It was one of my first visits as the newly installed intern pastor. I had been sent to California for the summer, after my first year of seminary. It was time to flex those ministerial muscles that I'd been working on all year.
Only… what I didn't know was that seminary didn't actually train you for ministry. Oh yes, I'd learned some good and valuable things, but the reality is that experience is the real teacher in ministry. Learning to walk with God, while sorting out how to represent Him in humility and love is no easy task. Managing the expectations everyone has (and at times those who try to force those expectations on you), all while trying to discern what God is calling you to do, can be messy.
Then, of course, there's pastoral care. As an introvert, having one-on-one conversations is not a strong point of mine. I dreaded having to walk into these strangers’ homes and somehow make inroads into lives that had way more depth than my own, at 23 years of age. I had a few select Bible passages that I would choose from based on the conversations I had with the people I met. Psalm 121 was a favorite of mine, and fool-proof: ‘My help comes from the Maker of heaven and earth’. That's a message we all need. It's comforting.
Then I stepped into Janice's (not her real name) room. We made small talk, she inquired about my upbringing in Michigan, we played Dutch bingo to see if we knew any family connections. She shared pieces of her story. She had had some hard things happen in her life. We stared awkwardly at each other... uncomfortable silence.... I'm not good at small talk, remember? I checked the clock on the wall; it had been longer than my usual visit time. “Time to move on,” I thought, as I pulled out my Bible and began reading Psalm 121. Soon I would be driving in my little Toyota Truck with the windows down, hair blowing, basking in the warmth of the California sunshine, care-free! Suddenly, she interrupted as I read verse 3: ‘He will not let your foot slip’. "Oh yes He will! That's why I'm in this nursing home! I slipped off a curb..."
I was naive, young, and unprepared. Nothing in seminary had prepared me for the venom I heard in her voice. She was angry at God. My first year seminarian tool bag had nothing for this moment. I tried to put myself in her shoes, but 60 years of separation proved insurmountable. I had nothing. I tried to listen and connect. She went on to talk about how she had skin cancer, how the sun had harmed her, contrary to what verse 6 says. She was bitter with God. He had not held up His end of the promise and she was mad!
I wish I could say that this was a redefining moment for her, as I declared some timeless truth that altered her life's trajectory. I wish I could exclaim that her bitterness turned to joy! But that's not true. I tried to say several things, tripped over my words… and failed. I prayed. I left without offering much in the way of comfort or peace. Truthfully, she had rattled me. Most elderly Christians I knew had only loving things to say about God. I had never before encountered this. My bubble was dealt a piercing blow. My mind swirled with doubts, wondering if that visit did more harm than good or if somehow God had spoken even in the mess.
I share this story because we are in a difficult moment in our world's history. With Coronavirus, protests, partisan political rancor, the locked-down world reopening only for states to start locking down again, this is a tough season. It’s a season of isolation in a world where people had already begun to isolate from personal contact, thanks to social media. We are living in a complex and vexing season – I’ve even talked to some fellow introverts for whom the isolation is daunting.
Hard as it is, this is a season where bold proclamation of God's truth needs to be made. But the spirit of this world wants us timid, believing that because life is hard, we don't have anything to say. We want to declare, "Our help comes from the Lord," but the opposing voices loudly say, "He's the one who let your foot slip! He's the one who's sun gave you skin cancer... He's the one who's allowed this virus, this sin, this separation, this segregation to endure."
So, what are we to say, when the truth is that sometimes we love and serve a God we don’t understand? What are we to say, when the troubles of our lives seem to imply that God is small, or weak, or uncaring?
How do we sit with one another at a distance? How do we sit and dialogue with God when we feel angry or frustrated like Janice?
God is big enough to receive our rage, loving enough to listen to it, forgiving enough to take it all, and caring enough to do something about it. Sometimes though, we simply have to go through it. He’ll be with us every step of the way, even when we don’t sense He’s there. Part of the challenge of having to go through trying times is to have our eyes wide open to see what God may do. We must try to find the ways He walks with us, supports us, teaches us, blesses us, builds us and others into the Kingdom builders and rulers we already are, as the sons and daughters of the Lord of the universe.
We serve a loving God, who has all power and could end Covid-19 without so much as a word. He could reverse the curse so that the sun’s rays no longer harm our bodies. He could end all strife, all pain, at any second without moving a muscle.
We look to scripture and see the picture of our God… our Maker who watches over us without resting His eyes or catching a few winks on the night shift. He watches over every move we make and sovereignly protects us from things we don’t even realize. He does so much that we never give a thought to; yet, we are quick to demand more.
The amazing thing in all this is that He’s big enough to handle our frustration, our anger, and our grumbling. He welcomes conversations with us, especially the difficult ones. He’s longsuffering, He endures the trial alongside us, and while it may not look like it in this moment, He’s already the victor!
We don’t see it yet. We want more. But He lovingly says, “Oh my child, there’s more than you can imagine! It’s already done! When Jesus said, ‘It is finished’ He meant it! The transformation you long for… the hope you long to have fulfilled… there’s so much more than that! No eye has seen, no ear has heard, what is on its way to you…. it’s more. I know it hurts right now. I know it is frustrating. I’m sorry you have to go through this… but I need you to go through it. For I’m making all things new, and that includes you!”
This remodel job is bigger than you know, and the transitions are painful. But oh, the joy that will be when at last you and I see this Kingdom we are building, together, with the One who formed us from the dust.
"Take heart", Jesus said, "I have overcome the world."
God's comfort to you on this journey!