Not quite a sermon, but a talk I wrote for our local Baptist Church Women’s Fellowship reflecting on Long Covid and the faithfulness of God.
Let’s start with a verse from Deuteronomy 31:8
It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.
Almost a year ago, I had the great privilege of leading an ordination retreat. In the Church of England, our ministers tend to be ordained together at a service in the Cathedral, and the most common time to do this is around the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on 29th June. In the days leading up to the ordination, the ministers to be go away for a few days of retreat, prayer, rest and reflection, under the guidance of the retreat conductor. That retreat conductor was me. It is a huge responsibility to guide and care for people at such a momentous time in their spiritual journey. I was hugely excited and honoured, but also terrified. Early one morning when I was praying and preparing for a day of the retreat, I confided my fears to God. “I am afraid I will let everyone down,” I said. And I sensed God replying: “You can only let them down if I let you down, and I will never let you down.”
God never letting me down has been a real lesson of the past 18 months. On the 21st September 2020, I caught covid and it really wasn’t that bad. I have had worse cases of flu. But I have never fully recovered. I have become one of those estimated 1.3 million people living with Long Covid. I have gone from being someone who could work all the hours God sent, live at a hundred miles an hour, take up any challenge thrown at me, to being someone who has to diary in naps and rest days due to overwhelming fatigue and aches. It is a bit like having a mobile phone with a dodgy battery – one minute it is working normally, next it is a useless lump!
It has been quite interesting to discover how much energy things take. In the early days, I spent most of my time lying down because sitting up took energy. My family live in Scotland and precovid we would often spend hours on the phone, but with post covid fatigue after quarter of an hour I would have to say goodbye as talking and listening took energy! Other people with long term illnesses will be familiar with all of this, but it was a new experience to someone for whom health and strength was the norm. I hated not being able to do things, having to cancel things, let people down, ask others to step in… But, the reality was, that even when I wasn’t there checking on it, the world kept turning. In my church, God was still worshipped, those needing love or help attended to, whether I was on top form or not. There is something quite liberating in realising that you are not as indispensable as you think you are.
Furthermore, as someone who was always busy doing, it was quite a revelation when I stopped to realise that God didn’t love me for what I did but for who I was. Now of course, I knew that, but there is a huge difference between knowing something here (head) and knowing it HERE (heart). God’s faithfulness during those early months, enfolding this bewildered, frustrated child with love was a memory I will treasure. My task in those days was to rest, and repeatedly in the last 18 months, I have be reminded of that great verse in Isaiah 30:15: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.
However, after a few months of this, I felt I had learned my lesson. “That has been a very helpful exercise, Lord, but can I go back to normal now?” Of course, it doesn’t work like that, does it? And so the last year of fatigue and aches, of blissful windows of normality followed by days when I cannot walk upstairs without palpitations and breathlessness, has been something of a trial. God’s faithfulness took new forms in the people who still supported me and believed me and encouraged me to care for myself. When you have an invisible fluctuating illness, it can be easy to doubt yourself – are you just being pathetic? Why is it so hard to climb the stairs today when you went for a long walk yesterday? (Answer: you probably cannot climb the stairs today BECAUSE you went on a long walk yesterday). It also showed in the ways that God still used me and my ministry to bless others abundantly when I felt like all I had to offer were crumbs. But again that is the truth of God’s economy. The God who took a few loaves and fishes to feed a multitude; the God who used a handful of frighten disciples to build a church that encompasses the globe – it is amazing what God can do with a few crumbs of willingness.
One of my favourite books in the Bible is Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. It is written from a time of affliction. In the opening verses, Paul writes:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.
Paul, the human dynamo, has clearly experienced something which has profoundly impacted him and made him aware of his human frailty. And it is out of this trauma that some of his most beautiful writings spring. There is an authenticity in his writing which speaks across the centuries. His learning in his afflictions do indeed console not just the community in Corinth, but generations of Christians who have read his words subsequently. It is later in the letter that he will say…
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.
Whenever I am trying to explain the gospel to people who have no language of faith – often people at the funerals I conduct – I tend to explain it this way: because of Jesus, death and darkness never have the final say, love, life and light do! I think this is what Paul is saying in this passage. Our lives, as Christians yet as part of a fallen humanity, will not be without their struggles, however, by God’s faithfulness, these struggles will not be the final word, and even in our weakness we can witness to the overcoming love of Christ. Furthermore, that witness will be all the more powerful because it cannot be attributed to human strength or talent – it can only be through God’s abundant and faithful work in us. It is a hope I cling to in a time of personal weakness.
Later in the same letter, Paul will write – after sharing a story of a vision God granted to him:
Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
With Paul, I long for God to remove my thorn in the form of Long Covid. I long to be my old self. I am hopeful that with medical research there might yet be an answer to and treatment for my symptoms. But as I wait, I have the promises of God. That God’s grace will be sufficient, that in my weakness there is strength because of the unending faithfulness of God.
Today in the Church of England, we celebrate the Feast of the Visitation, when Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth, and there – an elderly woman who thought all chances had passed her by, and a young unmarried unremarkable teenage girl – rejoice in the outrageous loving faithfulness of God. God was fulfilling God’s promises to God’s people – the promises to rescue us from our sins and ourselves – in the most characteristic of ways, by using the most unexpected, unlikely agents in God’s great work of salvation. If humanity were to recruit for the mother of the Messiah, there would be nothing on Mary’s CV to get her past the sifting stage. Yet, what mattered was only her willingness – God’s faithfulness took care of the rest. And, as God is so incredibly kind, she had her cousin to share with her, to encourage her, to rejoice with her.
And perhaps my trip here to you today is another little visitation. I will confess you are a daunting lot in many ways – you are such a prayerful, godly group, who have served your Lord for so many years. Who am I to speak to you of anything, far less the faithfulness of God? But perhaps as I share what God has done for me – as Mary shared with her cousin – you will respond “Yes, God has done that for me too. Great is the faithfulness of our God!”