The warning sign came two weeks ago. A hint of frustration, exasperation, tiredness, something crept into the other person’s voice - and I made the immediate jump.
They must be disappointed with me.
Everyone has their own pandemic curse. Maybe you’re a healthcare worker rotating in to cover far more shifts with far fewer coworkers than you should be. Maybe you’ve called your sixth agency trying to figure out if there’s any extra help for rent. Maybe you’ve broken out the flow-charts trying to figure out how you can visit family for the holidays with all the travel restrictions in place. Maybe you’re highly skeptical of the pandemic, or at least skeptical that lockdowns are a good way to handle it and people don’t seem to take your concerns seriously. Maybe your family or friends are less cautious than you and now you not only are socially distancing, but feel like a social outcast. Maybe you’ve lost people you love.
My pandemic curse thankfully is not so dire as some of the above. My curse is the murky waters of church leadership, in just my second year as a pastor. When coupled with my first year of marriage, my first real job out of school, a community that’s generally less restrictive than me in their pandemic approach, and an achieving personality, expectations of others have become my curse - real and imagined alike. I’ve begun to assume disappointment of others, irritation of others, wondering what’s being said behind my back, sometimes more than I listen to what’s actually said to my face.
But when I made that jump two weeks ago - when there was no hint of disappointment, and yet I found it - I began to realize the curse wasn’t expectation or disappointment or achievement at all.
My curse was me.
We all are weary of the pandemic one way or another. Regardless of where you are on the spectrum - whether you haven’t left home in nine months, or you’re partying with relatives and protesting masks - we’re sick of it. We’re all in this together. Except, heartbreakingly, we’re not. Much of my disappointment is imagined, but not all of it is. Some of our conflict between family and friends is imagined, but not all of it is. Mud-slinging, name-calling, motive-assuming, judgment-making are just some of the things thrown one’s way when they comment that they aren’t so sure they should head home to join family for Christmas, or when they say they’re not so sure if the cost of lockdowns is worth the benefit.
But that’s just it. Worse than the curse of social distancing, worse than the curse of exhausting hours, worse than the curse of hybrid schooling and impossible schedules, worse than the curse of dismal finances, dare I say even worse than the curse of the illness itself, is the curse of what the pandemic has done to us. Specifically, in my field as a pastor, what I’ve seen it do to Christians. People on either side of the spectrum absolutely rip into one another, tear one another down, criticize their intelligence instead of their sources, criticize their character instead of their data. The worst effect of the pandemic, in my opinion, is how it has brought out the worst of humanity. I am no exception. I’ve become more bitter with congregation members. I’ve become more swiftly irritable, whether with my sweet wife who accidentally steps on my toe or my well-meaning yellow lab puppy who very intentionally chomps on my toe.
In desperate times, everyone places their hope in something. It’s a great flaw and a great gift of humans; we always have a hope. Some hoped in the pandemic magically going away; some hoped in swift vaccine production; some hoped in the government disregarding social distancing measures and embracing a return to “normal”; some hoped alcohol or addiction would dull the pain. I placed my hope in the eventual return of normalcy, by means of the pandemic ebbing or the vaccine flowing. It’ll be better by fall. It’ll be better by winter. Surely it’ll be better by 2021.
The problem - which, unfortunately, has stared me embarrassingly in the face as I’ve preached through a sermon series on hope in the Bible - is that hope in our own circumstances changing is sorely based. Preacher Charles Spurgeon illustrated that a man taking shelter in the world was like a man taking shelter under a tree in a great storm - it might just snap a branch on his head.
Psalm 42, one of the great lament Psalms, expresses a writer who seems to be experiencing some pandemic-like anguish. Far from the glory days of worshipping in Jerusalem with his friends in verse 4, now verse 7 tells us he sits in the snowy foothills of Mount Hermon - on the other side of the country! And there was no live-stream worship for him to join. Mocked by friends, feeling deep sorrow and pain and distant from the things he loved, the writer asked, “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Put your hope in God.” Hope, throughout the Scriptures, is never, “Hope that God will fix the situation!” or, “Hope that God will make it all better!” Hope, in the Bible, calls us to hope not that God will change our circumstances, but to hope in God’s unchanging character and promises.
Proverbs 13:12 reads, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” I used to wonder exactly what “heart sick” meant, wondering if it referring to my longing to be married to my long-distanced fiancee. Now I think I understand, because I’ve seen the sickness of my heart: the bitterness, anger, frustration, irritability, anxiety, or depressive moods that claw for attention when I haven’t spent my sweet time with Jesus, or clung to his promises for hope, and have instead placed my hopes upon a vaccine, upon changing circumstances, upon the world. The only way to keep our heart from getting sick in times of darkness is to make sure our source of hope is a lasting one.
Yesterday was a pandemic day. You know pandemic days. You wake up tired and grumpy and the world is sad. We learned that pandemic was striking at our small village, with rumors that others on our street were sick. I wrestled with how to plan for a Christmas Eve service with incoming travelers from out-of-state, and whether having it in person was a good idea - and what people would say if this young pastor dare tried to change Christmas. I longed to go home and see my family and was crestfallen to learn that my home state had the highest rate of Covid cases per capita in the country. I was working from home being harassed by a puppy, rather than in the office where most of my resources were, since we decided I would do so any time others were using the church.
After a 3:00 run, since it gets dark at like 3:30, I sat down to try to plan out Christmas Eve. I titled my sermon, “Christmas in the Worst Year Ever.” I wasn’t sure where it was going yet. I started to read the all-too-familiar passages, wondering how our joyous Christmas traditional hymns would feel to sing with masks on, wondering if people would flaunt quarantine rules and come to church anyways, wondering if I would become the next pastor in the news for hosting a church service in a pandemic and exposing my community, wondering what in the world to say to encourage a downtrodden world in such a broken year. Then, it started to hit me. Words flew onto the page. 7 hours of sermon work was done in less than 1 hour.
Because, I realized -
Joseph was likely mocked by family and friends for Mary’s pregnancy. Maybe despised him for, in their eyes, lying about it. “The Holy Spirit did it?” Right. Maybe when Joseph went home for a meal, he received the same skepticism and criticism some of us will when we do - or don’t - join family for holidays.
Joseph and Mary’s wedding, after such controversy, likely was hardly the celebration they thought it would be. Maybe it would have looked like my Covid wedding.
Mary had her first child in a stable away from her family instead of in a home surrounded by her mother and sisters. Maybe it would be like a young couple’s first Christmas that they can’t celebrate surrounded by loved ones.
The shepherds were social outcasts. When they came reporting good news, chances were they were ignored by many. Maybe they felt a bit like some of us who have been ignored or chastised for our beliefs this season.
On and on you can go. Simeon, waiting ages and ages for God’s promise; Anna the prophetess, an 84-year-old widow living alone; the Magi, traveling far for an uncertain hope; somewhere you can find yourself in the Christmas story this Covid year. In many ways - for a peasant couple who had to travel 90 miles on donkey with a pregnant woman only to have a cold, painful birth in a back stable with no family or friends for support - that first Christmas was even bleaker than our Covid Christmas. Except, it wasn’t.
The angels cried out, “Good news of great joy! A Savior has been born to you.”
When they cried, “Savior,” perhaps some expected a Savior of circumstances. A Savior who would boot out Roman control. A Savior who would be an effective political leader unlike the tyrant Herod. A Savior who would fix their broken relationships, economy, or get rid of sickness and bring in the messianic promises of health and wealth. Those who didn’t get that Savior eventually cried, “Crucify,” instead.
Because, as the angel told Mary, Jesus didn’t come to change circumstances. He didn’t come to save from Roman control, political tyrants, broken relationships, broken economy. He didn’t come to end sickness, fix our problems, and make life easy. Not yet, at least. He’ll come back one day and do all those things. No, he came to save us from something else first. Jesus came, the angel told Mary, “To save the people from their sins.”
From the curse of ourselves.
Yes, I just spoiled my Christmas Eve sermon for any congregants who read it. But that’s okay, I think. I, at least, will need to hear it twice.
Our hope this pandemic year must not be in a vaccine. Or in a new (or old) political leader. Or in going back to “normal.” Or in any change of our circumstances. We will wither. Our hearts will grow sick, and those around us will pay the price for our anger, irritability, bitterness, judgment, and sinfulness. The only way, as the Psalmist writes in Psalm 1, to be a “tree planted by streams of water, that bears fruit in season, and does not wither,” is to place our hope in the presence and promises of Jesus Christ.
One day, he will return to fulfill all those other hopes - when he saves us from our circumstances and makes everything new and ends all sickness and pain and suffering and brokenness - but today, he saves us from ourselves.
Our hope is that, despite a time of great sickness, because of Jesus’ presence in our lives by his Holy Spirit, he can make us a people who are well in spirit. Our hope is that, in a time of division, he can make us a people who are unified. Our hope is that, in a time of suffering, he can make us a people who are joyful. Our hope is that, in a time of anger, he can make us a people who are patient. Our hope is that, in a time of fear, he can make us a people of peace.
And that is a hope that will not fail.
Today, I was asked, “How are you?”
And, for one of the first times in the past couple weeks, I could genuinely respond, “I’m good.”
Not because my circumstances are any different, but because today I was aware of Jesus Christ’s presence in my life, so I can be good when things are not so good.
People of Jesus, whatever else may come to pass, let us please, please, please, be a people of peace and love and unity in a time of fear and rage and division - because that is the true hope of Christmas, in the Christ who will save us from our sins.
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