Christian LivingInternational

Waves of frustration: Following Jesus in mid-pandemic Europe

“Does it seem like too much to ask Ale and Maria if we can see them this weekend?” I asked Simon a couple of months ago.  After all, we had seen them only the week before, but for the first time in months. Hearing my own question, I wanted to cry, but it really did seem too good to be true to see people twice in such a short space of time! Since then, we’ve had another eight-week period in which we have again been unable to socialise, especially with people who live outside of our region or even council area – and only ever two per day.

This is a season of great frustration, sitting in Bari, Italy, amidst the third wave of Covid-19, which doesn’t feel like it was really separate from the second. In my daughter’s class, there are 6-year-olds who have not been at school in person since October.

Frustration is revealing itself in pretty much every element of life, and everyone is feeling it, many to a worse extent than we are.

Our work is frustrated. We work with university students and, at this point, many students coming to weekly Bible studies with the GBU (University Bible Groups) are people we’ve never met in real life. For others, things are harder, as businesses and livelihoods have been shut down on and off since October, or just shut permanently.

Our relationships are frustrated. There have been limited moments in the last six months in which it has been legal to visit or meet friends. In this time, even young children have had school switch between online and in person 5-6 times, perhaps with one day’s notice, creating an uncertainty that is hard to describe.

Our church hasn’t met in person for these past seven months. Even though church services have never been restricted in Italy, our hired room is small, 10 out of 25 members of our church are under 10 and there’s just no way we can meet safely in a city with around 500 new Covid cases diagnosed per day, and where – at its worst – ambulances can wait outside the hospital to admit a patient for 48 hours.

Our plans are frustrated. In January many of us in Bari had hoped that by March the restrictions that had been continually in place for months might relax as case numbers declined. We had hoped that the GBU annual conference might take place in person in late April. We had hoped that foiled Christmas plans might have been possible by Easter. But once again, we were plunged into a health crisis worse than our city had experienced before.

Our security is frustrated. Good health is no longer seen as a certainty (of course it never was, but it seemed that way). Some people choose to ignore the risk, while others now refuse to accept any risk at all, staying at home even more than restrictions require as they try to exert more control over their own bodies. A quick conversation with school mums from one class reveals that while someone’s father made it through, their grandmother didn’t. A young friend’s best man was sick in hospital for close to a month before being able to return to his wife and young family (all sick with the virus at home).

It really is a period of intense frustration, bringing with it an intense grief for things lost. Except, even grief is frustrating, because it seems all the time that those lost good things might be regained just around the corner… yet so far, they haven’t been. It’s very hard to grieve well in this circumstance! And this is not to mention those who have lost loved ones but haven’t been free to grieve with family due to travel or gathering restrictions.

Of course, for believers, frustration and grief shouldn’t be a surprise. Should it be different for those of us who know and trust the Lord Jesus? The answer is yes, but not always in the way we might think. From various Christians over the last few months we hear variations on a theme: “But God is good, rejoice in the Lord always, don’t let the situation get on top of you”. There are some profound truths there, but often what is meant is simply, “Cheer up”. Or often, we should cheer up if we really trust the Lord. But is that really the answer? What does it look like when God’s people are exhausted, stressed, lonely? 

A couple of weeks ago, we arrived at Daniel 7 in our monthly women’s Zoom Bible study. In this chapter, Daniel is confronted with a terrifying vision of powerful beasts, one which is ‘wearing out’ the saints. The Ancient of Days appears and judges, and the Son of Man comes on the clouds in all authority. We know him to be Jesus, who has come! More than once we hear that the beasts will be cast out and the saints will reign! But at the end of the chapter, Daniel’s thoughts greatly alarm him and his colour changes.

We have two truths here.  As Christian believers, we do know the ending: Jesus has won the victory! Yet meanwhile, we experience real suffering and hardship as we wait – so much so that when Daniel heard about the trials still to come, he was terrified. So why do we have to wait?

God has given us the answer: he is patient, not wanting anyone to perish (2 Pet 3:9). Even in the midst of my frequent tears and exhaustion, I can see that God is doing this: he is rocking people’s foundations of health, work, security, relationships. There will be (and have already been) hearts newly ready to hear his word. We might not feel like we are working or able to work well, but he can, and he is.

He is also working in us. He promises to carry to completion the good work he began in us (Phil 1:6) and we know that he will work this situation for our good and that the Spirit intercedes for us and sustains us (Rom 8). We know this. But it doesn’t “make it all ok” or mean we must have a smile on our face at all times.

Grieving is a right response to pain, suffering, isolation, illness and death. Daniel felt this. We need to be able to affirm people’s struggles. But we also mustn’t lose sight of the fact that we do know what’s to come, and the victory Jesus has won already. And so we keep joyfully and with thankfulness pointing people to this, as we are able – not relying on our own (very little) strength, and thankful that it is the Ancient of Days who is changing hearts to know him.