Friday, March 27, 2020

Singing at the Head of the Army

     Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 
-Colossians 3:15-16 (NIV)

How’s your singing voice? Depending on where you live, the coronavirus crisis might give you the chance to exercise it.
     It started in Italy, during their lockdown; neighbors singing from balconies across narrow streets to pass the time and remind each other that no one was alone.
     Earlier this week, Chicago picked up the idea. Using social media, residents coordinated a Bon Jovi singalong (Livin’ On a Prayer) and later a Queen singalong (We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions). I’m not sure my neighborhood quite got the word; there was one group of people on the sidewalk singing Livin’ On a Prayer, but I don’t think they were quite in the spirit of the event. They weren’t inside singing out of their windows, or even social distancing, for that matter. 
     I get it, though. I get why people want to join together with others in a time of stress, anxiety, and difficulty to sing. It’s very human. Songs are a part of shared experience. They bond us, draw us together. Do you remember as a teenager singing along with a group of friends to a pop song during a car ride? It’s why we sing Happy Birthday together at a party. It’s why the military has marching songs. It’s why we sing The Star-Spangled Banner at patriotic occasions, it’s why camp songs exist.
     It’s also why people who worship God have always been singing people.
     I love the biblical story of Jehoshaphat’s singers. It’s not one of the familiar ones, so it might need a little setup. Jehoshaphat was a king of Judah who did his best to please the Lord (unlike some of his predecessors and successors). Facing a battle against an overwhelming army, Jehoshaphat went to God for assistance. God told him that he wouldn’t have to fight this battle, that God would win the battle for him before it had even started. He told Jehoshaphat to send his army out to be spectators, to have them take their positions “and see the deliverance the LORD will give you…”
     So the next day, the day of the battle, Jehoshaphat sends the army out as he normally would for battle. Except — well, that’s not quite true. He makes one little change, one that’s easily missed in the text, even. But there it is: “Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the Lord and to praise him for the splendor of his holiness as they went out at the head of the army…” 
     I’m no military strategist. I don’t know who usually goes into battle at the front of the army. Cavalry? Archers? Infantry? Your best soldiers? Your worst soldiers? At Normandy it was paratroopers and amphibious units, I think. The Germans in World War II used tanks and bombers to lead their forces forward. These days we usually fire some missiles from ships, planes, or drones before we send in the rest of the forces. I know this, though: no army, anywhere, at any time, puts the choir first. 
     Yet, that’s what Jehoshaphat does. I wonder what his Joint Chiefs of Staff thought of those plans. He doesn’t even have them singing a good militaristic song like Battle Hymn of the Republic or Marching to Zion. It seems like their repertoire consists of one song:
“Give thanks to the LORD,
For his love endures forever.”
     They’re heading out to battle with far superior forces, and their vanguard is a choir singing about love? I mean, I know God promised to fight this battle for them, but wouldn’t you have wanted to hedge your bets a little if you were in Jehoshaphat’s position? Wouldn’t you have wanted to lead with your cavalry or archers or infantry or something, just in case?
     Well, sure you would’ve. And that’s why Jehoshaphat didn’t.
     What Jehoshaphat does is an act of faith. Conventional wisdom says, sure, have faith in God. But also have a Plan B. If God doesn’t come through, Jehoshaphat’s Plan B is to probably lose the battle.
     Where’s your faith? Sometimes it’s easiest to tell by what you’re singing.
     There’s comfort in facing down a pandemic by singing Bon Jovi or Queen in solidarity with your neighbors. There’s a defiance in singing. Think of the string quartet in the movie Titanic playing Nearer, My God, to Thee while the ship sinks. (I'm not crying. You are!) I mean, sometimes you sing because there’s nothing else to do, and that can be an expression of trust that where your strength ends, God’s is just beginning. Sometimes maybe it seems like whistling past the graveyard. But one thing people who trust in God have always done is to express that trust by singing of his love in a world that seems filled with hate, or of his peace in the midst of chaos, or of his kingdom while petty tyrants flex and strut. Or of his salvation while enduring a pandemic.
         Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn before they left the upper room and went to Gethsemane.
      Paul and Silas sang in prison.
     Later, Paul assured the church in Colosse that the message of Christ would live among them through singing. 
     As churches all over the world shift their worship services to live-streams during the COVID-19 crisis, one of the casualties has been singing. Preaching and teaching can survive the transition quite well. Communion can, to some degree. But singing? One of our worship leaders said it well: “I hate not being able to sing with people and experience the collective effort live. That’s a big part of the reason we do it.” He’s right, isn’t he? There is something lost when we sing by ourselves, or in family groups, at home as opposed to being together. It’s not the same.
     The loss, however, is only from our perspective. Singing is an act of faith, even when it feels like you’re the only one singing. Faith tells us that many others are too — family in Christ that you know, and family in Christ all over the world that you don’t know. Singing is an act of faith in a Father who loves us, a Savior who has given his life for us and who has risen to intercede for us, and a Spirit he has poured out to fill our lives, transform us into his image, and unite us together. 
     Psalm 137 is the counterpoint to the story of Jehoshaphat's army. Composed during the Babylonian captivity, the psalm tells of the Babylonians taunting the assimilated Israelites by asking them to sing some songs from home. “How can we sing the songs of the LORD in a foreign land?” the psalm asks. 
     Yet…it is a song. The psalmist must have found his voice. Our voices won’t always sound certain, either. Our songs won’t always be impressive. But singing them anyway is always an act of faith in our God, whose love endures forever and who will not abandon us now. We’ll shelter in place and watch for his salvation, knowing that in Jesus he  has already assured us of it.

     Let’s sing that out of our windows!       

Friday, March 20, 2020

Why Are You Afraid?

     Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
     He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.
     The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”  
-Matthew 8:23-27 (NIV)

     Last Sunday, our church food pantry was open. That’s normal, but we had some unusual guidelines in place, intended to keep people from being too close together and potentially transmitting the coronavirus. It was nothing extreme, nothing that authorities haven’t been suggesting for a couple of weeks now. But it was different from our usual way of doing things, and one of our clients wasn’t having it.
     “You’re being paranoid,” she said. 
     Were we? I don’t think so. If we were being paranoid we probably wouldn’t have been there. 
     Context is everything, right? If not for the social distancing guidelines we’re trying to follow during the coronavirus pandemic, not letting all of our clients into the building at one time, keeping six feet of distance from each other, and cleaning every table between each client would definitely be seen as paranoid. Given what’s happening, though, I think of the precautions we’re taking as reasonable. And I tend to view attitudes like our clients’ as dangerously negligent.
     Given the context of Matthew 8, it’s kind of hard to understand why Jesus asks his disciples why they’re afraid. It seems pretty obvious; they’re afraid because they’re caught in a terrible storm. They’re afraid because they’re in danger of being swamped and drowned. They have every reason to be afraid.
     People have said to me, “I’m not going to let this virus make me live in fear.” That’s great, but inevitably it seems to me that the people who say that the loudest are responding most fearfully to it. Hoarding supplies is a symptom of fear, a selfishness that disregards the well-being of others to serve our own interests. I wonder if the cavalier attitude toward social distancing some of us are showing isn’t at least partially a fear response of the whistling-past-the-graveyard variety. The mismanagement of this crisis by leaders in many countries comes from a fear of what this virus might do to the economy, to jobs — and thus to their re-election chances. 
     The fact is, we’re all afraid, to one degree or another, of one thing or another.
     I’m not afraid that my health is going to be affected, not really. (Though that might change the first time I cough!) But I do worry a little about my parents, my in-laws, the older members of my church. I’m a little fearful about mine and my wife’s IRAs! I’m a little afraid that my son, who’s graduating from college in a couple of months, will face an uncertain job market. 
     Your fears may not be mine, but I bet you have them. I think we need to acknowledge that. Given a storm, our responses aren’t that different from the disciples in that boat. We’re a little afraid. Fear, of course, can be a positive thing. It can keep us safe. It teaches us to avoid unreasonable danger and make good decisions. Fear is a warning light, an instinct that helps us to survive.
     As a guiding principle for life, though, fear is terrible.
     I’m wondering if that isn’t why Jesus asks his disciples why they’re afraid — not because fear is an overreaction, but because it’s a terrible thing to build your life on. Let fear set the alarms off. Listen and pay attention when the bells ring and lights flash. Make the changes you can make, protect yourself as you can when fear tells you that you should. 
     Once you’ve listened to fear, though, and let it tell you where you’re being stupid or careless or just uninformed, then fear has done its part.
     Notice where Jesus is when the disciples come to him panicked. He isn’t wrestling with the sails or pulling at the oars or bailing water. Jesus is sleeping. A couple of things you should notice about that. One, he’s asleep. Why? My deep theological take on that is that he was tired. He wasn’t somehow above human beings. He had laid down in that boat and dozed off. This would have been a small fishing boat. The rain, the wind, the tossing of the boat, and the activity of the disciples wasn’t enough to wake him. He was exhausted because he was a human being who was not exempt from the physical limitations that go with humanity. That also means that if that storm had swamped the boat, Jesus would have been in danger of drowning too. The seawater in his lungs would have killed him just like it would have killed the disciples. 
     But here’s what else to notice: he’s asleep! In a storm! Matthew uses a word for the storm, seismos, that he uses in other places in this gospel to describe an earthquake. (We use it in words like seismograph today.) It wasn’t just that it was raining hard and windy. The sea was whipped up. Waves were tossing the boat around. And yet Jesus was asleep. I think it’s because he trusted his Father, sure. He believed that whatever his limitations, God didn’t have them. What he couldn’t control, God could. He believed that God was faithful, and that he could rest secure in that faithfulness.
     He also trusted his disciples. They were his friends. He loved them, and they him. Some of them were the experts on boating, and he was resting, too, in their competence and ability.
     Of course, when they reached the end of their ability, he was more than willing to step in. “Why are you afraid?” he asked, because he wanted them to know that God had the power to save them.
     When I was 3 or 4, I went to spend a weekend with my grandparents. Apparently, when it was bedtime, I got scared. I started crying for mom and dad, for home. So, without much argument, my grandfather picked me up, put me in the car, and took me home. 
    Home, at the time, being near Atlanta. Two and a half hours away. 
     Maybe he just didn’t want to deal with me crying, but I choose to believe that my grandfather took me home that night because he loved me and would do pretty much anything for me. 

     Here’s the basic thing that we should be remembering as we deal with the coronavirus pandemic: our God loves us and will do anything for us. That includes sending his Son to save us. The wind and the waves obey him, and we can come to him with our fears at this scary moment in our lives too. When we come to him with those fears, and take refuge in his love and power, maybe we’ll find that we’ll sleep a little better too.

Friday, March 13, 2020

How to Be a Christian During a Pandemic

  Do not call conspiracy 
everything this people calls a conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear, 
and do not dread it. 
The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, 
he is the one you are to fear, 
he is the one you are to dread. 
He will be a holy place…     
-Isaiah 8:12-14 (NIV)

So what have you been talking about with friends and family the last few days?
     Maybe it’s the NBA and NHL suspending their seasons, or Major League Baseball delaying the start of theirs, or the conference tournaments in college basketball being canceled. Maybe you’ve been talking about a scheduled trip that you’ve decided not to take — or maybe it was decided for you. Maybe your work is encouraging you to work from home. Maybe your kids’ school schedule has been interrupted. Maybe you’re talking about buying hand sanitizer and toilet paper on the black market.
     It’s likely that you’ve talked about at least one of those topics recently. But none of that is what you’ve really been talking about, is it? At the root of all of that, of course, is the spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus that seems like it’s threatening to cause the world to stop spinning entirely for 14 days to a month. It isn’t, of course. Sooner or later this pandemic will run its course. Coronavirus might be part of our medical lexicon from here on out, but the disruptions will eventually stop and life will go back to normal. Until then, though, things may feel pretty out of whack.
     What tends to happen at moments like this is that we can lose sight of our faith. It’s easy to listen to the fear and hysteria, forgetting that there are those in our world who trade in fear and hysteria, and forgetting that even in difficult times we’re disciples of Jesus first and foremost. 
     It’s especially in difficult times that our world needs us to follow him.
     So how should a Jesus-follower live in a post-coronavirus world? Is there a Christian way to go about life during a pandemic like this?
     I think there is, and I hope the following suggestions might help you.
     First of all, I think it’s important for us to have the humility to listen to reputable and informed sources. Proclaiming that “this is no worse than the flu” and grousing about how all the “hysteria” will cause a recession would be kind of silly, frankly, if it wasn’t so irresponsible. There is a reason that medical people, like the Centers for Disease Control, are making the recommendations that they’re making. There are people in our world who study epidemiology and public health, and who have simulations for scenarios exactly like this that tell us exactly how we should act to control the virus as much as possible. Taking their advice, and ignoring the people on social media who make claims and promote conspiracy theories, is a good place to start. We’re people of faith, and we don’t need to control our environments by making unilateral decisions in our own little petty kingdoms.
      Related to that, we have to realize that our response to coronavirus is about others as much as it is about ourselves. Jesus teaches that we should behave toward others as we’d have them behave toward us. You may not be particularly susceptible to COVID-19, you may not be part of an at-risk population (the very young, the elderly, those with underlying heart and respiratory conditions or compromised immune systems), but someone you have contact with definitely is. Those of us who claim to follow Jesus should be full of compassion and concern for others, even if it means some inconvenience for ourselves. 
    Maybe you know this already, but the issue with COVID-19 isn’t really how many people have come down with symptoms so far. Nor is it the mortality rate. The real problem is how fast the virus can spread, and how people who show no symptoms seem to be able to transmit it. The concern is a spike in infections that overwhelms our health care system. That's what all the cancellations and postponements of large events are all about. The good news is that there are things we can do, both individually and in communities, to control that. Washing our hands thoroughly (I’ve been saying the Lord’s Prayer to myself as I wash mine), being careful with sneezes and coughs, avoiding unnecessary travel, disinfecting our homes, businesses, and churches regularly, checking on each other by phone and social media — these are all things we can do to help keep someone who’s particularly vulnerable from getting the disease. You would want that if you were vulnerable, after all. 
     We need to resist the temptation to draw into ourselves. Fear and uncertainty can make human beings self-centered. It’s precisely at moments like these that we need to think about others as well. Buying up everything on the shelves at Wal-Mart or Costco is a selfish response to this crisis. It ignores the needs of others, especially those who aren’t able to buy in bulk. We can’t let the virus keep us from serving others, loving our neighbors, and sharing our lives with the church, though we might have to change how some of that looks temporarily. Perhaps this crisis will help us to reexamine our tendency to think that the life of the church is all about what happens in a large group on Sundays. Maybe it will help us to get better at ministering to one another in small groups and one-on-one. Maybe it will help us to consider how we can be better at ministry in more remote, “socially distanced” ways.
     Don’t give in to fear. There is always something to fear in our world, but Isaiah reminded the people of his day that they weren’t to fear the things that everyone else fears, nor join in the conspiracy theories of those looking for someone to blame for their fears. When we fear other things, it can cause us to lose sight of God — the one we should truly fear. Fear makes us blind and deaf to him. It makes us operate purely out of anger and self-interest. It activates our fight or flight responses. Worst of all, it can make us forget that we have a sanctuary, a place of safety, in God. Jesus has died and risen again. We believe in life because of him. Therefore we aren’t afraid of any of the forms death takes.
     I like the words of C.S. Lewis in reference to a global concern of his day:    
 “....The first point to be made and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

     When coronavirus and its effects come to our communities, let it find us with minds and hearts led by the Spirit of God doing the things that Jesus has called us to do.