A group of fellow pastors were sharing our worries about planning for the year ahead: what would small groups and church look like? How will we do pastoral care and build community? Then, our group leader asked a question that stopped me in my tracks:
Why do you think this has your attention? And why now?
It was a fair question. After all, it’s been months since we started sheltering in place: moving school to living rooms and church services online. We’re seasoned regulars with Zoom. We’ve ordered online groceries. So why the fresh wave of wave of anxiety? Why now?
When the pandemic so suddenly shut everything down in March, we scrambled to make plans. That discomfort we were feeling was grief, experts helpfully explained. Covid-19 led to a collective loss of normalcy, and the disorientation, denial, plan-making (bargaining), and anger that flared up was a reflection of us processing the loss of routine, rhythm, security, jobs, and the steadying anchors of things like having weekend plans or an exercise class or a vague idea of what next week Tuesday would look like.
We rallied. We learned Zoom. We practiced self-care. We read more books and watched more Netflix than ever before. We baked bread and planted succulents. We complained. We slept. And then, we kind of settled in.
But recently there’s been a fresh wave of grief, and I think there’s more going on than just the fatigue of the news cycle with its updates on infection rates and deaths. I think the grief we’re facing is not just that we lost the normalcy of the present.. I think right now what I’m grieving is what I’d hoped for the future. Even though I knew it was likely to go this way – with schools still remaining closed, and businsses closing, and travel prohibited – I still hoped (against hope!) that it might be different… and it’s always still a bit of a sucker punch to hear the news that the dark night you were steeling yourself against will in fact be as long and as cold as you’d feared.
I knew Miss Penny was fighting for her life and would likely not make it, but it still knocks me sideways that she’s gone.
I knew it was highly unlikely in-person activities would resume in the Fall, yet it was still so disappointing to open email after email and read “cancelled”, “postponed”, and “online”.
In March, we braced ourselves for 6-8 weeks of survival. We could white-knuckle our way through this, armed with memes and wine and the internet. But now we are staring down months ahead. There is no going back to “normal”. And there is a new weight that settles on this as we look at those interim plans we put into place, and wonder whether they will be able to bear the weight much longer. The emergency elastic band I wrapped around our family schedule in March is frayed and ready to break.
In the midst of this, I sensed God directing me to Jeremiah 29. Now, to be clear, I know that the situation in Jeremiah was different: we are not God’s nation sent into exile for our disobedience to his covenant. But, I recognized myself in the emotional despair of the audience: people who had arrived in a situation not-of-their-choosing with nothing but a carry-on suitcase… and mentally preparing themselves to be on standby until they could go home again.
And it is to this audience that the prophet brought the unwanted (but needed) words of perspective and comfort:
This is going to be longer than you expected.
Settle down. Unpack your back. Seek the good of the community you’re in. Find ways to flourish and raise your kids.
I haven’t forgotten you. I will be found by you. My plans are good and my promises always stand: you can trust me. This will not last forever, but it will last for a while.
Nobody wanted to hear that news, but they needed it. A weekend bag’s worth of supplies cannot possibly last two seasons, and so too, my mental preparedness for 2 months of sheltering in place cannot possibly tide me over into a whole new school year.
Reading Jeremiah has been the unwanted and completely needed word my soul has needed. COVID-19 is taking longer than I expected. Regathering in church and school and with friends is taking longer than I would want. I miss hugs. I miss communion. I miss smiles. I miss play dates.
But this is where we’re at, and I need to settle down. Seek the good of the places I’m in – even if they’re zoom and Facebook. I need to find ways to build community, celebrate creativity, and be thoughtful about how to remember, help, and honor others.
God is not on lockdown. His promises are not forgotten. He has not “paused” his good purposes until quarantine ends and then he’ll get back to work. No. Just as he reminded the discouraged, weary exiles in Babylon who didn’t think they could handle one more day…. He is as active, as powerful, as alive, and as loving as ever – and he does not waste a single thing. He will help us in our “new normal”.
I’m unpacking my bags. I’m breathing.
Photos from Unsplash.