Despite all the chaos, fear and confusion of these past several weeks, it’s incredible to me the absolute inundation of stories about everyday people who are stepping up, going out of their way, and caring for those around them in truly remarkable ways. This, I think, is the silver lining in this current crisis. I’m sure you each have a handful of stories you have witnessed, contributed to, and benefitted from personally. What strikes me now is this amazing opportunity we have to not only be the hands and feet, the body of Christ; but to encourage the ones who are putting the image of God on display… and don’t even realize that’s why they’re loving and serving people the way that they are.
A popular video was being shared last week—John Lennon’s famous ballad “Imagine”, sung by a number of celebrities. The video (and the song itself) has been ridiculed and renounced for many reasons. Particularly relevant for believers in Jesus are the lines calling for us to “imagine there’s no heaven… no hell… no religion, too.” Regardless of the execution of the video, the way it was sung, the privilege of those singing, I’d like to highlight the intent of the video. The sentiment is a good one. And theologically, not that far off. Bear with me. I don’t expect John Lennon, or Gal Gadot for that matter, to accurately articulate everything I believe. But when I hear this song, I think of the kingdom of God. The way things ought to be. The way things will be when God makes all things new.
Especially in times of crisis, we see a yearning for the way things ought to be. We see people stepping up to meet needs in ways we may have been overlooking before. We see it in the way neighbors are caring for each other. People are donating time and money to various organizations who are making sure no one goes without. On Facebook, I can hardly scroll through my timeline without seeing a friend call out the hoarding and stockpiling of groceries and medical supplies. It’s become common to recognize the hard work and courage of those on the front lines of this crisis, who are daily in harm’s way. Restaurants are preparing free meals for families with children.
There’s an ache for the time when this will all be behind us and life can finally get back to normal. And yet, if life actually “got back to normal”, I fear we would be wasting opportunities. If any of these current activities and perspectives were to stop once coronavirus had run its course, we would be denying ourselves a beautiful glimpse into what the kingdom of God looks like. Yes, what we’re seeing and doing right now—serving and loving others in the most practical of ways—is what we are called to do as good humans. Good neighbors. We should be doing these things as good citizens… let alone as citizens of the kingdom. But it is the additional understanding of why we do this as followers of Jesus that points us to the good news. We do this—all of us—because we are made in God’s image. We are all made to reflect his goodness, love, mercy, and desire to help those in need. We are all made to help bring about his plan to restore the world to himself. One day, there will be no need for greed or hunger. Nothing to kill or die for. Heaven comes to earth, death will be destroyed, and even religion will lose its meaning as we know it. The endgame of the church is not universal religion: it’s the forever, creation-wide reality of renewal and reunion with God. That’s the kingdom, the new earth as described in the book of Revelation.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “God has set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” I think what we’re seeing right now from people who do not claim to follow Jesus, who genuinely want to love their neighbors or are crying out in fear and anxiety of the unknown, is a demonstration of that ache for eternity. One philosopher wrote, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him… though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only… by God himself.”
What are the ways those around you are seeking to fill that ache of eternity? That hole only God can fill? Some are taking John Lennon’s lead in an attempt to rally others to this beautifully imagined world. Some are dulling the ache with food or drink or exercise or sleep or overworking or binge watching tv. Some are asking questions about that eternity. How will you contextualize the good news that Jesus offers into these situations? How will you translate the hope that you have to those who fear, grieve, panic as if they have no hope? How will you encourage those who are stepping up and loving those around them—perhaps like Paul giving context to the worship of the Athenians in Acts 17 (look it up!)—to speak into the reason they do the good things they do, because they are made in God’s image.
On a personal note, I identify with those who are struggling to adapt. I am right there with those who sometimes (often) fear, and grieve, and panic, as if I have no hope. I need this message as much as the rest of the world does. In this strange time of social distancing, isolation can really just be a euphemism for loneliness. I know many of you are affected by illness, loss of income, depression, anxiety, and may be feeling trapped in your situation. This truth is for you, too: there is hope. Jesus is King, and invites us to participate in bringing about his kingdom. Imagine.
“In the midst of isolation… we experience the loss of so many things. Let us once again listen to the proclamation that saves us: he is risen and is living by our side.”
—Pope Frances, in a message regarding COVID-19
As I sit here this morning, putting the final touches on this blog post, it’s beginning to settle in just how strange these days are becoming for our world.
I wanted to share with you some thoughts on this Sunday morning. They aren’t organized in any particular order. Some are related to others, though some are not. Let’s dig in.
1. The church is built for this.
All churches are greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of us are concerned about how this will impact the church moving forward. Looking back to its origins, the body of Christ wasn't built on the basis of some organizational structure. And I don’t mean to say structure was absent from the church, because it wasn’t. (That’s actually a series we’ll be discussing later this year.)
The church was a movement of the disciples of Jesus. In his high priestly prayer, Jesus commissioned his disciples to be sent to the world, just as he himself was sent to the world (Jn. 17:18). In the book of Acts, the church was growing daily through believers meeting in their homes, breaking bread, learning from the apostles’ teachings, praying, serving others, taking care of those who were in need, and God gave them favor in the eyes of the communities around them (Acts 2:42-47). From that point forward, the church has grown through dispersion, suffering, persecution… and it can continue to grow through pandemics.
The church is built to withstand what we are experiencing today because God’s presence is in the midst of his people, wherever they may be. Our identity is summed up in the one who could not be defeated, even by death itself.
2. How this is going to change the way we view church?
A conversation I’ve been having with several folks is how this pandemic is going to alter the way we see the church. Make no mistake about it, we are getting ready to learn what we truly believe about the church and the gospel.
An honest question: does it feel like we are no longer a church because of our gathering restrictions? “The church isn’t a building; it's the people”, was the quote I often heard growing up in church. Well… we now get to see if we truly believe that. If we are not careful, our systems of how we do church can take over our identity as the church. Jesus spoke most harshly to the religious elite because of this very mistake. The ways we worship can become the object of our worship.
One question that I have been pondering: what are we going to say about the COVID-19 pandemic five years from today? How did it impact the church? How did the church move forward? It is going to be incredibly interesting to see the impact and trajectory of the church for the years to come.
3. The pandemic is changing the way I see how our actions impact others.
I was at the grocery store on Friday. I’ve seen panic with hurricanes. I’ve seen people clear shelves and stock pile food and toiletries before a snowstorm. But I’ve never seen anything quite like this. All rice and pastas were sold out. TP and paper towels were long gone. The freezers were emptied by the sections. UNREAL.
I fortunately was able to get one last small pack of diapers for our youngest two who still need them at night. At the register, I was conversing with the employee that was scanning our items, and he commented: “Man, I’m so glad you were able to get these diapers. I have a 3 month old at home. I literally work here, and I can’t find baby wipes. People will wait for the shelves to be stocked and they clear them out before anyone else can get them.”
Many people are driven by fear right now, and their actions aren’t considering the situation of their neighbors. That conversation has made me reflect on how our actions—both positive and negative—affect those around us. For me, this raises the bar for why the church must be so intentional to love people well. As Jesus told his disciples, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35).
4. I’m beginning to pray that the church would spread the good news of Jesus as easily as this virus is being spread.
Not much more needs to be said about this one. Just imagine disciples of Jesus being so infectious to those around them through their servant-like posture, their hospitality, and their devotion to making the name of Jesus great in all that they do. Wow!
So whether you are with friends or family or are by yourself this morning, I invite you to join us all in reflecting on these questions:
I’d love to hear your response to the above questions, or any creative or innovative ways of being the church during this season of social distancing and quarantine! Text, email, post on our facebook group what you’ve been doing or planning to do. Let’s be encouraged to mobilize and act by hearing how others are being diligent in loving and serving those around them!
For starters, Sarah Landis organized an effort to gather independent activities like puzzles, coloring books, crossword puzzles, markers, and candy for different senior centers and care facilities—raising over $550 and counting! As far as I’m aware, this effort is ongoing! You can contribute by donating at this link: https://thewellde.churchcenter.com/giving/to/covid-19-individual-activity-resources
Here are some things we can pray for together:
I’ll leave you with these lyrics at the end of one of my favorite songs, “In Christ Alone”:
"No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me
From life's first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand
Till He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I'll stand.”
Mother’s Day Message—a continuation in the sermon series on giving
1 Samuel 1-2:11
Kevin and I had a discussion a week ago about the differences between Mother’s Day sermons and Father’s Day sermons. We agreed that it seemed like pastors tended to challenge the fathers, and cherish the mothers… and we wondered what it would look like if we brought a bit more balance to those scales. So, being a mother, I feel I have a bit of a better perspective to speak into some of the particular challenges of being a mother in a way that a father does not. That being said, I think this message will absolutely apply to everyone. Tonight we’re going to be looking at the example of Hannah, and five key points in her story where she could have responded in insecurity, immaturity, selfishness, and fear but instead responded in faith.
First Decision Point
Hannah didn’t take matters into her own hands, but brought it to the Lord
Hannah, her husband, and her rival Peninnah went to the tabernacle at Shiloh where Eli is the priest. She was distraught because she had no children and Peninnah had many. We’ve seen this situation before in scripture, haven’t we? Sarah and Rachel come immediately to mind. How did they handle that? In their shame of not having a son of their own, they “outsourced” to slaves and concubines, with mixed to horrendous results. They took the redemption of their pain and shame into their own hands. In this point in Hannah’s story, she faced the same dilemma—but instead of taking her pain into her own hands, she went to the one who is able to give her the desires of her heart.
There’s much more to her desire to have a son in this context that ought to be unpacked, but I want to focus now on her relationship to her rival and fellow wife, Peninnah. It says in verse 6 that because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. It drove her to tears. She became so depressed she would not eat. Now, if I know one thing about being a mother in this day and age, it is that we mothers maintain outward displays of having it all together. Young mothers (but really, most of us online) use social media to put up false fronts of perfection. And whether we intend to or not, this very thing can cause someone else to despair of her own life, fearing it doesn’t measure up. That’s sort of the whole point behind Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, and other image-sharing sites that give posed and retouched snapshots into someone’s life but rarely give the full picture. I think if I can be completely honest, I wouldn’t mind if someone were jealous of my life. But in reality, we find that comparison is the thief of joy. We all experience this. And that’s just not God’s intent. It’s not his intent for us to just TRY HARDER to present a perfect life—because that’s not reasonable, or healthy, or even really possible—it’s his intent for us to turn to HIM with our despair, our feelings of inadequacy, and our unmet desires. Hannah so desperately desired a son, and to be validated in the eyes of her rival, regardless of her husband’s stated affection for her, but she took that pain and despair straight to the one who could do anything about it.
Second Decision Point
Hannah didn’t respond to misunderstanding with offense, but with grace
At the next crisis point in Hannah’s story, we see her weeping and wailing before God with such fervor that the priest Eli thought she was drunk. Hannah didn’t care how she appeared before the Lord in the tabernacle, and when someone—the priest, no less—questioned her and misunderstood her purpose, she answered him without taking offense. She responded with gentle correction. I know that when I am questioned, or critiqued, or misunderstood, my response is typically annoyance at best and rage at worst. But Hannah responds in verse 16, “Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.” First of all, this demonstrates to me what kind of caliber priest we’re dealing with in Eli. He was effectively scolded: shouldn’t he have been able to sense a person in the spirit, pouring out her soul to God? We find out later in chapter 2 that his sons (also priests) were incredibly wicked, which has a direct reflection on the type of operation Eli was running, as a priest and as a parent, but we’ll talk more about that later.
A colleague of mine, who happens to be a pastor (and happens to be my husband), has mentioned he that has found the hardest people to disciple are often young mothers. I obviously count myself among that group. We are so defensive, and sensitive to critique, observation, questioning, and misunderstandings, especially when it comes to our parenting decisions about our children’s education, behavior, or health--Are you anti-vaxx? How do you handle your kid’s ADHD? How much screen time do you allow? Do you spank? Do you homeschool? How many times a week does your kid get ice cream and cookies and pop? Are they participating in sports? How long did you breastfeed? OH, you DIDN’T breastfeed? You better not co-sleep.— And while we can question why it’s anybody’s business in the first place to ask these questions (that’s a discussion for another day), how could we assume the posture Hannah demonstrated in the tone and content of her response? Her correction was still correction, but it was merciful, forbearing, and humble. Yet it rectified a misunderstanding, subtly put this man in his place, and prompted him to bless her—“Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” How can we, in this age where seemingly every decision is questioned, seemingly every behavior judged, be so confident in our position before God and the intent of our hearts, and better represent ourselves when these critiques come instead of responding out of offense?
Third Decision Point
Hannah didn’t sit idly by to wait for the answer to her prayer, she worked in anticipation
After Eli’s blessing the scripture says, “Hannah went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.” Hannah acted as though her prayers were already answered. She reminds me of those who lived by faith, as recounted in Hebrews 11—“Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” She went home and slept with her husband, confident that she would conceive even though she was infertile.
Do we have this same confidence to ask and receive of God? Not all of us have struggled with infertility, though I would imagine many of us have and do. At a certain point, the metaphor always breaks down, so in this section, I want to tread carefully. I don’t ever want to suggest that infertility is caused by a lack of faith. With that being said, and applying this metaphor more broadly, I want to ask all of you: What in our lives is seemingly infertile? What’s not producing life? Do you have something that seems to be full of promise and opportunity, but it’s just not bearing fruit? Whether it’s a small goal, or a far off dream, or a relationship? First of all, are you asking of God? This is all a moot point if we aren’t taking our hopes and dreams and problems and quandaries to the one who can do anything about it (which we saw in Hannah’s first response). Secondly, are you confident that it will come about? James 1 says, “But when he asks [for wisdom], he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” Hannah left the tabernacle, ate something, and her spirit was lifted; she’s obviously confident that God had already answered her. Thirdly, she slept with her husband. Wouldn’t it be a shame if after she prayed, she just waited around for God to do something… like another immaculate conception, I guess? No, she went and did the thing she needed to do to conceive. So I ask you, not only are you praying and having confidence in God’s answer, but are you doing the work? I know the book “Girl, Wash Your Face” took a lot of flak (and, to some degree, for good reason), but I find so much truth in the idea that we can live in anticipation of God’s movement andparticipate in that movement with actions of obedience. To paraphrase a quote by John Piper: cry out to God, grieve when you need to, then wash your face, trust God, and do what he’s telling you to do next.
Decision Point 4
Hannah didn’t keep her son for herself, but trusted God to be the better parent
Later, when Hannah gave birth to a sweet baby boy, she named him Samuel, “God hears”. And since she had vowed to God that the boy would live in special service to him, after he is weaned, she made good on that promise. Hannah brought a sacrifice, which possibly represented each year of the boy’s life, and presented him to the priest who had previously misunderstood and then blessed her all those years before… instead of being tempted to keep him, after three years of bonding with this child, who was her heart’s desire and answered prayer. She could have held onto that gift—God had given him to her, after all—but she chose to give him back to God. She didn’t cease to be his mother after that point, but she gave up what she thought motherhood was going to look like. Though she knew the flaws and inadequacies of Eli the priest and parent, she knew she would be trusting God with this little life. In this act, she demonstrated her belief that God is a better parent than she was or could be to this sweet little three-year-old gift.
When our sweet Charles boy turned three, he was diagnosed with autism. When we first heard the term ‘autism spectrum disorder’ applied to our son—and I don’t mean to be dramatic—it was as if a death had occurred. Yes, our son was the same sweet, handsome little boy we knew and loved the day before his diagnosis, but Kevin and I were forced to face the reality that our son’s future would look different than we had hoped and dreamed, even if those hopes and dreams were unspoken. Truth be told, we went through the full five stages of grief, at different times, and in a different order, and sometimes I still have to swing through them all again when there’s another setback or realization of how his autism affects him and our family. I grieve the life we thought he would have, and the life we thought we would have with him. I grieve what I thought being the mom of a boy might look like. Now, you all know Charles, and the incredible strides he’s made in the past year. We have so much hope for his strengths, and dream about his one-day ability to live independently from us… but that’s not promised to us. I have no idea what teenage and adult life looks like for Charles. No matter what the future holds, though, I have come to realize that Charles is not forgotten by God; in fact, God loves him more deeply and more powerfully and more effectively than I ever will. And of course, this is how God loves all of my children. He is the better and truer parent. Mothers, I know we love fiercely and protectively, but they are first and foremost hischildren, not ours. Can we believe, like Hannah, that despite the scariness and brokenness of this world, or our hopes for our children’s futures, or what we think parenthood should look like, or the inadequacies of the priest we’ve just given our son to, God is worthy of our trust? It is terrifying, as a mother, to relinquish what I perceive to be control over these little lives (and I don’t imagine it gets easier the older they get, going to college, exploring the world, starting families of their own, or staying home with mom and dad as the case may be), but I can rejoice knowing that they’re his first. There is freedom in that surrender.
Decision Point 5
Hannah chose to rejoice after she gave up her heart’s desire
The passage tells us that once Hannah gave Samuel over to the service of the Lord, she REJOICED. I find that so fascinating—it is NOT when she conceived, gave birth to her son, or had him at home with her for those three years, but after she had given him back to God that she worshiped him and rejoiced. Wow. Does that even make sense to you? With our treasure, with our heart’s desire and answered prayer, do we rejoice and worship when we receive? When we enjoy the benefits of having that thing/person/relationship/job/dream fulfilled? Or do we praise him in rejoicing when we get to give it back to him? As I read through this passage, I think she was able to come to this point because she had chosen to respond rightly to those tests of faith and decision points we just discussed—she knew who she could go to for help in her grief instead of taking matters into her own hands; she responded in grace to someone who misunderstood her instead of responding in offense; she acted in obedience, confidently trusting God had already answered her prayer instead of twiddling her thumbs and waiting for God to do something; and she believed God had better plans and was a better parent for her child instead of shielding him from the world by keeping him to and for herself. Because she hadn’t made those decisions out of insecurity, immaturity, selfishness, and fear, she demonstrated she understood her proper position before God, which enabled her to rejoice at the point of giving not receiving.
We find, a thousand years later, that another young mother borrowed her words of praise. This young woman also chose to respond in faith, not insecurity, selfishness, or fear—and was also called to give her son back to God. Mary’s famous prayer the Magnificat, which we talked about around Christmastime, echoes Hannah’s joy at being able to give back to the Lord that which is already his.
Certainly, not all of us are mothers, or will be mothers, but the question here is what will you do with the gift that is your heart’s desire? What is it you treasure most, or use to define your purpose and identity? For Hannah, it was a literal baby—but what’s yourbaby? Your career? Your plans for the future? The success or financial blessings God has given you? Your social standing? Your family? What has God given you that he wants you to surrender back to him? It’s his; it’s always been his. Though we have temporary stewardship, guardianship, and responsibility to rightly guard and steward these gifts—our most precious things are ultimately his to have and to hold.
As we look at the example of Hannah, obviously we may never find ourselves in such a circumstance to pray for a child and then give the child to a dusty old priest for the rest of his life, but we can observe in her responses to these testing points where she chose the better way of faith. To borrow from Bob and Diane’s message from a week ago, it is the decisions she made at these key moments over a long period of time that developed into a character of joyful giving. Let us be challenged by her confidence before God, her careful response to misunderstanding, her bold activity, her trust in God as a better parent with a better future for her son, and her rejoicing at giving back that which was most dear.