The war raged, but in the city, we moved freely. Though the sound of gunshots was rare, signs of the perpetual crisis were all around. Most notably, the grocery store was never fully stocked. Let me rephrase. The shelves might be full, but the store continually lacked bare necessities. One day the aisle would be freshly stocked – with only tomato sauce – filling every shelf in one aisle. The next aisle might have more variety – powdered milk and olives. The expectation of consistency and availability of so-called staples was unrealistic.
As a child, I was not responsible for the cooking, so the lack of variety wasn’t quite as noticeable to me. For my parents, who had to cook with whatever happened to be available, it was like a cooking show where the host presents the chef with five random ingredients and demands a delicious meal in return. Only this wasn’t a show. It was real life, every day.
Thus, we learned to adjust our expectations. Years later, when the war was over, we still didn’t have access to the multiplicity of ingredients that are available in American grocery stores. We learned to adjust our tastes and expectations. We learned to enjoy gouda on pizza instead of mozzarella (we weren’t suffering). We came to expect milk in a UHT box and the nonexistence of chocolate chips. We had different expectations when we went to the grocery store.
The wartime crisis of my childhood was devastating for thousands. There are some similarities to the crisis of today, but many points of difference. The war was regional, COVID-19 is global. During the war, many people could leave the country if necessary. At the end of this pandemic, more lives will have been lost than those lost during many wars. Some might be able to isolate, but no one will be untouched by the effects of this crisis.
In a crisis, we have to adjust our expectations. Last month I had different expectations for how this month would turn out. I wasn’t expecting a crisis of global proportion to impact my lifestyle in a matter of days, even hours. The grocery store shelves reminded me of the snapshot memories I still hold of the grocery store shelves during Mozambique’s civil war. However, those childhood years, surrounded by uncertainty and crisis, were spiritually formative.
“Crisis response is part of our spiritual formation and the spiritual formation of our children”
Crisis response is part of our spiritual formation and the spiritual formation of our children. This crisis is the training ground for our children to learn how to respond to future crises. Because there will be future crises. Children will take their cues from us. Others will notice how we respond. There are things we must expect in this crisis. We must be prepared.
We can expect to run out of toilet paper, and then use other products that can’t be flushed down the toilet. (Public Service Announcement:
Do not flush wipes, paper towels, kleenex and anything other than toilet paper down your toilet! Put them in the trash next to the toilet if you must resort to using them. People do this all over the world, even in developed countries!). As of yesterday, we can expect the store to be out of Chiquita bananans, but, lo and behold, there were plenty of finger bananas, the kind we ate in Mozambique. The irony.
But there are other more serious things we should expect. Expect temptation. Expect to be tempted to fear and worry in areas of our lives where we never thought that temptation would come. We can expect, in the seclusion and social isolation of our homes, to be tempted into former habits and addictions. We can expect to be tempted to trust in created things – like toilet paper – to bring us joy and security, rather than the Creator. Some will be tempted to despair and the complete lack of control and predictability of the future. Add to that the daily battles we faced before the crisis – impatience, selfishness, pride, anger, laziness, lust – and the fight might seem to be over before it’s begun.
If you’re a parent like me, you might have already lamented the lack of certain family habits before the crisis, things that never seemed to take root in the rhythms of the day. Prioritize those habits now. Family worship, singing, Scripture reading out loud, memorization. Write them into the family schedule. Prioritize them over every other routine of the day. Those habits, through the work of the Holy Spirit, are the tools God uses to bolster us against temptation. We adults and our children both need to understand that this time will bring some of the greatest temptations of our lives, but we can also expect God to meet us here, in our weakness, in the crisis.
So we retreat to our homes and yards – social distancing and self-isolation. But we don’t retreat from relationships. In fact, we are more intentional about relationships and first person communication during this time. Staying in relationship keeps us accountable in the fight against temptation. We don’t just check in on our brothers and sisters to see if they’re showing symptoms of the virus, but to encourage them in the spiritual battle. We make it a habit to write real letters, something tactile in a time of deprivation from human touch. We call friends we haven’t seen for weeks. We text neighbors whose numbers were hard to find.
We want our children to look back on this time as a time of spiritual growth, not a time of unfettered fear, anxiety and desperation. I want them to remember that this season became a time of intentional living. As days turned to weeks turned to months, we didn’t know what tomorrow would bring (do we ever?), but we were prepared. Every day we feasted on Jesus (John 6:56-58).
“We need Jesus in abundance, everything else in moderation”
We must feast on Jesus, not devour news and social media feeds. We need Jesus in abundance, everything else – homework, entertainment, and dessert – in moderation. Yes, we look forward with hope to a future glory, where the weight of this world will pass away. But in the meantime, we can flourish in the presence of our Creator, saturated in his Word, his promises, his truth. We speak these words to ourselves. We speak the words to our family members. And we do not hold back from speaking them in love to the world. “Where else can we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).