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”
O Lord, you say that you keep memory of all my tossing and wanderings; that you collect my tears as if in a bottle so that none are lost to your remembrance. (Ps. 56:8)
I feel sometimes like I have that bottle in my nervous anxious hands and drop the bottle shattering my tears and the memories of me into the floor, dripping into wood crevices and lost forever. And yet that isn’t true is it? I don’t hold the memory of me in my hands do I? You are the one who holds the bottle. You keep the memory of me in your hands. I forget that a lot. It seems like I’m always trying to maintain the memory of me in this world. I’m sorry. I guess, I doubt that you’d really want to hold on to my life like that. I keep expecting you to get fed up and throw the bottle into the wall or something. But you aren’t like that. (more…)
And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
Last night, sleep eluded me. The brutal plight of South Sudan took its hammers and beat down upon the sidewalks of my mind. Distant neighbors and pastors, their last seconds of this life butchered. Some of these harassed peoples huddled in churches for safety but God left the doors unlocked.
The question of God’s willingness to give us no immunity this side of heaven jolts me as I look into the eyes of my wife and my children, my church community and my neighbors.
There in South Sudan, they say this December is the last month for life unless 50 thousand children can find food. Here in Webster Groves, Missouri, its the weekend.
Doing this Day is itself an Act of Protest
How do we do a weekend when the world rages? Psalm 37:1 stretches out a lane for our walk in the night. When evildoers prosper, it says:
Perhaps there in those African nightmares, these words would come too soon, heal too lightly. The vomit and the blood must first wash away in rivers of tears and time. Silent presence, the tearing of clothes in ash, collective cries, time spent bodily flung into the ground, spittle in dirt. Such acts of neighbor love and trauma must come first.
But here, for me, distant on this day, pacing in night, I must somehow trust, do good, befriend faithfulness and dwell as an act of defiance to violent living. These words form our version of “Don’t let the terrorists win.” We overcome evil, not by returning it, but by relentlessly persisting in doing that which is good (Rom. 12:21). We do what our African friends will one day do again, just as they will do on our behalf, should terror ever come to our town. In this way, love doesn’t quit but maintains its witness in the world. Remembrances of Eden, foreshadowings of heaven, both refuse to die.
Jesus’ Song When the Violence Came
I wonder. Is this why Jesus sang a hymn? Was it a declaration? Was he taking a stand for a way of life with God and each other?
Judas had just betrayed him. Peter was about to deny him. Gethsemane waited. Lustful injustice was about to publicly demean him and hammer and hack, hammer and hack him down. And yet, he offers food and sings a hymn. He toasts the mercy of friendship to the betrayer. He foreshadows forgiveness to the denier. He cries the agony of seeking shelter with God and finds God leaving the shelter unlocked and infiltrated. He gives voice to the forsaken question, “Why.” He offers a vision for community life for a mother and a son. He acts in defiance of the violence. Even his enemies hear him speak of their forgiveness. In all of this, He maintains an alternative way of life and grace for human beings. He pays for it. He purchases it. His song in the night takes its stand in opposition to their swords in the dark. And soon, with tomb emptied, the singing redeemer will rise!
The World in our Neighborhood. Our Neighborhood in the World.
So, I search the internet and type in “South Sudan Pastors,” and the like. I read articles, see pictures, cry and pray. And I also persist to do the mundane act of riding my mower. What else can we do? Beneath blue sky, I clear grassy space for children to play. Tonight, its Parent’s Night Out. Our home turns hospitable toward junior and senior high school students, who hope to raise money for summer camp.
Tonight, four and five year olds will romp and laugh about the yard and rooms. They will squish playdo and color with crayons. They will need warm washcloths for cheeks smudged by the enjoyment of chocolate chip cookies. From the closet I grab the red plastic table cloths made for disposable use. I spread out toys and turn living rooms into playgrounds, made for song and laughter, safe provision for scuffs and tears.
Afterwards, I check my phone to see who has called. Two African Immigrant pastors give voice to my ears. The irony settles in.
How do we do a day in our places when distant neighbors suffer and our personal skies are blue and easy?
We donate money? yes. We pray sleepless, earnest, aching? yes. We learn to weep with those who weep? yes. We go there? yes.
And sometimes, oftentimes, we also vigorously get on with noticing the world in our local messages. We take our stand by picking up the phone and answering the call. We ache, pace, weep and wail for our distant neighbors, remembering that in the shadow of the cross, Jesus sang. They cannot, not today, but we can on their behalf. We carry them in our hearts and minds, songs and prayers. Not trite songs that underestimate our horrors. But hymns from the shadows. Just as they too will carry on songs to God, if tears should engulf and drown our voices, on some future barren day. And soon enough, in the light of conquered tomb, the coming One will come again, and together, we will sing the song of peace, all at the same time. The Savior’s hymn in humiliation will turn to anthem amid his glory! And never again will God leave the shelters unlocked. Never again.
Worry is nocturnal. It spreads its crow wings to caw and scratch. We, the night worried, toss and turn. Hollered and flapped throughout the night, we dishevel our breathing and muss our hair till dawn. What will the day bring?