The 5th Episode of “Of Interest” talks about the Spanish Flu vs Today , an amazing blogger named Tim Challies, and how John Bunyan’s Suffering led to Pilgrim’s Progress
The song I played earlier is called “The Voice of Truth” and it’s by a Christian band called “Casting Crowns”. It’s a song that has meant a lot to me over the years – especially in my first years of being a pastor.
You see, when I was in high school I never thought in a million years that I would be a preacher. I grew up loving computers and Star Trek. I was a nerd before nerds were cool. From the moment my dad bought the family that Tandy 1000 and I got that first MS-DOS manual, I was hooked. Put it this way, when I was in high school and the library computer wasn’t working properly, I was the one who got called out of class to come and take a look at it – and only sometimes because I was the one who had broken it in the first place.
So, when God called me to ministry it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to everyone else. My call came during my first year of Bible College. I had just flunked out of computer school and needed to be registered somewhere in order to be a Summer Student at the Pulp Mill in my home town, so I registered at the Bible College my pastor went to. I only signed up for one year because I definitely wasn’t going to need a Bible degree, but within the first 3 months, once I had given my life back to Jesus and He had done some work in my heart, He told me one thing: “Stay here”.
So, I signed up for the 4 year Bachelor’s Degree program, still having no idea what I was supposed to do with my life – only knowing one thing: I won’t be a preacher. I took courses to work for a missionary organization, or be a counsellor, but nothing for preaching or teaching.
Then, after 4 years, with a Certificate, a Diploma, and a bunch of ministry experience, under my belt, I still didn’t know what to do. I asked my denominational leader, and he told me to go back to school. So I signed up for a 3 Year Master’s of Divinity Degree – still having no idea what I’d be when I grew up.
Fast forward to the last semester of my third year. I had picked my own classes, found my own mentors, volunteered and worked for the churches I wanted to, even created a new job at a big church called “media minister” where I organized the sound, video, and print ministries of the church. I’d done everything in my power to avoid preaching. Everything I did was behind the scenes. I took lots of courses for everything other than preaching… sure that my future was in ministry, but not in the pulpit. But by the last semester, I still didn’t know what God wanted me to do.
Until one day when I just gave up trying to control my future. I gave up on guiding my own way and guessing what my future would look like. Instead, I prayed a very dangerous prayer: “Lord, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m educated beyond my intelligence and abilities, and have no idea what you want. So, from this moment on, I’m just going to say ‘yes’ to everything everyone asks me to do. You’d better put some people in my way because I’m just going to say ‘yes’.”
Now, I don’t necessarily recommend that prayer, but I’ll tell you what happened. Three days later the Academic Vice President of the school called me out of the blue and said, “Al, I want you to preach at a little church that just lost their pastor.” If I hadn’t told God that I would say ‘yes’ to everything, I would have laughed him off the phone, said “No thank you, sir.” and hung up. But I committed to saying ‘yes’.
So I took the one and only sermon I had ever had to write, for the one and only class I was forced to take to pass my degree, and I preached it at that little church. I was petrified. But, they asked me back. I’m guessing they were desperate because the sermon was not good.
Then, another church called and wanted me to preach there. And I said “yes” and went. Then a little church in the middle of nowhere, a full hour away from where my family was living in Edmonton, in a little town named Gwynne Alberta, called me to be their weekly preacher. And, scared as I was… I still said “yes”.
Then I graduated, and another little church – this time in Cleveland, Ohio called me to be their full-time pastor. I didn’t want to go to the US. I didn’t want to be a solo pastor. I didn’t want to be a preacher. I wanted to serve behind the scenes, help other pastors and preachers be good at what they do – but no, God said, “No. I’m taking you out of your comfort zone, Al. I’m taking you from your churches of 1000 people and I’m putting you in a church of 25. I’m taking you out of Canada. I’m taking you from being surrounded by technology to a place where they still use an overhead projector, slides and a hymnal. And most of all, I’m taking you away from the comfort of hiding in the back, and I’m going to make you stand up and preach my word.”
And, I said yes. And here’s something a lot of people don’t know – and why that song “Voice of Truth” is so meaningful to me. I was terrified every week for over 10 years. Every week for over a decade, 50 weeks out of the year, right before service, I would be in the bathroom sick, on my knees in front of a toilet, begging God to help me. I’ve been preaching for about 16 years now, and for well over half of it – and still sometimes to this day – I’m often still so scared that I end up on my knees in the bathroom before service.
There were a lot of times I wanted to run away, quit, do something to disqualify myself so I wouldn’t be allowed to preach anymore. There were a lot of times well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) people said something that devastated me for days after the sermon. There have been times I would sit before my computer, blank cursor blinking away, fighting back tears because I didn’t know where I was going to get the strength to write one more message.
The voices in my head would say the very same things that the lyrics to the song said. The first verse is about when Peter was standing in the boat, looking out at Jesus walking on the water, wanting to walk out to Him, and then taking that step off the boat… It says, “Oh what I would do to have the kind of faith it takes to climb out of this boat I’m in, onto the crashing waves. To step out of my comfort zone into the realm of the unknown where Jesus is and He’s holding out His hand. But the waves are calling out my name and they laugh at me reminding me of all the times I’ve tried before and failed. The waves they keep on telling me, time and time again. ‘Boy, you’ll never win! You’ll never win!’”
I’ve heard that voice many times. I’m sure you have too.
These are trying times we are living in right now. So much fear, confusion, anguish, and uncertainty. The enemy the world is trying to fight right now isn’t some rogue nation, or terrorist organization, its invisible – a virus. It’s not happening somewhere over there in a foreign land – it’s happening right here, in our towns and cities, to people we know.
There’s literally panic in the streets as people hoard food and essentials, not knowing what will happen next. People are being told to stay in their homes, to be wary of one another, to fear strangers, to always be on guard, to change their whole lives. People are being sent home from work and are afraid of what that means for their finances because most people in Canada simply don’t have anything in their savings. Others are being forced to work in places where they can become infected – but the protective equipment is becoming scarce, their hands are dry and painfully cracking from constantly using hand-sanitizer, and the customers they serve are getting more upset, more impatient, and won’t abide by the rules.
The politicians and media and bloggers and podcasters are all in a frenzy right now, spitting out new information, ideas, numbers, explanations, guesses, and theories. The helpful ideas and statistics we hear one day end up being completely altered the next. Information and misinformation are passed along with equal authority by news agencies and well-meaning citizens, and it’s hard to know what the truth is, and how we’re really supposed to be responding.
And I’m not talking about “social distancing”, “washing your hands”, and not buying all the toilet paper at the store. I’m talking about how to respond in our hearts, our minds, our souls. We’re so worried about our bodies these days that it’s easy to forget that humans are far more than just flesh. The damage that can be done to us during this time is not merely physical. Yes, it would be bad to get COVID19, and we should take precautions – but that’s not the only thing that will cause us harm.
We are also intelligent creatures, emotional creatures, and spiritual creatures. It’s entirely possible for us to get through this pandemic without ever getting the Coronavirus, and yet still have permanent scars.
Fear can cause spiritual sickness and leave permanent scars too. Anyone who has ever experienced trauma, abuse, or has a phobia knows this. The scars aren’t external, but internal. It is easy to be afraid these days – and to let that fear dictate our lives – and for that fear to make permanent changes inside of us. It’s easy to look at the crashing waves before us, to see the upheaval in the land, have our hearts melt within us, and to form beliefs that will cripple us for a long time.
The frustration and anger we have against those who were first diagnosed, with those who spread it, with those who refused to self-isolate, who hoard and steal supplies, who are mismanaging the crisis and causing us to lose work and money, or putting people we love in danger – that anger – can start to fester, to spread to the people around you, and that bitterness can infect the people around you causing them to get bitter too. That anger can start to manifest in more permanent scars like divorce, abuse, broken friendships, racism, sexism, ageism – that don’t go away, but stick with us.
Another scar that fear creates is paranoia. You start to believe the world is out of control. The invisible virus is everywhere, and there’s no way to know who has it. The government starts cracking down with harsher controls and penalties, and it starts to feel more and more oligarchical, more oppressive. The media hypes to the max, blogs and websites start to write more conspiracies and talk more about superstition than actual healthcare. The stores shut down, work shuts down, construction shuts down, and you start to be afraid for your financial future too. Your neighbour or family member doesn’t believe it’s serious and tries to leave the house or come over for a visit… and you get scared for them, for you, for everyone.
That fear isn’t something that will go away when the pandemic subsides. That fear will stay with you, because it was there before and it’s deep-seated, firmly established inside you. All the things you were secretly thinking before starting to become reality – and you convince yourself that this pandemic isn’t the problem – it’s just the surface of all the other terrible things that need to be worried about. And it’s crippling.
Then you end up being the one on your knees in the bathroom, sick to your stomach, with a thousand voices telling you how terrible it will be, how no one can be trusted, how everything is against you, how the systems will fail, how no one is watching, no one understands, and no one cares…
Have you felt that fear? Have you felt racism and prejudice rise up in you? Anger and bitterness? Paranoia, desperation, and superstition? I’m sure you have. What can be done? How do we combat that level of fear?
The song gives us a clue. I want to read the chorus to you, “But the voice of truth tells me a different story. The voice of truth says, “Do not be afraid!”. The voice of truth says, “This is for My glory”. Out of all the voices calling out to me, I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth.”
The greatest weapons we have against fear are Truth and Faith. When the voices come barreling into our head, log-jamming our mind with fear, what are we to do? Seek Truth and hold fast to Faith.
I think of 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 – turn with me there. It says,
“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…”
The whole world is trying to find and use tools to fix this pandemic. Scientists and doctors are pulling out all the stops to try to end the devastating effects of COVID19. But how do we destroy the effects of fear, the stronghold that fear can take in our lives? What weapons do we have at our disposal? They are not “fleshly” weapons. Washing our hands, social distancing, cleaning the house, having a good schedule, working out, eating well, is not going to demolish the stronghold of fear in our hearts. There is not enough money, power, and political might out there to solve the problem of fear. We keep trying to put our faith in these things, but it never works. There’s always something they miss, something they didn’t see coming.
So many people sat in their homes and jobs thinking our modern society is way beyond ever having a “plague” again. Our scientists are too smart for that. Our medicine to amazing to allow for it. Our laws too well thought out. Our economy too strong to fall apart, our political leaders too experienced to ever let the whole world shut down like it did a century ago. And yet, here we are.
I’m all for science and technology. I love living in a world of medicine and antibiotics and MRI machines. I’m glad we have economists and police officers and politicians. But we have to remember that our greatest weapons against fear are not these people, their money, their systems, or their clever ideas. Our greatest weapons are Truth and Faith.
When we face all the “arguments” and “lofty opinions” out there that tell the dozens of reasons to be afraid – what can we do? We do as verse 5 says, we “take every thought captive to obey Christ”. What does that mean?
It means that when we are faced with something to be afraid of, with a news article, blog post, podcast, family member or friend, or even a thought in our head – that causes us to be afraid, to worry, to want to panic, to hide, to lash out, to take control, to get bitter – to do whatever it is you do when you’re angry. You stop, you take that thought captive, and you hold it up to the truth of Christ, and you say, “Lord Jesus, is this thought true? Does it line up with reality and logic and your Word? Does it obey you?” As Jesus said, “the Truth will set you free…” (John 8:21-32)
Turn with me to Psalm 46.
Literally, when I was writing this script, I got an emergency message on my phone. You know the one complete with lights and horns and scary noises and yellow exclamation marks that freak you out in the middle of the night? I got one of those that read, “You are at high risk of spreading COVID 19. You are required by law to self-isolate. DO NOT visit stores, family or friends.” I thought, “Dang! How does my phone know if I got it!?! What app did I download? What government spy software is on there?!” Turns out it was for “Travellers Returning to Ontario”, but I missed that part. It kind of freaked me out for a second.
What do we do when our mind says the world is out of control, no one knows what to do, terrible things are on the horizon, it’s too much for me, but no one else can do anything about it either? What do we do? Look at Psalm 46:
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. ‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!’ The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah”
God is not weak, God is not distant. This Psalm says, “Remember who God really is, what God really wants, and remember His strength. Nothing is out of His control. He is All-Knowing, Ever-Present, and All-Powerful. He sees everything and everything works within his constraints and abides by His plans. Be Still, my heart, know that God – the God of hosts, the God of angel armies, is with us. He is the fortress we run to because He is strong.”
But our mind says, “But how can any of this be for the good? Maybe God is all powerful, but maybe He doesn’t care.”
Then we read the words of Romans 5:1–8. Turn there.
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
We read this and remind ourselves: “I know I am loved because God actually traded His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, for me on the cross. While I was His enemy, dead in my sins, unable to do anything of value, a child of hell, God sent His Son to save me – to die for me – to take the cross for me. I don’t need to ever doubt His love.”
Plus, God promises that all the current suffering will work out for God’s glory and our good. All this suffering is building endurance and character. It’s a trial to go through, a refining fire, where, if we are wise, obedient, and faithful, we will come out the other side more hopeful, more loving, more godly than before. What is happening in the world is bad – but it’s not all bad – there is much opportunity for good! I think of the words of Mr. Rogers who reminded us that when bad things happen and we’re scared when watching the news, to “look for the helpers.”
Jesus suffered for the sins of the world, and asks believers to follow in His footsteps. So, as His followers, we don’t fear suffering, we face it knowing God is good, God is with us, and God can do amazing things with faithful people who are willing to be obedient to Him.
What got me off the floor of the bathroom each and every Sunday was not the strength of my own character or will. It wasn’t any strength I had inside me. It was because God had brought me to a place where I was utterly dependant on Him – and so I had to trust that He would allow me to do what He wanted done. If you’re a Christian today, I’m sure you can relate to God doing something similar with you. This pandemic is a way to show us how weak we are, how finite we are, and should cause us to become more dependant on Him. The only weapons we have when fear starts to take over are Truth and Faith. What’s true? And is God still God?
“God called me to preach. God’s Word has Power. It will not return void. God has given me something to say. He will give me the strength to say it. He won’t abandon me. He will be with me every step of the way. Now, all I have to do is get up and do what He has already told me to, and trust the I can because He will do it.”
Let me close with two more verses to keep in mind.
The first is 1 John 1:18,
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”
One reason you might feel fear is because you think God is punishing you – or the world – and you’re worried that the only way you can fix it is to live perfectly. That’s impossible – and it’s a trap.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ says that you are an imperfect sinner, born into sin, who loves their sin, and cannot escape it because it is woven into your DNA like a curse. Even all the good deeds you do to try to impress God end up working against you because they’re not even good deeds for their own sake – but driven by fear and selfishness. But, you are right to fear punishment, because God is wrathful against sinners and anyone who has broken His law. If you’ve ever violated any part of the Bible or any part of your conscience, you are a sinner doomed to face the wrath of God. And just like if you broke the laws of Canada, you can’t just tell the judge what a great person you are most of the time and ask him to let you go. There’s no amount of good you can do to cancel out your sin.
The only way to be saved, to be free from the fear of judgement, is to believe that you are a desperate sinner in need of a great saviour. That you are utterly unable to save yourself, and that you need Jesus to take all the punishment for you. To trust in the love of God, the “perfect love” of God, that accepts you as you are, and if you ask, will place all your guilt, shame, and sin onto Jesus, so He can take the punishment for you.
Then, the moment you believe, you are saved and utterly clean and totally free. As Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Then, when the thought comes that God is punishing you or your family for doing something bad, you can say, “Nope. God placed all my punishment on Jesus, who took it gladly for my sake, and there is no condemnation for me anymore. This bad thing that is happening not because God is mad at me, or because I’m supposed to be punished – it’s a bad thing because there is sin in the world, and the effects of sin are evil. I’m not in heaven yet. But, I trust that God will do something good through this, so I will remain faithful to Him.”
Truth and Faith.
And the final verse I want to leave you with is one that I’ve had in mind for a couple weeks now. It’s Isaiah 26:3–4, which says,
“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock.”
Do you want peace at this time? Stand steadfastly in Faith on the Word of God and the Person of Jesus. Let God’s Word and the presence of Jesus Christ, be the everlasting rock beneath your feet. Turn to those spiritual weapons – prayer, reading the Bible, sharing your fears with other believers, listening to testimonies of God’s faith from biographies and online videos. Fill your mind with Truth and practice Faith – and you will break those strongholds and come out of this time stronger and more hopeful than when you went in.