Easter in Isolation

Tomorrow is Easter. For Christians, it’s our most important and holy and joyful day of the year–a day we go to sunrise services, special Easter worship services, multigenerational family dinners with special foods like ambrosia and asparagus. We celebrate together! But this year we’re under mandatory “Shelter in Place” orders, so we will worship from home via apps and computers. We will have dinner with only our usual housemates. We still rejoice in Jesus’ resurrection, in His conquering of death and hell–making a way for all who will trust and follow Him to spend eternal life in Heaven with Him. It still feels like an important day–but it doesn’t feel like a holiday. Our spiritual rejoicing has a shadow of loneliness and loss. People are genuinely and justifiably grieving over so many losses in this crazy time, and this is one more.

These are my thoughts this Easter Eve morning, written in an email exchange with a friend.

Lately, I have been thinking about believers in prison. The apostle Paul, of course, but – as many might expect of me – also the many thousands or more who have been in POW camps, concentration camps, imprisoned for their faith in Islamic countries, criminals who come to – or back to- Jesus in prison. This has made me think, too, about those who are bedridden and home-bound due to health issues. Those in concentration camps tapped messages of encouragement in code on the prison pipes. They sang snatches of hymns to give each other hope. With eyes straight ahead, they muttered words of hope and snippets of Scripture when no guard was looking. They wrote letters and smuggled them out. They did this to strengthen each other, to build community, fellowship, in spite of knowing that getting caught would mean beatings or death. They were “being the Church.”

I have also thought of my husband Dale, of him telling how his brother spent days trying to find and reach him in Vietnam. Chuck was a Navy hard-hat diver on a ship off the coast of Vietnam and, also on board, was “Chief Jackson,” a powerful, Holy-Spirit-filled, zealous believer who ran Bible studies and prayer meetings on deck for these men who faced death at any moment. Chuck had been mightily saved through him, and was being mentored, discipled; in the subsequent fifty years, he has never looked back. His favorite song was “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus, No Turning Back… though none go with me, still I will follow…” Then his little brother Dale arrived in Vietnam as a combat helicopter pilot with a high chance of not getting back alive, and Chuck had to find him to be sure he, too, would choose to trust and follow Jesus – before it was too late. Their deployments overlapped by only a month, so Chuck got a few days of leave and hitchhiked, did whatever he could, to find Dale, but, as a pilot, Dale was always on the move and Chuck was running out of time, chasing him from base to landing zone. He realized he could check just one more place, then had to get back, or he would end up AWOL. He walked up to HQ and was told, “I’m sorry, Dale just took off on a mission.” Heart-sick, Chuck walked out the doors and saw Dale walking up the same sidewalk; his mission had been scrubbed. They spent the rest of the day sitting on a hillside, with Chuck giving Dale an urgent, literal, “Come to Jesus” talk. Dale, like Chuck, had been ripe fruit, and he was quick to respond, so they prayed together, confessed sin, praised, had the sweet fellowship of brothers who were now also brothers in Christ. Chuck instructed him in the basics of the faith and how to grow deep and strong in his new life. Then Chuck had to leave. Talk about a crash course! Dale never looked back, either. Not once has either Chuck or Dale wavered. Unlike Chuck, Dale never saw another believer until he got back home. He spent eleven months in “spiritual isolation.” Dale had a pocket Bible that he devoured, and he and Chuck wrote letters, but that was all. Dale always said how God created us to be in community, but you’d better be ready to stand alone if necessary. God works there, too.

Isolation happens. It tests our faith. It purifies and sorts and shrinks and prunes and winnows the church — but it only shrinks the visible church, not the Invisible Church. It is a comfort and brings hope to realize that true believers -all over the world!- are meeting by zoom, facetime, YouTube, conference calls. Small growth groups, Bible studies, megachurches, and secret house churches, friends – worldwide the Church is isolating, (except in Sweden!) They are holding on to each other, encouraging each other, singing together via phone in huddles of 1, 2, 5, but in reality with 30 or 300 or 1000, all watching the same streamed service “in different places together,” all singing the same song from couches and breakfast tables. What a gift to have zoom, and texts, and Marco Polo, and landline phones held up to computers to connect! This, too, shall pass.

One of my sweetest, most powerful memories was on a trip to Europe. Our 1st stop was Naples, but we ended up with a day-and-a-half layover in London, landing at 6 a.m. Easter Sunday. We hopped on the tube and bee-lined for Westminister Cathedral. We’d been flying since the prior morning and had on travel clothes and backpacks. The man at the door gently told us it was not a tourist time, but if we wanted to worship with them, we were very welcome, but the church was full, so we would have to stand. We found a bit of wall, and spent an hour worshipping in an ancient church, singing centuries-old hymns, hearing the story of the ages, with people of all ages, classes, nationalities. I was so moved. I looked around and realized I was being given a gift, a glimpse of The Church, Universal, Triumphant, Eternal. It made me cry, of course, but that memory, that portal to Heaven opening for just a glimpse, surely will be one of my last memories when my mind fails me.

It will be okay; we will be okay. If this lasts another month or a year, we will worship with each other, confess our sins and needs to each other, pray for and with each other, check in on each other, encourage each other, reminding each other of God’s past faithfulness, and His assurance, His promises, that He is still in control, He is still strong, loving, steadfast, a good, good Father. That’s who He is, was, and will be.

So, this is what I’ve been thinking about, for what it’s worth. I am affected, certainly, by all the “holocaust and suffering” memoirs I read, but I’m grateful. Our world has changed, but God has not. He is up to something here! The Potter’s wheel is spinning!

And I’m thankful to be “with” each of you as we spin!

COVID-19 and other generational traumas

When I was a young child, it was polio. It got my two-year-old sister. She was hospitalized, put in social and physical isolation. Even our parents were kept away except one visit by one parent for five minutes a week. She, they, and we were forever changed. I remember vividly being in a long line of little children getting a sugar cube put on my tongue, like a holy communion wafer, from a lady with a tense, hopeful, forced smile.
In elementary school, it was air-raid drills and the threat of atomic bombs. Shelter under your desk!
In middle school, it was the scientists’ dire warnings about global cooling and a coming ice-age.
President Kennedy, Bobby, MLKjr,
Riots, marches, hunger strikes, struggles for civil rights
Vietnam, the draft, word of lost friends
9-11
California on fire.
COVID-19

I was thinking this morning about generational traumas. I am 68 and these were mine. We all have had them, will have them. We will be impacted by all of them, remember most of them.

Take heart, parents. This – now – can make your children strong, compassionate, wise. It can give them perspective on what really matters. They’re watching and listening and processing to see how we respond – how they should respond. You have their ear like no other time. This is boot camp for the rest of life’s troubles, and we get to teach them how to find the good. Every day. That’s a silver lining. A gift. A severe mercy. As I pondered these things, these song lyrics came to mind:

“Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
and mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.”
–John Newton, 1725-1807
[once a prominent slave trader who repented, turned to follow Christ, and ended up becoming a leading abolitionist.]

Looking Back: Testimony given to a women’s Bible study in 2012.

Early Christmas morning, 1974, I was awakened by my mother running down the hall, shouting, “Kim, Kim, I think Dad’s dead!”  As soon as I entered their room, I somehow knew that he was already gone, no longer there, but – you do what you have to do – so I told her to call 9-1-1 and I gave my beloved Dad CPR.  He had had a massive coronary sometime in the night.  Only two months before, he had submitted his life to the Lord Jesus Christ, after years of angry defiance, and would spend his first Christmas as a Christian face to face with the Jesus he had come to truly love.

But I was Daddy’s girl, and I was devastated and traumatized.  My wedding was only seven weeks away, and for the first months of our married life I would secretly but frequently check during the night to see if Dale was still alive.  I was sneaky and would cuddle so that my ear was on his chest; hearing that slow, steady rhythm was a balm to my own traumatized and fearful heart.  Once I reached over in the middle of the night to check and he suddenly spoke, “I feel you checking my heart!”  I knew I couldn’t live with this fear of losing him, so I had to let go, fully acknowledging that he was not mine anyway, he was the Lord’s.  I had to trust God for him, to say, “He is Yours, not mine; You have entrusted him to me and I will trust him with You.  I want Your will – nothing more and nothing less.”

Repeatedly, the Lord has brought me reminders to let go… to hold loosely to this world, even to the people I’m called – commanded – to care for and to love. He has had to pry my white knuckles again off those people so I could set my heart on pilgrimage.  All that I have – my husband, children, health, reputation, friends, my very life – are His, not mine; He is the owner and I am only a steward, and often a very poor one at that.  One by one He has put each of our four children in a position where I was totally helpless, forced to relinquish my death-grip on that child and lay him or her at Jesus’ feet.  But through every trial He has taught me so much and has sent tokens of His love to encourage me and keep me from despair.

When our firstborn child Sarah saw the doctor at four weeks old she had not gained weight and had developed a heart murmur.  The doctors began a series of tests.  We were in the middle of moving to Southern California at the time.  Dale actually had the car loaded and had said his goodbyes to us to go down to secure an apartment, when he had to come back in to get something he had forgotten.  That was the moment the phone rang with the test results.  (Why is bad news called “positive results”?)  Yes, Sarah had Down Syndrome and a major, weight-inhibiting heart defect.  Poor Dale prayed with us, but then had to drive away, leaving us alone.  It was the 1970’s, (my hair was to my hips…) we were young and poor, had just finished school, and had no family close.  I spent the next few ENDLESS days in our rocking chair, holding Sarah, crying and praying.

Dale secured us a place to live and came back to get us.  When we finally arrived down south and went to the home of some of Dale’s childhood friends, we told them about Sarah’s conditions.  The wife looked at me, and at Sarah, then asked incredulously, “Have you been sitting in a rocking chair, crying?”  When I said yes, she told me that a friend had had a burden for a young mother somewhere with long hair, sitting in a rocking chair, holding a baby and crying and praying.  She didn’t know who it was, but she couldn’t forget it, and she’d been praying for “this girl” all week.  What tender mercy for the Lord to put me miraculously on the heart of a total stranger, and for me to find out about it!  In dark hours to come – even those years later – I would remember this token of God’s love for me.

When Sarah was 2½ she finally reached the safety target weight of 23 pounds and underwent open-heart surgery.  Our assistant pastor sat with us for the whole 8 hours.  Two things I will always remember: he read to me 2 Corinthians 1, which says that we suffer, and God comforts us, so that we can then go out and comfort others with that same comfort.  He also reminded me that God had watched His only son suffer and even die.  It was because He loved me so much that He knew exactly what I was going through and how I felt.  He was a God of compassion and love.  This pastor’s own firstborn, Godly, 19-year-old son was dying of bone cancer.  This pastor was living what he taught; he was walking ahead of me on this road of severe mercy and could truly comfort me with the tender comfort God had given him.

In the next few years our youngest got into a childproof bottle of Tylenol and had to undergo traumatic treatment, our only son was thought to have leukemia, and about 15 years later he was thought to have lymphoma, and our middle daughter had to have extensive orthopedic surgery and had a respiratory arrest while I was alone with her in ICU.  I was that mom hearing “CODE BLUE; THIRD FLOOR” about her own child.  But in God’s great mercy, each of our children was given back to us whole, while I had fresh reminders that they were the Lord’s, not ours. During this time I learned to cling to Godly friends, and to praise Him when doing so was a “sacrifice of praise”.  In moments of deepest sorrow I learned to get out a hymnal and (sobbing, off-key and full blast) sing songs of God’s love and faithfulness.  This unfailingly gives  me hope and peace, and quiets my heart.

Then came six years of great peace, health, and blessing after blessing.  I had a keen sense of urgency – that the Lord was giving me this time to be renewed and strengthened, to feed richly on His Word and theology, to become more firmly anchored in my faith and more aware of the devil’s schemes, to hide His Word in my heart as an ant stores up food in the summer for the winter I sensed was ahead… and we all know the winter comes for us all…

But when the next big storm finally came in 2001, I was still crushed under the weight and severity of it.  During a time when my mother was being diagnosed with metastasized, aggressive cancer, and came within hours of dying, some leaders of the church we were attending began to verbally and spiritually abuse our middle two kids, slandering us and trying to divide our family, turning all allegiance from parents to the “pastor”.  Over the years there had been many isolated incidents that had troubled us, but now we were concerned enough to consult with two national Christian experts on abusive churches about what was happening.  We began to realize that although the church was orthodox in its beliefs, it was cultic in practice. Looking at all the troubling bits we had swept under the rug, we were shocked at what we saw. In leaving, our reputations were slandered, our kids lost their jobs, and we lost all our church family and friends, because the church members were ordered to shun us.  Ironically, the treatment we’ve received served to validate our concerns.  A Godly friend who had left before us put it well, “I cried out ‘Why me??  – Why did the Lord show ME such mercy to deliver me, when so many wonderful people remain behind, locked in?’”

We rejoice that He is restoring the years the locust has eaten, He has put us in a healthy church where we have had words and acts of grace poured out on us, given us compassion for our persecutors, and freed our hearts to see and rejoice in His tender care.  He even amazingly gave me my mother back, in good health!

Years ago in a dark time, the Lord helped me see a huge boulder, with a large crack in the side, and when the storms blast around me, I can go deep into this crack and even watch the storm raging outside, but inside is stillness and peace.  This Rock is Jesus.  He is my mighty fortress.  In the Cleft of the Rock there is safety and rest for my soul.  I CAN trust Him.