|If you were to give 2020 a name, what would it be?|
For the first time in years, I finally had New Year’s Eve off work in 2019. I excitedly joined my friends in the city centre of Inverness for a night of live music, hot chocolate and food. Crowding around the laptop, we all watched the Time’s Square ball drop, loudly chanting 5, 4,3, 2, 1,HAPPY NEW YEAR! Clinking our glasses and banging pots and pans. I am sure many of you engaged in similar festivities.
New Year’s Eve has always ranked as one of the top three nights of my year along with Christmas and my birthday. There’s just something so exhilarating about the start of something new. A blank 365 pages, knowing despite all the troubles and turmoils of the previous year, we are given a fresh start. It is always a day of reflection and anticipation, yet 2020 held my intrigue even more. Back in 2000 (when I was still in elementary school), my cousin and I excitedly crafted a time capsule with the solemn instructions “don’t open until 2020 or else!” We had no way of knowing then the box would still remain unopened due to laws preventing us from meeting up.
A few other plans I had for 2020 included: hiking the French Alps, touring several Scottish Islands, and getting married. Here are a few words I didn’t expect to associate with this year: disappointment, disillusionment, break-up,death, quarantine,virus, and lockdown. Yet, now approaching the 9th month of the pandemic, knowing that 75% of the year has already been spent under various restrictions, we have all had to come to terms with the fact that COVID is here to stay.
The first weeks of Jesus’s life were shockingly similar. True, there was no global illness floating around and the World Health Organization wasn’t telling people to stay home, but all was not calm and bright that first Christmas. Today’s Christmas cards are filled with beautiful scenery and picturesque landscapes. The bright Christmas lights attract our attention, and the engagement of our five senses makes Christmas a whole body experience. Yet, in Bible times, there were hurdles and political tumult. Jesus was born into an environment of genocide and political instability. King Herod demanded all baby boys under age 2 to be murdered, and the Jewish temple had been destroyed. The first temple (built by King Solomon in the Old Testament) had been razed to the ground and the exiles scattered abroad. It wasn’t a time of Christmas carols, it was a time when life stopped being safe.
Many of us have experienced similar sentiments this year. Many of the freedoms we once enjoyed, the opportunities we once had to travel freely, to socialize, and even to go to church have been depleted by the virus. Public health and safety being paramount, yet, at the same time, realizing that home is not a safe place for so many. Domestic abuse, marital tension, and division running rampant in our society and world. It seems that many of the old cornerstones of our lives like church and school have become the unsafest places of all (according to the global health authorities), and for many of us, this might have been our first Christmas not being able to meet inside a church building. Something many of us probably thought we would never experience in our lifetimes.
To the world, this might look like the destruction of the church. And it is, if we consider church only a building and nothing more. Yet, the truth is that the church has never been stronger and its mission more vital. It may not look the same or even function the same, but the all-encompassing role of the church as providing for the poor, comforting the brokenhearted, and proclaiming liberation has magnified. In the midst not only of a global pandemic, but racial injustice, indigenous oppression and political uncertainty, the church is reaching out and being a bright light to all those walking in the shadow of 2020.
In today’s Bible passage, we are introduced to four main characters who display the ways we can greet 2021. Firstly, we have Jesus. In Jewish law, baby boys were circumcised at 8 days old. Being devout Jews, Jesus’s parents brought him to the temple to carry this out. As a baby, Jesus’s only role was showing up and passively receiving God’s blessings. Similar to our baptism today when we experience the love of God and the church, knowing that we are called and claimed, not through any merit of our own, but only through the divine inclusion of Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.
Secondly, we meet Jesus’s parents, Mary and Joseph. Despite the Christmas Narrative where Mary and Joseph are main characters, they actually play a rather small role in this scene. Yet, although small their role is profound. In this passage, Jesus’s parents actively offer their son to God in confidence. The Greek word used for the presentation is “obligation.” Today, it is not so popular to tell Christians they are obligated to do anything. After all, none of us are obligated to read the Bible, pray, or even go to church, yet many of us choose to do these things out of our love and devotion for Christ. Yet, just like Mary and Joseph, we are obligated to offer ourselves in service to God. Sharing God’s message of love, hope, and joy through our acts of social justice are not activities we can simply take or leave, but are meaningful encounters all God’s people are invited to partake and delight in for the benefit of our world and God’s reign.
Thirdly, we meet the Prophet Simeon. The Bible describes Simeon as an elderly gentleman who patiently waited to see the Baby Jesus. Scripture says he longed for Israel to be comforted after all the tragedies the country had faced, and he was given the incredible promise that he would not die until he had seen Christ. It is often said that while none of us choose when we will die, some are able to hang on until a loved one arrives, or even to wait another day or week for an important event like a birthday or anniversary to pass. It was the same with Simeon. He was determined and stubborn, not willing to depart until God’s promise had been granted. Taking the infant Jesus into his arms he proclaimed, “this is it! Your servant can now depart in peace.” Some of us might have uttered similar sentiments. After a lovely day out or a wonderful accomplishment we might say ‘now I can die a happy man” or “a happy woman.” But in Simeon’s case, this was not a flippant phrase, but an honest confession. Simeon was well into the sunset years of his life, a miracle had just happened, and Simeon knew what was coming next and was totally at peace with it.
Simeon also said something very strange to Mary. Instead of congratulating her on the birth of the one who would bring peace and salvation to Israel, he emphatically stated, “this child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken again, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed, and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
What a strange thing to say to a new mother!! Many of us here have held newborn babies. When we meet a newborn we might say something like “he has his mother’s eyes’ or “she has her dad’s nose” or even “look how much hair he has” or “look how big she is!” Those of you who have children may be able to share some stories of when your kids have wounded you or pierced your own soul with worry, regret, or concern, but we can all imagine how it would feel if we showed a friend our brand new baby and the first thing they said was “your son or daughter is going to bring heartache and pain into your life.” Yet, Simeon’s comment was not a criticism of Mary’s parenting or even a warning of teenage rebellion, but rather a foreshadowing of Christ’s death and the purpose of His life to be the Saviour of Humankind.
Lastly, we meet the prophetess Anna. The Bible says she had only been married for 7 years, before being windowed for 77 years. She would have been a widow in her early twenties, lacking the financial stability and economic security her husband would have provided. Back then, women had the opportunity of marrying one of her husband’s other relatives, but the text seems to indicate this was either not an option for her or that she did not want this. Instead, she chose to faithfully give herself to God in the midst of hardship, dedicating her life to service in the temple. When Anna was given lemons, she made lemonade, and her heart was full of gratitude towards the child as she fixed her eyes on the redemption and restoration of Israel.
Like Simeon and Anna, we are all waiting for something. The reconciliation of nations and cultures, the renewal of human kindness, the restoration of justice, the rebuilding of our world in the wake of natural disasters and human catastrophes, and the reframing of society’s views and expectations towards gender violence, mental illness, addiction, and incarceration. Waiting doesn’t have to be passive. We can practice an active waiting, filled with anticipation, longing, trust, and faith in a brighter future. A waiting that rests in God’s love and kindness, believing that a better day is coming, and while we wait, showing up in places where we willingly stand in the gap.
For many of us, 2020 might have truly been one of the most difficult years of our lives, but it was also a year of clarity, vision and radical transparency which opened the windows of our souls. By placing our faith and trust in God, we can believe that 2021 will bring refreshing, liberty and freedom. The present might look bleak right now, but by staying in touch with the Holy Spirit, we know that God will bring the restoration and rebuilding about while we actively participate in God’s divine plan. Amen.
People often say that we fear the unknown, but I think that sometimes what we fear the most is knowing what we are meant to do, yet not feeling adequate enough to do it.
Imagine this scene with me. I am in Downtown Toronto after a lovely dinner out with friends when I board the subway home. At the subway platform, I notice a group of teenage boys harassing an elderly gentleman. “Go back to China!” They hurl along with a barrage of other racist slander. The elderly gentleman apologizes, cowering in a corner. The teens do not physically harm him, but their words are seared with hatred for someone different than themselves. I stand there paralyzed by fear. My own safety and comfort called into question. Afraid and unable to stand against violence, oppression, and division, I leave the vulnerable man in the midst of these youth. Insecurity welling in my soul as the subway speedily takes off.
I would love to say this only happened once, but it didn’t. I have witnessed similar things at other bus stops and walked away. Despite my base level knowledge of indigenous rights, race riots, or institutional violence, I have often chosen not to become involved when the presenting issues haven’t directly affected me.
Mary must have felt a similar inadequacy when the angel first brought her the news that she would have a child despite her virginity. Today, it is rather common to have a child out of wedlock and in the western world, civil partnerships or common-law relationships have become the norm and just as acceptable as marriage. In our current climate, the institution of marriage is often regarded not as an act of ultimate love and sacrifice, but rather as simply a piece of paper or a legality.
However, Bible times presented a much different worldview. Getting pregnant outside of marriage was the ultimate sin. It was an insult to her parents and her fiance. It was a sign of disobedience, unchastity, impurity,and belligerence that often resulted in social ostracism, loss of security, stoning and even death. So, although the angel’s greeting is good news for us today, it likely was not such good news to Mary.
Here was a young teenage girl, about to start her life and get married to Joseph the Carpenter. Unlike today, women back then did not have careers, so marriage meant a stable livelihood, security and social status, and although these marriages were arranged rather than of love, the Bible speaks highly of Joseph’s character. He was a God-fearing and righteous man who would take care of Mary and be gentle and tender to her youth and naivety.
We do not know much about Mary’s backstory, but we can easily imagine how thrilled her parents must have felt at the prospect of Mary’s engagement. At this time, having children was the crux of marital life and there was no choice or debate surrounding having kids. Therefore, her parents eagerly anticipated the birth of many grandchildren, just not particularly in this way.
Let’s try to place ourselves in Mary’s shoes. Mary is going about her daily activities when an angel miraculously appears and drops an earth shattering message which detonates like a bomb. Yet despite Mary’s initial fear and apprehension, the angel assures her that God is with her.
We have all experienced bombs in our own lives. Perhaps through a health scare, a child born with a disability, the news of infertility, or a loved one’s deteriorating physical or mental health. It is difficult to believe God is with us in these times and hard to imagine or conceive of a God who is near to the broken hearted in the midst of tragedy.
Yet bombs do not always have to come in such unpleasant ways. Sometimes they come in the form of God nuding us to dream and dare to do the impossible. A call for reaching out to the darkness in our world and building bridges in the midst of brokenness. None of us anticipated 2020 bringing a global pandemic and a never-ending list of restrictions. None of us thought of adding the words”quarantine, isolation and lockdown” to our vocabulary. Yet, the New Normal has caused all of us to wrestle with our faith in various ways, ultimately leading us to a place of surrender and urging us to discover creative ways of being the church. With the government’s recent restrictions on religious settings, we have had to learn new ways of worshipping. The church’s mission of being alive and active has never been so needed. Although I didn’t know about Zoom pre-pandemic, today it is the most used app on my phone. Engaging with technology, I have joined United Church events across Canada in recent months. I have discovered that church does not simply mean watching a live Sunday recording, but also encompasses my young adults group out of McClure United in Saskatchewan, my 2 weekly coffee mornings, and the Advent race and media circle I have joined focussing on racial oppression and indigenous rights. I have learned that God is calling each of us to stand with each other becoming a united front, rather than giving into the culture of division and dissension so prevalent in our day.
Perhaps like us, Mary’s encounter was one of surprise. In June of this year, God dropped an unexpected gift into my lap which left me shaken, but later brought wonder and surprise. You see, this is when God first called me to serve the United Church. In the first lockdown during extended times of prayer and contemplation, God revealed to me that it was time to start searching for a permanent ministry. At first, the idea of working towards ordination in the United Church was the farthest thing from my mind. It was a new concept, perhaps difficult to reconcile with my past background. Yet, God took this encounter to show me my true inner longings. Being true to myself, I discovered some of the harms done to others through the institution of the church. Being authentic and vulnerable, meant acknowledging my hunger and thirst for social justice and my quest to bring the church to people rather than people to the church. God used a global pandemic to bring me to my knees in surrender and begin a beautiful and glorious partnership with a denomination I now claim as my own.
Some of us might relate to Mary’s questions. Mary may have been young and naive, but she knew simple biology. She knew what was involved in having a child, and she equally knew she had not done the prerequisite for pregnancy. Mary boldly asked the angel “how can this be, since I am a virgin?”
Many of us might have felt similarly when we first felt God’s call upon our lives. We might have asked questions such as: how can this be since I didn’t graduate from university? How can God be calling me since I struggle with mental illness? How can God use me since I am a single mother? Why would God want me since I have a past? God must have chosen the wrong person because I hate public speaking. God can’t possibly need me because (fill in the blank).
Here’s the thing: the angel didn’t argue with Mary. He didn’t debate with her or try to teach her something new about biology. He acknowledged that Mary was right, but he also gave her a brilliant promise: “The Power of the Holy Spirit will come upon you.”
In the greatest moment of our weakness, the Holy Spirit indwells within each of us. God’s spirit permeates and touches our hearts and lives regardless of our nationality, ethnicity, past difficulties or troubling present circumstances. The Holy Spirit has called each of us to various acts of service within the church, community and world,and has promised to equip us for these regardless of what life events we are brought.
Finally, once the Holy Spirit was revealed to Mary, she gratefully accepted it and joyously surrendered to God’s leading. Using wisdom well beyond her years, Mary proclaimed “I’m the Lord’s maid ready to serve!” And it was under Mary’s affirmative response that the angel left her with the time and space to do just that.
Who are the people we can serve this Christmas? With the recent lockdown and restrictions we can easily turn to glumness and disillusionment. Many of us might be lamenting this strange Christmas which feels unnatural. Yet, without diminishing the difficulties COVID has brought to our personal lives, I would like to encourage us to bring the world a gift of light and peace. We are here to spread hope to the world. Whether it’s giving extra groceries to the food bank, surprising a neighbour with an act of love, or sharing positivity online, we are here to make a change. We are here as God’s people, not living in the shadow of doom, but in the light of God’s presence. As we leave from this place, let us remember that we are church wherever we go. Let us remember that we are loved, chosen, called, and God’s holy people set apart for good things. There is only one response to this and it is the same as Mary’s: “I am God’s servant, ready to serve!”
I follow an amazing woman on social media named Debra Fileta. She is an incredible Christian marriage and family counselor and writes all sorts of wisdom about dating, sexuality, marriage, and everything that goes with it. She posted a few days ago on IG that one of her single followers wrote to her, “Please stop posting pictures of you and your happy family. Your happy marriage. You have no idea how that makes a single person feel. It’s triggering. How dare you write to me about saving sex till marriage when you have been enjoying glorious marital sex for the last several years. It’s hurtful and painful” (I am paraphrasing of course). Debra thought a lot about this for a good while as she did not want to upset or trigger her influential base, but in the end she concluded that she wasn’t going to stop posting pictures of her husband or family because it was part of her journey and story with all the ups and downs.
This got me thinking about what we post on social media. On the one hand, I complete get the person’s point. I have heard similar comments about how seeing pictures of babies and children can be triggering and upsetting to a woman who struggles with infertility or a single woman who longs to be a mother. I know that pictures of a happy marriage can be upsetting if someone is walking through a divorce or now widowed. I know that seeing a picture of someone sharing about their new job promotion can be upsetting for someone who has been laid off work during the pandemic and I know that me posting about the church may be hurtful to someone who has been deeply wounded from spiritual abuse.
Here’s what I also know. I have walked that road myself. And this is where the body image thing comes in. I have never felt that I was particularly “good at being a woman.” My other friends seemed to grasp the concepts of fashion, make-up, hair and everything else whereas it has not been my natural default position. I have been overweight (I probably still am). I have never been obese, but people have still felt a need to comment about my looks. One of the most painful things anyone ever said to me was “you lack sex appeal.” This comment was made a few years ago right in the height of my dating and marriage obsession when I was finding singleness painful. Even though this person later said it was about a certain outfit on a certain day, the thought has stayed with me. When I go on a night out I now obsessively run through a checklist in my head: do I have make-up? Is the make-up ok? Is my shirt ok? Is my handbag ok? Are my shoes ok? Is my watch ok? This checklist sometimes keeps me up at night as I look through the pictures of a fun event. I also sometimes cringe looking at old pictures of me (even though the memory might otherwise be pleasant).
My marriage obsession took over my life and actually made me physically sick. The worst thing is that there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. I literally tried everything as the obsession grew stronger and stronger. Back at that time I would have done anything to have silenced it for 5 minutes let alone 5 hours or 5 days. A lot of it came from being told by Christian society that this was the role of a woman. Women were created to be a wife and mother, and to not do so would mean I had failed. And the reason it had not happened for me was that I apparently lacked sex appeal. I continued to feel this way despite the fact that I had several interested candidates online and even a few in person.
The journey out just came one day. In the height of lockdown I attended an online retreat called Came to Believe for 3 days. At the end of the retreat the obsession left it. I can’t explain how or why. I think it was a Holy Spirit moment. I obviously still long to be married, and I believe I would be a fun mum, but aside from a simple wish, it doesn’t control my life anymore. As I have come to love myself, as I have come to see my role as a minister as of primary importance (being married to the church taking precedence over being married to a man), and as I have come to realize that even my deepest wants are simply that “wants”, I have felt freer and happier. There are still a few times when I see a friend post a happy family picture online or a recent engagement shoot or photos of their wedding and I think “man, I want that.” But then there are many other times I have posted pictures of me on trips, travelling around the world, hanging out into the wee hours of the morning, and receiving other achievements and my friends think “man, I want THAT.” It has taught me that we don’t have to LIKE the situation we’re in. You may not LIKE being single, having a recurring illness, or having a certain character flaw, but you do have to ACCEPT it. And I found that once I ACCEPTED my singleness, in a way, I even started to enjoy it.
Now when I look back over the last few years I realize a few things. Firstly, when the majority of comments about my appearance have been negative it is hard to believe that I am a beautiful person, but I have learned the soul is the most beautiful part of any woman. After all, what exactly is a woman? So much of what we think about womanhood and femininity is simply a byproduct of cultural conditioning and gender stereotypes. I believe that I am a woman because I am strong, capable, and have a loving spirit. There are women who love to dress to the nines, and women who like to wear jeans and t-shirts all the time. Both of them are women and both are capable of loving and being fully loved. Sex appeal doesn’t come from wearing make up or clothes, it comes from having a kind, gentle and passionate spirit. If someone is secure in themselves it doesn’t matter what they are wearing or how they are looking. Anything else is superficial.
So to my friends who are posting happy family pictures, please keep posting them. To my friends who are engaged or recently married, congratulations. And to my single friends who find all these posts triggering and hurtful please continue to seek God and have faith that God wants the best for you and His purpose will be revealed. If you are meant to get married you will. If you are meant to stay single, you will. God will equip you in either case and use you in either case for His glory. One is not better or worse than the other, and God will use your individual circumstances to shape the world in a way only you can. There’s nothing we can do to speed up or slow down the process, it simply is God’s timing and God’s timing is best. And yes, you are not defective and there is nothing wrong with you, you’re just waiting for the person who really deserves you more than anyone else.
Pooh woke up this morning and for reasons he did not entirely understand, felt panicky and depressed. He looked out the window and it was still dark out despite him knowing it was morning. His alarm had just gone off and he rolled over in bed, putting the pillow on top of his ear. His phone jangled. He looked at it and noticed it was his friend Piglet. Pooh didn’t answer. He didn’t feel like talking to his best friend. Piglet tried to phone again an hour later. Pooh still did not answer.
“Hmm…” said Piglet. “This is not like Pooh at all. Pooh always has a phone date with me Fridays at 9am. I hope he’s ok.” Piglet logged into his social media. Pooh had not posted for days. He looked at his text messages, Pooh had not even read them. “This isn’t like Pooh at all” said Piglet. “I think something must be oh so terribly wrong.” Piglet sent Pooh a text “Dear Pooh, I noticed that I haven’t heard from you in a few days. I want you to know that I am here for you. Is there anything that is the matter? Please tell me Pooh, you are my best friend and I care about you ever so deeply.”
A few minutes later, Piglet’s phone pinged. “Dear Piglet, I am really struggling. I don’t know how to put it in words. It’s as if all the sunshine has gone out of my life. I feel there is nothing to look forward to anymore. I just don’t have the energy to get out of bed.”
Piglet wrote back, “Can I come over? I’d like to cheer you up.”
Pooh answered, “Ok, but I’m not sure what good I’ll be. I don’t feel like talking today and I think I’d be rather poor and uninteresting company.” Pooh was usually an extrovert and he was always known for his long winded talks. Some said Pooh talked to much, but that was just Pooh. He was always funny and cracking jokes and looking at the positive side of life. For Pooh to say he didn’t want his best friend over was unusual indeed.
“I’ll be there in a few minutes” said Piglet. “I just need to change out of my jammies.”
Piglet arrived at Pooh’s doorstep with a box of chocolates and a card. “Can we sit in your garden?” “Ok,” Said Pooh glumly.
“What’s wrong?” said Piglet ever so gently.
“I don’t really know.” Said Pooh honestly. “I have no energy at all. I couldn’t even take a shower this morning. I don’t have any appetite. Even my best honey just tastes like sand. I feel just like Eeyore” He blurted out and then seemed to regret it.
Piglet just sat there and listened.
“I can’t help but think of what an awful bear I am.” Said Pooh sobbing. “I think that I am just a silly, old bear whom no one likes. No one would miss me if I left the Hundred Acre Woods and never came back. I keep thinking of all the bad things I have done. All the times I have stolen honey. I’m just a burden to everyone, especially Christopher Robin.”
Piglet gave Pooh a great big hug. “You’re not a burden. We all love you, Pooh and we would miss you oh so terribly if you moved away. We are all your friends. Everyone makes mistakes and does silly things because we are all silly little creatures. But please tell me, is there something that has caused this? Can you remember back to when you first started feeling sad?”
Pooh winced. He took a deep breath and continued, “I just feel that life will never be normal again. I hate Zoom. I have such trouble reading body language and always feel awkward on it. Zoom causes me such anxiety that I only log in one minute before I have to and leave soon after. I miss hanging out with my friends. I used to hang out with everyone in the Hundred Acre Woods, but now I’m only allowed to see one other household. I tried to form an extended household with Rabbit but he is away at the moment. I’m so worried about this virus and that I might catch it. I heard that it could kill a bear like me. I keep hearing in the news about people who are getting this virus and it worries me so. I miss going out to the restaurants and the cinema and even the swimming pool. It seemed like life was just getting normal and I started to feel better and like my normal Pooh-self, but then winter came and everything started locking down. Everyone keeps saying this will be a really bad winter. I always feel sad in the winter, Piglet, because there isn’t enough sunlight, but this year I feel even more sad because my family can’t be around me at Christmas. I had a great big New Year’s Eve party planned and no one can come. I just think that life will never get better. Never ever ever. We will always be living in this weird new way and I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit.”
“I know it’s so hard,” said Piglet. “These are really such awful and horrible times. It is only right to feel as you do.”
Pooh looked at Piglet with tears streaming down his face. “Oh Piglet, how much longer will this be??? I can’t take another Zoom call. I can’t handle this anymore.”
Piglet spoke soothingly to Pooh, “Yes, Pooh, that’s the trouble. No one knows how long this thing will last. But remember it won’t last forever. This too shall pass.”
“It feels like forever” said Pooh dejectedly.
“Then, I will be here for you and be your friend, forever.” said Piglet.
“I know.” said Piglet having a great idea. “Why don’t we make a plan together? Why don’t we think about what we can do that might cheer you up and take you out of this great saddness.”
“I don’t think anything can cheer me up” said Pooh defeated.
“Come now,” said Piglet. “I have a few ideas. Let’s start by making a list of people you can call if you are feeling really down. These are people who won’t judge you but will listen and help you to have a different perspective on the situation.” Pooh thought about it and wrote down Piglet, Owl, Rabbit, Kanga, and Christopher Robin on the list. “Now let’s think about if there are any groups you could join that would help you talk about what is troubling you.” Pooh remembered Eeyore was part of a support group and he wrote himself a note to get in touch with him and ask what the name of it was and if he might join. “What about something to distract yourself. Maybe a new hobby?” Pooh couldn’t think of anything he would like to try that didn’t involve meeting up with people physically, but Piglet reminded him that he loved to read and Pooh thought maybe he could try an online book club. Finally, Piglet suggested that Pooh see a doctor if it got any worse or if he still felt this great sadness a week from now.
Pooh put his foot down, “I don’t want to take medication, Piglet” he said.
Piglet: “Medication is not a sign of weakness, Pooh. If you had arthritis, you wouldn’t just take a pill, you’d also probably do some light stretching and have an anti-inflammatory diet. Medication can help with this great sadness you feel, but if you really don’t want to take it you should still talk to your doctor. They might be able to give you some other options. Please, Pooh. Even if you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for me. Please.”
“Ok” said Pooh grudgingly though he really didn’t want to.
Pooh phoned the doctor. A very nice lady answered. Pooh told her that he didn’t know what to say but that he was feeling a great sadness. He told the doctor that he thought no one would miss him if he left the Hundred Acre Woods and didn’t come back. He said he didn’t know why he felt so sad, but he wished to feel much better. He said he didn’t want to take medication. The doctor told him that medication might be good in his case, but there were many other things he could do which would help the medication work even better. She suggested that Pooh keep a mood journal and track how he felt each day. She also said Pooh might benefit from taking Vitamin D tablets as many people feel especially sad during the winter, and finally she told Pooh about a special lamp he could get which would act just like sunlight. She reminded Pooh that it was good to try to eat healthy and go out walking every day even if he didn’t feel like it. And that Pooh should call back in one week to let her know how he was getting on. In the meantime she gave Pooh phone numbers for helplines he could call and encouraged him to talk to his friends.
Pooh didn’t feel better right away but he did everything that was suggested. He bought the lamp, he started taking the vitamins, he went on walks, he ate better, and he talked to his friends. He joined the support group with Eeyore and he found it really helped him each day. The sadness did not completely disappear but with each day it lessened more and more. Then one day, about a month later, Pooh was out on a walk. It was an especially glorious and sunny day and Pooh noticed a wild turkey scuttling across the snow covered grass. Then Pooh noticed a gentle deer in the distance. For the first time, Pooh felt a smile spread across his lips and let out a hearty laugh. When Pooh got back from his walk he noticed that he truly felt happy for the first time since the great sadness had appeared.
Pooh spoke to his group about it and they were all happy for him. Pooh learned that the great sadness might always be part of his life. There might be times in his life when the great sadness reappeared and many other times when the great sadness was but a distant memory. Pooh learned that the great sadness was not a sign of weakness, and he now had the tools to deal with the great sadness when it returned. Pooh also learned that many people experience the great sadness at least once in their life and many people experience it more than once especially during very difficult times such as a global pandemic. With this new knowledge, Pooh began to relax knowing that he was not defective and that many people around him cared deeply about him. Pooh resumed calling Piglet every week on the phone, took up his book club, and started feeling like his old Pooh-self again. For now, just for today, Pooh was content and today is all that matters.
~ Original piece written based on my own experience of depression during the pandemic
He got me from the moment we first met. Sure, our relationship was not “conventional”, but his soft grey eyes, his laugh, and the way he talked about the Bible with me added a certain type of charm. Sure, we didn’t see eye to eye on a few of the “frill” topics (women in ministry for example), but I considered myself a largely conservative Christian and I thought, hey, if that’s one doctrine that has to go for the sake of our relationship, so be it. Boy, would S be shocked now to hear that I am training for ordained ministry with the most progressive denomination in Canada!
Things didn’t work out. At the time, I was being pursued by another long-term friend and felt I needed to make a decision. When I decided that Y and I would be better as friends than partners, I decided to give S another chance. I got back in touch, he was more than keen, we went on our “first/second date” – a stroll on the beach (how much more romantic can you get than that) and within weeks we had made it official. Coming from conservative backgrounds and also due to the fact that both S and I were pretty much desperate to find a lifelong spouse, we decided to quickly become engaged. We were, after all, both in our late twenties and surely by that time, you don’t need a long courtship anymore. Ends up, we were both wrong. Today, I have come to see that because of my own desperateness I was willing to sell anything (including my core values, beliefs, and sense of self) for the sake of what I considered “love.” True, I did care deeply about S. We had some similar interests, I felt energized by his presence, and he was the first person I would call or text as soon as I woke up every morning and would vent to when anything went wrong. This post is not about defaming his character which he had plenty of. A few of his best characteristics were his compassion, his intellect, and his sense of humour. S was someone who was easy going, relaxed, and deeply sensitive. There were so many aspects about him which would make one interested in having such a person in their life, but there was one aspect which he was not willing to release at all: his devotion to a specific denomination.
S belonged to a very conservative church known as the “Free Church of Scotland, Continuing.” This is a very old school branch of Reformed Christianity which is more characterized by what they DON’T believe in than what they DO. Among other things, they believe women should wear hats to church, women should wear dresses, women are not meant to preach or hold any form of public office (not even as a deacon), hymn singing and instruments are not permitted (the only form of music available would be a cappella Psalm singing),and dancing was strictly prohibited. I started attending church services with S whenever we were together on a Sunday and there were a few things I did actually like about this church. Firstly, I thought the Psalm singing was absolutely gorgeous as the a capella melodies zinged through the air, but also, I got the sense that it was a tight knit community which really cared about one another and would do anything to help. I went on a young adults retreat early on in our relationship and thought I could handle being part of this type of church. I still had issues on some things, but for the most part, I justified to myself why they thought the way they did. Yet, as time went on, I found myself more and more unhappy in this reality.
The Free Church Continuing believes that a woman ought to go to the man’s church once they are wed. One of their favourite verses to use in this defense is “Rebekah followed Isaac,” but they also felt it was a matter of submission which the Bible urges wives to do. The problem is that given my theological background and master’s degree I wasn’t entirely sold out on lots of things, didn’t find them relevant or even understand the Scriptural arguments, and I wanted my future children to grow up in a more well-rounded and ecumenical church setting like I had. By this point, I had travelled extensively, read widely, and befriended interculturally, and there was no way I thought I would be remotely interested in shrinking that bubble. However, like I said, I thought I was in love and when you think you’re in love you are willing to continue to bend and bend to accommodate and to compromise.
The final straw came a few weeks before we were meant to come back to Canada to meet my parents in person. We had gotten into a huge fight over wedding arrangements. I felt it was important (if nothing else) to have a father daughter dance as well as first dance between bride and groom. Once again, S’s worries about offending those in the Free Church overshadowed this. Society has brought women up to believe that the wedding is the Bride’s Day, though I would have been fairly content if it would have just been our day together. Instead, S was taking every moment to “hijack” it into a Free Church wedding. It was all about what we COULDN’T do (we couldn’t stay out past midnight on a Saturday for example as once the clock strikes 12 it becomes the Lord’s Day). We couldn’t dance at the wedding, but perhaps a compromise might be to have juke box alone in our hotel room. And instead of any other form of fun entertainment, the best we could do is have a photo booth and an A Capella Psalm singing. My friends who were Christians were not interested in this and forget about my non-Christian friends. Even myself (as the bride) was getting myself settled in for a huge yawn fest. But once again, I thought I loved him, so perhaps this was not so big of a deal. After all, what is one day when it comes to the rest of our lives together. Thankfully, through prayer and fasting, God stepped in miraculously and the wedding was called off. It was hard at first, but it was for the better.
The point of this post is not to slam down S at all. We both came from two very different cultures and perhaps our cultural conditioning would not permit us to get to the place of ever having a fruitful relationship, however, it did shape me profoundly on the topic of submission. Those of you who follow my blog know that I am generally an advocate of traditional marriage. By this I mean, I do believe the Bible underscores for us that husbands are to love their wives unconditionally, whereas, wives are called to respect their husbands and submit. A wife’s submission is not due to her inferiority or lack of decision making, because a loving husband will consult his wife and will make decisions based on good leadership and having her best interests in mind. A husband’s love is not a cheap escape, but is an unconditional love which is willing to sacrifice every part of him for the sake of his bride, to forgo his own wants and needs in a selfless way in order that his wife may grow, blossom and achieve her full potential. Thus, the two, comingle and act as one agent – the two leave behind the familiar and all they have ever known in order to embrace a new way of being. They venture forth no longer as individual beings who are free to do as they wish, but rather become a mature vessel compromised of two unique souls who are on one unique mission.
That said, when my brother and sister-in-law got married I said in the wedding speech “God is to be your pilot and Sam (my brother) the co-pilot. You (Rebecca) get to ride in first class, make sure that happens.”
So, if the husband is the co-pilot then what happens with church? Does the woman simply always revert to her husband’s church or does she actually have any say in the matter? I have spoken to a few conservative friends since S and I broke up and I have heard different viewpoints. Some say the woman is always just to tag along with her husband, but I think again, this comes down to love and respect. If the husband loves his wife, he wants to go where she will grow and flourish the most. Even if it means moving out of his familiar bubble. If the wife respects her husband it means she will go where her husband will grow and flourish and ultimately she will trust her husband’s decision on this. If she doesn’t trust her husband to make the right choice, then perhaps their relationship is not as strong as they believed.
One of the difficulties with S was his refusal to even look at other options. This particular denomination more or less believes they are the only path to heaven. On the other hand, I believe that when two people come from different backgrounds, they should explore and investigate together, being open-minded and travelling around to different churches to see what each has to offer before making their decision. I believe that when two people have two different theological views some compromises may need to occur. I suppose on an issue like baptism there is less room to debate – either you baptize your child as an adult or as an infant, but on many other issues like music there are a wide variety of churches catering to each taste. I came from a background that played guitars and drums, S came from an a cappella background – surely a compromise could be found in the middle with a hymn singing church with an organ or piano. I remember being so excited for S to visit Canada and get to know the different churches where I worshipped. S was only willing to attend a “Reformed Church.” I often sent S little articles and sermons to read or watch, which he didn’t because they did not adhere to his unique theology. All this after I had spent countless hours in his Free Church trying to understand their points of view. When only one person is willing to go the distance and the other person doesn’t meet part way, eventually things start to break and crumble.
Since then, as I have continued on with questioning how to pick a church, I have come to a few conclusions. Firstly, in most cases I don’t think it works when someone is from such a wildly different theological background. There may be exceptions if both parties are willing to grow and truly love each other so much that they will abandon everything and cleave to their husband/wife, but in most cases, it’s better to find someone who is at least more to the centre. Secondly, the only reason a husband/wife would absolutely need to attend the other spouse’s church is if the one spouse is in ministry. Okay, so that’s a bit of a convoluted sentence, but think of it this way: I am soon going to be an ordained minister with a certain denomination. My husband (should God put him in my path) will need to understand that and be part of that church because I will have married the church before I married him. The same if I was an average church goer and married to a pastor – I would then expect myself to attend his church and encourage him in his ministry. Lastly, please don’t get the wrong opinion. I very much believe in family worship. There are probably loads of cases where the husband and wife attend different churches and different denominations and still have a happy marriage and raise God fearing children, but in general, worship is meant to be a family affair. All sitting together in the same pew and being actively involved in a church, help set the precedent for younger children to know what it is like to celebrate together and this models a healthy spirituality and formation to them.
So, if you are dating someone from a different church background here are a few things you can do to help make the transition a whole lot smoother before you tie the knot: 1) be interested in your partner’s spiritual background. If you are not from that denomination, still show your eagerness to get to know their beliefs. This really helps to start the relationship on a path of honesty rather than adapting for the sake of the other person. Listen to sermons from that church, ask questions about it, even meet with a pastor or attend a service. 2) State what you are comfortable and not comfortable with upfront. 3) Don’t compromise. I found that when I did I started keeping score (and as 1 Corinthians 13 tells us, love does not do this). Eventually it all came tumbling out. It is better to adapt and change as you learn and grow together rather than staying silent until you eventually crumple under the weight of it all.
September 25th would have been our wedding date. Instead I sat in the empty parking lot of a hospital awaiting a procedure (all is okay :)). I was sipping water out of a special travel mug S had gotten me for Christmas. I thought to myself “this is so depressing. Look where life has taken me.” In fact, breaking off the engagement was the greatest thing that ever happened. I still miss S. There are many moments when I see something that reminds me of him. There are lots of things I miss about him and about being in a relationship in general. S and I have made peace. We now understand that God did not want us to be together and we have parted on friendly terms. We don’t talk anymore but we know we’d be there if the other person needed anything. I still know in my heart that S is a great guy and I am thankful that we did have that year together and I believe it shaped me as a person and made me a stronger Christian. For that, and for him, I am grateful. But breaking off the engagement taught me something else: I am worth the wait. I don’t have to compromise myself to find true love. My obsession for marriage (which I had battled with and was a non-stop constant assault on my thoughts for years) suddenly disappeared. Marriage is still something I very much want in the future, but God took this part of my life which I was unwilling to surrender and more or less destroyed me, and has transformed it into peace and inner calm. I can’t explain it at all except to say God took it from it and I have been restored to a state of sanity and reasonableness once again. In another life, I would have gotten back from my honeymoon (or whatever the COVID equivalent is) and we would have celebrated one month of marriage. Instead, as I sit here, I am not wearing a hat and a dress, I am wearing ripped jeans and a t-shirt and will be taking the stage at any moment in my green spiked hair getting ready to preach a message from the pulpit.
“I have become all things to all people” wrote the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:22, a phrase he used to describe cultural adaptation for the sake of furthering the Gospel. Paul was a devout Jewish leader who used to murder Christian believers, but suddenly he found himself between two cultures and two religions. He was part of both camps so he knew how to act and behave as well as what was expected from either one. The fact that Paul belonged to two distinct people groups made him one of the most effective missionaries of his time and his evangelism is still marvelled at today.
While I am no Apostle Paul, I have also spent 29 years of my life vacillating between two different cultures. It has at times been exhilarating, and at other times confusing. I have given quite a bit of thought to it, but in recent months with the whole Black Lives Matter movement and talk of White Fragility, it is something that has been on my mind a whole lot more.
Throughout my life I have had some embarrassing (and perhaps even insulting moments) due to my race. When I was in elementary school I did not like to eat bread and I hated sandwiches. What do kids bring to school in their lunchboxes? Usually sandwiches. I used to take out the lunch meat eating it first and then roll my bread into little dough balls to eat. Weird, absolutely, but all kids have such quirks. One of my classmates looked over and scoffed “is that the way Asian people eat sandwiches?” she taunted. I stuck the rest in my bag. I had suddenly lost my appetite. Also in elementary school I struggled with math. To this day, I can barely even add or subtract and calculus and algebra may as well be Greek (oh wait, I did 3 semesters of Greek in seminary and it was certainly easier than this stuff!) Once again the whole “Aren’t all Chinese people good at math” came back to taunt me. Perhaps many Asians are good with numbers, but many others prefer art, music, or drama to mathematical formulations.
After elementary school, no one could guess my ethnicity. Some of the most common ones people have suggested are: Hispanic, Latina, Jewish, Philippino, Italian, and Mexican. Once people hear that my nationality is Canadian they also tend to assume I am aboriginal.
I realize that I have had a fairly easy life due to largely having white phenotypes and ironically my brother looks quite a bit more Asian than I do. I have also chosen to self-identify as white for the majority of my life due to not only looking more white than Asian but also based on the fact that I don’t speak Chinese, know how to eat with chopsticks but rarely do, and grew up in a Western society. However, I have been thinking recently that I have as much of a right to claim my ethnicity as Chinese as I do as being white/European. That said, I’m sure if I did start introducing myself as Chinese I would probably get some rather odd looks from people within the Asian communities.
I have been taking a course on Indigenous History in Canada. The lecturer recently spoke about how many Canadians are trying to claim Native ancestry. Some are interested in hopes they can get a status card which will give specific privileges, but many are simply curious. When someone discovers they are perhaps one tenth Cree they then feel they can start saying they are Indigenous. My lecturer, who is Native herself, disagrees with this stance. She says being Native is not just about DNA, but it is also about being part of a complex history, culture, and decision making process. She believes that someone is not Native by virtue of their DNA alone, but rather based on adapting to a certain lifestyle. One line she said in her lecture was “you cannot claim to be part of a people group which has not claimed you.”
By virtue of being Canadian I have been claimed as white. There have been moments as well when I have been claimed as Asian such as when I joined the Chinese Student Association on my university campus as their token “white person” or when I took a course in seminary entitled “Preaching in a Chinese Church” but there have been many other moments when I have not been claimed by the Chinese such as when I attempted to youth pastor a Chinese church a few years ago. The kids realized right away I wasn’t one of them and became closed off to me.
I don’t think there are any easy answers here and perhaps this is all a bit of drivel, but it is a constant thought in my mind these days. What if my genes would have shifted only slightly so that my face looks more Asian than white? What if I decided to self-identify more as Asian? What if it was my Dad rather than my Mum who was Asian and I grew up with an Asian last name? These are perhaps all thoughts for another day, but one question for today still remains: what does White Fragility look like when you’re white but you don’t actually feel fragile?
Human beings connect to songs. Both musical notes and poetic lyrics shape who we are and singing has always been a cornerstone in my seven years in L’Arche. It seems like a lifetime ago now, but I was just in my first year when I took one of the core members (the L’Arche way of saying “person with learning disability”) to a Prayer Partner Retreat in Kingston, Ontario. A man in his late twenties was strumming a song on a guitar while the core members and assistants laughed and danced. After, I made some small talk with him. “How long have you been in L’Arche?” I asked curiously. He flashed a smile “10 years.” He said. 10 years seemed like such a long time back then, but now, I realize it’s really not that long.
I stumbled upon L’Arche accidentally. I was in my final year of my Bachelor’s and we had a guest speaker, Sister Sue Mosteller, at my university. She spoke in such a tender and humble way about her experiences in the Daybreak community. At that time, Sister Sue had been in L’Arche for nearly 50 years and was a founding member of Daybreak. The way she spoke gripped me, I wanted whatever this woman had. I got in touch with her and she, in turn, welcomed me to come for a visit.
The first time I rocked up at L’Arche was a disaster. It’s quite humourous now and I enjoy telling the story whenever I wish I poke fun at myself, but back then, it was quite stressful. I got lost and was late. I made mistakes. I had no idea how to interact with people who have disabilities. I had no idea what L’Arche was. I had such an idealized version of life in community which (thankfully) the house leader smashed as soon as I told her what I thought the days would look like. Yet, despite all this, there was a tenderness which permeated the room. There was an evident trust and friendship displayed between the core members and the assistants. There was a sense of holiness and humanity which I had searched for in the academy and had fallen short of, and so, after a one night stay, I signed myself up to live a year amongst adults with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, and various other disabilities.
Life in community had its ups and downs as I learned to integrate into this way of life. Among some of the most important lessons were discovering how to laugh at myself (because if I didn’t, everyone else would), figuring out how to speak to core members as adults (something our patronizing world is not very good at), and finding the joy in each day regardless of how tiring it was. One of the key elements of life in community is forgiveness and this is something I repeatedly came back to. There was the day that I was short with one of the core members and after apologizing to her, she smiled back and said “Don’t worry, be happy. We’re still best friends!” I learned then that there was no point to hold a grudge because faults and mistakes were quickly forgotten. It didn’t matter how annoying I might feel someone was, tomorrow morning was a new day. I had to let any anger and resentment go in order to preserve the life of the house. There was also the time one of the core members stole one of my prized books (she couldn’t read), and another time another core member decided I would be staying put and hid my car keys under his bed. We didn’t find them for a week! At the time, these instances were greatly distressing, but now I have to chuckle as a wry smile inexplicably escapes my lips.
Community also brought with it opportunities for growth and healing. Within my first month of being an assistant, one of the core members in my house passed away. The community came and sat with all of us in our grief. They allowed the space for questions and pondering and they also permitted both tears and silence. In L’Arche pastoral care is offered between one another. We often do have outside ministers who come in and provide needed support in times of crisis, but I have always found the connection between the household members just as profound if not moreso. I will never forget a very special moment when I experienced one of the darkest valleys in my personal life. It was a season of intense sadness, loneliness, and heartache, but the simple rhythm of saying the Lord’s Prayer around the table every evening sustained me. One day, one of the core members with Down Syndrome could just sense something was troubling me even though I had not said a word. He came beside me and started rubbing my back whispering soothing words. Before I could stop myself, tears streamed down my face as I crumpled into his arms. It was at this moment that I realized he was giving me pastoral care. I have been ministered to many times since then by other core members who intuitively know when I am sad or upset and give me the biggest hugs or the brightest smiles.
One comment many people have said to me over the years is “you must be a very patient person.” I often thought this was a patronizing statement, but today I have come to regard it as truth, because in community patience is key. I often must be patient with core members who take longer to do tasks and as someone who enjoys being the boss of the kitchen, I often have to be flexible enough to change cooking arrangements at a moment’s notice. Yet, the real patience comes from the core members themselves who allow young people barely adults and often still in their teens to help serve them. It really is a lesson in humility for all.
I have always loved how mutually satisfying relationships within L’Arche can be. When I came to L’Arche I was impressed by names, titles, statues, and educational abilities, yet, today I am impressed with a person’s character and heart. The core members have welcomed everyone from the university professor to the high school drop out and everyone has been treated the same way. In a world which values beauty, the core members have taught me that sometimes mismatched socks and bare faces actually make the best photos because they are truly authentic representations of life.
Cooking and dinner hours are places where life is lived out most authentically. To date, I have lived with people of over 30 nationalities and from 6 different continents which is a unique experience many other people cannot say they have had. The tastes, textures, colours, and aromas of the various dishes brings the world right to our plates and the banter which soon follows brings in that sense of home. Living with people from different countries has also been a grounding point for me when I moved to Scotland for the first time nearly 5 years ago now. Any time I missed home I was able to turn to assistants who were living the same thing and together we could draw strength from each other. Over the years, I have rubbed shoulders and met many people and as I learned early on “in L’Arche we have to say hello and goodbye often.” In some cases, these friendships were for a season which was painful at first. Sharing in both the blessings and the stresses of an entire year only to have no contact after dropping someone off at the airport was heartbreaking, yet, I also have made some unique friendships which have carried on and served the test of time.
In the past year or so, L’Arche has been going through a whole lot internationally, and it pains my heart to see some of the negative press. I will admit that some of what is said is perhaps warranted and I believe any community or organization must be transparent enough to deal with both the good and the bad, yet, I do worry about the future of our organization if all people have heard is bad. Hearing negative reports will likely scare off some potential assistants who might actually contribute greatly to the community. The trouble is when people hear concerns about work hours, responsibilities, and how L’Arche is slipping away from its spiritual core, people lose sight of the real mission of being fellow pilgrims. We have worked through some very difficult things together as a community: the Jean Vanier inquiry being the most notable and searing. Hearing such horrific news shook the core of who we were as we ventured to dream and discover how L’Arche could function without the founder. We asked ourselves if we should delete his name entirely for the annals of L’Arche history, or, if not, how much of a role he still plays in L’Arche’s story (in OUR collective story)? This is a path we have all trod and is both lived and experienced communally but also personally. Some people have had to walk away from the movement entirely because they could not reconcile at all the news of his abuse of power with the care of the most vulnerable members of society. There is no shame in this and we do not begrudge them. We do not consider them weak, in fact, it took tremendous strength for them to do so. Others have chosen to stay and chosen to work this out within the community. We honour these individuals as well.
Another struggle we have faced has been dealing with a global pandemic which we were all unprepared for. Again, there were no easy answers or quick fixes. Some of what we have lived communally has been a real blessing, other aspects have come short of a nightmare. Once again, there were members who needed to leave as soon as the pandemic hit. This was not their fault and they were not weak, it took courage to return home where they were needed. Others have stayed and helped to provide a rich and vibrant life for the service users and we are most grateful to them. Throughout the pandemic we have often heard the term “frontline workers” which generally has referred to those in paid positions, however, I truly believe that the real heroes were the core members themselves. The tenacity, strength, adaptability, and resilience evidenced by those who had no ability to understand what was occurring was a brilliant testimony to those of us with the capacity to fully grasp the implications. It truly reminded me to take it one day at at time, looking forward with gratitude rather than backwards with regret. There were many days when the stress of the pandemic nearly caused me to burn out, but looking back now that we have all lived through the worst, I also would not have chosen to live any other way during these past six months.
Slowly the Spirit has been calling me out of L’Arche. A decision I feel completely at peace about, but which still rips me to the core. I often find myself tottering between emotions. I am both excited and extremely nervous. I am both elated and also devastated. I feel it is a type of death to say goodbye to a certain way of life which I have come to know and love. When I first came to L’Arche I was taught in my orientation “there are those who come to stay long term and there are those who are called and sent out to spread the message two by two.” I feel I have been called to both. I have stayed in L’Arche much longer than many other assistants who have stayed for just a year or two and I feel that as I have stayed on I have continued to grow and develop as a person. I felt I continued to give a lot to L’Arche but that I was also receiving a lot. To borrow the phrase of another long term member “I have earned my BA in spirituality and my MA in humanity.” However, there soon came a point when I realized I was ready for something else. L’Arche gave me the confidence, assurance, and blessings to embark on what my true calling is. Now I am being sent out just like Noah’s animals. Having been safely kept in the massive ark during the global storm, they were nudged out of the safe and familiar and told to go back to the land where they had always been meant to be. Did they even know how to be lions, tigers and giraffes anymore? Had they forgotten how to hunt? Perhaps they were a bit timid as Noah and his family had provided for their every need and needed to be prodded, yet eventually they made it. I may be leaving a certain vocation, but I am not leaving the mission. The lessons I have learned I believe will serve me well in my future endeavours both as I interact with people who have disabilities themselves and consider how to make churches more accessible, but also engage with the general population by helping them through their own woundedness, weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
It is hard to say good bye to something I have invested my life into, but I do know this: wherever I go in the world, there will always be that house with the picture of the boat and the three people welcoming me in with a hot cup of tea, a biscuit, a prayer, and more than likely, an off key guitar.
It was 7pm on a Monday night 5 months ago and my coworker had just finished her shift. She said she needed to leave promptly so that she could hear an important announcement on the car radio. The rest of us were huddled around the television awaiting the all important Prime Minister’s address. This was the first day of lockdown. None of us knew what to expect or what was happening, but all of us were afraid.
There are people who will try to convince you they were never afraid during this pandemic, but I don’t believe any of them for one minute. Fear has been the natural response throughout this very strange and difficult time. We have several groups of people when it comes to fear. We have those who have been absolutely terrified about getting the virus or about infecting a loved one with the virus. We have those who have been absolutely afraid of their economic uncertainty and how they will pay their rent and bills. There have been extroverts like myself who have been fearful of life never getting back to normal and never being able to give a friend a hug or a handshake again. Others have been afraid that life will not resume normality and that they may be stuck in their deadend jobs, working permanently from home, or never being able to visit children and grandchildren who live in other countries. Lastly, there are the group branded “conspiracy theorists.” These individuals claim that they are not afraid at all, but perhaps are the most fearful of all. These select few are fearful that the government wants to control us, microchip us and force mandatory vaccines on us.
Life has resumed some form of normalcy as I write this. I am able to travel (albeit not as much as I wished and still within my own country, but at least day trips are now available). Routine medical and dental exams have resumed. Even some leisure activities such as eating out and going to the cinema are an option. From the outside, everything looks more or less as it did before except now we are all two meters apart and wearing face masks. Yet, I believe there is still a spirit of fear which permeates much of what we do in a day. There are still individuals who are paranoid of the virus as the numbers have started creeping up again. There are those fearful of sending their children back to school (and some parents who have chosen not to). There are still those who are convinced the government wants to microchip us and that the Mark of the Beast is at hand, and I think if we are completely honest, nearly all of us are fearful that a second wave will be approaching. I haven’t watched the news for months now, but I still hear the whispers from my friends and the posts on social media. It really seems only a matter of time.
I was very blessed to have worked throughout the entire pandemic. I say blessed because it is humbling to me how many of my same age peers faced economic uncertainties since they did not have this privilege. Work took my mind off things, gave me something to do, and helped to have some form of interaction with other humans. Yet, work was also very stressful. Being on the frontlines daily took a huge toll on my physical and mental health. Stress was high, my brain could never switch off, and policies and procedures were amended several times over several weeks which heightened the fear of never knowing exactly what was expected. Due to the stress I experienced from the pandemic and the massive plummet my mood took, I decided to pursue another venue: getting back into full time ministry. Something which has been on my heart throughout my life, but now seemed like the time to do it. Everything went well. I passed my interviews and the church genuinely seemed to like me, but once again the natural human emotion of fear crept in. Fear of not being enough, fear of what others have said or what I have been led to believe about myself in the past, fear of failure, and once again fear of COVID. Exactly how DOES one minister completely online? In some ways I feel I will be entering the ministry more prepared because I know that these things can happen (something no seminary ever trained or talked about before), yet on the other hand, I feel ill-prepared. There is fear about how long this will last and exactly how many sermons one can preach over Zoom before the whole congregation goes bug eyed and walks away from the screen.
In this time of fear, God’s people are called to engage in faith. This is not an easy thing to do. How do we have faith when we don’t know what the future will bring? As a late 20 something single millennial I do have questions. Is it still possible to buy a house now that the economy has plummeted? Will there still be a way for me to meet a young man organically? Will I ever get my 20 something life back with all the excitement I once had? And how can I get to know a church community when the next year or so will be completely online? What does pastoral care even look like then?
In Matthew 6:34 Jesus writes “Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough troubles of its own.” This verse has never been truer than in COVID. The truth is I don’t know what tomorrow brings. For all I know we could be locked down tomorrow. For all I know I could get COVID tomorrow. For all I know, life could drastically change tomorrow, or it might not. For all I know, we may get to Phase 4 tomorrow and the masks come flying off. It has been a real challenge for me in this season to learn to trust God, but that’s what I’m called to do. I must accept that there is so much I don’t have control over at the moment. What I do have control over is doing my part to continue to follow government guidelines and to be kind to others. I have been learning so much about acceptance in fact that it has truly made me a happier person. When I look back even over the last few difficult months, I see how God has been present and blessed me. I see how many of the plans which I had hoped for in my life (which were hampered due to COVID) have now been replaced by something even better for me which I would never have expected. I can only be grateful and in awe of this.
I was listening to a sermon the other day about when the Apostle Paul wrote “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Philippians 4:12). We may look at this and say “wow, good for you, Paul. So pious, but you have no idea what I’m going through.” Well, actually there’s a good chance he did. He was in prison and about to lose his life. Let me paraphrase this in relation to what we’re going through:
“I know what it is to be in lockdown and I know what it is to be in normalcy. I know what it is to be in quarantine and I know what it is to be able to go to church physically every Sunday. I know what it is to be furloughed and I know what it is to be at work. I know what it is to be healthy and I know what it is to be sick. I know what it is to go on holiday and I know what it is to shelter in place. I am CONTENT in each and every situation.”
Contentment is not happiness. I’m sure no one is happy with all the rules and regulations, however, we can be content in terms of accepting it and still making the most of it. We can ask God to redeem and use this time so that we don’t squander it. We have the ability to make the most out of another lockdown by treating it like a retreat. We don’t have to continue in a negative vein about how 2020 was the worst year of our lives brought to us by the letters W T F, instead we can look at the glimpses of grace and the sparks of God’s love which have been given to us. It’s a tall order, but as God’s people, it’s possible for us because we approach life with an attitude of plenty rather than scarcity.
And me? I still hope to settle down in my new church, with a decent enough flat. I hope to get myself a pet to come home to, and I hope that eventually I will be able to meet my congregation in person and not on the screen. But even if none of that happens, I still believe that I can be content in my circumstances and say with all honesty and confidence “it is well with my soul.”
Do you find that you frequently interact with the substance even when you said you were going to limit it or stop it all together? Do you make promises to yourself that you are only going to keep to a certain limit only to discover later that you have far exceeded it? Do you wish you could cut down on your usage? Does this substance consume a significant amount of your time and energy? Does the substance impact important areas in life such as your job, your finances, your friendships or relationships? Have you ever neglected important responsibilities due to the substance? Do you sometimes feel out of control when using the substance? Do you go through “withdrawal” such as feeling nervous, anxious, or on-edge when the substance is taken away from you or is not available? Have you ever worried about your usage or have you ever had a friend or family member comment on your usage? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have an addiction.
The paragraph you just read about was from a quick Google search highlighting some of the ways that someone can tell if they *may* have a drug addiction. I have been interested in addiction for several years and done quite a bit of personal research, so this obviously just scratches the surface, however, it does paint a stark picture doesn’t it? The exact same traits that we can find in someone who abuses drugs and alcohol are similar to what many of us find ourselves doing with technology on a daily basis.
During the spring months, there is a Christian tradition called Lent. Lent is the 40 day period leading up to Easter. During this time, it is customary for people to give up something which they enjoy or find pleasure in to remind them of personal sacrifice. Some common things people give up are: junk food, eating out, alcohol, and one of the most common ones in the past few years: SOCIAL MEDIA. However, it was soon discovered that many people who chose to give up social media and/or technology in general went through withdrawal symptoms in the same way as someone does when they give up smoking, excessive coffee drinking or drugs and alcohol. In fact, many professionals are contemplating opening up treatment facilities and programs for chronic technology users. In the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM V which is used by mental health professionals including psychologists and psychiatrists) video game addiction was finally mentioned as a mental health issue. I believe it is only a matter of time before cell phone addiction will also grace the pages of this text book(if it hasn’t already).
Many people who face addictions have similar behaviours and mindsets, however, in my short time studying addiction, I have come to believe that everyone is addicted to something. People with addiction usually live in denial. I recently heard denial described as “Don’t even notice I am lying.” Basically people who are truly addicted don’t think their addiction is that bad. Many of them don’t even realize the devastation it is causing for those around them. It’s the same with internet and technology addiction. People may joke and say “I’m addicted to my phone” or “I’m a Facebook addict” but if you were actually to confront them on this many would backpedal and even become defensive. In fact, I was told once that this is the first step of identifying an addiction – if you’re not addicted you wouldn’t need to argue the point.
The six other monsters I introduced which preceded this final monster helped to flesh out a bit more some of the ways social media is addictive and what to do about it. Just a quick recap: the red monster of anger, the orange monster of insincerity, the yellow monster of fear, the green monster of envy, the blue monster of depression and anxiety, and the indigo monster of distraction. When we look at each one, we can also see that these are all common traits in someone who is going through addiction themselves.
Now, please note, as I said right from the beginning, not everyone who uses technology is or will become addicted just like not everyone who drinks is an alcoholic. Many people are able to find a balance with work, social life and technology. Many people inherently know how to use technology well and productively so that it is purely for fun and recreation. Many people are able to turn their apps off and get a good night’s rest. But a vast majority aren’t. A vast majority find social media more stressful than pleasurable. Lots of individuals lament each day about the hours lost in “screentime” only to mindlessly scroll the following day. Please note: I am not sharing this from a judgmental pedestal, it is something I have struggled with in the past and I still have a long way to go before I am completely free of technology’s shackles as well.
However, as one fellow traveller to another, if you are worried about potential cell phone addictive behaviours, here are a few tips I’d like to leave with you:
1) Notice the times when you are drawn to Facebook and other social media. Are you scrolling or checking your phone just because you are bored? Are you trying to distract yourself from an otherwise upsetting event? Are you procrastinating from a project that legitimately needs to get done? Or are you simply on it because you’d like to have some fun and enjoy yourself?
2) Notice your emotions. Do you come away from social media feeling more angry at the state of world affairs, jealous of your friends, insecure, or depressed? Or are you genuinely able to put what you just saw online behind you and move on with the rest of your day?
3) The opposite of addiction is connection. Use social media to foster rather than replace real relationships. I do not disparage that there are genuine communities online. I am part of a number of groups and circles online focussing on many different helpful areas and sometimes despite not knowing the people in real life, I have formed friendships and even professional working agreements. However, be careful not to neglect friends in real life. Be careful to connect with other people in the day to day. If you’re up for a challenge, keep your cell phone in your room for a whole day and see how much more you notice and can take in from life.
I hope these rainbow monsters have been helpful in showing you some of the ways technology can adversely affect us. Technology in itself is not a monster, however, if we do not properly tame our minds and hearts when interacting with it we can become one. Please do something good for yourself today and be kind to yourself when using social media remembering that it is a tool and it is in our hands what kind of tool to make it.
“I’m listening,” my friend said as we sat across from each other at the cafe catching up on our latest news. “Uh hun, hmmm, yeah” she was making all the usual noises someone makes when they are following a conversation whilst holding the phone in her hands presumably scrolling through a favourite social media site. Suddenly she puts it down and looks me straight in the eyes, “I’m sorry, what were we talking about again?” She genuinely asks.
I think it goes without saying that distraction has become the biggest monster in our day and age when it comes to technology and cell phone use. From the big like getting into a car accident due to texting, to the small like spending more time than needed online, technology can be very addictive. How often do we say “I’m just going to pop over to Facebook for 5 minutes to get caught up on the latest news?” only to realize that 15 or 20 minutes later we are still on there. Did you know that statistically speaking, almost everyone has been late to work, an appointment or a social engagement at least once in their life due to being distracted by social media and overspending time on it. However, aside from the time lost online, there are also the emotional effects it produces such as your friend feeling unheard, unvalued, and unappreciated. There is also the addictive quality it produces in some people as a way to numb out of reality in a similar way that other addictive behaviours can produce such as drinking, gambling or online shopping. Furthermore, hearing all those distracting buzzes and pings can also add pressure for us to respond right away. We may be on a day off work when our boss sends us a DM and we feel compelled to respond. We may be in the middle of doing an important task and we hear a ping or a buzz and we feel compelled to answer our phone. In fact, there is even a phenomena called “Phantom vibrations” whereby we have become so used to feeling our phone vibrate that when it’s in our pocket we feel we have felt it vibrating or we think we hear the ring tone, when it is still silent. I think we all can relate. You’re at an event where you have clearly been told to silence your phones or shut them off completely, and someone forgets or doesn’t bother to do so. Suddenly you hear a familiar ring tone and everyone jumps to put their hands into their pockets, purses or rucksacks, even you who are aware that your phone has never had that particular ringtone. It’s a real thing. And then, of course, to end on a light and funny note – I once fell because I was rushing to catch the bus in another city and using my phone for Google Maps. My ankle hurt for days and I couldn’t help but think what a Millennial Facepalm moment that was.
When I told my friend that I had been asked to write about some of the unhealthy ways phones and technology can control us if left unchecked he scoffed. He is rarely on Facebook or social media and never posts anything. He said, “who, you? You’re always posting every day.” And that’s true. I definitely am imperfect when it comes to cell use and I probably am still on it way more than I need to be. However, there are certain rules I abide to which I think can also benefit you:
1) I don’t use my phone when I am out with friends. When I am having a coffee or dinner with someone I focus on them, not on my social media.I usually put the phone into my purse so it’s out of sight out of mind. This also includes not using my phone when I am at the doctor’s, at the dinner table at home, or at church. I generally would not have my phone on me when watching Netflix or movies with others either. [Caveat: cell phones are vicariously addictive, so I have become more aware that when your friend takes out their mobile it’s more likely for you to do so as well, it’s kind of like yawning. However, I have been challenging myself not to do that even then.]
2) I have put my cell phone on silent. This means that I get to respond to texts and DMs when I feel like it. I don’t have to jump right away to answering as soon as I hear my phone. The exception is that my phone does ring if someone tries to call me twice back-to-back or if they leave a message in which case I will respond as it could be someone important such as a GP.
3) I installed a screentime app on my phone. It’s gotten a bit complicated with lockdown due to being on platforms quite a lot for social events which normally would have happened in person. However, the general idea is that I only allow myself 1 hour of Facebook and 4 hours of cell phone use in general then my screen goes grey and I can’t open my apps. I have a password to log back in but it is such a random number combination with no significance so it’s a bit more of a hassle to remember what it is.
4) Even just being aware of how much I had been on my phone was mind-blowing. Matt offers a course called “The Phone Freedom Challenge” and he provided a lot of insight into how and why I am using my phone. It’s important to remember that phones aren’t bad. There are so many good apps and useful resources on them, however, it’s more how we are using the apps productively. Social media in itself is a good thing, but it’s not a good thing when it consumes our entire life.
5) I still do activities which I enjoy and I don’t let phone use dictate my day. I make a schedule of all I need to accomplish in a day and I have been able to stick by it. Some activities I enjoy doing that don’t include phone use at all are: walking (I often still listen to a podcast or music when walking by myself but I am definitely not scrolling and walking or stopping to scroll), going to the cinema, going to live theatre, reading a book, writing, taking online courses, and travelling. When I do these things I enjoy, I may still have my phone on me for pictures and emergencies, but they take my mind to the present and the last thing I am doing is thinking about what is happening in my Newsfeed.
Distraction is a very real issue of our day and I think many of us would be kidding ourselves to say we are never distracted by technology. I know that I still have a long ways to go myself and could further limit my phone use, but I also know that these 5 small steps I have taken have generally improved my relationship with social media and given me a clearer head especially in the midst of these pandemic times. What are some things you enjoy doing that take your mind off of social media?