I was brushing my teeth in my apartment when I heard a knock at my door.
My friend in unit 6B across the hall quickly explained that a plane had crashed into a building in New York City. I ran across the hall, and after a few minutes of watching the unfolding drama on his television screen drove myself to work where I found my co-workers huddled in the lobby talking about the incident …
… and that’s when it happened.
Almost in slow motion, we watched the second plane begin to careen and turn and then hit the World Trade Center. Like so many of my generation, it was a defining moment.
This same generation-defining moment took place several weeks ago as the treadmill of life came to an abrupt halt. For me, it began with a simple phone call, “Jon, we’ve made the decision to postpone the conference.” I had been slated to speak at an event on the east coast, and with the outbreak in that part of the country, the decision made immediate sense. I quickly pivoted my weekend plans and bought tickets to a Big Ten Tournament basketball game in Indianapolis which was subsequently cancelled. I then transferred my StubHub tickets to a Major League Baseball game. That was also cancelled.
Something profound was happening.
Later that day, I turned on ESPN only to find every conference tournament postponed, the basketball season over and all spring sporting events on hold. Being a bit of a sports junkie, I resonated with the popular meme that began to circulate, “Honestly, I didn’t plan on giving this much up for Lent.”
Ain’t that the truth.
In one weekend I gave up sports, shopping, dining out and much, much more. There would be no more hanging out with friends, no more Friday nights out with my wife, no more worship services with the larger body of Christ and very limited interaction with neighbors. No more school activities. No more trips to Barnes and Noble. Everything suddenly stopped, and everyone began to “shelter in place.”
About a week into this new reality, I began to take an emotional inventory as to why I felt so sad, frustrated and even a bit depressed. Certainly, part of the feeling was the virus itself, the mounting death toll, the pain and agony taking place worldwide and the thought of people dying alone.
But it was more than that.
I was coming to grips with the fact that things were being taken from me against my will. I was being forced to fast, and I didn’t like it. After wallowing in my own self-pity, God quickly reminded me that I had an incredible opportunity in front of me: the chance to exchange something good for something better.
In his book A Hunger for God, John Piper writes,
“The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night.”
Convicting — but true. I’ve been leaning into that statement.
This crazy, global pandemic has been God’s way of drawing me closer to him, a forced fast from the many distractions of life that can sabotage my deep hunger for God. Since COVID-19, I’ve decided to ramp up and lean into my time with him. Maybe there’s something better than “normal.”
Intimacy with God has now become a goal, not a means to an end.
What was normally 20-30 minutes of time in God’s Word each day has now extended to 60-70 minutes or more. I’ve been doing a deep dive into the Psalms, journaling my thoughts and even getting in touch with my artistic side and drawing pictures (no joke) of what I’m reading. At night I find myself praying more than ever before. I’m now going for long walks in the neighborhood every night with my wife, and believe it or not, on Easter Sunday, our family of six actually had a morning of worship in the living room that didn’t end in frustration or crying. I’ve been able to spend more time playing with my younger kids, and I have longer conversations with my teenagers.
If fasting is a good metaphor for sheltering-in-place, then perhaps this “Great Pause” is serving the purpose of forcing us to clarify our hungers and priorities. Maybe this season is a gift and opportunity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m relieved these restrictions are slowly being lifted, but in some ways I’m also afraid.
I’m afraid to go back to “normal.”
Early on, I told myself that feeling “normal” might mean buying something or doing something or going somewhere. Maybe when this is all over, I will check out that new pair of shoes I’ve been wanting, head to the AMC theater for a movie or play Topgolf with friends. It all sounds so appealing. Unfortunately, the pressure to consume will eventually deaden the lessons we are learning about ourselves.
And make no mistake, there will be incredible pressure — unrelenting pressure — to consume.
No doubt, the government and businesses and consumer forces will combine to market to us unrelentingly in the months to come. Billions of dollars will be spent to remind us all of what feels uncomfortable and what they ultimately think can meet our needs and do the trick. People will remind us of everything we don’t have and the products that will fill the void.
But during this “Great Pause,” there are deeper problems we’ve needed to address as a society.
I’ve found that I’ve been settling at times for a shallow spirituality, a consumeristic attitude and less than quality time with my kids. I’ve found that I’ve abdicated being the primary teacher for my children. What if my heart is finally getting rewired in a better way with better priorities and going back to normal isn’t the best option?
“Normal” might mess us up again.
In slowing down and experiencing a bit more time alone (painful as it’s been at times), I’ve been able to open the blinds to a bright new world I’m not as adjusted to seeing.
I’ve been able to see myself, my family and my priorities more clearly than ever before. I think it has served to crystallize my thoughts on what really matters in ministry and the church. Something has shifted, and priorities have realigned. Strange to say, there is a part of me that doesn’t want to go back to “normal.”
Well, maybe we don’t have to.
Maybe we actually have a say in what the new “normal” can be. Perhaps instead of a “Great Pause” before blasting forward in the direction we were moving, this will end up being the “Great Reset” that helps us launch into a new reality.
We can do that on a personal scale in our homes, in how we choose to spend our family time on nights and weekends, what we watch, what we listen to, what we eat, how we lead and what we choose to spend our dollars on and where. We can do it locally in our communities, in what we support, how we interact with our neighbors, how we carve out time for deeper relationships.
And we can do it in our churches.
We can move forward with a new way of engaging ministry that is focused more and more on people and less and less on everything else. This season has resulted in greater empowerment of others, greater decentralization of the church and, ironically, a higher degree of pastoral care through phone calling, Zoom calling, daily prayer times and more. It’s a new twist on Acts 8 that’s causing many to scratch their heads.
We don’t need to go back to the way it used to be.
We don’t need to go back to hustling through life with goals to meet and meetings to attend and mortgages to pay — all while the phone is ringing and the laptop is pinging so we can get home to enjoy our comfortable chair or favorite brands that make us feel good enough to get up and do it all over again. That’s not how God designed us to live.
We know we need to make disciples, but we are too busy.
We know our souls need more than 15 minutes of quiet time a day, but we don’t do it.
We know we should spend more time engaging with our neighbors, but the kids’ activities get in the way.
We realize our ministry priorities don’t always line up with the Great Commission, but we can’t seem to get off the treadmill.
We know we measure ourselves against the wrong metrics and, yet, we continue to reinforce this dysfunction week in and week out.
Well, this is our shot.
This is our opportunity.
This is our chance to turn the “Great Pause” into a “Great Reset” and launch into a new chapter of our lives, a new chapter of our ministries, a new way of prioritizing what matters most. Rather than hurling forward in the direction you were moving before this all began, you can hit reset and move in a different direction.
Let’s take a collective breath before the economy is “turned on” again and ignore the deafening noise, thinking deeply about what we want to put back into our lives. This is our chance to define a new version of normal for ourselves, our families, our ministries and the Church.
This is our chance.
Maybe we shouldn’t try to go back to “normal.”
Rev. Jon Wiest is the executive director of Groundswell, a global ministry building a growing wave of disciple makers and pioneering leaders. He lives in Fishers, Indiana, with his wife and four girls.