Renewal in the Valley of the Pandemic

In the disorientation of our COVID-19 world, we find ourselves journeying through a liminal valley.

The future is uncertain and unclear. We do not know when or if things will ever return to normal. There is no definitive timeline. There is no clear vision for resolution. We have guesses, hypotheses, and hopes, but not much else. Here in the liminal valley, we’re bound by our limitations—the limitations of our intellect, ingenuity, planning, and preparation. We’re daily confronted by the constant cloud of the unknown hovering overhead, blocking out almost any and all light. In the darkness, it’s easy to lose sight of the sun standing tall and steady beyond view. But the sun still stands, as it always has and always will. So what are we to do in times like these, when we know in our minds that brighter days are ahead but feel in our hearts, excruciatingly so, that such days may be so far off as to render them inconsequential?

While this moment is not easy, it is opportune, particularly for those who serve and lead in the local church. The coronavirus has forced us into private spaces, away from the platforms and stages we’re accustomed to. It’s slowed us down, muted our ambitions, pressed paused on our carefully crafted growth plans, and anchored our forward-thinking tendencies. Yet, this liminal valley clouded by uncertainty may very well be the ground from which renewal rises. As the author Mark Sayers reminds us, “Personal renewals begin in the hidden places…Eventually, this inner change of the heart will overflow out into our external lives, creating a potential for renewal in the social world around us.”

Could it be that the disruption of this global pandemic is actually re-focusing our gaze, away from the bright lights of far-off possibilities, down to the fertile soil beneath our feet? In the words of C.S. Lewis, “It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us.” This dirt, once thought ordinary and mundane, is now the place in which we find ourselves sheltered-in and hunkered-down. And it is the place where the seeds of our greatest future good can be planted—the seeds of renewal. While this moment is not easy, it is opportune, particularly for those who serve and lead in the local church. Click To Tweet

No fanfare for what we’ve done.

Only hunger for what God may do.

The potential for renewal is before us. But it demands a specific sort of participation, by way of confession and of the mind.

Renewal by Confession

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.—Psalm 51:10 

Psalm 51 is attributed to King David as a song of repentance for his actions against Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. When confronted by the prophet Nathan, the story tells us that David immediately recognizes his wrongdoing with the succinct yet poignant confession, “I have sinned against the LORD.” (2 Sam 12:13) While his adulterous and murderous behavior is abhorrent, his response is appropriate. No excuses; only immediate and resolute ownership of sin. While the modern Christian mind does not often connect “confession” with “renewal” (sadly so), biblically speaking, the former almost always precedes the latter. Renewal most often begins with confession. The Psalm points to this, as David sings, “renew a steadfast spirit within me” as his desired end. While the modern Christian mind does not often connect 'confession' with 'renewal' (sadly so), biblically speaking, the former almost always precedes the latter. Renewal most often begins with confession. Click To Tweet

I’ve found that living under the conditions of stay-at-home orders with seemingly no end in sight has a way of revealing the most broken parts of me. I’m embarrassed to admit how often I’ve been overcome by pessimism and even anger these past couple of months. But I’ve been grounded by the sobering conviction that my pessimism must be turned to prayer and my anger turned to awareness. Awareness of my own sins, big and small, private and public, leading to prayers of repentance, for sins of omission and commission, both past and present. Such a macro approach to confession has a snowball effect—as quickly as I confess one sin, I am reminded of another… then another… and another… until I’m eventually overcome by the depths of my own depravity. And now stripped of my previous rhythms of life and ministry, I find myself with ample time to dive deep into said depths. I’m not as busy. I don’t have any place to go. I have fewer distractions. I’m here. I’m always here. And this endless lingering has created the steady space necessary for deep confession.

This is one of the underlying gifts of this strange time. As we linger slow and steady in place, we are well-positioned to consider the brokenness of our lives and create a new daily rhythm of meaningful confession. This is a rhythm that can carry us far beyond this temporary season of pause, as we respond over and over again, on a daily basis, “I have sinned against the LORD…create in me a pure heart and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”

Renewal of the Mind

…be transformed by the renewing of your mind.—Romans 12:2a

Before the coronavirus, most mornings I woke up with my mind racing. Appointments and meetings. Problems and complexities to be solved. But these days are very different. My mind is clearer. There are still problems and complexities to be sure, and all of it muddled with a novel confusion brought on by the uncertainty of this season. But my thoughts plod much slower across the plains of my intellect now and there is much open space here. And when it comes to the options with which to fill that space, there is a dizzying array of tempting choices. Netflix. Youtube. Twitter. The list goes on and on. The digital age offers us a smorgasbord of enticing, entertaining content to distract us into oblivion. But the mind holds catalytic potential for both regression and renewal. When Jesus was asked of the greatest commandment, all three synoptic Gospels tell us that he responds by citing the Shema, with an added twist: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (italics mine). For Jesus, the mind was a crucial part of living a life of love.

What does it mean to love God with our minds? The writer Dallas Willard is helpful here. As he says, “Have you ever wondered how you love God with your mind? You do it by focusing your mind on him and by submitting all of your powers of the mind to him so that he might use them.” Whether we know it or not, we have God on our minds at all times. From the atheist to the agnostic to the deeply religious, everything we think is at its core a reflection of what we think about God. And what we think about God shapes not only our perspective but our very personhood. This is why A.W. Tozer famously begins his book The Knowledge of the Holy with this proposition: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” The choice before is not whether or not we think about God, but whether or not we will submit our thoughts to him so that he might use them in ways only he can imagine. The choice before is not whether or not we think about God, but whether or not we will submit our thoughts to him so that he might use them in ways only he can imagine. Click To Tweet

As we shelter-in-place, with so many distractions just a swipe or click of a button away, what does it look like to submit our powers of the mind to God? I’ve found three simple disciplines to be most helpful:

  1. Limits on what and how much entertainment and news media we consume
  2. Establishing daily practices of extended Scripture reading
  3. Establishing a reading list of books designed to focus our minds on God

We often think of external change as the sum total of external practices. This is true. But external practices begin internally. As Paul reminds us in Ephesians 4:22-24, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” The putting off of old ways of life and the putting on of new ways of life find their genesis in the attitude of our minds. The renewing of our minds is a crucially important part of experiencing renewal in our lives.

Release and Receive

There is a beautiful partnership and cohesion between renewal by confession and the renewing of our minds. With the former, we release the toxicity of sin within. With the latter, we receive the life-giving truths of God.

Release and receive.

Release and receive.

Release and receive.

Renewal begins in hidden places, as we reshape and reform our daily rhythms in this simple yet profound way.

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