A Pandemic Through the Lens of The Parables: Part Two
Written by Dr. Brenda Neyens
In part one of this series, we discovered how compassionate actions can push back our fear. If you missed part one, you can find it at thecoreomaha.com titled From Fear to Healthy Concern.
In part two, we will take a closer look at Jesus’ teaching titled The Vine and The Branches: John 15:1-17. Please read this passage, I will be utilizing The Passion translation. Also, please take a moment to identify your favorite, majestic tree. It can be a tree that is in close proximity to you, or go online to find an image or even sketch your own. But find a mighty one that captures your interest. I will use the image of a tree as our representation of The Vine and The Branches, as we investigate and implement healthy responses to our fear.
At the end of Chapter 14 of the Gospel of John, Jesus continues to ready his disciples for His death and resurrection, He says, “so when all of these things happen, you will still trust and cling to me.” Jesus has been both preparing and steadying them, but even so, Scripture documents that His followers struggle when the events unfold. They will demonstrate some fear-based actions during the time leading up to and after the death of Jesus.
At times, they will definitely not know what to do with themselves, especially since Jesus did not provide them with a detailed play-by-play of the upcoming events. Rather, He gave them a mission to spread The Gospel: The Good News. It is also our mission. Specifically during these tumultuous times, how we speak about God will either draw people closer to His love or send them farther away out of fear. Our clinging matters as we model for others our identity in Christ.
Fast forward to present day, we do not have a timeline for this pandemic. While we so desperately wish for certainty, it is not coming any time soon. Our governmental directives are still changing weekly if not hourly. Even as our best scientific minds offer instructions, we know that these recommendations may change with time. This is certainly the most fluid situation of my lifetime.
So, what do we do when we don’t know what to do? Jesus implores us, “cling to me.” In John Chapter 15, Jesus will use the word “abide” over and over again as He offers the imagery of the Vine and the Branches for our comfort and consolation. Especially during this difficult season, we may not find solace from information but through acceptance of His abiding invitation.
Before we unpack how we can learn to abide more in Jesus, let’s get real and identify some of our biggest fears in the face of this pandemic:
Me or somebody that I know is going to die alone.
There are simply not enough resources to go around. My financial security is gone.
I have to count on other people to do the right thing, and well, there are groups of people who I simply do not trust.
I don’t know about you, but I had to stop and catch my breath after composing this list. Some of these fears are present as part of day-to-day life in our sinful world, but with the addition of COVID-19, these thoughts that may have resided in the back of our minds are now front and center. Before I go any further, let’s take a moment and state the following out loud: “Satan, by the authority of Jesus, I rebuke and reject all of your schemes to try to shame me for any of my fears.”
Especially now, please add breath prayers to your daily rhythm. A breath prayer is a simple prayer of merging breath and Scripture together. In this case, it becomes a prayer petition. In the face of your fears, imagine Jesus asking you “what do you need from me?” What is a word that comes to mind? Examples include: peace, calm, assurance, love, connection. The list is endless. Slowly inhale as you speak that word. Then with an even slower exhale, say the name of Jesus. Repeat as many times as needed. If your mind is racing, focus your attention on the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe. Please be gentle with yourself and others, it may require daily practice to experience a drop in your anxiety.
This prayer practice is meant to be used throughout your day. Also, you can turn to others to lessen some of your anxiety. By sitting across from someone in your household or even online, you can do a breath prayer together. By intentionally focusing eye-to-eye with another person as you do this prayer, you can start breathing together and in a more calming manner.
In John 15:9, Jesus says, “I love each of you with the same love that the Father loves me. You must continually let my love nourish your hearts.” Embedded in this passage,
Jesus uses the imagery of a vine and branches to illustrate His love for us and our connection to Him. Jesus is The Vine. If we transfer this imagery to a tree, He is the trunk of the tree.
When you picture the tree you selected for this activity, please take note that it is the trunk that provides the stability. The roots of the trunk reach deep into the soil to gather nutrients. While the branches (us) sway in the wind, the trunk remains firm. Jesus never gives way to the elements, nor to circumstances. He is our solid rock.
With this imagery in mind, what is our role? It is to abide in Jesus as a branch. Specifically, our anxiety may increase if we try to be our own trunk or to be like the leaves.
Only the trunk of the tree can and should stiffen up in a storm, if a branch were to do this, it will snap off in the wind. The branch is designed to yield. I don’t know about you, but I feel like my branch-like-motion is more trembling than swaying in the face of this pandemic. It is okay for me to admit this, because it is simply a feeling; it is not the truth. I am securely connected to Jesus.
A branch is not self-sufficient, nor is it in control. It depends on the trunk and the other branches. We must rely on Jesus and on one another. We do so by clinging to hope and also extending consideration to others.
How? We must embrace hope-filled-living. I love this quote by theologian, Henri Nouwen: “Hope is willing to leave unanswered questions unanswered and unknown futures unknown.” In practical terms, this means that we add the following to our daily rhythm: surrender prayers. Hold out your hands palm side up and then slowly turn your hands over as you ask Jesus to help you to surrender all areas of self-sufficiency. I sometimes add, “Lord, please take from my hands the things I did not even realize that I was holding on to.” Finally, I ask Jesus to renew my cup of hope in Him.
Also, we can add consideration petition prayers with follow up actions. Ask Jesus to help you replace a need for personal control with actions of thoughtfulness. Consideration for the other branches is humbling. We surrender our need to make things “our way or the highway” and accept alternative ways to do things. We examine our actions through the lens of how we are affecting the other branches. A great practice to lessen your anxiety is to embrace some flexibility and adaptability. Practice doing things outside your preferred method of doing them. Another example, spend some time exploring new interests outside of your usual favorites. Try a new menu item. The goal is not necessarily to find new favorites, but rather, to take a step to lessen control. Control fuels anxiety.
Additionally, we (branches) must remember that we are not the leaves. In this imagery, picture ants crawling on some leaves. In the mental health field, we identify an automatic negative thought as an A.N.T. Through this examination of our negative thoughts, we are provided another opportunity to lessen our anxiety. We can identify both our automatic negative thoughts about ourselves and towards others. These are the “I can’t” “I never” “I always” and the “all people in that group are” statements. Imagine stomping or swatting away your “ants.” You can swat them away by asking Jesus to help you to see yourself the way that He views you, even in the midst of all our imperfections. Also, what is one small action that you can do that refutes your negative self-talk? Acts of consideration towards others and self usually undermine an A.N.T.
John 15:15-17: “I call you my most intimate friends…You didn’t choose me, but I’ve chosen and commissioned you to go into the world to bear fruit… So this is my parting command: Love one another deeply!” Okay, branches, let’s be abiding branches. We are intertwined and can hold one another up in these difficult times.
If you are struggling with stomping out an A.N.T., please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are in this together. In part three of this series, we will examine the pandemic through the lens of The Prodigal Son. Dr. Brenda Neyens is a licensed counselor and Spiritual Formation Director at King of Kings Church.