Working the Problem

There is a scene in the movie, “Apollo 13,” where Gene Kranz, Flight Director for NASA, is frustrated with his engineers’ panicked response to the explosion aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft. He tells them, “Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”

The story of Apollo 13 is a prime example of things getting out of control and, through ingenuity and perseverance, gaining control of a disastrous situation and finding a solution. The NASA engineers worked the problem and found the solution.

One thing Americans are known for is problem-solving. We have a history of innovation, which at its core is found in the ability to overcome an unsolved problem, such as getting the filament in a light bulb to burn for hours instead of seconds; getting a heavy machine to break the pull of earth’s gravity in order to fly; or developing a vaccine against polio. In each, the inventors worked the problem until a solution was found.

However, today there is a sense that the problems are so big and so complex that perhaps we won’t be able to work them. The problems associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are vast and the questions are many. When will there be a vaccine and will it even eliminate the virus? When will schools be able to open safely? How can the economy survive in the midst of a pandemic? Beyond the problems of the pandemic, there are just as big of problems on the global plate—wars, climate change, racism, oppression, abject poverty, and terrorism. Working these problems continues, but with little success.

It has been the history of humankind that we try to find our own solutions to our problems. How has that been working for us? Yet we continue to try on our own. 

In this particular time in history, is it possible that God is once again trying to get our attention by allowing all these things to happen, for which we have few answers despite our heroic attempts? Is he waiting for us to humble ourselves as humans and the human race and say we are unable to work the problems that beset us, that they are far too big and complex? Is he waiting for us to cry out to him for help? 

I have served in campus ministry for 37 years, and I have never experienced anything like what we campus pastors are experiencing now. There is so much uncertainty as we approach the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, and regardless of what it eventually looks like, the only certainty is that it will be unlike any school year we have ever experienced. Early in the spring, just as universities were suspending all on-campus learning and transferring to online classes, I participated in a videoconference with colleagues across the country. The purpose of the meeting was to see what ministries were doing and to talk about plans for the next school year. I sat and listened as mostly much younger colleagues attempted to work the problem. How can we use videoconferencing more effectively? Can we use livestreaming platforms to continue our large group meetings? If necessary, how can we reach out to new students virtually? 

I get it. There is a problem. How do we solve it? That is our first instinct, but it is not the best one. At their age, I would have been doing the same thing. But I quickly realized this is a BIG problem, one never faced before, and that I needed wisdom and discernment, not from peers, but from God. I needed to first seek God before attempting to work the problem. 

Typically, that is not what we do. We may give some cursory statements about trusting God, but then we spend the bulk of our energy attempting to work the problem. What if we did the opposite? What if, when confronted with a problem, we immediately began seeking the Lord for a solution; we put off working the problem so that we can be much more prepared to solve it?

Hezekiah did this when confronted by the imminent prospect of his kingdom being overrun by the Assyrians. 

When King Hezekiah heard this, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and went into the temple of the Lord.He sent Eliakim the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary and the leading priests, all wearing sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz.They told him, ‘This is what Hezekiah says: This day is a day of distress and rebuke and disgrace, as when children come to the moment of birth and there is no strength to deliver them.It may be that the Lord your God will hear all the words of the field commander, whom his master, the king of Assyria, has sent to ridicule the living God, and that he will rebuke him for the words the Lord your God has heard. Therefore pray for the remnant that still survives.’

“Hezekiah received the letterfrom the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of theLordand spread it out before theLord.And Hezekiah prayed to theLord: “Lord, the God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim,you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Give ear,Lord, and hear; open your eyes,Lord, and see; listen to the words Sennacherib has sent to ridicule the living God.

“It is true,Lord, that the Assyrian kings have laid waste these nations and their lands.They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not godsbut only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands.Now,Lordour God, deliverus from his hand, so that all the kingdomsof the earth may knowthat you alone,Lord, are God.” (II Kings 19:1-4, 14-19)

Then Isaiah came with the solution:

When King Hezekiah’s officials came to Isaiah,Isaiah said to them, ‘Tell your master, “This is what the Lord says: Do not be afraid of what you have heard—those words with which the underlings of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me. Listen! When he hears a certain report, I will make him want to return to his own country, and there I will have him cut down with the sword.’” (II Kings 19:5-7)

Hezekiah cried out to the Lord before he began working the problem. However, we see the opposite occurring among the Israelites when they refused to listen to the Lord regarding crossing into the Promised Land. Once they realized they had sinned by not listening, they attempted to work the problem by gathering their forces and entering Canaan, despite Moses’ warning that the Lord would not be with them. They were soundly defeated. 

In the midst of this pandemic or any other problem that will test our capacity to solve it, perhaps we should take time to seek the Lord first before we attempt to work it. He is eminently more wise and powerful than we are. He found a way to save us from our sins; surely he can help us solve any other problem we face.

© Jim Musser 2020

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