who rules the universe and all eternity, wants to connect with us. Psalm 8 expresses this wonder:

3 When I consider your heavens,

    the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars,

    which you have set in place,

4 what is mankind that you are mindful of them,

    human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4 NIV).

Those who engage with the Lord in prayer quickly see their emptiness apart from God. Don’t confuse “empty” with worthless. We are of priceless value to the Lord. Open hands remind us, however, that we do not come to God with pride, holding up our achievements as if we have something to offer that God is missing. We come in grateful humility. The lyrics from the gospel hymn, Rock of Ages, say it best, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”

Open hands: We are letting go.

Prayer enables us to release our burdens, our regrets, and even our expectations to the Lord who listens and cares.

Time with God in prayer awakens growing confidence in God’s wisdom and power. And it loosens our grip on our preferences. We surrender because we learn that is the only way to victory. We don’t have to cling to the heavy yoke we impose on ourselves.

Open hands: We are receptive.

We are expectant.

“We must not conceive of prayer as overcoming God’s reluctance, but as laying hold of his highest willingness.” Archbishop Trench

When I prepare for any message (including this blog) I open my hands and pray, “Lord, give me what you want to give me for your people.” I am ready to receive God’s provision.

Paul reminds to expect God to work by considering what God has already done in Christ.

“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32 NIV).

God has already given Jesus Christ to pay the penalty for our sin. Having invested so much in us, why would God stop now? The Lord wants us to experience the full benefits of salvation and to be equipped for continuing his work in this world.

It’s worth meditating on this verse again, this time reading from The Message paraphrase:

“If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us?”

Open your hands in humility, freedom and expectation.

When You Feel Powerless

Sea of Galilee boat shutterstock_483356410
A tour boat on the Sea of Galilee

We live in a culture of control.

Through technology, we have an amazing amount of control over information and access to all kinds of services. We are used to getting most anything we want (within reason) anytime we want: food on demand, entertainment on demand, online shopping, and much more.

But there are times when things don’t always work “on demand.”

In February 2019, Sarah and I were on the Sea of Galilee with our tour group, crossing from Capernaum to Kibbutz Ein Gev on the eastern shore where we always get “St. Peter’s Fish” with our groups.

Sarah had just finished praying with a woman who had been diagnosed with cancer. I walked over to her, and she looked puzzled.

“What am I doing with this?” she asked, holding up a black coat.

“That’s the coat you borrowed from your mom for our trip here to Israel.”

“Israel?? Where are we?”

My mind started racing. She wasn’t joking…

“What have I been doing?” Sarah asked.

“You just finished praying with Babette because she’s been diagnosed with cancer…”

“Babette has cancer?!” Sarah asked with genuine surprise and alarm.

Obviously, we had a very serious problem on our hands. I don’t recall when I have ever felt so powerless.

I prayed immediately, “Lord, have mercy on Sarah and on all of us.”

Then I remembered (that is, the Holy Spirit reminded me!) that about a year ago, a member of our congregation had told me about an unusual experience he had with a sudden-but-brief episode of memory loss. It’s called transient global amnesia.

I immediately called over our daughter, KJ, and her husband, Brett who were traveling with us. I asked KJ to look up transient global amnesia on the internet. “Dad, this fits what’s going on exactly!”

When we docked for lunch, our guide called a host couple that work with our travel agency’s tour groups. They drove 30 minutes to pick us up and took us to the main hospital in Tiberias, Galilee.

As we rode to the hospital, Sarah spoke with Bonnie (from the hospitality team), remembering more and more. I was so relieved, but knew we had to follow through on the assessment.

There’s much more to this story, but let me just say that, after five hours in the ER, the diagnosis was confirmed: transient global amnesia. She regained her full memory and has been fine ever since.

I am so grateful, but I will never forget how powerless I felt when Sarah’s episode began.

I thank the Lord our story has a happy ending. But we all know there are many stories that don’t end this way. And some of you are living one right now.

So how do we experience our living Lord’s power and care when we feel powerless?

The account of Jesus’ healing a desperate father’s son, when the disciples were powerless to do so, gives us a key insight (see Mark 9:14-29).

When Jesus arrived (following his transfiguration) the father pleaded with him, “If you can do anything…”

“’If you can?’” said Jesus, “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Contrary to many interpreters, I think Jesus’ tone of voice was kind, not mocking. Gently encouraging, not sarcastic.

Biblical scholar Dr. Jim Edwards says Jesus’ response makes it very clear that “it is not a matter of divine unwillingness, nor a problem of divine inability, but human unbelief.”

In fact, the father’s profession, “I believe, help my unbelief,” was enough! The boy was healed instantly.

Faith is not a quantity that can be measured, nor a feeling we must produce. Faith is a quality of trusting. Faith is the trust we exercise when we intentionally nurture confidence in both God’s character and God’s grace shown in Jesus Christ.

When I felt absolutely powerless and cried out to the Lord, the Lord worked.

When we reach the end of our resources, we discover God’s unlimited love and power for those who believe.

 

Trembling at The Door

park historical castle fountain
Photo by Ingo Joseph on Pexels.com

One of the common stereotypes of preaching is that a sermon must have “Three points, a poem and a prayer.” Another is that a sermon should always begin with a joke—I guess that is to disarm people and make them think the dreaded message may not be so bad after all.

My sermons rarely include jokes or poems. Once in a while, however, there’s a poem that is, itself, a sermon. George Herbert’s poem, Love (III), is such a poem. When I heard it presented as an anthem by our wonderful choir recently, I felt compelled to spend time reflecting on it.

Herbert (1593-1633) served as a tutor at Cambridge University and as a parish minister in the Church of England at Bremerton St. Andrew, near Salisbury. He died from tuberculosis at age 39. The poem Love (III) is part of his anthology The Temple. While I’d love to share more about this fascinating pastor-poet and his superb compilation of devotional poetry (highly acclaimed by the likes of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden), let’s move right into this poem.

Just a few preparatory comments, then I’ll let the poem speak for itself. It helps me to picture the human narrator (listen also for the Lord speaking) as one overwhelmed by unworthiness. The unworthiness of having failed in faith and faithfulness. Shame in simply being all-too-human is mixed with regret and fear and the (un)belief that the Lord could or would never really want anything to do with her or him.

Love (III)
By George Herbert

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
     Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
     From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
     If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
     Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
     I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
     Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
     Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
     My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
     So I did sit and eat.

It’s sound corny, but there is a sweetness here, a gracious kindness, that melts all resistance. This is a portrait of love expressed not because of the worthiness of the person, but because of the greatness of the Lover.

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12: 32 NIV).

Read this poem a few times.  Soak in it. Marinate. See it “play out” at the front door of a glorious mansion: You’ve just walked a very long, stately, tree-shaded driveway through magnificent grounds. The drive ends with a mansion that cannot be seen in its entirety without turning your head from side to side (Louis XIV’s Versailles palace comes to mind). With great hesitation you approach the door—and it opens while you are still debating whether or not to knock. It’s the Owner of the mansion (not the butler) who greets you. You stare in awe and then look down on your filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Every fiber of your being wants to run back down the long driveway…

Then the Owner grips you with a word. Welcome. As you are. Welcome. For Love’s greatest joy is showing love.

But God Believes In Us

Jesus Hands_Doubt_shutterstock_378834205

Doubt is a part of the faith experience, including doubts about ourselves. There’s One, however, who truly believes in us.

Martha, a salty saint in our congregation, came to my study on a Monday morning following a sermon in which I had said, “The most amazing truth is not that we believe in God, but that God believes in us!”

“You really got me thinking yesterday,” Martha said, peeking in my door. I invited her to come in. “I realize my greatest doubts are not about God, but about me! I love God with all my heart–but I sure have problems with myself! I wrote this poem last night for you.  I tried to tell you what I mean.”

Then this wonderful woman, who had celebrated her eightieth birthday some time ago, gave me a poem that sets our quest in perspective.

Thomas and I

Thomas knew you well, noting small things…

    The contour of your beard, your sudden laugh,

            The gentle hands, the way your eyes caught fire

            At the desecration of a temple or a life.

            He more than most

            Echoed your fervor when he prayed, “Thy Kingdom come.”

            Yet Thomas doubted.

            Not you! It was himself he disbelieved

            And his companions, fearing their anguished need

            Induced illusions. You did not rail at him,

            But gently, with a smile exposed your wounds

            For added certainty of touch as he had asked.

            Lest I confuse my aching wants with your commands

            Show me your hands.

Martha has now seen the Lord’s hands, having gone to be with him just months after writing these wise words. I am so thankful that she shared her counsel with me. She sets us on the right track.

As we journey on the quest of faith, we are invited to lay aside doubt, including our doubt of ourselves: of our motives, of our abilities, of the distraction of past failed attempts and the anxiety of future expectations.  Just take the next step–that’s what matters now.

[NOTE: This poem by Martha Wynne is shared with the kind permission of Martha’s children Ms. Pat Wynne and Mr. Robert Wynne. Originally presented in Douglas J. Rumford, Questions God Asks, Questions Satan Asks, Wheaton, Il: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998, pages 284, 285.]

God’s Wink

sunrise under cloudy sky illustration
Photo by Public Domain Pictures on Pexels.com

I was reading a devotional for pastors and ministry leaders when it suddenly struck me, “I can use this material in the message I am preparing for our missions’ conference.” I stopped, thanked the Lord, made some notes to include this in my message, and then returned to my devotions with another prayer of gratitude. As I prayed, I sensed this experience was like a wink from God. I really like the image of warmth and care conveyed by a wink.

It reminded me of the time Sarah and I were at a restaurant on the North Shore outside Boston, in the town of Essex. I was in seminary and she was a nurse, so it was rare for us to go out to eat. When it came time to get the check, our server came over and said, “I have the privilege of informing you your bill has been paid in full—including the tip!” We were speechless. “How’s that possible?” I asked.

“That couple over there said they wanted to take care of it.”

We looked over, and a physician Sarah worked with at the hospital was sitting with his wife. He gave us a nod, winked and smiled.

We know intellectually God cares for us, but may rarely feel it in our hearts. When it’s hard to feel God cares, it helps to become more aware of the little things we often call “coincidences.” They could better be described as “God-incidences.” Or, as I’m now suggesting, God’s “winks.”

Sometimes love is shown more fully in simple ways. I am deeply touched not only by Sarah’s gifts on my birthday, but by the notes she slips into my suitcase when I have to travel, or that quick text that just says she cares. I am encouraged by those who take time to know and appreciate the little idiosyncrasies that make me me. A couple in our congregation heard that I really like apricot nectar. Periodically we will open our front door to find a can of apricot nectar sitting on our porch. I feel joy and affirmation in that gift.

Jesus continually spoke of God’s joy in blessing us. “So don’t be afraid, little flock. For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32 New Living Translation NLT).

Romans 8:31-32 gives us confidence that God is not stingy in his care, “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (NIV).

The primary focus of each passage above is God’s provision for our redemption and transformation in Christ. And these include, I believe, the love and care that extends to all of life, often seen most clearly in the small, ordinary “God-incidences” that flavor our days. So watch for God’s “winks”– and you’ll see them more often than you can imagine.

Hurricane Downgrade

Hurricane Charley
Hurricane Charley near peak intensity shortly before landfall in Florida on August 13, 2004

Hurricanes are serious business. When I initially drafted this post in August 2017, Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Gulf Coast of Texas. The storm made landfall on Friday August 24 with 130 mph winds — the first Category 4 storm to hit the United States since Charley in 2004. It reminded me that my wife’s parents, Wayne and Marian, experienced Hurricane Charley on Friday August 13, 2004. They lived in Punta Gorda (a town near Port Charlotte on the west coast of Florida) where wind speeds reached 140+ miles per hour. They lived on the second story of a three-story condo complex where the roof was severely damaged. Damage to the state of Florida from Charley was over $13 billion. The devastation to Wayne and Marian’s condo and surrounding area was so significant that they left Florida and moved in with us in Kansas City, where we were living at the time. They never moved back to Florida.

So I know hurricanes are serious business. But not all hurricanes make landfall; not all cause the damage initially predicted. In August 2016, Sarah and I were on the Big Island of Hawaii when we got emergency bulletins that we were in for the possible historic event of two concurrent hurricanes, Madeline and Lester, bearing down on our island nearly simultaneously. It could be a real disaster. A number of individuals and families on the island cancelled their plans and flew back to the mainland rather than chance the consequences and dangers of the hurricanes. We decided to stay.

The day the hurricanes were scheduled to make landfall, we woke up in Kailua Kona, on the west coast of Hawaii, to the typical morning of sunny skies and no evidence of rain. Hilo, as usual, got the worst of the rain, but Madeline had been downgrade to a tropical storm. Then we learned that Lester was also on the downgrade ramp. From category 4 hurricanes, both were downgraded to tropical storms. Still fairly serious, but not devastating. We were grateful for the mercy and enjoyed the rest of our vacation.

Whenever I hear of hurricanes now, I reflect on the hurricane level of anxiety I often experience as I anticipate problems. True, some problems do have incredibly destructive results. I’ve been through my own Category 4 or Category 5 times, to be sure. But over the years I have learned that by the time they actually have to be dealt with, most problems are often downgraded in intensity. Many of my problems have, mercifully, been much less stormy than their initial potential.

You likely expected me to quote this fundamental advice from Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (NIV).

That is priceless counsel. But keep reading Philippians 4:8-9 because there we read some of the best advice for preparing our hearts to stay calm as we anticipate whatever is coming our way.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you (NIV).

Spiritually speaking, storms and even hurricane-level events will come. What do we do? Prepare. Watch. Hope. And live in the moment, without fear. You’ll be ready to endure the tough one if it comes. And keep track of the downgrades to remind yourself to lower your worry-reactivity.

 

A Prayer to Make Easter Real in Our Lives Now

Garden Tomb
The traditional Garden Tomb in Jerusalem

For Jesus’ followers, Easter is the defining moment in the history of the world and in our personal history. But it is so easy to lose sight of the Easter Reality. Scottish preacher James Stewart spoke truth when he said we too often live on the wrong side of Easter.

Too often in our churches we are still on the wrong side of Easter. We are like the groping, fumbling disciples between Good Friday and the Resurrection. How our congregations would worship, with what joy and eagerness and abandon the sacrifice of praise would rise to God, if all worshipers knew themselves in very truth to be sons and daughters of the Resurrection! (from his book Heralds of God, pp.92-93).

An Easter spirituality means living in the unwavering confidence that Life, not death (in all its manifestations), has the last word.  The Apostle Paul calls us to see life through what I call “resurrection eyes.”

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:4-6 NLT).

To help me live into the right side of Easter and to see life with “resurrection eyes,” I have written a number of prayers in my journal. Here’s one that I’ve written and am praying daily now. (By the way, this prayer is titled to reflect the new life we have in Christ now as we await the consummation of history and the bodily resurrection from death promised to all who believe. The best is yet to be!).

AN EASTER PRAYER: We are risen!

Lord, I believe you are risen!
Make me alive in you!
Strike down the guards of this world who try to keep me in the grave of lifeless worldliness.
Lift me up from the stone slab of this world’s false comforts and deceptive promises.
Unwrap me from the grave clothes of my past failures,
from the bondage of regret,
from all that keeps me from you.
Roll away the stone others have put over my life,
sealing me in the darkness of loneliness.
Lord, set me free, and let me shout, ‘Hallelujah!’
Christ is risen!
He is risen Indeed!
Christ is risen,
and I am risen with Him — Today!

Mr. Benson and the Empty Cross

cross-jesus-bible-god-161034.jpeg

pexels-photo-792953.jpeg

When I went to 5th grade Sunday School, my teacher was Mr. Benson. One experience with him left a powerful impression on me. We had recently moved to Cincinnati and many of my new friends were Catholics. They had crucifixes in their home and even their bedrooms. I asked Mr. Benson why our cross, as Presbyterians, was empty.

Mr. Benson told me that we were both Christians, but emphasized different points about the gospel. The Catholics, he said, want their people to remember always Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. That God loves us so much that he gave his son as the sacrifice for our sins. Presbyterians and Protestants, he said, emphasize Jesus’ resurrection and new life. We focus on his victory over death and the promise of his coming again.

Even as a 5th grader I “got it.” I saw the value of both the crucifix and the empty cross. It’s not a matter of “right or wrong,” or “better or worse.” It’s a matter of emphasis. Both together convey God’s love in sending Jesus to take our place in death so that he could defeat death and be present with us now and forever.

The empty cross testifies to God’s death-breaking, life-changing power. In Christ, the cross transformed:

Humiliation into glory

Pain into the prize of eternal life

Denial into unwavering devotion

The worst of human deeds into the greatest of God’s wonders

Which expression means the most to you at this time?

Maybe you appreciate the message of the crucifix: that there’s no limit to God’s love. It is the sign we can trust God to care for us in every way.

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32 NIV)

Or maybe you appreciate the promise of the empty cross representing God’s resurrection power at work in every challenge and opportunity in life.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20 NIV).

Never lose sight of Jesus’ cross. No other symbol conveys God’s love and power more clearly.

“For the Cross means that even when things are at their worst, even when life does not bear thinking about, God is master of the situation still, and nothing can spoil His final pattern or defeat His purpose of love” (James Stewart, Heralds of God, p. 78).

Thank you, Mr. Benson!