I had an emergency appendectomy two weeks ago. The surgeon said that my appendix had begun to leak and looked ready to burst when he removed it. The surgery was easy and I spent just one night in the hospital for observation. I looked and felt good the day I got home. I kept saying to my husband, “I can’t believe that I had an organ removed!”
But then, two days later, the fatigue hit. I was suddenly very weak and constantly uncomfortable. It was hard to sleep and rest well. About a week after my surgery, I looked at my husband again and said, “I can’t believe that taking out this small, unnecessary organ can cause so much discomfort!” I got a little emotional and I said to Dennis, “Can 2020 be over? I want to quit this year.”
Have any of you felt like this recently: physically weak, emotionally taxed, or overwhelmed by life? Maybe for you, it’s general anxiety or malaise after enduring six months of pandemic living. I’ve taken to calling life in this time “Pandemia.” When I say Pandemia, I hear a combination of the words pandemonium and pandemic. The pandemic has brought life like we’ve never seen or experienced before. It has upset or upended our lives in so many ways.
Our individual lives and needs continue in Pandemia. We still have bills to pay. Doctors’ appointments to keep. Grocery shopping to do. Errands to run. Personal matters to attend to. But all of this activity must be tweaked in Pandemia. Masks are a must. We keep our physical distance as best we can. Some of us have learned how to have groceries delivered to our homes.
Pandemia forces us to adjust things we don’t want to adjust, like gatherings with friends and family. It requires sacrifices that we did not sign up for. It has brought new discomfort and discontent to our lives. It calls for flexibility and creativity so that we can engage in something close to the activities we were used to before. Unfortunately, some of us are not very flexible or creative; we are tired and strapped. Other than extreme introverts, I don’t know anyone who loves living in Pandemia.
For some of us, Pandemia is a place of hardship and fear and grief because it has brought us unemployment, financial strain or insecurity. Some of our loved ones have been directly affected by the virus. For some of us, Pandemia means physical isolation, illness, and it may have even brought death to our lives.
The grief over all these changes and losses is real and warranted.
Pandemia is not what we want. It’s not an easy way of living. We don’t know when it will get better or when it will end. It seems we are stuck in Pandemia for the time being. How do you feel about that? Have you hit the wall like I did a few days after my surgery? Did you, in a short time span go from, “This is not so bad; I can handle this” to “I’m done with 2020; can I please quit?”
When you think of all the ways you’ve had to adjust your life in Pandemia, all the changes and restrictions, all the feelings you have surrounding them — how are you doing? Where do you feel on a sliding scale between physically weak and strong? How about the sliding scale between emotionally fatigued and emotionally resilient? Between pessimism or hopefulness about the near-future? How are you enduring this? Do you feel like you need a little help?
One of my favorite quotes from our friend and master, Jesus, comes from the Gospel of John 16:33 (NIV). Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” When he said that, Jesus was specifically preparing his disciples for the persecutions they would suffer as his followers. But it’s safe to say that Jesus knew that this life brings with it all kinds of trouble, not just persecution for faith. Jesus knew about the troubles caused by famine and war and divorce and abuse and illness and disability and sin.
Paul knew about these too. In his letter to the Roman believers, he addressed all kinds of hardships that they were facing, and all the new things they had to navigate now that their identity and allegiances had changed. You see, the Romans believers had gone from being people of the world, consumed with worldly things, to being people of God whose lives should be transformed by God’s Spirit. They’d gone from being Roman citizens, Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people, to citizens of the Kingdom of God, a united, free, beloved people. Their primary allegiance was now to a triune God — loving Father, self-sacrificing Son, and indwelling Spirit.
The people of God wanted the freedom from slavery to sin that their identity brought. They needed it. But with their new identity also came necessary and uncomfortable lifestyle changes. Becoming a disciple means life-transformation. When we live under the banner of a loving Father, it means we must love and accept the people that God loves. That means everyone. It means finding a way to love and serve those who would not otherwise receive your regard. And that can be uncomfortable and can cause strain, but ultimately, it is good for our souls.
Being disciples of Jesus means we must learn to sacrifice our selfish desires or needs to put the needs of others first. It means joining Jesus’ mission and actively working toward the healing of those who are ill in body or mind. It means doing our part to tear down roadblocks for disabled and marginalized people.
Life lived, “in the Spirit,” as Paul calls it in his letter, is one that lets go of sin and selfish pleasures, and instead pursues things that lead to abundant, wholesome life and peace for ourselves and others.
The first Christians in Rome faced not just the difficult changes that come with discipleship, they also faced the hardship of persecution for their faith. Their new identity and new ways of living caused friction within their own community, but also stirred up quite a bit of trouble between the believers and their unbelieving family, friends, masters, civil leaders, and even the government. At best, they were met with curiosity by the outside world. But I imagine their general reception was mostly wary, skeptical, and even downright hostile. Just like Jesus encouraged his disciples with some no-nonsense talk, Paul wrote to encourage the Roman believers in their own troubles.
In Romans 8:18-25, Paul wrote this:
I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience.Common English Bible, 2011.
The discomfort a believer experiences as their identity shifts and they live increasingly “in the Spirit’ causes friction with the world around them. This is like labor pains. It is real pain and discomfort, but it is pain that will end. It is pain that leads somewhere good. It is pain that gives new life.
Believers endure difficulty knowing that it will pass. Beyond it, there is freedom from decay and pain and suffering and death. We are all leaning toward a life and future that is gloriously free from sin, is typified by harmonious fellowship, sees the restoration of our bodies, and is chock full of wonderful intimacy with God. We experience these good things now on a certain level, but they are not complete. Not at their fullest. We are not completely free because we are still waiting for God to bring his full restoration plans to completion.
So, in this already-not-yet time, we wait. We groan. We are stretched in uncomfortable ways. Here’s the good news: good fruit grows in us in times of trouble. Here’s the not so good news: it is not always the fruit we want.
We might want our lives and circumstances to produce ease, fun, unencumbered fellowship, and personal convenience. Instead, our lives and circumstances are painfully producing greater endurance, patience, and flexibility through discomfort, sacrifice, and inconvenience. This doesn’t feel like anticipating glory, but it is. These are labor pains that lead to new life. A life that will be ours.
Our lives and circumstances are different from the first century disciples. As Christians in present-day America, we do not face the threat of interrogation, imprisonment, or crucifixion because we live or preach the gospel. We are not facing the persecutions that Jesus, Paul, and the disciples were.
But we are living in a unique time and circumstance — this Pandemia. We know friction, discomfort, pain, suffering, and grief because of this new and ever-changing world. I imagine the encouragements written in the letter to the Romans apply to us. I imagine they can encourage us, calm us, lift our hearts, and motivate us.
So please hear Romans 8:26-39 again, in a slightly new way. I’ve taken Paul’s original text from the Common English Bible and adapted for our context. (My changes are in italics.) Receive these words as a letter written to you, here and now.
“In the same way God aided the believers that came before us, the Spirit comes to help us in our weakness. In these unprecedented, uncertain, uncomfortable times, we don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans. The one who searches hearts knows how the Spirit thinks, because he pleads for the saints, consistent with God’s will.
We know that God works all things — even pandemics — together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose. We know this because God knew about the pandemic in advance, and he decided in advance that through this trouble, we would be conformed to the image of his Son. That way — a way that walks through storms, anticipates hardship, and endures suffering — his Son would be the first of many brothers and sisters born and developed through suffering. We are those who God decided in advance would be conformed to his Son through a pandemic. He also called us to this time and place. Those whom he calls, he also makes righteous. Those whom he makes righteous, he will also glorify.
So what are we going to say about these things? What are we to do in these times? How are we to live in Pandemia? This should be our motto: If God is for us, who or what can be against us?
Remember, God didn’t spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Sacrifice leads to life. And so, if we trust and follow that pattern, won’t God also freely give us all the things we need, just as he did with Jesus?… It is Christ Jesus who died, even better, who was raised, and who is now, living and reigning at God’s right side! It is Christ Jesus who shows the way for us: meeting the needs of others, working for healing, making a way for the marginalized, enduring pain and hardship and choosing self-sacrifice for the good of others.
We may feel weak and exhausted, anxious and uncomfortable, disconnected and lonely due to current circumstances, but is there not the greatest comfort in this question: Who will separate us from Christ’s love?
Will we be separated from God’s love by any trouble, or distress, or harassment? Have we been separated by famine, or physical danger, or war? Will we be separated from God’s love by a virus without a vaccine? By economic instability or a potential recession, or partisan blame-games, by fake news, or by real, scary news? Can we be separated from God’s love when we wear a mask, or when the store is low on flour and meat and paper products, when we have to adapt our social gatherings for a time, or when we have to keep six feet between us and those we love?
These things are difficult. It can feel like “we are being put to death all day long for days on end. We might feel as valuable as sheep raised only for the slaughter.” But in all these discomforts and sacrifices and griefs, we will still win the greatest prize to be had, through the one who loved us.
I’m convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord, whether we encounter it in our daily lives or in a headline. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Not death or life. Not angels or demons or possible UFOs or life on Mars. Not presidents, or senators, or supreme courts, or city councils, or mayors, or school districts. Not a virus, or a pandemic, or masks, or social distances, or a lack of hugs and handshakes. Not government corruption, or abuses in policing, or protests, or the labor pains of righting systemic injustices. Not present troubles or future troubles. Not divorce, or addiction, or mental illness, or disability, or lawsuits, or bankruptcy. Not powers used well or power abused. Not canceled cruises, birthday parties, and family reunions, or adjusted weddings or receptions, or postponed travel plans. Not being pro-this or anti-that. Not being Catholic, or Evangelical, or Presbyterian, or Methodist, or Jewish, or other. Not being a perceived sinner or a celebrated saint. Not whether we wake up in the heights of optimism or in the depths of despair. Not anything that is created…NOTHING can separate us from God’s love.“
(Adapted from the text of the Common English Bible, 2011.)
Pandemia is hard. It’s taxing. It is not what we want. It requires sacrifices we may not want to make. Times feel dark and dreary. Your soul might feel that way too. There’s a lot of fear swirling around this world. That’s why we need to remember that we straddle two worlds.
Yes, we live in this Pandemia. But is it just for a time. We only have one foot here. We live in Pandemia, but we are also children of God. We are disciples of Jesus. People called to live “in the Spirit.” As such, we also have a foot in the kingdom of God. This kingdom is our primary citizenship.
As heaven’s citizens, what if we flipped our perspective of Pandemia? What if we viewed this time and these fraught circumstances like labor pains? What if we could trust that God is in all this mess, working things toward good? How would we feel then?
Would fear calm down? Would we be more willing to be uncomfortable and socially distant for the good of our neighbors and our world? Would we rise from our beds each day with eyes to see God on the move in the production of vaccines, in innovations in healthcare that treat those sick with Covid, in communities willing to wear masks to protect each other? Would hope overthrow uncertainty?
Pandemia is ugly, and scary, and contentious. I don’t want to be here. I wish it was something I could quit. I often feel emotionally drained. The headlines in Pandemia are discouraging. But the good news is — I don’t belong to Pandemia. I belong to God.
I will sometimes — maybe even daily — struggle with my attitude, but then I can choose to live as a citizen of the Kingdom of God. That means I will remind myself that this is only for a time. This will pass. When the pandemic ends, God will still be on the throne. God will still be good, and his goodness will have bloomed all around us. I will endure Pandemia for the sake of the glories to come in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus put it another way:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that someone hid in a field, which somebody else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field.” Matthew 13:44, CEB