What are you hoping for in the new year? Have you been thinking about that? The past few days have been filled with people saying how glad they will be to see 2020 go, moved to the year view mirror, or made a distant memory. Those are the sentiments the misery of facing a global pandemic will churn in us. If only it were as easy as turning the page on the calendar. Sadly, disappointingly, we’re likely to awaken to a 2021 that looks a lot like the end of 2020. I don’t mean to be a Daniel Downer, and I am optimistic that 2021 is going to eventually bring a brighter future, it’s just going to take a while.
So, realistically, what are your hopes for 2021? I’ve heard things like “being able to hug my (fill in the blank) – Mom, Grandma, grandchildren, neighbor . . . Having never been one that was too keen on hugs I’d have to say this one is not that high on my list, but I can understand the sentiment behind it. We’ve had to be so distanced from one another this past year, the need for compassionate touch is real. Handshakes, fist bumps, side hugs and even bear hugs will be welcomed (for the most part) in 2021. I envision a day when we can have a big facemask bonfire, shake hands at church again, and serve each other communion (though perhaps those things do not happen all together).
What else might we be hoping for? Speaking of church, I’m hoping for the resumption of in-person worship. We did 20 weeks of online only worship in our congregation in 2020 and we will begin 2021 that same way. I have not seen some people face to face since early March of 2020. While I am thankful for the ability to be connected in that way, I’m ready to see people in the pews again. Aren’t you?
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid . . . “ (Isaiah 40:1-2a NRSV)
This week the United States will surpass 300,000 deaths due to the Covid-19 virus. That is equivalent to a pretty good sized city. Pittsburgh was given as an example on one news report I heard today. I’ve been to Pittsburgh. Went there on a Sabbatical trip a few years ago to visit a couple of churches. I took time to walk around down town, through the farmer’s market and revitalized warehouse district. I went down to the waterfront and spent some time where the three rivers meet at Point State Park. I saw a lot of people that day, out enjoying their city – individuals and couples and families. It would be hard to imagine that vibrant city suddenly empty of it’s population. Yet, that’s the number of lives lost so far in 2020 to the coronavirus in the United States.
Sure, 300K out of the roughly 328 million USA residents may not register much of an impact percentage wise, but it does exceed the number of United States combat deaths during World War II. Over the past few days the daily death toll has risen to exceed the number killed in the attacks of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. Perhaps you’ve known someone who lost their life? Perhaps you know someone who is fighting for their life? Maybe you are among those who work on the front lines of healthcare trying to preserve lives, or – sadly – representing humanity as lives slip away. Thank you.
Empathy is the ability to express concern because of a similar lived experience. Those who’ve lost loved ones bring empathy to their comforting efforts with others. Sympathy is the capacity to understand that someone is hurting or suffering. As we pass this milestone in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, our neighbors and fellow citizens who have suffered the direct loss of a loved one this year deserve our sympathy, at the least, and our empathy if we are able to share it. 300,000 holiday celebrations across this land will be missing someone. 300,000 households, families, or sets of friends will remember who should be with them, but isn’t.
No, it’s not the same as losing the population of a good sized city all at once. The pain isn’t that geographically concentrated. It’s more diffuse, easier to avoid noticing – especially if you’ve escaped direct impact. But it is still painful, and very real, and needs to be acknowledged.
The prophet Isaiah’s words, quoted atop this post, were shared to a people who faced the horrors of exile. Amidst that tragic event in the nation’s history, God sent a word, but not to spare the nation from what was happening. They still had to endure the exile and go through its suffering and loss. But God, through the prophet, let them know they were not alone. God brought a word of comfort to their grief and loss. It seems the least we can do, in God’s name, for those who suffer now.
Isaiah 9:1-3 is a familiar text for this season of Advent. I bet you’ll know it when you see and hear it:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.
Those are the most quoted words of the reading, and likely have a familiar ring to them. But did you ever notice how Isaiah 9 begins? It doesn’t begin with “light” but with “gloom”. But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
So there it is. The people have been living in gloom. Rather like this late November gloomy day outside my window here in the Midwest. Only for the people of Zebulun and Naphtali, who had frequently been under threat and occupation of Assyria, gloom was a too well-known companion, having little to do with the weather.
I am among those who find their mood affected by seasonal darkness brought on by winter. Don’t let anyone tell you that SAD (seasonal affective disorder) isn’t real. I know it is. My sleep patterns change as the days shorten. When the sun sets just after 5 p.m. I’m ready to draw the drapes and call it a day. Tack together gloomy weather day after gloomy grey weather day and I will shout “hallelujah” when the sun decides to finally peak forth! And that’s just weather complaining I’m spewing out!
What about those who for whom 2020 has been day after day of isolation, loneliness and loss? I know some for whom this is true. They are afraid to leave home, be in public, or share with extended family. They’ve just come through a different kind of Thanksgiving and they are afraid Christmas will only be more of the same. There is a weightiness, a gloominess to this reality for so many this year. Oppression doesn’t only come from an enemy army’s occupation, or the winter blues, it is also the product of a highly contagious and rather unpredictable virus that has people holed up in the seclusion of waiting it out. Sadly, it’s also come in the judgment of others who have not been as impacted by the virus and who may look with scorn on the precautions the more vulnerable take, or minimize the loss that has been known. Can light come into this gloom? Can hope shine forth amidst this deep darkness?
I must say I’m hearing the hope of Isaiah’s promise in new ways this year. The prophet said of those who had lived in “deep darkness” that a light had shined – the light of hope found in the promise for what is to come. No, not a vaccine or herd immunity, or the delusion that the virus will disappear; the hope that is ours and the light that is ours is found in Christ Jesus.
Advent is a time of waiting for the coming of Christ. We wait for the light to shine. We wait for the reassurance of hope. We wait for the promise of deliverance for all things that may oppress us.
Last Sunday as I was sitting in the pew of our sanctuary at First Baptist Columbus, waiting for it to be time to share our online worship service – just the few of us again with the cameras – I watched as the light of that morning’s sunlight began to spread across the pierced wall of the chancel. It began from the east and worked it’s way toward the west – overcoming the shadows of the openings in the brick, illuminating the cross and seasonal decorations below, until all the wall was awash in light. That was my sermon on Sunday, and my worship experience, and my reminder of the truth from Isaiah 9 – on those who lived in deep darkness, a light has shined!
May it be so for you this season as you spend time with the One who is the Light of the World.
As the Thanksgiving holiday fast approaches it looks as though we will be celebrating it in different ways this year. Many families will forego the larger extended family gatherings. Travel that brings households together from across the state or nation is being discouraged. Plans are being made for virtual gatherings, or smaller gatherings where check-ins can be had through Facetime or Zoom meetings. All of this is of course due to the continued spread of the Coronavirus, which is clearly in the midst of a surge in most places.
Given these circumstances, and the impact Covid-19 continues to wield on many other facets of life, I found myself thinking lately that I’m kind of over all of it. (Or I wish we could be). I never thought, as a pastor, I would discourage people from coming to church once in the course of a year, let alone twice. Just as we were enjoying and doing pretty well with some additional in-person gatherings, we’ve felt it best to pull back on those in an abundance of caution. But man, it just stinks to have to do this again! And it’s difficult to break that news to people – even people who agree with it, let alone those who have different opinions. So, for much of the past few days I’ve not been feeling overly thankful. In fact, given all that 2020 has thrown our way, I – like a lot of people – would just as soon usher it out the door; if only that would solve all our challenges.
Waiting can be one of the most challenging things a human being is called to do. When we are young it is especially hard to wait. We say, “I can’t wait for Christmas! or my birthday, or whatever it is we are anticipating. But, as we get older waiting doesn’t seem to get any easier, does it?
It’s hard to wait for news from the lab. It’s difficult to wait for a hoped for phone call, text or email. We may find ourselves checking our devices repeatedly, anxiously waiting when wanting to know something now.
America is currently getting a lesson in waiting. We are awaiting the results of this week’s Presidential election, after waiting all the weeks for it to get here. Several states remain in play as I write this blog, two days after Election Day. But this is not all we are waiting on. We are also waiting on some good news about the 2020 health pandemic. We are waiting on a vaccine or proven therapeutic that will hold this virus at bay and allow life to return to some semblance of pre-pandemic living. Once that treatment is approved we will be waiting for it to be distributed.
As a full-fledged citizen of contemporary culture I too wish we didn’t have to wait so long. Like you, I’m used to day of results, quick service and timely outcomes. Yet, as one who reads and studies Scripture and strives to follow Christ, I know that God often reveals things through waiting. Just consider how many times the people of God endured long periods of waiting. Generations of Hebrews waited for deliverance in Egypt (430 years). Then they waited 40 years in the wilderness. Later it was 70 years in exile. Then they waited 400 years from the last Old Testament prophet to John the Baptist’s announcement of Messiah Jesus. Waiting has been baked into the faith experience. God is seldom in a hurry. Faith is a long obedience in the same direction.
In truth when we follow Christ all of life is about waiting. We await the full coming of the Kingdom of God. We wait for creation to be restored. We wait to join the company of all the saints. We wait for Jesus to come again.
So, this waiting thing, while tiresome and a bit tedious, is not new. We should be well-practiced in it. It’s what we do while waiting that may be more important. Do we fret? worry? complain? whine? Not too much will come of any of that. Do we pray? ponder? reflect? listen? Probably a much better set of choices. Do we trust? Put our faith in God’s future? Prioritize not according to this world’s powers and principalities, but those of the kingdom of heaven? Do we sit with the one who is anxious? Console the one who is grieving? Encourage the one who is despondent?
Waiting could be a productive exercise if only we had the patience to do it well.