I’ve been hearing an idea expressed more and more frequently these days that really bothers me. I’ve seen it in Facebook posts and heard it expressed in conversation, sometimes even by my clergy colleagues. It goes something like this: “God has sent this pandemic to teach us a lesson.” What that lesson is varies according to who’s speaking. But the basic idea is that God sent this virus on purpose as a very harsh teaching tool.
Friends, I have to tell you, I think this idea is dead wrong. I do not believe that the God I know—the God you know, the God of love and justice, a God of mercy and compassion—would visit pain and suffering and grief on a world full of innocent people just because some people or some nation needed a “come to Jesus” moment. I do not believe that the God who sent his only Son into the world, not to condemn it but to save it, would do such a terrible thing.
I do believe that God’s heart breaks with compassion for this broken world, now reeling with illness, loss, and fear. I also believe that, while God does not cause bad things to happen, God does use everything that is in the world—even the bad things—to move the world closer to what it’s intended to be. I believe that God uses us to accomplish this work. And, finally, I know that God stands with us, no matter what is happening around us.
This is what Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans. The Church in Rome was going through its own difficult times. There had been a period when all the Jews were forced to leave Rome, including those who had become Christians, possibly because of the disruption Christian preaching was causing in the Jewish community. Recently, the new emperor, Nero, had allowed the exiles to come home. The Gentile Christians who had remained behind were having difficulty accepting the newly-returned Jewish Christians back into their communities. Some thought that the eviction of the Jews had been a political endorsement of what they believed to be theologically true—that the Jewish people had forfeited their role as God’s people. The Church in Rome was suffering from a great deal of hurt and confusion and distrust.
Into this uneasy situation, Paul speaks words of assurance and hope. He speaks of how the Holy Spirit partners with us in our prayer. He speaks of how we are each called to be part of Christ’s family and how God uses all that happens in our lives to continually form us into Christ’s likeness. And he assures us that, no matter what the world throws at us, there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love as we find it in Jesus Christ.
The Roman church was no stranger to hard times and difficult questions, any more than we are. They had their immediate problems to deal with, as we do with the pandemic. But their lives, like ours, were complicated by more than one single, attention-grabbing issue. I imagine that they, like us, worried about whether their paycheck would meet their daily needs and whether they’d be secure in their old age. They had families and friends to worry about. They mourned the loss of loved ones and bore the weight of illness.
Like us, I imagine they had problems that left them at a loss for words when they bowed their heads and knelt to pray. I’m feeling that way right now. The world’s problems are so big, and I feel so small. Every day seems to bring something new to worry about, in addition to the concerns I had before this all started. Where do I even begin to pray? How do you pray in the midst of catastrophe, whether it’s a world-wide pandemic or one that affects just you and your family?
When we are groaning under the weight of the burdens we carry, when the only prayer we can offer is, “God help me,” the Spirit is with us. And the Spirit doesn’t just sit quietly in a corner, commiserating with us in silence. Our Bible says that the Spirit “intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” I love the poetry of that phrase. But, Paul’s Greek word for “sigh” also means “groans.” The Spirit feels all that we feel and groans right along with us. But, the Spirit is never at a loss for words as we are. The Spirit knows both our hearts and God’s mind. The Spirit puts into words all that we can’t and prays the way we would if only we knew how—a prayer that is in perfect accord with God’s will for us and the world.
When it looks like our lives and the world around us have been shattered into a pile of useless pieces, Paul reminds us that, for those who love God, God makes all things work together for good. This phrase has made it onto many a bumper sticker. But the bumper stickers miss Paul’s point. When he says that all things work together for “good,” he has a very specific kind of “good” in mind.
The “good” which God brings out of the broken pieces of our lives is not just an “Oh, everything turned out better than I expected” kind of thing. God’s intention is that our brokenness will become the raw material that helps us become more Christ-like—that we will be “conformed to the image of his Son,” as Paul puts it. Everything that happens to us—the things that are good and the things that are bad, the things that make us proud and the things that cause us shame, the things that make us to leap for joy and the things that leave us awash in tears—God uses all of them to help us become more like Jesus—to be made perfect in love, as John Wesley would have said.
Lent is a time of self-examination, and this particular Lenten season provides a unique opportunity to reflect on how God has worked and is working in our lives. I’ve been thinking about how God has used the difficult times in my past to help me walk more closely with Jesus. And, I’ve been thinking about how God may be working in me now, through the challenges of these days.
I’m more aware of my role as steward of God’s creation, as I’ve realized how much I waste of things like paper towels. I have a greater appreciation for how interconnected we all are—with friends and family of course, but also with strangers in our community, our state, our nation, and throughout the world—each of us having an impact on each other’s well-being. I’ve realized how much I take for granted—that what I want will be on the grocery store shelves, that I’ll have plenty of time to get together with a friend, that the plans I make for tomorrow or next week or next year will come to pass, or even that I will have a tomorrow, or next week, or next year.
I’ve recognized a judgmental streak as I’ve stood before empty grocery store shelves and thought angry thoughts about those who rush to buy up scarce supplies. I need to work on that. I’m revising my idea of what I “need.” I’ve become more grateful—for each person, for each meal, for each day. I pray and believe that God will somehow use this time to shape me into someone who conforms more closely to the Christ I profess to love and follow.
I imagine that each of you can look back over your lives to a time of brokenness that, eventually, changed you for the better. Perhaps you discovered qualities and gifts you didn’t know you had, or the ones you already knew about became richer and deeper. Maybe you found a greater trust in God—a willingness to rely on God more completely. It may have taken a while to see what God did with the broken pieces of your life. You may still be waiting to see it. But, God will not allow any part of our lives to be wasted.
The “social distancing rules” and the spotlight they put on our relationships make Paul’s words about God’s love for us more poignant and more reassuring than ever. If a temporary, physical separation can make us feel so bereft and lonely, the prospect of being separated from God is terrifying. But Paul is emphatic that nothing can come between us and the God who formed us, calls us, justifies us, and perfects us.
Hear his thrilling words again: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Paul’s list of life’s troubles wasn’t a “one-size-fits-all” list. It was specific to the trials his readers were facing. Our list will be specific to ours. That’s why I’m so struck by Paul’s assurance that life can’t come between us and God’s love. Can a frightening, mysterious virus do it? No. But neither can the ordinary challenges of every-day life: caring for our spouses, our children, and our parents; dealing with job loss, illness, grief, and loneliness; facing addiction, bad habits, and personal failures. We each face challenges. But to all the troubles life can throw at us, Paul has the same response: through Jesus, who loves us, we are conquerors, and more than conquerors, and nothing can separate us from God’s love for us.
There’s an ancient kind of Japanese ceramic work which is now considered an art form. It’s called “kintsugi.” It’s a way of repairing broken pottery by filling the cracks and rejoining the broken pieces with gold. Originally it was simply a way to make broken things useful again. But, in embracing what is flawed and imperfect, change and brokenness are made useful and beautiful.
In the same way, God can take the broken pieces in our lives and reassemble them into something useful and beautiful. We won’t look the same as we did before the cracks and chips appeared. But, the Spirit will pray for us as God’s constant love completes its healing and redemptive work. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young