Recently, I was reading an article about a tragedy that has been unfolding in Medicine Hat since the world changed in March. To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted lives around the globe is an understatement. For some of us, our lives have been disrupted. We can feel inconvenienced and complain about masks and Zoom meetings, but at the end of the day we have the capacity to move on. For others though, the impact of this pandemic is much more sinister and destructive. In a culture that has been trying to bring the reality of mental illness into the light so that it can be treated fairly and compassionately, depression and anxiety continue to rear their ugly heads, and the pandemic has only served to exasperate the situation. In Medicine Hat over the past six months, there have been several young men who, in acts of desperation that might flow out of feelings of hopelessness or inadequacy, have taken their own lives. And while the spotlight is on Medicine Hat, chances are that if it is happening there it is happening in other places too.
In depression, the past overwhelms and enslaves the present. It takes away the ability to be in the moment or to hope for what might come. Fear, anger, pain, regret all seek to overtake the sufferer and pull them into the darkness. For those who suffer from anxiety, fear and uncertainty cripple both body and spirit so that forward movement is not possible, even if it is desired. The sufferer again cannot be free in the moment as all energy is focused on a future that is not wanted. Hope is a scarce to nonexistent resource in both depression and anxiety. Being in the moment does not even seem possible.
For the People of Israel, the flight from captivity toward an ambiguous future brought about experiences of both depression and anxiety in the population as a whole. Pharaoh’s army is closing in behind and the sea is blocking the way ahead. Hopelessness rises. The past is threatening to overtake, enslave, and even destroy, and the future seems impenetrable. Where is help to come from? For the People of Israel help came from being able to encounter the living God in the here and now, in that very spot on the seashore between the water and Pharaoh’s army.
When Moses encountered God at the burning bush and asked him his name, God said “I Am.” He did not identify himself as “I Was” or “I Will Be,” he said “I Am.” Even though he holds all time in his hands, he is the God of here and now because for us mortals, the past no longer exists, and the future has not yet happened. We exist in the present moment, so he is with us here in the present moment. For Israel, he stands in the way between them and the past, and ultimately neutralizes the past’s ability to overtake them. He tells Moses to stretch his hand over the waters and creates a safe way forward. He redeems them from their past and equips them to hope for their future.
Is that not the ministry of the Church? Is that not what lies at the heart of all we believe and do? Redemption from the past and hope for the future is the message of the cross. It is a powerful message that changes lives because it frees people to encounter God in the here and now, and to be who we were created to be. It is a message that neutralizes the past’s ability to enslave as it reveals a safe way forward. It is freedom. In times of great anxiety such we are experiencing in this pandemic, the Medicine Hat’s of the world serve to remind us that people are hurting and hopeless, and the need is still great.