I was interviewed yesterday by 3 wonderful young men who host a podcast entitled, “Provoke and Inspire”. The theme was: “Keeping Your Marriage (Or Any Relationship) Strong in a Pandemic!
You can listen to it here: https://www.buzzsprout.com/217687/3186751-episode-214-keeping-your-marriage-or-any-relationship-strong-in-a-pandemic-lockdown-livestream-11?fbclid=IwAR3y7a2zgSVkbNYv4fDKd8CUO1laa8ehyfbcFXmokN1C5J3JefQFjXZcd8Q
John Ortberg tells a story of the “keeper of the stream” in his book Soul-keeping. The tale revolves around a little town and the stream that flowed through its center. People walked by it. Swans swam in it. Kids splashed in it. The stream was the center piece of the town. One day the town council decided they had no need for the “keeper of the stream” so he was let go. At first, no one missed his talents. Not long after though, the stream grew dirty and polluted. Soon it was intolerable, and the village suffered illness due to the stream’s uncleanliness. Seeing their folly for releasing the “stream keeper” they quickly rehired him. Almost immediately their stream and village returned to their former glory. The moral of the story? The life of a village depended on the health of the stream. The stream is your soul. And you are the keeper. If there ever was a time to care for one’s soul, it is now. We are suffering a great deal of misfortune and challenge. It is critical we tend to our souls. But how?
I am going to devote the next two or three blog posts to this topic. As I do, I will expand our focus to also include our body. The reality is that we are not separate little compartments. My body affects my soul and my soul certainly affects my body. Therefore, it is critical to consider our whole being.
For years I’ve told people to pay attention to their body because it is the “dashboard of their souls”. Just like your car’s dashboard car alerts you to what’s going on under the hood, your body is also sending you signals. Are you paying attention to them? I know someone who had a check engine light show up on their car’s dashboard. They thought it was ridiculous because the car was still running. It ran for about another 20 miles and the engine shut down. No coolant. The motor was burned up. I meet with a good number of people who are ignoring the lights on their soul’s dashboard. At some point their “motor” is likely to shut down somehow.
Here’s why this is critical. We carry stress somewhere in our bodies. Your jaw clenches tightly. Maybe your shoulders rise up. Perhaps your gut or chest gets tight. Most everyone will hold their breath or take short, minimal breaths. These signals scream to your brain, “We’re under siege!” Immediately your nervous system readies for fight or flight. That means our best brain gives way to our amygdala, which possesses no capacity for reasoning or processing. Your body is sounding the alarm to move!!! Therefore, this is not your best time to ponder the meaning of life. Picture the squirrel in the middle of the road panicking as your car approaches. That’s what you and I when we are in this state. So, what can we do to bring our best brain back? Settle our bodies down. If you note the places of tension and intentionally relax them your body will gear down. It’s also important to take some deep, relaxed breaths signaling to your body and brain “Hey, we’re OK here.”
If we fail to pay attention to our dashboard, our body and soul wears down. We find it difficult to think clearly and to connect with God well. Hope and joy can seem like distant friends. Often the answer is to first help our bodies be still. In Psalm 46 this call to be still comes right in the midst of utter chaos. The author writes: (v. 6) “The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.” Shortly thereafter his counsel is to, “be still”. Incredibly wise. Be still. Quiet your body and you still your soul.
Here’s some practices to focus on:
- Pay attention to what your body is doing and where tension is landing.
- Relax those tense areas and focus on breathing deeply and freely.
- When stress hormones hit our blood stream, they are designed to get us moving. If we do not do some focused exercise each day, we allow those chemicals to keep firing our nervous system. This accentuates the jitteriness we feel when stressed. You need about 20 minutes of focused exertion (anaerobic or aerobic: walking, cycling, weight-lifting, etc.) to help metabolize those hormones properly.
- Additionally, with all the screen use we’re enlisting be sure to rest your brain and eyes. Do the 20-20-20. Every twenty minutes stand up and move around for at least 20 seconds and before you return to the screen look 20 feet away (it helps your eyes reset)
- Lastly do your best to sleep, drink water and eat well. Our bodies really are a temple (1 Cor. 6.19).
Part two: Soul keeping practices.
“Let us therefore strive to enter that rest…” (Hebrews 4.11)
One of the blessings of this interruption has been to watch friends and families do more together. Playing board games, going for walks, and eating together (all within socially safe distance of course!). As a relationship guy that encourages my heart. It’s great to see us pulling together, but there’s also something that can pull us apart, namely-striving. Striving is a buzz word for Christians, however striving to a psychologist is very important. In Psychology, the practitioner is interested in how you push yourself through challenges and changes. To make life a little more interesting, we all strive a little differently. So, in the course of this big challenge our close friends and family will strive differently from us. Some people will strive by reading everything they can find on the virus. Another group will not want to read anything. Close friends may want to talk it, while others won’t talk at all. One group will stockpile goods, and another will resist that. Chances are if you are sharing life with a person who strives differently eventually there will be a collision. The difference will become an irritant. So, what can we do about that?
- Get grace! Hebrews 4 concludes with an incredible invitation: Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. We need that grace so we can practice point 2.
- Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you… After studying thousands of couples, Dr. John Gottman discovered that nearly 2/3 of relationship conflict is about perpetual, unsolvable problems. This doesn’t prevent happy relationships—it’s how couples manage perpetual problems that makes the difference. (see: https://www.gottman.com/blog/reaching-compromise-second-part-state-union-meeting/)
- Receive the difference as a gift. Our thinking typically has bookends to it. We know where we are stuck and we mentally project to a point we’d like to get to. Then, that becomes our mental focus. However, it is limited. It’s just one possibility. That’s where we can get stuck in our thinking and irritated by someone who thinks differently. But, having relationships with different kinds of thinkers can liberate us from that entrenchment, IF we can accept their approaches as a potential gift to us.
This virus has demanded massive amounts of striving from all of us. Let’s not forget that we are in this together. That each of us may hold an encouragement, idea or plan that helps us negotiate the challenges more gracefully.
We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps. (Proverbs 16.9)
One of the first things mom drilled into my head was, “DO NOT interrupt others!”. I still hear her voice in the back of my head! So, God must not have had that conversation with my mom because He interrupts all the time! For example, Noah, stop what you are doing. No more normal life. Instead you’ll build an ark. Moses you are done with shepherding, it’s time to become Israel’s deliverer. Esther you might think you want a simple life, but off to the palace you go. The disciples? They were expected to drop their nets and follow. Interruptions everywhere! As for Jesus, it appears that his earthly ministry was a parade of interruptions. A quick count of Mark’s sixteen chapters produces at least 32 different interruptions. The fact is Jesus’ interruptions had interruptions!
So fast forward to today. Feel like your life is interrupted? NBA interrupted. NHL interrupted. Caribou coffee interrupted. Work interrupted. School interrupted. In the midst of all these interruptions what are we to do? Short answer-allow God to direct our steps. Before I expand on that, let me say clearly that I am not saying God sent this virus. But I will also say that God absolutely knows all about the virus. He’s not caught unaware. We were. Since He knows all about it, He may have a pretty good idea of how to help us walk through it. That’s where the direction of steps is important. That’s where what feels like an interruption to us, will actually be a course correction from Him.
So, to help you discern let me offer you four features of a divine interruption:
- A divine interruption grabs our attention. For example, Moses needed to see why the burning bush didn’t consume itself. It captured his attention (Ex. 3.3).
- A divine interruption has a compelling nudge to it. (See Paul in Acts 16.6-10)
- A divine interruption gives us our next step. (The disciples in Mt. 4.19-22)
- A divine interruption doesn’t provide the complete plan just what you need to know now. (Abram in Gen. 12.4)
Now it’s not essential to have all four of these markers evident in a divine interruption. God’s aim is to get your attention and shift your direction. But here’s the sobering question: will we be available to God? In Isaiah 6.8, there is a picture of a very rare quandary in God’s throne room. The prophet writes, “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Do you see it? God is wondering aloud about who will go? God has a plan. God has the provision. It comes down to who will be willing to go. Isaiah responds in a way that I imagine all heaven applauded, “Here I am. Send me.” Beautiful!
Chances are, in this crazy big interruption God has some smaller interruptions He’d like us to attend to. Keep your eyes open and your hearts ready! Send heaven into thunderous cheering as you say, “Here I am Lord. Send me.”
PS: If you are interested, a more expansive sermon on this topic was preached at City Hill Fellowship. See: https://www.facebook.com/cityhillchurch.ep/videos/807193710100974/?t=0
6 Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need and thank him for all he has done. 7 Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.
I woke up last night at 1:30 am. Wide awake, my brain running at about 110 MPH. It was screaming with thoughts. I was taking mental inventories of how much food we had and how long that could last. Then I moved to electricity and heat. What if that goes down?! Now my brain was bouncing like a ping pong ball. This concern. That person. What about this? What about that? I tried to turn it off. That didn’t work. I pretended it wasn’t happening. Believe it or not that didn’t work either. I tossed. I turned. Then I remembered- “then”. Look at Philippians 4.7. It begins with the word “then”. Then means there is an “if” somewhere. Sure enough, there it is in verse 6. If I trade my worry for prayer, telling God what I need AND thank Him for what He’s done; “then”.
I am fairly certain I’m not a well-practiced worrier. But I was practicing last night. Do you know why? I was concerned about another word in Philippians 4.7-guard. The word guard is a military word. Picture the soldier outside of camp “standing guard”. I was fretting over who was guarding me in the midst of this mess. That’s exactly what Paul is addressing here, God’s peace will stand guard over your heart and mind! Wow. That’s what I want. No, that’s what I need. The beautiful thing here is that it exceeds all of my understanding. I don’t have to have it all figured out to experience peace! That’s so helpful to me because internally I like to have a pretty good idea of where all this is going before I let go and let God. Paul is preaching to me, “it’s not dependent on your understanding Mark. Hand it over to God. Thank Him for all that He has done so far. Then let the peace of Christ stand guard.”
Finally, what I love about this passage is that this is not written from a guy in an ivory tower. It’s Paul in jail! Not a fun place. Prison would give me a lot of fodder to worry on. Yet here is a guy who has discovered the spiritual secret to overcoming worry and panic. It’s all right here in Philippians. Stress tested and found reliable. What a joy!
You may be holding up a little better than me. I hope so. Nevertheless, every soul craves a faithful guard that provides a sense of peace. Paul provides answers to that end. Be sure to practice them! When worry hits turn it into your prayer list. Don’t forget to say thank you. “Thank you’s” remind you of how many ways God has answered your prayers in the past. That will give you a shot of hope for the future. Then, there’s that word again, let the peace of God stand guard over your heart and mind. Peace be with you!
Living in the information age certainly has its downside doesn’t it? Much like the housing collapse of 2008, this COVID-19 virus blindsided us and flipped our worlds upside down. But, true to the age we live in, there is no lack of information. Just one Goggle search this morning produced 4,320,000,000 results in 0.55 seconds! I risk suggesting that perhaps we don’t need any more information. What we may need is something to calm our troubled hearts. My suggestion is to do some old things. A simple daily practice. You can find a broader context for this practice in the sermon I gave last week (https://vimeo.com/397723393).
Here’s the idea in a nutshell. Psalm 23:6 declares, “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” There’s a lot of historians that believe David wrote this Psalm later in his life. Quite likely when he was in exile after his son Absolom decided to launch a coup. Suffice it to say, if that’s true, there weren’t a lot of easily discovered places goodness and mercy followed David in that season. But they were there! David just needed to carefully look for them. It’s in the recognition of God’s daily mercies that one can take heart-even in the most challenging times. Far too much focus can fall on the challenges of our day. Why not devote some attention to discovering God’s goodness and mercy that has pursued you each day?
So tonight, as you lay down, look back and ask God to show you His goodness and mercy. Last night Betsy and I practiced this. Just listening to her account calmed my soul. It wasn’t all earth-shattering movements. It was things like noticing the joyful song of a cardinal and having an opportunity to calm someone’s fears. The power is not always in the size of the gift but rather in seeing the presence of the Giver. It’s an old practice but certainly worth a new try.
“It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night.”