/Tuesday, March 31, 2020(Photo Credit: John Warden, Trumpeter Swans in the Comox Valley)
The world is struggling with a pandemic, and people everywhere are urged to practice “social distancing.” It is ironic in the extreme that, while we are obliged to maintain physical distance, there is nothing more important to us as Christians and human beings than relationship.
In a time of crisis, we must surely feel grateful more than ever for the blessed relationships of family and friends surrounding us.
If we know someone who is leading a lonely life, what better time than now to reach out—perhaps not physically, but with a phone call, a letter, or even a friendly wave and “hello” from a proper distance.
The Bible is rich with stories of people dealing with difficult circumstances. A brief review of a few of these stories can encourage us to care for each other, stick to our principles and trust in God—no matter what.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego
In the book of Daniel we read the story of three men who have been given a choice: they must bow down and worship a golden idol or be thrown into a fiery furnace (Daniel 3:13-15). Such a choice is not so far-fetched; we know that there are many places in the world today where to be a Christian is a very dangerous thing. But Shadrach and his two friends stand together against this tyranny:
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up (Daniel 3:16-18 ESV).”
The story is so meaningful in so many ways. The three men stand together in the face of a deadly threat. They share a relationship with each other that is founded on their relationship with God. How disappointing the story would be if one of them chose to give in to the king’s demand.
It was faith in God that gave them courage, and that courage was reinforced by their relationship with each other.
We observe too the words “but if not.”
They expected that their God would save them from the fiery furnace, but they were still prepared for the worst. They would not bow down to a false god, even if it did mean their mortal death. Matthew Henry comments: “Nebuchadnezzar can but torment and kill the body, and, after that, there is no more than he can do. God will deliver us either from death or in death.” Readers are invited to savor the ending of this story, and its aftermath, written in a Bible near you (Daniel 3:19-28).
Holy faith acknowledges that relationship with God will not always be a matter of obvious blessings. There are times when it will seem like anything but that.
We believe God will save us in this life “but if not” we will still not despair, we will not succumb to cowardice, we will not worship other gods.
Ruth and Naomi
The story of Ruth and Naomi is rich indeed. It explores a relationship that is not always celebrated, either in ancient or modern times, and that is the “in-law” relationship.
But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you (Ruth 1:16-17).
The above declaration by Ruth to Naomi, her mother-in-law, is one of the most moving declarations of love we will find anywhere. It is moving partly because it is so unexpected—firstly because daughters-in-law do not usually love their mothers-in-law so much, and secondly because both women are in difficult circumstances. Prior to Ruth making her declaration, Naomi has discouraged both Ruth and her other daughter-in-law from following her. Naomi’s two sons have died and the women are therefore without husbands and destitute.
But Ruth makes her declaration and her intention to stay with Naomi clear. We are particularly interested when we hear Ruth say “your God, my God.” After all, it appears that God is not blessing them. Naomi even states: “. . . No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me (Ruth 1:13).”
The story continues to unfold as Ruth and Naomi travel to Bethlehem. Naomi has a relative named Boaz. We gain insights into the complex culture of the time as we observe Ruth first gleaning in the grain fields; then meeting Boaz, who treats her with kindness and generosity (2:8-16). These events rejuvenate the faith of Naomi, who says of Boaz: “. . . May he be blessed by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead! (2:20)”.
Naomi continues to give wise counsel to Ruth (3:1-5) about how to advance honorably the relationship with Boaz. Boaz responds in a positive way and makes sure that legal requirements are satisfied so that he can marry Ruth (4:1-12).
The story has a happy ending, satisfying lovers of romantic stories everywhere. We also discover, however, that Ruth helps to fulfill a great destiny—she will give birth to a son called Obed who will be the father of Jesse who will be the father of the great King David.
There are many fascinating details in this book about the culture of the times. At the heart of the story is the wonderful friendship between a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law, blessed by God.
The two friends were better together and God was glorified.
For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord (Philemon 1:15).
The book of Philemon, as short as it is, presents us with several challenges.
Can we understand the mindset of Philemon, a slave-owner of ancient times?
Can we understand how a slave—Onesimus—might escape from Philemon, meet up with the Apostle Paul, and become a Christian?
Can we understand how Paul might insist that the slave return to his owner, and that the owner should accept him not as a slave but as a brother in Christ?
These are dramatic relationships with extraordinary changes. We do not know for sure how Philemon responded to Paul’s request. We only know that this letter was preserved and included as Holy Scripture. We can safely conclude that its message has been treasured since earliest times.
Would it not have been easier for Paul to have kept Onesimus as his own companion? Probably—but Paul knows something must be done to heal the breech between Philemon and Onesimus, and that the concept of Christian brotherhood must supplant that of slavery.
Moreover, Paul will pave the way for forgiveness by offering to pay any debt owing by Onesimus to Philemon. Paul seems to have remarkable assurance that Philemon will accept his request. He states: “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say (1:21).”
Precisely how we relate to this story is for each of us to ponder—but it remains a powerful, even irresistible encouragement to reconcile with and forgive people we think might have wronged us. Paul thought that Philemon and Onesimus would be better together.
Can we ask ourselves: who are we currently excluding from our hearts, from relationship?
Can we do better?
Is there any better time to reconcile than a time of crisis?
Praise the Father, praise the Son, praise the Holy Spirit!
Patrick McKitrick is as OC Associate, who provides regular meditations for the OC Team. When he was a kid, Patrick dreamed of being the Prime Minister of Canada, or a cowboy! If he had a free afternoon, you might find Patrick on the back patio reading or snoozing. His favourite verse is Psalm 130:5-6, "I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning."
 Matthew Henry’s Commentary in One Volume ed. Leslie F. Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan) 1960, p.1087.