At our monthly Church Council meetings, we take turns leading the devotions that start the meetings. As the pastor, I always take January, which allows me to set the tone for the year to come.
After an up and down 2019, our church entered 2020 with goals and visions similar to many churches: reach new people for Jesus, serve our community, maintain our building, and be financially stable while we do it. We also anticipated the start of a new worship service on Easter Sunday. After almost 2 years of visioning and planning, a new, second service would finally be a reality!
However, as a congregation the wounds of nasty church conflict from last Fall were still fresh, and church giving patterns had started trending downward for the first time in 6 years. Was it prudent to invest in something new and risky at a time when resources were becoming more scarce? Is it more important to allocate resources to existing members, or to people who aren't here yet? Could we make it to this new, exciting service before it all fell apart?
These were some of the questions hanging in the air at that first council meeting. We desperately wanted to have faith that things would work out, but the anxiety and fear was palpable.
That night, I chose Genesis 22 for my devotion: the story of Abraham climbing a mountain because he thought the Lord had asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac. As the moment of truth grew closer, Abraham assured his anxious son that the Lord would provide the lamb for a burnt offering, though according to the plan, Isaac was supposed to be that burnt offering.
Here was a father trying his best to remain faithful to God, but anxiously wondering if he would really need to sacrifice his son. Ultimately, just as Abraham lifted the knife to slaughter Isaac, the Lord did provide. A ram for the offering appeared, caught in a nearby thicket by its horns.
I shared that story with my leaders and told them that Abraham later named the place Jehovah Jireh, which translates to "the Lord will provide." That phrase, I told them, would act as a guiding star throughout 2020 as we sought to remain faithful to the Lord as a church. I gave them each a yellow star with the phrase Jehovah Jireh printed on it, and asked them to put it somewhere prominent, where they would be reminded every day that the Lord would indeed provide.
I was in my office today, for only the 3rd time in the past 2 weeks, when I saw my yellow star lying on my desk. The phrase means something entirely different now than it did four months ago. Sometimes I long for the days when all I worried about was how to start a new worship service on a shoe-string budget.
I've been thinking about what it means to trust in the Lord to provide now, as I see unemployment numbers skyrocket, small businesses and churches struggle to stay afloat, and tens of thousands of people lose their lives to the largest pandemic in 100 years.
It's easy to speak this platitude when times are good. When times are bad, the platitude becomes our lifeline. Jehovah Jireh: the Lord will provide.
The funny thing I noticed today about the story of Abraham and Isaac is that at some point, Abraham grew tired of waiting. Surely he was dragging his feet up that mountain, ready to kill Isaac but hoping that God would provide an alternative. Eventually, Abraham decided all hope was lost, and raised the knife over Isaac.
As we begin thinking about re-opening our communities and neighborhoods, our reactions mirror Abraham's. We face the choice of sacrificing human life or trusting in the Lord to provide salvation, and we're not sure how much longer we can wait. What are we to do?
As I try to answer that question for myself, I am certainly looking to medical experts and public health officials for guidance. Part of the Lord's provision is the existence of intelligent people to lead the way with knowledge and expertise that the rest of us don't have.
But some days I feel like Abraham, climbing a mountain without knowing what will happen next or if we'll make it. I wonder if he felt like a horrible ending was all but assured as he got to the appointed place. Is there any way this doesn't end in human sacrifice? Is there any way the Lord will provide an alternative? Those are our questions too.
I chose Jehovah Jireh as our guiding phrase for 2020 way before we had any idea we'd be dealing with now. I thought we'd all be using it just to keep the faith alive as we tried something new at our simple, neighborhood church. I had no idea how much I'd need to hear those words today, and every day that I feel like the world is unraveling and all hope is lost.
I'm not sure I've climbed high enough yet to find any rams. Like Abraham, I'm growing impatient of waiting. Why am I even up here, and what will life look like when I go back down?
I've brought my yellow star home now, because I'm spending less time in my office than ever before. I need to look at it every day as a reminder that somewhere nearby, there's a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. And though I can't see or hear it yet, I will continue to climb until I find it. Because I know that even in 2020, somewhere there's a place called Jehovah Jireh: the Lord will provide.