Straining for Praise

Scrolling through social media, I feel helpless. No. Not helpless. Hopeless.

Yes. That’s it. The light and hope evaporated from one of the few social outlets I have had during this shutdown. Even though stores and restaurants are opening, the expectation of social distancing has left an emptiness in my spirit, and Satan is preying upon it.

A few years ago, I fought against the smartphone trend. All I needed was a dumb phone, one that would allow me to make calls and send texts. I had absolutely no desire to be connected 24-7 to the whole world. Then along came a second-hand gift.

As with many families, new phones are beyond our budget and we rely on hand-me-down electronics. We have two television sets, both passed on to us from friends. We have two computers, both passed on to us from friends and family. Our cell phones fall into that pattern, too.

And so, with the release of the latest and greatest in smartphones, I inherited an older generation iPhone. In a matter of minutes, I was connected. I could snap selfies, store music, and ask Siri the answers to my little boys’ incessant ‘why’ questions.

The connectivity grew. I added personal email and work email. Eventually, the storage of new social media apps slowed my phone to a snail’s pace. Just in time, a new second-hand phone landed in my hands, and my ventures into the wide world of virtual friendships surged.

As is true with many people, I have been blessed by the possibilities and opportunities these platforms opened for me. They are propelling me closer to realizing many dreams. I have developed tried-and-true friendships through the little bits of code I’ve exchanged with others. In fact, there are a handful of friends I see only once a year or so but with whom I chat online regularly. These friends are precious gifts to me.

Yet in this period of shelter-in-place and keep-your-distance, I have felt less connected than ever. Instead of finding common ground and encouragement as I tried to connect with others in cyberspace, I read posts that bite, comments that attack, and arguments instead of healthy conversation. The weight on my spirit was heavy and I didn’t know what to do about it.

Every weekend, I attend church. Of course, I sit on my couch with my Bible and my notebook and my smartphone, as our church building has been shuttered since mid-March. My husband reclines next to me, and our boys find places around the room, either curled up on the couch with us or lying, chins in their hands, on the carpet.

We listen to the worship songs and try to sing along, but distractions pop up like thistles: tiny at first, but the more I notice them, the bigger they grow. At first, it is the desire to search the author of the new song the worship band is playing. Then, our youngest runs in front of the screen on his way to the bathroom. The older son rakes his fingers through a bin of Legos, drowning out the words of the on-screen prayer. As quiet finally pervades the family room, I turn to my notes and begin jotting down the main points, but a comment on the live feed obviously needs a reply. I pick up my phone and tap a few words into the app.

Satan’s mission is complete. Between the unrest among my virtual connections and the distraction of virtual church, my soul is draining like a colander of spaghetti. The truths are all mixed up together. The Word should wash them clean so I can fully see them, but while I’m looking at the next shiny object, God’s whisper drains through the holes in my soul. I should feel refreshed and ready to face the week to come after a service, but I simply feel more…drained.

I prayed that night, and the next, and the next. Finally, cuddled in my bed with my husband sleeping at my side, I opened my Bible. The pastors in our church have been leading us through a study in Ephesians, with a focus on connecting. This year was supposed to be The Year of Connection. Wow, did Satan attack that one.

Hoping for more insights as the series progresses, I opened to Ephesians 5 – a few chapters ahead of our weekend message series. This is what I read:

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” (Ephesians 5:15 – 17)

I stopped there. What is the Lord’s will? Are we to be disconnected and struggling through this, separated from each other? How do I navigate the dividing ways of Satan? I wrote my confusions in the margin of my Bible and continued reading:

“Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:18-20)

This is where I dropped my pen and closed my eyes, my mind swirling with the fact that the Lord had revealed his answer to my question. “Be filled with the Spirit.” How? “Speaking to one another with…songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music…”

When I was in college, I regularly attended a church with friends. I remember one Sunday night vividly. During a worship session known as Celebration, hundreds of twenty-somethings gathered in the sanctuary. Arms outstretched and voices straining with praise, we shouted our thanks to the rooftop. A wave of pure joy rose within me, bubbling up uncontrollably and pouring forth from my lips in a light-hearted laugh. Nothing hilarious had passed. In fact, my eyes were shut tightly against the lights and the cacophony of untrained voices. The rejoicing that overwhelmed me came from the Spirit of God.

It is true that the Church is not a building. It is not fancy technology displaying the lyrics to a song or the sweet aroma of freshly brewed coffee greeting you from the lobby. It is not tithes and lessons and memorizing verses. The church is the people – the believers – singing together as they send their praise to the father and speak His truths over each other’s lives.

In this time of global pandemic and societal strife, my worship and praise became an isolated experience. Due to restrictions and my own deflated spirit, the Evil One attacked me in my weakness. As these verses in Ephesians emphasize, we cannot walk through evil days by masking our hurts with virtual connection and superficial gathering. We need real connection, the kind that happens in kitchens and backyards and Saturday night dinner with friends after a service.

Last weekend, as businesses opened their doors to customers again after 3 months of working to fight COVID-19, my family gathered with two other families to join in a home-church service. Reclining in the shade, cool drinks in hand, we sat together in a backyard sanctuary. We listened to the message and watched the children’s service. Then, knowing the last segment would be a song we all knew, we stood. Together, sharing the same space, we raised our hands and followed the little-kid motions. We shouted our praise to God for all he is doing and all he will do. Together, we sang a hymn of praise over each other, and a familiar burst of joy brought a smile to my lips.

My smart phone lay, face-down, on the table. And my Spirit became whole again.

2 thoughts on “Straining for Praise

  1. I haven’t written anything personal on this Covid-19 time period because I can’t seem to muster the words to explain the disappointment, the sadness, the lack of joy I’ve felt over the last few months. Your essay really touched on some of the reasons that this time has been so hard. Thanks for sharing from your heart, voicing truth, and taking us along on your journey. I concur with so much that you shared and I appreciate you articulating your struggles so well!

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    1. This has been a strange time, indeed. Words certainly are not flowing as they usually do, and it has been difficult to really put my heart into things. Thankfully, God illuminated that Word for me. I am glad, too, that this resonated with you. As always, we want your words to be a blessing 🙂

      Like

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