On covid and holding our emotional breath

This morning something took me by surprise. I was taking part in Zoom church with a congregation I am helping – my part this morning being simply to be there, and to sing (mercifully) on mute. I expected to enjoy being with this little group of dedicated pilgrims, but nothing more.

The second song began and I prepared to join in. It was ‘A higher throne’, a song I have always found beautiful. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvDSG4s5FJw )

But I simply was not ready for what happened next. As the first words began, I found myself unable to sing, copious tears rolling down my cheeks and splashing on to my desk. I simply could not stop them. I was profoundly relieved that no-one could see me as I was obscured by a tiny box hugging the larger screen sharing picture. Though that relief in itself was revealing. Why should my tears be a source of embarrassment?

I have always had an ambivalent attitude to tears, as I admit in a book, ‘Held in Your Bottle’, due out this September, and I can track that back to my growing years. And I am new and a temporary helper in this church, so have not yet got to at least a place of tolerable comfort or acceptance with showing my vulnerability there. I clearly still have growing to do.

At one level I could understand their source. Several years ago we sang it at the funeral of a friend, and despite the passing of time hearing it still reminds me of her, of her desire to be free from pain and go home to Jesus battling with her love for her family and her longing to stay with them. And it is only a couple of weeks since I said goodbye to another person I held in my heart, and the sense of loss is still raw.

But as I reflect, I think there is more here with which some of you might identify. You see, I have cried very little since the start of the Covid pandemic in the UK fourteen months ago. There have been many situations where they would have been warranted and perhaps (even for me) welcomed. I found the separation from my children and grandchildren unbelievably painful, as though a part of me was missing. In the earliest days we could only stand at the driveway watching our grandchildren’s inability to understand the physical distance. When we could ‘bubble’, I still found it excruciating to think about the world in which they are growing up, a place of masks, social distancing and restriction. And other family members we could not see at all. Some people died who I loved, and not to hold those closest to them in their grief was harrowing. In the earliest days I was still a minister in a local church, frustrated by trying to pastor in such a different way from the person I am. Retiring, right though it was to do, deprived me of both enfolding others and being enfolded in love in a community I adored. Each of you will have your own particular experience of these months.

In addition, for all of us there was the corporate anxiety which has dogged us all for months, sapping our resilience, and the rollercoaster nature of events, even now, as vaccine hope clashes with the variants of this tenacious and unpredictable virus, a powerful mix which perhaps means that some of us have been holding our breath emotionally, unable to fully access or identity what we feel lest it overwhelm us and our coping mechanisms become swept away in its wake. Perhaps our challenge will be to find a way, as things hopefully ease, to gently exhale emotionally knowing that the gentle Spirit of Jesus breathes with us, rather than find ourselves gasping for air as the emotions and exhaustion of these last months overwhelm us.

In the meantime, I will remind myself, in the words of Julie Miller’s beautiful song ‘Broken Things’, that God always gently holds our hearts and makes something beautiful from brokenness, a stunning stained-glass window through which his light still shines, even in a pandemic.

You can have my heart, if you don't mind broken things
You can have my life if you don't mind these tears
Well, I heard that you make old things new
So I give these pieces up to you
If you want it, you can have my heart

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