Field ants are some of the strongest creatures around. Scientists have determined that they can lift up to 5000 times their body weight. That would be the same as someone just a bit larger than me bench-pressing an Airbus A380 (the largest passenger airplane in the world!). On the other hand, the greatest weight ever lifted by a human being was (a still remarkable!) 6270 pounds. I’m quite certain that I will never come close to lifting 6200 pounds…and I’m even more certain that I’ll never be able to carry the weight percentage that an ant carries.
Nevertheless, scripture calls us to carry burdens of a different sort. In Galatians 6, Paul urges Christians--you and I included--to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Loving others with the same devotion, and sacrifice with which we meet our own needs means bearing the burdens of our brothers and sisters in Christ. While this is always a vital mandate for believers, it may be that during the COVID-19 pandemic, bearing one another’s burdens is especially important. Friends, family members, and fellow church members are hurting, and growing weary. Some of us are facing serious financial uncertainty, while others are stressed to the limit, juggling schooling our kids on zoom with our work responsibilities. Carrying our burdens can feel like trying to bench press a jumbo jet. How can you bear the burdens of those around you (while finding relief from your own burdens)?
First off, recognize that you cannot carry your burdens alone. Paul is addressing his message to a church community, and he is calling them, collectively, to be a community of people who take responsibility for the needs of fellow believers. Western society tends to be individualistic. We admire the rugged go-getter who rises to face challenges, and succeeds through pure grit and determination. The fact is, however, that we simply aren’t built to fight through life alone; we need trusted people around us to share our griefs, soothe our fears, comfort our sorrows, and carry our burdens. If you are not part of a church, the COVID pandemic may have reminded you of how difficult isolation really is. Even as restrictions on gathering are in place, churches continue to be churches, and they are eager to welcome people who are seeking community. Find a local congregation that recognizes the value of relationships. You may also consider joining a small group, which many churches host. Such groups are usually gatherings of people who meet (often over a meal or snack) to study the bible, share prayer requests, and encourage one another. These gatherings can happen over your computer screen or in person.
One of the greatest and often rarest gifts that we give to others is the gift of listening. So often, a person will share what they are going through--a family member’s illness, a conflict with a son or daughter, a job that isn’t working out, or some other difficulty--and we find ourselves responding in one of at least two unhelpful ways. First, some of us steal the spotlight. We hear the pain they are describing, and the moment they finish sharing what they are going through, we respond by saying, “Yes! That was like the time that I…” and we proceed to tell a story from our own experience that may (or may not) resemble their experience. You may be trying to demonstrate some common ground, but the effect is to pull all the attention away from the person who is hurting in order to put yourself in the limelight.
Second, some of us simply dismiss the gravity of what the person is going through. “Don't worry, you'll be fine.” “Oh, that’s not so bad!” we tell them. “God must have a purpose!” or “it will all work out.” Yet, even if true, this response ignores the legitimate pain of what a person may be experiencing at that moment.
To listen and affirm the experiences and emotions of what others are sharing is indeed a gift you can give. Learn to hear the emotions that your fellow burden-bearers are sharing. Hear it without correcting it, without comparing it, and without dismissing it. Throughout this COVID-19 pandemic, every single experience is unique. What you are going through is not the same as what I am facing. What overwhelms or bothers you will be different from me. Take the time to enter into the experience of what others are feeling, and genuinely listen to the emotions others are sharing.
Prayer for another is also a powerful response to a person who shares their heartache. Whether with the person in the moment, or afterwards on your own, acknowledge that person’s grief, worry, sadness, or fear in the presence of God, and ask God for specific help for the person. Prayer can feel like “doing nothing” but it is the most powerful tool we have at our disposal. Few people will refuse you if you ask if they can pray for them, even if they are not strong believers. They will be touched that you advocated for them before your God.
It’s been said that it’s possible to move a mountain, even if you must move it one stone at a time. Sometimes, the burdens we carry seem impossibly large. Maybe the loss of a spouse leaves you crushed under a load of grief. Medical bills, credit-card debt, and overdue mortgages might leave you drowning in debt, with no hope in sight. Bearing one another’s burdens often means taking the initiative to serve in small but meaningful ways, day-by-day. I may not be able to take away the sadness of a person who has lost their wife, but I can bring them a week’s worth of groceries. I may not be able to take away the fear of the parents whose young daughter is undergoing chemotherapy, but I can buy a gas gift card to help with their expenses. I can call to let a person know I’m thinking of them, and I can offer to watch a single mom’s kids while she works an extra shift at the hospital. Small, and simple gestures, but they communicate a great deal of care and concern. And by the way, it’s usually better to offer a specific kind of help, rather than to say, “Let me know if I can do anything.” Often, a person experiencing any kind of hardship feels overwhelmed, and can’t always recognize just what it is that they need. But when you offer a specific form of service, they will appreciate it greatly.
Moving a mountain is possible one stone at a time. But now imagine that instead of one person moving one stone at a time, an army of people steps in to move one stone at a time. Moving a mountain suddenly seems like a much more manageable task! That is what the church community is called to be. Whether you are carrying a burden that feels like it will pin you to the ground, or whether you know and care about those who are hurting during this time, commit yourself to a burden-bearing community! Find people who can be there to help you carry your burdens, and share in the burdens of others that the law of Christ might be fulfilled.
Rev. Deb Koster
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster