Doris Crippen, age seventy-three, was recently diagnosed with COVID-19 and became a patient at a rehabilitation center in Nebraska. Bev Boro, a medication aide, has worked at the facility for more than two decades.
Last month, Bev was looking over her patient list when she recognized Doris’s name. She was shocked: Doris is her older sister, though the two have not seen each other in more than fifty years.
The two share a father but were born to different mothers. Doris was raised by her mother and stepfather and was twenty years old when she last saw Bev. The women knew each other’s names and spent years searching for each other without success. Then the pandemic brought them together.
Despite the suffering Doris has endured, she told a reporter, “I am the happiest person in the world. I cannot believe I finally found my sister.”
We all love stories that have such happy endings, especially during days of pandemic pain and economic suffering. But what do we do with stories that don’t end so well? With family members and friends who don’t recover from this horrible disease? With prayers that seem unanswered?
N. T. Wright, one of the most profound theologians of our generation, notes that lament is a central part of our faith. Psalms that express anger, frustration, and pain to God are in Scripture for a reason. Some of them, as Wright observes, “come out the other side into the light. And sometimes . . . they simply don’t. They stay in the dark. And there’s a sense that God is with us in that darkness.”
Yesterday we focused on our need for the power of God to live as the people of God. Today, we’ll examine perhaps the greatest obstacle to experiencing such power in painful times.
Learning from the Old West
I’m reading Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West by H. W. Brands, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin. One of the facts his fascinating narrative reinforces on nearly every page is the frailty of life on the frontier.
Settlers moving west were one Indian raid or hard winter from annihilation. Starvation was an ever-present possibility. A broken leg in the wilderness could mean a horrible death from infection or wild animals.
As a result, those on the frontier knew they needed God and each other to survive. Generations facing the Great Depression and two world wars learned the same lesson.
However, our technological and medical advances have insulated us from much of what they faced. The rising secularism and moral relativism that have resulted from our cultural self-sufficiency now threaten our souls.
And our churches as well.
The problem with church-growth seminars
I was called to my first pastorate in 1984, just as the church-growth movement was gaining momentum. The scientific study of growing churches led to identifying best practices that could be emulated in other congregations. Before long, church-growth conferences hosted by megachurches became mandatory for pastors of smaller churches. I attended at least one a year in my early years as a pastor and read the literature produced by this movement extensively.
The purpose of these resources was to identify biblical principles that all churches should understand and seek to practice. The downside, however, was the sense—however unintended by leaders in the movement—that if churches organized themselves strategically, created worship and teaching experiences that appealed to a consumeristic culture, and marketed their services and events effectively, their growth was assured.
The fact is, human words cannot save human souls. You and I cannot convict anyone of their sins or lead them to repentance. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. He will use us to the degree that we depend on him.
If our church growth strategies are submitted to the Spirit in passionate prayer and utter dependency, he will use them for God’s glory. But only then. Otherwise, we are building buildings and attracting numbers, but we are not growing God’s kingdom.
When God gives us “overcoming life”
The coronavirus pandemic proves our mortality. The recession demonstrates the unpredictability and unreliability of wealth and the folly of self-reliance.
However, if we reframe the sufferings we face as an invitation to seek the strength of our Savior, he will redeem them by leading us into the spiritual renewal we need so desperately.
Oswald Chambers observed: “God does not give us overcoming life: he gives us life as we overcome. The strain is the strength. If there is no strain, there is no strength. Are you asking God to give you life and liberty and joy? He cannot, unless you will accept the strain. Immediately you face the strain, you will get the strength.”
We can illustrate this principle physically. To get stronger, we must strain the muscles we intend to build. In the same way, when we develop the reflex of trusting our problems and pain to the power of Jesus, we experience his presence and peace in transforming ways.
“This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope”
Speaking of biblical lament, the writer of Lamentations set the standard with his deep, despairing grief over the destruction of Jerusalem. At one point he testifies of “my afflictions and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall!” (Lamentations 3:19).
But his despair leads him to make this decision: “This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (vv. 21–23).
What is the source of your “hope” today?