“I am so Glad I Was Quarantined”

Two verses stand out as I think about our current worldwide isolation and “social distancing.” The first is Psalm 119:71 – “It is good that I have been quarantined, that I might learn your statutes.” The second is Paul’s response to his own circumstances as recorded in II Cor. 7:4 – “I am overflowing with joy in all of our quarantining.”

You noticed something fishy with my translation? Of course. In both verses, I have simply substituted “quarantine” for “affliction.” Doing this recently helped to drive home the point for me. Yes, being quarantined is a complicated matter and can easily be perceived as affliction, though I’m discovering an upside to having normal routines disrupted.

Here’s what happens when we are quarantined: isolated from others, our normal patterns are dislocated and general schedules go out the window. True, we may not always notice the positive effects of this isolation. Before being quarantined, we might have complained about the “rat race,” busyness, and lack of time for relaxation. During isolation we still have plenty to complain about. It may be loss of income, health concerns, anxiety, governmental overreach, or boredom. But what about after quarantining?

I suspect that, in spite of being forced to isolate and regardless of the anxiety prompted by a pandemic, many of us will look back on these days as a fortuitous experience where we were compelled to do what we simply could not bring ourselves to do on our own, namely, break the routine, get back to simple pleasures long neglected, and re-establish crucial habits.

Just yesterday Kathy and I  did something for which we don’t ordinarily feel like we have time. We played two board games, something we never do. Kathy started a jigsaw puzzle and I have been reading stuff for which I don’t ordinarily feel like I have time.

There is a metaphor in the Bible for social distancing. It’s called “the wilderness.” And there are at least five possible reasons for this occurring. See if any of these apply to your life…

First, John the Baptist illustrates the natural role of the wilderness as a place where preparation for later effective ministry can take place (Mt. 3:1; Mk. 1:3; Lk. 1:80; 3:2; Jn. 1:23). John spent much of the first 30 years of his life in isolation so he could come out of the wilderness for a dynamic 6 months of ministry before being executed.  

Second, we may opt for solitude out of fear, anxiety, or depression. Elijah’s desperate, even manic, travels into the wilderness are recorded in I Kings 19:1-18. Driven by fear of Jezebel, likely depressed in the aftermath of his mountaintop experience on Mount Carmel, stressed out beyond belief, he is visited by an angel in the wilderness (19:4) who encourages him to continue on his journey. He will eventually encounter God on Mount Sinai in a cave. What a serendipitous outcome!

Third, sometimes going into the wilderness is compulsory. Just check out Israel’s forty-year ordeal in the desert. Likewise, Moses spent forty years on the backside of the desert in order to stay alive (Ex. 2:15-21; Acts 7:23, 30). Or take a fresh look at the Holy Spirit “expelling” Jesus to be quarantined in the wilderness for purposes of testing (Mt. 4:1; Mk. 1:12; Lk. 4:1).

Fourth, at other times a season spent in the wilderness may arise out of necessity. Check out Jesus’ voluntarily opting for wilderness isolation and rest upon hearing the news of John the Baptist’s execution (Mt. 14:13; Mk. 6:31-32). While there, he used the occasion to perform the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000.

Fifth, at other times retreating into the wilderness can border on “taking a vacation.” In Mark 1:35 and Luke 5:16, Jesus got away from it all for a time of prayer. In Luke 4:42, it appears Jesus just needed a little peace and quiet. And in Luke 9:10-12 it appears that Jesus needed some quality time with his disciples. An isolated place was just what the doctor ordered.

However you choose to view this time of enforced isolation, one thing is certain: just like all of these characters in the Bible who benefited by time spent in the wilderness, so we can be thankful that God is at work during our quarantine to do something valuable in our lives.

Christmas Thoughts, 2013: “Arrivals are Great, But Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow”

Which is more impressive to you? That Jesus came to earth? Or that Jesus left heaven?

I post these thoughts on Christmas Day, 2013, not because I assume anyone is reading blogs this day. Rather, this is a profitable exercise for me on this momentous day.

Actually, these ideas are a fine-tuning and polishing of a newsletter that my wife and I sent out two months ago to our mailing list. Perhaps you are on that list, in which case you can either choose to ignore this posting or act on your curiosity to see if I actually improved the original writing.

The idea becomes increasing inescapable to me that God left his idyllic residence, crossing cultural barriers to lose his life in an alien environment of chaos and misery, subjecting himself to the workings of a foreign culture while bringing an alien message, ultimately to give up everything for…what…what shall we call it? His mission?

Departures can often be more momentous than arrivals, I say.

In my book, “Night Shift,” I recount an experience I had in late May of 1992. My oldest son, Dan, had spent his first year out of high school aimlessly trying to figure out what he was going to do with his life. After a year of this, he decided to enlist in the US Navy. I felt that this was a good move for him, but it was an emotionally difficult thing for me to say goodbye to him.

His departure was sandwiched between two painful experiences for me. In early May I had run over my foot with our lawnmower. A couple of weeks after Dan left, our beautiful black Labrador was struck and killed by a truck in front of our house. Coming between those two events, Dan’s departure is etched deeply into my consciousness by the emotional stress of that entire time period.

When I think of Dan’s time in the Navy, I have no clear memory of the events surrounding his coming home after his 6-year stint. But everything about his departure is clearly carved into my memory. I remember limping over to him on my crutches, fighting back tears, hugging him, saying an emotional goodbye. Departures are tough, especially when they occur in a context of stress and life’s ubiquitous pressures.

It is in this way that I think of Jesus at this time of year. Obviously we have a lot of narrative information in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 concerning Jesus’ birth- arrival. But what about his departure from heaven? We need to dig a little deeper for that. Oh, it’s there, but we need to seriously search for it. You see, it is not the Messiah’s arrival on earth, as amazing as that is, that stirs my thoughts this Christmas Day as much as it is his departure. I wonder about that departure from heaven. Could it possibly have been as amazing as his arrival on earth?

After all, it is what Jesus left that makes his coming so stunning. Earlier this month, Kathy and I left Baltimore for Florida. There was little that was remarkable about that. We left a cold climate for sunny climes, glorious days, and lovely beaches. No crowds will assemble at the airport to give us teary hugs and marvel at our sacrifice. But if we were to sell all and relocate to, say Calcutta, to work among the poor, diseased, and hopeless, the nature of our departure might become a salutary event worth noting.

If Jesus’ life is characterized by anything – more than his good works, more than his great teaching, more than his exemplary life – it is that in concert with the Spirit and his Father he left a place of perfection to immerse himself in a deeply damaged world. I see the clues that speak of the importance of Jesus’ departure from heaven.

First, in the Gospels, there are more occurrences of verbs depicting Jesus being “sent” than words that describe his “arriving”. In other words, the perspective of “the sender” (his Father and the Holy Spirit) seems to figure quite prominently in Jesus’ thinking and in the vocabulary of those who first told us his story.

Second, we have statements that speak of events before creation (cf. Matthew 13:34; John 17:5, 24; Ephesians 1:4; I Peter 1:20) that suggest some pretty big doings were going on. This suggests to me that we would do well to give more thought to what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (and angels!) were up to prior to creation.

If there were, in eternity past, a plethora of conversations surrounding Jesus’ departure from heaven concerning what Jesus would do in space and time, I would expect that the Trinity would be deeply engaged in those dialogues and that angels’ jaws would drop in shock at the imminent departure of the King.

In this regard, may I recommend a brief video clip that I think creatively and accurately gives a fresh perspective on Jesus’ departure to earth as an infant.

Here is the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TM1XusYVqNY

Finally, I love the endearing statements that link Jesus and the Father in an intimate relationship. These declarations may take the form of Jesus’ own words about his relationship with his Father. Or they may appear in comments made by other writers, such as the author of Hebrews, who describes Jesus as being “the radiance of his Father’s glory and the exact representation of his Father’s nature…” (Heb. 1:3).

My pain over my son’s departure to the Navy is understandable and shared by many. But Jesus leaving heaven, now that’s taking “parting is such sweet sorrow” to a whole new level.

Because we are apt to view the Bible through the lens of our own needs and wants, we may tend to emphasize Jesus’ arrival in Bethlehem (especially at this time of year) over his departure from his throne in heaven. After all, we needed him to come!

But if we see this season through the eyes of God, perhaps our hearts will be stirred to think more of what Jesus “left” than that to which he “came.” This season think of heaven, not the one you hope to go to, but the one Jesus left. Think of departures, not Jesus’ departure to heaven after his resurrection, but his abandonment of the place of idyllic glory to come into this world. Think of Jesus, not as poor, but “though he were rich…” (II Cor. 8:9).

Your Word is Like a Tummy Rub

Your Word is Like a Tummy Rub

You may think I’m making this up. You could be confused and think I’m writing for “The Onion” and that this is a cleverly-disguised spoof to trick my readers (if I have any). But no, this is for real.

Zondervan Publishing has just announced the release this summer of “Playful Puppies Bible.” The hype goes like this:

If you love puppies, you will love this Bible. Inside you will find 12 color pages of adorable puppy photos with inspirational thoughts that will encourage you day after day. The Playful Puppies Bible is just the right size to take along wherever you go. Features include: * Presentation page for gift giving * Ribbon marker * Words of Christ in red * 12 pages of adorable puppy photos, Scripture references, and inspirational thoughts *

When I first came across this, I thought someone was playing a joke on me. But then it became all-too apparent that this is for real. And so, being the practical guy that I am, I began to dream of ways to make this tool more effective for users.

My fertile mind quickly realized that the usefulness of the “Playful Puppies Bible” could be enhanced if there were various response sections after each reading – here are some examples –

BOWL OF FOOD (feed on God’s Word)

PAWS to reflect (meditations)

SCRATCHING AT THE FRONT DOOR (journal thoughts)

BARKING AND YIPPING (prayer)

FIERCE GROWLING (spiritual warfare)

WAGGING YOUR TAIL (having fellowship with other believers)

TUMMY SCRATCHINGS (allowing others to minister to you)

POOPING ON PAPER (giving back to others what you learned)

ON THE LEASH (daily walk of obedience)

And I wondered how the Bible would be different if the saints of old could have read a version like this. Jeremiah could have written, “Your Word is like a tummy rub,” instead of “Your Word is like a hammer that breaks the rocks in pieces.”

The Psalmist could have written, “It is good that I was scratched behind the ears, that I might learn Your Word,” instead of “It is good that I was afflicted, that I might learn Your statutes.”

Or “Your Word is like a bowl of Ken’l Rations and an dirty sock to gnaw on,” instead of “Your Word is like a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”

Jesus could have said, “If you retrieve that stick and bring it back to me, then are you my disciples indeed,” instead of “If you remain in my Word, then you are my disciples indeed.”

All of this is a bit mystifying, I think. If there is a Kingdom-advancing advantage to having a Bible with adorable puppy photos, it eludes me. In fact, it seems like one more of those things that American Christianity does that sabotages the hard-edged Great Commission, wartime lifestyle mentality so essential for the advance of the Gospel.

Somehow “The devil roams around like a junkyard dog wanting to be the alpha male. But you resist him by licking him all over and rolling on your back to bare your throat in submission…” doesn’t pack the wallop that Peter’s advice does: “Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith…”

I wonder if people who spend time in the “Playful Puppies Bible” will gain the fortitude to follow Jesus in the hard times, will be willing to forsake all to follow him, and will acquire the resolve to lay down their lives for the sake of the Gospel.

— Dave Shive, June 2012