The world feels like a dream, or maybe a movie, as first schools shut down, then large group gatherings, then the libraries and DMVs. Next restaurants close their doors, and permitted gatherings again shrink in size. Until finally we are ordered to “stay at home.” I can feel the stress seeping through social media. Worry is bottled up as people try to play it cool, but all bets are off at the grocery store, where shelves are empty of bread, milk, and peanut butter, and every aisle of toilet paper is empty. The grocery store is where the masks come off. Not the medical grade paper masks so many are wearing, but the “I’m fine” masks are gone. We aren’t fine. We’re scared.
Looking at the Monsters
As we sit in self-isolation, hours ticking by while we homeschool the kids with their new distance-learning programs, spring cleaning in fits and starts when we get tired of the news, there is too much time to read and wonder what’s going to happen, and when.
Last night I thought it would be fun to watch Contagion – a 2011 apocalyptic movie about a deadly pandemic. Millions died in gruesome ways. Crime ran the streets as the civil infrastructure broke down. And so today I kept getting that movie confused with our current reality. I could hardly separate the truth from the fiction. I walked around ready to fend off desperate looters, wishing I had remembered to carry my pepper spray.
I’m known by my friends as someone who’s pretty easy-going. I’m the one who lets my kids try double-back flips on the trampoline. I’m the one who calmly asks if they’re bleeding when I hear a crash and a cry from downstairs. So why was I derailed by these fears?
I know why. It’s because I was looking at the monsters and not at my God. Reading the news and blogs coming out of the countries that were hit the hardest and shifting my full attention to the fearsome possibilities, I took my eyes off of My Strength and My Hope.
I took my eyes off My Strength
and My Hope
Remember Peter? Loud, decisive, best-friend-of-Jesus Peter? He did the same thing when the monsters came. He looked at them and feared them, and forgot about his Strength and his Hope. “And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:60-62) I am so thankful for this picture of a man who loved Jesus, but sinned against him. He had to turn back to Jesus and trust him for the forgiveness he so desperately needed.
But then let’s take a look at Stephen. When Stephen was faced with monsters of this world, his response was entirely different.
“‘Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’” This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit…
“ Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.
“Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, ‘We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.’
“So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, ‘This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.’
“All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel…
“When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’
“At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 6:3-5; 8-15; 7:54-60)
I am awestruck at Stephen’s grace under pressure. How was he able to face the monsters of hate and death and not be derailed in his faith?
Working backwards through this passage, we first see the compassion of Stephen. He had an unfathomable love for the very people who hated him; even in the very moment that they were killing him! “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” What a different response than the one I had when I reached into my pocket for my pepper spray! What would it look like for me to have compassion on my city, knowing that everyone is hurting and scared. The masks are off! Our city needs Strength and Hope.
The second thing that strikes me about Stephen is his gaze. When his murderers came, he didn’t look at the hate on their faces. He didn’t look at the rocks in their hands. He “looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
Forgive my candid description, but as the rocks struck his body and his head, and as the blood and swelling blinded him, his eyes were focused entirely on God. On Jesus. On Heaven. What a difference it would make if I would look at my God instead of my monsters! Then I would remember when the pain comes, that Jesus felt the pain of the nails in his hands and feet; and then he felt the pain of the world’s sin on his shoulders; and then he felt the unbearable pain of his own perfect Father’s rejection. And he endured that pain so we wouldn’t ever have to.
What a difference it would make if I would look at my God instead of my monsters!
I would remember when heartache comes, that it is understood by my Savior, who cried real tears at his friend’s tomb, knowing that our world wasn’t made for sin, death, or decay, but that we suffer it every day – even every moment.
I would remember when betrayal happens, that Jesus knows the ache of being betrayed by the ones he loved the most at the hardest time in his life; and that he endured their betrayal and rejection so that none of us would ever have to feel anything less than perfect love and intimacy from him.
And maybe, like Stephen, if I keep my eyes on Him, I can reach out to the world with love and compassion on their hardest days.
Finally, the string that ties this package together is the last thing I notice about Stephen in this story of his martyrdom. Stephen honored God and was used by God greatly in the moment of his death to bring hope to the disciples and to remind them of their mission to go out into the world and tell everyone about Jesus. But he wasn’t a superhero, super-powered to handle the moment of death as no other man could. But he was supernaturally empowered. “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit…”
The Holy Spirit was at work in Stephen to give him the strength to honor God in his hardest moments. That same Holy Spirit is at work in all who believe. That same Holy Spirit is in you and in me! So when we are faced with our monsters, when the schools close and libraries shut down and restaurants close their doors, we have his strength. We have Him, Our Strength!
So when we are faced with our monsters, when the schools close and libraries shut down and restaurants close their doors, we have his strength. We have Him, Our Strength!
You who have done great things,
O God, who is like you?
You who have made me see many troubles and calamities
will revive me again;
from the depths of the earth
you will bring me up again.
You will increase my greatness
and comfort me again.