A thousand eons ago, back in a time I like to call BEFORE, I spent a weekend in Nebraska City at our annual directional team retreat. Saturday morning Shereen sent us all on a prayer walk. Though the calendar still read winter, that morning held all the promise of spring. I wandered down woody trails along the banks of a stream, crossed a few bridges and ended up as I often do, beside a small pond. My conversation with God that morning held only a few small burdens–for the ministry, for my family. Mostly that time in prayer was spent in praise.
I remember almost brimming over with expectation as I sat beside that still pond. Life was good. And hadn’t God given me EXPECTANCY as my word for the year? My calendar for the spring was full of fun trips, family celebrations and new adventures. I couldn’t wait to see what God would do. My biggest concern at that moment was how to juggle a weekend with two important family events in two very separate locations.
As I returned to the conference room that morning, refreshed and energized, I glanced at my phone to see if I missed any messages. My attention snagged on a notification from my Bible app showing the verse of the day, and I read these words:
Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
Habakkuk 3:17-18 NLV
Those words were such a contrast to all my praise that morning, my gratitude for a life filled with blessing and promise. A small, still voice prompted from within, “If all the things you were thankful for this morning were to all go away, would you still rejoice?” My response at the time was, “Lord, I sure hope so.”
Fast forward to today. My spring, like yours, was nothing like I had expected. All those trips and celebrations? Canceled. My calendar, once so packed I was having trouble juggling it all, emptied in a matter of days. And though my circumstances are not nearly as dire as those described in Habakkuk, I relate to those images much better today.
Fear for the future.
I’ve felt all of those emotions and more.
I wish I could say I passed my test with flying colors, that every day during this pandemic I’ve been just as full of joy as I was that morning in early March, but I’d be lying. Sadly, I’ve spent more than a few days reacting more like Jonah when the plant that had shaded him died. “You may as well kill me now, Lord! Life is just not worth living anymore!” [My paraphrase of Jonah, chapter 4]
Knowing I’m not as strong as I’d hoped is humbling, but God has gently taught me some lessons during this time of social distancing and upheaval. First off, I can and do let circumstances determine my mood—far more than I’d like to admit. Like Ashley mentioned last week, I’ve put a lot more trust in temporal things than I’d realized.
Second, finding joy in difficult circumstances doesn’t just happen. It takes concentrated effort on my part, as well as a reliance on God’s spirit within me. The key is what I choose to focus on.
Focus on Christ and others first. Remember that song from Sunday School? “Jesus and others and you, what a wonderful way to spell joy.” Corny? Maybe. But it holds true. When I get my focus off myself, joy inevitably follows. Spend time in the Word. Find ways to serve. You’ll be surprised how quickly your mood changes.
Focus on what you can control and leave the rest to God. Part of the turbulence we all are feeling right now stems from a lack of control. Conflicting messages from our leaders, uncertainty as to how the future will look, and no clear path to follow can lead to fear and panic. It all seems so overwhelming. Guess what? It always was. We’ve never been in total control, and we never will. So instead of spending hours fretting over the things out of our control, let’s put our energy toward what we can. We can control our thoughts. We can control how we respond to our children and our spouses. We can control many things. Focus on that and trust God with all the rest.
Focus on blessings rather than trials. Like many of you, I’ve started a gratitude journal during this time. Mary Wenzl called them her “silver linings.” When things are hard, it’s easy to focus on the hard, but even on our worst days, there’s always, ALWAYS something to be thankful for. Focus on those things.
None of this is new, but sometimes we need to be reminded. This isn’t the first test any of us have experienced, and it certainly won’t be the last as long as we live in this world. Can we at least join Habakkuk in confidently saying, “Even though . . . yet I will rejoice in Lord!”?