Many times, it is in the stillness that our imagination sparks into life. Thanks to lockdown, mission partners in training H and M are still waiting to return to North Africa. But they discovered a God “shaking us out of our busy, comfortable lives to face the Unknown…”
Words by M, illustration by H
I write this five months since the lockdown began, eight months since our family left Africa to retrain with CMS. There are so many uncertainties, so many unknowns and the borders to our country of work are still closed.
Yet the enforced pause has been a blessing in many ways. It’s helped me take my eyes off all the things I normally have to do, and to push in to God, the one who always IS.
Be still and know that I am God
Birds were singing as we bundled the kids into the car, but we barely heard them. We had a four-hour journey ahead, a meeting with a church leader we had never met, and then presentations and talks to finalise and present. Normal life in February was really busy for a family of six. There were unread emails, huge to-do lists and so much to accomplish. We felt busy, exhausted, frazzled, but tried to feel fulfilled. A busy life is a valuable life, whispers the unspoken mantra of Western culture.
Be still and know that I AM…
We’re trying balance our diaries, seeing old friends, fulfilling more church appointments, attending parents’ evenings, writing assignments and still getting enough exercise to stay healthy. As we run around Aston’s Eyot nature reserve at dusk one evening, we barely notice the muntjac deer silently waiting behind a hawthorn bush, his patient breath on the cool evening air whispering “be still” as we charge by.
Be still and know…
It’s March. Rumours start circulating of the virus spreading in Oxford. One of the kids at House 244 where we live has a temperature, so we don’t send our kids into school the next day. We wonder how we’re going to get our final essays done if we have to do childcare all day. As we sit planning next weekend’s church visits, crowds continue to rush past the windows, but now one or two people wear masks. The vibrant cherry blossom lies trampled on the pavement, unnoticed.
The whole country has been told to stay at home. An unearthly silence has descended on Oxford. Birds sing, uninterrupted by traffic noise. There’s no laughter at the restaurant opposite, no one on the streets. The entire world is taking a breath, a pause, a moment of silence. The birdsong goes on, louder than I’ve ever heard. The blue tits, robins and wrens sing with everything they’ve got in case the humans go back to their normal noise tomorrow. The flowers bloom in extravagant beauty, sharing the joy of their Creator with everyone who sees. As the early spring sun shines down, it’s a reminder of God’s goodness, despite the unprecedented disruption to human freedom as we know it.
It’s the middle of lockdown. We inhabit a liminal space the likes of which humanity has never known. Every day has the same routine: wake up and light a candle, then sit gazing out into the garden for a half-hour of contemplative prayer. Then the kids wake up, we do breakfast and homeschool. After lunch, it’s naptime, some short physical exercises, then take the kids round the nature reserve to get them out of the house. We marvel at every flower, every birdsong, every brief sighting of a deer. We love being outside for a few short minutes every day, and wish we hadn’t taken this freedom for granted. Then back into the house for dinner and bed, before another day exactly the same.
Somehow the enforced lockdown has moved us into a space of simply being. There seems to be an unspoken assumption in our Christian culture that if we can just be busy enough, God will turn up and do something. So it’s been a huge blow to our egos, especially mine, to be able to do nothing during this time. When we can do nothing because we have to stay at home, we discover that God is still here, and still at work.
For me, lockdown coincided with a deepening practice of contemplative prayer, and somehow lockdown has become an integral part of this: a wonderful chance to learn to be content, to realise that I am not quite as “in control” of my life as I thought, and to trust that’s okay, because God is in control. I found by sitting in silence every morning, I was somehow given a glimpse of the eternal stillness and love of God’s presence. The words of Psalm 46:10 became my daily mantra. I would light a candle and speak them over slowly in my mind, gently dropping a word off the end with each repetition until I held in my consciousness the phrase “Be… I AM”.
I realised how often I fail to appreciate that God is always present right here, right now, and that the only thing I need to do is to recognise that fact. I found myself reflecting on John 17:21, “just as you are in me, and I am in you. May they also be in us”. What does it mean to be in God, and God in me, especially in these crazy times when I can’t do anything for God? I hear God whispering, “Be still. I AM.” Somehow it means resting in the fact that God knows what is going on, that although the consequences of this virus are terrible, God’s greater purposes are not thwarted.
Somehow he is shaking us out of our busy, comfortable lives, and making us all face the Unknown. Faced with this mystery, it’s been hard even to pray. I’d always thought that prayer is about getting God to act, and asking for things, isn’t it?
“God, I don’t even know what to pray. All I can do is mutter a feeble, ‘help’.” As the days of COVID-19 go on and the uncertainties mount in the silence, I hear a still small voice whispering back again and again, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Be still. I AM.