Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Spiritual first aid for pandemic stress

Rev. John Zehring

March 16, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic unfolds into uncharted territory minute-by-minute. We can hardly fathom what is happening to our world, where coronavirus is going, or when might it arrive on our doorstep. The emerging health and consequent economic threat cause stress, anxiety, fear and panic.

People of faith possess a deep reservoir of spiritual resources for facing difficult times. When the news flashes at us faster than we can assimilate it, we are well-served to be reminded of the foundations of our trust in God.

People of faith possess a deep reservoir of spiritual resources for facing difficult times. When the news flashes at us faster than we can assimilate it, we are well-served to be reminded of the foundations of our trust in God.

Include the following in your spiritual first aid kit, to be with you as you process the fast-changing and stressful pandemic:

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1). This is one of the most beautiful, comforting and beloved verses in the book of Psalms. It reassures that God gives you strength beyond your own, God helps you, and God is your refuge when you need a safe harbor in which to shelter. Anytime you experience stress, feel the need for help or for extra strength, this is your verse.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:34). Mark Twain wrote “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Or, as Tom Petty put it:

“I’m so tired of being tired
Sure as night will follow day
Most things I worry about
Never happen anyway” 

Most troubles never happen and most worry is wasted. Worry dissipates energy, muddies focus and zaps vitality. So, we are comforted to hear Jesus say, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” In the Revised Standard Version, it is translated “Do not be anxious.” In anxious times, we are grateful for Jesus’ encouragement to stop being anxious about tomorrow and let today’s trouble be enough for the day.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1-2). When half the world seems to be closed during the global pandemic and no one wants to go to be with other people, you can turn off the screen, shut down the news, and go outside to reflect upon how God is your help. When the writer of this Psalm wanted to feel close to God, he did not go into a building. He went outside.  As he gazed at the majestic hills, perhaps he reflected that they existed long before him and they would continue to look the same way long after he was gone. Surrounded by a sense of permanence, perhaps he considered what a tiny speck he was in the universe of God’s creation.  And yet, the hills reminded him of the Creator’s personal help and intimate relationship. Take a walk, center yourself in God’s creation, and remember that your help comes from the Lord.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  (Matthew 11:28-30). You do not need to carry your burden or face your stress alone. You have a partner in Jesus to share the load. Consider the physics of an ox yoke or “oxbow.” There are two holes, one for each animal. They pull together, in tandem, so that the load is shared. Neither could pull the burden alone, but together they can. If only one animal were wearing the oxbow, the weight would be uncentered, off-balance.

Now imagine that same oxbow, only with you in one side and Jesus in the other. You and he pull your burden together, in tandem. The load is shared between you. Alone, you could not pull the weight. It would be uncentered, off-balance, too heavy. But yoked together, you and Jesus can pull any burden. In the stress and worry of a global pandemic, you have a partner to pull with you. With that partner, your burden is light.

“My times are in thy hand.” (Psalm 31:15). Psalm 31 is one of the most powerful prayers you can pray. “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand.” You can pray this short prayer about anything, entrusting into God’s hand whatever it is that you worry about and those for whom you care. Turn it over to God. My son or daughter is in your hand. My beloved spouse’s situation is in your hand. My health is in your hand. My career is in your hand. This conflict I am facing is in your hand. My financial problems are in your hand. What I am worrying about is in your hand. Even this global crisis is in your hand.

The Psalmist used the poetic phrase “my times” to symbolize that everything is placed into God’s hand. My times. All of me. My past, including my regrets. My present, including my worries, problems and challenges. My future, including my stress about the unknown. My times, dear Lord, are in your hand. As an old credo proclaims—I may not know what the future holds, but I know Who holds my future. Place the uncertainty, worry and unknown about the future into God’s hand.

“We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” (Hebrews 6:19). The anchor is the Bible’s metaphor for hope. The anchor of hope increases your holding power in rough seas. An anchor holds firm and provides you with hope which is a “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” Stress is reduced and worry calmed when your soul trusts in your holding power. The purpose of an anchor is to dig in and hook the bottom. An anchor must hook into something. It is not just a heavy weight. If it did not dig in, the anchor would simply drag across the bottom. The anchor digs in, hooks the bottom and holds on. That is its holding power. Your faith gives you hope and holding power.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4 KJV). The majestic poetry of this verse has comforted countless people through the ages. A better translation of “shadow of death” is “valley of dark shadows.” The New Revised Standard Version more accurately translates it “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil.” Psalm 23 is not just about valleys of death, but about every valley in everyday life. It is in dark valleys, like a global pandemic, that you can feel stress. After all, you know neither how long the valley will be nor what is on the other side. The verse continues, “For thou art with me.” In difficult times, is that not what you want to know most; that God is with you? When you are aware of the Shepherd’s presence, you fear no evil. The words spoken in Isaiah (41:10) could just as easily be God’s word to you: “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”

The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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