Scripture Reading: Psalm 22
The Psalms have been faithful companions during this past year, favorites among them are Psalm 42, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God...”, 121, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?”, and 130, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” A reflection of the human condition, these songs offer words of praise, joy, gratitude, lament, anger, doubt, and sorrow. Psalm 22 has been my most recent companion as I was asked to preach on it for Good Friday. As I meditated on the Psalm, some insights came to mind, and I share them with you.
First, Jesus, utters the words of the first verse from the cross. In his humanity, in his pain -like the psalmist- feeling the abandonment and loneliness of the cross, Jesus cries to God, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These words shared from a place of deep sadness and despair might be familiar to us. We have experienced or are experiencing similar sentiments, and versions of these famous words are being pronounced, again and again, in different languages and from distinct voices these days. I sat with these words reflecting on how relevant they are; a look at the news or even outside our own front doors would suffice to see their relevance. In the midst of a pandemic, of social injustice and inequity, of misuse of power and mistreatment, of divisiveness and unkindness, how can these words not be echoes of a suffering world? Jesus, having experienced the cross, accompanies us in the places of sadness and despair where we find ourselves and where we find our most vulnerable siblings.
Second, back to the psalm, even in the midst of despair, the psalmist finds signs of hope. The following verses alternate between cries of despair and remembrance of God’s deliverance, and by the time we reach verse 24, the discourse begins to shift. “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.” From lament, to trust, to hope, to praise... Although the psalmist felt abandoned by God at some point, God didn’t leave him. This realization brought forth the last insight: How exactly did God deliver him?
The answer to this question is not in psalm directly, yet one could infer some kind of miracle was involved, supernatural or otherwise. It could have been a miracle in the form of literal salvation from a dangerous situation or a divine illumination, a coincidence that became an opportunity, a random visit that inspired acts of justice and kindness, or even intervention by a person, like you and me, who was then an instrument of God for deliverance and the miracle someone desperately needed. Sometimes we are so focused defining deliverance in the individual, spiritual sense only, that we forget its collective, yet also very spiritual, day-to-day meaning and implications that demand a response from us in the here and now.
I invite you to sit with the words of Psalm 22 and reflect on the “how” of God’s deliverance. Consider the part we all play in God’s salvific plan in this world, as God’s coworkers (1 Cor. 3:9). Jesus, our Savior and teacher is risen. He is our miracle. Following in his steps, may we become a miracle for others, and when we hear the world crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in any version or language, may we respond confidently and humbly, “My sibling, I’m here. God has not forsaken you. God has sent me.”
—Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, M.Ed.
Educator and Elder
Presbyterian Church (USA)
Vilmarie is a teacher and a Presbyterian ruling elder born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She has served the PC(USA) at many levels including the session, presbytery, synod, and other church groups, such as Presbyterian Women. Most recently, Vilmarie served as Co-Moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018-2020). She has dedicated most of her adult life to education and training, primarily teaching English to high-school students and adults from all over the world. Vilmarie lives in Florida with her husband, the Rev. José Manuel Capella-Pratts.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” and with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit." –John 20:19&21
How do we experience the joy that we believe comes with the Resurrection when our world is suffering in a pandemic?
In Guyana, since our first COVID case, we battled with the global health pandemic, an ‘elections pandemic’, where we witnessed an election that lasted for approximately five months. We were plunged into another ‘pandemic,’ related to a crisis in our church which has caused pain and brokenness in our Church. As the COVID pandemic is still detrimental to the world, we struggle to bring about justice and restoration of order, unity, and healing in our Church.
During the times of facing persecution, social, economic, health struggles, and possible death could drive fear in us, and we could feel like the disciples who were locked away in fear behind closed doors. Fear can cause us to terminate our path of conversion and commitment. Covered beneath our spiritual apathy and lack of zeal are not so much our personal flaws or our lack of human virtue as blindness to the dynamic power of the Crucified and Risen Lord.
We can leave our self-made prisons only by opening our hearts to a faith in Christ that is COMPLETE: complete trust, in spite of the confusion of the present and uncertainty of the future. A complete hope, by breaking away from having to see the ideal in ourselves before we will act, and complete divine confidence in casting aside the sins of others and our personal failures that keep us fixed in a narrow-minded vision of life. Christ comes through sealed doors in this Easter season to ask us to unlock them with a real experience of the Risen Lord in the power of the Spirit.
After being really excited about the fulfilment of a great expectation of having the Messiah on Palm Sunday, everything seemed to be falling apart. All of the people’s hopes, dreams, and expectations that were embodied in Jesus seemed to come crashing down. There was nothing but grief, sadness, lostness, pain, suffering, and fear.
People certainly feel deeply vulnerable in a time when their hopes and certainties are crushed, but in resurrection Jesus overcomes death, and in so doing offers us new life: A new norm. This new norm is not a return to the victorious hopes of Palm Sunday. The crucifixion had shown us the reality of pain and suffering and the lengths that God will go to help us to find God’s love.
The new norm that was reflected in the resurrection was different. Christ breathes afresh on us to receive the power of the Holy Spirit, and send us to proclaim the gospel amid pain, suffering, and loss, to experience and live out the Resurrection joy even amid the ‘pandemics of over lives.’
It was a revelation that the might of God is revealed in vulnerability and suffering love. The new norm was that people recognized their inter-connectivity and wider call to live under the wing of God, who is love: to care for the sick; to live life with and for others; to seek after wisdom, gentleness, peace, love, and joy; to overcome the old gods of greed, individualism, and false idols; to live together as one Body. The new norm of course includes pain and suffering, but not without hope.
The COVID crisis is not a good thing. It is horrible, painful, fearful. We have to name it as such. Nevertheless, if perfect love does drive out fear and if Jesus truly is risen, then perhaps the new norm that will emerge when the virus is defeated will help lead us to a place where we can see life more clearly, live with complete HOPE in our Risen Lord and love God and one another more fully.
—Rev. Gaitri Singh -Henry
Guyana Presbyterian Church
Rev. Gaitri Henry was a delegate representing the Guyana Presbyterian Church at CAANAC’s General Assembly in Guyana in 2018. She is a wife and mother of three lovely children. She is an Educator and the Minister at the Burns’ Memorial Presbyterian Church, Guyana.
Against the background of the recent spike in COVID-19 infections and deaths in Jamaica, Prime Minister Andrew Holness, in a press conference held February 28, announced to a beleaguered nation a raft of restrictions, including the limiting of the size of gatherings to a maximum of ten persons in places of worship, while other members of the congregation were to be confined only to online participation in these gatherings. These measures were to become effective March 1.
Two days afterwards, the country was shocked by news of the arrest of a pastor for violating these very regulations. Instead of engaging in online services, as stipulated, there were approximately fifty persons gathered in the sanctuary, none of whom, it is said, were wearing masks, or observing social distancing. This pastor, in the presence of the congregation that had only just been warned by both the police and health authorities on the need to observe the regulations, is on record as having chided her congregation, telling them that God told her no man can touch her because she is the apple of God’s eye and that most of them should stay home because they were not ready to serve God. She also told her congregation that she has no intention of facilitating online services. Evidently, this pastor sees herself, not just as being above the law, but also as being above the reach of COVID-19.
Unfortunately, instances like this are not uncommon. Such defiance of the rule of law among members of the Christian Church seems to have its roots in the misguided belief that those who profess faith in God are somehow immune to sickness and disease! Many well-meaning Christians, for instance, take passages such as Psalm 91 as offering an iron-clad guarantee that they will always be protected from harm, no matter what! Yet we continue to see the mounting statistics of people who are dying daily from COVID-19. Interestingly, many of them are committed Christians!
Revd. Daniel Hans, in his book, God on the Witness Stand, speaks of having once surveyed members of his congregation regarding their disappointments with God; times when God didn’t deliver on the things they were hoping he would. Members shared their experiences of times they had prayed for a newborn baby struggling for life, only to see that child eventually die. They spoke of times they had hoped God would step in and safeguard his people against physical harm, only to receive news of an old woman who was stabbed as she made her way to church; of times when they had interceded for drought-stricken African countries, only to see famine conditions continue to unrelentingly batter the already parched lands. Alongside these situations of disappointment Hans now places his own – he had hoped God would allow his three-year-old daughter to survive her battle with cancer, but instead he and his wife had to face the excruciating ordeal no parent ever wants to face – that of watching their innocent toddler suffer and die.
Revd. Hans points out that life is made up of unavoidable disappointments, and that if we take the time to read the Scriptures carefully, we’ll notice that together with amazing stories of people’s miraculous encounters with God, are many stories about people who cried out to God in utter desperation, while God seemed to remain silent and inactive. Hans suggests that when we remember only the spectacular feats done by God, we run the risk of becoming disillusioned, expecting that God will do something which he may have no intention of doing. While we can, and should, take all necessary steps to avoid harmful situations, our ability to safeguard ourselves from the dangers listed in Psalm 91, for example, is nonetheless extremely limited. The fundamental affirmation of Psalm 91 is that we don’t have to be fearful, not because we have been granted immunity from the perils of life, but because of God’s assurance that, no matter what, we will never be forsaken by God!
—Revd Norman O. Francis
Associate Warden and Lecturer
United Theological College of the West Indies
Norman has been an ordained minister of the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands for the past two decades. He is married to Karen and has two adult sons.
How can we have a Pandemic Passion? The word “passion” often conjures romantic allusions or designates ardent desire so it may be surprising to learn that the root of the word “passion” is suffering. Passion Sunday is the first day of Holy Week when we mark the bloodstained footsteps of Jesus towards the Cross.
Passion Sunday is also called Palm Sunday to remind us of the palm-waving crowd welcoming Jesus as he entered the city. Palms symbolized happiness and victory, so the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is often called “The Triumphal Entry.”
Some scholars believe that the welcoming crowd may have been villagers who accompanied Jesus all the way along his journey and therefore was a different crowd from the rabble of local urban haters who were incited to yell “Crucify him” later in the week.
Before COVID restrictions limited people’s movements and gatherings, there were re-enactments of that triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In the Presbyterian Church of Trinidad and Tobago, our Christian Education board would have a Palm Saturday rally where thousands of children would gather for a day of celebrations, praise, prayer and reflection on what the life of Jesus means for us. It was an exuberant day of inspiration!
Shall such days ever return? We wonder. Shall we ever again exhaust ourselves by walking along a route with a large group in chanting and chattering camaraderie? Shall we feel the crush of a crowd again? Perhaps these are good questions to ask ourselves as we think about how Jesus entered the city with a crowd but sought solace in solitude with God.
The enemies of Jesus were incensed by the acclamation he received so they embarked on a plot to isolate Jesus so that could wrest him away for a sham trial and torture. Jesus Christ is unfazed and unchanged by the cheering, but those who disliked him fed their fury with the fuel of what they saw as the popularity of this interloper from Nazareth.
Do we crave the adulation of an audience? We live in a society whose trends are spread by influencers. We live on a planet where nations vie not only for military supremacy but also for the soft power of dominating hearts and minds.
Jesus Christ gently offers us a strange contradiction to our way of understanding life.
Whether he is riding a donkey or derided and scourged, he is the same. Whether he is applauded as he enters the city or beaten as he carries his cross outside the city, he is the same.
Passion Sunday offers us the timeless lesson that in the vicissitudes of wildly unpredictable circumstances, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, and is with us always.
St. Andrew’s Theological College
Presbyterian Church of Trinidad and Tobago
Adrian attended universities in Trinidad, Canada, the USA, Israel, and England, and embarked on vocations in the Church as well as in law, government, commerce, and education.
Among awards he has received are several scholarships and Enterprise Teacher awards in England as well as the Gold Medal for first place at Knox College in the University of Toronto. He has taught at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels.
He is a Barrister of England and Wales and an attorney of Trinidad and Tobago.
For a short season our littlest one decided almost everything in her life be punctuated with “ta-dah!” Proclaiming “ta-dah” after putting the last puzzle piece in, picking out a book to read, putting on socks, entering into a room, seeing a dog walk by, getting into the bath, hugging stuffed animals, taking a sip of water. You name it, she “ta-dah’ed” it. It was endearing. I didn’t want to squash her enthusiasm of “finding joy in the small things,” and I applaud her for celebrating the ordinary. But I can be a literalist and at times had to restrain myself from letting her know that taking a bite of cracker really doesn’t necessitate a “ta-dah.”
Lately I have realized that I have been longing for a “ta-dah!” moment when it comes to COVID. A moment when I sense, “ta-dah! It’s over.”
This past year we have been collectively holding our breath. Wondering will we get sick and if so, how sick? Will one of our loved ones die from this? Will we miss being with them for their final breath? Will the scaffolding of my carefully plotted childcare fall apart (again) and I’ll be forced to work while handing out snacks? Is my child’s withdrawn attitude going to succumb after they go back to school? Is my furlough really furlough or will it extend to unemployment?
We are longing for a big exhale, a sense that it is finally over.
We wonder: will it come when I am fully vaccinated? When social distancing guidelines are no longer posted everywhere? When we have herd immunity? Will there be a sudden moment when I will be able to watch my favorite drama on TV without panicking as characters shake hands or go in for a hug? Will a sign that it is over be that I lose my reflex to grab a mask as I leave the house?
The past few weeks we have been journeying through Lent and now we are heading toward Holy Week. Lent is a sad story—a culmination of the story of an enfleshed God, Jesus Christ, who receives horrible justice and is murdered. “It is finished,” Jesus states, as he dies. Ta-dah.
But, you say: Lent has a happy ending! Easter is the “ta-dah!” of Lent, not the cross. Yes, in some respects it is. However, more than an ending, Easter marks a beginning—living into a world where death has been conquered, a world of new unknowns. Living into a future not yet imagined is hard work. I take heart that as we look at scriptures, we see that as Jesus’ earlier followers live into this new world, they do not mark it with a sense of victory, deep exhales, and cries of, “it is finally over!” But rather with fear, questions, confusion, and doubt.
I am slowly living into the reality that the “ta-dah” moment is not coming with the pandemic. There is not going to be one moment where I feel like I can exhale and think, “it is finished.” I am a different person than I was a year ago—we are a different community than we were a year ago—and It is going to take time to understand all the implications this has. Perhaps an entire lifetime. Yet, while we might not get one “ta-dah” moment maybe like my daughter we can learn to celebrate little moments along the way. All the while, taking comfort that we are in good company of those who have gone before us.
—Rev. Dr. Kate Guthrie
Ordained in the Reformed Church in America
Serving a PC(USA) church in North Carolina
The season of Lent is one of discipline and discipleship as we focus our attention more intensely on following Jesus into eternal life. It’s a season of letting go so that we might take hold of the life that really is life. For this 4th Sunday of Lent we’re focusing on one of Jesus’ more difficult parables. It is the story of Lazarus, a poor man, who suffered on the doorstep of a nameless rich man who feasted sumptuously and dressed himself in fine linens. Abruptly, both men die.
What strikes me is that we don’t know much about either man. We don’t know why Lazarus is poor. Has he made poor choices? Is he the victim of unfortunate circumstances? And, we don’t know what he has tried to do, if anything, to alleviate his own suffering. Likewise, we don’t know how the rich man became rich. Did he inherit this wealth or work hard? Was it the result of cruelty and oppression or ingenuity and invention? All we know is that the poor man was carried away to the comfort of Abraham’s side and the rich man sent to be tormented in Hades.
The only clues we have into the rich man’s character come from his callousness toward Lazarus; even the dogs show the poor man more concern. The rich man also expects Lazarus to come tend to him in his suffering; still expecting the hierarchy of rich over poor to serve his comfort. Even in death the poor man was still viewed as a subordinate. Abraham is having none of it, not bowing to the rich man’s wishes, as he stands with Lazarus.
The Western world enjoys immense wealth at the expense of much of the rest of humanity. It’s tempting to imagine that those who are rich are not to blame for their wealth, that it’s God’s blessing. It is equally tempting to justify generational poverty with accusations of poor choices or poor character, the poor are to blame. Jesus’s parable is having none of it. There seems to be an inherent obligation on the rich to address the suffering of the poor regardless of fault or reason.
Part of decolonizing Christian theology and practice is moving on from this same callous disregard to solidarity. This is not an easy move to make because solidarity doesn’t fall into the usual categories of the colonized mind. For example, solidarity is not generosity. As Paolo Freire writes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “an unjust social order is the permanent fount of this ‘generosity’…true solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform” the present situation.
Neither is solidarity friendship. As Chanequa Walker-Barnes writes in I Bring the Voices of My People, “In friendship, people run toward one another. In solidarity, people run together toward a greater objective…Practical solidarity means that we do not simply feel compassion and empathy for others, but commit ourselves to be in the struggle for justice with them. We do not simply suffer with people; we also struggle alongside of them.”
For some “solidarity” is too political a word. For others “accompaniment” might be a better fit. For others still “communion” might feel most at home. Regardless of what you call it, the season of Lent calls us down a road that challenges comfort and callousness and calls us to discipline and struggle alongside others who are suffering for the sake of our mutual flourishing. For some of us, there is no reason to answer that call except one: someone has risen from the dead.
The one Abraham was speaking of is Jesus. One who was willing to lower himself and take on the form of a servant, becoming obedient to the point of death, bringing salvation to all the world without question or reservation. It was the greatest act of solidarity the world has ever known. As a result, God raised him up and gave him the name that is above every name. To bend the knee before the Lord is to stand with Lazarus as he sits at our gates, to fight at his side, and to commit ourselves in the struggle for justice with him wherever he exists today.
St. Croix Reformed Church
US Virgin Islands
Peter is currently pursuing a Doctor of Ministry at Claremont School of Theology and exploring what it might mean to decolonize Reformed theology and practice.
Biblical text: Matthew 14:13-21
Feeding and hydration are basic needs of all living things. The difference between other living things and human beings is that, as beings created to live in community, these biological needs have a social character. In many cultures, sharing food and drink are signs of familiarity, love, respect, and the joy of being together. In my country we say: where two eat, ten eat. In fact, the early church, according to the texts of the New Testament, very often, if not always, gathered to celebrate the bond that united them in Christ, and they did so around the table, eating and drinking in communion.
One of the fundamental aspects regarding the mission of our church in Cuba today has to do with the need to serve those in need, even in the midst of our limitations, especially economic ones. We are always grateful that many of our sister churches and project agencies come in solidarity to supply these material needs. The challenge for us is to set limits to this diakonia so as not to turn it into a form of assistance that can easily become a charity devoid of meaning. To understand that satisfying the basic needs of every human being is not enough to build the foundations of the Kingdom of God is not an easy thing. If only we Cubans knew it!
A text like the one that corresponds to this ninth Sunday after Pentecost does not help to reflect on the subject and also empowers our capacity to understand where the true meaning of our diakonia lies. The narrative that Matthew's Gospel offers us about the so-called miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes confirms to us that the ministry of Jesus, as a prelude to the Kingdom of God, was full of signs that affirmed the values that give meaning to God's proposal for the human being in Christ Jesus. For it is not only to satisfy those basic needs but to create a community spirit that communes with God's intention that every human being has the right to have those needs satisfied. The Kingdom project is to build a community, a human family in harmony with all Creation. Solidarity and justice are essential for the full life proposed by the Kingdom and announced by Jesus.
The easy solution, which is the one we as humans always look for, was the one the disciples brought to Jesus: "The place is deserted and the hour is late; send the crowds away so that they may go to the villages and buy food for themselves" (Matthew 14:15). Jesus' response is firm: "...give them something to eat" (14:16). The call as followers of Jesus is to be agents of solidarity and promoters of alternatives in which the solution is not to "buy" but to "give." Offering what little we are or what little we have can be like that mustard seed in the parable, which is the smallest of all, but when it grows and multiplies it can be a nesting place for the birds of the air. Five loaves and two fish become then that seed, that incentive so that even in the midst of needs and limitations, God's people can feel their needs, all of them, satisfied. The great problem of the world today, this story reminds us, is not the lack of resources to feed human beings, but the lack of solidarity, the lack of alternatives to the commercialization of the basic needs of human beings, the foolishness of not understanding that the table of the Kingdom is for everyone, not just for a few.
May God help us to be a community of men and women, a church with open doors and a table served in the name of Jesus. As a song we sing a lot here says: "Bless our bread, Lord, and give bread to those who are hungry and hunger for justice to those who have bread."
—Pastor Dora Arce Valentin
Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba
My faith journey is most well sung in this song brought by a young Nigerian friend from her home church to another home church in Chicago:
I love the family of God so closely,
so closely knitted into one,
they’ve taken me into their midst
and I’m so glad to be
a part of this great family.
For me, this is a “Presbyterian belief,” that everyone belongs to a family of God. I gained this trust and love in the radically inclusive family of God at my second home church in Chicago: Edgewater Presbyterian Church (EPC). EPC was small church of immigrants from Cameroon, Nigeria, India, Korea, and so forth. Our English accents were drastically different, but we hardly corrected our beautiful English. We often celebrated our mother tongues. Every Sunday, they would just accept who I am, singing “our song,” which is “what I hope Presbyterians would believe” – everyone belongs to this church. The first home church in Philadelphia taught me how PC(USA) has looked like so far – a “predominantly white” church. The second home church in Chicago showed me how PC(USA) will look like in the future – a community of diaspora people where everyone belongs.
How did I get there? Right now, it does fair justice to me if I introduce myself as a Korean diaspora theologian. However, my journey of soul searching and loving “who I am” has been slow and still on-going.
In some winter of the 1980s, I was baptized as an infant at a Presbyterian church in South Korea. There I grew up as a daughter of a Presbyterian church musician who later became an ordained Presbyterian minister in South Korea. Right after college, I came to the U.S. to study “Reformed theology” and “Presbyterianism” at first.
I gradually learned that a large portion of Presbyterian beliefs and our “Reformed confessions” stem from Western, European, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Barthian theological statements. When it comes to theological practice in the North American context, the beliefs needed cultural translation in depths and widths. American English could often fall short of translating the profound and extensive theology rooted in the rich culture of Western Europe. Moreover, neither Europe nor the U.S. owns the authentic Presbyterianism and a Reformed practice anymore. Both adopted changing context of their “reformed and reforming church” more rapidly than other Presbyterian churches in “Global South.” Moreover, the plight of refugees, BIPOC, and Asian and Latinx immigrants is brewing another theology “reformed and reforming” in the context of both Western Europe and North America.
In this changing context, I could not embrace any labels Americans granted me other than “Presbyterian.” None of those labels could accurately define where I belong – whichever color, racial-ethnicities, or nationalities. Even “Korean” would not translate correctly the words used for our communities – which is, han-kuk-in (Korean person) in han-kuk-mal (Korean speech). “Presbyterian” was one of the few labels I actively chose, as it embraced who I am – a nomad, a sojourner, an “international student” in a global Presbyterian community.
I somehow adopted my identity as an “international student” early on and still do. It is categorized by the U.S. immigration office: the first Americans I had met before I came to this country. Just like a duckling which would follow the first creature she gets to see, the first label I received was imprinted in my brain. I tried to enjoy my life in this country with a mindset of a guest, a spectator, and a consumer, if not an “oppressed” or “colonized.” However, I was de facto a nomad, not a tourist. Nomadic life is not easy, although I would not deny my privilege. I often felt “international students” were the target of discrimination in so many levels in this society.
Along the extensive journey, thankfully, the Presbyterian Church (USA) provided a home where I can stay who I am, in our Presbyterian theology and worship, our belief and practice, which made me speak in the multiple Presbyterian languages.
—So Jung Kim
Associate for Theology
Office of Theology and Worship
Presbyterian Church (USA)
So Jung is completing a PhD in Theology at the University of Chicago, Divinity School, in June, 2021. Shecurrently works and resides in the traditional lands of the Cherokee, Shawnee, Wazhazhe (Osage), and Haudenosaunee (Louisville, Kentucky, USA).
It is almost a year since the world was confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic. For many of us the past months have been gruesome and horrific. Others were able to adapt to the new normal, but the majority of people are now getting COVID-19 tired. It is not easy to feel or be joyful these days.
In spite of the gloominess that tends to overwhelm us I believe that the apostle Paul is guiding us towards a more joyous mindset. In Philippians 4:4 we hear Paul say: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
Philippians is a short book in the New Testament – only four chapters long. But in these four chapters Paul says, “Rejoice… Be joyful” at least sixteen times.
The amazing thing is that Paul, while he was in prison, wrote this book which can be viewed as the most positive book in the Bible. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is something of a missionary thank you letter, but I find it to be much more than that. It is the sharing of Paul’s secret of Christian Joy!
It is obvious that many of us have allowed “thieves” to rob us of our joy.
I would like to name four:
1. Our Circumstances.
Have you ever stopped and considered how few of the circumstances of life are really in our control?
We have no control over when we are born, we have no control over who our parents are, no control over the weather or over the traffic or over the things people say and do to us.
However, even when things go wrong, we can still have joy.
The person whose happiness depends on ideal circumstances is going to be miserable much of the time. When you expect too much, you get disappointed easily.
The secret of joy is finding another keyword that is also often repeated in Philippians – and that’s the word “mind.”
Our joy is found in the way we think – what is our attitude towards our circumstances.
Our filter to view our circumstances is often our own attitude or our thinking. Proverbs 23:7 says: “Be careful how you think, your life is shaped by your thoughts.”
All of us have lost our joy because of people: What they are, what they say, and what they do.
And no doubt we ourselves have contributed to making somebody else unhappy. But we have to live and work with people.
I for one, if I was given a choice between working with people or working alone, I would choose for working alone.
I can be alone for hours working on something, because I have experienced that people sometimes causes delay (but of course that is wrong thinking).
We cannot isolate ourselves and still live to glorify Christ. We are a church, the body of Christ, we need one another. The church is all about people. Like it or not!
The church will not grow without people. That’s why we need to handle people with care.
In Luke 12:15 we read: “Then he said to them, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’”
I truly believe that God wants us to be blessed materially. We must see our blessing holistically: Spirit, Soul and Body…so this means everything.
But Jesus warns us: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”
As we are blessed, we need to share our blessing and not store them up. Because storing them can rob us of the only kind of joy that really lasts.
This is the worst thief of all!
If Paul had wanted to worry, he had all the occasions. But in spite of all the difficulties he faced, Paul does not worry! Instead, he writes a letter filled with joy and tells us how to stop worrying.
The Bible clearly teaches us to avoid worrying.
“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.” —Philippians 4:6 (New Living Translation)
The Greek word for worry (merimnao) is formed by two root words “divided” and “mind.”
To worry means to be pulled in many different directions.
The simple truth is that worrying doesn’t ADD to your life, it SUBTRACTS from your life.
It can subtract hours from your day, but even more it can subtract days, months, and years from your life.
Worry is a bad investment of time and energy no matter how you look at it.
Research has proven that 97% of what we worry about, never happens.
Philippians is a book that explains to us which mindset we should have if we want to experience joy during these troubled times.
Over the past year you and I had to deal with the thieves I have mentioned. We were not always able to guard ourselves against these thieves. In our endeavor to remain joyful during the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to re-vision our outlook towards the future let us take in these words of Paul: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
—Rev. Diana de Graven
Pastor at the Morgensterkerk
Reformed Church in Suriname
In the church where I am a pastor I have earned the name "loving hands and divine feet" because if something does not fall out of my hands, I hit it with my feet. That clumsiness has been the occasion for little courage, a few fears, and a lot of laughter. That "nickname" is based on a beautiful hymn of yesteryear, which is precisely entitled: Manos Cariñosas (Caring Hands). Its first verse goes like this:
Loving hands, hands of Jesus, hands that bore the heavy cross. Hands that knew only how to do good, Glory to those hands! Alleluia! Amen!
The hymn highlights the love of God through the loving hands of Jesus, which only knew how to do good. Therefore, those hands did not deserve to carry the heavy cross. Those hands did not deserve such suffering and pain. The story of Jesus can help us to consider that, perhaps, people who live doing good may wonder about this global pandemic and its ravages, if most of humanity does not deserve it.
That is why on the cross Jesus asked the important question: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”(reference to Mark 15:34) Yes, why? For what? Those of us who preach the Bible from the loving hands of Jesus have affirmed that sickness is not a product of divine plan or punishment. But maybe something good can come out of this dangerous situation. Everything points to that solution being in our hands.
To combat the coronavirus, among other important measures, we must wash our hands constantly. This means that prevention, health, and life are in our hands. The Bible confirms this when two of Moses' fellow soldiers held his hands so that the people could win a battle (Exodus 17:8-12). This implies that helping each other is in our hands. Prevention, health, and life is in our hands when we make use of any possible means, these days with greater emphasis on digital media, to make miracles happen. So did the friends of the man who could not walk, when they opened the roof of a house with their hands, so that their friend would receive healing (Mark 2:1-12). Prevention, health, and life are in our hands when we receive like the blind person and give, as Jesus did, the alert: "go, wash" (John 9:7). The young man in this story showed no resistance. Instead, he responded diligently to the instructions of the one who used his hands to heal him. What if we do the same and respond lovingly to the one who treats us with loving hands?
Let us emulate our Savior because, after all, we did not deserve Jesus to use his loving hands on the cross for us and yet he did. Let us do the same. Let us not respond with awkwardness, nor with resistance. Rather, let us learn to pray with assurance and faith as the psalmist did: " Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,and prosper for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands!" (Psalm 90:17). May our hands confirm that they can also be hands that are dedicated to doing good. May our hands confirm that they are hands like those of Jesus or better yet, that they are the hands of Jesus. Therefore, may our hands confirm that they are also loving hands.
—Rev. Marielis Barreto Hernández
First Presbyterian Church
Aguada, Puerto Rico