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Apr21TueApril 21, 2020 Andrea Petkau
As we near the end of April, it is so hard to believe that we have been living through the reality of a pandemic for over a month. Our world is at a standstill. Some of us perhaps have been given the opportunity to slow down in our lives, spending more time with family and children – a flexible work schedule at home and, maybe, more time to ourselves. Others’ lives have sped up – perhaps you are working the front line as a medical professional or first responder. Maybe your days at work are stressful, you feel anxious coming home to your family, and you are constantly in direct contact with the very disease many of us are isolating against. Whatever your situation, know that there are others out there that are experiencing the emotional rollercoaster in life that is known as COVID-19. With all its uncertainties, disappointments, and unknowns, we are left with so many questions.
When one aspect of our life is drastically affected, the fallout happens in other areas. Many of us may be struggling spiritually during this time. When everything we know changes, we may find ourselves crying out as the many psalmists – Why God? Why is this happening? When will you end it? Why have you forsaken us? As Women’s Ministries across Canada focuses on holiness during this time, where do we find ourselves? How does this time affect our individual experiences, our journeys? How do we balance everything we are feeling – which could include anger, questioning, frustration and more towards God – with continuing as faithful followers in Christ trying to prioritize holy living?
This month I had the pleasure of interviewing my own corps officer, Lieutenant Renee McFadden. Lieutenant Renee hails from the Niagara Region of Ontario. She is a teacher by trade, graduating from Brock University. Renee is married to Dave and has two children, Jackson and Xavier. Renee followed God’s calling to officership after experiencing a season of healing and restoration following a significant time of struggle and burnout. She states that a journey through counselling and a healthy sabbatical season helped their family to reconnect and listen deeply to God’s calling on their lives. The Willows church in Langley, BC, is her first appointment, and she has been serving here for almost three years.
I was curious to connect with Lieutenant Renee and ask questions that revolved around the role of a corps officer and pastor during this time of crisis and chaos in our church and immediate community. There is a delicate balance that has to happen as she supports those in our church spiritually, emotionally, and even physically, but also takes the time to process and tend to her individual needs and feelings as a woman, much like you and me. I started off by asking her to reflect and share some of her personal experience since the start of COVID-19.
Renee and her family were scheduled to depart from Vancouver on March 14, 2020 – essentially in the early days of lockdown, when slowly the world began closing it’s borders, flights were grounded, and it was still a question of ‘should I go, or should I stay’ in regards to travel. It has been seven years since her family had been in New Zealand, where her husband hails from, and they had been planning this vacation for a good part of 2019. The disappointment hit hard. This was a loss that was unexpected, and preparations and excitement had been building for months. Renee did not have a lot of time to process this major disappointment before the realization started to hit that not only was her significant event postponed, but she was also beginning to experience loss in the routine and regular connections that marked her life. Renee shares, “The shock and sharpness of the uncertainty, confusion, anger, disappointment and sadness that marked the first few weeks lingered as we continued to move forward in the calendar, but the losses were piling up. Rather than finding comfort in the familiar routines of work, home and school, processing grief had been compounded with a pressing need to learn to do things differently: crisis home schooling, shopping during a pandemic, health and wellness activities without gyms, playgrounds or recreation centres, celebrating holidays apart from family and establishing an online virtual church community.”
From a pastoral perspective, I asked Lieutenant Renee to expand upon the challenge of shepherding others and managing the feelings she shared so openly regarding her own grief during this time, and her response stood out to me. “This isn’t a time for comparisons, but for compassion,” Renee said. “A perspective of unconditional positive regard has been the most helpful to me, recognizing that people are doing the best they can with what they know at the time. We also trust that when people know better, they will do better. The situation continues to change, and I need to apply this perspective to myself, my family and others daily.” A perspective like this is needed when being exposed to so many different individual life experiences – some which may or may not equal or extend beyond the experiences that we as an individual face. In order to move forward faithfully, should we not examine the lives of others from a lens of compassion rather than judgement, jealousy, or indifference? As individuals, pastoral or not, we all need the reminder that everyone is doing the best they can to adapt to changes that no one could have predicted.
So, what about the church - the community of believers, who since the days of Christ have relied upon worshiping and meeting together? We are now left with technology as our means of gathering – and let me just say, not everyone knows what they are doing when it comes to YouTube, Zoom, Facebook or Instagram live. I thought it would be ideal to gather some thoughts from Lieutenant Renee about what all these changes have led her to notice about our current Church, in both positive and negative regard, and finally what all these thoughts and observations lead us to acknowledging about our various journeys toward Holiness.
Renee identifies that one of the difficult challenges for herself as a Corps Officer is that the distinction between work life and home life has become blurred. There is no distinct programming during the week that structures how the rest of life may possibly play out, there are no office hours or visiting hours. She also identifies that the technology hurdles and working remotely with the office team has taken a lot of ingenuity and pivoting. But the biggest hurdle identified is meeting the diverse needs for a very diverse group of people. Renee states, “We can offer a sermon online, but that’s not the only reason people come together as a church body. The experience of participating in a faith community can’t be fully replicated online and spiritual health is connected to our holistic living.” This begins to take shape further as she expands, “Parents, have been gifted an extraordinary amount of time with their children and it became obvious right away how it does take a village to raise a child. Being separated from grandparents and extended family, schoolteachers, coaches and friends is probably one of the most difficult challenges for many of our young people. Extending a comforting hug for the widow, a handshake of welcome for the new immigrant, the witness of a child’s milestone achievement, the coming alongside one in recovery – there’s something powerful in the recognition of our shared life together. I sense a huge appreciation for how the intergenerational church community adds to the richness of our lives.”
But in reflecting on the positive outcomes of this time we find ourselves in, the growth in the community and congregation, Lieutenant Renee identifies that she has observed a general turning towards others; gestures of support and appreciation and recognition of the sacrifices made by essential workers of all kinds, people choosing the common good, lavishing generosity and compassion, commitment to service and solidarity all while extending Christ’s love to their neighbors. There has also been an increase in creativity, especially in regard to personal spiritual development through prayer walks, individual worship practices, and faith formation activities in the home.
Lieutenant Renee also identifies that the time we have could be considered a gift, as it is indeed an extraordinary time for families. The purposeful activities together with no distractions – baking, bike rides, hiking, playing games, and reading books – are gifts. Parents are literally on the hook for raising their own children, and what moments of deep influence these have become. “These are the times we can demonstrate what we truly value.” she shares. “If we value the common good, we will seek to respect the wisdom of the authorities. If we value connectedness, we will make time to reach out to family, friends and neighbors. If we value simplicity, we will shop only for what we need and make do with what we have. If we value wellness, we will engage in healthy exercise, actions and honest conversations to help process our emotions and prioritize mental well-being. If we value education, we will participate wholeheartedly in the activities of learning that are open to us. If we value love and respect, we will honor and show appreciation to those who are serving us in our community, giving back in whatever way we can. If we value our walk of faith as followers of Jesus, we will pursue faith formation in our homes and continue to engage with our church community. Perhaps many of these values, actions and attitudes forged in the crucible will outlive the crisis and re-frame our lifestyles long into the future.”
When I dreamed up this blog for Women’s Ministries, one of the key things I wanted to address was the differing perspectives and life experiences in women of faith, and how holiness fits in. For me, holiness is a verb – its an action, a way of choosing to live. Using this framework, I asked Lieutenant Renee that, if holiness is an adaptable but ongoing way of life, what does this look like when chaos ensues not only within our homes, but in our communities and even globally? What do we say to those who are questioning God’s role in COVID-19? Those who are angry? Those who are sad? Those who may be grieving many different familiarities, including their practiced faith and spirituality? How do we refocus our negative energies and grievances and turn it towards thanksgiving and praise – let along a desire to give attention to our journey into holiness?
While a complex idea, Lieutenant Renee was able to shed light on some important reminders for us all, beginning with the fact that if our faith matters at all, it is during crisis that we should cling to this most valuable ideology. Christ never promises us answers or understanding of our circumstances, but instead encourages us to embrace the sense of mystery in the midst of circumstance. Lieutenant Renee’s words hold such relevant truths for us all: “Jesus opened up a new kind of human experience, with the Spirit of God poured out on all flesh. Our teachability and openness to the Spirit necessitates honesty in seeking to know ourselves more deeply and seeking to know God more deeply. Scripture in Romans 8:38-39 assures us when it says, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, not any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
There is room for us to struggle, there is room for us to doubt. There is room for anger, sadness, despair, chaos, and grief. There is room for honesty. We can be honestly present in the chaos of our circumstance right now, during COVID-19, and we can still consider ourselves living out our holy calling and walking further towards a deeper understanding of what Holiness entails. Be present, be in this moment, identify your feelings – “for in being fully present in these circumstances, we will find our everlasting, understanding Father holding us there securely in love.” – Lieutenant Renee McFadden