A Divine Connection: A Devotional

A Divine Connection: A Devotional

I stopped using instagram about two years ago. Then, I stopped using Twitter as my new year’s resolution. On some level, I realized that these apps were consuming my time and making me a less happy, more anxious person in return. As an outsider looking in, the amount of times that someone in my life has had a relative or parent become transformed through social media grows with the days. It seems almost ironic how a technology that was supposed to connect people more effectively has, in some respect, begun tearing them apart. Being connected to others is great, but no one stopped to consider what kind of relationships could be fostered online. The resulting digital landscape can often leave people feeling more isolated, self-conscious, and valueless than anyone could have anticipated. However, there is always hope.  The bible offers keen advice for fostering not just connection, but true community.

Unlike most of my peers, I actually didn’t get consistent access to the internet until I was in high school. For better or worse, this distinction provides me with a certain level of perspective. I was someone who went from seeing the world plainly to someone dropped into a new era where performance and reality start to blend together. I watched as friends and acquaintances grew more and more involved with the technology in their lives. Some people were able to adapt and use this new digital paradigm to their benefit, others struggled to try and gain footing in this new age. The only common thing linking these people and their relationship with technology is the fact that digital social relationships would become more and more important as time marched onward. 

When the pandemic hit, no one saw just how much technology would become a central facet of everyday life. Classes went online at my college near the end of the school year. I assumed we would be back next fall. Then fall came, and next winter, spring and so on. During that time, I spent a lot of time talking with friends and family members online. Even so, I could not abate a growing and pervasive sense of loneliness, a sentiment I’m sure others experienced during this period in time as well. Being limited to mainly digital forms of communication began to expose just how much of the digital world exists as a reality unto itself. The internet is a place where anything is possible, but also a place where authenticity is hard to come by.  It’s nice to be seen and heard, but fully appreciating others for the qualities that make them unique is almost impossible when you also have to cut through the fog of artifice that pervades social media.

The biblical solution to this problem of connection despite obfuscation is eloquent and simple. Love thy neighbor as thyself. Matthew 22:39 is one of the most famous verses in the bible but it is also one of the most important. In the final days of his life, Jesus visits the Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem and stops to speak to a crowd of Pharisees, Sadducees, and lawyers. During the speech, a man asks Jesus what the most important commandment is. The man was a lawyer and a religious man which alludes to the personal and cultural significance of this question. Jesus replies simply “ Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is…thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” 

The first part of this statement has become so foundational to Christian belief that it is almost a given, but the second and equally important part of the statement can be harder to put into practice. Yet, out of the hundreds of laws that make up the Hebrew legal system, these two laws were selected as the most important. One cannot help but ask why?

At the heart of this plain statement lies a simple emotion, empathy. You might not know everything about the situation that another person is in, their life could be great or incredibly hard. It is easy to focus on disparities like these when empathizing with others but this is merely a distraction. We are all human beings living here together on this planet, we are more alike than we realize. On that most basic level, we are connected. We’re born, breathe, eat, sleep, and eventually pass away. Through this experience of living we are connected and as followers of Christ, this experience is precious since it was given to us when God first breathed life into Adam. 

One of the reasons that I believe we are first instructed to love God with all of our hearts is so that we can learn our value as creations of God. One the other hand, the reason that we are instructed to love our neighbor as ourselves is because they too are creations. Appreciating others as not just sources of affirmation, love, or entertainment, but as unique individuals created and loved by the same God who created us provides a pathway to more genuine, authentic relationships both online and in life.

Just Pray: An Interview with Pastor John Hannah

Just Pray: An Interview with Pastor John Hannah

Have you ever looked at your life and wondered how your needs would be met this week? Have you been in need of advice and not known where to turn? Have you ever wondered what your purpose is? How can you grow in your relationship with God?

The answer to all these questions is prayer. Many of us want to pray, but struggle to figure out how to pray which is the reason why Pastor John Hannah wrote his book: Just Pray: How a Life of Prayer Grows Unshakeable Faith which is now available everywhere and can be found here. UrbanFaith interviewed Pastor John Hannah about his new book Just Pray: How A Life Of Prayer Grows Unshakeable Faith. The full interview is linked above.

Prayer is a foundational part of every Christian’s life, it is literally the way we communicate with God. As we desire to grow in our relationship with God, we must learn how to pray in ways that are powerful and practical. Pastor Hannah leads prayer calls weekly with thousands of people, has spoken and taught on the subject of prayer for decades, and has decided to share his insights on why and how we can grow in our prayer life as foundational to a life of faith through this book.

About Pastor John Hannah

John F. Hannah is the founder and lead pastor of New Life Covenant Church Southeast. A speaker and author, he has impacted thousands of lives through his ministry and dedication to serve. Through his focused desire to teach people how to grow their relationship with God, Pastor Hannah has become renowned for his commitment to prayer. Because of his heart for people, Hannah has traveled the globe speaking in regions of Jiji, Australia, and South Africa and even shared multiple media and conference platforms with acclaimed faith-based leaders Bishop T.D. Jakes and Steve Harvey. He has been married to Anna Hannah for over twenty-five years.

NIH director: We asked God for help with COVID-19, and vaccines are the ‘answer to that prayer’

NIH director: We asked God for help with COVID-19, and vaccines are the ‘answer to that prayer’

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Earlier this month, the White House announced a “month of action” to help ensure 70% of U.S. adults are at least partially vaccinated by July 4. Officials have since outlined a flurry of faith-based partnerships, hoping to leverage the clout and know-how of faith groups to aid in immunizing the public against COVID-19.

To help explain the role of faith groups in the national vaccine push, Religion News Service spoke with Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian who also serves as director of the National Institutes of Health. Collins discussed the program, as well as his faith and how he views the intersection of religion and science. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is the government is looking to religious groups for help in vaccination efforts?

It’s nice to be able to have this conversation. As a scientist and a person of faith, this is right in my sweet spot.

People of faith have issues (with vaccines), and every person has some different set they’re concerned about. When getting an answer from a guy like me, a scientist who works for the government, maybe they say, “Well, maybe he has a reason to want us to do this.” But if your pastor says, “I’ve looked at this information and I want what’s best for my congregation. I don’t want to see more people die from this terrible illness that’s taken almost 600,000 American lives. So I’ve educated myself, and I’d like you to know, from me, the benefits and risks. Can we talk about it?” — that gets people’s attention.

While vaccine hesitancy or anti-vaccine sentiment is not unique to any faith group, a recent poll found white evangelicals have a higher-than-average rate of vaccine refusals. But the same poll also found many of them said they could be persuaded by faith-based overtures. Have you seen evidence these overtures are moving the needle?

Yes, although it’s hard to collect really solid data to say how many people changed their minds because they heard from a faith leader. I could give you lots of anecdotes — although the plural of anecdotes is still not data.

I do think it is not a stretch to say, for all of us who’ve prayed for deliverance from COVID-19, the vaccines are an answer to that prayer. That is very much consistent with the way God often responds to our needs — by working through human capabilities that we’ve been given as a gift by the Creator. Why wouldn’t you want to take that gift and not just look at it, but open it up and then roll up your sleeve?

You noted federal government officials aren’t always the most effective messengers to some communities. But as an evangelical Christian, what about your faith compels you to want to embark on this vaccine push?

When you look at what we know about the time Jesus spent on this earth, it is interesting — read through the four Gospels — how many instances where he is involved in healing. If we are called to be followers, as I am, then shouldn’t we also find opportunities to provide healing as well?

If anybody asks you, “Has it been that bad?” Well, gosh, we’ve lost almost 4 million lives on the planet, and almost 600,000 right here in the United States of America. It’s not over, and if we don’t get the vaccinations up to a high enough level, we may see in the fall and the winter a resurgence — particularly in areas where vaccines were least adopted. Then here we are all over again with people in ICUs, people dying that didn’t have to. As believers, is that something we can look away from? I don’t think so.

Many religious communities of color have not only been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, but also suffer from access issues when it comes to vaccines. Have you seen dividends from efforts by the White House and others to partner with faith groups to help combat those access issues?

Absolutely. That has included some churches that have volunteered to be sites for immunization — right in their fellowship hall. That’s a great thing to do. In this national month of action, we have done additional outreach to those communities that haven’t felt necessarily like they had access, making it possible to get immunized in the barbershop or in the beauty salon, or providing child care for people who might otherwise have trouble figuring out “How am I going to get a shot when I have these two little kids with me that are going to need my attention every second?”

The federal government’s partnership with faith groups in this vaccine push seems unusually robust. What is it about faith communities that makes them particularly beneficial when it comes to vaccination?

As the director of the National Institutes of Health for the last 12 years, we have had partnerships with faith communities for things like hypertension screening, diabetes management and asthma management, but nothing quite like this.

It has been an inspiring occasion, I have to say, to have the opportunity to work side by side with leaders of the faith community to try to get this healing information in front of people. And I hope when we get through COVID-19, which we will, that we won’t lose that.

As a medical expert and a person of faith, what do you think gets left out of disputes between faith groups and the medical community during this pandemic?

One of my goals as a person of faith and a scientist is trying to get people to see the wonderful complementarity and the harmony of scientific and spiritual worldviews.

But I think a lot of people in faith communities haven’t found that to be the case, and maybe have even heard things from the pulpit like “You can’t really trust those scientists because they’re all atheists.” Well, here’s one who’s not, and I’m not alone: About 40% of working scientists are believers in a God who answers prayer. There’s a lot of us out there.

Maybe this is another occasion to try to get a broader understanding about how science and faith are wonderfully complementary. Science is great at answering questions that might start with “how?,” and faith is really good at answering questions that start with “why?” Don’t you, as a person on this planet for a brief glimpse of time, want to be able to ask and maybe get answers to both those types of questions?

Have you seen some of that distrust slip away?

I have, yeah. Going back more than 20 years ago, it did seem like there was a lot of tension for me as an evangelical. There were times where I wasn’t sure I was welcome in the church, and then I’d go to the lab, and I wasn’t sure I was feeling welcomed there either. I wrote a book about this called “The Language of God” back in 2005, trying to put forward arguments about how science and faith really are different ways of looking at God’s creation. It got a lot more attention than I expected.

I think out of that, and a number of other efforts … I do see there has been a shift here, more of a willingness to consider what the harmony is instead of what the battle is.

Are you optimistic the U.S., with the help of faith communities, can meet this July Fourth deadline to partially vaccinate 70% of the adult population?

I am optimistic, but it’s going to be a stretch. It’s going to take the full efforts of lots and lots of people — and especially faith communities — to get us there over what is just another three weeks.

The number of immunizations happening each day is just barely on that pathway, and it actually looks as if some of those immunization levels are dropping instead of going up. We need everybody to line up behind this goal, recognizing this isn’t about pleasing Joe Biden, because a lot of evangelicals are not that interested in pleasing Joe Biden. This is about saving lives.

 

Will You Worry, Or Will You Remember?

Will You Worry, Or Will You Remember?

As you lay in your bed at night, maybe you feel a sharp, persistent pain in your chest that will not leave. Or perhaps it is a sunken feeling in your stomach that feels like you swallowed a golf ball.  For another person, it might be an inability to click the off-switch on your thoughts.  Like waves, one thought continually crashes over the other until, eventually, it feels like you’re drowning in an ocean of thoughts that you cannot escape. Still, for another, the opposite may be true. Instead of a flood of thoughts, there is an obsession or a constant preoccupation with a single thought.  Whatever it feels like for you, we have all felt it. It’s worry. It is one of many things that God warns us against, and yet, countless people still wrestle with this feeling on a daily basis.

For me, worrying was a way of life. In the morning, I would lie awake in bed and work myself up over all that I had to do that day.  As I dwelled on the what-ifs, I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as it beat faster and faster.  What if I fail? What if the money never comes in? What if I drop the ball? What if they don’t like me? What if I’m not as intelligent as they say I am? What if my child gets sick? The shackles of worry became so familiar to me that I did not realize I was bound by them.  I had no concept of life without worry. As a result, I became dependent on my worry and anxiety, and I stopped depending on God. I relied on my endurance to overcome each day. I trusted my intelligence and my accomplishments to assure me of my future. I put my hope in measurable and calculated outcomes that I analyzed over and over in my mind.  Slowly, my faith began to dwindle.  Deep down, my heart was satisfied with wallowing in worry, and I started to think that God had left me stranded.

My story, and so many others, remind me of how God’s chosen people lost their faith even though God redeemed them from hundreds of years of oppression and slavery.  When the Israelites were challenged by difficult circumstances, they worried and they complained. Their immediate reaction to trouble was not to trust God—instead they trusted their worries.  When the Egyptians chased after them, they worried that they would die at the hand of their oppressors (Exodus 14:10-12).  Two months after they escaped Egypt, they came to a wilderness and the waves of worry came crashing down on them again (Exodus 16:1-3).  There was probably no food or water in sight and they all thought, what if we die out here? They complained to Moses and Aaron saying “You’ve brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death, the whole company of Israel.” (Exodus 16:3 The Message). Like me, they became so comfortable in their fear and worry that they thought God had left them stranded to die.

Yet, it was not too long before that moment in the wilderness that God instructed his people to remember their redemption through the celebration of the Passover meal.  Could it be that God instituted Passover because He knew the Israelites would succumb to their worries?  Could it be that God knew that their worries would chip away at their faith, so He gave them a strategy to rebuild it?  For the Israelites, Passover was their wake-up call. It was a reminder of God’s redemptive power, and if God could free them from slavery, He could save them from anything.

 So, why worry? One could only speculate, what if the Israelites’ story would have unfolded differently? If they had clung to the story of their redemption instead of worrying, maybe they would not have crafted a powerless god made of gold.  If they had remembered the day they were set free, maybe they would have mustered up enough faith to escape their worrying in the wilderness. If they had only remembered the meaning of their Passover meal, and the freedom that it represented, perhaps we would be reading a different story today.

Our story, however, is not finished.  Every single day, when life’s troubles seem to be closing in on us, we have to make a choice—will we worry or will we remember?  As we reflect on the Passover story and its representation of freedom, we should also remember our own redemption stories.  I remember mine quite well.  When I was a little girl, my parents thought I was going to die.  After a severe allergic reaction, I laid on my parent’s bed in my childhood home, breathless.  As my father administered CPR he cried out to God in his heart.  He began to make plans for funeral arrangements and he thanked God for the six years that he spent with me.  And then, as he retells the story to me, he heard a gentle voice affirmatively tell him that I was not going to die.  Seconds later, I coughed—and then I took a breath.  In my adulthood, I now often recall the day that God saved my life.  I really mostly recall waking up in the hospital, because I was unconscious during the most severe moments of the allergic reaction.  And when I awoke, I saw my mother and father by my side and they said to me, “You almost died.”  When I think about that moment in time, it reminds me that God saved me, and my worries slowly begin to disintegrate.  The pain in my chest goes away, and the waves of anxious thoughts transform into still waters of peace and clarity.  Thinking back on my day of redemption freed me, and the freedom from worrying was in the remembering.  Remember your day of redemption.  Remember the day that God freed you. Remember the day He rescued you.  Remember, and watch as your worries melt away into triviality.

           

The Right Day for Prayer-A Devotional

The Right Day for Prayer-A Devotional

Pentecost is only a few weeks away, and for many of us living through the pandemic we have lost track of important days. Amid negative news, racial unrest, and daily frustrations, there is more than enough reason for prayer. Today is the National Day of Prayer, but it is not on a lot of people’s calendars this year. The National Day of Prayer was instituted in 1952 by President Harry Truman and has continued for the past 69 years with various presidents, congress people, and other officials observing it each year. There is a non-profit organization called the National Day of Prayer Task Force that coordinates events surrounding the day with particular themes and bringing some unity to Christians observing the day.  No matter the theme or who recognizes it, whether official or informal, it is always a good time to pray. 

We all face challenges and we are always in need of God’s peace. It is enough to worry about what is going on in our homes, our classrooms, and our communities without having the constant worry of the world we are aware of through social media. Especially as black believers living in this moment, we are carrying more questions than answers. The world as we know it has been turned upside down, and not in a good way. Many of us are struggling to redefine our faith and feel connected to God and other people we haven’t felt present with in a long time.

Psalm 35:6 encourages everyone who is godly to pray at the acceptable time. The Apostle Paul encourages believers to pray without ceasing in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. Jesus tells His disciples a parable in Luke 18:1 to teach them to always pray and never give up. 

Philippians 4:6-7 is one of the most well known passages about prayer in the Bible. Paul says:

6 Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. 7 Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7 NLT)

This verse in Philippians reminds us that when we pray, the peace we will experience surpasses our understanding! It is peace that we feel, that we can rest in when nothing else makes sense.

I remember the days after my grandfather died of COVID were filled with worry, anger, sadness and frustration. There were so many barriers to getting answers, making arrangements, honoring the life of a man whose legacy I am living. When I realized I was doing worse than I expected I got a phone call from a friend. He had no idea what I was going through but asked could he pray for me. When he finished praying I felt the weight of the world lift from me. I couldn’t explain it, because I had just received peace that exceeded my understanding.

That same peace is available for all of us when we pray, and when we receive prayer from others. Take some time today to pray for yourself. Acknowledge something you are worrying about to God, He cares about all that concerns us. Then pray for someone else. Pray that God will meet them with His perfect peace. Reflect on the fact that today, you are praying alongside millions of Christians across the country. And may the peace of Christ will meet you in a way you do not have to fully understand to fully receive.