Ready and not afraid

“I think this might be my last Sunday, so I wanted to be sure to be in church.” That’s what Virginia Johnson told me a few different Sundays during the last year of her life. She had been part of our congregation for many years. Her husband, Howard, had gone to be with the Lord not long before. Virginia had suffered from Parkinson’s for many years. Her body was weak. It wasn’t easy for her to make it to church, even with help. Her spirit was still strong, however, as was her desire to worship the Lord on her last Sunday on earth.

I’d say hi to Virginia before the service began. Her voice had gotten very soft, so you had to get close to hear her. Then she’d tell me she was glad she was able to be in church because she expected it was going to be her last Sunday. She wasn’t saying it with a sense of fear. Rather, her peace and her faith spoke loudly in her soft words.

Certainly not everybody would be at peace if they thought it was going to be their last week on earth. That has been made clear during this battle with the coronavirus. Many people are filled with fear and panic as they contemplate the possibility they might get a virus that could kill them. Actually a very small percentage of people die from the virus, but 100 percent of us will die from something, unless Jesus returns first. The Bible says we are “destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

God will most likely give wisdom to medical researchers who will discover a vaccine and treatment for the virus. But there will be other things that will cause our bodies to stop working. Modern medicine can’t stop every virus and it can’t heal every disease. Jesus alone has the answer. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:22).

Jesus defeated death and rose to life again. It was her faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus that enabled Virginia to face, without fear, the reality that it might be her last Sunday. Christ took the punishment and judgment for our sins upon Himself when He died on the cross, and now He offers peace. “… the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

Knowing we may face the Lord soon doesn’t scare us when we know Him as our Savior. Instead it inspires us to make good use of each day we are given. Virginia wasn’t going to spend her last Sunday on earth trembling in fear. She wanted to spend it worshipping the Lord, declaring His praises, hearing His Word and being with God’s people.

Jesus took the punishment of the cross so that we can be at peace with God and at peace about what is going to happen when we die. The Lord, who has conquered death, will watch over our lives, both now and for all eternity.

Thankful for one who was truly alive

The evangelist Dwight Moody said, “Some day you will read in the papers that D. L. Moody … is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment I will be more alive than I am now.”

I thought of that quote after hearing that a man who had a big influence on my life, missionary John Abel, had died. For most of his 94 years John was more alive than most anyone I have ever known. It is hard to imagine him being even more alive. But that is the sure hope we have because Jesus has risen from the dead.

I had the privilege of spending much time with John in Brazil, where he was a missionary for many years. The first time I was there I was a 24-year-old seminary intern. I thought I was fairly energetic, but it was all I could do to keep up with John who was in his 60s then. John always had an abundance of plans. There were people he wanted to see and things he wanted to get done. Sometimes we were short on time, but never short on goals and ideas.

One trip we headed out for a weekend to a couple little towns called Iretama and Cidade Poema. We were going from one town to the next, heading down a hill on a dirt road. At the bottom of the hill was a creek with two boards across it. The boards didn’t look like they were much wider than the tires on John’s truck. John maybe sensed what I was thinking because he said, “Those boards aren’t too wide so you have to be sure you hit them just right.” He also seemed to sense the question that was on my mind: “If we have to hit them just right, why are we flying down this hill so fast?” He said, “We have to keep up a good speed so we’ll have enough momentum to make it up the hill on the other side.” We made it across the creek and, while sliding around a little bit, made it up the hill on the other side. Just another enjoyable and memorable adventure with John.

John had the smarts, talent and energy to do all kinds of things with his life. Why did he spend so much of his life going across creeks and up and down dirt roads? Why did he visit homes and accept hospitality and eat and drink things that he knew might make him sick later? Why move to the interior of Brazil back when it was just beginning to be developed? Because people need to hear the good news of Jesus. “And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14). People of Iretama and Cidade Poema and all the other cities and towns of the world aren’t going to know Jesus and His great gift of salvation unless somebody goes and tells them. It is worth making sacrifices and giving our all in order to let people know what Jesus has done.

During these days of the coronavirus and stay-at-home orders, congregations are having to figure out other ways to declare God’s Word, doing things like live streaming services and using FM transmitters and being creative. It is the kind of thing I could see John doing, using whatever means he could and doing whatever he could to share with people the good news of Jesus.

Jesus cares for both body and soul

In a TV commercial years ago an actor proclaimed: “When you have your health, you have just about everything.” Many people think like that in our world. It’s understandable. When your body is hurting it affects your attitude and emotions. Some think if they can just protect their body and keep it healthy and pain-free, everything will be fine.

The coronavirus has swept over our world and done a lot of damage to many bodies. For those in our culture who only think of the physical it’s a scary time. Sadly many feel if they don’t have their health, they have nothing. They fear their physical health being taken away because they have nothing else to give them hope and security.

God created us as more than just physical beings. Our hope and meaning for life is not taken away if a virus attacks our body. Jesus said, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more” (Luke 12:4). He follows that by saying the One who is to be feared is the One who determines our eternal destiny. A virus can only harm the body. It can’t kill the soul. Jesus is the Lord over both our body and soul.

We want bodies to be well. We pray for that and we serve one another and do what we can to help bodies to be healthy. We also want souls to be healthy. We care about the whole person as expressed in III John 2: “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.”

Our society devotes vast amounts of time, energy and resources to making bodies well. Sadly, though, many give little attention to the health of their soul and the health of their relationship with God.  Some bodies are hurting these days because of the coronavirus, but even more souls are in great pain and danger. People are being overtaken by fear and panic. Jesus is the One who can bring healing to hurting souls.

This time of year, as we remember Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we are thankful that He knows better than any of us what it means to have a body that hurts. “Surely he took up our infirmities” (Isaiah 53:4). His body was crucified but risen again. He won the victory over death and lives forever. Because of His resurrection we no longer fear death. “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (I Corinthians 15:54-55).

When you have faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus, then you have everything. Our bodies are temporary, earthly tents that get damaged and perish, but our souls are made alive in Christ. We have the great hope of one day receiving new pain-free bodies. Viruses and diseases come and go, but the love of Christ and the new life He gives remains forever.

Hope has not been canceled

Today is usually one of my favorite days of the year. A new baseball season was suppose to open today, but has been delayed because of the virus. Opening day means the coming of spring. It means more sunshine and warmer temperatures. It means guys playing ball on freshly mown grass. It means sitting with friends, watching a game, eating a hot dog fresh off the grill.

One of my favorite ways to relax is watching a baseball game. I got started early. My mother said when I was about three months old my dad was watching the World Series and had me on his lap, facing the TV. Mom was doubtful I was actually watching the game but Dad insisted I was following the game and enjoying it. Baseball is about memories of watching games with my dad.

In some ways baseball is about hope. We made it through the cold dark days of winter. The opening of baseball season is a hopeful sign that spring with its promise of new growth is on its way.

Unfortunately today isn’t opening day, but that doesn’t mean hope has been delayed or canceled. The hope Jesus gives isn’t postponed by a virus. Nothing in all creation is able to cancel the hope of Christ. “… we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all” (I Timothy 4:10).

Our hope does not rest in government leaders or modern medicine. Our hope is in our Savior, the Lord Jesus, who died and rose again and lives forever. “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Hebrews 6:19). Worry and fear has caused many to feel insecure and unsettled. The Lord gives a hope that remains solid and gives peace, no matter what is going on in the world. A virus may infect our body, but we have the sure hope that God is able to protect our body. No virus is too hard or complicated for God to deal with. We have the firm hope that, by faith in Christ, our soul is safe in God’s hands, both now and for all eternity.

Even though today is not baseball’s opening day, and even though there are viruses and dangers around us, today is still a day overflowing with hope. Every day opens with the good news that Jesus loves us and is watching over us. Jesus lives and Jesus is the Lord of all.

Combating the virus of fear

John Dyrnes attended both seminary and medical school before heading to Madagascar as a medical missionary in 1900. He worked at healing bodies from the many diseases found in that tropical climate and healing souls with the good news of Jesus. He served in Madagascar with the Lutheran Free Church mission until his death in 1943. During those 43 years he only had two furloughs when he made return visits to America. In 1906 he married Sarah Johnson, who was an aunt of Ruth Tollefson, the wife of our congregation’s former pastor, Hans Tollefson.

During his first year in Madagascar Dyrnes had the first of seven painful attacks of the often deadly blackwater fever. He recovered but soon after his house burned, taking with it his medical books, instruments and supplies. Eventually friends in the U.S. sent him replacement supplies. Often, however, Dyrnes had to learn to make do, improvise and make some of his own medical instruments.

One of Dyrnes’ blackwater attacks came in 1907. It caused him to lose for a time the ability to speak or move, but his sight and hearing was still fine and his mind was clear. He heard the ones who were caring for him say that it appeared the end was near. Dyrnes kept repeating to himself the words of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” A profound sense of happiness and security came over him. He was content and confident that one of two things would happen to him: either he would live and get to continue the work he loved to do, or he would go and be with the Lord, which would be even better.

It is the coronavirus and not blackwater fever that is attacking bodies in our day. We face a different disease but we do so with the same faith and hope that Dr. Dyrnes had. We trust in the same mighty and loving God who is able to take care of His children. The Lord has promised: “He will cover you with his feathers,and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.You will not fear the terror of night,nor the arrow that flies by day,nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,nor the plague that destroys at midday” (Psalm 91:4-6).

Because God is good and gracious and in control, we don’t fear whatever terror or disease comes along. Sadly, we live in a world that is getting swept up in panic about what might happen. When fear takes control of a life all kinds of terrible things can result. People shy away from serving, get suspicious and relationships get damaged. It is so much better and more peaceful to rest in the truth that God is in control. In Isaiah 8:12 the Lord says, “Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it.”

The world is in great need of hearing the good news that we don’t have to live in fear. We live in grace and we rest in the love and power of God.

Equally needy, equally loved

Ever since the helicopter crash that claimed the lives of nine people, there has been much in the news about the death of professional basketball player Kobe Bryant.

The eight other people who died in the crash, including Kobe’s daughter, were not celebrities like Kobe was. They were a baseball coach, his wife and daughter, the helicopter pilot, a basketball coach and a mother and a daughter who played on the same team as Kobe’s daughter. A celebrity was involved but what was really going on were parents and kids on their way to a girls’ basketball game.

Right before he got on the helicopter that Sunday morning, Kobe and his daughter went to church, something he did regularly. The world, in a way, worshipped him for his basketball skill, but that morning Kobe was a man with a longing to worship the Lord and a dad who wanted his daughter to be in worship as well.

True worship teaches us of the equality of us all. We all equally need to meet with God. We are all sinners who must humbly bow in submission before the Almighty.

Revelation 7:8 gives us a picture of an incredible worship service that is to come. “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” It doesn’t describe celebrities and sports superstars as being in a different section from everyone else. All people with faith in Jesus, the Lamb of God, will be recognized as equal at that point. They will be declaring together that Christ is the One worthy of all glory and praise.

During the brief moment we call this life, things like winning basketball championships, getting applause, and having a lot of money, seems like they matter a great deal. But when we look at things from an eternal perspective, we see that those things have limited importance. What matters is being in a right relationship with God by faith in Christ. What matters is loving God and loving people.

We are all equally needy and equally valuable. “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). No matter how many awards a person has won, they still need God’s forgiveness. And no matter how little recognition they have received from the world, they are still dearly loved by God and of great importance to Him. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

We have value and worth not because of what we can do or how many people know us or applaud for us. We have value because God loves us. For most of us, it won’t be breaking news around the world when we die. But it doesn’t matter if the crowd knows us. What matters is, through Christ, we can know God, and God graciously knows us.

God’s security team

On the last Sunday in 2019 a man shot and killed two people during a church service in Texas before a member of the church’s security team shot and killed him. In 2017 another shooting at a church in Texas resulted in 26 people being killed. That led to a law being passed in Texas allowing for armed security teams in churches.

In this day and age with so many mass shootings, so many lives being lost, so many families suffering devastating heartache, churches have been forced to have discussions about armed security teams. What works for each individual congregation is their decision. In the midst of the discussion, however, it should not be forgotten that God’s church already has the most powerful and effective security team in place.

In II Kings 6 it tells of a time when the king of Aram sent his army to capture the prophet Elisha. The servant of Elisha looked out and saw an imposing, threatening army with horses and chariots surrounding the city. He cried out, “Oh, my lord, what shall we do?” (v. 15). We look around us at a violent world, full of trials and challenges, threats and dangers, and we fearfully cry out to God, “What shall we do?”

Elisha told his servant, “‘Don’t be afraid … Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ Then he prayed, ‘O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (v. 16-17).

Elisha knew, by faith in the Lord, he was surrounded by an angelic army that was much stronger and more powerful than any earthly army. That security team usually isn’t seen by our physical eyes, but it is very real and present. By faith in Christ we can have that same confidence Elisha had. God’s security team is still in place and on the job. We pray as Elisha did: that our eyes might be open to see the greatness of His protection and hear the beauty of his invitation to not be afraid.

The angelic army blinded the eyes of the army of the king of Aram. Elisha led them to the king of Israel where they were captured. The king was prepared to wipe out these enemies, but Elisha said to serve them a feast. The feast was surprising and undeserved, and a great illustration of grace. The feast resulted in the end of conflict between Aram and Israel (v. 23).

Because of God’s security team, we no longer live in cowering fear of the big, bad world out there. Instead we end conflicts by graciously serving those who intend harm.

As we enter a new year it is tempting to wonder if we are going to be safe? Are we prepared? God is prepared. Our hope and our security rest in Him. “Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long” (Deuteronomy 33:12).