If you are like me, you have likely noticed how everyone has become “armchair epidemiologists” during this season. I have heard church leaders across the nation state that this crisis is “unprecedented,” but then in the next breath declare that they have the perfect response to these new difficulties. No one is a complete expert on this crisis, and the conflicting information and emotional debates will likely continue for years to come.
I am often asked for information on leadership. It’s a topic that I research, write about (click here) and speak on often.
With that in mind, these two articles have been the most helpful to me personally during this season:
Engaging in prayer is engaging in battle. Like any powerful weapon, to treat prayer carelessly only increases the danger of the given situation. I might think that I have done all I can because I have prayed, but if I am not praying with power, the words I utter on my knees may give a false sense of assurance that I have truly asked something from God in faith. Over the years, I have discovered some subtle ways that I can become careless with my prayers.
According to government statistics, authorities discover counterfeit American bills totaling between $70 million and $200 million every year. With home-production of illegal funds posing such a growing problem with the arrival of advanced copiers and better computer printers, the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing works to continually upgrade the security features of some of the most commonly-counterfeited bills, thus making it much harder for would-be crooks to produce “funny money.” Color-shifting inks, watermarks, raised impressions, micro-printing and security strips increase the uniqueness of American currency. According to the Secret Service, even the paper that bills are printed on cannot be produced legally by an individual. It is of a special composition pressed to a specific thickness and contains tiny red and blue silk fibers (you can see them if you look closely enough).
“A man is not what he thinks he is, but what he thinks, he is.” – M.R. Hickerson
The human brain is the most complex biological organ in existence. Containing 100 billion nerve cells, with each one potentially linking with 10,000 other nerve cells, the brain’s capacity for calculations and the speed at which these functions occur is staggering. It is estimated with such a high degree of connectivity, the human brain is capable of 1 quintillion (1 followed by 18 zeros) calculations per second.
In June 1744, members of the Iroquois “Six Nations” and the Lenape tribes met with early American colonial leaders to negotiate the terms of a treaty regarding land. These meetings shaped not only the growth of the colonies, but the suggestions for governmental structure offered by some of the Native Americans influenced the development of our Constitution as well.
It was Christmas day, just before I graduated from high school, when I opened a gift from my parents and found inside a small chunk of concrete. Yes, it was concrete (not coal, so I must have been a really bad kid). Alongside the jagged shard was a certificate of authenticity indicating that I was holding a piece of the Berlin Wall.
I once read about a scientific experiment with butterflies. A male butterfly was introduced to an environment with two options present. Option #1 was a living, healthy female butterfly. Option #2 was a huge, cardboard cutout butterfly painted with the same colors as a real female. Enter the male. In repeated tests, the males tended to ignore the real female and try everything in their power to attract the attention of the most obvious, but the most unreal, mate.
“What day is it?” I have heard (and asked) that question repeatedly over the last few weeks. Without normal routines and pat schedules, this season of disruption warps our perception of time. Days blend into other days, and weeks pass without a predictable ebb and flow.
We look at the cancelled events and passing days on the calendar and wonder, “How long?” When time seems to stretch out and creep along at a snail’s pace, we can grow frustrated at our perceived lack of forward movement. But there may be deep work in progress where there is otherwise a lack of obvious activity.
The words carried an unmistakable mix of disgust and amusement. I glanced to my right at two of my sixth-grade classmates. My mother, knowing my enjoyment of writing, had given me a journal a month earlier for Christmas, and there in study hall, I was about to share my heart on that first, blank page when the question surfaced with sneers.
Last November, a group of us took a trip to Israel. Later, through a series of sermons, I elaborated on many of the places we visited and the lessons we learned (even though there is no way that I could convey every detail with the richness of being in-country). The sights and landscapes helped put many biblical references into context. Early in our trip, we visited the ancient port city of Joppa where I had a perspective-giving moment.
“What would you like to drink?” That is a question we hear often whether at a restaurant, when sitting down for dinner at home or while visiting a hospitable friend. But I have never heard God ask that question.
When he sets a cup before me, he expects me to drink. It may be that he pours a cup of wonderful circumstances, memorable moments or sunny days. But sometimes it is a cup of loss, a cup of sickness or a cup of disappointment. No matter what I may see when I peer over the rim, that cup with my name on it is mean to be drained, whether with a heart swelled with joy unspeakable or through tears unstoppable.
Over the last few weeks of our shelter-in-place / safer-at-home restrictions, I have heard from a number of people who have shared how they are spending their time. Some have gone into a cleaning frenzy that has left no corner untouched. Others have decided to redeem the time by learning a new craft or hobby. Some have gone into exercise mode to avoid gaining the “quarantine fifteen,” and others have resorted to lying on the couch and consuming way too many snack foods. A few people have told me that they have been busy planting during this time. After the frosts passed, they put seeds into the ground and now look forward to the harvest.
If you are like most people (and willing to be brutally honest), you likely use many of your waking hours trying to gain and maintain contentment. Contentment is not a bad thing in itself, but the ways we try to reach it can diverge quickly from God’s methods.
“Sometimes you must ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.’”
That phrase lingers in our vocabulary as a testament to rugged self-reliance and dependence upon no outside force to bring rescue. The idea is that in the midst of the greatest difficulty, the deepest need or the hottest battle, we can lift ourselves from the chaos and plant our feet on solid ground by nothing more than a sheer act of will, gut-level tenacity and good old “know-how.” That is how we use the phrase, “pull oneself up by the bootstraps.” You reach down, take hold of the straps or loops atop your boots and lift yourself up by them.
Throughout history, people have used tangible items as reminders of the brevity of life. These are known as memento mori.
The name comes from a practice of the Romans. A slave would accompany a victorious general in his chariot as he rode along in the triumphal celebration. As the crowds cheered the warrior’s return, the slave would stand behind him and whisper, “Memento mori.” The phrase means, “Remember that you must die.” It was a reality check intended to relax the grip of dangerous pride and point toward the passing nature of human glory. It also clearly stated that life is short.
That was the phrase I heard from someone recently regarding the COVID-19 crisis. Spring vacations, Easter services, senior proms, high school and college graduations, leadership conferences, business expos, sporting events, family get-togethers – all plans and schedules have fallen under the shadow of this season. We have cancelled, rescheduled, shuffled or postponed events again and again to accommodate ever-shifting requirements and needs. It is very likely that we will face more weeks of much of the same, and we will assess and adapt as many times as necessary.
For years now, every April, I have participated in Secret Church. This event was created by Dr. David Platt when he was the pastor of The Church at Brook Hills outside Birmingham, Alabama. Platt had visited house churches all over the globe in areas where following Christ was dangerous and, in some cases, deadly. He would meet in secret with leaders of house churches, and together they would study the Bible for hours as Platt taught them principles and truths that they would then take back and share with their small congregations and family units.
Before a ship is put into commission, the crew takes it out for its shakedown cruise. They attempt to emulate the worst of all possible circumstances the vessel may face. In short, the crew pushes the ship to its absolute limit to prove it can endure the highest seas, the hottest battle and the grimmest conditions. Not only does this voyage prove the ship, it conditions the crew to function as a unit under stress. Any weaknesses exposed in vessel or crew are corrected. Only then is the ship labelled seaworthy, and more importantly, storm-worthy.
It is one of the loudest things you will ever hear. The silence of God. The battle-torn heart-cry rasps your voice, your cheeks grow red, salt-burned with tears, and you raise your face hoping to hear a word — hoping to hear anything at all. But there is only the sound of the blood pulsing in your ears and the rise and fall of your breath marking out the moments of no answers. You likely wrestle at times with God’s silence just many of us who pray to him do.
In this time of online-only services and virtual small groups, it is easy to have moments of frustration due to slow connections, buffering videos and extra steps to engage with others. No matter the time it might take, it is well worth all extra effort to build community and continue to grow together in Christ.
In a few weeks, things will likely begin to shift toward more face-to-face meetings and a return to gathering in-person. Though we all look forward to that time, I have tried to think about the positives of the last few weeks. Despite the sometimes-negative impact of putting society on hold for the greater good, I have discovered some things that will probably be harder to maintain easily after this season passes. For me, the one that stands out above all is being able to linger in God’s presence without interruption. In the flurry of everyday life, unbroken time to be still before God is more and more of a rarity.
I was sharing this with a pastor friend of mine the other day. He said, “Preaching online is great in some ways because you don’t have to contend with yawns, blank stares and the distraction of people talking during the sermon.”