Written by Linda Knox.
I stood clutching a new pair of purple ASICS trainers in the queue ready to pay. The colour (I'm not a big fan of purple) nor even the price mattered on this particular day. The only thing that mattered was finding a size 6 and making my purchase whilst touching as few items in the shop as possible. "Would you like a bag?" asked the shop assistant. Another potential contaminated item I thought to myself. "No, I'll just carry them thanks." I said as I crept nervously towards the exit.
It was Sunday 15th March. The week before this, I'd found myself down many a rabbit hole reading death tolls on the WHO website and I'd found myself viewing numerous images from Wuhan and Lombardy depicting humanity's worst nightmares: an Italian woman in hysterics on the steps outside a hospital, unable to embrace her husband in ICU inside; military trucks full of the deceased on their way to who knows where because graveyards were too full; and rooms of plastic sheets and men or women in masks like some sort of low budget Science-Fiction film. The day before, I had said goodbye to my parents, my sister and my best friend. I was getting prepared for whatever storm was brewing on the horizon.
Now, I'm not exactly sure why at this stage trainers were so high up in my list of priorities. However, 6 months before now, I was having a conversation with a pastor about steps I needed to take to fulfil my purpose. At that time, she asked me "What physical thing do you need to have to help you fulfill your purpose?" Perhaps I asked myself that at some point in the lead up to the lockdown and new trainers was what I came up with. More on this later.
That moment in the ASICS shop was when this global pandemic went from being a scary sensationalist headline to my reality. As a Christian I have found that Christians are not exempt from emotions like fear or worry. Perhaps God allows us to experience these emotions to help us relate to other people. In the build up to the pandemic, yes, I became worried for the vulnerable people I love and the people I don't even know who might get sick. The difference, though, is that firstly, God warns us of challenging times in the Bible because he loves us and wants us to be prepared. Secondly, God gives us the reassurance that he is in control and that goodness will emerge in every crisis we experience. The Bible tells us that 'Perfect love casts out fear' (1 John 4v18). I knew that there would be challenges and heartache in the path ahead, but I also knew that the world was about to see just how much love mankind was capable of and that we were about to see some miracles. God was about to reveal things to us that had never been revealed in my lifetime and I was ready to see what part I would play. 16 weeks later and I've learned a few lessons.
Lesson 1: God takes things to teach us things.
If what the apostle Paul says is true and we all have a thorn in our side, then worrying thoughts are probably my thorn. The thought of 16 weeks not being in work, being left alone with my thoughts was a painful one. All the things that are welcome distractions from horrible thoughts such as shopping, team sports or trips to the cinema were taken. The answer to finding peace was very simple though- meditating in prayer and on the Bible won't leave space for bad thoughts. Furthermore, whilst following a plan is good, even opening at Genesis and reading chronologically works and allows perspective to be corrected.
The second thing I didn't realise I valued so much was the M2. Being from Ballymena, the journey up the motorway had become a bit of a chore. Don't get me wrong, I always loved seeing my parents, my sister and my nieces and nephew but losing 2 hours of a day in travel always seemed futile. That was until, of course, a journey up the M2 became an illegal activity! I intend to say a little prayer of thankfulness for freedom to make the journey in future!
God takes things from us to teach us things like how important time with him is and the value of spending time with loved ones.
Lesson 2: Freedom can be found in helping others.
As Jesus says to Peter "Feed my sheep...tend my lambs" (John 21v17) so we are instructed to look after others. The list of how people have cared for others throughout this pandemic is truly endless. From pensioners walking hundreds of laps and raising millions of pounds, to infants labouring over canvasses perfecting rainbows to hang on trees or window sills as messages of encouragement. As a society we have all been stirred by the spirit of generosity. Whilst I might not have done quite as well as Captain Tom, I have managed to find some time to pray, to bake, to donate to food banks and send a few bunches of flowers to special people. Waking up in the morning and thinking of other people's needs or blessing other people (however small) has taken the attention away from the unreasonable expectations I often set myself. In these actions, I have found a remarkable freedom. Instead of waking up in the morning and thinking 'what if that person I love doesn't survive?' I found that thinking 'who can I bless today?' led to a much more successful and peaceful day.
Freedom can be found in helping others because there's just no time to think bad thoughts when you're too busy thinking of others!
Lesson 3: Creation is a gift to be enjoyed.
One evening, at the beginning of the lockdown, I sat down outside after a walk and for the first time in as long as I can remember, I actually listened to the birds tweeting. I sat and slowly, one by one, the stars appeared. In that moment, I noticed just how peaceful I felt. Following this, how wonderful was it to see the fish in the canals in Venice, or birds return to cities which were once heavily polluted? I also started to notice new colours in sunsets. Sunsets that would forever be attempted to be recreated by artists. Today there is more joy in seeing a new bloom on the orchid on my windowsill than in seeing who's been posting on Instagram!
Creation is a gift to be enjoyed because in creation we can find a peace that passes understanding.
Lesson 4: When you look after yourself, you have God's blessing.
C.S. Lewis has said that we are not just spiritual beings, but physical beings also. Okay, so he may have been talking about Communion. Nonetheless, there's a lesson to be learned in this.
Here's where the purple ASICS trainers come in. Inspired by Leeann Gibson, I started running. I knew I had God's blessing because I knew my attitude was changing for the better. The 'I can't, I won't, I'm useless' turned to 'I can, I will and I'm worthy'. Leeann had mentioned that running marathons teaches perseverance amongst other things. Perhaps our spiritual character can be transformed for the better when we take steps to address the physical changes that need to be made. Needless to say that mentally we feel much better after we exercise.
When you look after yourself, you have God's blessing because he may be able to do some work in the spirit and mind when you address the physical being.
At the beginning of Lockdown, Andy Gibson spoke about David and Elijah, two men who spent some time in their caves and said "Who you emerge as is more significant than who you enter as" (or something like that). I'm so thankful that because of the lessons I have learned I find myself more at peace, less anxious, more thankful, more generous and a little bit more aware of the importance of self-care than I was before. Don't get me wrong, everyday didn't start with a coffee in the garden with the birds, a run followed by a few hours serving in the food banks! There were days when, after I finished working from home, the daily broadcast at 5pm turned into 8 episodes of some mundane boxset and I would feel really ashamed at the hours I lost! There are lessons to be learned on days like these also, however, as you learn the importance of self-discipline. As I reflect on the past number of months, I realise that God has taught me about the fundamentals of living and fulfilling life's purpose.
I would encourage you to think about the following points: what lessons has God taught you? What do you care about now that you didn't before? What steps do you need to take in the physcial that can help strengthen your spirit? If you've a story to tell, why not write about it in the next blog?
No matter what this lockdown has looked like for you, whether you've been savouring the headspace, resting or are ready to run your first marathon, God isn't done with you yet, nor is he done with any of us. We have been promised that in everything, he works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8 v 28). I think this means that God is always developing our character. He allows major events to happen to us to shape us and to allow us to develop into the people he designed us to be. How have you been sculpted throughout this global pandemic? Why not try asking him today where he wants your next steps to be? You just never know how far a prayer and a pair of new purple ASICS trainers could take you!