It’s OK to Put Your Oxygen Mask on First

Maybe it’s time to stop striving and worship

COVID-19 PERSPECTIVE: Ken Wytsma

Village Church, Beaverton, Oregon

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had many moments of anxiety during this crisis period of pivot and react. Yes, our church is trying hard to deliver online services and to connect directly with our people, but in all of the long hours and heightened sense of urgency, I’m left feeling we’re missing something.

Some of us may be finding rest as we’re working from home or in a new rhythm, while others may be feeling twice the weight as two months ago. Some of us may be encouraged by seeing all of our peers on Instagram while others may feel inadequate and like they are underperforming by comparison. Too much advice or too many points of comparison can sometimes be crippling. More information is rarely the solution to an overload of information.

It took me a week or so to put my finger on it, but I think one of the things we’re missing right now is worship. I’m not just talking about singing. I’m referring to a deeper more abstract biblical posture of worship. The worship of sitting in quiet before the Lord. Being still and knowing that he is God.

As I’m thinking back through the Scriptures, I’m seeing connections between momentous challenges and uncertain times in the life of God’s people with worship. Worship isn’t just about song and it doesn’t point necessarily to celebration.

In the middle of plagues and sociopolitical upheaval, God demands Pharaoh to release his people so they could go to the desert and worship.

When David is dealing with mental health issues, drowning in anxiety and depression, it is worship songs he writes. Listen to his words, “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps. 27:1).

When Jeremiah can no longer bear the uncertainties and despairs, he pens Lamentations and sings of God’s mercies, new day by day.

When the Samaritan woman queries Jesus as to which mountain should be used for worship, he references worship of himself through whom comes the promise of abundant and living waters.

Paul and Silas sing worship songs sitting in a prison, having just endured an earthquake. “We do not lose heart,” Paul would later write, “for momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison. … The things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16–17). For Paul, the apostle of suffering, trials point us back to worship and hope.

Or, in the more contemporary words of Pope John Paul II, “Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and Hallelujah is our song.”

There is plenty need for being Martha right now and attending to our responsibilities. For this, I find there is more than enough information and guidance online and everywhere we turn.

Maybe, however, we need not miss the urgency and importance of assuming the posture of Mary in this moment—the disciplined choosing of Jesus when frenzy and our own sense of responsibility pull relentlessly at our attention. There is something important about our worship of God when the times seem least suited for it. Perhaps this is a watershed moment for us.

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Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light. If his way constitutes a model for our lives, then we must be able to live into it—even in crazy times like the present. It is times like these where we both learn to seek the calm presence of Jesus and demonstrate to a world desperate for security what is meant by his offer of discipleship.

There are realities of God we need to explore in the midst of confusion. We have to wrestle with them, because that’s what the life of faith is going to mean. It is not simply that I hold a Christian creed that will mean something to my kids, but that I held to an authentic and transparent—albeit challenging—walk of faith through life’s vicissitudes that will matter. It’s not what we say we believe, but the Psalms we write through our lived example of faith and through our worship that will be passed down through the generations.

After everything is said and done regarding the current coronavirus pandemic, one thing will certainly be true, we will have seen our true selves in the mirror. Not only will I know something about my faith, my theology, my character and values I wouldn’t have fully known otherwise, but my kids and my church will also know it. Likewise, I will know something of my church, your church, the American church after we analyze the good and the bad of how we lived during these months. A crisis, certainly one of this magnitude, reveals what is true of us. Our faith, right now, is on display to the world.

Will we have the courage to name the weaknesses we see? Will we be honest enough to name our flaws and trust the grace of Christ—both for accepting us as less than perfect and for being able to continue shaping us in his image going forward?

This is an ecumenical or apostolic time in the global church. We are all on the same page and talking about the same threats and opportunities. What can we learn and what can we offer each other at such a moment? What could it look like if we didn’t all return to business as usual, but collectively encouraged each other to venture forward? What if the networks we form and the new ways of listening to each other being pioneered in this moment become the new norm?

Jesus is the head of his body. What if he is trying to say something to the church in this moment? Are we listening? Can we commit to keep listening even after the headlines slip back to other news—elections, economies and entertainment? Are we blocking out the time to be Mary? Are we choosing to sing songs in an open jail cell? Are we trusting that Jesus has living water?

What if our witness is as much tied to the presence of deep and heartrendingly honest worship of God and seeking after his face as it is the endless messaging online? What if God’s invitation to fellowship with us is meant to be small and focused—in our prayer closets and for only our children and next-door neighbors, who we’ve just recently been reconnected to as a result of quarantine, to see—instead of broadcasted and packaged for the global public?

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Maybe, Mother Teresa knew the kind of worship that would sustain us or the small consistent efforts it will take to change the world when she was asked the question, “What can you do to promote world peace?” Her simple answer: “Go home and love your family.”

Henri Nouwen once talked about learning how to “live the question.” I think that is the clarion call for the church of Jesus right now. We have confident words, but probably less answers than we want to have. Can we learn to live the question and live it long enough to hear the deeper things Jesus would say to the church as we navigate and come through this pandemic?

Elijah waits for the wind, the earthquake and the fire to pass before the Lord is willing to answer his question. Elijah’s question is about the sociopolitical drama unfolding in his country and threatening his religious work and his very life at that moment. Elijah poses his question to God at the outset, but God doesn’t want to answer just yet. He doesn’t let Elijah’s anxiety frame their conversation. God has Elijah wait. Ultimately, God settles and reorients Elijah so Elijah could ask his question in the context of God’s nonanxiety.

What does this say to our current situation? It’s not that we don’t need help or a word from the Lord, but the answers we need might better come out of stillness before God than action, and from patient waiting than anxiety.

I remember the first time I flew on an airplane and heard the safety video tell mothers and fathers to put on their own oxygen masks first, and then assist their children. It sounds selfish at the outset, but there’s a logic to it. We can only help people if we are in a position to do so. We need oxygen before we can act.

Maybe worship is ensuring we sit at Jesus’s feet like Mary. Maybe worship is what leads us into actions that are just and not simply expedient (Isaiah 58). Maybe worship is putting on our oxygen mask that we may better help others.

Maybe, in the mist of all this change, worship can be a constant.

Father,

In a world that never sleeps and with online forms ever changing, we are tempted to believe we should never stop striving. In the noise of traffic and the hustle of fast-moving conversations, our ears are dulled to the cry of the needy and our hearts grow hard to your prompting. We are tyrannized by endless possibility and self-imposed performance standards. We are paralyzed by inadequacy. We are tempted by possessions.

Lord, help us see through your eyes. Help our hearts beat for love and justice as does yours. God, fill us with knowledge and grant us the wisdom to avoid distractions, to balance our duties, to continue in faith.

Let your love fuel our love that we might be a light among the nations for your glory.

Read more COVID-19 Perspectives from pastors and church leaders.