The bell instead of the tape

The bell instead of the tape

I have never run a marathon, but I have friends who do. They tell me about the “wall”—that point midcourse where you don’t think you can take another step. But somehow, they find a way to keep going until, at last, they throw themselves across the finish line, utterly spent.

But imagine this with me: you are approaching the finish line after a grueling run. You’ve dug deep; you kept grinding when you hit “the wall”. The end is in sight and all the effort, exhaustion and discipline—has been worth it! Just a few more steps—just a few more. FINALLY, you cross the finish line—only to hear the sound of a bell.

Wait. A bell? That can’t be right. A bell means the race isn’t yet over. You miscalculated! You aren’t finished yet; you haven’t reached the tape! You have one more lap to go…and you aren’t sure you have anything left in the tank.

How many of us are feeling that way right now? Last spring, it appeared that COVID was on the ropes. Vaccinations were kicking in, infection numbers were dropping, hospital beds were empty. We were almost there! The end was in sight! It was long and grueling and exhausting—but we made it. Come summer, life would return to normal! No more masks, no more social distancing. The marathon was over.

Until it wasn’t. The Delta variant roared onto the scene. Infections were back up along with hospitalizations. Then came the restrictions—again: masks, social distancing, mandatory vaccinations…and the renewed and exhausting tug of war between public safety and individual liberty.

Turns out, Covid wasn’t on the ropes. It got its second wind. And the “oooof!” we heard was the sound of US taking a gut punch as we realized that the marathon was not yet over (if I can be forgiven for mixing my metaphors.)

I sensed this in our leadership team last week. In April, we set starry-eyed goals for the coming year, anticipating a COVID-free environment. Now, those goals seemed unattainable. There was a sense of collective discouragement. We thought we were crossing the finish line; instead, we heard a bell. The race is not over—yet.

Perhaps you are feeling that way, too. SO—I share with you what I shared with my team. It comes from 1 Thessalonians 5. Paul was writing to a group of Christians who were experiencing persecution…persecution that lasted a long time and resulted in a great deal of pain, frustration, and discouragement. Some had even died, perhaps as a result of their treatment by the persecutors. And Paul wrote a letter to buoy their flagging spirits.

First, he reminds them that they are “children of light.” Though enveloped by the darkness of their circumstances, they were still “children of the day.” As Jesus taught, darkness can never conquer light. One tiny light breaks the darkness every time. The Spirit of Jesus, the indomitable, unquenchable light of creation, lived within them. They needed to remember that…and live as if that were true.

WE, too, are children of the day…children of the light. No matter the night around us, the light of Christ within us is always stronger than the surrounding darkness.

BUT, Paul realized, sometimes we don’t feel very “bright.” Sometimes, we just get burned out. Exhausted. Worn down. So, what then? What, when we hear a bell instead of breaking the tape? What then, Paul? Here’s his answer: “…encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:11.)

Think about that word encourage. In fact, let’s render it “en-courage.” It means, literally, to “pour courage into; to add courage to.” It is the opposite of “dis-courage,” which means to “pour courage out of; to drain courage from.” In all times, but especially in seasons of darkness, we Christ-followers are to FILL ONE ANOTHER WITH COURAGE! TO POUR COURAGE INTO ONE ANOTHER. We don’t need any more “dis-couragers;” any more “courage-suckers.” The world is full of those already.

I have always loved the character of Barnabas in the book of Acts. That wasn’t his real name, though; it was a nickname which meant “Son of Encouragement.” Barnabas was so good at pouring courage into others that they named him for it!

This is the time we need Sons and Daughters of Encouragement to step forward. People who will say to one another, “Hang in there! I know the race is lasting longer than you expected…I know you thought we were done. But the end is closer than it was! You will make it! We will make it! Don’t give up! You can do this! WE can do this—together.”

The encouraging truth is this: Chapel Hill is doing great! Through the courageous leadership of our Session, we chose to find a way to stay open, to stay safe, and to serve our community. People ARE returning to in-person worship. Ministries ARE resuming. And people are giving generously to our work because they believe in what we are doing.

Yes, “Delta” has been a setback. Yes, we’ll have to adjust our goals and plans. But that’s life, isn’t it? Life always throws curveballs (yet another sports metaphor!) But we will continue to respond, to pivot, to innovate and find new and creative ways to be a community of light…filled with children of the light…who refused to be extinguished.

SO! “…encourage one another and build one another up!” That’s my charge to you. Don’t be negative. Don’t be dispensers of woe or bad news. Look into each other’s eyes, listen to each other’s moods and not just words, get OUT of your own self-preoccupation and pour courage into your brothers and sisters.

Courage—encouragement—is contagious! And addictive. You just wait! More of the world will come running to us when we do this.

“…encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing!”

Pastor Mark

Photo by sportlab on Unsplash