Russell Levenson Jr: "Peace, Be Still": What to Do When the Coronavirus Comes Knocking

What scares you? What is it that makes you worry, or fearful or anxious? If you read the news today...there are a lot of things that might set our fear-o-meter on high....

I think sometimes it helps to put our fears in perspective if we look back, rather than look only at the what “is” and what “might be.” So, when I pulled these thoughts together, I decided to look back a bit and see what the world looked like five years ago this week.

In the spring of 2015, we were only just getting over our fear of the spread of Ebola. Both the MERS virus and Bird Flu viruses had re-emerged. ISIS was making daily headlines. The stock-market was a bit shaky – closing at 17,749.31; about 2000 below where it is today – but that may change, tomorrow, of course. And... and if you really wanted to be concerned, in March of 2015 there was an egg shortage, forcing Whataburger to reduce their breakfast hours!

Now, I do not mean to make light of anything we are moving through right now. This is a scary time – the Coronavirus is spreading – not just “over there,” but “over here.”

I suspect within the next several days, many of us will know someone who has been infected as tests become readily available. And while the stock market may be a bit higher than where it was, oil is, as you know, way down; about half the price per barrel than it was back in 2015. Schools are closed; quarantines are picking up; there is reason to be concerned about our economy – especially small businesses, and their owners and their employees – for whom we should pray.

What a mess!

There are the day to day things too – will I have enough time? Will I have too much time? Will I meet my bills, will I keep my job, what about my health? Is my cholesterol too high, my iron level too low...what if I miss the latest blockbuster hit – what will I have to contribute to the next party discussions – and what, goodness gracious, what to do about the run on toilet paper!

Maybe you were not fearful or anxious...but you are now!

You know, in times like this, I am struck by a few things. One of those is that all those things into which we pour so much of our time and energy can disappoint us, can let us down – are often so much more frail than we think.

We trusted in the stock market to propel us to wealth, and we are wondering if there will be anything left.

We trusted in spring to bring us the diversion of March Madness, and now we are mad that it has been cancelled. We look to daytime game shows or late night television for a little entertainment, and now they are either showing re-runs or offering lack-luster laugh lines to non-existent audiences. So the old standbys of security, well – seem to be standing off at a distance.

But, the other thing that strikes me is that when the wind is taken out of our sails, when the ground gets shaky or sandy under our feet – it is so tempting to give way to that too old, too familiar foe – ‘fear.’

You know, fear is not a new thing. To quote that great old band, Kansas, “Everything is dust in the wind,” which I suppose their take on Ecclesiastes. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done -- there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Fear, anxiety, worry, angst are not new. Let me use Mark 4:35-41 to go back further than five years – let’s turn back about 2,000 years, and get in a boat with Jesus and his disciples.

Now, keep this in mind, by the time we reach the scene in today’s Gospel, the Apostles have seen Jesus drive out an Evil Spirit in Capernaum in Synagogue, and later in that day heal Simon’s mother in law. When word got out about that, just after sundown, a whole slew of folks show up and Jesus heals, Mark tells us, “Many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons.”

They travel throughout Galilee and Jesus keeps driving out demons – heals a man with leprosy; heals the paralytic with that famous tag line – “get up, take your mat and go home...” As Jesus goes toe to toe with religious leaders, and wins every time, his followers see the crowds grow. His wisdom and power seem to exceed anything anyone had ever seen.

And yet...

What happens next. Jesus says, “Why don’t we take a break...let’s get away from the crowd...let’s take a little boat ride out on the beautiful sea of Galilee....”

Take in the scene: they are out on the water and Jesus – evidently a bit tired from all of that healing, teaching and demon dashing - decides to rest a bit. He settles in the back of the boat for a little nap.

As he does, a windstorm blows up. This version reports it this way... “a furious squall came up,” and waves start coming over the boat...swamping the boat, as our lesson says. In all the bobbing up and down, Jesus is sleeping like a babe in the crib.

Anxious, afraid, worried – probably terrified, the disciples roust Jesus. Even after all they have seen, they think Jesus must be a bit off center, “Hey man, wake up! What are you doing sleeping! Don’t you care that we are perishing!”

You can almost see Jesus tossing back a blanket, rolling his eyes, letting out a little sigh. He stands, Mark writes, and speaks to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” And at that, the wind dies down – and the water becomes completely calm. He looks around and says, “Guys, why are you so afraid? After all you have witnessed...knowing I have chosen you to go into the world for the sake of God you still have no faith?”

You might think they would have started crying, or perhaps burst out laughing, slapping each other on the back saying, “Well, of course silly of us!” But no, they say, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

What about you today? What is it that scares you? We all have reason to be anxious at this present hour.

Do you think Jesus is just sitting in the back of the boat taking a nap in the midst of our own turmoil? Is there part of you that would like to just go over and shake him and say, “Hey Jesus...don’t you care? I’m drowning here?”

I wonder, would Jesus say to us the same thing he said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

I confess, I’ve lived long enough and seen a great deal that there’s not a great many things that scare me; but I can worry, and be anxious; but usually, almost always, it is because things beyond my control are, at the end of my day, well - beyond my control!

And fear, angst, worry jump in and take their place – center stage if you will – whispering to me, “You are on your own...good luck, champ.”

What does Jesus tell us in the sermon on the Mount? “Do not worry about your life...” (Matthew 6:25). “Yeah...right!” We might be tempted to say, he does not have my life. And yet he’s pretty steadfast – “Do not worry.” Notice he does not say, “Kinda worry,” or “maybe worry every now and then.” No, it seems to be a command: “Do not worry,” you know, like “Do not not commit not kill, etc.” Jesus was pretty serious about this one.

Because, he knew, as you and I know deep down, that when we worry, what we are saying is we’ve lost faith in God. We believe somehow God is asleep at the switch, napping in the stern; he has forgotten the waves surging over my bow. And yet – your fear is not new under God’s sun....

When Moses tried to draw back from his divine call to rescue the enslaved Hebrew nation because he had a stuttering problem, God assured Moses that he had no reason to fear, for he was not alone. (Exodus 3:11 ff.)

When Jeremiah attempted to bow out of God’s call on his life to be a prophet to a wayward nation because he was just too young for the job, God said, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you...” (Jeremiah 1:4-10 ff.)

When an angel shows up and tells Mary she’s about to be the most famous unwed mother of all time, he also captures and assuages her fear with four simple words, “Do not be afraid.” (Luke 1:29ff.) When Joseph wanted to turn Mary out because the idea of being step-dad to the Savior of the world was just a bit too much, God said, “Do not be afraid Joseph, this is of God.” (Matthew 1:20.) And when Jesus rises from the grave, he tells two women, “ not be afraid...” (Matthew 28:10).

I love the word that Peter writes to the early Christians, who, frankly, had good reason to fear in the face of a government bearing down with the tools of imprisonment, torture and execution. Peter writes, simply, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)

Now, if fear was a handy companion to the first to follow Jesus, you can bet it will be right there with us as well; but what prescription does Jesus pitch back to their angst? “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” Faith, my friends, is the antibiotic to fear.

Years ago, my mentor, the late John Claypool, was traveling on sabbatical across Europe. One evening he stopped in a small village outside of London and spent the night in an Inn. The room was small and simple, but the first thing that caught his eye was an inscription over the fireplace that read: “Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered, and there was no one there.”

Maybe you feel you do not have enough faith for this time through which we are living. Again, there is nothing new under the sun...remember the man who came to Jesus asking Jesus to heal his son? Jesus says, “For those who believe, everything is possible,” and the man says back to Jesus, “I do believe, help my unbelief!”(Mark 9:23-24). It’s a great scene...a true one.

The way we increase our faith is through – hear this now - prayer, spending time with Jesus Christ – on your knees, in your office, when you vacuum, as you wake in the morning or go to sleep at night, in your car, when you are happy and joy-filled, and when you are busted and broken.

The more time you spend with Jesus in prayer, the more you know he is with you – you, like Moses, like Jeremiah, Mary, Joseph, those disciples in the boat – you come to see you are not alone; you come to experience the presence of Jesus in your life – and you can stand back and let him say to those horrible storms, ” still.”

When I first moved to Houston twelve years ago now, I was greeted by a new group of friends who had never been part of my life – allergens. I had never been much of an allergic fella before, but something about moving here kicked it all up. My ENT, a faithful member of St. Martin’s by the way, sent me to an allergy specialist. Lo and behold, it was not one thing, but dozens of things – from pets and grass to ligustrum and pine trees!

You name it, I was allergic to it and was becoming a sneezing, coughing, snoring, wheezing mess. The best was to tackle the problem was not to swallow or sniff more antihistamines; it was not just to “live with it...” Instead, my doc put me on antigens....shots, three of them, every week – I actually did it myself, pop it right in my arm.

An allergy antigen is actually a small bit of the substance that actually makes you allergic; and if you put a bit of this into you long enough, eventually it provokes an immunity to the thing that was causing the reaction in the first place. I did that for about five years, and lo and behold, eventually, those allergies began to go away.

You see, regular, consistent, exposure to the allergens actually reduced their power over me, allowing my body to resist those things that seemed to be dominating my respiratory system.

Do we really think it is that different with our fears, worries, and angst?

If Jesus or God or one of God’s angels' consistent response to our fear was to show up and say, “Do not be afraid,” then does it not make sense that that the more time we are with him, and he with us, and the more - together - we face those fears, that fear will actually diminish, subside, perhaps go away altogether? That God’s presence will be a kind of spiritual antigen putting to death those internal assaults of the heart, mind, world, and frankly, the devil?

Please know this, I am not saying when you are in danger, or facing a dire illness or tragedy, you just say a little prayer and it will all go away. I’m not saying we look at this very “unknown” we are now facing and just “put on a happy face.” But the truth is -- we will always have things that frighten us; but prayer opens us to a deeper awareness of his presence, which, evidently is the strongest foe against the terrors of the heart, mind, and soul.

You know there has been a lot of talk about how America is dealing with this problem we are now facing. We Americans are proud of our “Independence.” And for certain things, we should be.

But when it comes to things like fear, while independence may be a good thing for a country, it’s not such a good thing for a disciple of Jesus.

No, to survive in this world, and frankly the next, we have to let go of our control, we have to collapse into his gifts of mercy, grace, forgiveness, love; we have to give way to his presence.

Prayer is our declaration of “dependence.” It is saying to Jesus, “I can’t do it without you.” He knows that – do you?

Fear knocks at the door, faith answers – and no one is there. How to increase that faith? Pray to Jesus, and if you don’t even know what to say, just sit before him.

He hears you... He always will. Fear knocking? Answer with faith...and no one will be there; because the same One who can still the waves and the wind - Jesus - is standing right there with you, saying, “ still.”

So, what to do when the fears of the Coronavirus, or a shaky economy, or even the fears that come with day to day life, perhaps even death itself -- what to do when they come knocking? Pray – pray, and then answer with faith. And when you and God open that door together, there will be nothing there but peace.

Amen to that.

--Written March 17, 2020