Compassion, Connection, and the Singular “With” of the Gospel

This is the Moment: His Presence in the Present

“Now we have the privilege of seeing what only God can do.”

Ray Ortlund, quoting his friend Alfred Dickson

Our eight-year-old woke up the other morning beside me, because that is our life right now, and in his half-asleep haze murmured, “This is the best time.”

He was talking about that moment, which is something the young do so well: stay present in each moment. I struggle with that skill, preferring instead to cast my gaze across the days and weeks ahead, planner in hand, anxiety engulfing me. When my son told me that “this [was] the best time,” I knew what he meant: that moment when he woke up next to me was his favorite. But in my mind I enlarged his comment and applied it to this strange time in which we’re living now. And, to me, this is not the best time.

When we received word here in Sydney that schools would indeed be closing to all but the children of essential personnel, I took a deep breath (something I would not be able to do were I to have COVID-19, apparently). No part of me has ever desired to homeschool my children. I do not love being needed; rather, my toenails and insides curl up and I want to hide in a closet when I hear that particular tone of voice that tells me my expertise is required in the bathroom, for example. I remember hearing from an acquaintance a decade ago how much he enjoyed his kids once they got out of the baby stage and grew more self-sufficient. I thought then (judgmentally, as adults without children are free to do) how cold and remote he seemed when he talked about the early years of his kids’ lives. Fast forward two years and I knew exactly what he meant, then again three years later and I knew it again. Two of the best days of my life were when I detached my sons from my chest for the final times and moved them to strictly bottle-feeding.

The night before homeschooling began, I found a video from a Kiwi neuroscientist who stressed that children need our presence right now more than they need academic pushing. I felt the chains on my soul breaking, the heavy weight of the law lifting, until he left with a final word of recommendation: play. Play with your children. Oh God no. The law returns.

I have always struggled with being a nurturer.

Which is why, when we first moved to Australia three years ago and my children were reverting back to a level of dependence that was younger than their years, I had such a hard time. I was their home base, and they climbed all over their home base. I was their safe space, their familiar spot, their port in the storm of our lives, and while they clung to me, I wondered who would keep me afloat. (Obviously the answer is God, but for awhile I tried wine and cupcakes.) I spoke with friends and family back home over internet-based voice and video apps, drank too much rosé on our back deck, prayed the liturgy, and waited for rescue.

And it came. It came in the form of connections with new friends, in maintaining connections with the old, in finding a healthy alcohol/sugar intake, and adjusting to the new normal. It came in finding that, on my beach, there is always only one set of footprints in the sand, and honey they ain’t mine. It came in recognizing my own helplessness and the particular shape of my soul that fits that helplessness perfectly to God’s sufficiency. It came in knowing in an entirely new and practical way the One who loves me so much that he would send my family and me across the world to show it, and it came in finding out that he went with us.

Now you all get to find out what I did.

Lest that sound condescending, now I get to find it out too. Again. Now, in the throes of a worldwide pandemic, my children are once again climbing all over their home base. Who is also their homeschool. And who is so not cut out for the job.

I’m finding out, as you all are, what our loved ones’ faces look like on a computer screen and sound like over voice apps when we are used to seeing them across tables and on school playgrounds and, god help me, in the salon’s mirror. I’ve been doing this for awhile with my American loved ones, and now I’m also doing it with my Australian ones. And it is hard.

So no, it’s not the best time. But, much like when I wake up with my son’s feet in my face and his warm breath in my ear, it also…is.

I came home the other day to a letter in our mailbox, printed by the neighbour we still haven’t met four months after moving in. She was offering shopping or any other kind of assistance to any of us who needed it, so I texted and thanked her. And she texted back. And though we haven’t had a chance to connect in person yet, we have still connected.

A couple of days ago, I heard the strains of a familiar song floating from the house behind us and realized the kid there was playing “Lean on Me” on the piano. I’d never heard him play before, but I couldn’t imagine a more apt first song.

And last night, I was sitting outside when I heard applause break out nearby. I wondered who was having a party and thought about calling the police like the old lady I am when I realized that we’re doing it here too: clapping for the healthcare workers who are risking their lives on the front lines.

If our world weren’t so connected, this virus wouldn’t have become a pandemic. But if we didn’t find new ways of staying connected, we wouldn’t survive it. 

John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” This is what love is: it is not freedom as I so often perceive freedom—that is, an absence of responsibilities or attachments. It is those very attachments that often leave us gasping for air but without which we wouldn’t have a reason to live.

This is the only moment we have, as a God who reigns across time and exists outside its constraints deigns to be with us in the Now while having the Then and Yet fully covered. This is the moment—this fraught, uncertain, chaotic moment—in which he resides with us, closer than our children’s feet and our own breath, and his presence here is not just enough—it is everything. It is what makes now, Now. 

Sometimes I think back to when my kids were tiny, so dependent on me, nursing even, and I miss it…for a moment. Then I look at them now, becoming who they were made to be because of a love that includes mine but is so much bigger and more resistant to my insufficiencies, and I return to this moment and think no…no, this is the best time. The hardest, messiest, best time.