Looking Up When Locking Down

My sister is my hero. A few years ago, she undertook to take my elderly (now 90-year-old) and needy mother into her home and, with some support of family members, she has given mum lavish and around the clock ‘TLC’. Now, as a result of the lockdown, friends can no longer pop in for a social chat and family support is necessarily restricted.

Mattia Barbotti Pqzmuhdibis Unsplash

My sister is my hero. A few years ago, she undertook to take my elderly (now 90-year-old) and needy mother into her home and, with some support of family members, she has given mum lavish and around the clock ‘TLC’. Now, as a result of the lockdown, friends can no longer pop in for a social chat and family support is necessarily restricted. My sister has a remarkably generous and cheerful disposition but I know that it is all far from easy … day after day … night after night … and looking like being month after month. This is not a unique situation.

Initially, the lockdown had some novelty value. Now there is an exponential rise in heartrending reports of close family members not being able to comfort loved ones as they go through health storms in hospital and others not even being able to attend a funeral.

The social isolation affects us all, especially parents (including single parents) cooped up in the home with energetic children who are unable to socialise with their friends. Perhaps the biggest impact, though, is for single people, especially those with limited mobility and those who have no capacity to connect with modern technology; no church services to look forward to. I have telephoned an elderly man a couple of times in the past week and both times he told me that he now knows every inch of his ceiling.

At the beginning of 2020, would we have contemplated that the days of our freedom to travel, hug, meet, go out for a coffee or engage in retail therapy would be suspended, so soon? When this is all over, hopefully, we will cherish those liberties.

There is now a danger of serious mental health issues for many in the community. Looking down in the lockdown is something that could result if we do not look up? The Bible is threaded with accounts of people in lockdown situations and I have been thinking of things that have been written for our learning:

Joseph (Genesis 39)

Through no fault of his own, Joseph was cut off from his family in the foreign land of Egypt. Was his father Jacob, or brother Benjamin still alive? He had been sold like a piece of meat at the slave market and now served in the household of an important Egyptian official called Potiphar.

Being far from home is a challenge for family members who are abroad. We have two children who have generally enjoyed living overseas but with the knowledge that they/we could book an aeroplane trip ‘tomorrow’, if a need arose; this, of course, is no longer a viable option. Mixing with their church friends, social network and colleagues is also no longer possible.

The phrase ‘the Lord was with Joseph/him’ is repeated during his time of service in Potiphar’s household. This became obvious and was recognised by Potiphar, and Joseph found favour in his eyes. The Immanuel (God with us) of our Saviour is perhaps more precious at this time of solitary confinement. Such passages as Isaiah 43:2, ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you” or Psalm 23:4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me’ are more meaningful at times like these.

It was the awareness of the presence of the Lord that shielded Joseph from the attempt by Potiphar’s wife to seduce him, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” 

Despite his innocence he is cast into prison. Again, the phrase is repeated, ‘But the Lord was with Joseph/him’ (with the addition on one occasion: ‘and showed him steadfast love’). This phrase therefore occurs four times in a short Bible passage.

Later, instead of being bitter against his cruel brothers, he says (chapter 45), “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”

John Bunyan's rise as a popular preacher coincided with the times of Charles II. Separatists (those not conforming with the Church of England) had enjoyed freedom of worship for 20 years, but this was quickly ended; they were arrested. By January 1661, Bunyan was imprisoned in the Bedford jail.

The worst aspect of the punishment, for Bunyan, was in being separated from his second wife (his first had died in 1658) and four children. "The parting ... hath oft been to me in this place as the pulling the flesh from my bones," he wrote. He tried to support his family making "many hundred gross of long tagg'd [shoe] laces" while imprisoned, but he mainly depended on "the charity of good people" for their well-being.

Yet, in his prison cell, with just a Bible and “Fox’s Book of Martyrs”, he began to write books, including his masterpiece, “Pilgrim’s Progress”.

Alone? The Lord is with you, Christian brother or sister. The cabin fever is not a pleasant affliction but remember Joseph. He was human like the rest of us, but he looked up during his lockdown and maintained a relationship with God, recognising that He had a grand master plan.

Disciples (John 20)

Everything has changed in the course of a week or two. The words of the Gaither song (The King is Coming): ‘The marketplace is empty, no more traffic in the streets, all the builders’ tools are silent’, seem to describe our transformed town centres. Lockdown has certainly locked many doors, including all homes, for fear of virus spread.

‘The doors [were] locked … for fear of the Jews’ followed the resurrection of Jesus on ‘Easter Sunday’. Everything had changed in two weeks. Jesus had entered into Jerusalem being lauded with cries of, “Hosanna” but, within a few days, the fickle crowd had bayed for His blood shouting, “Crucify”. Their leader had now been crucified and His close followers were high on the ‘wanted list’ – seemingly, they had no control over whether the next knock on the door would take them towards Calvary’s execution hill? It seems likely that they would have met in a secret location and they certainly took care to lock the doors.

What happened next seems to describe what I perceive to be a model worship service. Here they were meeting on the first day of the week and ‘Jesus came and stood among them’. The presence of the Lord completely transformed their meeting, and this is what we as Christians always eagerly anticipate.

Fear had gripped their souls. Jesus had come to cast this out and said, “Peace be with you.” This was not only a ‘Shalom’ greeting but this peace was a gift. Their minds may have been cast back a few days, to their time with Him in the ‘Upper Room’ when Jesus had said, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Now they are in practical trouble and He comes to deliver on His promise.

‘When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side’. This was not a ‘cheap’ peace. This was not the peace proffered by false prophets in the time of Jeremiah, ‘They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.’ This was peace that flowed from Calvary. We see His hands and side, and well up with gratitude and realise that this procures not only a ‘peace with God’ but also a ‘peace from God … that passes all we can understand.’ Perhaps it was not only peace to troubled minds but was also peace to quell their guilty consciences. After all, many of them had abandoned Him and even disowned Him during the past week.

The gracious approach of the Lord reached their hearts. ‘Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord’.  From fear … to peace … to joy.

Look up in the lockdown – may the Lord enter your experience and heart. As Thomas (who missed that meeting) found out on the following Sunday, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’.

Disciples in the Upper Room (John 13-16)

‘All church meetings cancelled until further notice’. For the first time, Western believers are not able to gather within our various fellowships. Perhaps we can now, in a small measure, identify with Christians in countries where oppressive governments do not approve church meetings. However, we cannot truly empathise with the fear that these persecuted believers endure.

Following the raising of Lazarus, Caiaphas led a plot to kill Jesus. The disciples were directed to a new and secret venue described as the ‘upper room’. This was no longer a public seaside sermon or discourse on the mountainside. However, the teaching during this seclusion takes up four substantial chapters of John’s gospel account. Many Christians read this during the week leading up to Easter, but its importance transcends a seasonal interest and is a core part of our daily scripture diet.

Against the background of Jesus knowing that ‘his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father’, He astounded the disciples by washing their feet!

Behind all the daily coronavirus statistical updates regarding rates of infection, hospital admissions and death, there is a very human story. We are beginning to hear reports of people within our own social and church fellowship circles who are affected. The ministry of John 14 will inevitably be the focus of our hope:

'Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.’

The usual support systems of collective worship, Bible teaching, prayer groups and gospel witness have been suspended. Even meeting for a cup of tea to share joys and concerns, and discuss the price of fish, has been suspended. Zoom and YouTube meetings are okay insofar as they go but they are not direct replacements. We were made for collective ‘body’ church experience and there is a danger of solitary Christians becoming prey to the ‘roaring lion [who is] seeking someone to devour’.

Jesus promises, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.” The ministry of the ‘Comforter’, the Holy Spirit, is not confined to collective meetings in a building.

It was obviously so important that the disciples embraced this ministry to help them stand against the storm that confronted the fledgling church in the first century.

Lockdown gives us an opportunity to personally develop our own Bible study and devotions. Perhaps it is too easy to have spiritual meals served up to us, rather than think of our own responsibility for spiritual progress.

Remember that diamonds are only found in deep mines. Suffering and experience of bereavement make us realise that this world is not where we are comfortable, we yearn for the day that is coming, “I will come again.” We do not ‘lockdown’ our hopes to this world, but we look up to our heavenly one.

Paul & Silas (Acts 16)

There is a genuine concern for the mental health and well-being of people due to lockdown. It is not good for man to be alone. We miss the normal daily interaction and banter, reduced to the odd ‘ping’ from our WhatsApp groups.

If we were in a similar situation to Paul, I speculate that we may have written to the Philippian Christians with an initial moan, “The jail conditions are squalor, the food is inedible, the cold is unbearable”. Instead, Paul insists, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice’. What made the difference?

Paul saw that his imprisonment had a purpose. He often describes himself as ‘a prisoner of Christ Jesus’ (not of Caesar or the Jews). In other words, God had put him there for the furtherance of the gospel. For example, in 2 Timothy 2 he says, “for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God's word is not chained.” Although chained, he shared the unchained gospel with the Praetorian Guard and wrote the wonderful letters we still have today to both churches and individuals.

In 1931, in what seemed like the midst of a vital ministry in India, Amy Carmichael had a simple fall.  She remained bedridden for much of her final two decades. During that time, she started to pen some poetry that continues to be so inspirational many decades later. During her lockdown, she did not look down, but looked up to the open windows upon the highest heaven:

‘Can we accept the unexplained, the loss,
The crushing agony, and hold us still.
And nowhere is that clearer vision given
Which pierces a bewildering providence,
And opens windows upon highest heaven,
But where we see Suffering Omnipotence.’

Paul and Silas were at the centre of God’s will for their lives – they had been on their way to a prayer meeting! Yet, they were imprisoned for preaching the life-giving gospel in Philippi. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. They were not simply singing hymns to themselves – these songs were permeating through the roof of the dingy cell, out through the barred windows, ascending up through the heavens to reach the very ears of the Almighty God. He heard their songs and prayers.

Not only so, but it reached the other prisoners and it seems to have reached the heart and conscience of the prison officer who had beaten them.

Our attitude during this virus could have a detrimental effect on our mental well-being: “These restrictions are lousy and like the children of Israel in the wilderness I will moan, groan and complain!”

There is a purpose in our lockdown. Sometimes God closes certain doors and opens other forms of ministry. There is certainly a need for people to maintain telephone contact with lonely Christians, and perhaps with their unsaved neighbours. Others need to pray (this is still permitted despite the social distancing rules). Financial needs will arise in our communities – there is an opportunity to show genuine Christian compassion with the resources that we have been given.

Are we ‘pipes’ or ‘buckets’? God has blessed us, so that the blessings will flow through us to others. Not so that we will store them up for ourselves in a big bucket!