Well, we’ve had quite a week, haven’t we?
It’s hard to believe that this is still only the third Sunday in Lent. In other words, it’s only eighteen days since Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday we knew a little about COVID-19, but never in my wildest dreams did I think that less than three weeks later I’d be presiding at a service in which I couldn’t share the Common Cup with you—at which we would be forbidden to shake hands or share a hug at the Peace, or before and after the service—and no coffee hour afterwards! And When we started our Lent study course twelve days ago, I had no idea that in less than two weeks we’d have to shut it down.
Of course, these are minor details in the great big scheme of things. The Juno awards have been cancelled, and many national sports leagues have cancelled their seasons. Our Prime Minister is self-isolating because of possible exposure to COVID-19, as are a couple of other cabinet ministers. Concerts, university classes, workshops, cruises, holidays—the list goes on and on. People’s jobs are at risk because their businesses depend on the freedom to go out and associate with others, and the freedom to travel. And of course, there have been deaths. In Canada so far we’ve been quite fortunate about that—I read in the Globe and Mail on Friday that so far upwards of four thousand people have been tested for COVID-19 in Alberta, and only twenty-three have tested positive. In other parts of the world, of course, it’s a different story. And it’s because we don’t want that to happen here that we’re being urged to put social distance between ourselves and other people. These are common sense measures, and we ought to support them wholeheartedly. This is about saving people’s lives—especially the lives of the most vulnerable among us.
But what we don’t want is to be paralysed by fear.
In one sense, of course, fear is a natural emotion for us to feel. It’s quite useful; it helps prepare the body for action, whether the action is fight or flight. The body needs to fight against an aggressor, or it needs to run away as fast as it can. Fear gives it that little extra burst of energy that helps it respond more quickly and decisively. And in that sense, we don’t want to discourage fear. People who have no fear often do foolish things.
But we don’t want to be paralyzed by fear. And most of all, we don’t want fear to stop us trusting in the love of God for us, and we don’t want it to stop us from loving one another and being there for one another. We may have to think of new and creative ways of expressing that love, but we don’t want that love to shrivel up and die. In fact, we want the opposite. In time like this, we need to be able to lean on God in faith and trust, and we need to be there for one another. As John puts it in his first letter, we need perfect love to cast out fear.
My favourite psalm is Psalm 46. Psalm 46 was written in a time of fear. We’re not sure exactly when it was written, but it seems as if Jerusalem was in danger of being overwhelmed by some enemy. We get the sense that the world was being shaken up; that strong kingdoms and powerful countries were tottering and falling.
‘The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
(God) utters his voice, the earth melts.’ (Psalm 46.6).
Maybe those kingdoms were allies of Jerusalem, friends they’d counted on to help them in time of trouble. We just don’t know. What we can say for sure is that the psalmist’s world was being shaken to the foundations. Which is what makes the psalmist’s faith in God so remarkable.
‘God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.’ (Psalm 46.1-7)
‘Therefore we will not fear.’ That’s an astounding thing to say! Of course, we all know that the Bible often tells us not to be afraid; it’s one of the most common statements in the Bible. But here’s the thing—how many of you find that to be a helpful statement? Some of you, maybe, but I know I don’t! I have this little question nagging at the back of my mind: how do you stop yourself from being afraid? I’d love to be able to obey the command not to fear, but I don’t know how!
At this point in time, many of us have good reason to feel afraid. Maybe some of you already know some people who are self-isolating because they’re experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms. Some people have already lost their jobs because the businesses they work for are losing money. I saw on Twitter on Friday that Westjet has announced that it will have to lay off a lot of flight attendants because air travel is going way down. What about restaurant and hotel workers? People who work on cruise ships? Even us clergy have reason to be afraid. If Sunday services are cancelled, offerings go down, and, you know, not to be crass, but that’s how we get paid! And of course, in our province, all this uncertainty has hit at exactly the same time as a dramatic drop in oil prices.
How do we stop ourselves from being afraid for members of our families who are coughing and sneezing? We read the stories of all the deaths in China and Italy and we think, that could be my kids, or my spouse, or even me. Of course, we all know that one day we’re going to die, but usually we’re successful at putting the thought out of our minds. At a time like this, that’s harder to do.
Can I point out a little detail here? I like the fact that what so many translations of Psalm 46 actually say is not ‘we will not be afraid,’ but ‘we will not fear.’
To me, being afraid is something that happens to me. I don’t have a choice about it. It’s an emotion that hits me and gets my heart beating faster and the blood pumping around my body, so I’m ready to fight or run away, as need be. I’m passive; I’m on the receiving end of it.
But ‘we will not fear’ sounds like a decision, not an emotion. It can’t be a decision about a feeling; it has to be a decision about what we do with the feeling. Do we give in to fear and fall on the ground in terror, or do we say what the psalmist said: “Right, the earth is shaking to its foundations, and the city is in real danger, but I’m going to roll up my sleeves, trust in God, and remember that he’s my refuge and strength.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that God promises to take away the thing that’s causing us to be so afraid. If we look back to the Old Testament story, we know that sometimes Jerusalem was rescued from its enemies, and sometimes it wasn’t. And that fits with our experience as well. We pray for God to heal the sick; sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t, and usually we can’t figure out the reason.
But what we do know, says the psalmist, is that ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’ (v.1). What we do know, as he goes on to say, is that ‘The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge’ (v.7).
‘God is with us.’ When we pray for people, that sometimes seems like the best thing we can ask for them, doesn’t it? We say, “Lord, please be with my wife as she’s driving around the icy streets tonight.” “Lord, please be with my dad who’s very old and frail.” “Lord, please be with our soldiers in that faraway country where they’re in great danger.”
What do we actually mean by that statement? Think about it for a minute. Do we mean that there are some people God is not with, and so we want to make sure our loved ones aren’t on the black list? Of course not! One thing we can say with confidence about God is that God is everywhere, and God is with everyone. After all, God is the very reason why we exist, and why we continue to exist! I take it for granted that if God stopped thinking about me for a second, I’d immediately cease to exist!
But am I always aware that God is with me? Do I have a sense of God’s presence with me? Do I know how to rest in God’s love for me?
If the answer is ‘no’, then I’m really lost when times of trouble come, because no one else is up to God’s job. No human being, no matter how strong they are, can give me what God can give me. And if all I have is human help to call on, then I’m bound to be disappointed in the end.
At the end of the psalm, the writer puts these words in God’s mouth:
‘Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.’
And then he goes on to repeat what we might call the chorus of the song:
‘The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge.’ (vv.10-11).
‘Be still, and know that I am God.’ These are words that have resonated in Christian hearts down through the centuries. But we haven’t always been so good at putting them into practice, have we? Some of us spend our whole lives in a constant state of rush. When do we take time to sit quietly in the presence of God—maybe not even saying anything to him, just enjoying the stillness and knowing that he’s present with us?
So this is one thing we can do to lower our stress levels and stop fear from paralyzing us. We can intentionally take time to be aware of God’s presence with us.
Find fifteen minutes in your day. It might be first thing in the morning it might be last thing at night. You might have to talk to your partner or spouse and agree together on when it’s going to happen, because, you know, stuff happens around our houses! Decide on your time, and find a quiet place where you can sit. Maybe light a candle to remind you of the light of God’s presence with you.
Then just sit quietly for a few minutes. Pay attention to your breathing. Slow it down intentionally. Remember that the word ‘breath’ in Hebrew and Greek is the same as the word ‘Spirit’. As you breath in and out, imagine the life of God’s Spirit coming into you, filling you just like the oxygen molecules travelling through your bloodstream. “Breathe on me, breath of God; fill me with life anew.”
Some people find it helpful, in those times of silence, to have a phrase they can repeat to themselves from time to time. It helps stop their mind from wandering. Can I suggest a good phrase? “Be still, and know that I am God.” If we let that phrase repeat in our minds as we sit quietly in God’s presence, we can hear it as God’s voice speaking to us in the words of the psalmist. “Be still, and know that I am God. Be still, and know that I am God.”
If you do that for five or six minutes, you’ll probably already find that you’re more aware of God’s presence with you, and you have more of a sense of peace and calm.
And then talk to God. Do it naturally. You don’t have to use fancy words or censor yourself. You don’t have to read set prayers if you don’t find them helpful. If you’re scared about something, talk to God about it. Tell God about your fears. If you’re angry about something, don’t try to pretend you’re not! Believe me, you can’t fool God! If you’re worried about your children or your grandchildren, or your friends, or your parents—well, pray for them! Ask God to help them in their times of trouble. Ask him to help them be aware of his presence with them.
Two things it’s especially important not to forget. When I’m having a conversation with a friend or a loved one, if I’ve done something to hurt them, it’s especially important to apologize and ask their forgiveness. And it’s the same with God. If we’ve done something to hurt him or the people he loves, we need to own up to it and ask his forgiveness.
The other thing is to thank him for his blessings. In times of difficulty we sometimes forget about those blessings, don’t we? But St. Paul tells us, ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18).
I said that intentionally taking time to be still with God is one way we can counteract our fear. The other way is to love one another. St. John tells us that perfect love casts out fear. In the original context, he means God’s love for us, and our trust in his love. But I think it’s also true that loving one another helps us cast out fear.
We are a small church, and one thing small churches tend to do well is community. My guess is that a lot of you here today know the names of a lot of other people in this church. You don’t know all of them, but you know more than you think you do. If you went home after church today and made a list, you’d be surprised at the number of names on it.
How do we be present to one another in these difficult times? How do we reach out in love to each other when we’re being encouraged to put social distance between us and other people?
One way is through the telephone. We need to know we’re not alone. Do you have the phone numbers of a few people in the church? Can I ask you to make a special effort over the next few weeks to use those phone numbers regularly? Just call each other up and chat. Make sure your friends are okay. Ask them if there’s anything they need, or if there’s something they’d like you to pray for.
Of course, some of you are on social media too—Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram, and all the other platforms. And we’ve got a church Facebook page and a Twitter account too. So let’s reach out to each other through these platforms. If there’s something you need help with, ask for it. Be there for each other.
I’m absolutely sure that in this time of stress, God is calling us to faith and love. He’s calling us to trust him, to rest and be still in his presence. And he’s calling us to reach out to one another in love. In this way, even though we’ll be afraid, ‘we will not fear.’ No: we’ll trust God, and we’ll love each other. And in the strength God gives us, we’ll get through the dark time and come out into the daylight again.