Viruses, politics, and our besetting sins

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7

This is our primary text for Sunday’s message (we’re talking about how to pray in a pandemic) but it has become much more than that for me lately. Paul’s word has become a challenge. Do not be anxious about anything, he says.

Anything.

I don’t know about you, but I feel a little like my nerves have been held together by duct tape for a while now. I think if I were to accomplish that one line of scripture, my brain might collapse. Or I might sleep for a month. I’m not even sure what would happen. Right now, I’m trying to think of a time I didn’t have some low-level anxiety brewing beneath the surface. Have I ever been completely non-anxious? Like … completely? Have you?

I wonder what would happen to my faith if I took that one line from Paul seriously, if I went after it with everything in me. For starters, I suspect my faith would mushroom and my confidence in God’s leadership would go through the roof. All my niggling little health issues would disappear. Surely my relationships would improve. I wonder what would occupy my brain (would I rejoice in the Lord always?)?

Do not be anxious about anything. Lord, pick me for that project.

The promise on the other side of that, according to Paul is a kind of peace that doesn’t require all the dots to line up according to the comforts of my feeble brain (or yours). We get a peace that is okay with questions and ambiguities. We get a peace that trusts God’s wisdom and truth even if that means admitting he’s smarter than us. Non-anxious living by Kingdom standards requires me to rest in a higher knowing that doesn’t abide by the rules of human logic.

Do not be anxious about anything.

These days, that’s quite a leap. Listening to all the voices, most of them with competing claims and recommendations, has made leadership nothing if not anxious. Just this week, it all seems to have ramped up. Our President made a statement on Friday all but demanding that churches reopen this weekend. Meanwhile, at least in my denomination, the guidelines don’t allow for that. Leaders reiterated their recommendation that churches remain closed until June 22. On social media this morning, everyone is weighing in. Lots of anxiety-stirring comments. Add that to all the articles we’ve read, conversations we’ve had with medical professionals and documentaries we’ve watched, and whew! Its a lot.

Do not be anxious about anything. Does that even include pandemics, Paul? And politics? Or the politics of pandemics?

The answer is yes, though it is a hard “yes” to accept, because it requires so much more healing and hearing than most of us have energy for. It requires us to dig down beneath comments and people and politics and circumstances and all our feelings and opinions about all those things to some deeper soil beneath where anxiety as a besetting sin is rooted.

I’ll wait while you read that last sentence again.

And even while we’re digging down to the root of our anxious nature, Paul teaches us that the critical second half of wholeness doesn’t end with rooting out our own root causes but also learning the voice of God, so we’re listening to a higher wisdom than the cultural noise around us. That takes time and practice. But that, Paul says, is where the real peace lies. It is in the ability to rest our hearts and minds in the care of Christ even while we read and research, so we’e not tossed around like so much salad by all we hear.

Learning to listen to the Spirit? That’s hard work. What we’d rather do (because its easier) is find some external thing or person to which we can point and say, “If that or they would just stop-change-fix-be-different, then I’d be fine!” We want the world to adjust so we can be at peace. Or we want answers to all our unanswered questions, believing that reasonable answers will give us peace. And the confusing thing is, answers do give some sense of peace just often enough for us to believe they have that power every time.

But they don’t. If answers could give peace, then answers would be god. Or the other person whose behavior you want to fix becomes a potential god. Or the changed circumstance becomes god. Or worse, we become god. If peace can only happen when the world orients around me and my needs, now I’m god. Is that what we want?

This kind of anxiety Paul is talking about is not circumstantially rooted. It is not anxiety about this thing or that thing but anxiety as a default setting of our fallen nature.

Healing a besetting sin requires us to begin with seriously and deeply questioning our own brokenness. What causes anxiety to rise up in me? Is it my own trust issues? Where does that come from? Why don’t I trust others? Why don’t I trust God? Why do I need to be able to trust a person in order to be at peace in my own spirit or in that relationship? Where did all this begin in my life?

(Side note: don’t stop there, with that last question, because besetting sins go deeper than childhood junk; getting at them means rooting out my motivations, not just my memories.)

Is it possible that I don’t trust people or God because I don’t trust myself? Am I always honest with myself? Or am I not always honest in my dealings? What unholy or selfish agendas am I operating out of? Is this about my need to control circumstances or people? Do I become anxious when people don’t do it (whatever “it” is) the way I want them to? Do I lose sleep over things I can’t control?

Is my anxiety a product of my desire to be god?

Even while we’re digging down to the root motivations beneath our anxious nature, Paul teaches us that the critical second half of wholeness is learning the voice of God. It isn’t enough to stop the “anxious.” Jesus taught us that delivering the demon out of the house without replacing it is a dangerous thing. Nature abhors a vacuum. The other half of stifling anxious voices is turning up the volume on the voice of God. That takes time and practice. And patience. It is a long obedience but the payoff is huge. The benefit is the ability to hear and accept a wisdom that is higher than our understanding. That, Paul says, is where the real peace lies. It is in the ability to give our hearts and minds over to Jesus, to let him guard them, so that both feelings and thoughts are safely resting in the care of Christ even as we sift through all that comes our way.

In the midst of another conversation, Paul finished a thought with this: “I think I too have the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 7:40). I don’t think this was Paul proclaiming himself god by saying he had the right answer. I’m not even convinced he needed an answer to bring peace to the situation they were debating. Actually, I think that line was his way of saying, “You might disagree with me, and I can hear you, but I’m not willing to give up years of honing the practice of the presence and voice of God in my life in order to validate your opinion. And I will not minimize this long practice by minimizing what comes out of it. I need to give honor to my own spiritual discernment honed by years of listening and communing with the Holy Spirit by voicing what I’ve heard.”

In other words, there comes a time when in humility we take authority over what we’ve been given as a gift from God — namely, the ability to commune and converse with him.

In still other words, in matters of discernment the Holy Spirit gets a voice, too. But to invoke that voice, we must root out the competing voices even as we practice his presence and learn his voice. And this is not a quick fix but a long obedience.

This week, that seems like a good word. In weighty matters, the Holy Spirit gets a voice, too. As we listen to the official and unofficial voices swirling around the internet — all stirring the political waters as we debate the trajectory of this virus and how that plays out in church — I want to urge you to listen deeper than the debate. Listen to what those voices are doing within your spirit. Are you hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit, or are you mostly just hearing the swell of anxiety? Does the voice bring peace that passes understanding? Or does it demand that you to lose patience and pick a side so you can have an answer? If the latter voice is louder, if anxiety is what stirs up in you, then hear that as a symptom of something that needs spiritual attention. Go looking for the besetting sin (the underlying cause) and dig down so you can pull that thing up by the root.

Because listen: that thing is your problem. Not the opinion of the President or the opinion of whoever made the latest video you’ve watched or the opinion of your uncle who knows someone who knows someone who has dabbled in infectious disease research. Nope. That thing in you that keeps you from placing your whole trust in God, that makes you crazy when you can’t control what other people do/say/think, that makes you hyper-critical of the world around you and hypo-reflective about your ability to hear from God — that’s where you need to start.

Because friends, if we come out of this thing more anxious, less trusting, more partisan, less dependent on the Holy Spirit, then we will all have been sickened by this virus in ways that strike much deeper than flesh.

Do not be anxious about anything.

Be challenged by that word. And be changed.

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Don’t drown in the shallow end.

Friends, I want to encourage you this week with a word God gave me a few days ago: Don’t drown in the shallow end. Let me explain what that means.

Right about now, we are all feeling this pandemic life a little more deeply. We’re weary (yes, we were tired already but somehow this week, for many of us it seems worse). I told someone one day last week at lunchtime, “I’m just tired. Nine weeks ago, this was the middle of the day. Today, this is the middle of the night.” From my conversations with you, it sounds like I’m not alone.

What I’m realizing is that in those first weeks of quarantine, we were able to muscle our way through on adrenaline and sheer self-will. We were chalking each other’s driveways, taking each other meals, checking in with each other often. (Remember those days? In corona-time that was ten years ago.)

But now? Now we’re just tired and what we need now requires a different set of muscles.

Do you know how muscles build? They build by tearing. When we do things like lift weights, we cause small tears in our muscles called micro-tears. It is the body’s repair or healing of those micro-tears that makes the muscle stronger.

That’s how muscles build — by tearing! Who knew?!

In these last ten weeks or so, we have experienced the spiritual and emotional equivalent of a thousand micro-tears. We have had to work a set of muscles we didn’t even know existed and in the working of them, we’ve felt the tears. We have had to flex and pivot in ways that were uncomfortable. From home-schooling, to work-at-home orders, to unemployment, to online worship and zoom-work, to mask-wearing in public … whew! That’s a lot of flexing and pivoting.

Every pivot has meant working muscles we weren’t used to moving, which means more tearing. And that hurts, but oh my! What muscles we’ll have when this all finally settles down! We will be the spiritual equvalent of an Arnold Schwarzenegger!

“But what if I don’t make it? What if I’m just too tired-discouraged-lonely-burned-out right now to go on?”

I hear you.

But this too is good news. Because the Bible teaches us that God does his best work when we come to the end of ourselves! We may feel like we’re reaching the end of our resources, but this is exactly the place God wants us to be. The wise focus in this season is not on the pain but on the skills we have learned, the opportunities for personal growth we’ve uncovered, and the chance to depend on God more than ever before.

Listen: What if the best stuff doesn’t kick in until we get to the end of “us” and have nothing left to cling to but God? What if all this tearing and pivoting is has the effect of strengthening us for God’s preferred future?

If that’s so (and I believe it is), then my encouragement for you who are weary is this: Lean in. Don’t drown in the shallow end. You may feel these days like you’re out of gas or at the end of your rope, but the good news is that this is precisely where God does his best work.

In a section of the book of James that is all about wisdom (James 3:13-18), James ends by talking about peace and peacemakers. For five verses he describes the difference between real wisdom and its counterfeit and then he ends with a line about peace. He writes, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18).

What strikes me about this section of James is that the writer draws a straight line between wisdom and peace. That tells me that peace and wisdom are intimately attached. Which means that real peace, like real wisdom, isn’t generated on our own strength. The peace we are looking for — real peace, supernatural peace, the kind we cannot generate ourselves, the kind that will let us sleep at night, that will keep us from drowning in the shallow end — comes from a vertical pivot that requires its own spiritual muscle.

So here’s the life hack: If you want peace, pray for wisdom. Wisdom is what will keep your head above the waves when the water feels deep and you’re too tired to tread.

That’s my word for you: Pray for wisdom. Don’t drown in the shallow end.

And remember: every day we’re in this is one day closer to a healed and whole world. And that fact is true even without a pandemic. We know how this story ends: Jesus wins.

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Use Your Roar.

Today, I’m sharing space with Angie Suich, director of The Mosaic Center in Evans, Georgia. She combines good history with good biblical memory to give good wisdom for such a time as this.

Talk about despair!

In 1940, Europe was all but finished. Hitler and his troops occupied Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, The Netherlands, France, and even the Channel Islands, a British territory.

England was the next to surrender, until a chubby, stoop-shouldered man with a speech impediment took a new job. Winston Churchill was probably the farthest person from who Britain had in mind to take command of this incredibly perilous situation, having been written off as a crackpot and political has-been.

Like Jesus appointing his team of crackpot disciples (explanation to follow), the appointment of Churchill to Prime Minister in 1940 by King George VI changed the landscape of history.

Two weeks after Churchill came into power, France was entirely knocked out of the war and 340,000 British troops furiously tried to escape over the beaches at Dunkirk.

It was finished: the Germans had absolute control of all of Europe. It seemed impossible that Britain, let alone Europe, coud survive.

Britain was desperate. They had no hope. No faith. No peace. They were rightly terrified of a Nazi invasion and needed someone to assuage their fears.

Enter Churchill onto the main stage to give this rousing and now famous speech to his nation:

We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Later, when asked about this speech, Churchill explained, “It was the nation and the race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”

What’s the point of this history lesson? As Christians in a time of darkness when we feel powerless, alone, scared, restless, and anxious, we can be emboldened by Christ Himself because He gave us the power of the Roar. We have been uniquely called to help calm an anxious and scared nation and we have something more powerful than the Royal Air Force. We have the power of prayer that can be deployed anywhere and anytime – when we are at home, in our car, on our walk, in the field, on the beach, in the hills, on the streets. We have His Word to provide immediate peace and guidance.

And be comforted that just like Churchill, a man who wasn’t taken seriously before WWII but who saved Western Civilization, the Lord has appointed us – US! – to dispatch His Word, prayer, and love – the Roar – during this time.

Never think that you aren’t equipped to roar for the Lord. Do not underestimate who you are. Shy? Impatient? Cynical? Moody? Speech-impediment? Who cares?! The Holy Spirit dwells and lives in you! You are exactly who God wants to do His bidding during this perilous time our community, nation, and world finds itself in.

In Peter Scazzero’s book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, he says the following about the disciples (remember – they were hand-picked by Jesus Himself!):

Remember, Jesus formed a community with a small group from Galilee, a backward province in Palestine. They were neither spiritually nor emotionally mature. Peter, the point leader, had a big problem with his mouth and was a bundle of contradictions. Andrew, his brother, was quiet and behind the scenes.

James and John were given the name “sons of thunder” because they were aggressive, hotheaded, ambitious and intolerant. Philip was skeptical and negative. He had limited vision. “We can’t do that,” summed up his faith when confronted by the problem of feeding the five thousand. 

Nathaniel Bartholomew was prejudiced and opinionated. Matthew was the most hated person in Capernaum, working in a profession that abused innocent people.

 Thomas was melancholy, mildly depressive, and pessimistic. James, son of Alphaeus and Jude, son of James, were nobodies – the Bible says nothing about them. Simon the Zealot was freedom fighter and terrorist in his day. Judas, the treasurer, was a thief and a loner. He pretended to be loyal to Jesus before finally betraying him.

Most of them, however, did have one great quality, they were willing.  That is all God asks of us.

Friends! This is fantastic news! In a restless and unsettled world, be encouraged. We, yes, we, were called, hand-picked, by the King of Kings, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to unleash His Roar; to calm the nations, spread peace through Him, and love others as only He can.

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