A few weeks ago I went to church on Sunday evening. The format of the service was different from the usual pattern insofar as instead of a conventional sermon, there would be an open time of sharing. Anyone could get up and speak about what God was doing in their life, for the encouragement of God’s people and to His glory.
As the first 20 minutes of the service played out I became increasingly anxious, an unease both palpable and physical. Something inside me was reacting to what was to come, an unexplainable edginess about a sharing time outside my control and comfort zone. During some worship songs I discretely squeezed out of my pew, out the back door and headed home. I noticed that something was wrong - inner sensations that seemed strange to me - but Sunday night became Monday morning, a new week and its pressures started, and I put my head down and ignored what happened.
Fast forward six weeks and that experience seems like a kind of parable, as so much of life now feels outside our collective control and comfort zone. A virus is spreading but we know not where and at what pace. Working from home brings cabin fever, disconnectedness and shapelessness that makes me jittery and numb all at the same time. Church won’t gather corporately for months to come. Parents in their early 80s are vulnerable and new rhythms start as they must self isolate - please Mum and Dad, convey to me you get that message - and rely on me for shopping and repeat prescriptions. Never more than now it can feel cruel to be kind. Children’s academic years have ended in a heartbeat. Catch-ups in coffee shops are gone for a season.
And even as I tap those words on a keyboard I know there are infinite reasons to be grateful, that what I am experiencing is as nothing compared to those whose loved ones are already ill, or frontline healthcare workers, or those whose work and finances are precarious.
But still. Out of control. Out of our comfort zone. And this time the emotions mustn’t be ignored. No Psalmist nor Jesus Himself ever spoke of stiff upper lips. I notice myself fearful, stare unknowingly into the future, observe a lack of energy at some times and heightened emotion or tearfulness at others. A close work colleague and I told ourselves this week we loved each other. Skype manages to be both a Godsend but hollow. Words like bewildering and surreal in a week have become banal. We have flourished so much and not known it, stability our astonishing blessing.
Threads, along with links to blogs to help God’s people make sense of it all, fill up my Twitter feed. At least one book I know of is already published. But important as it is to process this at the head level, what also about our feelings and what God might be teaching us in interior noticing and observing, if only we determine not to put our heads down and ignore what’s inside us.
David wrote in Psalm 16:7 that “I will bless the LORD who guides me; even at night my heart instructs me.” (NLT)
At times like these the people of God need truth and theology, but just as much - maybe more - we need hearts that instruct us. Hearts that don’t suppress fears. Hearts that don’t push away doubt. Hearts that don’t admonish hard questions. Hearts that hang in there when the head is too paralysed to find words to pray. Hearts that remind us of all we know about God’s faithfulness and love that have become the watermarks of our beings. Hearts that let mercy pour in divine synchronicity with flowing tears.
Hearts - also - that are soft when theology can be clinical. We can be so certain when isolated from suffering, so black and white in our pronouncements. But dogma that trips off our lips glibly when life is stable, or when it’s other people’s problems we’re talking of, may be stunningly non-pastoral to others’ ears. Let’s know what we’re confident in and Who we’re confident in, but careful to be quicker to love than we are to speak.
Proverbs 4:23 tells us: “Above else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (NIV).
Make every effort to do that in the weeks and months to come. Ground yourself in Scripture, root yourself in love and keep good prayerful rhythms in your secret places. But watch the heart also. Notice it. Listen to it. Unlike me on that Sunday night at church, flee the temptation to suppress and ignore it. And let your hopes and anxieties, confidence and fears, peace and tears, and joy and sadness, lead you into spacious places as they speak to you and reveal numerous new understandings of who God is to you and who you are to God.
Colin Neill is a Board Member of Contemporary Christianity. Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.