(This essay was first posted at Wineskins.org. We thank Wineskins for giving us permission to share it here.)
By Josh Ross
In January of 2014, I traveled to Barrow, Alaska. The town, which has since been renamed Utqiagvik, is the northernmost point of Alaska, which means the United States ends at the place where I stood. My travel was far from a vacation. I prefer warm beaches, large urban areas, historical sites, arenas, ballparks, and places with a plethora of restaurants. Barrow is a town of a few thousand people with a few local places to eat, a community center, an indoor hockey rink, a hospital, a school, and a grocery store. Weather in the wintertime can reach 60 below zero wind chill, and you can find snow and ice on the ground every month of the year.
I traveled to Barrow both for a sermon series I was preparing to preach and a book I was eager to write. My curiosity got the best of me when I discovered that towns above the Arctic Circle experience no sun 65 to 75 days every winter. More interestingly, research shows that there is often a peak season for depression and suicide attempts, and surprisingly, it is not in the period of darkness. It is when the sun comes back. The phrase that launched this entire journey to Barrow to write a book and to preach a series began when I read, “The problem is reentry” (from an Associated Press article, “In Alaska, Darkness and Depression Descend,” New York Times, December 18, 2005). In that same article, one person said, “You don’t have enough energy to make a plan before then. It’s too much trouble. Once the light starts coming back, there’s more energy, but reasoning is off.”
Now, let me be clear, I found the citizens of Barrow to be extremely hospitable, gracious, welcoming, and kind. I did not find them to be overly depressed, paranoid, or anxious. On the other hand, for over a week, they became teachers, instructors, and storytellers who reframed for me what it means to navigate seasons of uncertainty and darkness.
This is a game-changer for us as we attempt to navigate the current crisis we are in. COVID-19 has completely knocked us out of rhythm. Every business, organization, and church has had to pivot as we adapt to walk this road. How we reengage and reenter into the fabric of life is going to take focus, care, thoughtfulness, and intentionality.
When we find ourselves traveling paths in which a cloud of uncertainty hovers, we begin to reach for reentry. Everything in us wants to reenter and reengage. We want normality and familiarity. We want what we have lost. We want something new that reflects something of old. One way to put it—we want our lives back.
My personality type is such that in our current crisis, I want to run to reentry. Right now, I want to reimagine what reentry and reengagement will look like, and I want to rally to it. I don’t want to stay in this darkness. I want something fresh.
I’m reminded that it’s OK to peek into the future, but I need to live in the now. I know it’s OK to make plans for the future, but I need to seek first what God is up to today. I also need to embrace the reality that how we live into the future isn’t going to be like how life has been in the past. COVID-19 has changed the world. Life moving forward isn’t going to be like it was in the past. Sure, maybe we’ll return to forms of normality in the future, but it’s going to be a while. We can wait to see if familiarity returns, or we can adapt to what it means to remain connected to God and to others. We’ve been dealt a hand we never asked for, but these are the cards we have to play, so what are we going to do with it?
When executive orders are lifted, and when groups of 10 and more can begin to meet again, I anticipate that reentry is going to be harder than some people think. Churches, especially, need to prepare for this. I don’t envision there being a Friday when orders are lifted, and on Sunday the church gathers in full force to sing “Living Hope” and “It Is Well.” Reentry is going to be gradual, in phases, and slow. Some will be eager to return to life, and others will be extremely cautious.
I’m concerned about a few things as we walk this journey.
I’m concerned about health and safety. This is why I try to model in my life what experts have encouraged us to practice: social distancing, safe at home, wash hands, etc.
With that said, I’m just as concerned about a couple of other important things.
I’m concerned that it has taken time for us to live into social distancing and staying away from others. The other day, Kayci and I were outside talking to a few friends from 15 feet away. Our letter carrier walked down the sidewalk, and we all immediately scrambled to give each other space. Social distancing is a muscle we’ve had to learn to exercise. Unfortunately, it’s not a switch that we can turn off and on. When the time is right, we’re going to have to unlearn specific practices in order to properly reengage neighbors and friends.
I’m concerned that fear, unhealthy forms of anxiety, and paranoia have taken hold of hearts and that they are slowly rotting the souls of people. I think everyone needs to read one to three articles every day or so to remain informed about what we are facing. Yet, every article and news source scanned after that doesn’t add to knowledge; instead, it slowly robs us of hope, joy, and peace.
Back to my time in Barrow. The healthiest people I encountered there had these three things in common:
- Roots. They had roots that were firmly established. I’m referring to convictions, a foundation, principles they intentionally chose to build their life on. Multiple times I’ve taught that if you wait until the storm hits to attempt to establish roots, it may be too late. Some people have found that to be true over the past few weeks. Yet, at the same time, we serve a God who can anchor us even while in the storm. Roots need to be remembered, nurtured, and recited.
- Rhythm. In the wintertime, rhythm is what kept people engaged in relationships and community. You can’t sit on the porch and sip on tea. It’s too cold. You can’t go on walks. Frostbite will set in after 10 minutes. Yet, people with a healthy understanding of rhythm get creative with how they keep themselves connected to the fabric of society.
- Renewal. In Barrow, those who went into survival mode during the winter were the most prone to depression and paranoia. Those who chose to live each day with a purpose claimed to be able to live from a healthy place. During the first couple of weeks of COVID-19, many of us went into survival mode. Yet, the more we have lived through this, the more we see that there are some aspects of life that will take time to be restored. There has been a lot of loss. Loss of life, loss of jobs, loss of security, loss of income, loss of health, loss of relational connection, loss of freedoms. I’ve encouraged our leaders at Sycamore View multiple times to not go into survival mode. This isn’t a race to see how long we can tread water. Instead, let’s embrace each week as an opportunity to dream with God and to engage in mission.
As much as we have had to adapt and make changes, there are a few important truths we can bank on: God’s heart is still beating, the mission of God keeps going, the gospel of Jesus doesn’t need to be rewritten, God is on the move, and the church (God’s people) are invited to be a part of it.
If we care about what kind of people we’re going to be on the other side of this, we must care deeply about what kind of people we are becoming each day we travel through this. We aren’t going to be peaceful, courageous, and healthy on the other side of COVID-19 if we aren’t daily choosing to press into God in ways each day that keep us rooted in peace, courage, and hope.
We can do this.
We can navigate this journey with God.
God is committed to navigating this journey with us.
Let’s move at God’s pace.
Keep in step with the Spirit.
The mission of God goes on, and we have a role to play.
Reentry matters. Even if it is months down the road, let’s begin preparing for reengagement now.
Josh Ross serves as lead minister with Sycamore View Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He is married to Kayci, and they have two boys, Truitt and Noah. He is the author of three books. He loves playing and watching sports, vacationing with his wife, and eating authentic Mexican food. He is a recovering Texan who serves with a church committed to restoring justice, opportunity, and dignity in Memphis and beyond.