Monday, April 20, 2020

Fear, Control, and Covid 19

What can Doubting Thomas teach us about our emotional reaction to the covid virus situation?

But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” John 20:25

So what’s up with Thomas?

I can accept that he couldn’t connect the dots on ancient prophecy, or that he was confused by Jesus’ prediction of His return. I get it that he was reluctant to accept the rumors of Jesus’ resurrection that must have been flying around town. But, why didn’t he believe his fellow disciples? I mean, the disciples had actually seen Jesus.

Our biggest problem with the stuff on social media is that we tend to notice, share, and believe the posts that tell us what we want to hear. Confirmation bias feeds our thinking, right or wrong. It helps us to focus on what we want to hear and ignore what doesn’t fit. Confirmation bias also answers our emotional needs. 

But would this same bias apply to Thomas? Didn’t he want to hear that Jesus was alive?

The answer to Thomas’ strange behavior may find a source in Thomas’ emotions from the week before Jesus’ resurrection. Holy week was an emotional roller coaster if there ever was one. Jesus went from being praised as a victor to feeling the scourge of the whip on His back in just a few days. That’s enough to give your amygdala a good case of emotional whiplash. On Sunday, the disciples were riding on Jesus’ coattails, and by Friday, not only had their world come crashing down, but fear was their primary emotion.

Fear of a changing world.

Fear for safety.

Fear for loved ones.

Fear of loneliness.

Fear that this might never end.

Sound familiar?

There are several ways of reacting to fear. Some of us sit in our fear and find we can do little else than seek solace. 

Some of us react in anger as if anger is more comfortable to feel than fear. I see this all over social media with people angry at politicians, experts, and guidelines. We chafe against the rules and look for ways to make our anger justified. These rants lead us to conspiracy theories and typically begin with the phrase: “They just want to . . .” This thinking is dangerous because long term anger rarely sends us down the right road.

Some of us react with denial. We laugh in the face of danger because we refuse to believe there is any. We deny the statistics by undermining the source or countering with different statistics as if that proves the situation is a hoax. In doing this, we build up a false sense of security which cause us to begin rants with “I can’t believe . . .” This thinking is dangerous because it keeps us from doing the things we need to do for the safety of ourselves and others. It is also likely to lead to anger.

But, Thomas’ reaction to fear was one of control, and that is the most dangerous reaction of all. He saw, all too well, the response of the crowd to Jesus’ agony and humility at the trial. Thomas saw the reality of the change in the situation. All of Jesus’ miracles, enlightening sermons, and fulfillment of prophecies – none of it mattered once the crowd started chanting, “Crucify him!” This anger is not just about the death of Jesus. The potential was death for His disciples, too.

Perhaps, Thomas felt he had to take control of his fear by taking control of the situation. It was time to reassess and find a new way of thinking and living. Jesus was gone. The crucifixion marked the end of three great years. It was time to move on to something less dangerous. At the very least, he needed to control his thinking processes.

And yet, there were those ridiculous rumors that the tomb was empty and that Mary had mistaken Jesus for a gardener. Some people showed their belief in these rumors with joyful faces and a spring in the step. These realities threatened his newly claimed control, and Thomas dug in deeper. 

Then there were the assertions of the disciples. Their words were not gossip; they were eye witness accounts. Thomas’ heart must have filled with fear as he felt his control slipping away.  He took control once again by demanding to see and touch Jesus before he would relent and change his mind.

I love Jesus’ reaction to Thomas. He did not dismiss Thomas’ foolish need for proof. He did not reprimand Thomas for his lack of faith. He came to Thomas and showed him the evidence he needed. Jesus simultaneously restored Thomas’ standing as an eye witness and wrestled away his need for control. Jesus prepared Thomas for the work ahead – a life that was to be anything but safe.

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20: 27b-29

The words “Do not disbelieve, but believe” are indeed as much for us as they are for Thomas. When we try to take control of our fear, we must work at it because disbelief takes work. If we feel we must work at our belief, we are attempting a different kind of control. Belief comes from faith, and faith comes through the work of the Spirit. None of this requires our control. It does, however, require that we relinquish control. 

We do not require proof of God’s love and care because we have faith. This faith comforts even when we are afraid, or worried, in denial, or angry. Faith is from God; it does not come from proof or our hard work. When we are afraid, it does not mean our faith is weak. It simply means we require God’s comfort. 

In Mark chapter 9, we hear the story of a father in fear. He brought his child to the disciples for healing, and the healing was unsuccessful. There was no medicine, no tests, no hospitals, and highly trained doctors to heal his child, only Jesus. The father put his fear under control and begged:

But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us. Mark 9:22

Jesus immediately pointed out the error in his request:

And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23

The father’s need for control was stronger than his faith. His control of the situation brought him to the healer but stopped him short of believing in Jesus’ capacity to heal. Control can keep us calm. Control can help us to do what is right. But, control can fool us into thinking we are in charge of the fear. In this way it pushes aside faith in order to let control reign.

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Mark 9:24

His prayer could easily have been "I believe; take away my need to control." 
Are you experiencing fear during this time of isolation? I am. I am afraid for my health and the health of my loved ones. I am afraid of the implications of the economic situation. I am afraid for those who do not have a social safety net and for those who must expose themselves to the virus to keep us safe.
I am afraid, but I don’t want to be in denial, I don’t want to be angry, I don’t want to be in control.
I want God’s control.

Abba Father, I believe; help my unbelief.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Strength, Song, and Salvation

This verse from Psalm 118 is a quote from Moses’ victory song in Exodus 15. The Children of Israel had just escaped what looked to be certain death when God parted the Red Sea, allowing them to escape Pharaoh’s army.

The words became favorite praise lifted up to a victorious God who saved His people from danger and the oppression of slavery. A Psalm that reminded of the past while giving reassurance of the future.

Now, we celebrate Palm Sunday, a worship service that retells the story of Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem. The people welcomed Him into their city with songs of praise and the waving of palm branches. They praised King Jesus as a victor, but the victory He would win on our behalf was still to come.

Yet, the crowd was mistaken. These people welcoming Jesus with song saw Him as a savior from hunger, from grief, from oppression. They saw Him as an earthly king with an immediate purpose to relieve them from the evil they endured. The mistake and misunderstanding of the Jerusalem crowd became a prophecy of what God intended to do for His people. God takes even our weaknesses and uses them to point to His saving grace.

Jesus’ act of Salvation was for so much more than victory over earthly concerns. Jesus’ goal was not the elimination of temporary oppression but permanent separation, not of momentary pain but eternal death. His death and resurrection would not be a  victory as humans understand, but His sacrifice was the only victory we would need.

In these strange days of sheltering in place, we feel a different kind of oppression. We must stop ourselves from taking advantage of the freedoms we typically know. We must do this to promote safety for ourselves, our loved ones, and our community. We find the need to do ministry in a very different way. All of this difference carries with it uncertainly, weariness, and fear. We lift our prayers to God and ask Him if the victory over this virus is ours.

God hears our cries for help; He knows our worry and feelings of inadequacy. He is eager to help us to do the work He sets before us, despite its unfamiliarity and our weakness.  We cry to Him in fear living with the strange burden of quarantine oppression, and God’s response is victory over sin and death.

The Lord is my strength and my song;
    he has become my salvation.
Psalm 118:14 
Jesus is our strength.

He knows our needs better than we do. He does not give us the strength for which we ask. Instead He IS our strength. We can put all our burdens on Him and rest.

Jesus is our song.

His love and care for us remind us that His victory is so much more than conquering a virus. He has conquered sin – something with a 100% fatality rate. We can sing in every situation, because of this victory.

He is our Salvation.

In the fullness of time, He will welcome us to a home with no fear, no restrictions, and no knowledge of social distancing. The Church will be reunited in His presence.
It matters not where we celebrate Easter.  The victory is ours through Him. That victory is even greater than what we ask for, more amazing than what we can imagine.

Come, Lord Jesus.
Amen, amen.