By Dave Hughes
I got one of those “memory” notifications on social media last week. One year ago, I started posting resilience videos to help people deal with the pandemic’s mental health challenges. I was doing my part to help others and, at the same time, helping manage my own anxiety.
I still remember my skepticism at the notion of sheltering in place for two weeks to flatten the curve. My gut told me that we were underestimating this thing. Our culture’s well-established illusion of invincibility was overdue for a correction. I braced myself for the worst: the possibility that I might be working from home until June.
The pandemic has been immensely challenging; you don’t need me to remind you of this truth. Despite the tragedies of 2020, God has done good in my life (and perhaps in our culture) during this season. Here’s what God did in the year we spent two weeks flattening the curve:
God revealed and removed idols.
Slowing down does wonders for our self-awareness. As a counselor, I saw the pandemic slow people down a lot. Many people were forced to confront uncomfortable aspects of their lives, things they’d allowed busyness to distract themselves from. Neglected relationships or families, obsession with “productivity” and “hustle,” the realities of our mortality and finiteness; the pandemic thwarted these and other successful attempts at self-deception.
As followers of Christ, we know that any time God reveals an idol, it is a mercy for us, a sweet invitation into repentance. Sometimes the kindest thing God can do for us is assume his rightful place in our hearts and lives. Often that means getting our idols out of the way.
Social connection over screens is okay. Social connection in-person is far, far better.
God showed us what real social connection is.
Much of our attention is run by algorithms. They track our interests and activity and feed us more of them in ads, social media content and ‘friend’ suggestions. We construct echo chambers where what we get exposed to more and more of what we’ve already been exposed to. These echo chambers can lead not only to polarization, but also a sense that the “connection” that we experience through social media is the connection that God intended for us.
While I won’t unpack the neurology of Genesis 2:18 and why it’s “not good that man should be alone,” I will give you the elevator pitch version. Recent research in neuroscience and resilience have shown that face to face human interaction nurtures resilience and generally makes people mentally, emotionally and even physically healthier. Add to that the necessity of community in Christian faith and practice, and it’s easy to see how getting our perspective on connection straightened out benefitted us. Social connection over screens is okay. Social connection in-person is far, far better.
God pruned his church.
This section is the hardest to write, but perhaps we need to talk about an uncomfortable reality. For a long time in America, identifying as a Christian was socially beneficial. Those days have passed. Still, many attended church simply out of habit or because it’s what “good people do.” The pandemic challenged many church attenders to be honest about their commitment — and either lean in and be the church, or not..
Sadly, many people have done the latter. This abandonment of the local church can discourage pastor and parishioner alike. Perhaps I could offer a small encouragement. Jesus has no illusions about the size of his church. When the membership rosters and the attendance don’t match or the restrictions lift and there’s bit more space in the pews, Jesus knows exactly who his church is. This truth creates an opportunity for us.
Our consumeristic and image-driven culture has in some measure influenced our churches and how we measure “success.” Numbers of baptisms or people in the seats, impressive worship services or programs will draw people in. They may even keep them there a while, baring something like a global pandemic.
Yet this is the hour for us to press more deeply into the lived experience of the community of God. We can demonstrate that Christian faith and practice is not something to merely be seen, much less a way to be seen by the culture. Faith in Christ is the power to newness of life and an invitation to communion with the living God. And perhaps God’s pruning of the church will make room for new growth.
Awe of God, the fear of the Lord, is the shelter we can run to when all other fears seem to be too much.
God grew my sense of awe.
I spent much of the pandemic in reflection, noticing my own inner experience and how the pandemic has shaped my emotional life, thought life and spiritual life. I have striven to fan the flames of my sense of awe. Along with being strongly connected to mental health and resilience, awe has another necessity in the human experience. Awe of God, the fear of the Lord, is the shelter we can run to when all other fears seem to be too much.
When the world is on fire, to sit with the truth that Christ has overcome the world is a great comfort. The same Christ who spoke all things into existence counted it a “joy that was set before him” to endure the cross that I might be in right relationship with him and enjoy communion with him forever (Hebrews 12:2). This good news stirs an awe in me that seems to reorganize and refocus the world. It is the perspective that causes all others to find their right place. And that’s where peace is.