Easter and the Coronavirus Crisis

yellow garage hibiscus April 2020I went into the garage to look at the plants I have over-wintered and will soon take outside. Imagine my surprise when my hibiscus was already blooming — in the dark! This bright yellow bloom was a ray of God’s sunshine in a totally unexpected place; just like Easter.

 

Jesus Christ shattered everyone’s expectations.

His Kingdom was spiritual, not physical. He loved his enemies rather than working for their downfall. He embraced the untouchables of society. He submitted to treachery, violence, and crucifixion, which was counterintuitive for everyone, even his closest confidantes. And, most importantly, he achieved his goals through dying.

“Look, I am making everything new!” says the risen Christ (Revelation 21:5). And so He has—and is. The great truth of Easter is redemption: buying back what was destroyed by sin and creating life as fresh and pristine as the Garden of Eden. “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

The very foundation of our hope is starting over with an entirely different kind of life. But we keep trying to save what has been spoiled, rather like trying to get food from the old peelings of life instead of planting new vegetables. We hang on to what cannot live when all along the answer lies is abandoning it, dying to self, and accepting new life in Christ.

We must come to the end of trusting ourselves and our resources and instead trust God and his resources.

And this is very hard for us, who have been born into a world that treasures the physical and seeks security in material possessions.

Could it be that the current coronavirus pandemic can help us at last? Can we stop seeing the negative and look for opportunities that God is laying before us on every hand? Can we begin to live as Jesus taught, that a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions, and that he will care for us every day according to that day’s need? The apostle Paul lived on the edge of disaster for much of the last part of his life. Imprisoned, beaten, flogged, misunderstood: you name it, it happened to him. See (2 Corinthians 11:23-29.) From jail, Paul wrote “Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13).

Paul discovered that true hope grows in the most unexpected places.

In Acts 16:16-34, he and Silas sat, their feet in iron stocks and chained to several soldiers, their backs clotted with blood from inhumane beating with rods. They were there because of proclaiming that Jesus brings life for everyone in places no one was looking. The mercenaries, religious leaders, and merchants were scared to death at their shocking words, because it meant that everything they depended on for security was being jeopardized; so they instigated their beating and jailing. But Paul and Silas realized that the violent reaction was proof that God was working, that he was turning the world upside down, and they were a part of it! they began to sing—at midnight. It was so unheard of—music in that hellhole of a reeking prison—that the prisoners were dumbstruck. And then a massive earthquake shook the foundations of the jail, springing open all of the jail cells and shackles on the prisoners’ arms and legs. As the dust settled, the jailer, certain that the prisoners had fled, drew his sword to kill himself. When Paul called out, “Don’t do it! We are all here.” It was too much for the jailer. He rushed into Paul’s prison cell, fell to his knees, and asked how he could be introduced to, and live, in a world like that.

The magnitude of Christ’s resurrection overwhelmed them with its wonder and they couldn’t help celebrating.

Note: The world of Paul and Silas was in crisis. Their lives were imperiled. Instead of complaining, however, they could see the marvel that was occurring. The magnitude of Christ’s resurrection overwhelmed them with its wonder and they couldn’t help celebrating. When Paul first came to Christ, the vision on the road to Damascus knocked him off his horse and struck him blind. In that jail cell, it was happening again: a realization of the power of God to make all things new, particularly people.

God wastes nothing. Let us not waste this crisis by only asking God to keep things as they are. Let us ask him to make everything new, especially us!

Perhaps, in the middle of this crisis, God is answering prayers that we’ve been praying for years.

God Takes a Hand

Do you ever watch movies over and over again? Sleepless in Seattle is one of our go-to movies when we want to relax with something that is heartwarming and tension-free. A recurrent theme throughout this charming story is that destiny controls our lives. Whether it grandmother’s wedding dress that rips when Annie tries it on (and her mother says, “It’s a sign.”) or the windows of the Empire State Building that light up in a heart shape at just the right moment (and Annie murmurs, “It’s a sign.”), many in this film seem to believe that an impersonal force, fate is running their lives.

It is fascinating that many people assign control of their destiny to fate, or even Mother Nature, but have trouble believing that God could take interest in them. Or that there even is a God.

I throw my lot in with those who see God everywhere. We see His diverse and ingenious handiwork in the lavish color of butterflies, the unique perfection of snowflakes, and the amazing precision of our solar system’s orbiting planets. We see his love of beauty in the majestic vistas of Sedona and the glittering desert skies.

Most of all, however, we see his love for each of us in his intense interest in every detail in our lives. One man named Abraham dared to believe, thousands of years ago, that God was talking to him, and today, in 2017, millions believe that God talks to us. Of course, we regularly turn to the Bible for instruction; but I’m talking about the amazing and intensely personal ways he orchestrates things to help and guide us.

Through our lifetimes—Karon’s and mine—we have witnessed it repeatedly. Come with me as I recall a few of the amazing ways God has taken a hand.

Guidance

  • I grew up in a home that witnessed God at work. So right from the beginning I asked God to guide my life. When I wondered which elective to choose in high school, I asked my mother how to find God’s direction in prayer. She told me about her prayers for direction, including marrying my dad, and said she would pray with me. I chose Spanish. Years later this choice would become very important in my life.

 

  • God answered my prayers about whom I should marry. Even in grade school I started praying that, when the time would come, I would know who the girl was for me. (I thought that Midge. Moose’s girlfriend in the “Archie” comic strip, was pretty cute.) Years later as I made plans to attend Warner Pacific College (WPC), a Christian school in Portland, Oregon, I felt I perhaps would meet someone there. Interestingly, Karon Neal, a pastor’s daughter from California, was also praying about her eventual husband. She wasn’t planning to go to college since a high school counselor had told her she wasn’t college material. (Can you imagine?) However, a young man she occasionally dated disagreed with the counselor, telling her that she was great college material. So, with her Dad’s help, she applied to two colleges. He suggested that they pray for God’s direction by asking him to arrange for the right college to accept her first. She received her acceptance from WPC on Friday and left that weekend for Portland. Monday, her acceptance came from Anderson College! Yours truly was at WPC. We were both given jobs in the school cafeteria, and that’s where lightning struck.

 

  • Many people, including me, assumed that I would follow in my parents’ missionary footsteps. After Karon and I were married, I began to question this idea. In fact, I began to realize it wasn’t my idea at all. Thoroughly confused about my future in my senior year at college, I dropped out until I could decide what might be next. I looked for jobs in fields I thought would interest me, and worked several for short periods of time in display (decorating windows back in the day when department stores did that), in interior design, and then selling custom draperies and carpeting. During these months Karon had our first little girl and we moved to Salem, Oregon where the last job offer was. Karon’s parents just happened to live in Salem, too. Hmmmm. Months later we were staying at their house with Karon’s two younger brothers for a week or so and the phone rang. It was Cliff Tierney, a pastor in Southern California who was good friends with Karon and her family. He was calling to ask Karon’s Dad about what he thought was my potential of serving as his Minister of Music and Youth. But Karon’s folks were out of town, and I answered the phone. And so, without even getting an opinion from them, Cliff invited us to become his associates and gave us a couple of weeks to think and pray about it.  And that’s how we moved to southern California. Being a youth and music minister was not on my radar, but God took a hand, launching us into a career that would last forty-three years.

 

  • Fast forward fifteen years. Karon and I had three children and both worked full-time jobs. She was between jobs, a period of over six months, and finances were tight. We told no one, of course.

I was doing a lot of speaking at conventions and camp meetings that summer, and was at Warner Camp in Michigan, preparing to preach the evening’s message. I felt the keen gaze of a woman about halfway back, maybe twenty rows. It was very intense and rather unusual. After the service, she came forward and asked to speak with me. She said, “I have a word from the Lord for you.” The phrasing was unusual in my circles and her prophetic mannerism and piercing eyes made me nervous. She continued kindly, “As I prayed for you before the service began, God told me that you and your wife are concerned about finances. He wants you to know that He’s got this. Don’t worry.” With a smile, she added, “that’s all.”

Months later after she found work, God reminded Karon that, during this six-month period that she was at home, all three of our kids recommitted their lives to God.

Assistance

  • When the girls were little and before Jon was born, we moved from Oregon to Southern California to begin our very first solo pastorate. For those unfamiliar with this highway, I-5 travels through some breathtaking scenery with vistas of snow-capped mountain peaks amid soaring Douglas fir trees. It’s possible to drive it all at once, but even back then Karon and I were not ones for driving through the night. We had decided to stop about halfway, making it a two-day trip. Karon drove the car with the girls in it and I piloted a U-Haul truck jam packed with our belongings. Just before we pulled out of Portland, a friend brought over a little gray kitten as a gift to the girls. It was in a little box with a food and water dish and they were delighted. Karon and I exchanged baleful looks, but we were trapped. There was absolutely no room in the car, and so Dusty, the recently christened kitten, joined the furniture in the truck. She was securely settled and we checked on her every time we stopped.

As we approached the town of Yreka the truck began to make menacing groans and finally wheezed to a stop along the town’s icy roads at a gas station that also rented and repaired U Haul trucks: the only one in town, we discovered. Karon scouted around for a motel while I waited for the mechanic to look at the truck. We gingerly opened the back of the truck to check on Dusty. She was carsick and her cage had become dislodged. Her frantic little form was soon cuddled into the girls’ arms and we decided the mess would have to be cleaned up later. We were all freezing and Karon and the girls retreated to the car. The mechanic had examined the truck and now shook his head mournfully. “Fuel pump,” he muttered. “Totally destroyed.” It’ll probably be at least two days before we can get a replacement.”  My shoulders sagged. Have you noticed that bad news is always worse when you’re cold, hungry, and tired? After a moment, he snapped his fingers and said, “Wait a minute. I have one fuel pump I took off another truck that might get you there. It’s a long shot and so you’re probably out of luck. But let me check.”

He trundled off into the warmth of the garage and closed the door. I shivered over to Karon and told her that we might have to bunk here in this frozen paradise for a while. We looked at the girls, who were happily playing with Dusty. Could even this cat have been part of God’s strategy?

“Hey!” It was the mechanic. “What are the chances? I never would have believed it! This is exactly the fuel pump you need. Somebody is certainly looking out for you. Tell you what. I’ll work on this late and should be able to get you on the road by 10 a.m.” And he did.

What were the chances that a small-town mechanic would have just one fuel pump in his shop, and that it would work on our truck? God took a hand.

Finances, with guidance thrown in for free

  • In 1972, we drove from California to Indiana so I could attend seminary. Another long drive. We still had two girls, but no cat. (Sadly, Dusty had died in L.A.) Karon was pregnant with our third child. A benefactor had paid my first year’s tuition and we had sent ahead one month’s deposit on a rental house. Besides that, we were pretty much broke. However, we felt God was leading us and we firmly believed that He would take care of us. I had a part-time job as an associate pastor lined up that might just pay for food and rent. After that? We trusted God to handle it.

As the baby grew, Karon lined up an obstetrician. The appointment was $10. We knew the delivery would be by Caesarian section, which would be several days in the hospital and surgical expenses. Of course, we had no health insurance and few resources. One day a cashier’s check for $500 appeared anonymously in our church mail box. We’re still not sure who did it, but God knows. Two weeks before the delivery date, the doctor examined Karon and pronounced her in fine shape. He was going on vacation but would be back in plenty of time.

The next night Karon went into hard labor! That big baby was not going to endure two more weeks in his cramped quarters. With our obstetrician out of town, we drove to the hospital. Some doctor would surely be on duty. It so happened that the doctor on call at Community Hospital was Dr. Robert McCurdy, the finest surgeon in Anderson. We had not met him; however, he had served as a missionary doctor in Kenya when my parents were there and he held them in high regard. He delivered our son, Jonathan, who, at 8 lbs., 11 oz. was presented to us by a smiling nurse as a “big, fat boy.” For over a year our little girls had been praying for a brother.

Interestingly, we never got a bill from Dr. McCurdy’s office. After a couple of months, we inquired, only to be told that Dr. McCurdy had written off the bill for his services, including surgery, as a gift to my parents in appreciation for their influence on his life. God takes a hand.

Even with these generous gifts, many other bills had accumulated. Around that time Dr. Sid Guillén, head of the language department of Anderson College, called to ask me if I would teach two units of beginning Spanish for second semester. He was in a bind. He certainly must have been desperate to ask me. I’m not sure where he heard that I had a Spanish minor with my undergraduate degree, but he had, and I said yes. Remember earlier I mentioned that God had directed me to choose Spanish as my elective in high school? Do I even need to mention that the income from those two classes paid every outstanding balance we had, and in full?

Were these all just coincidences?

Some people will choose to believe these were all just happy coincidences. Not us! All of our lives we have asked God to help us, to save us, and to direct us. At the wedding altar we committed our lives not only to each other, but to him, until death do us part. And because of His generous love, deep commitment to people, and because He always keeps his word, we have not once lacked for any true need. No one leads a charmed life and many problems and difficulties have come our way. But God promises to be with us always, night and day.

Not everyone has the guarantee of this marvelous protection, and we don’t have it because we earned it or deserve it. God gives it to those who follow him and put him first. If you do that, you, too, will experience this extraordinary kind of living. This is the promise: “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear….  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matt. 6:25,33).

William Cullen Bryant summarized it in his classic poem, “To a Waterfowl:”

He, who, from zone to zone, 

Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight, 

In the long way that I must trace alone, 

Will lead my steps aright.