ISOLATION

Most of us are at home now, staring at empty calendars. No coffee dates, no work, no gatherings. Even before the governor’s order to shelter in place, everything in my world got canceled. Choir rehearsals were put on hold, church leaders decided not to have us meet for worship, restaurants began closing. Most painfully, the library is closed. Not sure how I’ll survive that one. The pregnancy center/medical clinic where I volunteer once a week, meeting clients in the parenting program, instructed volunteers over the age of 65 to stay home, to not enter the clinic. There’s a meme going around Facebook that says, “When you’re worried about the elderly, and realize you ARE the elderly.”

Indeed.

We do need humor to help us get through this. The TP jokes are endless and highly entertaining. And I find other things about this amusing. Like my mother’s assisted living facility having closed the dining room (delivering meals to the door of her apartment), but still allowing residents to walk the halls and visit with one other, maintaining a six-foot distance. I have an image of hard-of-hearing people leaning on their walkers, yelling at each other.

But I have to confess to struggling with the nothingness of social distancing and sheltering in place. The first couple of days I welcomed the opportunity to relax after the general craziness I’d experienced in previous weeks. I slept in, and then lounged around in my pajamas until almost noon. It was wonderfully decadent, but it quickly lost its charm. Even though I’m by no means an extrovert, erasing all people from my life has been painful. And I’ve always known that I don’t do well without structure. The need to accomplish something worthwhile has overcome the fleeting joy of having nothing to do.

There’s no end in sight, either. The coronavirus situation changes daily, if not hourly, so all plans are on hold indefinitely. We’re watching an economy in free fall, the maddening politicizing of a disaster, major event celebrations being canceled, without a clear road map to deal with it. We’re all in this together, but we’re not exactly sure what “this” is, or where it’s going. God made us for work and productivity and community, but that’s all vanished for now. We understandably feel unbalanced and a little scared.

I’m not as pessimistic or as hopeless as I sound. But I’ve noticed that a lot of Christian social media is not giving space for acknowledging grief for what is lost, what we may or may not get back, or thinking about how some things may be permanently altered. It’s as if we have to prove our spirituality by constantly being upbeat. Our Christian culture isn’t good at lamenting. But we have to lament before we can move on. We have to acknowledge the worry, fear, and panic that we aren’t “supposed” to feel because we’re Christians. But most of us are feeling them anyway, to some degree.

As I’ve read my daily Psalm this past week, I’ve been struck with the assertion that God is the source of everything, both seen and unseen, and that without him we are empty and helpless. Even when the Psalmist is confused about God, or mad at God, or in absolute despair, it always comes around to acknowledging the power of God.

Psalm 30 is an example: You need to read the whole thing, but in vs. 6 he confesses that when everything was going swimmingly, he was sure he would never be shaken. What arrogance, forgetting where his security actually came from. The second half of vs. 6 through vs. 7 gives a picture of a person in deep trouble, false security removed, crying out to God and begging for mercy. In vs. 8 he’s back to joy and dancing, with a renewed awareness of exactly who’s in charge of his restoration. Hint – it’s not him. Or go backward, to Psalm 28. Very simply, “The Lord is the strength of his people.”

See, I don’t have to be strong. I can feel weak and helpless, because I am weak and helpless. My strength is completely derived from the Lord. What a relief.

If you’re looking for a list of ten things to do while sheltering in place, you won’t find them here. There are lists everywhere you look, and they’re mostly good. But I think the first thing, before I work my way through a list of advice, is to realize who God is, and who I am. To take this opportunity to draw closer to him, to allow him to address the things in me that are being exposed during this time of upheaval. And to choose to believe, day by day, that he’s got this.

I’m reminded of the refrain from a gospel song I heard a lot in my childhood, not one of my favorites back then, when I knew everything and could do anything. I think I finally get it. Imagine it sung in a slightly country western twang, with guitar accompaniment:

“Many things about tomorrow (and today – parentheses mine)
I don’t seem to understand.
But I know who holds tomorrow
And I know who holds my hand.”

The Psalmist would say “Amen.”

A SONG FOR JANUARY

It’s January.
New calendars (mine is beachy)
New plans
New diet (ugh)
New courage for what lies ahead.

But somewhere around mid-month
the truth is glaring.
I’m the same old me.
Same failures
Same fears
Same battles.
My heart shrinks.
I am not enough.

And then I realize
the real problem.
All my attempts to do better
to be better
are filled up with me.

What I desperately need is more of Jesus.
New heart
New motives
New vision.

Not so I can glory in the new me
but in him who is making all things new
(including me)
until the entire creation
bows to his majesty and gives him honor.

He’s all about new
and not just in January.
Always.

New mercies, a fresh start, every morning.
Changing me day by day.
When I stumble over the rocks
of my selfishness
he reaches out to pull me back
return me to the path
if I will only take his hand.

It’s January.
Eternal God
Blessed Redeemer
Shepherd of my soul
making me new.

LADIES IN THE KITCHEN

The Thanksgivings of my childhood were large, glorious affairs, which would not have happened without The Ladies in the Kitchen, hard-working, magnificent cooks, for whom one of the main goals in life was to feed people. Food was love, and the more food the greater the love.

My mother had six siblings, all with families, and four of those families lived within forty miles of each other. So we spent lots of holidays with the whole crowd – up to thirty people – taking turns at each others houses. The assortment of aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and cousins-in-law was a wonder to behold. The noise level was prolific, possibly approaching the decibel level of the New York Stock Exchange. People were everywhere, and the living room became an extension of the dining room. And of course the tables sagged under the weight of all the tasty home-grown food from everyone’s farms and gardens. After a prayer of thanksgiving from Grandpa, a prayer that made us feel God’s magnificence and holiness settling over us, we dug in to the bounty, stuffing ourselves to the gills.

In the traditional manner, the men lounged in the living room, both before and after dinner, talking mostly about farming and machines and the price of cattle. The ladies did all the cooking and cleaning up afterward. It was the way things were. But not a bad thing. Because there’s a companionship that exists only among men, and another companionship that exists only among women, and sometimes you need to allow space for it.

The Ladies in the Kitchen were doing more than washing dishes. And they weren’t annoyed at The Men in the Living Room for not helping in the kitchen. After displaying their culinary prowess, the ladies were busy bonding over the gravy-smeared dishes, the crusty baking pans, and the search for enough dish towels, all evidence of the stellar job they’d done feeding everyone. They were a nurturing community, laughing together, sharing news about their kids, and comparing turkey-cooking methods. The mammoth cleanup job was happily shared among women who loved being together. Then, as the shadows grew long and darkness fell on our day of thanks, it was time to get a slice of pumpkin pie and a cup of coffee, join the men in the living room, and keep talking.

I miss those days – the feeling of being part of a huge family, hearing everybody’s story in bits and pieces as I grew up, the tangible evidence of God’s provision, knowing these were my people. Many of them are no longer living, and the cousins have scattered irretrievably. But I gratefully remember the feeling of community. The Ladies in the Kitchen are largely responsible for that.

Time and circumstances have taken me far from those huge gatherings of childhood. I have two children, and they each have two children. A rather small crowd. But food is still love, and community is still important. Because God exists in the community of the Father, Son and Spirit, and we are made in His image, we need community, too. Being in a community, even with just one other person, gives life and health.

Thanksgiving is a celebration of thankfulness. You can be thankful by yourself, but it’s pretty lonely. As I’m reading through the Psalms lately, I’m struck by how often the writer gives thanks in the midst of God’s people, proclaiming God’s goodness in community. Here’s just one example – Psalm 35:18 says “I will give you thanks in the great assembly; among the throngs I will praise you.”

This Thanksgiving, get yourself a throng, even a small one. Invite a lonely person to be part of your throng. Feed each other with food and companionship and thankfulness. Tell each other your stories. Celebrate God’s goodness in each others lives. It’s what you were made for.

The Ladies in the Kitchen and The Men in the Living room would all approve.