How do we advance when everything tells us to withdraw?
For an answer, I turn to an unlikely source for a faith-based reflection — the rough and salty U.S. Marine Corps General Oliver Smith.
Gen. Smith was one of the commanding generals of Allied forces during the Korean War. Very early in the war Smith’s force of about 30,000 troops was faced with a far superior force of about 120,000 Chinese soldiers at the Chosin Reservoir. Of course, it was prudent to withdraw — as prudent as it is to withdraw from traditional worship services during a pandemic.
When someone suggested that Smith was retreating, he famously replied: “We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.” Smith and his men needed to “advance in a different direction” so they could steel themselves to resume the original advance to their objective.
We too, need to “advance in a different direction” from time to time. And this is one of those times.
We need to prepare ourselves, to arm ourselves with the tools needed to achieve our mission. But, like Gen. Smith, we must never accept this as running away from the difficult objective. We are better positioning ourselves. We are gathering our strength.
But we are not running. We are not hiding. We are preparing for the task ahead. And the task is the same as it has always been: to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”
And how are we to prepare for this task? What are we doing to prepare when we withdraw?
Paul gives us a hint in Ephesians (5:18) — we are to “be filled with the Spirit.” This is a time to withdraw, deeper into our faith. We must withdraw into the Spirit. For, it is only in the Spirit that we can truly go out and share the Gospel – in the very secular, adrift and lost world in which it is most needed.
We must fight the urge to become complacent. This is not a time to ignore our faith. This is a time to be more deliberate than ever, and to step out in prayer when we cannot step out in body.
We’re told in Matthew 24: “Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming…Therefore you also must be ready for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
If we believe that Christ is alive and working in the world — working in and through us — then the unexpected time of His arrival always is now. And the time for Him to find his servants at work, always is the present moment. The time to awaken and do His work, always, is now — regardless of whether we must do it in prayer and virtual visits, or in person.
We are being called to an awakening, much like the psalmist in Psalm 57: “Wake up, my spirit, awake, lute and harp; I myself will awaken the dawn. I will confess you among the peoples, O Lord; I will sing praise to you among the nations.”
Whether it is in prayer, or in virtual church services, or phone calls, or however you can connect with a world in need, this is our time to wake up and sing praise.
We must withdraw in body, for a time. But, we must use this time. We must go within ourselves, to achieve an awakening of the Spirit, of Christ within us, to strengthen us for the advance.
And then, thus strengthened, when it is time, we must advance — into the world, to look for God in all the unexpected places and faces, and to loudly proclaim our love for Him, and for our neighbor.