“Where have you been?” asked the produce lady. “Is your family okay? How are your daughters? We have missed you. We didn’t think we would ever see you again! We are so happy to see your face. Thank God you are back. What do you think about the things that are happening all over the world? Does the Bible say anything about this?”
The pandemic and the resulting restrictions have created barriers globally, but the Holy Spirit has no boundaries. In fact, the forced slowdown has even had some unexpected benefits. Don’t get me wrong. Like anyone, I’m devastated by the losses and frustrated by the challenges. Almost everything has been turned upside down, and almost everyone has experienced real suffering as a result of COVID-19 and all that has come with it.
It’s natural to mourn what has been lost. At the same time, it’s also healthy to count our blessings, to take time to practice gratitude and to praise God for the gifts we too often take for granted. For example, we have noticed that many people who were too busy to fully enjoy time with their loved ones or to study or contemplate scripture now find themselves thinking more than ever before about the richer and deeper things of life. Priorities have shifted or have become clearer.
As field directors, we are blessed to serve and coach other field workers. We recently asked them what they have been grateful for through this pandemic, and their answers encouraged us. They spoke of the simple blessings of slowing down, of spending more time strengthening bonds with their children, reading, and connecting via Internet or phone with friends near and far. Some mentioned that they have started or grown online ministries and study groups, made new friendships or deepened previous ones. They told of local growing interest in spiritual topics, of greater appreciation for their ministry of prayer, and gratitude for their Christian compassion. The field workers naturally encountered new challenges and barriers. But they have also been pleasantly surprised by new ministry opportunities.
“Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow” (James 1:2, 3).
We have also experienced deep gratitude for the way God has opened doors in Albania. It reminds us to place our trust in Him no matter how bad things may look. In fact, the worse things get, the more we need to look to Jesus for hope and courage.
We were in the States for meetings when the travel restrictions began. Our flights back to Albania were cancelled, rebooked, and cancelled again several times. Thankfully, we were able to keep in touch with the Albanian group of believers that usually meet in our home. It wasn’t difficult to continue to meet with them online. Ten years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible for most of them. Our landlord was patient and agreed to wait until we could return to pay our rent. A woman in our group agreed to water our plants. A young man who had been away at college was back in town and keeping active in outreach with his peers. Another man from the group started an outreach YouTube channel in the Albanian language. We had much to be thankful for. Yet, we still longed to return.
When I finally returned to Albania, I went back to our usual produce market, and one of the sellers greeted me with surprising urgency. She seemed to have a new attitude. While she had always been fairly friendly with our family, she had been resistant to talking about faith. Many years ago, she had sold produce to our student missionary and our oldest daughter. She had been friendly with them and made sure they were charged fairly. Her son went to school with the daughter of the first family baptized in our city. They started studying the Bible together. Her son loved learning about Jesus. She became alarmed when he wanted to worship with us, and she forbade him from attending. We later found out that another person had started rumors about our church that stoked her fears. After that, she became guarded with us. We continued to shop at her little booth and remained friendly, but our relationship had clearly cooled.
Imagine my surprise when on my return she greeted me so warmly and wanted to know about the Bible’s teachings! It seems that these uncertain times have made a huge impact on her. Perhaps her son had shared some of the things he had learned in the Bible. Somehow, the Holy Spirit seems to have softened her heart. I was able to share some good news with her, and she is very interested in further Bible studies with one of the ladies in our group. Did it take a pandemic to overcome her resistance?
We are learning to overcome worry and anxiety with thanksgiving and praise. Our group is consciously looking for the blessings by writing in a gratitude journal each day. Keeping our thoughts focused on what is good gives us hope.
“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Phil. 4:8).