A Plan for Post-Pandemic Spiritual Recovery
By Arlene Friesen
Looking back at March 2020, the coming pandemic had just shut things down in Manitoba, as in many other places. All of us were grappling with our new reality—loss of work or working remotely, virtual schooling, online church, physical contact with very limited individuals, a relentless news cycle and the accompanying anxiety.
As the pandemic progressed, we moved through waves of hope and discouragement. With countless plans made and dashed, we settled into a “don’t get your expectations up and you won’t be disappointed” mindset. As this dragged on, a sense of what some have called “languishing” took hold in many people’s lives. Psychology isn’t my forte, so I’ll look to Scripture for language to help us with pandemic recovery.
The Student Council at Steinbach Bible College has chosen 2 Corinthians 4:16–18, “Being Renewed,” as their hopeful theme for 2021–22. Meditating on this text helps me answer the question of how to come out of the pandemic with renewed spirits:
“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (NRSV).
Our outward lives have felt diminished, whether or not we’ve experienced the long-term health effects of COVID-19 or been separated from a loved one by death. In such circumstances, Paul encourages us to pay attention to inner renewal. What do we do in circumstances that are body and soul-crushing? We resituate our hope in Christ by looking intently to the eternal and trusting God’s cultivating, life-giving work.
Looking Intently to the Eternal
When life is easy and good, we can be consumed with enjoying it and forget “this world is but the wind-blown porch” to a world far beyond our imaginations (Robert Falconer, George MacDonald). When life is hard and full of suffering, we can also fixate on our current experience. The pandemic has been a challenge. It may have taken our mind off some material things and the pursuits of pleasure. But it has then often focused our gaze intently on the news, the promised loosening of restrictions, or the hope of a vaccine (or concern about a vaccine, depending on your perspective).
A remedy is to fix our gaze on our eternal destiny. In what do we put our hope? What are we looking toward intently? Recently I heard a Cuban pastor say, “This pandemic may end or it may not. Another pandemic could come [insert horrified look on my face]. What does it matter? All these things are only signs, pointing towards the coming of Jesus Christ. That is where we put our hope!” It was a corrective for me, pointing out my attachment to a certain outcome.
We have been given an opportunity to strengthen our spiritual muscles with the exercise of detachment. Early on, some friends shared how they were limiting their news intake and increasing their worship intake, in order to keep things in the right perspective. COVID-19 finally helped me break the hold of social media, recognizing that my newsfeed was exacerbating an unhealthy mental state. But I fear that’s been replaced by an obsession with the news.
Addictive behaviour highlights our attachments and alerts us to the detachment that is necessary for soul health. Like my friends, I’ve noticed this at times, turned away from the news and listened to worship playlists or spiritual formation podcasts. Repenting of false attachments, we turn again to the ultimate goal: the freedom to praise, reverence and serve God in everything.
Consider playfulness, a more positive term for detachment, as a spiritual exercise. Playfulness helps us to let go of people, places or things that concern us greatly and entrust them to God. We don’t have to be on high alert all the time. We can play even during stormy times, for our Father is the captain of the ship.
What might play look like for you? For me it’s been evenings with a new board game, more freedom to read for fun, more time at the piano. I’ve tried a few experiments in praying with art—putting color on paper and dipping in the paintbrush, daring to trust that God might offer me a gift through a creative side rarely explored.
As I play, I am freed momentarily from the ever-present drive to produce. I am also reminded that we humans must not presume to be strong enough or good enough to right what is wrong in this world. God is on the move, and he invites us to join him in what he is doing, as we anticipate the full coming of his reign in Jesus Christ’s return.
Trusting God’s Cultivating, Life-giving Work
Resituating our hope in Jesus Christ by looking intently to the eternal, we are strengthened to carry a weight of glory beyond comparison to the affliction we currently bear. God is preparing us for the time when the mortal will be swallowed up by glorious and eternal life (2 Corinthians 4:4).
We often cannot see this inward work of God. Being tethered to Christ in prayer keeps us connected and attentive when life overwhelms. A helpful prayer practice is meditating on Scripture. Read a short text a number of times with several minutes of silence between readings. Ask God for the grace you need, pay attention to how the text illuminates your inner motivations and learn to be honest with yourself and God.
In our reflection, we may also want to talk with God about our pandemic experience specifically. What has been stripped away during this time (consider the busyness of your pre-pandemic life)? What are you lamenting? What gifts have there been for you during this time? What new practices of thriving? What will you incorporate from this time in your post-pandemic life? What will return from your pre-pandemic life and what will not?
If this reflection makes you feel you’ve not been attentive enough to God, take heart. It’s not too late to begin again, thanking God for his grace! Above all, trust that he is good and patient and delights in your desire to draw near even when it feels like nothing is going on.
As I practice this kind of praying, I discover that regular reviews of my journal help me notice the inner work God is doing. Debriefing this with trusted soul friends further helps clarify and nurture this gracious work.
Doing This Together As We Regather
Perhaps we’ve had less of a collective experience of processing this past year. We have individually chosen who or what will influence us. Our processing is also based on our individual experiences of the pandemic—whether we or someone we knew was very ill or even died, whether we lost work or didn’t, worked/studied at home or in person, whether we dutifully followed restrictions or not, whether we are introverts or extroverts, and so on.
When we regather with people of varying views, there will be more give and take than when we snooze the accounts of those we don’t want to hear from and listen only to the news sites that line up with our perspectives. Coming back together can be challenging. How can we do it so that every person returning to embodied fellowship says, “I didn’t realize how much I missed this”?
Here are some practices that may be helpful. First, avoid the assumption that everyone thinks like me (or should). Second, listen with receptive hearts to each other. Ask genuinely open non-judging questions about how people are doing, what they are feeling and why. What joy, sadness, fear, love, anger, or shame are they experiencing?
Then, practice wonder. “I wonder what God might want to do with this experience we/you are going through?” “How is God inviting us/you to respond?” As we offer this kind of compassionate listening, we can trust God’s work in others. We listen well, not to smooth over or make them better, but to offer a safe place to notice and name God’s work, waiting with them for this to become clear.
God promises that he is preparing us to carry an eternal weight of glory. I look forward to hearing how others have experienced affliction as the source of inner strengthening in this past year.
COVID-19 has given us some heavy weights to lift. May we find our spiritual muscles strengthened as together we resituate our hope in Christ, looking intently to the eternal and trusting God’s cultivating, life-giving work.
Arlene Friesen, BRS, MTS, teaches Bible and Worship courses and serves as Registrar at Steinbach Bible College. She is involved with Morrow Gospel Church (EMMC)