The Jesus we needed to hear about in 2020

I don’t often confess this to my musical friends, but one of my all-time favourite songwriters was neither a producer of commercial hits nor a writer of traditional folk songs. He was a former slave-trader who later became a Christian minister and one of the most prolific hymn writers of the 18th century. His name was John Newton.

Most people encounter Newton today without realising it, as he is the principal author of the popular hymn ‘Amazing Grace.’ But ‘Amazing Grace’ was far from the only hymn he wrote. In fact, when he was the pastor of the church in Olney in Buckinghamshire, he and the poet William Cowper committed themselves to writing a hymn a week, to be taught and sung at their weekly Tuesday night prayer meeting. Many of those who attended would have been illiterate, so Newton and Cowper taught them the lyrics verse by verse. And some of those hymns had a whole lot of verses!

Today is the Feast of the Naming of Jesus. As a Jewish boy, eight days after birth Jesus would have been circumcised as a sign of entering into God’s covenant people, and on this day he would also have been given his name.

Accordingly, the Gospel of Luke tells us that on the eighth day after his birth Mary’s son was circumcised and given the name ‘Jesus’, the name the angel had specified for him. ‘Jesus’ (or ‘Yeshua’, as it would almost certainly have been pronounced by Jewish people at the time) means ‘Yahweh Saves’ (or ‘God to the rescue,’ as I once heard it translated!). Before the time of Jesus, the most famous Israelite with that name would have been Joshua (it’s the same name in Hebrew), who led the Israelite military campaigns when they were occupying the promised land. Indeed, the words ‘save’, ‘salvation’ and ‘saviour’ are most often used in the Old Testament in a military sense.

But I’ve been thinking, on this feast on the Naming of Yeshua, about what his name means for Christians. And in this respect, I find myself thinking of the words of one of John Newton’s hymns. I give them as Newton originally wrote them; today we most often sing a slightly amended version.

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole
And calms the troubled breast;
’Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary, rest.

Dear Name! the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,
My never-failing Treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace!

Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest, and King;
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.

Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.

Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath,
And may the music of Thy name
Refresh my soul in death.

These verses are a wonderful statement of Newton’s faith in Jesus. Newton was an 18th century evangelical, which meant among other things that he had a strong belief in the utter lostness of humanity apart from God, and of the need for atonement for human sin to be made on the Cross of Jesus. One of the sayings of Newton’s old age was ‘I have forgotten many things, but two things I have not forgotten: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.’

So the Jesus in whom Newton put his faith was not so much the wise teacher, the disciple maker who led his followers into a new way of life. This was not a strong emphasis of the 18th century evangelicals, who tended to get their ethical teaching from the epistles rather than the gospels. No—Newton’s Jesus was the Saviour, the one who died for his sins, the one who brought him forgiveness and strength and comfort and peace, the one who soothed his sorrows, healed his wounds, and drove away his fear.

In recent years I’ve often thought that this 18th century evangelical Christ is a severely truncated version of the New Testament original. He tells people to come to him when they are burdened, so that he can give them rest, but he doesn’t very often tell them to sell their possessions and give to the poor, or to love their enemies, or to avoid storing up for themselves treasures on earth. Evangelical Christianity talks about accepting Jesus as your Saviour and Lord, but to be honest, in most cases, the emphasis is on the ‘Saviour’ part.

This may be a weakness, but on the other hand, as we turn the page on 2020 , I find myself thinking that it may be exactly what we needed to hear in this year of pestilence and plague. Most of us went through our days in a constant state of fear. Most of us were carrying much heavier burdens than we were used to. Most of us, when we stopped and took internal stock, discovered a low-level sense of sadness and grief that had become our constant companion, even when we weren’t dominated by it. Many of us were familiar with sorrow, many were tired, and the thought of death was hard to ignore.

So maybe this could have been the evangelical movement’s big moment. Sadly, of course, much of the evangelical movement in North America was paralyzed by several decades of culture wars, leading up to the presidency of Donald Trump. They were obsessed with the appointment of right-wing judges, more restrictions on abortion, restoring school prayer, and the preservation of America’s so-called ‘Christian heritage’ in the face of ever-increasing immigration. There wasn’t much bandwidth left for Jesus the lifter of burdens, the provider of rest for the weary, the healer of wounds and the driver away of fear.

But there’s still time. Vaccines are trickling in, but it will take many months for them to reach enough people to begin to provide herd immunity. There are many months of fear and loneliness and Covid protocols still ahead. So maybe, as we go into this year of our Lord 2021, my evangelical sisters and brothers might consider giving the culture wars a rest, and spending some time with the Gospel message that has historically been the heart of our tradition: that Jesus is the Saviour who soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds, and drives away our fear, and that the music of his name has the power even to refresh our souls in death.

So let’s sing with John Newton (see below for the very slightly amended words).

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds,
And drives away our fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole
And calms the troubled breast;
’Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary, rest.

Dear Name! the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,
My never-failing Treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace!

Jesus! my Shepherd, Brother, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest, and King;
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.

Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.

Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath,
And may the music of Thy name
Refresh my soul in death.

On the closing of churches for onsite services and meetings

When I hear that the Alberta Government is allowing churches to hold onsite worship services with 1/3 capacity, I realize that I live in a different world from many other Alberta Christians. Let me explain. Warning: this will not be short.

On Saturday March 14th, early in the morning, I and all my Anglican Diocese of Edmonton clergy colleagues received an email from our Bishop, Jane Alexander, announcing her decision to suspend on-site worship services in the Diocese of Edmonton until further notice because of rising Covid-19 infections. Note: this was before the Government of Alberta shut down on-site services.

I already had my Sunday prep finished and was looking forward to a quiet day at home, but that went out of the window. I knew nothing about Facebook Live and Zoom, but I quickly posted a text version of the Sunday liturgy on our website, recorded YouTube videos of my sermon and the children’s talk, and taught myself how to post them.

The next week we live streamed a service from the church using Facebook Live, as well as continuing to post resources to the website as we had done the previous week. It took us about eight weeks to figure out that the reason our live stream from the church was so choppy was nothing to do with our equipment and everything to do with the crappy internet service to the church from Telus. In order to have a good livestream you need about 4 or 5 kbps upload speeds – ours were about 0.8!!! This meant that the livestream was difficult to watch, but nonetheless, our people supported it enthusiastically. I encouraged them to chat with each other in the comments, and it was obvious that they were enjoying not only the content but also the contact with each other.

Eventually we moved the livestream to our house where the internet service is better. This meant we could not have other leaders from the church join in the livestream as it was not a good idea to invite lots of people into our home. But our live streamed services and the materials we post on our website continue to be popular. Between the two platforms I think we reach between 80-100 people a Sunday. Our average on site Sunday attendance last year was 75, so that’s not too shabby.

I must emphasize that I wasn’t trained to do any of this. Every single technological solution we tried, I had to teach myself to do it. And it all took far longer to prepare for. Normally, to prepare for a Sunday service is about six hours’ work for me. Doing it online, it’s more like ten.

In late spring and early summer it became possible for us to hold on-site services again. However, people were nervous and most were in no hurry (and I must point out that ours is a very community-oriented church and people really miss meeting each other!). We did a few outdoor services while the weather was warm (first time I’d received Holy Communion in months!!!), and then in October began meeting inside again on Sunday afternoons, while continuing our live streaming on Sunday mornings. Normally our capacity is about 150. However, with two metre social distancing between family groups we could fit at most about 30 people. Not that we ever had that many; most people didn’t feel safe, despite all our Covid protocols. The biggest service we had was about 15 people.

We also have several midweek study groups – one on Thursday morning, one on Friday morning, one on Tuesday evening. Since March these have all moved online, using Zoom. Our attendance has actually been better since we took this decision. I have done most of my parish visiting and pastoral counselling by phone, or by Zoom or Facetime or Facebook Messenger video chats. During the summer I was able to do some outdoor one on one pastoral visits, but now it’s all indoors again and online. St. Margaret’s is currently using a bedroom in my house rent free as my pastoral office!

As Fall progressed, we all watched with increasing unease as the Covid numbers climbed dramatically. Finally, about ten days ago Bishop Jane announced that in order to do what we could to decrease risk of community transmission, she would once again close the churches for onsite worship. Note: for the second time, she was ahead of the Alberta Government, which STILL has not closed the churches.

I am completely on board with what my bishop has done. There is huge risk of community transmission and this is a deadly virus. By now we all know people who have gone down with it, and many of us know people who have died from it. Yes, we know that getting together for worship is a huge comfort for us, giving us a sense of connection with God and each other (and the mental health benefits of churchgoing have been documented). But what if someone dies because of it? How is that loving our neighbour?

So I get very uneasy when I see Christians fighting rigorously for their rights to ignore common sense public health regulations in the name of freedom of worship. My freedom to worship is not restricted! I meet every Sunday with 80-100 people online, and in daily prayers during the week with about 15-20. But even if I was restricted, the restriction is justified because of the danger to people’s health. Our God of love does not demand that people worship him at the cost of transmitting a deadly virus to their grandparents!

But I also get uneasy when I see people yelling about how ‘churches are getting it easy’ under these new government regs. I suspect that we Anglicans aren’t the only ones who haven’t waited around while the Alberta Government sat on its hands and did nothing. I suspect other mainline denominations have done the same thing as us. But I don’t know, because we mainliners don’t tend to be pushy people who make a big noise about what we’re doing. So it may come as a surprise to some of you non-church people to know that we’ve already gone far beyond what the government has required of us.

The royal law Jesus laid down in scripture was to love God and love our neighbour. It’s often been observed that one of the best ways to love God IS to love our neighbour. We Alberta Anglicans are doing that by staying out of our buildings right now, even though we really, really miss each other and ache to be able to have a proper service, with hugs and hymns and coffee hour and all the rest. But this is what we need to do right now. Please, people, don’t wait for the Alberta Government; they’ve already demonstrated that they’ll stall for as long as they can. As I saw on ‘Unvirtuous Abbey’ a couple of days ago (to slightly paraphrase the words of Joshua 24.15), “As for me and my house, we are staying put!”

Rant over.

Using church buildings in Coronatide

Over in England, some members of the Church of England are getting themselves tied up in knots. Like us, because of the current pandemic they aren’t allowed to hold public services in their church buildings. Unlike us, their clergy aren’t even allowed to stream Sunday services in the buildings, or go into them to pray the daily offices by themselves. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have forbidden it. They need to stream their services from their vicarages. The Archbishop of Canterbury even streamed one from his kitchen, which seems to have aroused the ire of traditionalists. The controversy has been exhaustively covered at the Thinking Anglicans website, although I must warn you that the comments are not for the fainthearted.

And this has been very controversial. People have written articles on both sides of the subject. A retired bishop has written a piece for ‘The Tablet’ which has gotten a lot of attention (I can’t read it because it’s behind a paywall, but the title of the piece is ‘Is Anglicanism going private?’, so you get the drift). The argument seems to be that churches are public space, open to all, so clergy should be allowed to stream services from them. Vicarages are private space (especially kitchens?), and for some reason it’s not good for services to take place in private space.

Now, I need to start by freely admitting that there are things about the Church of England I will never understand, despite the fact that I grew up in it. The whole idea of an established state church is repugnant to my theology of the Church as a fellowship of resident aliens (we read 1 Peter at the Daily Office last week; you’ll find it all spelled out there). And the fact that the early church got along for a couple of centuries without any church buildings seems to sit rather strangely with the idea that church buildings are now somehow essential to the public mission of the church. What public mission would that be? The mission Jesus gave his church was to make new disciples for him. The early (pre-church building) church did that spectacularly well. The modern church, not so much.

Be that as it may, there are three comments I wish to make.

First, it is alleged that churches are public space, appropriate for public worship, while vicarages are not; they are private homes. I find myself wondering how many of the people who make this claim actually grew up in vicarages. I did. My dad was ordained in his thirties, and from then on I lived in church housing. I can assure you, vicarages are not private space. The Parochial Church Council met in the living room once a month. Bible study groups (then known as ‘home meetings’) met there regularly. My parents entertained parishioners frequently, either individually or in groups. Our garden was used for vicarage garden parties. As a teenager, I was starved for private space. I felt like I was living in a goldfish bowl, on public display, which for an introvert like me was very hard. So I don’t buy this nonsense about vicarages being more private than churches. They aren’t.

Furthermore (and this is the second point), whatever the intrinsic nature of these houses may be, streaming public services from them makes them public. Here in Canada our experience is less extreme than in the Church of England (at least in my diocese). I have not been forbidden to stream Sunday services from the church, and so I do it. But I also stream daily services of Morning Prayer and Night Prayer from my house, from the little room I’m currently using as a study (because I’ve been told to work from home as much as possible during the pandemic). As a result, many people now know what the inside of my house looks like. This is a big change, because I live in my own house, not a vicarage/rectory. My study at home is now public space.

And funnily enough, no one has complained about that. We do the daily offices in a relaxed kind of way, and that seems to fit well with the relaxed feeling of my study. I would even argue that it’s a better fit for streamed services. They’re different from public services in church. In church, people relate to the worship leader as members of a crowd, but when they participate in a live streamed service, although the leader might experience it as a group event, the participants do not: they only see the leader (and any others who may be assisting him or her). In other words, it’s more like listening to talk radio; you feel like the host is talking directly to you, not to the other two hundred thousand people who are listening in. And the most successful talk radio hosts (I think of the late Peter Gzowski, for example) know how to use this personal and informal aspect of the medium to best advantage. I think we would do well to think about the implications for live streamed services, especially in smaller churches.

Thirdly, I would like to contest the point that services in church are open and welcoming to all, whereas services live streamed from the vicarage are somehow more ‘gated’, more private. There are huge swathes of the population for whom this is simply not true.

Let’s take the disabled population. People who are hard of hearing often find church frustrating (I have a constant struggle to get my lay readers to use our microphones; they protest that their voices are loud enough, despite the complaints we get from some of our more elderly members.). Blind people struggle to find a place in services that rely totally on people’s ability to read. People in wheelchairs frequently find churches inaccessible. People who struggle with mental illnesses find the constant expectation of cheerfulness brutally exclusive.

But what about the folks who have never darkened the doors of a church? I’m an evangelist and I make it my business to listen carefully to my non-Christian friends. I’ve been told several times how emotionally difficult it is for some of them to make it through the door of a church. They have absolutely no idea what they will encounter on the other side. And I’m not even going to begin to talk about the abysmal job many churches do of making first-time attenders feel welcomed and included in the worship. Church buildings an open and welcoming space? In many cases, that’s a delusion only long-time church goers could believe in.

The truth is, whether or not churches are public space, they are certainly religious space, and I think this is what really lies behind a lot of the objections to the archbishops’ policy in England. People like the experience of Christianity as a religion. And what are the characteristics of religions? They differentiate between the sacred and the non-sacred. They have sacred places where you go to meet God, and non-sacred places where you work and play and rest; the two are clearly distinguished from each other. And religions have sacred and non-sacred people. Priests are holy and special; they relate to God on our behalf, Ordinary people don’t expect to have the same familiarity with God’s presence.

In the New Testament, Christianity was not a religion. It had no professional priesthood; in fact, it saw itself in totality as a royal priesthood to which all its members belonged (see 1 Peter again). Ministry was shared by all Christians under the direction of elders who were far more like a combination of lay readers and vestry members than a professional priesthood. And Christianity had no sacred spaces; the early Christians met in homes in small groups, and did their evangelizing in public spaces like Mars Hill, and the lecture hall of Tyrannus.

In later centuries, of course, Christianity became far more like a standard religion, with a professional priesthood and church buildings (referred to as ‘houses of God’). People are so used to this way of operating that they barely notice how foreign it is to the ethos of the New Testament. And when an aspect of it is threatened (as it is in the Church of England right now with the closing off of ‘sacred space’), they get very defensive.

I have two suggestions.

First, we need to see the current crisis as an opportunity, not a threat. In recent days a survey in England has shown that, although only about 6% of the population attends church on Sundays, around 25% have tuned in to a live streamed service since the pandemic began. Speaking personally, for years I have said Daily Morning and Evening Prayer alone in church. Now I say them in my home and stream them on Facebook, and I rarely have less than fifteen people joining me. A couple of them are people I thought had drifted away from our church. This is just one example of the new opportunities that present themselves. The world is changing, and the call of the Church is always to find fresh ways of sharing the Gospel message in new circumstances.

Secondly, we all need to calm down. This week Marcus Green has written eloquently about this. Clergy and lay people are all under unique stress right now. People are getting sick and dying, seeing their loved ones die alone in long term care facilities, losing their jobs and livelihoods, seeing their academic year evaporating before their eyes. Many of us are having trouble sleeping at night. Many more are having trouble making ends meet.

Is this the time for Christians to be sniping at each other about something as unimportant as whether or not we are allowed to stream services from the church? Surely what we need to be doing right now is being gentle and patient with each other, encouraging and supporting each other, not arguing about unimportant matters.

“But it’s not unimportant!” people will say. “It’s about the worship of God; how can it be unimportant?”

It’s unimportant, because Jesus and the authors of the New Testament apparently had no opinion on the matter. Or wait; maybe they did! Jesus was once asked about it by a woman of Samaria. She pointed out that her Samaritan ancestors had taught that God was to be worshipped on the mountain near Samaria, but the Jewish people (represented, in her view, by Jesus) asserted that the proper place for worship was Jerusalem.

‘Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”‘ (John 4.21, 23-26).

The location of worship is of no importance. God has no opinion on that matter. What is important is that the true worshippers worship God “in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such to worship him.” And notice where this conversation was taking place? Not in a Temple or church building. Not in a vicarage or private home. It was taking place at the town well, the most public space in the community.

Where are the town wells in our communities? Where are the real public spaces, the spaces where people congregate? Bars and coffee shops? Post offices? Public parks? Definitely, but I would suggest that in a time of Coronavirus, cyberspace is one of the most outstanding public spaces. And if we want to engage in the conversations that will lead people to Christ, we could do worse than to follow the example of Jesus and go into those spaces to meet them. What matters isn’t whether we ‘go’ to the town well from the church or the vicarage or rectory. What matters is what we do at the wellside when we get there. And that, I would suggest, is a conversation actually worth having.

Let It Be Soon

I’m off to bed on this Easter Eve night, looking forward to leading Easter Sunday worship tomorrow. But let me leave you with this rather long and rambling thought.

In some Anglican circles on the Internet, prophets of doom are foretelling the end of churchgoing. All this streaming of services, they say, will show people that they don’t need to go to church. They can stay home and watch it in their pajamas.

Well, if your church is a spectator activity, I guess that may be true. But mine is not, and neither are most churches I know. They are communities of friends who love each other. We love hearing each other’s voices when we sing and pray. We shake hands and hug when the services begin and end. We get together for Bible study and for lunch groups. We build and paint and fix and work together to make life better for the people around us.

Let’s make no mistake about this. Right now we’re doing what we have to do—staying away from each other. But we’re not doing it because we want to. We long for that day when we can stand together again around the altar and share communion with our sisters and brothers. We long for the sound of each other’s voices and the feeling of each other’s hugs. We miss the gentle conversation, the jokes, the smell of the candles, the warmth of the sun streaming through the church windows. We miss each other. And we long, we ache, to be together again.

The end of churchgoing? I think not. I’ve had email after email from parishioners thanking me for all the work we’ve put into making online church work. But every single one of them is longing for the day when it won’t be necessary any more. And so am I. I’m a preacher, not a broadcaster. My sermons are preached in front of groups of people, people I know and love. I can sense when they’re with me. I can tell by their faces when they’re finding the message exciting, or challenging, or captivating, or boring, or too long! I live for that sense of connection I get when I’m standing up before a real live flesh-and-blood congregation of people I know and love.

Christ is Risen, and I know it, so I’m not without hope. I know God will bring us through this time. It’s been well said that at the moment we have to stay apart, so that when we come together again, no one will be missing. I get that. But that day when I can throw open the church doors and welcome the family home again will be the high point of this year for me. I know that day is probably some months away yet, but I can’t help the fact that, in my heart of hearts, I’m longing and crying out, “Please God, let it be soon!”

‘Therefore We Will Not Fear’ (a sermon on Psalm 46)

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.