April means Autumn in Adelaide. Relocating to Australia from Jakarta after twenty years being on mission for Jesus four degrees below the equator, our first autumn in two decades was a season of falling down and lockdown. It is what we expected! We welcomed replacing the monotony of Indonesia’s hot-wet, hot-dry six-monthly weather cycle with four changing seasons. Autumn did not disappoint. Taking advantage of our new freedom to walk safely on sidewalks under blue skies and breath clean air, an array of leaves floated to the ground as is their custom, forming a carpet of variegated colours in gardens, on footpaths, and across Adelaide’s beautiful parklands.
It was also unexpected! As we waited in the Soekarno Hatta Airport for our flight ‘home’, leaving behind the crush and rush of Indonesia’s millions, we could not have anticipated the social and economic effects of the COVID 19 pandemic as people retreated inside to stop the virus spreading. Suddenly, anticipated ministry options closed or were paused. Expected re-connections with family and friends were limited. The potential for solidifying friendships in our local church were frustrated. In this 20-minutes-to-everywhere city, travelling anywhere was now problematic. The complexity of our cross-cultural transition increased with each new government announcement. Having lived his entire life in Indonesia, our 17-year-old son commenced studying at an Australian school for the first time, only to have to revert to study online. Receiving news that an Indonesian colleague had succumbed to the virus six days after being hospitalized was an added sadness.
Is there a connection between the government mandated pandemic lockdown and autumn leaves? Brigid Delaney, writing in The Guardian (10/4) about people’s responses to the ‘new normal’ created by the virus says: ‘We have been given a surplus of something we’ve always craved but have proven we don’t know how to deal with: time…this gift comes with restrictions
…It’s the non-routine routine…[we are] forced …into a structure not of our choosing, but we have to yield.’ Instead of yielding purposefully, people responded with complacency, then panic, and eventually listlessness. That’s how T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) felt at the end of World War One.
Having endured a disappointing (for Arab nations) peace conference at the Palace of Versailles, Lawrence left his beloved archaeology in northern Syria, and his wartime Arab friends in Western Arabia – ‘a glorious country for wandering in’ (Lawrence in Arabia, 27) – hoping for anonymity. To avoid publicity, he changed his name twice and took low ranking roles in the Royal Air Force, including serving as a simple clerk for one year in India. After leaving the RAF in 1935 and retiring to his cottage in rural Dorset, Lawrence ‘dreaded the long and unstructured days that lay ahead of him’ (Lawrence, 505). Two months into retirement he wrote, “I imagine leaves must feel like this after they have fallen from their tree until they die. Let’s hope that will not be my continuing state.” (505) Tragically for Lawrence, his life ended two weeks after writing those words, the result of a motorcycle accident on a country road.
‘I imagine leaves must feel like this after they have fallen from their tree.’ Has life in lockdown felt something like Lawrence’s leaves for you, isolated from your network of friends, family, and work from which you source healthy life? Lawrence’s confinement was the exact reverse of ours. Where he left the emptiness of the Arabian desert for the unwanted acclaim of British society, we retreated from the noise of one of the world’s great mega cities for life in a smaller, quieter place. Extrovert and introvert react differently to confinement. Yet for both, this unexpected experience of isolation and separation can feel like we are a leaf in drought, or fallen down, or worse, dead.
God’s promise to Israel, soon to be exiled in ‘the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no-one lives’ – the same desert T. E. Lawrence loved to wander in – was that leaves can stay green in drought. ‘Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; Its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.’ (Jer 17:7-8)
Israel’s experience of isolation was the bitter result of covenant unfaithfulness, evidenced by their idolatry and injustice. Their exile from the land of promise was not unexpected. Prophets had warned of God’s judgement on Judah’s sins (Ezekiel 5:7-10). With the fall of Jerusalem and the forceful deportation of its citizens to Babylon, Jeremiah counselled a nation in crisis to hope. Drawing on imagery from Psalm 1, they could be fruitful again, planted by God, if they trust in him.
Our present circumstances need not deprive us of the nourishing life of the Spirit who flows like a stream in the desert, fulfilling Jeremiah’s promise. Jesus’ invitation to drink deeply (John 7:37-39) is not a panacea that denies the real pain that people feel. God’s gift is the cleansing undercurrent of his sustaining presence. Not escaping the world, but having a way through, what Brigid Delaney says leads us into “stillness, acceptance, tranquillity, and gratitude. The only way out is through.”
Followers of Jesus have an unseen Source of fruitful Life from which we cannot be cut off. We can put forth green leaves even as the enjoyments of this life are drying up around us. In times of deprivation, living in our Heavenly Father’s love, loving others, and being light in darkness, is the sweet taste of Christian faith.
Dan Fennell. April 2020