Moving Forward in Uncertain Times

Over the weekend,  the day after my PCP warned me once again of my medical fragility, my mother-in-law, the kids, and I trotted down the street to the end of our cul-de-sac.   A neighbor was having a birthday party:  The first birthday party we have attended since our world shut down.

As the governor lifted to restrictions in our area surrounding COVID-19 precautions, we have maintained a constant dialogue surrounding how we should move forward as a family.  Before this pandemic, with my chronic illnesses and driving restriction, I rarely left the house anyway.  I may have ventured out twice a week, maybe three times if I had a doctor’s appointment.  Honestly, it is exhausting and too much of a hassle. The only events that generally pull me out of the door are events for the kids, doctors’ appointments, and worship and church events in which I am involved.  Even though I am a pastor’s wife, our sweet, understanding congregations have generally laid down any expectation that they might generally hold for the pastor’s wife with the awareness that I am limited mightily by my body’s handicaps and illnesses.

We have been talking, however, knowing that Jordan begins his new appointment in less than a month, if it is wise for me to plan to be present at our new church when it reopens.  While face masks are encouraged to prevent transmission of the illness, they also restrict my breathing enough to push my already borderline oxygen below safe limits, leaving me breathless, overheated, confused, and dizzy.  Each discussion about COVID restrictions brings up PTSD surrounding my recent ICU stay, and my tears flow freely as I desperately whisper, “I simply can’t go through that kind of suffering again.  I just can’t take it.”

 But as Jordan and I discussed the balance between fear and wisdom for those of us who are compromised, we decided that it would be best for me to take it case-by-case, prayerfully seeking the leading of the Spirit with each situation and decision.

This is a frustrating conclusion, because I love black-and-white scenarios.   Either stay home all the time, or live freely without restriction.  None of this grey, moment-by-moment evaluation that involves the answer, “Yes and no.”

When I ask Jordan a question, to which he responds “Yes and no,” I have to hold myself back from immaturely sticking my tongue out at him in retaliation.  It is either yes or it is no.  It’s not both.  That’s lame, in my humble opinion.

But here we are, embarking on a season of yes and no.  Yes, I can engage in some activities.  No, I cannot be in large groups, but I must take it day-by-day, just as the children of Israel did as they set out in their journey from Egypt.  They left with no clear idea of where they were going:

Imagine God leading you out one day, with no set destination, but with the vague promise that He will lead the way.  “Okay, now turn right.  I’m not going to tell you the next turn until you are there.”  My control-freak self would go batty with the awareness that I had no idea what was next.  I imagine that Moses might have felt a bit frustrated that the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night did not have a “zoom-out” function.

As I reflect on this place of continual moment-by-moment provision, I also envision the verse in Psalm 119:105 that says that God’s word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.  As I see a lamp for my feet, I see the illumination of an incredibly short distance, possibly just inches ahead of my feet, as I walk in the dark.  Sometimes, God only illuminates the next step.  Often, in that space, we come to know the nature of God more intimately and enter into sweeter fellowship with our Guide and Companion.

This decision to trust God in the minutiae of each daily decision was confirmed this weekend at our little neighbor’s fourth birthday party.  The party started in my neighbor’s garage, and presents were carried inside to be opened later indoors.  While there were only between 15 and 20 individuals in the garage, as I approached the driveway with my kids, something inside of me alarmed.  With the awareness of my anxiety, I also continuously try to prayerfully discern how to separate when my anxiety is speaking from when the Spirit is speaking.  With this alarm on Saturday morning, I also felt deep peace instead of  fear or anxiety.  I simply felt the urgent nudging of the Spirit to leave.  He whispered in my head, “You are to leave. The kids can stay until it is time to go into the house.”

And so, without hesitation, I told my mother-in-law that I was going home and for her to bring the kids home when it was time to go inside.  As a people pleaser, I felt bad for “bailing” suddenly.  I feared in my flesh that there might be judging.  There is often some form of judgment, but my skin is slowly thickening a bit.  Funny how, as we seek for God to soften our hearts, we also seek for God to thicken our skin so that we can choose to not cling to offense or bitterness. As I walked confidently back to our house, I felt a sense of peace as I realized that this internal alarm is set in place by the Holy Spirit as a form of protection.

Over this season, as I have watched friends lead worship in small groups on live feeds, and more recently, in gathered smaller congregations, I have longed for the sweet joy of worshiping in community.  If I am being honest, pangs of jealousy have hit occassionally as I wish that I could live outside of the restrictions that my body places upon me.

I have wondered to the Lord what my worship is going to look like during this strange and unpredictable season, and I have longed for the chance to lead again in bands, with believers together.  My heart longs for corporate worship. All through the New Testament, the church does not cease meeting together, and in so many ways, this forced separation, though absolutely necessary, has felt agonizingly wrong.   As I say this, though, I am reminded not to forget the character, strength, and anointing that is forged in the secret places, hidden under the Lord’s mighty wing.  There is great value to seasons of hiddenness and unhindered intimacy with the Lord.

Last night, however, my sweet friend Jessica and her husband Aaron invited us over for dinner.  After dinner together, Aaron handed out instruments, and our two families of four played and worshipped.   And it was glorious.  We have another friend who lives alone and has joined our family one evening each week for dinner and worship.  And so we join our instruments and voices, Lily and Elijah banging on drums or haphazardly strumming my ukulele, Jordan playing his Cajon, and our praises rising in our fenced in back yard or our comfy living room.  And we bless one another, pray over one another, volley songs back and forth, taking turns picking our favorites and listening for the leading of the Spirit.

I have not been in front of a congregation in worship in months.  But I have tasted and seen the goodness of God in worship nonetheless.  I also trust Him, the God of the pillar of smoke by day and the pillar of fire by night, the God of the manna in the desert (not too much, nor too little), the one who says, “My strength is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.”  (2 Corinthians 12: 10).

He is the one who tells me when to move and when to pause, when to go out and when to stay home.  He is the one who declared clearly to my heart the Sunday before Sepsis and respiratory failure ravaged my body, “Your life matters.”  He declared it again word-for-word through the lips of a friend as I lay in that hospital bed a week later.  And if He declared it then, it remains true now.

While my life is not defined simply by my physical existence in this reality, God has made it clear that He is working now to preserve my life because His plan for this life, my life, is not finished on this side of eternity.  And so, I will honor the One who values my life by taking responsibility for my physical well-being.

He miraculously brought me home from the bed that threatened to become my death-bed.  Lying in that bed, delirious with pain, with infection coursing through my blood, barely breathing with collapsed lungs, I knew it wasn’t over. I clung to my family and my desperate need to be with them.  But what held me firmly in my place of peace was this reality that was true because the Spirit inside of me continued to speak it to my heart:  My earthly ministry is not complete.

My role on this planet, for such a time as this, is far from finished, so I rested, calmly telling them to place me on the bi-pap machine when presented with an impossible choice:  Go through what they assessed would be an incredibly risky procedure for my fragile body by placing me on a ventilator, potentially killing me in the process; or placing me on a bi-pap machine, which was most likely sorely insufficient for my level of respiratory failure. With no fear, I let them sedate me, and I rested, knowing the miracle was coming.  I didn’t have to know how.  But my Lord held my hand, and I had never felt safer than when I drifted off to sleep under the care of the Most High God.

I am here now, two and half months later, going on bike rides and walks, living my best life because God floods every ounce of it with Himself.  I can trust Him in this time of seemingly impossible judgment calls, having to choose between what appear to be two evils.  But I know that He goes before.  He goes behind.  And He is for me.

As I share this, I also want to acknowledge that physical death is not kingdom defeat. Death has already been defeated. Had I physically died in that ICU bed, God would still be good, faithful, loving, and healer.  In our short-sightedness, we often forget that prolonging this current life isn’t necessarily equivalent with healing.  God’s healing takes on many forms, and ultimate healing takes place when we breathe our last earth-breath and enter into eternity, where there is no more pain, suffering, tears, or death.  We often hold white-knuckled to narrow definitions of miracles and healing, and we must pray for eyes to see and ears to hear the truth of what God says about healing.  We cling desperately to this finite life and these vapor-days in our fleshly bodies because we cannot properly see the glory of eternity.  We also have pretty intense attachments to one another, which is good and appropriate as long as we don’t move another person onto God’s throne in our lives and form little gods out of them.

I suspect, however, that one day our eyes will be open to the vastness and multitude of God’s miracles that we overlooked or even saw as total defeat.  In this season, my purpose is here, with my feet planted on this slightly-tilted, ever-spinning horribly broken planet.  In a breath, I will know as I am fully known when I can finally eye-lock with my Savior.  Oh, what Glory!

For now, in the absence of clear long-term direction, I follow the pillar of God’s guidance.  I wait for the sufficiency of God’s manna.  I walk in obedience to the last clear call I heard from the heart of God, and I trust Him that He is not a God who toys with us or teases us.  He doesn’t veil His guidance because He enjoys stressing us out.  His heart is for us, and He honors those whose hearts belong to Him.  That’s my sweet, tender, compassionate, fierce, holy, intimate, direct God.

When our hearts are centered on His heart and we value what He values, we know that this is our reality:  Ask and it shall be given.  Seek and you shall find.  Knock and the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7).

God doesn’t delight in confusion, but loves the truth.  God does not mock us or belittle us, but He rejoices in our victories.  Therefore, He will not abandon us or betray us.  I, for one, trust Him more than any thing or any one else in the world.  He is my unshakable foundation.

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Pastor Al Gilbert

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