'For by the grace given to me, I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.' Romans 12:3
Well, I last wrote when we were on Day 40 of Lockdown here in South Africa. And now here we are on Day 82! That's a long time of being restricted, of having freedoms curtailed and choices diminished. Or is it really? Nelson Mandela spent 14 months under house arrest; and this after 18 years on Robben Island, his time divided between a prison cell and a prison quarry. The Apostle Paul was under house arrest in Rome for two years; that's 730 days. In comparison, 80 days sounds a bit measly!
Restrictions have been eased. We can now go out for a walk at any time of the day rather than at no time, as were the rules in the beginning. We can travel more than a 5km distance from our home. Our daughter is back in school in an attempt to finish her final year before she heads off into the world of university and the semi-independence of living away from home for the first time. And yet - we have to wear a face mask whenever we are out of the house; we queue to be allowed into the store to buy groceries, waiting for the sanitized clothes' peg which is the chosen method of 'crowd control'; we message and phone rather than visit those we care about; we Facebook Live church. Yes, eighty days is still a long time.
Eighty days for Phileas Fogg to circumnavigate the globe; eighty days for me to take a tour of my heart and see what lies within...
Information isn't always Insightful
At the start of our stay at home life, I tried to keep myself up to date with all that was going on around me. I'm not good with numbers so could never remember the exact details, but I still knew that it was getting worse, everywhere. Infection rates were rising, deaths were rising, panic was rising.
It is good to stay informed. But information isn't always insightful. Everything we read or hear comes with a back story of bias, a history we rarely know much about. We always bring our past experiences, both good and bad, into our present understandings of any given situation, and as such can be unaware, or just unwilling to accept another interpretation. In his book 'Wisdom', R T Kendell discusses the way personal blind spots influence our lives. By definition, we ourselves are blind to what may be all too obvious to those around us and yet we continue to make comment and act on what we can't fully perceive. Hence the great need for wisdom's guidance.
There is only one Person who sees the whole span of world history from the correct perspective. Yep, our Father in heaven. It is his reporting that I need to be paying the most attention to. Like never before I need to abide in him, to tuck in close and make sure I'm laying my head on his chest and hearing his very heartbeat. Easy? No, far from it. At the start of the viral invasion, anytime I drew close my only response was to cry; I couldn't think, I couldn't pray, I couldn't analyse or process. It was horrible! But in times of crisis and confusion, maybe that's all I need to do - to draw in close and allow myself to feel whatever I'm feeling in the safety of my Father's embrace. When our children experience the hurt of a bump or scrape they don't sit us down and figure out the whys and wherefores of their pain, they just sob with the breath-wracking shudders of the sore in body and soul.
It is from that place of safety and security that we can begin to hear the whispers of comfort and the encouragement to continue. I knew God was speaking about a major change that had arrived, a moment similar to when the caterpillar begins to spin her cocoon and start her metamorphosis from wriggling grub to flittering beautiful butterfly. Nothing remains the same; the caterpillar dissolves into a protein-rich soup of cells which become the building blocks for the body, the wings of the butterfly they are becoming. The chrysalis is the refuge, the hiding place where this miracle of transformation takes place.
Our God is a refuge and fortress, a strong tower into which we can run and allow ourselves to be radically transformed from one degree of glory to another. But we need to be prepared to enter in, to mourn the loss of our caterpillar selves before we can become the butterfly of his intentions. Just as the caterpillar has no pre-knowledge of what is about to happen, or what the outcome will be, I have little idea about what comes next. But I know my Father, and I know he works all things for the good of those who love him. I know he has a plan and a future for which he is preparing me. For this, I need his insight rather than the world's information.
Create-ivity and Product-ivity
During those first few days and weeks of lockdown, I struggled to locate my creativity. This is not a situation I am familiar with! I am usually alive with ideas and stories and concepts. It was on the second day that I woke up and realised I was to going to have to do something to keep myself creatively functioning. Writing a diary or journal seemed dauntingly impossible and so I had to think of something else. Crochet sprang to mind - I could crochet a square each day, so ensuring I was both making something on a daily basis whilst also keeping a visual record of progression through lockdown.
Given that our initial lockdown period was supposed to be a mere 21 days, this seemed an eminently achievable task. Eighty days on and we're still not exactly living life normally! I began with great gusto and made fabulous progress for those first few weeks but as restrictions have been lifted and I've found other things to do, I confess to becoming a little less diligent. But I do have a magnificent collection of handcrafted gems which now just needs joining into one glorious treasure. I might need another lockdown for that!!
A second project I found myself embarking on was following the suggestion of a good friend of mine. She was chatting about the state of affairs in the economy as a whole and retail in particular; she has her own online business selling craft products for children. A government decision to curtail the sale and distribution of all but essential goods and services had left her without an outlet for her products and so she was exploring other, temporary solutions. As we chatted, she suddenly declared that this is what I should do with my enforced time at home; set up and launch an online store.
I have toyed with a similar idea before, so I must admit it wasn't entirely out of the blue. I set-to with gusto, exploring the different website and e-commerce options available at a reasonable price and approaching people who I thought might be interested in joining me. I spent hours designing website pages and developing a store I would like to browse through myself, and on June 1 Captivated Gifts was born.
It was a fun project to work on, and both Caragh and Leal got involved in its creation, helping figure out layouts and graphics and hyperlinks.
Throughout most of this time, I still didn’t feel creative. I was being productive, but, in my view, not creative. Everyone who hears what I’ve been up to comments on how much I’ve accomplished in a short space of time. And it is true, I have done a lot.
Perhaps in the past, my idea about creativity has been airy-fairy and flighty; that when I am in the right frame of mind or emotional state, then and then only do I ‘create’. But the creation of the world around us was anything but flighty and emotional. It was a decisive act of the will by our Creator God, who spoke and it came to be. It was organised and focused and meticulous. It was science and beauty and art all combined in a moment.
I discovered a secret during lockdown. I used this secret each time I sat down to write or design a webpage or develop a social media post. I had read a short book aimed at helping writers improve their productivity and the author mentioned an app called ‘Forest’. I downloaded it and have been using it ever since. With it, I set a goal work time of at least 25 minutes, during which time a cute little tree grows. At the end of the 25 minutes, I can either continue and watch the tree grow larger, or I can schedule a break of a few minutes. At the end of my working day, I can check to see how many trees I’ve planted and how much my forest has grown. I love it!
‘Forest’ has shown me that no matter how creative my thinking maybe, unless I deliberately and intentionally focus on the matter in hand, my ‘create-ivity’ will never equate to ‘product-ivity’. Even God needed to speak in order that creation would happen!! Taking me to one side and putting a pause on the normal has nudged me forward more than I could ever have expected.
Coffee Shops are not necessary for Connectivity
In the days before now, my main way to build and establish friendships was through coffee shop dates. I would arrange to meet up with those I wanted to spend time with or those who wanted to spend time with me. The intention would always to be short and purposeful but somehow it would take up most of my morning. Don’t get me wrong, it was one of my favourite ways to spend my day. But, and this comes back to the issue of creativity/productivity, it wasn’t always the most balanced way to spend my day.
During lockdown, where we’ve been forced to stay away from our friends and our usual hangouts, I’ve had to become so much more deliberate about finding a way to be together. Previously, a coffee date was a simple operation involving a quick drive and a seat at a nice table. Now it requires a phone and an internet connection, at the very least.
This new deliberateness has deepened those friendships I hold most dear. There are no longer the distractions of a busy coffee shop when we meet; I am paying more attention when I listen and when I talk. I find myself being more vulnerable with some who, face to face, I would rarely admit to any struggle. The effort to coordinate schedules and timetables is reduced and so the friend I’ve not been able to meet up with for months is now a weekly catch-up phone-chat date.
One friendship that has grown and developed has been with a couple of South African author friends. We have never met in person and yet God has established a connection between us which is growing in strength and value. Shirley Corder took me under her wing several months ago when I got in touch with her after discovering her book ‘God in Africa’; we were writing about similar subjects though in different ways, and so immediately had common ground on which to tread. Shirley recently interviewed me for her latest blog post. You can read that here.
Vida Li-Sik is another devotional writer with whom both Shirley and I have felt the spark of friendship. Together the three of us have formed an alliance, a strategic sisterhood to help one another with our writing goals and dreams.
I am more than happy to be found in a new season of collaboration, encouragement and accountability that these and other friends offer. May I not too quickly slip back into coffee date mode without this depth of connectivity.
Life, like grass shoots, Will Find A Way
When I was at primary school, around the age of about 5 or 6, we sang some pretty weird songs in our morning assemblies. One was all about rockets heading for the moon and the sound of the engines being like bacon sizzling (well, that’s how I remember it!) and the other about the way a blade of grass can push its sturdy way up through the smallest of cracks in a concrete paved expanse. Bit strange hey? Perhaps what’s even more strange is that I can still recall them!
Anyway, if lockdown has shown me anything it’s that life is just like that blade of grass – it will always find its tenacious way up through the smallest crack in the hardest ground and find a way to flourish. Jesus promises that he has come to give us life and life in all its fulness, regardless of the circumstances under which that life may seem to be buried.
There have been so many occasions over the last eighty days that have been drastically different to how they were planned and yet have turned out to be so much better; my Dad in the UK turned 80 (there’s the magic number again!) and we had a big Zoom party with friends and relatives I’ve not had contact with since leaving England more than twenty years ago; our wedding anniversary of just the other day ended with a meal at home that was more romantic than many we have paid for in fancy restaurants over the years, with the kids lighting candles and making us feel special. We played games and watched movies together over the Easter weekend. And who hasn’t seen the videos of musicians and singers, or dancers and sports stars performing their passion alone and yet together?
The joy of the Lord is my strength. May I remember joy can be found in the most unlikely of places and times if only I create the gap.
I am a Wool-gatherer.
And finally, the greatest revelation of lockdown living so far has been the realisation that I am a wool-gatherer! Not because I like to visit wool shops and purchase whatever takes my fancy, whether or not I have a project in mind for its use (although I do) but rather that I love to allow my mind to drift and wander wherever it will. One definition states that wool-gathering is ‘an indulgence in aimless thought or dreamy imagining’. Yep, that’s me.
I have found it hard to figure out why lockdown has felt so restricting, so claustrophobic. I have a beautiful home overlooking a wide ocean and a distant horizon. The children are older and pretty self-sufficient and undemanding. Craig is working from home but is using our granny flat as an office.
And then it came to me. Originally a term for meandering through the fields and plucking tufts of sheep wool from where it had snagged on fences and hedges, wool-gathering exactly describes me. My imagination takes a gentle stroll through the landscape of my mind, gathering up whatever gets caught along the way. I pray a bit, I read a bit, I think a bit more. Being with people all day every day, even though those people are my family, curtails my right to roam, stifles the freedom to saunter at my own pace and in my own direction. I am nudged and jostled and prodded.
I miss wool-gathering. I hope I’ll be given the gift of its return someday. But in the meantime, I’m grateful that the disintegration from caterpillar to cellular soup is taking place in the safety of my Father’s arms, in the stronghold of his presence, and carries with it the absolute assurance that wings will grow and I will fly.