Here in Spain we are beginning the slow process of emerging from strict lockdown. Perhaps, like me, you have mixed feelings as more severe Covid-related restrictions begin to be lifted. Of course, I want us to experience more freedom! There is an energy to life when the kids are able to get out for a walk again, or when the runners can run! Yet I am aware of this place in my heart that feels cautious. Not just because of how little can be predicted about the pandemic, and the consequences of more social interaction. But also because I don’t want us to miss the deep magic of the Spirit at work in these dark and bewildering days. There is something familiar about this feeling; it holds echoes of my experience of a sort of confinement of the soul. I've been reflecting on this, and 5 lessons we can learn as we emerge from lockdown.
It’s nearly 7 years since we moved to Spain. Of course, at the time I knew that we were in a huge transition, yet I still thought I had a sense of where that transition was taking us. We had moved from South Africa to the UK, where we had spent 2 years while Tim completed his master’s and we applied to join Church Mission Society. It was a 2 year discernment process about where we would move long-term, that included several visits to a ministry team in southern Spain. We had particular reasons for making the decision to come here, so naturally we had expectations about what life would be like once we got settled.
Some of those expectations were based on what we knew of ourselves. We could see ourselves learning the language, and building community both within and more broadly than our local team. Tim has a passion for pioneer ministry, travel to tough places, and helping to get small teams established. I was studying Christian formation and looking for ways to offer some of the tools I was learning to others. Based on past experience, we felt we had something to offer and were looking forward to becoming part of the scene here.
It was quickly apparent that things were not going to go the way we planned. It was hard to break into the established relational networks of the expats in ministry here. It was hard to get to know Spaniards, or even our neighbours. It was hard to feel part of the local church. Nobody really seemed that interested in getting to know us. Still, we threw ourselves into this new learning space in the hope of speeding up the process of integration.
Before long, Tim was asked to join the leadership team of the training and ministry centre we had come to join. So although it still wasn’t what we had anticipated on a relational level, he was getting stuck in and that at least gave him a place to belong. It didn’t quite go the same way for me and after 2 years - the time within which I had expected much of our normalising process to take place - I found myself facing a whole different reality to the one I had pictured.
I was working from home, alone much of the time. My entire ministry was in transition, so when I say ‘working from home’ really I mean learning and trying out new initiatives to see if they would work. Within the next 4 years, on four occasions I had people express interest in joining my ‘team’ (which consisted of just me) and on each occasion they either arrived and left in short order, for various reasons, or they decided they were not being directed here after all.
In the midst of this, one of our daughters was finding school life very anxiety-producing and ended up schooling from home. My world was becoming smaller and more hidden, not less so, and I had no idea why. I simply couldn’t make sense of it. As someone said, 'We can only experience peace that passes understanding when we give up our right to understand.'
This post isn’t at all intended as a pity party. I only set this up to describe the ways in which we can unexpectedly, and apparently all of a sudden, find ourselves in a wilderness season. That is, a season that feels relationally and spiritually dry; a time that is challenging to us in ways we have not experienced before, perhaps. We may find restrictions imposed on us because of circumstances, or we feel isolated, unseen and alone.
Sounds very much like lockdown to me, how about you?!
Here’s the thing though: these dark times are never fruitless. God is constantly moving towards us with generous goodness, and this is no different when we are in dark or bewildering places.
Some of what God invited me into during those days is still hard for me to articulate. It’s a bit like the way dead and lifeless things - dropped leaves, bits of prunings, bits of garden dirt - get mulched down into something that, in the end, can offer some goodness to the life of the garden again. I know that he was at work to bring about an inner deepening, some of which is unseen and some of which is connected to a reordering of the way I do life.
So somehow, although the sense of isolation didn’t change and many of the circumstances remained at times painful, I began to feel as though these years had been a treasure trove of precious gifts. I couldn’t tell you whether God orchestrated these events in order to do this work within me, or whether his redemptive nature just did its thing in the midst of my unexpected reality. Either way, I know he made his presence known in the dark.
About 18 months ago, I began to sense a subtle shift. Nothing to get overly excited about but still, signs of the tide slowly turning. Although we still had some difficult months ahead, the fog seemed to be lifting. And I remember having very mixed feelings about the possibility of exiting this season of being shut in with God.
I didn’t want to squander what he had been doing in me. I didn’t want to return to a world of distraction and things competing for my attention. What would it be like to step out of this quietness and into the world of noise again? How could I hold onto the goodness of this hard season while still moving forward? I was never meant to stay here, after all. And this, really, is the point of parallel with our current situation.
When I look back, there are perhaps some things to be learned from my own emergence from that long season of what felt like a confinement of the soul.
1. Reframe ‘normal’
Don’t expect things to return to what they were. And perhaps you wouldn’t want them to. Even after just 2 months, you should expect to be different than before. The whole context of your life has shifted, in ways seen and unseen. Give yourself permission to explore a new kind of normality, one that may be significantly or subtly distinct from life before.
2. Grieve the losses
What have you lost during this time? Some losses are physical - a loss of freedom, or of employment; some may even have had loved ones pass away during this time. And some losses are non-physical - a loss of your sense of immortality, or invulnerability. Every loss, however small it seems, needs to be grieved in some way. Only by working through the set of emotions that make up grief can we move forward from a place of wholeness.
3. Identify your values
Many people have experienced this season as a time to realign their lives with their core values. It's true that when life is stripped back in the way it has been, it can help us to get clear about what is really important to us. What are those relationships, those ways of being in the world, that you now see as non-negotiable? How will you reorder your life in order to live with those priorities in mind?
4. Hold onto one or two practices
Life is going to change, it isn't meant to stay the way it is when we are living confined. But maybe there are one or two things you have been doing during this season that you want to hold onto? A daily walk with your spouse? More frequent chats with your siblings or ageing parents? Practices you have found grounding, such as prayer, or gardening, or meditation? What might you continue to make room for as your horizons broaden once again?
5. Return slowly
Whatever pace our governments set for the easing of restrictions, each one of us has permission to determine our own rhythm of return. Pay attention to your heart: listen to your inner responses to what it means to add things to your life, whether in-person connections, or more places you can go, or just extra busyness. Notice how your level of distraction rises, and the degree of settledness in your soul. Act accordingly.
When you think about the process of turning away from this season of confinement, what else are you aware of in your heart? And how might you pay attention to this?