[Kelsey, chillin’ on a wall.]
Yesterday, someone misinterpreted a jest I made and scolded me for “freaking out.”
Being me, I spent the day scrutinizing this criticism. The person might have been projecting. She might–suspend disbelief for a moment, if you will–simply not have not appreciated my sense of humor. Or it’s entirely possible she, putting it delicately, wasn’t being nice. I don’t have to fix that.
But the more I thought about it, the more it struck me I need to say this:
I’m not freaking out.
I’m not panicking over our current crisis. I am employing dark humor sometimes, absolutely. I’m always willing to identify and examine our absurdities. I’m critiquing our leaders’ handling of this crisis, particularly when they put lives at risk and/or devalue our most vulnerable neighbors.
But, as I said in my very first post about COVID-19 and as remains true now, I’m not wired to spin out and I believe God is present with us through this.
I want to be clear: many things are horribly difficult right now and I’m not minimizing those. I’m having multiple conversations each day to help talk people down. I’m praying for a lot of people. Things remain uncertain and life for many of us may get much more difficult before it gets better. I’m not sugarcoating this.
I’m not rooting my refusal to freak out in denial. I get it. I get it more than I wish I got it and I get it for people who have been suffering while we’ve been comfortable, long before this pandemic started. From the first moment I grasped what was happening with this novel coronavirus, I tried my best to convince people to take it seriously and isolate to help flatten the curve.
I can’t make you stay calm. I can’t make you stay home. I’m not even going to tell you that God will keep anything bad from happening to you or to the people you love, because that has not been my experience of following Jesus. I’m not here to give you false hope.
But for whatever small influence I have in a few people’s lives, please hear this: God loves us. Right now. God remains faithful. God never promised that our political or economic system would keep running the way we hope. Jesus is with us and today, in our current circumstance, we choose to have faith, to believe in God’s love.
While panicking is not the opposite of loving our neighbors, it certainly will detract from loving our neighbor. I say this with all humility and gentleness: we may be used to having things go our way. We–and I do mean me as well as you–get frustrated when small things don’t work out as we expect them to, possibly because we assume that things should. For most of us, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11) has not been a literal request. I don’t suggest that says anything bad about us; it means we’ve been very fortunate. But if we move to the idea that billions of others do pray that literally but we never should have to, we have a wrong understanding of our faith. You and I still have enough bread to share.
Today I got a message from Kelsey, a young man from Nicaragua now living in the States. I got to mentor and coach Kelsey for years and–between you and me–he’s one of my favorite human beings. His life hasn’t gone smoothly since he moved here a few years ago. He has not “caught a break,” as our mutual friend Hery said.* But he just wrote to tell me that he again has part-time work and he also gets to drive a pregnant woman and her husband, who are Congolese, to the hospital and back because now they can’t afford Uber. They’ve been in the U.S. for four months. Kelsey said, “I’m trying to help out the community as much as I can during these times. Thankfully, I’m now in a position that I can help others out and I’m so blessed.”
We have a choice. We don’t have to consider others who have it worse right now. We can choose to focus exclusively on our own troubles and decide that everybody else will just have to take care of themselves. But I truly believe that will do us more harm than good. Jesus asks us to see beyond ourselves, to trust that God will meet our needs and to continue to offer what we can. Jesus challenges us to have faith instead of giving in to fear. Fear means hoarding and panicking, being willing to neglect or even harm our neighbors to guard what’s ours. Perfect love casts out all fear. That means when I am afraid, I have a choice. This is the very first verse I ever memorized:
“When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise. In God I trust, I will not be afraid. What can a mortal do to me?”
When I am afraid, which happens now, in frightening times with a pandemic spreading and people dying in increasing numbers, I will trust, I will choose to trust in God. I get to choose.
Nothing that people do, and I’ll stretch and say nothing a pandemic can do, can shake the core of my being unless I choose to let it. It may kill me and I’ll still be okay.** I can hold onto peace within me while a whirlwind ravages all around me. I’ve prayed that verse for thirty-two years now. I’m not saying I’ve never been shaken. Ha. I’m saying I’ve learned to trust the truth of this verse. I get a choice and the choice I make changes my inner world and, through that, my external actions. These decisions change me. Jesus changes me.
I don’t have a panic-inclined personality. But much more than that, knowing Jesus keeps me from freaking out. I believe this grace stuff. I believe love is stronger than death. I believe that how we care for one another matters more than the stuff we accumulate. I believe God’s Kingdom comes, here and now, when we refuse to give in to fear and choose to love our frightened and more vulnerable neighbors. I am still figuring out how I can do that in a pandemic while sheltering at home (which I recognize is both the right thing to do and an enormous privilege I have). Thus far, I offer encouragement and a place for people to vent their fears, ask for prayer, and hear words of hope. In other words, I’m just doing what I do.
Because I’m not freaking out.
I would conclude there, but I want to add this: Someone may be saying, “That’s fine for you, Mike, but I don’t believe in that Jesus stuff.” If you’ve read my blog at all, you know I’m not forcing this on you (come to think of it, I didn’t make you read this far…but I’m glad you did). I offer you what I know and have experienced, what has changed me and saved my life. This could be a good time to try praying for the first time–or the first time in a long time. You can ask me for prayer, just in case, and not believe in any of this. I’m not insulted and I will pray for you. But most importantly, God loves you, right now, whatever you choose to believe. If no one else tells you that today, I’m glad I could.
*I’ve tried to convince Kelsey to move out here at least twice since he came to the States, but he also has faith and isn’t freaking out and keeps saying “No, Coach, God has me.” He’s right.
**That’s the core of following Jesus. It may sound ridiculous if you don’t believe it, but it makes all the difference.