A few weeks ago, I stood in the pulpit on Good Shepherd Sunday. I love preaching in traditional Lutheran churches because I enjoy the pulpit (keeps me in one place) and I get to wear my favorite stoles. Not to mention that the one I wore on this particular day is the one my wife says I look most handsome in. Put all of that together with meeting new friends and celebrating the Lord’s Supper, and Sunday was absolutely wonderful. A preacher’s delight.
I began preaching about Jesus, our good shepherd, laying his life down only to take it up again (John 10:18) and giving us comfort, rest, joy, forgiveness, and assurance of salvation through the water and blood that poured from his pierced side. I did my best to paint an eloquent picture of our good shepherd using arguably the most well-known verses of the Bible: Psalm 23. Our good shepherd makes us lie down in green pastures to rest, leads us beside still waters to drink and be refreshed, and restores our soul! I talked about how we are sheep (in more ways than one), in constant need of our shepherd.
And then I got to the part of the sermon that always challenges me: How can I get these people to think about their own lives, preparing them to hear the good news of the Gospel? So, I looked out at the congregation and asked:
“Are you HIS sheep?”
Not, “How do you know you are his sheep?” For that would be the terrible theology of what I call, “Jesus plus”—the theology that caused Paul to breathe fiery passion down the necks of the Galatian church. I described the two indicators that Christ Jesus Himself says of his sheep. He says, “My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Sheep hear and sheep follow. They follow Christ. Among other things, it means following Christ when you don’t know where he is leading you. It means adhering to Christ when you’re not sure what his plan is. It means trusting Christ when you have no control.
It was then that I made this confession from the pulpit: I hate not having control. This is one of my bigger stumbling blocks as a Christian, and probably yours too. It’s precisely why I absolutely cannot stand riding in the car while someone else drives. I desire to have control over my life, my decisions, and the route that I choose to get wherever it is that I want to go. When I confessed this, tongue in cheek, I had no idea that God was smiling from ear to ear. “We are about to change that, my son,” I imagine He said.
The next day I tested positive for Covid-19. Throughout the afternoon of being at Family of God on Sunday, I began developing a very sore throat, something that is fairly common for a preacher who gave five sermons over the course of a weekend. I didn’t think much of it. Until I got home that night and could barely talk. I told my wife that I was not going to panic. People get sore throats all the time, after all. But unlike my outer self, my inner self was shrieking at the top of his lungs.
There was so much to do this week! Our Family of God staff was traveling to Fort Wayne to meet our new vicar. My wife and I were walking through our new house and signing all the papers! I was playing golf with my dad. And the highlight of the week was that I had the privilege and honor to officiate my sister’s wedding, celebrating with our family and friends. There was no way I could test positive for Covid. God wouldn’t allow it.
But He did. Pastor Hill, his wife Susan, Alex, Deacon John, my wife, and I all tested positive within the week.
There’s a saying that perhaps you are familiar with: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” That was me. “God, I have all of these things to do. I’m going to need you to do X, Y, and Z so that I can get these things done.”
God doesn’t work like that. He does quite the opposite. He works according to His purposes and His purposes only. It doesn’t matter what we want. It doesn’t matter what plans we have made. If it is not aligned with His will, He will crumple it up like a bad homework assignment and throw it in the garbage.
While God was tossing my plans away, I was very fortunate. I did not have a “bad case” of Covid-19. Not like others that I know. Physically, the toughest thing that I battled with was a nasty sore throat, preventing from swallowing normally and speaking. Other than that, being chronically fatigued was the worst. But none of that compares to sitting at home watching my baby sister get married to the man of her dreams—the man that my dad and I have covered in prayer for years, trusting that God would bring him to Shelby at the perfect time. That was physically painful, and I made sure that God knew how upset I was about it. For me, it was further proof that Covid impacts more than just our health, but that’s a discussion for another time.
In the following two and a half weeks, my wife and I were banished to our small apartment. It was just us and the cats. We slept, we ate soup, we slept, we did a little walking in various parks nearby, and we slept some more. We couldn’t see anyone, go anywhere, or really do anything we wanted to. We missed our families, our friends, our church, our classrooms. Everything was out of our control. Everything. Especially once we started feeling better. That was one of the more difficult things to cope with—feeling normal and still being asked to stay home while the world continued to turn around us.
So, why? That’s the question we have all been asking on a regular basis for the last year and a half. I can’t speak for you in your situations. But I think I can confidently speak for me, in light of the last few weeks.
As the good shepherd, Jesus is always looking out for his sheep. He leads, he protects, he comforts, he anoints, he provides, and he restores. This is what I preached about right before going into quarantine. Jesus does all of this for us. But there is a particular word in Psalm 23:1– 2 that really stands out to me as I reflect on it:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He MAKES me lie down in green pastures.”
He makes me lie down. Like a little kid who won’t sit still, so mom or dad says, “nap time!” I am that little kid. I always have to be doing something. It is very hard for me to take a day and do nothing. I have places to go, people to see, ministry to do, errands to run. The list goes on and on. So much to the point that, when my wife and I go on vacation, it usually takes me two or three days (sometimes more) to fully relax. By then, though, it’s time to go home and get back to the grind.
As much as I wanted to do all the things on my mile-long list, God wanted me to rest. He willed for me to rest. And since I have such a hard time with that—yes, he made me rest. He picked me up under the armpits and put me in my room. He ensured that I could not go anywhere for two and a half weeks. Rest.
While most of the Family of God staff was away recovering, one of my biggest concerns was if the ministry would be able to continue in our absence. But God was not worried. “Rest,” he whispered to us. God used our volunteers and our supporting congregations to step up in a mighty way to ensure the Word was proclaimed and the Sacrament was administered. My wife and I got to spend time together talking about a variety of subjects from theology, to Tiger baseball, to our future together. This was a gift we didn’t know we needed. I got to read books! I was able to study my Bible without worrying about going somewhere. I was even able to watch The Godfather for the first time.
It’s funny. When things are taken out of your control, you stop worrying. You let God do what God wants to do. It may not always be what you want, but it’s always best. Always. You let the One who has promised to never leave you, nor forsake you, and to always be faithful to you—you let Him run the show. After all, it was God who spoke the world into existence without our consent. It was God in Christ who spoke to Lazarus and raised him from the dead without our consent. It’s the same God who speaks words of forgiveness daily to each and every one of us without our consent. God always was, always is, and always will be in control.
As for you?
Well, you rest in Him. You listen to the voice of your Shepherd. It’s that voice that calls you His own child. He’s got this.
Photo (c) Maddie Meng/Unsplash