Ninety-Four year old Jenny often reminds me that she is the same age as the Queen. When season four of the Crown came out late last year, Wednesday evenings was dinner with Her Majesty. Jenny was born during the great depression in the UK and she is older than sliced bread. She lived through WWII and migrated to Australia in her eighties to be with her children and grandchildren.
The last two years, though, have been some of her hardest. In the midst of the pandemic, Jenny has been in and out of hospital. First an everyday procedure, then an infection. When she recovered and returned home, she fell over and her neighbour had to climb over the balcony to find her on the floor. After some more time in a recovery ward and physiotherapy, she returned to stay at her daughter’s house—only for the city to be placed under a “stay at home” order. Two weeks into her stay, she was struggling with insomnia and in the middle of the night, she slipped on the stairs, hit her head and returned to hospital—again.
During one of our phone calls, she said to me: “I feel like it’s been two steps forward four steps back for me. I find it hard to walk. I get tired very easily. I struggle to get up in the morning, and it’s hard to breathe.”
Then with a sigh, she said, “I feel like a burden.”
Our sense of direction, purpose and stability are often rocked in times of crisis. Whether the crisis is personal, relational or global, being caught in the middle of an out-of-control situation can leave us questioning our everyday actions; our greater aims in life, and our purpose in our community.
We lose our home. We lose our centre.
If “home is where the heart is,” then in moments when our hearts are restless we become homeless—even if we are stuck at home, in our communities, in our nation.
We can gradually lose our centre over a long period of consistent instability … our restlessness and homelessness increase—whether we realise it or not.
We can gradually lose our centre over a long period of consistent instability and unpredictability (waiting for 11 am press conferences and watching graphs and numbers go up or down). Then, our restlessness and homelessness increase—whether we realise it or not.
If we have lived stable lives, we might not feel it at first; we quickly adjust to a new normal and acclimatise. The longer it happens, the more desensitised we become to the pain, like a slow dull headache that eats at us; but our bodies still remember it—they still “keep the score.” 
And as the stress goes on, we can suddenly boil over. Over the last few months, I’ve increasingly found myself overwhelmed after having done very little. I’ve overreacted to comments or situations. Small things cause me to react in disproportionate ways.
We might use other strategies to deal with the stress …
- We might try harder: “Let’s set up a schedule for schooling and free time … I’m going to have a walk every morning and evening … Let’s keep up to date with the press releases.”
- We might give up and resign ourselves to spin in directionless ways, unable to control any factors that are contributing to our instability: “It’s outside of my control … there’s nothing I can do … it’s all their fault.”
- We might grow into despair and set a trajectory into lonely empty space, cutting ourselves away from others so that we may hurt less: “I’ll withdraw … I’ll shut my emotions so I won’t feel unstable … if I close my eyes, I won’t see pain.”
- We might gravitate toward other comforts: Netflix, ice-cream, tik-tok, Instagram…
All of these are pretty normal human responses to stress, change and instability: we fight (engage chaos), flight (detach from chaos), freeze (are overwhelmed by chaos) or fawn (numb ourselves to chaos).
But they are not necessarily godly responses.
I’ve found that in the last couple of months of lockdown, I’ve spent a greater amount of time binging on Netflix because I need to decompress from my everyday stressors. It has been helpful and I do relax. But as the lockdown has continued, I have started to have screen fatigue and I have realised that what was relaxing was simultaneously draining my energy. I was recentring myself using a quick-fix, fizzy soft-drink kind of rest rather than plumbing into the depths of deep rest.
Distractions like these may protect us from experiencing pain, change or danger. But if we never face suffering, we will never truly recentre ourselves and find home. We never find that place where we feel safe, belong and are received.
In her recent book Prayer in the Night, Tish Warren observes that,
Christians have often never been taught a spirituality thick enough to sustain us when all other comforts run dry. Since birth we have been nurtured on the logic of consumerism—that pain can be erased, or at least dulled through enough consumption.
Warren says that,
… to walk through suffering as a Christian—to share in Christ’s sufferings—we have to face the darkness. We have to feel the things we hate to feel—sadness, loss, loneliness. We have to drink the bitter cup we’ve been given. No shortcuts. No free passes.”
Sharing in Christ’s suffering is not being a masochist, because pain and suffering is not the ultimate description of Jesus’ existence. Christ suffered, but he also lived a life of beauty, peace, resurrection and joy.
Christ’s Suffering, Christ’s Comfort
In these moments, as followers of Jesus, we share in his sufferings (Rom 8:17, 2 Cor 1:5, Phil 3:10). There is a communion (koinónia) that occurs; we participate in Jesus’ sufferings and humiliation (Phil 2:5-11; 1 Pet 4:13). Our cross-shaped sufferings are the very sufferings that Christ suffered; Jesus suffered our sufferings he carried our suffering and bore our pains (Isa 53:4).
But it goes both ways: “as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2Cor 1:5). Jesus, the true empathiser, indwells our current pains; understands our decentring and our homelessness. His Spirit is in us, groaning in our pain (Rom 8:26-27).
As we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.
Over the last five weeks I have met up with a group of Christians from around the world to read Prayer in the Night. We end our time praying the ancient prayer of Compline, a liturgical evening prayer. In the Australian Prayer book, the following words are offered up to God:
“I’m a burden,” Jenny said over the phone.
“Jenny,” I replied, “Your children and grandchildren have welcomed you into their house to care for you. None of them says it’s a burden, because they want to love you. For the first half of your life, you cared for them—not because they were a burden but because you loved them. During this time, maybe you should lean into their support and realise that you need to be cared for.”
“But I don’t seem to be getting better, it feels like I’m taking one step forward and five steps back.”
“And sometimes, life is like that isn’t it? You know what Jenny? You look much healthier than when I visited you in hospital eight months ago. You’re out of hospital—you’ve come a long way! And if we look at it, any person who’s spent months lying in hospital would find it difficult to immediately spring back to where they were. Jenny, you’re ninety-four! You’re no spring chicken! It’ll take any ninety-four-year-old a little longer to spring back than a twenty-year-old.
“Give yourself space, know you’re limited and celebrate the little things.”
Trying softer is a path that leads to true connection and joy
We might be in a pandemic, lockdown or an ongoing crisis in our lives. Doing everyday things might be more difficult: reading, writing, caring. And friends, we’re limited. We might spring back, we might not. Some days we’ll take one step forward; other days we’ll take five steps forward; and, on days we least expect, we might take four steps back. I know we’re doing our best, trying hard and pushing further. But does that honour the pain we’re in, acknowledge the limited existence we have. Are we trying to strong-arm peace rather than channelling peace?
In her book, Try Softer, Aundi Kolber invites us to,
… imagine actually experiencing tenderness toward who you are—not just tolerating or enduring your life, your family, your relationships, your body, and your career, but truly finding ways to love and honour them. This is what God created us for… Trying softer is a path that leads to true connection and joy.
Friends, apply the gospel of grace into your lives. Ease into the posture of surrender. Stay on your knees. And instead of trying harder, try softer.
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. (Matt 11:28-29, MSG)
Praying Compline—Evening Prayer in the Australian Prayer book.
 See Van der Kolk, Bessel A. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Penguin Books, 2015.
 See Kolber, Aundi. 2020. Try softer: a fresh approach to move us out of anxiety, stress, and survival mode-and into a life of connection and joy. Tyndale House Publishers, 2020. Chapters 1 & 2.
 Warren, Tish Harrison. Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep. (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2021. 133.
 Warren, Tish Harrison. Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep. (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2021.) 131.
 See, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/july-august/jesus-suffers-with-us.html . For a deeper exploration of the practice of union with Christ, see Gorman, Michael J. Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2009.
 Anglican Church of Australia. A prayer book for Australia. (Mulgrave, N.S.W. : Broughton Publishing, 2010) 107.
 Kolber, Aundi. 2020. Try softer: a fresh approach to move us out of anxiety, stress, and survival mode-and into a life of connection and joy. Tyndale House Publishers, 2020. 24.