If you read my post last week, you’ll know that I decided not to give up a specific material item for lent this year. Today I have a lent update. I have decided that, this year, I have a lent necklace.
This necklace has a story. At my 35th birthday supper, my husband nervously handed me a gift bag as my 5 year old son looked on bursting with excitement. He explained that he had taken Josiah to the mall to help him pick out a gift for me, and Josiah had immediately chosen the gift I was about to open. “He insisted it was the gift he wanted to get you,” Dallas explained. “He wouldn’t even look at anything else once he saw this.” I could tell Dallas was giving me a little bit of warning: “This might suck,” he was saying. “But your kid chose it, so BE COOL.”
But I didn’t have to “be cool.” I loved it right away. It was a brass necklace, not expensive and not fancy, with two pendants hanging from two different chains. One was a bird cage, and the other was a bird.
That birthday was a complicated one for me. Two months before my sister, Roxanne, had been told that she no longer had any options for treatments after seven years of cancer. She was still doing well when I opened that necklace, but the reality that the 35th year of my life would be the last year of my sister’s life was heavy on me that birthday. I knew neither Dallas or Josiah had been thinking about that when they bought the necklace. But in that simple image – a bird and an empty cage – I felt hope. I thought that my sister’s life would soon be like that bird’s – free from the cage of cancer. Free to new life. It was perfect.
This Sunday as I got ready to head into a very-lonely worship service, 11 months into online church and 10 and half months into me being totally over it, I ran my hands over my jewelry to select something to wear with my outfit. I paused at my “bird necklace,” and thought “This works.”
For this lent, I am preaching about freedom. My sermon this past Sunday asked “Is this book a chain?” and I would be holding a Bible and a heavy chain up together, asking again and again what the Bible was really meant to be. Spoiler: It isn’t a chain. It’s a lot more like a bird free from a cage.
I didn’t think anyone would notice my subtle sermon illustration in my necklace, but I knew why I was wearing it. I knew that this lenten season I needed all the reminders that I could get about God giving freedom. I need reminders that God’s story is not one meant to oppress us, but one that is meant to set us free. I need reminders that the cages I live in won’t trap me forever. I need reminders that God has freedom and new life for me as much today as he did back when I turned 35. And I need reminders that I am called to help open the cage doors for others. Once again, it was the perfect necklace.
I put it on, and I preached a sermon to a video camera and I talked about the freedom I believe God has for all of us. I felt the heaviness not only of the ways the Bible is often used to oppress others, but I also felt the heaviness of how trapped I felt in ways of doing ministry I never wanted to do. When the day ended, and it was time to take the necklace off, I paused as I hung it up. Maybe….maybe this was something I should keep wearing. Maybe I need these reminders every day this lent. I need to remember that the story of God will always set me free. I need to remember that I am called to seek freedom for others.
So this lent, instead of giving something up, I’m putting something on. I’m putting on a necklace. I’m putting on a reminder that captivity is not where the story ends – not for me, and not for anyone else. May I be a freedom fighter. Even as many doors stay closed, may I keep working to keep the cage doors open.
I’m a lent latecomer, full disclosure. I knew people who practiced lent growing up, but my tradition didn’t. I only came to appreciate lent – the season leading up to Good Friday and Easter in the Church calendar – in recent years.
I especially value the practice of fasting that accompanies lent. I have found it meaningful to intentionally refrain from certain things in order to make space to reflect on Jesus’ death and my own mortality. Through the years I’ve given up red meat, pop, Twitter and even wearing jewelry for lent. I learned a lot each time.
But this year, I laughed at the idea of giving up something for lent. I joked to my husband: “For lent this year, I’m giving up going to parties and eating in restaurants and social gatherings!” For most of us, it feels like we’ve had a year-long lent. We have given up a lot, and we are still in a season of letting things go. “What else could we possibly deny ourselves?” is a question you may join me in asking. We’ve had nearly a year of missing out on many things that bring us joy and, quite frankly, if you need chocolate to get you through the next six weeks, I say: Go for it. Jesus will understand, I promise.
When lent started yesterday, it was cold and snowy. Technically, we had just moved into the “Red Zone” in our city so some stuff is opening up. But at the same time every news story was yelling at us about a third wave and how we should still stay home. Vaccines have been a debacle. And I think we all know that we’ve got a lot more than six weeks of covid-lent-like conditions ahead of us.
In a grumpy moment, I said to a friend: “This year for lent, I’m giving up hope.”
That’s how I felt. I was tired of hoping that “the end is in sight.” I was tired of hoping that things would “be better soon.” I was tired of saying “we got this!” Most days, I do not have this. Most days, all I can think about is how much I just want to go to my friend’s house and sit on her couch and let our kids play. I ache for those simple pleasures to return.
Of course, I was joking when I said I would give up hope. I love Jesus, so I’m in the hope business. And I do have hope for the future – not just a future beyond covid, but a future that extends into eternity.
But the more I thought about it, the more I thought I may have hit on what I need to give up this year for lent when I made that statement: “This year, I’m giving up hope.”
Lent is a time that reminds us of our limitations. It is a time to be present to the sorrow in the world. It is time to name the reality of death and our own fallibility.
For a year I’ve been talking about when things “get back to normal.” For a year I’ve looked to “when the bubbles start” or “when the pools open” or “when we can sing in a church.” For a year, I have longed and waited. For a year, my hope has been in what will come.
But I think that for this lent, I can let go of that hope for a while. Not because I am hopeless. But because, for now, I can sit with my limitations. I can let the sorrow of this last year, and this very day, be what it is. I can say “This is hard.” I can say “I lament this.” I can say “I wish things were different.” I can let those things be true without adding “But when things get back to normal…..” I can let the hurt be real without adding “But the vaccine is coming!” I can grieve for the deaths and the sickness and the lost jobs and the strained relationships and the way the whole world feels a little less safe without telling myself I need to cheer up.
This may be the lentiest lent that ever lented for me – the lent where there has been so much to give up that I feel I can’t give up anything else – except my desire to skip to resurrection.
This year during lent I’m going to eat chocolate. And drink pop. And go on Twitter. But I am not avoiding lent. I’m making space for the darkness, before the light comes again.
The first time I met Walt Collins I was 27 years old and sitting around a table with six people who were interviewing me for the role of Lead Pastor at Mount Hamilton Baptist Church. In his late seventies, it was clear Walt was there to represent the seniors of the church. In particular I remember Walt asking me a question about my theology of creation. “This guy means business,” I remember thinking. In hindsight, I think he was reading from a list of questions the whole group had agreed to work through with me. I don’t ever remember him asking me a question like that for the rest of the time I knew him. Walt, I realized, was not hugely interested in me giving a set of “right” answers to theological questions.
But, when I started at the church a few months later, he was hugely interested in supporting me and my husband in our new roles as Lead and Associate Pastors of Mount Hamilton Baptist Church.
This came out in a lot of ways. When we decided to buy a house just a couple of months after starting at the church, Walt set us up with a trusted real estate agent, and went on the home inspection with us. We didn’t have family in the city and he stepped into a traditional parental role, helping us negotiate this huge transition.
Soon we also got to know Walt’s wife, Gloria. Together, they invited us to their home for meals and coffee times, beautifully prepared by Gloria (who was truly the consummate host). We would hear their stories of how they met, the five years they had lived in Korea, and, of course, the many stories of the church where we now served. These helped us get our bearings and start to feel at home in our new community.
Eventually, it became tradition that nearly every Friday Walt would treat us to a coffee at Tim Horton’s. Often, I would be sitting in my office and see Walt walk down the path in front of my window and think: “Score! It’s coffee time!” I was always ready for that break. Dallas and I would get in Walt’s car for a quick Tim Horton’s run while Gloria was off getting her hair set. (Gloria had amazing hair, and sometimes, I still think: “Dear Lord, If my hair MUST turn grey, please let me look like Gloria Collins…”). Sometimes they would come after her appointment so Gloria would join us. Coffee for Walt and Gloria, French vanilla for me, Fruit explosion muffin for Dallas. It got to the point that Walt would insist we sit down while he got our order for us. We’d eat the same food, hear the same stories.
“Did I ever tell you that the rowing team I was on went to the Olympics?” Walt would ask.
“Maybe?” we would answer. “Tell us again, just in case.” (This one was one of our favourites).
“Well, I ended up stepping down from the team to get married, one year before they went to the Olympics, so I missed my chance,” Walt would tell us.
And Gloria would roll her eyes, knowing what was coming next.
“There was another man on our team who also missed the Olympics though. He went to jail for murder.”
“My goodness!” we would gasp, every time.
“Yeah, but the thing is he got out in 30 years, and I’m still here,” Walt would say, twinkle in his eye, coffee in his hand.
“Oh, Walter,” Gloria would laugh, lightly smacking his arm, perfect hair not moving an inch.
And Walt would get a big smile and say “Best decision I ever made.”
“Oh, stop,” Gloria would laugh, beaming.
For the 15 years we knew them, we watched them love each other so well. We celebrated a 60th, a 65th and then a 70th anniversary with them at our church. We oohed and aaahed at Gloria’s fantastic dresses for each occasion. We saw the joy in their eyes at being together. Of course, we always had to celebrate them one week after their actual anniversary, because the Sunday nearest their anniversary they always attended Wentworth Baptist Church, where they had gotten married. It was ridiculously romantic, just like they were. They were just as romantic on our Fridays together as they were at any anniversary, as they talked about first dates and shared memories and always paused to wait for the other so they could walk side by side.
The coffees were always a nice break and a good treat. But, looking back, they also became a time that sustained us in other ways. Walt and Gloria were, as they say, “pillars” of our church community. I have been thinking about what this expression means a lot this week. Pillars go deep in a foundation, and they hold up a building. Walt and Gloria had a deep foundation in God, and they helped “hold up” Mount Hamilton for decades. Gloria hosted, encouraged, supported. Walt was part of starting many ministries. He was part of the group that led the task of rebuilding our church when it was destroyed by fire in the nineties. In his late seventies, he was still sitting on hiring committees.
And then he was part of hiring this 27 and 28 year old couple, and there were definitely growing pains that came with that in this traditional church community.
There had already been an intentional shift in the church when we started to become more “missional,” as the term goes. The church had started a second service with a more contemporary style, which people felt was the right fit to engage our community. The “main” service, however, was still very traditional. This was Walt and Gloria’s service.
In my first decade at MHBC, all of that changed. A couple of years into our time there, the church felt God leading us to focus on one service that was mostly contemporary in nature. This was a big change for our older population, including Walt and Gloria.
So often on those coffee times, I think of how we talked things through with Walt and Gloria. There were a lot of changes: to music, to style, to the ways we did so many things. Walt and Gloria watched their whole church community shift around them (three quarters of our church have joined in the last decade). But on those coffee times, they never complained. They never used it as a time to “make a point.” They never took advantage of the opportunity to sway us or push us to keep things the way that made them comfortable.
Instead, Walt would ask how we were doing. He would encourage us. He would comment on the ways he was grateful for our ministry. Lots of times he gave us gentle advice and much needed wisdom. He helped us negotiate a lot of hard things. But he was always gentle. Sometimes I would end up in that place on Friday feeling nothing but frazzled – and Walt was like calm in the midst of my own internal storm.
Yesterday someone told me a story that perfectly describes Walt. She said that one day she was in the lobby of the church and the service had already started. The music was loud and upbeat. Walt, then in his late eighties, commented to this woman: “You know this isn’t my cup of tea at all, but oh – it does my heart so good to see this church full of people, and full of young people. That’s what matters. We won’t be here forever. It’s not about us. It’s about what will come after us.”
And there was a twinkle in his eye.
I cried when I heard that story because it describes Walt and Gloria perfectly. They were not about themselves. Walt and Gloria were deeply invested in the generation to come after them. Even into their late eighties, they were one of our biggest youth group supporters. For years, Walt and Gloria brought snacks to our youth group every Friday night. Often, they would have the youth group over at their home. The youth would look through photo albums, hear the same great stories, eat more snacks. I’m told they often didn’t want to leave. And Walt and Gloria loved it, too. They loved seeing glimpses of the church’s bright future – that was already right in front of them.
Last week, Walt and Gloria died, five days apart. They were both in a long term care home, but on different wards as Gloria had spent two years with severe dementia from Alzheimer’s Disease. Not being able to visit his sweetheart due to covid restrictions was devastating for Walt. Thankfully, two days before Gloria died, Walt was able to visit and say good bye. Sadly, it was not known that Gloria had covid. In that last visit, Walt got covid, and died a few days later.
It is, again, so ridiculously romantic that it is almost too much to take in. But it is also heart breaking, and I ache every time I think about it.
I also feel angry. I am angry that because of covid we can’t do a proper funeral for this amazing couple. How can our church not be able to gather to farewell Walt and Gloria as they deserved? How can we not celebrate the legacy they have left us, not name the years of faithful service and sacrificial giving with a packed church and reception with lovingly made triangle sandwiches? How can I not give the eulogy I have so often pictured sharing for them in my mind, after fifteen years of serving alongside them in this community, and being so well loved by them?
It may look different than how I would have wanted to do it, but I’m not willing to let covid take away my chance to say what I want to say about Walt and Gloria Collins. So here I am. And this is what I want to say. This week I have a prayer, and it is this: “Lord, make me like Walt and Gloria.”
Let me be like Gloria with her quick wit and elegant presence. Let me be hospitable. Let me create spaces of beauty. Let me remember a younger generation all the days of my life, even if it is by making cookies every Friday night for people six decades younger than me. (Also, while I’m asking, I may as well ask again for such gorgeous white hair, thanks).
And, Lord, make me like Walt, who thought more about the future of the Church than his own comfort. Let me be like Walt who looked at what was ahead and found joy in what could be. Let me be open to You working in new ways. Let me make space for new life.
I need this reminder this week in a special way. These days I find it so easy to mourn all that has been lost in the last year of change in our church due to this pandemic. I often ask: What will our future look like? So much of me wants to figure out how we can keep everything as it always was. But I also see that isn’t possible.
And so I ask: Lord, can I be like Walt, and see the future with hope and joy? Can I see the new things you are doing, and have a twinkle in my eye and a lift in my heart? When I am scared of the future and overwhelmed with change, let me be like Walt, God. Let me see hope in new life.
And someday, God, when I am retired and have a free Friday morning, show me if my pastor needs a coffee. Let me remember the love that can be found in a fruit explosion muffin. Let me encourage them, and be a peaceful place in the midst of their storm.
Let me be like Walt and Gloria, God. Let me serve. Let me give. Let me care for others. Let me trust YOU for the future.
Two year ago, my children and I read “The Long Winter,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. This book is part of the famous “Little House on the Prairie” series, and features the adventures of a family settling the American frontier in the nineteenth century. We had read all the other books in the series and were pretty used to marveling at the trials this family experienced as they settled the west – but nothing prepared me for “The Long Winter.”
In this book, the Ingalls family finds themselves stranded in a small frontier town during an exceptionally horrific winter. There are snowstorms constantly, and the snow creeps up higher than their windows. No trains can get into the area, and by February they run out of almost all their supplies. They begin to starve. They have to resort to making logs out of twisted straw to keep themselves warm and they nearly freeze to death.
So often as I read that book I would say out loud: “When will this ever end for them?” The Long Winter seemed like a never ending season of suffering for this little family.
Sometimes during this winter of 2021, I think of “The Long Winter.” Sometimes I think: “I am whining so much when I’m shut in my house and we have heat and internet and grocery delivery. What is wrong with me?” I have wished for the tenacity of Ma Ingalls, who seemed to cope better with two books to read and straw logs than I do with remote schooling and a hot tub. It’s hard not to compare our Long Winters and feel I come up short. Yet, even as I do, I remind myself: Long Winters are hard.
During Long Winters we long for the light days of spring, and despair that they may never come. During Long Winters, we feel boxed in, restrained, and isolated. During Long Winters, we feel that the hard days will never end.
Winter 2021 is not my first Long Winter. I have had two other Long Winters in my life, one in 2007 and one in 2010 – when I was pregnant with my two children.
Pregnancy was not kind to me. I had a condition called hyperemesis which made me very sick for nine months straight. Each of my babies came in the summer, so the winters of my pregnancy were the times that my illness was at its very worst.
I spent some days in hospitals. I spent some days in bed. I spent some days lying on a bathroom floor. The rest I spent lying on my couch, cut off from the world. I could so rarely go outside. I could not engage with other people. I could do few of the things I was once able to do. I felt so desperately lonely. Even in times when I was with other people, I was so not-myself that I still felt disconnected.
All of that was hard. But worst of all was wondering if it would ever end. When you’re in a Long Winter, you start to forget what spring can be like. It starts to feel like what we are living is all there is. We see only the cloudy skies, the dreary days and the shut doors.
There were so many days when I was pregnant that I would say out loud: “I don’t think I’m going to make it.” In January, I didn’t see how I could make it to February. In February, I didn’t see how I would make it to March. Most days, I didn’t see how I would get to the next week. I was so sick. The days were so long. And things never changed. I woke up feeling one day the way I had the day before. I forgot what normal felt like.
Long Winters, for whatever reason they come – be it snow storms or surgeries, pandemics or pregnancies, grief or grievances – are a lot to manage. (Sometimes, Long Winters don’t even come in the winter).
This Long Winter has also been hard. I feel isolated -again. I am tired of being stuck in my house – again. I despair that this winter will never end – again.
Which is why I need to regularly remind myself what I learned my other Long Winters:
Long Winters End.
I know it seems obvious, but it is easy to forget. No matter how hard they are, Long Winters do not last forever. One day, even the Ingalls family saw the snow melt. One day they left their house. One day they ate the Christmas dinner that finally arrived on the train for which they had waited for six months. And one day, I had my babies, and my Long Winters were over.
That is what got me through the long winters before – I knew, deep down, that the months were passing. I knew the season of pregnancy did not last forever. I knew that when summer came, things would be different.
Of course, I would not return to normal. My life would never look the same when My Long Winters of pregnancy ended. After the Long Winter, I would be a mother. I was never going back to the life I lived before. It would not be easy – but it would not be Winter.
This is what I remember now, and may you remember it, too. Spring comes. Summer comes. Things will look different on the other side. But on the other side there is also new life. It’s coming. It always does.
This week I had my last day as a 42 year old. If you have ever read the famous “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” you may remember (spoiler alert) that the book concludes that the answer to “life, the universe and everything” is: 42. As the calendar turned on my 42nd birthday would I now have ALL THE ANSWERS?
However, there are many questions to which I do have answers out of my 42nd year, and I will share my 42 year old answers with you now.
What is the best tea flavour? This year I discovered that the best tea flavour is unequivocally “Cream of Earl Grey,” by David’s Tea. You’re welcome.
Does the Friesen Family need two cars? No. When the pandemic hit this year, we took one of our cars off the road. Turns out we didn’t need it much after all. It’s still in our driveway.
What books should I read? This year I read exactly 100 books. I have many opinions about this question. Feel free to skip ahead if you aren’t interested in reading recommends.
These book recommendations are based on things I read this year. I could add many more. If you like apocalyptic literature, I highly recommend The Book of Koli. If you are looking for books that explore themes of feminism and the experience of being a woman, you should read: Girl, Woman, Other; Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club (this book has many other themes, but I loved it in this category), or “Call Me By My Name.” If you want to read novels or memoirs written from the perspective of people who are black, indigenous or people of colour, I enjoyed The Night Watchmen, Born a Crime (Trevor Noah),The Nickel Boys or The Burning. If you want to read some classics that will make you say “WHY DIDN’T I READ THIS SOONER??? Read The Good Earth, Cry the Beloved Country or A Fine Balance. These books deserve all the praise they have long received.For pastors (or anybody!), I recommend an unconventional choice: Living a Life Worth Living, by Marsha Linehan, who founded dialectical behavioural therapy. Not only will you learn a lot about ways to support people in crisis, you will also be inspired by this amazing and unexpected faith story. And I know I’m a year late to the party, but Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved is an amazing book and I think everyone should read my friend Kevin Makins’ awesome book Why Would Anyone Go to Church?
Leanne, how will you finally get healthier? Don’t eat 10 X more calories than you burn. Exercise – but if you go for a walk or exercise ten minutes it doesn’t mean you burned 1000 calories and can now eat unending junk food. (I would like to give the app “Noom” a shoutout for giving me body life lessons that truly changed my life in my 42nd year).
Related: Can you walk if it is raining? Yes, Leanne, you can still walk and go outside if the weather is not great. You’ll be fine.
Should you buy glasses without anti-glare? No, you should not do this. You will save money, but if there is a worldwide pandemic, and you need to be recorded on video several times every week for months, you will rue the day you said “no” to anti-glare glasses.
Should you throw in the towel when people don’t get an idea you are working on? No. So an entire year before covid struck and every church in the world had to go online, we had started an online worship time. This was not always seen as a good thing. In fact, for all of 2019, it felt like every time I shared this with ministry leaders outside our church I would get pushback. They would say things like “Well I don’t think that really counts as church” or “I think you have to reconsider your ecclesiology.” These points were fair; I took time to consider them. But also I really sensed God was leading us this way and so did the people most closely involved with the project. We didn’t see it as replacing church. We saw it as a way to help people stay connected when they could not attend in person. We saw it as a connection point for people who didn’t feel ready to enter a church building. With just a few minutes to process my “online church” stories, lots of ministry colleagues couldn’t see that. And that’s okay. It wasn’t on them to make sense of something I had thought about a long time. I had to let go of letting other people’s approval determine if this vision was the right one. One thing I will most remember in my 42nd year is the first service we did online after shut down. Everything to which we had felt called for a year made sense. And everything I visioned our online services being came to fruition over this year. I was glad we hadn’t given up.
(Next question: Should you post self righteous comments when you see people now singing the praises of online services and the opportunities they provide and saying they’re going to keep doing them after lockdown? No. There is really no need for this).
How do you create a costume for a theme meals if needed during a time of lockdown? Google a picture of what you are looking for. Then go to your closet and stick things together that make something that looks close-ish to the picture. Don’t be afraid to use ridiculous things, such as making necklaces from post-it notes or turning old robes inside out to create a black cape. Costumes come from anywhere!
What is a good way to keep your church connected during a lockdown? Deliveries. One of the best responses we’ve had from our congregation this year came when we did small drop offs at people’s homes. We did not do elaborate things, but simple things people could use in our service, and people still say “I loved those deliveries! It made me feel so connected!”
Should you buy the cheap hair dye? No. No, you should not.
What is the best way to shape your life? Start each day with prayer. This was a goal I set for my 42nd year. It was the best one.
What is the meaning of life? It’s not 42. And that’s totally okay.
In the last few years, I have come to understand the term “gaslighting.” Gaslighting is a practice of manipulation. It is when someone makes another person question their own experience, sometimes to the point of making them question their own sanity. For example: “That didn’t really happen that way!” or “You thought I hurt you? You were just being sensitive,” or“I didn’t abuse you! You don’t remember it right.”
Gaslighting is sneaky because it causes someone to doubt their own reality. It can make people feel like what has happened to them doesn’t really matter. It basically says “No, that’s not true. What you are feeling doesn’t count.”
If you have been a victim of gaslighting, I am sorry that has happened to you. It was not okay. I hope you will start to give yourself space to own your experiences so that you can start to heal.
I also want to invite all of us to one more thing, especially in this covid season. Please, let’s stop gaslighting ourselves.
You may wonder what I mean by that but I feel like I have seen this a lot in the last few months. Here’s what it looks like:
“I am finding covid really hard, but you know what? I shouldn’t. I’m not a frontline worker. It’s not really that bad for me.”
“I shouldn’t complain about isolation. I live with other people and I should be grateful for my family.”
“It’s silly I am so upset about losing Christmas traditions. I don’t really deserve to be upset about that when there are so many worse things happening.”
Did you hear it?
In each of these cases, there is that message to ourselves: “It’s not okay for you to feel this way. You don’t deserve to struggle. Your feelings shouldn’t count.”
To be clear, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t look for reasons to be grateful – we should. I’m not saying that we need to wallow in self-pity – that is also not helpful. I am not denying that this season is far worse for some than for others – of course it is.
What I am saying is that your feelings matter. For whatever reason you may find these months difficult, you are entitled to those feelings. It is okay and normal for you to feel sad or angry or overwhelmed during this pandemic. It is okay that you lament Christmas losses, even as you are grateful for Christmas blessings. It is okay that you are lonely even as you acknowledge that you have people who love you. It is okay for you to say that you find this hard even as you know that some people have been through harder things. You can be empathetic to the pain of others and be empathetic to you.
You don’t need to gaslight yourself.
What you are feeling counts. Don’t dismiss your own experience. We are all finding this time hard in different ways. None of us have ever been through anything like this in our lifetimes. All of us have had our lives changed. All of us are grieving in some way. Of course we find it hard!
You don’t need to diminish, downplay, or explain away your covid-feelings. Make space for them. They matter, and so do you.
So, let’s practice.
“I know it is harder for frontline workers and I support them…and I am also finding this hard in my own way.”
“I love the people in my home but I’m also feeling really lonely for the people I can’t see and that’s tough.”
“This pandemic is really hard.”
We can do this, friends. We can make space for our feelings to be valid, while making space for what others feel as well. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Covid is hard AND we all feel that. Together.
This weekend in Canada, we celebrate Thanksgiving. I love thanksgiving. Every year, my heart feels full of thankfulness.
I feel thankful as we dig into turkey and some delicious dessert my friend has baked from scratch.
I feel thankful on top of the ferris wheel at the Rockton Fair as I think “What joy there is in this life!”
I feel thankful as I serve communion to my congregation, saying over and over: “The body of Christ broken for you,” touching their hands, looking in their eyes as we remember together.
This Thanksgiving, I am finding it harder to feel thankful.
Truth be told, my feelings waffle more between bitterness and existential dread. I feel bitter that our “bubble” has burst and that we won’t eat a meal with people dear to our hearts. I feel sad that many of our traditions are on hold this year. I feel angry with random strangers who I perceive have messed up this holiday for me – those nameless, faceless people who are to blame because THEY didn’t take the restrictions seriously enough.
And I feel the dread a lot of us feel – that the days are getting shorter and the numbers are rising and “What if we have to do Christmas like this too?”
Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful, but I admit that thankfulness is not coming easy this year. Bitter is easier. Anger is easier. Outrage is easier. Disappointment is easier.
Which is why I remind myself: being thankful this year is even more important usual.
Because true gratitude is more than thankfulness that comes because life is the way we want it. True gratitude is not contingent on life going our way. True gratitude is when we can look around and outside and beyond the #blessings we find easy to appreciate and recognize the gifts that we could easily overlook.
This year, I believe we have a chance to really celebrate thanksgiving because we have the chance to practice true gratitude. We have the chance to be thankful in spite of our circumstances. This can be its own kind of gift, if we let it.
My thankful list looks different this year. This year, like no other, I am thankful for things I usually take for granted.
I am thankful that my children can attend school.
I am thankful for our healthcare system.
I am thankful for grocery stores and those who work there.
I am thankful for our government.
I am thankful for hand sanitizer and face masks.
I am thankful for technology.
I am thankful for scientists.
I am thankful for people who love me, even if we can’t eat together.
I am thankful for the future.
I admit that it feels really, really hard, but I am reminding myself that I can choose to be angry or I can choose to be thankful. And I can choose thankfulness not because things feel “good” – but because there IS good. Because God is good. Because even hard seasons in life are full of goodness.
And, so, as I look to this very-unusual thanksgiving, I pray: “Lord, for what we are about to receive, make us truly thankful.”
The last six months have not been easy. I could do a recap of all the things, but let’s be honest: we know it all already. We’ve lived it. 2020 has been brutal.
And what is really hard?
We’re not done.
This reality seemed to hit people hard the last couple weeks. As the cool fall weather has settled in, we have realized that we are on our way back indoors a lot more, and that there is a long winter ahead of us.
With heavy hearts a lot of us are asking: How are we going to cope with the months, maybe even years, of this to come?
It’s an important question, one we’ve all been trying to answer for the last six months. How do we LIVE during covid? How do we live when our lives completely change? What do we do with this covid-time?
As I look at the last few months, I’ve noticed a few patterns:
Wait Out the Time
This is a common response when time can’t be used the way we want. We wait out the plane ride, the hospital visit, the cancer treatments. And, logically, a lot of us have been waiting out covid.
“When it’s done,” we say, “THEN we can get back to living! THEN life will happen! AFTER covid is over we’ll get back to our normal!“
We hear it in the common covid mantra: “After a vaccine!”
“I’ll connect with people again – after there’s a vaccine!”
“Life will be normal – after there’s a vaccine!”
“I’ll feel like myself again – after there’s a vaccine!”
The issue with this response to covid-time is that your life isn’t on hold “until there’s a vaccine.” Yes, there are many things you should not and cannot do until a tide has turned, but your life has not stopped. Your life is happening right now. Life won’t return after covid – life is still going, even though it looks different than it used to. And when we simply press the “pause” button on living the life in front of us, there’s a lot of life we are going to miss.
Replace the Time
A second way to respond is to replace our old activities with new ones. We can’t do one thing, so we’ll do another. Can’t do some of our favourite hobbies? We’ll paint the house! Can’t sign up for sports? We’ll renovate the kitchen! We can’t do things we usually do, but we can still get stuff done!!!
There’s nothing wrong with using changed routines to explore new opportunities, but the issue with striving to “replace” our pre-covid activities with new “covid friendly” tasks is that our life still comes down to a to-do list. We simply shift from one kind of busyness to another, one pressure to achieve to another, one kind of guilt to another. We are still finding our life value in what we accomplish. In these last few months, I’ve seen this a lot. We judge ourselves for not having “accomplished” much in covid. We become weighed down with a pressure to achieve, and time becomes a burden to carry instead of a gift to receive.
Curse the Time
Because this time is so hard, we simply curse it. “Nothing good can come of this!” we declare. “This time sucks!” we all agree. “It’s ruined everything!” we proclaim. So – curse it! Forget it! Throw it aside!
There are lots of days I am stuck in this response, because I really hate what covid has done to my life, and it feels good to just say “Forget it all! I’m watching Netflix until a vaccine comes.”
I get these responses. I’ve had every one of them. But as we go into this next season, knowing covid is lingering on, I ask myself: Is there another, better option to how we receive the covid-time to come? One that doesn’t involve waiting the time away, or exhausting ourselves to fill it, or bitterly raging against it? I think there is.
I invite us to seek to redeem the time.
This idea is found in the Bible (Ephesians 5:16), in a direction written 2000 years ago to God’s people trying to live as light in dark times. A more modern translation says to “make the most of every opportunity.”
Redeeming the time looks different than waiting time out, replacing our activities or cursing the time before us. Redeeming the time looks like saying “How can this time be made GOOD in our lives?” That’s different than getting more done. It’s when we say: “What can I learn in this time? How can this time shape me? How can I let God work in this time so that it will have value?”
It’s when we accept that this time may not look the way we want, but it can be a meaningful and valuable part of our story. That different time isn’t wasted time. That difficult time isn’t time without importance.
The word used for redeem in that verse I mentioned is one that was used at the time to refer to buying something up when the opportunity came. It might be used when one went to the market and found just the thing they were looking for and quickly “bought it” – they redeemed it. You could use it when someone saw a great price on an item and quickly “redeemed it” – they took the opportunity to buy it.
What does that mean for us if we want to “redeem the time” we are in right now?
I think it means that we “buy it up.” We take the opportunities this time gives us. We don’t just wait – we live. We don’t just replace – we receive. We don’t just curse – we look for reasons to be grateful.
Listen, I’m not looking forward to the fall and winter anymore than any of you are. The thought of school shutting down again could literally make me break out in hives. I’ve already been pricing out backyard heaters with the hopes that maybe I can still do porch visits if there’s a way we can stay warm. I pray, daily, for a vaccine.
AND I am asking God for redemption. I ask that God would not let this hard, didn’t-want-it, wish-it-was-over time be wasted in my life. I ask for grace to make the most of every opportunity, trusting that the great Redeemer can even redeem the time of covid.
May this be our prayer, for covid, and all the time God gives us.
I admit that I am often baffled at the reactions I see online to things we have been asked to do to help prevent the spread of covid. I am baffled by the outrage at wearing masks. I am baffled at the anger people express over being asked to keep a safe distance from people. And I am especially baffled by some of the reactions I have seen Christians express to being asked to avoid singing in worship gatherings.
Singing, as it sends those pesky droplets flying out in the air, is considered a “high risk” activity for the spread of covid. We have a number of examples of “super spreading” events sparked by people singing with others. To that end, when churches were told they could start gathering again earlier this summer, they were also told to avoid singing as a group.
And that was a real bummer.
I LOVE singing, and I love singing loudly. I love our worship team. I love learning new songs. I loved the lengthy time we spent singing as a congregation every Sunday. Worshipping without singing would be an adjustment, to say the least.
But does that mean we would cease to worship?
Does that mean there would be no value in gathering?
Should we just not bother if we can’t sing?
I have been completely stunned to discover so many people answer “yes” to those questions. “We cannot worship unless we sing,” I’ve heard. “There’s no point in gathering if we can’t sing,” I’ve read.
It …confuses me.
After all, do we not believe that prayer is worship – which does not require singing?
Do we not believe that learning together is worship – though it does not involve singing?
Do we not believe that reading Scripture, sharing stories, lifting our hands in praise, giving testimonies, saying creeds, giving, silence before God, is worship?
Furthermore, do we believe that people who cannot sing (such as someone who cannot speak) or who does not sing (such as someone who doesn’t like to sing) cannot worship?
To be sad about not being able to sing does not baffle me.
To say we cannot or should not worship without singing DOES baffle me.
I do get how hard it is. When I was 24, I was diagnosed with vocal nodules. These are dangerous growths on your vocal chords caused by overuse, common among professional singers. (This is where some of you might think “Wow, Leanne, I didn’t know you were a singer!” I’m not. Just talked too much and damaged my vocal chords). ANYWAY, for six months I was on full singing vocal rest. For those six months I would stand in church and not be able to sing. I could hum. I could listen. I could hold out my hands. But I could not sing.
And it was hard.
And I learned some things.
I learned that we can come before God in a lot of ways. I learned to listen. I learned to make space for new ways to experience God. I learned that I could still worship.
I lament the lack of singing in our gatherings, deeply, and I hope we can find a way for it to be possible to sing safely again soon. But until then, I believe those of us who lead in the church have an opportunity to teach the full breadth of the ways we come before God. And those of us who attend churches have the chance to experience those. And I believe this can be a gift, not a burden. It’s a gift I hope we accept.
I also acknowledge that while we may agree that we CAN worship without singing that some of us who plan worship gatherings aren’t sure HOW to worship without singing. Fair enough. We have filled a lot of our worship space with singing for a long time. For that reason, I now share some ideas for ways to worship that don’t involve congregational singing. Some will fit in certain congregations better than others. You may try some that are a total bust. You may try something and discover it was more meaningful than you imagined. You may try them all and still say “I like singing best.” That’s fine. But we won’t know until we’ve tried, n’est pas?
Here are some things we have tried or might try at our church:
One person leading singing is allowed. We have had someone lead and I have taught simple sign language for a chorus (thank you YouTube!). We do sign together as we worship, and it has been beautiful.
We have paused at the end of a song to simply all hum together. Truly, one of the most beautiful worship experiences I have had in my life.
Dancing or Actions
We can learn a simple dance or action step to do to music as a way to be part of it.
Drumming and Clapping
Do claps or drum beats together along with music or with a reading or spoken word.
A song can be played (live or video) as people listen. Give people a word to reflect on. Invite them to open their hands as they listen and take in the lyrics. Insert a reading from Scripture for people to hear in between verses. We used to call this “special music.” “Special music” has a great place during covid.
I do suggest that you have LESS music than you might have had before. We used to do five or six songs in a service; now we do one or two. That means we also need ways to worship that are not singing, and this is a chance to really get creative, using practices old and new.
Guided Scripture Readings
With or without music in the background, reflectively read a passage of Scripture with pauses for different prayers as you go along. There are many great resources online for these, and I can pass along some I have written.
Use prayers that engage the body. One of our favourites is “palms down/palms up.” People begin by placing their hands facing down; during this time they tell God things they need to leave with God. Then, they turn their palms facing up – at that time they pause to RECEIVE from God. There are a number of types of embodied prayers that allow us to use our body so people can join with you.
You can also have prayers in which people participate. One of my favourite types of group prayers is the “alphabet prayer.” For each letter of the alphabet you name an attribute of God, working through the alphabet together. Example. “God you are Awesome,” followed by “God, you are Beautiful.”
This is an ancient practice that involves reading Scripture prayerfully.
There are great videos of guided worship online. You can record your own of people praying, sharing a story or doing special music.
Have someone share how God is working in their life or a story of a time that God has worked in the past.
People can engage in songs or Scripture through speaking. These can be responsive readings or something people read all together.
This may sound a bit silly for worship, but it’s a way to help people engage. Before our sermons this summer I would do something interactive so people had a way to take part. I would do a “have you ever” based on the sermon and people would stand or sit based on whether or not they had done certain things. For example, one week was “Have you ever taken this test?” (hearing, driving, etc.). It let people move and got them thinking of the sermon topic (about examining ourselves and our faith) before the sermon began.
Do not negate the power of simply sitting in silence before God. This is how the Quakers have worshipped for centuries – no planned music, simply sitting and listening and seeing if God has something to say to anyone. In a loud and busy world, silence can be one of the most powerful ways we come to God.
Use the space for worship. Hang pieces that invite people to come before God. Do a slideshow with different pieces that allow people to pause and reflect as they worship. This can also be done playing different sounds. One Sunday we read a verse that referred to birds. After I played a tract of birds tweeting for a minute as we paused and listened to the sounds of God’s creation.
We Can Do This!…
Please note what this post isn’t. This isn’t a post saying that people can ONLY worship in person. I think online worship is and will continue to be important. This isn’t a post pressuring churches to re-open or people to come to an in person service who do not feel ready to do so. This is a post for those of you who may be trying to figure out if you can gather without singing to say: Yes! We can do this!
Scripture reminds us that we should not “give up meeting together.” It also tells us that “where two or three are gathered” that God is with them. It is 100% fine to miss and long for singing. It’s okay to be sad about it. But let us remember all the ways God can be worshipped, all the ways that we can seek to experience God’s presence and all the ways God can speak to us. And let us remember that God will be with us – whether we sing, dance, hum, or say nothing at all.
Seven years ago I experienced the greatest grief of my life when I lost my sister to cancer. In the months and years that followed her death, I learned a lot about grief, as I stumbled my way through it.
Because I am a pastor and had some training in grief counselling, I thought I knew a lot about grief already, but grieving surprised me. I was surprised at how sneaky grief is. I was surprised at how inconsistent it is. I was surprised at how all-pervasive grief feels.
Seven years later, my grief is still surprising me. The big surprise in this season has been how grieving would help me process my life during covid. Because even though we may not have thought about it that way, we are all grieving right right now.
Remember, grief is the feeling we feel after any loss. And because of covid, we are all grieving many things. We are grieving the loss of connections, jobs, finances, friendships, health, security, our lives as they once were. We are grieving everything from the loss of our favourite activities to not being able to travel to not being able to see people smile in the grocery store. Let me assure you that the feelings you feel right now are not unwarranted or out of place: they are normal. Because we’re grieving.
That is why I have found it helpful to remember the things it took me a while to learn when I grieved before. Here are a few of them:
We grieve all kinds of things
As I said, grief is the feeling we feel as we process any loss. When I lost my sister, I soon realized that I was grieving more than just her. In the weeks after her death, I grieved many things connected to that loss. I grieved the 50th anniversary party we didn’t have for my parents the summer after she died. I grieved the trips to Florida we wouldn’t take when we were old ladies together. I grieved the phone calls I couldn’t make to talk about my kids and ask her questions. Even this summer, I have grieved not being able to process this pandemic with her.
For you, the grief may come in many ways. For parents, for example, right now many of us are worried about school. But in the midst of this worry don’t discount the reality that you are GRIEVING. You are grieving what school won’t look like for you kids. You are grieving for the childhood that looks different than you imagined for your children. You are grieving the loss of things we took for granted like gym class and school fun fairs and being able to go to school with your face uncovered.
As you read this, you may be grieving any number of things – the loss of your weekly yoga class, not being able to hug your grandchildren, your favourite restaurant that shut down, not being able to sing in church. Of course I know these things aren’t on the same level as losing a loved one – I am not saying that – but I am naming that that heaviness you feel is its own form of grief and the waves of emotions that come because of these things are normal. Because we’re grieving.
Grief is draining
What I didn’t anticipate with grieving was how freakin’ tired I was all the time. I would work half a day and find I needed a nap over lunch. I would visit a friend and then crash as soon as I got home. I felt overwhelmed by simple tasks and requests of others.
Perhaps you are wondering why everything just feels like a little extra work in this season. It is because you are grieving. Please, cut yourself some grief slack. Cut others slack. Sometimes we just can’t handle as much – and that’s okay. Because we’re grieving.
There is no logic to the good days and bad days
I often say to people that when I started grieving, I thought grief would work like a slow upward curve….starting really low, and each day going up a little bit until I felt “better.” But it’s not like that. It’s a roller coaster. I remember about a week after my sister died saying out loud to my husband “I feel normal today. Do you think I’m over it already?”
I was just having a bit of a surge on the roller coaster, but that grief ride dipped very low again, and again, and again. And I never knew when a dip would come.
We may feel like we should be “doing better” because life is much more open now than back in the spring, but the truth is with grief it can still hit us out of nowhere and we can plunge back into the heaviness. The triggers can be anything – a news story, seeing a mask, or thinking about Christmas. It hits us. It overwhelms us. You are going to still have what our house calls “covid-crap-ular” days, and there may be no logic whatsoever to when they come. And that’s normal. Because we’re grieving.
The feelings of grief last long after you should be “over it”
The early days of grieving are full of support, but grief lasts a long time. I have heard many grieving people share that the worst of their grief hit several months later, when many people think they have “moved on” or they are “over it.”
We may think that we should be over our covid grief by now, but it doesn’t work like that. Many of us are just beginning to process all the losses we have experienced, and that’s okay. Because we’re grieving.
We need to talk about it
I figured I had grief in the bag. I knew how things worked because I had studied it. But when I went through the darkest season of grief, I was frustrated at how poorly I was able to process my feelings, annoyed that I couldn’t always make sense of my own emotions.
I needed to talk to someone.
Eventually I found a good grief counsellor. The first time I went, I talked for two hours. She gently said “I’m going to schedule you for an hour and half next time….” Bless.
I learned that it is normal and okay to need a safe spot to process what you’re feeling, and that lesson is important for me right now.
We all need our covid-counsellors. They don’t have to be professional therapists. They can be your friend. Your colleague. Your partner. Your pastor.
The important thing is that you remember – it’s okay to need to talk about this stuff. Why? Because we’re grieving.
As I write this, I am not without hope. I do think that we will find a new normal as the days go on, just as I learned to do seven years ago. But I also remember that my new normal came on the other side of grief. Grieving is important for moving forward. It is the process of healing. And it is a process we all need right now.
Make space for your covid-grief. Acknowledge your very real and important feelings. Talk to someone. Take some rest. Remind yourself that these things are needed and they are okay – because we are not selfish, difficult, unreasonable, or weird. We are doing what we need to: Because we’re grieving.
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