By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Philippians 4:4-7
Many of you are aware that I had an eye infection about a week and a half ago. It’s not a serious thing. But the antibiotic ointment used to treat the infection was thick and gooey and made it difficult to see. So, I found myself back in the same predicament I was in following my surgery. When I have difficulty seeing, it can send me into a downward spiral. Because it is hard to read emails and texts and other communications, I read less. Then, I begin to miss important information and miss meetings and other opportunities to connect with people. Then, I begin to feel isolated and lonely. It’s amazing that a little eye infection and some ointment can have such a broad ripple effect.
But I think my experience of disconnection leading to isolation and loneliness is a pretty common one for a lot of us right now as we navigate this pandemic. Even for those of us who are continuing to leave our homes and interact with people every day, it is not the same. The majority of communication is nonverbal and it’s estimated that 55% of is related to gestures, posture and facial expression. Masks, as medically necessary as they now are, dramatically limit our ability to communicate and connect with one another. An interesting story… Reagan Jewell was born a couple months premature during this pandemic. Not long after she was released from the hospital, Savannah took her in for her check-up. The pediatrician remarked that, although she was still small, she was – for the most part – hitting all the mile markers for a two month old with one notable exception: she wasn’t smiling or recognizing smiles. Fortunately, Savannah is smart and didn’t panic but realized that infants learn based on what they see and, for two months, everyone Reagan saw was wearing a mask. So, even under the best of circumstances, COVID is for us – socially – a bit like that gooey eye ointment. It makes it hard to really see and read people which can cause us to become discouraged and actually begin to spiral and disconnect from one another even more… And that’s not good.
It’s not good for us spiritually. It’s not good for us mentally. It’s not even good for us physically.
As human beings, we are built for connection. In Genesis, chapter 2, we read the 2nd account of creation in which God begins by fashioning a man out of the dirt and breathing life into him. Quickly God recognizes that it’s not good for the man to be alone, to live in isolation. So God builds another human to be the man’s partner. Now, it’s really sad that we often only read that scripture at wedding ceremonies because the message in that passage is much bigger and broader. It is about the truth that human beings are built for connection and community. We are not designed to be alone. We need one another. We need helpers and partners in life. The uniqueness of Christianity is our affirmation that human connection is so critical and so essential that our God became incarnate. God took on human flesh, walked and lived among humanity; eating with people, touching them, looking them in the eyes. We are built for connection. Yet we are living under circumstances that make connecting an enormous challenge.
But so was the Apostle Paul. He, too, was living under circumstances that made connection an enormous challenge. Paul’s letter to the congregation in Philippi is written from prison. Prison is never a good experience. But it was even worse in the ancient world. Yet, Paul’s letter is filled with references to joy and rejoicing. This letter is a clear lesson for us as followers of Jesus living under our own difficult circumstances that challenging situations are not the defining factor in our joy. The situations and circumstances in which we find ourselves are not what cause us to feel joy or despair. So, if our circumstances are not at the root of joy or sorrow, what is? What causes or cultivates genuine joy? The answer: relationships. Our relationship with God through Christ AND our relationships with one another as members in the family of God; the quality of those relationships determines our level of joy. Now, that’s not to say that we don’t all feel a little discouraged from time to time and struggle. But we can experience joy even in the midst of difficult circumstances if we have relationships that are reliable and trustworthy and affirming. Relationships make us resilient.
Now, that is also not to say that those relationships need to be or are perfect. Things weren’t perfect in the congregation at Philippi. We read of a disagreement between a couple women involved in leadership in the church. Paul also warns the congregation that there are false apostles who will try and lead them astray. This congregation wasn’t perfect and they faced a lot of challenges within and beyond their walls. But they also loved Christ, loved one another, and loved Paul. So deep was their love for Paul, their loyalty to Paul, that they sent a member of the church to the prison to help Paul while he was being held there. That member, Epaphroditus, became really sick while he was there caring for Paul. So sick, in fact, he nearly died. Paul tells the Philippians to honor Epaphroditus for the sacrifice he made and the love he showed. So again, this is not about relationships that are perfect and it is certainly not about perfect circumstances. We discover and experience genuine joy as a result of relationships that are reliable, trustworthy and affirming. Meaningful relationships can get us through even the very worst circumstances.
That is why Trinity’s vision statement is “growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.” We recognize that the primary task of the church is relationship building: our vertical relationship with God in Christ and our horizontal relationships with one another; relationships that are fostered, that grow, through loving and serving one another.
There’s a great TED Talk entitled What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness by psychiatrist Robert Waldinger who directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development. It’s the longest running study in U.S. history and has been going on for over 82 years. It began as two different studies. One involved a group of Harvard sophomores; the other, young men from an inner-city Boston neighborhood. It has included medical examinations and data as well as interviews with the men and their families and has made some remarkable discoveries regarding health and happiness. Some wouldn’t surprise us: people who live in poverty and have poor access to medical care generally live shorter lives. Young adults from unsupportive families find it more challenging to “launch” successfully in early adulthood. But one study result took everyone by surprise: as we age, despite differences in income, education, healthcare, genetics, etc., the most critical factor with regards to health and happiness? Relationships. Without meaningful connection, we experience increased risk of heart disease, dementia and depression. None of which should surprise any of us because as human creatures, God built us with the need for connection.
Friends: I’m preaching this message this morning because what we all hoped would be a COVID sprint has turned into a marathon. Spring stretched into summer and soon we will move into fall and this virus is not letting up. And we are growing weary; weary of wearing masks and washing our hands constantly and wiping down our steering wheels, our keyboards, our cell phones and our groceries. Some of us feel like we’d just as soon stock up the freezer and throw in the towel: just sit around in our pajamas binging on frozen pizzas and Netflix. But, although that would be easier, it moves us one step closer to death; to spiritual, mental and physical decline. So, we’ve got to keep trying. That’s what I want to encourage you to do.
Perhaps you need to physically isolate for your own health and safety. But, if you do, don’t stop reading emails, don’t stop making phone calls, don’t stop listening to the sermon online, and don’t stop making Zoom lunch dates with friends. Don’t stop praying each morning and reading scripture, journaling or meditating in the evening. We need to keep working on our relationships with God and with one another. COVID is like thick, gooey eye ointment that makes everything fuzzy and fatiguing. But we can’t give up. It may be that your rhythm or pattern for your time with God needs to change. Maybe you’re finding it harder to focus. That’s okay. Try some new spiritual practices. I have a book entitled “Paths to Prayer” that teaches 28 different ways of praying. If you need some new ideas for your prayer or devotional life, give me or Pastor Suzanne a call or an email. Reach out and ask your church friends what’s working for them. It’s okay to change our spiritual habits and patterns during this season. Just don’t give up. Just don’t quit.
And stay connected to the church and your friends. Look at that church website every week. I know we’re all a little screen weary these days. But there’s great stuff on there. You can actually see people’s entire faces, including their smiles! Stay connected. Call and text one another. Figure out safe and creative ways to meet with other people. I am so thankful that over a dozen people in our church are part of a telephone team that calls and checks in with members who are homebound or isolating. We’re really trying to make sure no one gets forgotten or overlooked because we all need community; we need one another. Just as the Philippians felt an obligation for Paul’s well-being and sent Epaphroditus to care for him while he was in prison, we have an obligation to one another, to reach out and care for one another during this difficult time.
So friends, that’s my message this morning. I know it’s hard and we’re all getting tired and discouraged. But relationships are everything. Reach out for your own well-being. Reach out for the well-being of others… because our relationships with God and with one another are truly what keep us alive. They are what bring us joy even in the worst of times.
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