Month: May 2020

Elijah’s Self-Quarantine

Isolation has been hard these days. It’s easy to play the comparison game as other countries begin lifting their restrictions: easy to feel forgotten and alone, to weep. But the Lord doesn’t leave us there.

1 Kings 18 -19
Elijah has one of the greatest spiritual highs of his life. He and the false prophets have a throw-down on top of a mountain, and after they dance and wail and cut themselves for hours waiting for their idol to respond, Elijah calmly steps up to bat. After some smack talk, he repairs God’s altar. He floats the wood and sacrifice in water, and he prays serenely for God to accept the sacrifice and show the people who is the real God in Israel.
And wouldn’t ya know it, fire blasts down from heaven and incinerates not just the offering, but the altar too.
The people turn to God. Elijah takes care of the false prophets. He prays for rain and breaks a drought in the name of the Lord. AND he has the nerve to taunt the king: “better get in out of here before the rain catches up with you.”
Seems like a nice ending to the story. Tie it up with a bow. Except the story doesn’t end there. In spite of the phenomenal faith Elijah demonstrated, he runs and hides when his life is threatened. He sits melodramatically under a tree and asks the Lord to kill him, “for I am no better than my fathers.” He thinks at the end of the day he’s accomplished nothing for and with the Lord.
In his misery, he slept. An angel woke him twice to eat, and then sent him to be alone with God.
The Lord asks Elijah why he is there. He answers with a response he must’ve been turning over and over in his mind, savoring the unfairness of it: I’ve done my duty to you, Lord, but the people always turn away from you and kill your prophets—I’m the only one left and they want my life too!
The Lord doesn’t answer in the way Elijah expected. From the mouth of a cave he watches a powerful wind tear through the mountain, an earthquake shake it to its roots, and a fire singe the stones. But the Lord was not in these displays of power. When Elijah hears a low whisper he knows to cover his face and enter the awesome presence of his God. Again he repeats his complaint, with calculated memorization.
Again the Lord answers perhaps not as Elijah expected. He sends Elijah on with instructions, and at the end he says, “I will leave 7,000 of my people who haven’t bowed their knees or kissed the idols.”

Isolation has been hard these days. No matter how high and strong my faith can feel, the smallest difficulty can bring my spirit crashing down again to self-pity, doubt, and depression. It’s easy to play the comparison game as other countries or even cities begin lifting their restrictions: easy to feel forgotten and alone, to weep melodramatically under a tree. But the Lord doesn’t leave us there.
He sustains us with rest and nourishment. He leads us into his presence. When we complain he reminds us of who he is, and that his still, small voice is always near at hand if we will listen. And as if that weren’t  enough, he often reminds us that we *aren’t* in fact, alone. For Elijah it was 7,000 faithful God-followers. We aren’t as isolated as we think. God has not only preserved and sustained his people, but he has allowed them to flourish in the harshest of circumstances, to bloom under the weight of persecution or trauma or hardship.

Moral of the story? Sometimes you need to sit yourself in timeout, take a nap, and have a snack and a juice box. And when you feel better, go into the Lord’s presence. Stand in awe of his power. Hear his low whisper in your heart. And recognize that your troubles are not unique to you. We have brothers and sisters out there fighting the same fight, struggling with the same discouragement and isolation, wondering just the same if the things they’ve done with and for the Lord have made any difference. But take heart: the Lord has preserved thousands by your side, flourishing under the same adversity.

Alone with Death

I am by no means the first to compare our Covid quarantine to Noah’s time spent on the ark, but I find it particularly encouraging and insightful. Maybe that’s just because it reminds me that our situation—locked up at home—could be so much worse.

Can you imagine what it was like for Noah? Genesis tells us that after he loaded up all 8 people in his family, at least 2 of every kind of animal, and 14 of quite a few of them, they shut themselves up in the ark. And they waited. For a year and half a month.

For over a year Noah was on that ark. He only saw his family members. He only heard the repetitive noises of snuffling, chewing, flies buzzing, and water lapping against the sides of the boat, maybe rain drumming on the roof or timbers creaking. He only smelled manure, sweat, decaying hay, and musty wood.

But that wasn’t all Noah was alone with. Death must have been heavy on his mind. Alone with his thoughts, how many faces of neighbors and friends did he remember as the floods swept the earth? How did he cope with the smell of rotting flesh coming from outside the ark? Every time he closed his eyes, did he see grisly images like dismembered limbs floating on the flood waters? Were the sounds of shrieks and cries for help burned into his memory as he listened to people scramble for safety outside the ark? Did some of them even try to hang on to the outside of the ark, scraping their nails along its sides or pounding on its wooden beams begging to be let in?

Our isolation differs from Noah’s in many ways, but we too are shut up alone or in close quarters with our families. Our time is also set to the repetitive accompaniment of noises we’ve become all too familiar with. Maybe it’s loud chewing or pencils tapping, a dog door flicking open and shut, or a neighbor’s power tools.

Alone with our thoughts, many of us have also come face to face with death just as Noah did. The news on our phones or televisions bombard us with images of masks and over-capacity hospitals. We read charts that forecast death. We dwell on thoughts of our loved ones at high risk or who have already been exposed to the virus. Their faces are always on our mind. The separation we sit in so uncomfortably stokes our worry for vulnerable neighbors and friends. Maybe we can send or bring them groceries, or maybe our lockdown is so strict we can only call on the phone or fret and pray. But like Noah, we have been alone with death. We have faced its implications and considered our own mortality. Our world has been shaken, and we recognize the fragility of our systems, our way of life, our families, and even our own bodies.

Just like Noah’s must have, our stamina ebbs and flows. Some days we tackle a new hobby or DIY task. And some days we lay in bed perhaps too long or stare too blankly at a wall we’ve become intimately familiar with.

Noah must have dealt with all the sudden mood swings from daring hope for an end of his ordeal, to dashed optimism when the birds returned with nowhere to rest their feet. We feel the same repetitive sharp sting of rising hope and deflated optimism as we watch the news and hope for lightening travel restrictions, or openings of our favorite parks or restaurants. Some days the smallest things break our morale, like a hug we can’t give on someone’s birthday, a baby gift we can’t deliver, or a broken WIFI connection that keeps us from worshipping together with our church families.

An entire year later, Noah stepped out onto firm ground again. Maybe he panicked as he felt the earth wobble under his feet, before he realized the motion only came from his legs, used to bracing against the pitch and roll of a ship. Maybe he looked around with tears in his eyes, rejoicing at the flowers and trees and new life he saw. Or maybe his tears came from stepping out onto a barren, death-soaked landscape, wondering what his new life would look like on this unfamiliar terrain.

Many of us are beginning to see signs. They aren’t the movements of birds like they were for Noah, but instead we see new life as people venture back out. Maybe we see families on a walk, businesses opening back up, news reports of lifting restrictions, lines diving downward on graphs of the disease, pets in the park. As things begin to change and we consider leaving our ark, what awaits us outside? There is renewed life, of course, but many things have changed and may never be the same again.

Noah’s first act upon this new ground was to worship. Amidst all the death, new life, confusion, and trauma, Noah worshipped God and acknowledged him as our Creator, worthy of our praise. The Lord was pleased with Noah’s faith, and he promised never again to destroy the earth and all that is in it. To mark this promise, God set a rainbow in the sky. It was to remind Noah and all his descendants for all of time that never again will such death sweep the earth. We can look up at the rainbow today and remember that after sorrow and trauma comes vibrant color, beauty, and the reminder that despite all we have suffered and seen, the Creator still holds to his word.

Not long ago I walked across my yard yet again, and a friend called out to look up in the sky. A halo rainbow ringed around the sun, what some might call, ironically enough, a corona rainbow.


The Lord is in control even of these uncertain times, and as everything around us changes, he remains the same—steady and unmoving. As we consider what life will be like on the far side of this global pandemic, let us first make time to worship as Noah did, and to remember the kindness of our God and his mercy marked in the colors of the rainbow.

Let us also consider the kind of person we want to be when we step out of quarantine. The story of Noah isn’t the only one in the Bible we can draw wisdom from for these strange days of ours.

Though it seems an unlikely story, Jacob and Rachel can teach us a bit about our isolation too. Jacob fled from his family in fear for his life, and he met with God in a vision along the way. His life was upended, and he didn’t yet know if this God would provide for him and keep him safe. When he finally reached his uncle’s house, he was in a foreign land with family who may not have even spoken his language. The first time he saw Rachel leading the flocks to water to drink, he helped her with the animals before he kissed her and wept in front of everyone. Whatever his motives, Jacob loved her.

He agreed to work seven years for his uncle in order the pay the bride price and marry Rachel. When his uncle tricked him and swapped Rachel for her sister Leah on the wedding night, Jacob agreed to work an additional 7 years for Rachel. He was so deeply in love with her that the story says all those years—working for a scheming uncle, being mistreated, spending blistering day and bitter night outside with livestock—all those years felt like nothing to him. They seemed like only a few days because of his deep love for Rachel.

Our quarantine time won’t last for years like Jacob’s work for his uncle did. But like Jacob led a slower-paced life caring for animals and never straying far from home, many of us have led slower, calmer lives during quarantine. The change of pace has given me more time to worship, to pray, to be in the Word. If I have accomplished nothing else, I hope this sweet time with the Lord has drawn me closer to him. If I do nothing “meaningful” besides spend time in the Lord’s presence, the long days and lack of schedule, the frustrations and cabin fever, all of them will have been worth that prize. What a blessing it would be to end this time so in love with the Lord that we could say it only felt like a few short days to us. What a sweet thing it would be to remember the many days as few, because of the deeper relationship we won by the end of them.

As nice as that sounds though, it’s not easy to put ‘get closer to the Lord’ on our to-do lists, or to block off our schedule for it between lunch and afternoon nap time. So how do we measure our productivity during this time? Through checklists and DIY projects? By the number of new recipes we’ve tried or garden plots we’ve planted? Do we quantify our productivity by counting our minutes on zoom and FaceTime calls? Is it a magic number of trips to the grocery store wrapped in masks and a haze of hand sanitizer? None of those are bad activities. Many of them are fruitful and edifying. But they shouldn’t be our main goal or the way we tick off our days.

So do we go broad and measure our quarantine ‘success’ in vague terms like “faithfulness” and “obedience?” We can quantify that just about as easily as we can count the number of times we’ve fantasized about having a prison break to get out of the house, or how often we’ve imagining what it must be like not to have to cook for our families all day every day.

It’s fair to say each of our quarantine times will look different. And that’s okay! Faithfulness and obedience should be our priorities, but we must prayerfully seek the Lord. He will lay tasks on our heart to occupy our time and serve him under these unusual circumstances. Paul wrote letters from jail to his mentees and churches he’d planted. Noah just kept alive his family and an entire zoo. Joseph counted the days in prison and tried to remember the Lord was with him even when he’d been forgotten by everyone else. John had psychedelic visions about the end of days from his exile (doesn’t THAT feel a little too real). Each had a different purpose through their time of forced stillness, just as we will.

But perhaps our pattern should come from Jesus. When he chose to spend 40 days in the wilderness, he didn’t keep many records of what he did with his time. We don’t know much about it besides how he finished. He was full of God’s word. He had it memorized and cherished deep in his heart. He was deeply immersed in the presence of the Father. He’d spent so much time in prayer that he knew the Father’s mind and his purposes. And he knew his vulnerabilities. He knew the temptations he would face, and he knew how to respond to them. Jesus came out of his time in the wilderness prayed up and prepared for full time ministry.

How have you spent your “wilderness” time? Are you more full of God’s word than when you started? Have you spent so much time with the Father that you know him more deeply and fully? Have your eyes been opened to your own sin, and do you know your vulnerabilities and habitual temptations more honestly for having stared them in the face?

As we consider our lives after quarantine, as we prepare to leave our homes and return to work if we can, we must ask ourselves simple questions: Am I closer to the Lord than when I began? Have I spent more time in prayer than I would have otherwise? Do I know more of God’s word than I did before? Have I noticed God’s work in my life and thanked him for it? If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no,’ you don’t have to be ashamed. Just take small steps to pray more often, or to set aside time to read your Bible. Simple as that.

By the end of this, no matter how much sourdough or banana bread we’ve made, do we recognize what truly sustains us? Can we say with Jesus that “man cannot live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God?”

Can we say we have learned, like Martha with her to-do list, not to be “worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, [to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen] and it will not be taken away from her.”

Can we respond like Noah and offer a sacrifice of praise as we remember the Lord’s promise never to destroy the earth again?

Can we say of our times, with Joseph, “you meant evil against me but God meant it for good?”

Can we say as Jacob said about Rachel, that the years seem to us but a few days because of our love for the Lord?

Can we say like Paul, after renewing old relationships, “I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers” or “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for you, I always pray with joy…”?

And finally can we say we have redeemed the time? Are we ready to respond, like John, “come, Lord Jesus”?