What I’ve been learning in lockdown
The need to wait and listen: Baptist minister Claire Nicholls offers this reflection on recent months, and what happens next
Monday 16 March. I remember it well. I was sat in my church secretary’s conservatory, where after a long meeting that morning to go through our coronavirus contingency plans I was having a conversation about cancelling our toddler group the next day, and then everything stopped as the announcements piled one on top of the other and we realised this was more than just a decision we could make, but a decision we had to make, along with many others about closing the church building for anything but the essentials.
As we swung into action, our normal spontaneous and last minute way of working very much in our favour, we went from cycling at full pelt to peddling on an exercise bike that, although was exhausting, was not going to go anywhere but home. On Sunday I went to the building to check no-one else came for worship, and sat a long way from the deacon who had joined me as we worshipped separately in a room that would normally be empty when the service starts at 11am but full at 12.30pm. We tried out zoom after church coffee, and the impact of what this virus had done to our church life was felt hugely.
What do you do when life has been turned upside down, twisted and turned, snapped in places and left flailing in some sort of weird liminal space that makes no sense to anyone, and you are trying to work out what it means to be called in a time that doesn’t make sense in itself?
I lead a community church - called as a minister to the community. We run a number of groups that seek to support people through all of the things that are coming into focus during lockdown – mental health, loneliness, difficult family circumstances, holiday hunger, the effects of austerity and job uncertainty. In all of this physical presence is key, and so when that was ripped away, it hurt. For our community it was important to acknowledge that pain; and as time has gone on, that pain, although more numbed for many, is still there, still hurts and has a centre of deep longing to be together again.
As we discover what life is going to look like beyond lockdown, we have to recognise that it’s not going to be some kind of utopian dream - it’s more like a rocky mountain climb where the top is far beyond anything we can see.
When lockdown hit, I had been leading the church for less than a year, and I’d been working on how we might plan for the future and trying to move the church beyond being the last minute decision makers they were. That week in mid-March stopped us in our tracks, and one thing I’ve begun to realise that in a community where life suddenly being turned upside down is not an unusual experience, normality is less normal than we might expect it to be. When you can’t plan you have to wait, when you can’t do the things you would normally do, you have to stop and you’ve just got to face and make decisions that work with whatever life hits you with.
If there is anything this time is teaching us is that we have to wait and see. We can’t control any of this. We can’t predict how things are going to be. We can have ideas, we can have dreams, we can imagine that church will become everything we want to be, but that doesn’t mean it will happen.
Our future practice will arise from our experience. When I was training to be a teacher I was taught the value of being a reflective practitioner, and there is so much value in that right now. We need to listen and learn from what is happening and adjust our direction to the hand that is tugging us down the path we might not have noticed before.
I love to be in control, I love to be able to know exactly what is happening next, but right now, that’s not possible – we don’t know when the announcements are coming and we don’t know what they will be – we don’t know what the behaviour of the virus will be and we can’t control the behaviour of those who carry the virus, however many social distancing notices we put up. Our destination is not in our hands. While we can dream and hope, we can’t fix our eyes on anything but the direction that will be revealed over time by God. The future holds many exciting possibilities, but now is not time to predict the one route that future will take us down. Now is the time to let that route arise from the steps to which we are called. Now is the time to let that route arise from within the community we serve. Now is the time for that route to be revealed by the one who knows when we will be ready to see the destination.
Now is the time to listen to the wind, because the wind, it blows wherever it wishes.
Image | Claire's online lockdown sermon series | Image adapted from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases | Flickr.com | CC by2.0
Claire Nicholls is minister of New Addington Baptist Church, South London
This reflection appears in the Autumn 2020 edition of Baptists Together magazine