“You are like Moses.” He smiled as he said it. I nervously laughed. No one had said that to me before. “What do you mean?” I said. He said, “You are a man of privilege, with years of education, training, influence and resources.” Then this wise African American leader asked the question. “What are you going to do with your privilege?” I took another bite of my cheeseburger.
I went back and checked. Moses was forty years old when he took his first stand on behalf of the oppressed. He assumed that the powerless would readily welcome his advocacy on their behalf. But Moses made a murderous mess of his first public attempt at social action. He used power like the worst of his majority culture had taught him and then tried to talk of reconciling. He had asked no questions and yet had the answers. Moses needed another forty years of learning before he’d become by God’s grace, the liberator history recounts for us. (Acts 7:22ff)
Know the Heart of the Sojourner
A sojourner describes a person racially and ethnically different than the majority. When the Biblical God later commanded his people through Moses not to oppress the sojourner, the reason was experiential. “You shall not oppress a sojourner,” because, “you know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Ex. 23:9; 22:21) Moses had privilege, the power to act, and the courage to risk it. But he did not yet know the heart of the people he tried to help.
As more of us with privilege find the courage to act, we are asking, “what can we do?” To begin, we need to learn the heart of those we propose to help.
This will take time and a willingness to listen to voices we’ve previously overlooked as our teachers. I’ve made many mistakes which I’ve written about here and there. But we can take a small step and:
Admit that injustice is real
“Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. . . “(Eccl. 4:1)
Such human misuse does not surprise the wise. “If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter . . .” Why not? “for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. (Eccl. 5:8)
In this verse, the wise identify what we sometimes day refer to as a systemic problem. A system is nothing more than a collection of people accustomed to making things work on the basis of particular assumptions, routines, and practices. Notice first what the wise show us: there is no one to oppose the oppressor and provide comfort for the misused. Something in the assumptions, routines, and practices being used to get through a day is not signaling that comfort for the oppressed is a value. Notice second, this absence of value is part of the culture of accountability and expectation within the organizational structure. This is why Jesus’ personal actions on behalf of the powerless put him in jeopardy with prevailing systems of power.
Examine Your Biases
“Do not twist justice in legal matters by favoring the poor or being partial to the rich and powerful. Always judge people fairly. (Lev. 19:15)
Just as with the race and ethnicity of the sojourner, so the Bible says that once we’ve seen the current economic class of a human being, we still have nothing we can use to judge who this person is. If we think someone is righteous because they are poor, or more trustworthy because they are rich, we mistake what it means to treat a human being justly. Jesus ate with the poor and the rich complained. Jesus ate with the rich and the poor grumbled.
Listen with Empathy to the Victim’s Cry
Behold, I cry out, ‘Violence!’ but I am not answered; I call for help, but there is no justice. (Job 19:7)
Job lost everything not only to natural disasters but due to criminal conduct. He cries out over the injustice perpetrated on his family. To do so doesn’t imply dismissal of other pained lives. Imagine going to the funeral of a grandmother. As you speak of her with tears and loss, someone tells you that you are insensitive and entitled. You are stunned. You ask him why he is saying this to you on such a terrible occasion. He answers you. “You act like your grandmother is the only one worth talking about,” he says. “Don’t all family members matter?” “Why, yes,” you say. “Of course all lives matter.” But to cry for the value of our grandmother, doesn’t mean we dismiss the value of uncles, aunts, parents, siblings, and cousins. It’s just that at this moment it is grandma who died.
Give Your Voice
Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Pr. 31:8-9)
Add Justice to Your Prayer Life
- intercession Lord, you know the hopes of the helpless. Surely you will hear their cries and comfort them. You will bring justice to the orphans and the oppressed, so mere people can no longer terrify them. (Ps. 10:17-18. See also Prov. 1)
- complaint/Lament Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? (see also Ps. 44:24, 42:9; 43:2)
- petition Redeem me from man’s oppression, that I may keep your precepts.(Ps. 119:34) Like a swallow or a crane I chirp; I moan like a dove. My eyes are weary with looking upward. O Lord, I am oppressed; be my pledge of safety! (Is. 38:14)
Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand it completely. (Prov. 28:5) This means that if we want to seek the Lord, he will bring us into an understanding of justice for powerless neighbors. We cannot seek the Lord and see the plight of powerless neighbors as a side issue.
Notice How You Talk
The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice (Ps. 37:30) A Hebrew proverb explains itself by comparing the first part of the sentence with the second. “Utters wisdom” and “speaks justice” go together.
The wise speak of justice. Justice can only come about through wisdom. Do you talk like this?
Notice How You Think When Trying to Turn a Profit
A merchant, in whose hands are false balances, he loves to oppress. (Hosea 12:7)
Create Art/Add Songs of Justice to Your Play List
I will sing of steadfast love and justice; to you, O LORD, I will make music. (Psalm 101:1)
Pace Your Emotional Life
Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart (Eccl. 7:7) When you witness oppression in real-time, the trauma stays with you. An eyewitness bears with the trauma of the one moment–relived over and again. Be careful. When you scroll and scroll watching violent injustices one after another after another, you need time to grieve, feel, lament, break down.
You cannot binge-watch murder like Law and Order or Game of Thrones. Pretend murders can entertain. The real thing is madness. Pace yourself.
Seek non-virtual relationships, not just virtual actions
“Give counsel; grant justice; make your shade like night at the height of noon; shelter the outcasts; do not reveal the fugitive; let the outcasts of Moab sojourn among you; be a shelter to them from the destroyer. (Isaiah 16:3–5)
Once we’ve taken virtual action by posting, we still have to open our non-virtual door and take a non-virtual step toward a non-virtual person.
Be careful before judging someone on the basis of their virtual life. Local non-virtual pursuits of relationships and justice can fill a day.
Watch out for Pride which Uses Injustice in the Name of Justice
“Then Absalom would say, “Oh that I were judge in the land! Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice.” (2 Sam. 15:4)
King David’s son imagined himself able to bring about a just society better than his Dad. He saw himself as societies’ rescuer and justified his use of injustice. Many died. Including himself.
Take Heart. Botched Attempts and Prideful Assumptions Needn’t Have the Last Word
Moses got it all wrong. But that wasn’t the last chapter in his story or theirs or ours. Grace came and spoke his name. Grace can speak our name too for One greater than Moses has come.
To consider more fully what justice is, who it is for, and why Jesus followers should care, watch this video message, entitled: What Can We Do To Help the Cause of Justice?
“I’m covered in Jesus’ blood!” A Christian almost sings this mantra to explain why Coronavirus can’t touch the faithful. The image the Christian uses disturbs us. A smiling white-teethed, human being poured over and dripping with the emptied blue-veined remains of another. It’s cult-like. Demented. The use made of the image bothers us too. Do you want to give grandpa good luck against disease? Verbally smear yourself with the blood of a first-century Jewish man and you won’t need a ventilator. Come on. This is the 21st century. Show me the love of Jesus. Tell me the wisdom of Jesus. But why this talk of blood?
Covered by the Companionship of Jesus
To answer this question we have to start with the “Blood money.” That’s what they called thirty-pieces of silver earned by Judas for betraying Jesus. But Jesus called him friend and Judas sold him out. Guilt haunted him. I’ve betrayed “innocent blood,” he said. It was like he struck a hornet’s nest hidden within the briars of his conscience. Each day he ran and ran, flailing and throbbing with sting and no relief. No wonder, the field in which Judas hung himself became locally known as “the field of blood.” Pontius Pilate must have likewise heard the hive. For Pilate lifted his water-dripped hands and cried out, “I am innocent of this man’s blood!” The crowds, mob-frenzied, rage-blinded, shouted back: “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt. 27:4, 6, 8, 24-25) The “blood of Jesus” refers to the death of Jesus; both the fact of it and the foul-play.
Have you ever been kissed and spoken to with nice words, but the kiss was poison and the words a signal freeing others to harm you? Jesus has too. In Jesus, we have a friend who knows the treachery of life first-hand. He is the companion who’s been there.
At our best, when we say we are “covered in the blood,” we invite a conversation, not about escaping sickness for ourselves, but about our being empowered by the sympathy of God.
Covered by the Forgiveness of Jesus
Perhaps you or
those you spend time with, don’t use the word “sin” in your daily lives. Maybe,
you’d even say, “I don’t believe in sin.” But maybe you can relate to Buddy
Wakefield. He dedicated his book of poetry “to awful men.” Perhaps Buddy and I
don’t agree on these things about Jesus. But Buddy helps me grow by his empathy
and skill with language.
He describes a “tyrant boy” full of anger and desiring power. You look up at the tyrant boy. He looks down and spits. “I love you,” you say, looking up, but at every mention of love, his spit spews down your face. You turn your back, the tyrant boy jumps down upon you and pushes your face through a puddle of mud. “If I can’t breathe, I’ll die here.” Then, you mud-speak the pain. “It hurts too much not to know how to stop the war.”
The war, the feud we don’t know how to stop, the ability to spit on love, our persistent desire to enjoy what isn’t love, each describe something of what Jesus meant when he spoke of sin. Jesus taught us to pray forgiveness, for how we’ve shoved others in the mud, and forgiveness for those who’ve likewise shoved us. The same Jesus who teaches us to bring such spit and mud to God in prayer also pours out his blood to end the war with peace. My blood “is poured out for many” Jesus said, “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28)
When we’re “covered by Jesus’ blood,” we learn to humble ourselves as needing pardon for sins rather than heckle others because we’re protected from sickness.
Why We’re Sarcastic About Christian Blood-Talk
I don’t speak of sin and forgiveness tritely. As a Christian, I resonate with the skilled and atheist actress, Kiera Knightley. She gives voice to wise skepticism. “If only I wasn’t an atheist,” she reportedly said. “I could get away with anything. You’d just ask for forgiveness and then you’d be forgiven.”
I understand her sarcasm. She, like most of us, will hear a Christian say the blood of Jesus gives immunity from sickness, while other Christians say the blood of Jesus gives immunity from consequences. Both appeals to Jesus’ blood offer escape from responsibility rather than reasons for embracing it.
If the blood of Jesus is nothing more than a good luck charm or a tampered jury, no wonder those we care about, dismiss Christianity as selfish and crooked.
A friend, who wasn’t a follower of Jesus at the time, told me why she objected to this nonsense about Jesus forgiving our sins through his death. Her name is Pat. “That just seems too easy,” she said. “You just say you’re sorry, all is well with God, and you can go on doing the same garbage again. You say God’s love is unconditional? That just doesn’t seem right to me.”
Pat was right. You and I would tell our loved one to set a boundary if another kept leveraging love and forgiveness language to further damage them. God is no different. Love has to be true. Forgiveness has to prove genuine. Any ordinary relationship depends upon these things to bend but not break.
I tried to say something like, “Pat, I don’t know if this will make any sense, but for Christians, God’s love isn’t unconditional. And just like any relationship, love isn’t easy at all. We are trying to say that Jesus met all the conditions of God’s love. Pat, forgiveness with God comes easy to us because God already took the hard part upon himself.”
Covered by the Authenticity of Jesus
But wait a minute. Didn’t Jesus speak of his blood in a provocative way? Yes, he did. Jesus told crowds of people who’d been following him, “unless you drink my blood” you won’t have a life with God (John 6:53-56). Offended, most left him. Why didn’t Jesus just clarify the metaphor he used? Because on that occasion the crowds were leveraging him rather than loving him and Jesus sniffed it out.
Sometimes we like Jesus’ provision of food but not his talk of faith. We like the surprise of his wonders, but not our surrender to his will.
Jesus called them on it. It’s like you’re talking to someone who begins to look at their phone. You keep talking. They keep scrolling. You begin to think they’re not listening at all. So, you start introducing subjects into your sentences like Pink Elephants and lollipop fairies, to see if they say, “wait, what?” or if they keep nodding and saying, “uh-uh.”
The wake up was needed because this was no fiction. Miracle would not be enough. Food would not be enough. Death was coming.
Those following Jesus treated him as a consumer preference, a lifestyle choice. But Jesus was trying to tell them about life and death, about every miserable and joyful thing. The image he chose had to wake them up. Any who’ve been terribly sinned against and any of us who know what it means to have sinned against others, need an image brutal and honest enough to enter the wreckage. In time, covered in blood, the image would be clear. The bloodied man cries out, “Forgiven them, they know not what they do.” God was taking the hard part upon himself. The conditions of true love were being met, not by us, but by HIm.
An ancient poem, called Dream of the Rood, lets us hear what the cross would say of Jesus if it could talk.
“The young warrior stripped himself then—that was God Almighty—
strong and firm of purpose—he climbed up onto the high gallows,
magnificent in the sight of many. Then he wished to redeem mankind.
I quaked when the warrior embraced me. . .
“They skewered me with dark nails . . .
They shamed us both together. I was besplattered with blood,
sluicing out from the man’s side, after launching forth his soul.
“Many vicious deeds have I endured on that hill—
I saw the God of Hosts racked in agony . . .
the corpse of the Sovereign . . .
All of creation wept, mourning the king’s fall—
Christ was upon the cross.
I Once Was Lost, But Now I’m Found
Years later, I
sat by Pat in Hospice. Bald now, her skin turned yellow, I was holding her
hand. Her liver gave out from years of heavy drinking. Somewhere along the
line, she’d found Jesus lovely though. We’d laughed a lot too. She’d confessed
the mud-shoving and spit she’d received from others and that she herself had dished
out. She’d realized too that she’d treated God like this and she wanted to love
him instead. Now, amid the jaundice of death, the ugly image of Jesus’ blood
made a lot more sense. It fit the grim occasion. She closed her eyes. I whispered
grace words with broken melody.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see.
Pat died. She had no good luck charm to stop it. But she was sheltered by His companionship, protected by His authenticity, guarded by His forgiveness, covered by the blood.
Buddy Wakefield, “Before Fealty” in A
Choir of Honest Killers (Write Bloody Publishing, 2019), 24.
A preacher promises immunity from Covid-19. He says, “If you are born again, read your Bible, and tithe, you have the Ps. 91 protection policy!” Another defies social distancing to prove his faith in the midst of fear. What are we to make of this? At first glance, you can see why such preachers urge us to say and do likewise.
He will deliver you . . . from the deadly pestilence. (Ps. 91:3)
A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. (Ps. 91:7)
No evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. (Ps. 91:10)
I do not doubt the earnestness of such preachers. But unwittingly, such preachers expose us to a different kind of infection; a spiritual kind with damaging physical consequences; the kind that community-spreads through a naive use of the Bible and brings harm to ordinary people.
We Try Not to Test God
Notice that the psalmist writes these promises because they happened. In Israel’s history, plagues touched the tent of Egypt, but not the tents of those who believed in this God of the Bible. Contrary to our skepticism, it is a fact that God can and has kept his people from harm at times. But contrary to our romanticism this fact is not a norm. It reveals the character of God, not a coupon from God. How do we know?
First, the context of this Psalm. Even a king in Israel is not immune to the harm that trolls the fallen world. Stick your hand where a serpent is known to dwell and it will bite you, no matter who you are (Eccl. 10:5-8). Israel’s proverbs say it twice: “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it” (Proverbs 22:3).
If we don’t know whether or not the plant in front of us is poison Ivy, it is unwise to find out by rubbing it, no matter how true or strong our faith.
Second, and most importantly, Jesus tells us how to interpret the promises of Psalm 91. The devil took Jesus to the top of a building, quoted promises from Psalm 91 and dared Jesus, saying: “Throw yourself down” God will protect you. Jesus responded plainly. “It is written. You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matt. 4:5-7). By his response, Jesus makes it plain. Psalm 91 promises are not immunity passes.
If we find ourselves following an interpretation of the Bible favored by the devil and dismissed by Jesus, we are errant preachers no matter how earnest.
A married man who begins texting another woman after-hours tests rather than trusts his covenant vows. Such a man challenges rather than cherishes his wife. A woman, who is two-years sober walks into a bar. Her actions test rather than trust the sobriety that she and her family have fought for. A child runs out into the street yelling, “Daddy, Daddy, because you love me, I know you’ll stop this car from hitting me! Catch me if you can!” The child demands the right to act recklessly rather than rely on good reasons for relational trust.
- Some Christians and Christian Institutions, urge us to show the world our faith by resisting social-distancing. But I suggest that what this shows the world is not our faith, but our naivete. We cannot use God’s promises to justify doing what that same God says is unwise. It is tragic to think that we can do something in God’s name and at the same time violate the love for neighbor God commands.
- Other earnest Christians point to how Christians in earlier eras responded to plagues and disease. “They gathered together, in the midst of the very worst of it, so should we.” Yes, but what about what love for a sick neighbor requires? I suggest we are failing to make an important distinction–a distinction necessary for discerning the difference between testing God and trusting God in a pandemic.
What we as Christians do by faith before a pandemic peaks, must differ from what we do by faith after a pandemic reveals its wreckage.
We Seek to Trust God
If we find ourselves like those early Christians on the other side of the peak in the Black Plague, our sense of what wise love demands changes. With doctors and nurses dying, with people abandoned in their disease, and with clergy performing multiple funerals every day, these Psalm 91 promises find their proper role. They rouse the courage necessary to love our neighbor, even our enemy, even if they are contagious.
We don’t prove our faith by defying orders in order to shake the hand of another Christian. We prove our faith by denying ourselves so that we can clear the throat of a neighbor who can’t breathe.
In 1527, Martin and Katherina Luther stayed behind to aid the sick and dying in their city. Katherina was pregnant. Earlier, the Luthers freed the consciences of fellow Christians to leave the city for safety. But later, the devastation ransacked medical aid, medical professionals died, help was scarce and over-run. People needed help and had little. Martin and Katherina took up their Savior’s call to visit and care for the sick even at risk to their own lives. If we defy social distancing let it be because a sick or dying neighbor needs help and has none.
Why? Because Jesus teaches his followers that love for neighbor out of love for God includes care for the sick and not leaving the sick untended. (Matt. 25:36-40; Lk. 10:9) No wonder the first public hospital was started by a follower of Jesus and 9 of the top 10 American hospitals today were founded by Christians. No wonder, so many Christians have died throughout history because they would not leave the sick unattended in a plague. In a 3rd-century pandemic in which 5000 died each day it was said of Christians: “Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ . . . Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.”
As a pandemic begins, ordinary Christians care for the sick by sacrifically limiting themselves. As a pandemic rolls on, ordinary Christians care for the sick by sacrificially spending themselves.
An Italian priest sick with Covid-19 gave his ventilator to another. The priest died. The other lived.
We Find Hope and Help in the Promises
In 1854, a young pastor named Charles Spurgeon, found himself amid a Cholera outbreak. Daily he visited those under his care and gradually the funerals and death-bed scenes overloaded his mental and physical strength. A shoemaker posted Psalm 91 in his business window. The young pastor saw the promise and the God who made it. He said:
“The effect upon my heart was immediate. Faith appropriated the passage as her own. I felt secure, refreshed, girt with immortality. I went on with my visitation of the dying, in a calm and peaceful spirit; I felt no fear of evil, and I suffered no harm. The Providence which moved the tradesman to place those verses in his window, I gratefully acknowledge; and in the remembrance of its marvelous power, I adore the Lord my God.”
Charles died, not then of Cholera, but later, by other means. The promises of Psalm 91 did not empower him to test God. Rather the promises enabled this weary and worn lover of neighbor, who was stricken with grief and exhaustion, to keep on with such love. He saw afresh that his work was done within the shade of the Almighty. He saw afresh that his life was in the hands of God. God could keep him safe. God could take him home. Either way, he was in the shelter of the Almighty. With this kind of shelter, we see more clearly that death itself will die, and we are freed beneath that shade, to unhide ourselves when a suffering neighbor needs us. His promises pave the way.
Candle-wishes on birthday cakes are fun and meaningful, like childhood songs, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight.” We whisper and hum what we hope for. But, once we blow out candles, what do we hope in? Pandemic times like these demand anchors for our aspirations. Our wish needs a way. According to Psalm 91, the anchor, the way, is God.
Pandemic Takes Place in the Presence of God
The songwriter begins by putting the pandemic back where it belongs, beneath God’s presence. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. (vs. 1)”
Resilient hope begins here. News of pandemic wants to make you feel like nothing else exists. Pandemic acts like a god taking center stage. It is like the noon-day sun heating the sky to wither us (vs. 6). But the pandemic isn’t the only character in our story. In fact, God is so near, that God is like one standing next to you in the sun. His shadow shades you.
Some tell us that we must separate public knowledge from private faith. Science, public health and faith don’t belong together. But this follower of God disagrees. It is time to re-connect our earthly experience with our faith in God. After all, the ancient pandemic spoken of in Psalm 91, took place under the same sun and moon that you see every day and night, on land that you could visit right now in the real world if not for expense, social distancing, and quarantine. The story we tell is this:
Pandemic is on the move, yes. But so is God!
We look pandemic in the face and take our stand. “I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust” (vs. 2)
Overcome Your Anxiety by Noticing Your Dwelling Places
But maybe you struggle to take hold of this shade. It would make sense if you did. Maybe anxiety agitates and fidgets you. You can’t feel the shade. God and your world are fragmented.
Anxieties have crawled over my life for years. When anxious I search for dwelling places. Certain dwelling places only inflame my worries. Like a two-day-old mosquito bite. Scratch it once and the itch reignites. Sometimes we are tossed about by everything we dread but cannot find anchor, partly because of where we are choosing to dwell. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High” says the Psalmist (vs. 1). “Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place,” says the Lord (vs. 9). Sure, you might say, but how can you hold an anchor when your hands shake and your grip fails you? I’m trying to say, “exactly!” That’s the whole grace of it.
You don’t steady an anchor. An anchor steadies you.
So, pause today. Notice your dwelling places. Ask yourself this question: “Do the dwelling places I choose anxious me or anchor me?” Perhaps you’ve made the news your dwelling place. Perhaps you are scrolling, scrolling, scrolling to find dwelling places that in the end aren’t steadying you at all. What would it be like for you to let this Psalmist invite you to a different dwelling place? What would it be like for God and His promises to be your dwelling place today?
Overcome the Distance Between You and God by Considering the Metaphors
But, maybe thoughts of God only increase your anxiety. I get it. As we’ll talk about in our next post, even this Psalm gets misused to hurt people. God’talk doesn’t feel anchoring for you because of wounds. Or feeling agnostic about God you say you can’t know whether the God this Psalmist describes is real. Perhaps your apathy says, “It wouldn’t matter if we could know.”
Maybe any idea of God makes you anxious, hesitant or skeptical, especially from a God-talker like me.
But, if you were willing, what metaphor would you use to describe God? Anxious and pained, maybe you’d say, “God is tantrum-prone, a perfectionist jerk.” Agnostic, maybe you’d say, “God is like a fog.” Or, “God is a black void.” Or, “God is an introvert. He doesn’t like social interaction.” Apathetic, perhaps you’d say something like, “God is like the appendix in our bodies. We have no idea what use it is.” Or “God is a tree ornament. Fine to look at but makes no practical difference.” Read Psalm 91. Consider who the songwriter knows God to be. God is:
- A Bird Carrying You Beneath His Wings
- A Shield
- A Buckler
- A Dwelling Place
- A Commander
- A Guardian
- Name Knower
- With you in Times of Trouble
What if you chose one or two of these metaphors and grew curious about them? If it was your day to blow out the candles, which descriptors of God would you wish for? Which descriptors feel like the kind of place you’d like to dwell and hope in? How might your life change if these descriptors of God were true?
For more, see How to Handle a Pandemic, Part 1 OR Watch/listen to my sermon entitled, “How to Handle our Fear in a Pandemic”
People are afraid. Pandemic has found them. The songwriter offers hope. “Don’t be afraid!” he says. But hope must be realistic to help. Amid its sturdy promises, we mustn’t overlook the realism that Psalm 91 uses to describe pandemic conditions. How do we even begin to handle a pandemic? First, we have to get honest about it.
Learn to talk realistically about the help we need
The writer of this song, likely a leader in Israel, has “pestilence” on his mind. Pestilence refers to what we call, a pandemic. First, notice how honestly he names the situation. The situation is “deadly” (vs. 3). The sickness is a “terror,” like something that creeps in the night undetected. Even in the daytime, it bypasses our defenses (vs. 6). He calls it a “plague” (vs. 10). Second, he realistically assesses the number of people who could die. A thousand may fall. Maybe ten times that much (vs. 7). Third, notice the words of empathy for this evil experience throughout the Psalm. He tries to name how this all makes us feel. People feel ensnared and trapped (vs. 3), exposed and unprotected (vs. 4). People feel the need to be guarded, rescued, helped, saved (vs. 11-16). People are afraid (vs. 5) and this songwriter/leader wants to strengthen their faith and resolve.
What does this mean for us?
1. When listening to leaders, look for those who are honest, realistic and empathetic; voices who neither dismiss nor exaggerate, who are unselfish in putting themselves into our shoes, and rather than playing to our fears, they enter them and seek to give us real, not false, hope. If you are a leader of a nation, a company, a school, a classroom, a church, a bible study, a family, this path is your guide.
2. When thinking about our own spiritual life, we are not meant to act naively (“it isn’t a big deal,” “it will all be fine”) or foolishly (“it’s all going to hell so get out of my way–I gotta get mine”). Grace will invite you to wise realism instead.
3. For those who follow Jesus, we read this psalm and are reminded of his realism. “In the world, you will have trouble,” Jesus says (Jn. 16:33). He has in mind that his followers will resist naive romanticism about their lives as occupied minorities beneath the Roman empire. Take note. If you follow Jesus, he will teach you to speak more, not less, truthfully about the help you and others need. This means that if you are prone to underestimate, shrug-off or exaggerate the sometimes terrifying plight of being human in this world, Jesus will counter you with grace. Discipleship with Jesus means in part, learning his honest, realistic talk about life under the sun.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Jesus won’t stop there. The songwriter of Psalm 91 won’t stop there either. By grace, neither will we. “In the world, you will have tribulation,” yes. “But take heart,” Jesus says. “I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). Jesus will teach us to name the realistic help we need. He died to secure such wisdom for us. As we’ll talk about in my next post, our realistic help, when handed over to God, has the power to lead us to a resilient hope. But before we get to the hope, we must start here, in age-appropriate ways, realistically naming the help we need. Wisdom calls for it. Christian life assumes it.
What is One Step You Can Take?
Honest naming isn’t safe for many of us. We’ve grown up in family systems or institutional environments, that either punish those who try to be honest or damage others in the name of being honest. We won’t get it perfect. But we can take this imperfect step.
Notice words of pain used by the Psalmist to describe the experience of those going through the pandemic; words like snare, deadly, terror, evil, arrow, stalks in darkness, destruction, plague, trouble, needing rescue.
- Ask your friend or niece, your spouse or kids, your employees or congregation, students or neighbors, “What words come to mind to describe what you are experiencing?”
- Now, if they use a word like “terror” or “evil” or “deadly” or whatever word they use, receive it, give it dignity. Meet them where they are. Hear them. Don’t story steal (you think that’s bad? Let me tell you about me) or immediately coach (you know you really shouldn’t describe it that way, let me tell you the right word you should use).
- Now put yourself in their shoes. Imagine what it must be like if the world really was a place like they describe it, a place of terror or night-stalking. Say, “That’s frightening. How are you getting through?”
- It’s not that promise and hope don’t arrive. We’ll talk about this next time. But it is obvious when you read through this Psalm, that the promises offered are a response to first having listened and understood the trouble experienced.
This being in somebody’s shoes to understand the real help they need reveals part of why Christians cherish the cross of Jesus. Jesus paid for our bluffing, shoulder-shrugging, neighbor-dismissing, naivete, in times of deadly pestilence. He paid for our blustering, reactive, selfish, price-gouging, “to hell with it all” responses in times of disease and death. He paid for leaders and people who mislead or leverage rather than help and heal. Jesus conquered and rose to forgive us these follies, to heal those of us who’ve been sinned against by them, and to recover the grace of realistic honesty intended for the good of those who inhabit God’s world.
For more, listen to my sermon entitled “How to Handle Fear in a Time of Pandemic”