Like most of us, when the reality of the Pandemic hit back in March I was thrown for a loop. Life went completely sideways over the course of a few days and I found myself thinking and dreaming about when this would all be over so that we could get back to life as usual. Watching the news unfold has been distressing and confusing and I have often felt disconnected and distracted. More recently, however, something has begun to shift. A friend told me that she had a sense that God is at work at this time. I feel that too. Remarkably, instead of just lamenting what is missing in my life I have found myself quietly thanking God for what I have and for what He is doing in this time.
I am thankful that my husband and kids are always close by these days. I think that we have grown closer as a family during this time when we are not able to get out as much. I appreciate less driving and a less hectic schedule. My quiet times have been richer and deeper as I feel less inclined to entertain myself with screens. Most evenings I am curled up with a good book enjoying peaceful solitude or talking with Sean without noise and interruption. I hear similar stories from friends: A close friend told me that the ability to work remotely has allowed her to move physically closer to her parents and siblings which has led to some deep work towards healing difficult relationships with her family members. These are certainly reasons for thankfulness but I wonder if it is appropriate when the news around us is so awful.
I know that there are scriptures about being thankful in all circumstances so I searched out the words of Paul: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus'' (1 Thess. 5:16-18). I thought about Paul: he experienced horrific persecution, torture, prison, shipwrecks and eventually a public execution in Rome. I looked up the context of his letter: Paul wrote his letter to a group of believers in Thessalonica who were facing intense persecution. Some of their fellow Christians had been killed. Paul himself had been charged under Roman law and forced to flee so he did not dare to return to Thessalonica until the charges against him expired. Essentially, he was writing during a time when he was forced to physically distance himself from his fellow believers because he was not safe in the political state in which he lived. Remarkably, though, I notice that he doesn’t say to be thankful despite all circumstances. He doesn’t say “be thankful that this will all be over soon” or even “be thankful that things aren’t as bad as they could be” ...just “give thanks” in whatever circumstances that you find yourself in. Even more than that though, he tells his fellow believers to “Rejoice”. Rejoice during a time when they couldn’t even meet together freely? Rejoice during a time of intense persecution and fear of the Roman authorities? Am I supposed to rejoice during a pandemic or when there is so much political unrest happening in the world? Is rejoicing even appropriate when so many terrible things are going on and so many people are sick, suffering and crying out for justice? If I’m honest, there have been times in the past couple of months when I have felt far from rejoicing.
I keep remembering what it was like to worship together in the sanctuary and what it was like to sing in close proximity, hugging and shaking hands with friends and sharing communion. I find myself thinking about how much joy there will be whenever we can get back to that. I wonder if songs of joy and celebration will have a whole new meaning whenever we can get back to meeting again in large groups for worship? It is tempting, though, to think that until that day comes I won’t be able to really rejoice again.
When I dig into the words of scripture, however, it seems clear that the soul-stirring joy that Paul is talking about has never actually left. I gather that the joy he is referring to here is not just a temporary feeling of happiness but that it is deeply rooted and comes directly from God. This is a joy that transcends whatever circumstances that we may be facing. From the context of Paul’s words I can also infer that experiencing joy from God does not negate the suffering of others, nor does it diminish my capacity to love, care for, and pray for them. In fact, it has the opposite effect. When we are rooted in and deeply living out the joy that comes from above, suddenly the stories in the news may prompt us towards compassion, prayer and action, rather than anxiety or depression. I think about the sudden and unexpected pang of emotion that I experienced from seeing the sea of faces looking back at me on my screen during our live Easter service. It reminded me that I am not alone and that we are still part of a greater community (something it is possible that I had taken for granted when we were able to meet weekly). While it was bittersweet to think of all of the people that I miss seeing and talking to in person, it reminded me to pray for and check in on some of the friends that I saw on the screen.
I wonder if even now God is inviting all of us to experience deep joy and thankfulness. This comes from knowing Him and being reminded of the hope that we have as a result of what Jesus has done for us. In the dark stillness when we cry out to God and ask why this world is so broken...we can still hear His still, small voice which speaks of hope, joy and peace. The voice that says “See, I am doing a new thing” and reminds me that God is always at work even when life doesn’t look the way I think it should. I think that when our focus shifts to the Eternal the temporary things of this Earth don’t seem so anxious and it isn’t so far-fetched to think that we can experience deep joy, even in difficult times. So instead of focusing on what we will be able to do “when this is all over”...maybe God is calling us to live wholly and joyfully in this moment. Are there relationships that can be nurtured? Are there new opportunities to serve, reach out or pray? What should I hold on to? What should I let go of? ...And what can I rejoice over?