If the pandemic were an experiment, mad scientists would designate my family as part of the “control” group. After all, my husband and I have both worked from home for years, and I’ve homeschooled our four children for almost a decade. We haven’t had to navigate the huge work-week disruptions. Rather, the social media posts that document the struggles of balancing school, conference calls, and piles of laundry validate my long-held sense of borderline insanity. To add icing to the control group cake, we are a family of introverts who genuinely enjoy one another.
As I watched the world change around us in the first days of the pandemic shutdowns, I had an absurd fear. What if we didn’t change with it? What if everyone else matured through this…and we didn’t? Thus, one of my first pandemic prayers was a strange one: “Lord, don’t let me emerge on the other side of this unchanged.”
I needn’t have worried. Over the past year, God has answered that prayer with a flourish. Of course, change was so inevitable, He would have done so even if I hadn’t prayed for it. And yet, my strange pandemic prayer has reminded me to watch for how God is moving during this particularly painful season — and to partner with Him rather than resist HIs work.
An Apocalyptic Alertness
In many ways, my family has escaped the most painful elements of the pandemic. After all, we have evaded sickness so far, and none of our close friends have landed in the hospital—or the grave. Though my husband lost his job after a pandemic furlough, he began a new work-at-home position only a few months later. And yet, even without health and financial stressors, this pandemic has stretched us.
It has stretched us through its shutdowns, its polarizing political climate, and its social structures. It has stretched us through our err-on-the-side-of-caution decisions to navigate its challenges differently than other members of our family, church, and community. It has stretched us through shrinking our lives closer to our neighborhood even as the domino-effect dynamics of our worldwide ecosystem continue to shock us.
More than anything, I find myself describing the pandemic as an “unveiling.” It is apocalyptic, but not in the modern misappropriation of the word to describe a cataclysmic event. Rather, in the biblical sense of revealing realities that were beyond my senses, God is opening my eyes. Some of these unveilings relate to how years of behind the scenes behaviors and investments of time have manifested themselves in divergent pandemic practices. However, other unveilings point to the value of undervalued virtues.
The changes I choose to focus on are those which invite me into glimpses of God’s now-and-not-yet Kingdom. As I recognize and embrace these changes, my new prayer is that they will propel me to greater partnership in Jesus’ ongoing work in renewing creation.
While God sanctifies each of us according to his own customized plans, perhaps you can recognize a few of these changes in your own life:
Change #1: An acute awareness of the significance of story
We’ve all had some challenging conversations this year. These conversations have revealed how the story we live in determines what we believe about the world around us and our role in it. However, we don’t “hear” our story from one source. Rather, our family, church, and chosen media (books, newsfeeds, news sources, websites) work together to tell this story, and it is up to us to put it together. Because of the ever-increasing diversity of these sources, our stories are becoming more divergent than ever.
Our chosen media plays an outsized role in shaping these stories and making it more difficult to communicate across narratives. It has the effect of making it feel like we are in completely different worlds. This is significant because it impacts how we interpret and live into the Bible’s story.
This year, I’ve become increasingly convinced of the need to understand the Bible’s story from the perspective of the people it was originally written to. The past 75 years have gifted us with archeological discoveries that give us new windows into their world. As a Christian, I believe the Bible tells the only story that has the capacity to invite us into a common world.
For an introduction to reading the Bible as a historically rooted story that leads to Jesus, I recommend the videos, study guides, and free seminary-level classes at bibleproject.com.
Change #2: Exchanging control for contentment
The pandemic has limited our choices. How many times have I told my kids we can’t do something they want to do? For that matter, how many times have I told myself I can’t do something I want to do?
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl famously observed, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”
Pre-pandemic, most of us enjoyed a level of freedom that allowed us to customize our lives more than we perhaps realized. Limitations, however, have placed a magnifying glass on our own attitudes. Can I really “do all things through Christ who strengthens me”? (Philippians 4:13) Because the Apostle Paul was teaching about nothing other than contentment in that passage.
The pandemic has tempted me to trade my contentment for a greater sense of control. To fight for control. But Jesus invites me to rest in him. And when he invites me to be assertive, it is in partnership with him in areas in which he has given me influence. In this, there is both peace and contentment.
Change #3: Loosening my claims on the future
My family planned to celebrate my in-laws’ 50th anniversary with a trip to Branson, Mo., in May, 2020. That was canceled. So was my own much-anticipated 20th anniversary trip in December. We haven’t taken many “destination vacations,” so these cancellations were particularly significant.
For the first time in my life, I grasped the weight of James’ admonition, “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’ ” (James 4:15, New International Version).
After spending 16 years in a ministry job I love, I anticipated investing many more years in its specific mission. Instead, God took a ministry idea he had planted in me several years ago and directed me to change course. My future isn’t nearly as solid in this ministry. I can’t count on a sustained paycheck or success as I want to see it. But the pandemic prepared me to come to it open-handed: “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
Change #4: Clearer view of the role of proximity
I realized this year how proximity helps us understand need. Unless we are in proximity and relationship, we can’t engage in a way that reflects God’s heart.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, I saw my Black brothers and sisters in Christ mourning. Their pain was deeper than I could understand, so I put myself in closer proximity to them. Many of these brothers and sisters in Christ shared their own personal stories with me, and it helped me to better mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). When I saw non-Black Christians say things that added to the hurt of our Black brothers and sisters, I asked myself why. And all signs pointed to lack of proximity. Thus, when I spoke about it, I spoke not in the context of national politics, but in the context of the church—my own locus of proximity.
I also recognized that my children’s pandemic experience was much different than others in our community. Therefore, I asked a teacher friend for the initials of children in unsafe homes so that we could pray for them. Not only did we receive testimony that God worked through our prayers, but the proximity helped us better understand the needs of our community. And we don’t limit our prayers to these children. Rather, we also pray for people who are sick and lonely and scared.
Likewise, the pandemic focused my attention on my own small-town community. These are the people whose eyes I see during trips to the store and dance-class drop offs. These are the people who see and speak to my own joy and pain during the week. Largely through Covid-19 infection rates (and the resulting measures taken by local governments), the pandemic has demonstrated that our lives are more interconnected than we realize. God is at work in our town and yet my own disconnectedness prevents me from seeing it and joining him in his work.
Thus, I’m learning to pay closer attention to proximity. My home. My family and friends. My town. My specific ministry emphases. I can only influence what I am close to. And that requires intentionality and focus.
Change #5: Swapping striving for simplicity and slowness
“Speed. I. Am. Speed.” In the Disney/Pixar film “Cars,” Lightning McQueen sums up our race against time. My kids’ packed schedules bore witness to everything I’ve been trying to squeeze in before they leave our nest. And last June, that squeezing left us with several hundred dollars worth of unused dance recital costumes.
I’m tired of FOMO. This year has reminded me that there is beauty in missing out. There’s beauty in not pressuring every moment of the day to ooze productivity. Mainly because we are going slow enough to actually notice the beauty around us.
And what does it really mean to be “behind” in school? I am an educator who has a high appreciation of objectives and standards. Scope and sequence are my bread and butter. But what is the rationale behind the timelines? And what is the pressure driving the rationale? My family isn’t using our comfort with homeschool to have our kids “get ahead” of their peers this year. Rather, the release in pressure is allowing us to slow down and savor our studies. As a result, they are loving learning…and reading…and writing…more than ever.
Change #6: Learning to release indignation
“Indignation” is the “Christian” way of rationalizing — and often sanctifying — our own anger-related thoughts and actions. If someone responds in a different way than we do — and we can point to a biblical principle — we can justify our anger without another thought. Fancying ourselves biblical prophets, we can point fingers at others without pointing them at ourselves.
But indignation is a smoke screen to help us ignore deeper issues. Like all emotions, anger points to something deep within us. From that perspective, it is a gift to help us ask questions like: Why does this make me angry? Why am I responding like this? Why don’t other people appear to be responding as strongly as I am?
When I release my right to be indignant, it allows me to focus on these deeper questions and point the finger at my own heart instead of theirs.
This year has triggered a lot of emotion. Yes, there has been anger. There has also been deep sadness and surprising joy. But it is disciplining me to take a deeper look into what God wants to do inside me.
A Prayer in Progress
Just as the pandemic is still in progress, God’s work in me remains in progress as well. We don’t yet know all the ways the world will be different when it opens back up. But I, for one, won’t be trying to force it back into its old mold.
God has been at work during this pandemic, not just in me, but in his church. He has been shaking and shifting as he continues doing the slow work he began in Jesus. Where we see death, he sees resurrection. Where we see ashes, he sees the promise of beauty. And where we see our old ways fading away, he sees the renewal of all things.
Image from Edwin Hooper on UnSplash