Knowing God’s Grace While Sheltering-In-Place
Pastoral Counseling Service
Peachtree Road United Methodist Church
These past few weeks have been like none we have ever known before.
We look for perspective. We strive to get our bearings, to understand our new way of living in this world. Perhaps the meme that helps us well frame our new lives, while adding a bit of levity, reads: “Past generations have been called to foreign lands to fight wars. We are called to stay at home and watch Netflix. We can do this.”
Still, for virtually all, it has been difficult. For some, tragic. With loss of life, health, jobs it has been devastating. For most, it has been challenging, as changes abound and responsibilities multiply, especially for parents. For many, this time has brought with it loneliness and even despair. And for a few, the silver lining of freedom and time to do the things they enjoy has been paramount.
This article is for those who are finding this time to be a challenge. We will deal with two important matters: 1) The emotional struggle of this COVID era, and 2) how we best respond to the challenges it brings.
The biblical umbrella covering this time is the message of the Risen Christ: “And remember, I am with you always…” “… I am with you always…” To every person. In every moment. In every challenge – emotional, relational, medical – we are never beyond the reach of God’s grace.
With that in mind, let’s look at the struggle of our new era:
Stress and Anxiety
Early on, just weeks ago, stress and anxiety, for many, hit the ceiling. This threat was new, different and invisible. The anxiety was not only understandable but, given the circumstances, inevitable.
Even when it is not a pandemic, stress comes with change – most any change. And our lives have been radically changed. The “invisible enemy,” as it is often called, is center stage in this stress. This virus can be lethal. People who look and feel healthy can be carrying it. You’ve got to be alert, on your toes, can’t let your guard down. Vigilance is important… and it’s stressful.
Then there is the stress for many of job losses, businesses closing, and financial setbacks, while bills remain to be paid and families to support.
Stress, as an emotion, is a good thing. It is the God-given “fight, flight, or freeze” response whenever there is a threat. It’s what the caveman/woman felt when a tiger appeared. The problem we have is that these tigers, we have learned, can be anywhere and are invisible. We can’t walk into our local grocery store without feeling a level of anxiety. Though the masks cover their faces, you can see it in people’s eyes. And rightly so. But God gave us the stress reaction so we would be alert. Be attentive. It’s working, for the stress is abundant.
Another cause of stress is that this crisis forces us to shift who we fundamentally are. I have occasionally spoken the words, “If you know who you are, you’ll know what to do.” Well, I know who I am, and I’m currently told not to do that. Everything within us wants to be in relationship with those who matter to us… wants to be in a hugging, talking, laughing, crying, drinking-a-cup-of-coffee together relationship. And we can’t.
We are having to contradict our core instincts.
Taking a walk with their children, a parent has to say – “Stay close to me” – “Don’t talk to anyone” – “Stay away from those children” – all of which is 180 degrees away from who they are, how they feel, and what they want to be saying.
You saw the video of the father/physician who was arriving at home following his shift at the hospital, and his young son comes running to him as he steps into their foyer. The father instantly puts his hands up and says, “STOP!” realizing there can be no physical contact. His son is stunned and confused, and the father drops his face into his hands in tears. He can’t hug his own son.
We know who we are and wisdom, common sense, and the CDC tells us we can’t do it. That causes stress.
Then there is another big source of stress: being relatively out of control.
Which brings us to the topic of… toilet paper!! What was up with the toilet paper? Control. It was an impulsive reaction to the awful feeling of “being out of control.” By the way, different countries have stockpiled different products. In some countries it was homeopathic products, in other countries zinc lozenges. For us toilet paper.
Of course, toilet paper is something we need, but why the panic, the stockpiling of it? We were feeling so helpless in the face of this world-wide pandemic, so out of control that we were desperate to control anything we could… and we were going to need toilet paper! Then, because of the panic buying, it quickly became a “scarcity mentality” issue and the buying doubled.
Generally, we despise being out of control, and this time the issue at hand is life-threatening. We heard Dr. Fauci say, “You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline.” “Oh my gosh, I’m out of control!! I’ve got to do something. What can I do? I’m going to need toilet paper!” Is it irrational? Of course. But is there a rationale behind it? Of course. It’s anxiety, stress, springing from the need to have at least a hint of control.
Then, with the shelter-in-place directives, there is loneliness.
As neuroscientists put it, “We are wired for relationships.” Our loneliness is telling us we are longing for something we need.
I think of the various relationships in our lives being like different relational food groups. What we miss and long for is the emotional nutrition found in the balance of these food groups.
You are away from so many of those you love… who feed your heart, who nourish your soul. You may be at home with your most valued relationship, and that is enormously important, but it is only one of your food groups. You are missing the nutrition of all the others.
The healthy, though uncomfortable, response is loneliness. Loneliness is a positive emotion. It’s the emotion that pulls us back into the relationships that sustain us. It’s like hunger pulls us to the food we need, loneliness draws us to the relationships we need.
Then we hear: Shelter-in-Place – Stay-at-Home. The loneliness builds.
Grief is the emotional response to loss. And the losses have been many.
We grieve the loss…
of the personal touch, the hugs, the embraces,
of meeting with friends, for coffee in the morning or dinner in the evening,
of jobs, of the income we need to meet our obligations,
of the freedom to come and go,
of the world we knew – this one is so, so different – and which of the differences will last, and how?
And many experience feelings of low-level depression. Not Major Depression at all, but a dullness,
a flat affect,
a lack of energy, of inspiration.
For some who have no children under the roof, there’s boredom. I taught my Sunday school class on these ideas recently. We have been empty-nesters for years. I emphasized to us, semi-playfully, that this topic about boredom is “just us talking.” Many of us have grown children who have kids, maybe 2, maybe 3 of them – all under the age of six. No school. No playgrounds. At home. All day. They would give anything to be bored!
So our boredom may be a first-world, empty-nester problem, but it’s a problem.
Then there are the far-greater demands of those who would love to be bored – those who are parents and now-teachers 24/7. They had all they could say grace over before this corona era and now are having to work from home,
keep the family safe,
take care of their children all day-every day,
and – as if they needed another job – they are now their children’s teachers! The burden can be incredible.
Then, for many, there is emotional fatigue – the adrenaline is over and the fatigue sets in. There is impatience and sometimes irritation and the list goes on.
How do we best address the challenges before us?
All of this is our new reality. What do we do with it?
Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well.”
Well, we don’t like this hand we have been dealt.
We didn’t ask for it.
We didn’t want it.
But we’ve got it.
Some folks have it a whole lot worse, but many of us are holding a difficult hand.
So how best do we play it?
We all know there are no simple answers, but there is guidance to be offered to how we best address this COVID era.
We begin with the affirmation of the scriptures…
…which sets the tone for all that we do. Paul wrote, “I can do all things through (Christ) who strengthens me.” Be careful that we do not trivialize this passage – “… I can do all things…” – into a kind of grandiose Superman, leaping from “tall buildings with a single bound.” “… I can do ALL things…”
Never what Paul meant. That would ignore the personal context in which it was written. Here are the words that precede it, and you see it came from his heart and not his ego: “I have learned to be content in whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances, I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through (Christ) who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)
In the language of our day: Through Christ, we’ve got this! In whatever era we live, in whatever challenge we have, in Christ, we do have this!
That’s our faith for all that we are and all that we do. Let’s press on. Next:
Connect in every way you can
… especially for those struggling with loneliness.
To the degree we can and in the ways we can, enjoy the company of those we love.
“Social distance” someone called it, and it caught on. No, no, no, no! It’s not “social” distance, it’s “physical” distance. We need to be as socially, relationally connected as we can.
Find your best ways of reaching out. Find your best ways of connecting. Gather your best buds. Connect and stay connected. I heard someone refer to her gathering of her closest friends as her “Corona Crew!”
Then, if you like, also connect in ways that intentionally make a difference in someone else’s life. During this shelter-in-place time, find how you can best help others. It is true that one of the most effective ways to make a difference in your life is to make a difference in someone else’s.
Connect and stay connected.
Deal with stress and anxiety intentionally
Don’t just put on your big-boy or big-girl britches to ride it out – have an intentional game-plan.
From the 2nd epistle of Timothy: “… rekindle the gift of God that is within you… for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
II Timothy 1:6-7
How do we best apply such an assertive passage? Be intentional. Be intentional in how you deal with your stress and anxiety. Of course, everyone is unique, and you know what is most effective for you in dealing with stress. But there are principles that are true for us all. Let me share five.
Separate the facts from the feelings.
You feel anxious. Of course, you do. But before you run with it, is it based on a fact or is it just a feeling? To be candid: there is plenty to be anxious about, so we don’t need to be wasting anxiety on any fear that isn’t grounded in reality.
Separate the facts from the feelings.
Look at what has you worried. Is it a probability or
a possibility or
a remote chance or
just a fear? Be accurate about the level of danger, and let that guide you any time your fears begin to snowball.
This is to bring balance between the amygdala, the raw emotion part of the brain, and the rational prefrontal cortex.
Don’t be feeling stress at a level beyond the literal threat before you.
Sometimes Roosevelt’s quote is true that “… the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…” And sometimes there really is something to fear. Before anxiety builds, we would do well to see what our anxiety is founded on: reality or fear itself.
Feel what you feel.
Feel everything you feel – get in touch with it. (I know what you’re thinking: ole Ron really knows how to have a good time.)
I grew up with the unspoken motto: “If you feel it, fake it!” It doesn’t work well here. Honor what you are feeling. Acknowledge it. Remember: “You can’t heal what you don’t feel.”
Having gotten in touch with your heart, then…
Give it a voice…
Lift each concern to God in prayer.
As I mentioned a couple of months ago in a sermon, I have said to countless persons, often those dealing with loss, to give their emotions a voice: Talk it out, cry it out, or write it out. Whatever is most effective. In our current context, I am a big fan of talking it out. If you are struggling, do not do this alone! Stay connected. Stay in relationship. Go to your go-to person – who likely needs you as much as you need them.
In this pandemic, stay-in-place era it’s also a really good time to write-it-out as well. Try journaling. Pour out your heart onto page after page of paper. Write it and shred it, if you like. The sheer experience of writing it down, putting the passion of what you feel into words – can be relieving and uplifting.
Acknowledge how you feel, and voice it. As a friend of mine puts it, “Name it. Claim it. Tame it.”
Respond to that awful feeling of being out-of-control by directing your attention to everything within your control.
By definition, focusing on what is beyond your control is a waste of time and a fabulous generator of anxiety. Turning your attention to what you can control gives you a sense of agency and genuine empowerment, which reduces anxiety. Realize that there are some important things which are under your authority.
By now we all know the drill. We are good students of CDC’s guidelines. Within reason, do everything you can do to control what you can.
It has been said, “The difference between a river and a swamp is the river has boundaries.” The difference between what keeps life stagnant and keeps it flowing are boundaries. Put up boundaries, guardrails. Intentionally turn the news cycle off.
If being too keyed up is an issue for you, begin here: Each day take in what you need to know to stay informed and abreast of the news. Then SHUT IT OFF. It does no good to have a stream of minutiae about new COVID-19 cases, deaths, projections coming in constantly.
Set your boundaries… then begin to relax. Intentionally relax.
Take in a deep breath. Pause. Slowly exhale. Again, breath in. Pause. Slowly exhale. Again… Begin to relax.
It is not coincidental that the passage of scripture that refers to how we can best know God, begins with the phrase “be still.” Yes, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Get the news you need – then turn it off, shut it down, let it go, and…
Move on to what you enjoy
Whatever that is for you. Whatever gives you life and energy – whatever feeds your heart and soul.
Read that book. Call that old friend. Watch some great movies. Take a walk. Pull out some old board games, wipe the dust off the box, sit at the kitchen table and have a ball.
Most are reporting this to be a difficult time, and others are making the most of this time, actually enjoying much of it – to the degree that you can, BECOME ONE OF THESE.
For those who are riding this out in your home alone, stay as connected as you can in all the ways you can. Also, let me add this idea. I have a friend who lost her husband decades ago who thrives in her life as a single woman. I asked her how she did it. She had several responses, but one has stayed with me, word for word, over these years. She said, “I have learned to enjoy the pleasure of my own company.” Such wisdom and such guidance.
And back to all of us: be sure to laugh. If it is not there naturally, find a way to get some “funny” into your day. It lowers the stress hormone cortisol and boosts the endorphins, which makes it a win-win. And whenever you read or hear something that makes you laugh – call or text a friend. Share it, and laugh all over again.
Include something that is purposeful to your day
What may give you a sense of purpose in this unique chapter of your life? Use this time for something meaningful and worthwhile. It doesn’t have to be big.
I know someone who is finally going through those old family photos she had been wanting to organize. Someone else is doing his own personal vetting of agencies where sometime soon he will want to volunteer. Another is making sandwiches multiple times a week for those in need of meals. Another is making one call each day to someone she knows is living alone. And yet another – remember, I said it doesn’t have to be big, but it can be – another has just written a novel while sheltering-at-home!
Doing something purposeful may distract you from any angst you may be feeling, but that’s simply a by-product blessing. The point is to turn to what gives your life purpose and meaning in this time.
Someone said on Facebook: “I had always wanted to do a deep cleaning of my house – but I couldn’t, because I never had the time… I now realize there must have been another reason.”
Okay, so maybe it won’t be deep cleaning. But make it something purposeful for which, perhaps, you never had the time.
Do the fundamentals
Get the basics right – and everything else will be easier.
pray well, and
stay well in touch with those who matter to you the most.
Some of these may be more challenging than others. Like, maybe, the “Eat well.” I heard one fellow say, “Yeah, I need to social distance. Social distance from the refrigerator.”
Remember to cover the basics.
Make this a spiritual time
Know God’s grace while sheltering-in-place.
Set aside time for quiet, prayerful meditation.
Carve out those windows of time, putting anything distracting aside,
calm the mental chatter of all that is going on up there,
and listen for the still, small voice of the Presence of God’s Spirit, who is waiting for us.
Finally, begin considering what you will take with you
It’s much too early to tell where we will come out, what we will learn, from this pandemic chapter of our lives, for we are still in the midst of it. We are now having the experiences on which we will one day reflect and from which we will have learned. But right now let’s decide that we will learn from this. We will squeeze every lesson we can to make our lives richer and more meaningful.
Many have mentioned the silver linings of this shelter-in-place, and one of those silver linings is that we can come out of it stronger and wiser for having been here.
I have heard it said several times, “The world is never going back to the way it was.” If it’s not – if it is going to be different – then let’s make it better.
If our lives are going to be different, let’s make them better.
What will we take with us to make our lives the richer for having been here?
I think of it in two different ways:
What have we done? & What have we missed?
What have we done… that we want to keep on doing?
What have we missed… that we will never take for granted again?
What have we done?
What have we done far more often – or for the first time ever – or the first time in a long, long time that adds to our lives? What have we done that we want to continue, to make permanent?
Is it that quiet time, unhurried?
Or special family time together.
Or time to create. To paint. To write. To garden.
Time away from schedules, calendars… time to have the freedom to relax, read, renew.
So what have we done we will take with us? Log it. Remember it.
And what have we missed?
What have we had to do without in these weeks and have come to know was even more important to us than we realized?
I know of one little boy who actually said to his mother, “Mom, I never thought I’d say it, but I miss school.”
What have we missed? I bet it begins with relationships and goes from there. Whatever you have missed? Log it. And when we get back, embrace it.
The country singer Garth Brooks said that everyone in Nashville is trying to write the definitive song for this era, much as Alan Jackson did after 9/11 with “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” He playfully said that he attempted the same thing but got only two lines written:
“Let’s open our eyes and figure this out,
so we can get back to the lives we all (griped) about.”
I think there will be less griping – for we bring the life lessons we have gained with a new appreciation for the blessings we already had.
One closing thought. Many of you know that my wife Karen has had to deal with cancer for years. You may have heard me say, when asked how Karen is doing, that she is as courageous and positive as ever. Courageous and positive. I have come to think of it as Karen’s “Spunk and Spirit.”
And that’s what we all need for this time: Spunk and Spirit.
Spunk – the tenacity to engage any challenge life brings.
Spirit – to believe that we can meet those challenges “through Christ who strengthens us.”
Through Christ, with Spunk and Spirit, we’ve got this.