I spent most of last year sitting in front of a screen in a three-meter-square living space in the basement of a row house near my university in the US. As for most people, it was an exceptionally challenging year for me. I was separated from my parents in China, experienced many significant relational changes, and my research was severely hindered. Yet, painful as it was, what happened last year taught me about the most valuable thing: love.
I live in a Christian household with two parents and three little kids. The kids live right above me, and two of them are energetic elementary schoolboys. Last year, running across the floor and tackling each other were the boys’ daily exercises. The house is old, so the floors easily amplify sounds from the upper floors. Thus, I was forced to listen to loud, atonal, postmodern “music” almost every day. In the beginning, I was constantly frustrated to the point that the noise caused severe disruptions in my sleep and work. I felt not only irritated but also helpless and lonely. There was no practical solution to block the noise or prevent the kids from being active. The only thing I could do was pray daily to battle with my bad temper and ask God that this suffering would not be in vain.
God’s grace sustained me through the difficult times, especially the early days of the pandemic, and I gradually became used to this new living situation. I formed my “Rule of Life” by doing several spiritual practices. I started the days with scripture reading and thanksgiving, and during the day, I tried to be intentional to look for beauty and God’s faithfulness in the daily mundane. As I learned about God’s creation in classes and papers, I began to pray intermittently to give God praise or ask for his guidance in research. At night, I meditated on the scriptures right before sleep and sometimes, surprisingly, woke up in the morning with tears of joy. Little by little, I started to deeply resonate with Lamentations 3:22-23:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.
Sparks of joy from these practices helped divert my attention away from irritations.
Through these practices, I was drawn vertically towards God, yet God further invited me to connect with people horizontally and actively in my challenging living situation. One day in the morning, while I was washing my face, I felt God place these words onto my heart: “You should love them (the kids) the way I love you.” Immediately I felt warmth flowing through my chest. I was so mind-blown, but encouraged, to know that love is really about patience, sacrifice, and forgiveness. This particular encounter with God gave me the momentum to intently embrace my neighbors even though the noise persisted. Later on, I got to form friendships with the kids for which I am very grateful. God did answer my prayers; he used the difficulty as an opportunity for me to learn to love my brothers at a deeper level while we grow together.
Similarly, my parents were learning how to be patient with one another while being stuck in one space in China. Their in-person activities were also limited due to the impact of COVID-19 on their social circles. It’s been three years since I saw them, but we are connected through phone calls and prayers, knowing that there are spiritual families in both of our places.
During the pandemic, the Christian small group in my neighborhood community became my spiritual family since we were able to meet in person. I had more formative fellowship with them than I did with my local church which was different from pre-pandemic days. My church met primarily through online gatherings; however, this seemingly convenient way to connect with people involved many complications. We showed up in online meetings regularly, but virtual interactions were not always helpful in developing authentic relationships. We sent texts to reach out, but unfortunately, delays in virtual communication many times mistakenly conveyed a lack of sincerity, or even passivity, rather than genuine care.
While I was dealing with the confusion and insecurity from misunderstandings via online communications, the sisters in my community small group spent significant amounts of time listening to me and offered encouragement from scripture. They helped me see alternative ways to interpret situations and taught me to give others the benefit of the doubt. From these Christian sisters, I realized the significance of being physically connected in a gospel-centered community and being intentional in showing care to others in need. This realization brought about reconciliations in my existing relationships and further opened up an opportunity to reconnect with my cousins who did not have a local church in China. My cousins and I met online periodically to share words of encouragement as we entered new phases of life.
In a nutshell, the pandemic posed essential questions:
How can I regain a sense of hope when overwhelmed by loneliness and adversities?
Where can I obtain the strength to love when it is so difficult to love?
How can I understand others well regardless of limited communications?
These questions remain as conundrums if I try to solve them apart from God. He is the only source of hope and meaning. Yet, at the same time, I cannot grow to be hopeful, strong, and loving without an intimate and caring community. Humans are not meant to deal with hardships on their own.
God showed his love towards me during the pandemic and exposed my inability to love. But the passage from Paul reminds us that Jesus is love and our hope is in him:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud…It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13: 4-8).
Love is so beautiful that it can cover the ugliness that arose from the sweep of the virus. May the Lord continue to help us grow in love during this season (1 Peter 4:7-8).
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