When we were young and our parents sent us to our rooms and told us we needed a time out, we knew immediately we had done something wrong. The time out served the purpose of halting whatever misbehavior was taking place; it also gave us the opportunity to reflect on our thoughts and actions and to evaluate if we were being selfish or unkind, even hurtful to others. For the similar reasons on an adult scale, our justice system sentences individuals to prison terms for serious misbehavior. Depending on the severity of the crime, perpetrators are encouraged to reflect on their misdeeds, amend their ways and become better citizens upon their eventual and hopeful release. With our current pandemic, unprecedented in its global scope, God is sending nearly every person in the world to their rooms. He must be seeking our undivided attention. What an amazing opportunity to assess our lives; to think more deeply about what we have done wrong, to consider what selfish tendencies we’ve developed, and what unhealthy spirits we have allowed to enter our lives.
When I was in Thailand last January with colleagues from Frontier Fellowship, we learned a lot about Buddhism as I have been sharing with you. However, during the trip, I unexpectedly learned an equal amount about animism – the belief that all living things, vegetation, animals and people alike have souls or spirits which must be recognized and appeased in order for good things to happen. Even after death, the spirits of ancestors are worshipped and called upon to ward off evil spirits threatening whole villages, families, and towns. In the animist worldview, a vast number of spirits must be identified, mollified and revered daily if a person is to lead a healthy and successful life.
While traveling between villages and cities in Thailand, we would often see spirit houses propped up on stilts in backyards. Routinely, family members would bring the required combination of incense, foods, and candles to these spirit houses in order to recruit the help of the good spirits to combat the evil ones. We discovered that many Thai people who identify themselves as Buddhists are in reality practicing animists. Buddhism requires tremendous dedication, habitual meditation, and unending discipline. Most Thai people, meanwhile, rely instead on what they consider more trustworthy and more instantaneous results gained from their animistic rituals and practices. In their opinion, animism brings more secure and lasting results.
During one of our many experiences in Thailand, we were blessed to watch a theatre production organized by a Christian ministry in Chiang Mai. The Thai culture produces beautiful theatre, which often includes mesmerizing dancing, colorful dress, and disciplined artists. One of the shows portrayed a story line of Christ’s majesty and power confronting and defeating Satan who was caught attacking an innocent young woman. After the show, the producer and director explained in more detail what we had just seen. While explaining the details and history of the show, he told us how he became a follower of Jesus, and why these Christian theatre productions have become an all-consuming passion and ministry in his life.
He told us that for many years he identified himself as a Christian. He was fortunate enough to attend one of the few Christian high schools in Thailand where he became convinced Christianity was a superior religion compared to Buddhism. However, he said he did not become a full believer and follower of Jesus until he recognized the number of evil spirits still residing inside him, dictating and governing his daily life and thoughts. He remembered how much he and his family had practiced animism when he was growing up – how fully exposed and infested he had become with numerous unfriendly spirits. One night, he told us, in either a dream or vision, he found himself wrestling intensely with two large snakes that were overtaking him, trying to steal his life. In the middle of this battle, he called out to Jesus in a loud voice to defeat and free him at last from this reoccurring confrontation. Immediately, Jesus entered his soul, rid the evil spirits from his life, and made a new home in his heart. Ever since that time, he told us, he has enjoyed a profoundly peaceful life. His greatest joy and current calling now is to produce Christian theatre in Thailand.
In the West, we are often too quick to dismiss the reality of the spiritual world that surrounds us every day. Since the Enlightenment, especially, we have placed an inordinate amount of trust in what we can feel, touch and smell, often disregarding the importance of what we cannot see. However, the Bible warns us time and time again to believe in a reality far greater than what our human minds alone can grasp. The Bible reminds us that we are only so smart; we are finite and God alone is infinite. There is so much more to our worlds than what we can fully grasp given our limitations as humans. Therefore, we need God to explain the rest to us. However, if we rely on our own wisdom rather than God’s wisdom, we can easily find ourselves attaching our hearts to unhealthy devotions such as prestige, pornography, excessive entertainment, lies, worldly power, and large amounts of money and status. Often, without even realizing it, we invite modern-day snakes and dangerous idols into our own lives by trying to achieve success on our own power, striving to pull the levers of the universe as we understand it.
A lot of wonderful and good things have occurred to people during the current Covid-19 pandemic, even while enduring some of the most difficult hardships. My family and I have enjoyed more intimate dinners and fantastic conversations in the last month than we have had in the last 10 years. Books in my office, which have been crying out for me to read, are now being read. Parts of my village I have never seen before are now being noticed during my daily walks. Piles of papers surrounding my desk and spilling out from my filing cabinets are now being sorted and much is being tossed. A refreshing sense of cleaning in my life and soul is taking place, all of which has been put on the back burner for too long. This practice of cleaning has reminded me of a particular passage in Scripture which suddenly now makes a lot of sense to me. In the book of Matthew, Jesus says: “When an evil spirit leaves a person, it goes into the desert, seeking rest but finding none. Then it says, ‘I will return to the person I came from.’ So it returns and finds its former home empty, swept, and in order. Then the spirit finds seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they all enter the person and live there. And so that person is worse off than before.” (Matthew 12:43-45a)
In other words, during this worldwide time out, God is giving us an amazing opportunity to ponder and consider the current disposition and priorities of our hearts, and to consider how far they have wandered in recent years. Nature itself is crying out for our attention, speaking loudly to us through the pandemic. The coronavirus may have begun because of an unnatural act of domesticating wild animals for ugly and misplaced commercial reasons or by human error in a scientific laboratory. Our beautiful world, which God created, is crying out in desperation for better care and more thoughtful stewardship. Our hearts are beleaguered and tired, needing greater cultivation through more contemplation, silence and prayer, the very things we are now being given time to engage in. At our deepest level, our souls are crying out for a more honest, constant and true relationship with our Creator God. We cannot live without the continual cool streams of God’s love replenishing us on a daily basis.
However, as our Scriptural passage suggests, we need to do more than clean out our closets, sweep the floors clean, or try to turn a new page in our lives using our own willpower. We cannot suddenly and simply make our lives better through our own sheer determination to make things more clean and sparkly. We need to do more than that. The evil forces in the world with their many armies are too powerful for us alone to defeat. We need to put Christ where he needs to be in the center of our lives. He is the only one who can give us the daily joys, strength, sustenance and peace we need. As the great theologian, Saint Augustine, once said, “Our hearts are restless until we rest in Thee.”
Sometime in the not-so-distant future, our economy will begin to function and perhaps even roar again. However, at the same time, all the many temptations and idols will return as well. Once again, the entertainment industry will be loudly knocking on our doors, wanting us to regress to all our old and less than healthy habits. Our lives will be filled with endless appointments and distractions. If we allow them to find a place in our hearts, the mighty and strong winds will blow again, but most likely even harder next time.
Lord, may you help us to know what you would like us to learn during our unexpected time out. We are all ears. Please show us your way.