One Step Back
By Thomas Lambrecht
How do Christians deal with discouragement? Some parts of the United States, as well as some other countries around the world, have recently seen an uptick in the number of Covid-19 cases, with increased hospitalizations and deaths. The increases have led governments to pause steps to reopen the economy and, in some cases, roll back opening steps that had already been taken. Some businesses that were already open have been closed again. People that were back to work are now furloughed or laid off again. Texas, where I live, has been identified as one of the "hot spots" where increases are threatening to go out of control. Hospital capacity is filling up rapidly. Harris County (Houston) has encouraged residents to return to complete lockdown status. Some churches that were open for in-person worship have now closed again, while other churches have once again postponed in-person worship. This week, I received the following report from a missionary in Honduras, who indicates the situation there is much worse than in the U.S. Currently in Honduras, we have been under martial law for months, and it will last until at least July 12, or 117 consecutive days. Fines and imprisonments accompany the failure to wear a mask, shopping for food and water is only permitted once every 14 days. All residents must remain in their homes on the 13 days they cannot shop. All residents are confined to their homes from 5 pm on Fridays until 6 am on Sundays. There is no such things as curbside pickup for food. One week, for a few days, I was thrilled to taste a drive-in BIG Mac! That privilege lasted for one week. Millions are starving here. This turn of events is discouraging on several levels. It is discouraging to see the progress made in containing the virus undone in a few weeks' time. It is discouraging to see the continued suffering of millions due to very high unemployment and in some cases the lack of food and for others the possibility of being evicted from their homes for inability to pay rent. It is discouraging to see the thousands who suffer from Covid-19, family members who are ill, and people who are still dying alone in a hospital. It is discouraging that, although we may have one or several vaccines by the end of the year, they may not prevent people from getting the virus, only make the symptoms less severe. And of course it will take months for any vaccine to reach the bulk of the population here and around the world. It is discouraging to see people protesting against measures to protect public health, including one protest against wearing masks orchestrated by people carrying guns! It is discouraging to see government leaders giving conflicting directions in the midst of the pandemic. We need to understand this is an unprecedented event for which there is no "playbook," and our leaders are learning as we go, developing policies on the fly. It has often been said that the Church is the heart and hands of Jesus to an unbelieving world. Those congregations and ministries that are reaching out during this pandemic to those lacking food, on the verge of homelessness, or grieving for departed loved ones, are truly doing gospel work. "If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth" (1 John 3:17). We, the Church, need to be diligent to respond to both the practical and spiritual needs around us. At the same time, how do we handle such discouragement? We are witnessing in our national and global life what sometimes happens in personal life. We take two steps forward, but then take one step back. It seems like we are making little progress at times in life. The Apostle Paul has some wonderfully encouraging words for us, born out of his own experience of trial and difficulty during his many missionary journeys. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. ... Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (II Corinthians 4:7-12, 16-18) What Paul is talking about here is relying upon the power of God when our own power is weak or non-existent. The power of God "surpasses all" but is housed in "jars of clay" -- our mortal, human, frail bodies and minds. The power of God working in and through us makes up for what we lack. He is strong when we are weak. He is love when we are tempted to hatred and discord. He is assurance when we are in panic mode. He is everything when it feels like we have nothing. If we focus on what we have and what we bring, we will surely lose hope. But if we focus on what God has and what he brings, we will not lose hope. God is able when we are not. God works when we cannot. God gives courage when we have lost ours. God is there when we need him the most. To all outward appearances, says Paul, there are times when it looks like we are wasting away -- forgotten, hopeless, hungry, homeless. Yet if we rely upon the Lord, he will renew our spirits inwardly moment by moment, day by day. Even if all should be lost in this world, we have the assurance of an eternity of blessing and joy in the Lord's presence. As Paul says, "We live by faith, not by sight" (II Corinthians 5:7). We live with confidence in the unseen realities appropriated only by faith. That makes it easier to cope with the discouraging realities of life in a fallen world, alienated from God even to the point that the fallen creation works to bring disease and death. Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, knowing he would pass through unimaginable suffering the next day and knowing what lay ahead for his disciples, said these words: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. ... I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 14:27, 16:33) When everything around us or even within us is falling apart, God can give us the "peace that transcends all human understanding" (Philippians 4:7). So when it seems like this trial will go on forever, may the peace of God guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. And may the Holy Spirit renew and strengthen your faith moment by moment and day by day, as you rely upon him. May we, the Church, continue to rise up and reach out in love to our hurting communities. In our earthly existence coping with trouble, may the world see the life and love of Jesus shine through us. Seeing Jesus, may they be drawn to him, giving all glory to the Father, who made us for relationship with himself. Even in the midst of a pandemic, God can use us to fulfill his plan and his purpose for us and for his world.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.
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