With the song over, they both took a lavish bow and looked conspiratorially towards me for that fatherly approval so coveted by children of all ages. And of course, they got it: I wowed and wooed and whooped and clapped. They laughed and jumped around, my lovely girls, 7 and 4 (odd names, I know) delighted that their rendition and accompanying choreography of 'Friend Like Me' from Disney’s Aladdin had landed as intended.
As I sat there feeling so proud of them, my own emotions were perfectly choreographed. I had trained myself not put a foot wrong during this nightly routine.
"Ok, I’ll speak to you tomorrow. Bye, lovelies. Daddy loves you."
The Covid-19 lockdown has strangulated my regular routine of seeing my daughters and it has been weeks since I last looked into their non-pixelated eyes.
When, at the tail end of 2019, my wife informed me that she wanted a divorce and was starting a new life nearly three hours away, I expected that decimating rejection to serve me a pain which would remain unparalleled. I was dreadfully wrong. If divorce routs you emotionally, being separated from your children is more like a massacre - an emotional scalping. A global pandemic simultaneously riding into town obviously exacerbates matters.
In terms of social distancing, I’ve absolutely nailed it. I've stayed 150 miles away from my family during the entire time. The large distance between our two homes makes a simple switch of children between parents impractical and ill-advised for now. It's not just me. For parents and guardians across the nation, this storyline is living and active. We are bereft, reduced to YouTube subscribers for the lives of our own children; desperate for new content.
Finding hope in the grief
The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, "The best thing one can do when it is raining is to let it rain." Our feelings of grief are real and authentic. But while the phrase "It’s OK not to be OK" is a helpful opening clause, it should be followed by a comma, not a full stop. It may sound reassuring and wise, but when it becomes your mantra or life motto, it can serve merely to encourage perpetual brokenness when, surely, as Christians we can offer much better additions. "It’s OK not to be OK, but in his presence is fullness of joy; but you are no longer a slave, you are a son/daughter; but he directs his angels concerning you."
As a professional storyteller and someone who has spent most of his life obsessed with the structures and motifs of narrative, I know of only one story which offers me any genuine hope in this situation: the Gospel. The true myth of Jesus Christ is the one place where my soul can be anchored in a fretful sea of turmoil. In a lot of Eastern thought suffering is described as ‘maya’ (illusion). The place of suffering within that philosophy is not to ride it out or grow through it, but simply to detach yourself from it as you would a night terror or hallucination. Personally, being told that the pain I’m wracked with is spiritually unreal doesn’t scratch my theological itch. Suffering is not an urban myth.
At the cross, however, I see a different story. I see the creator of the universe acknowledging a real problem with suffering, meeting that problem head-on and offering the light of dawn beyond the night. In John 16:33, Jesus makes it clear that while we will have real trouble in this world, he has overcome the world. Consequently, peace is a real option: readily accessible, lavishly gifted.
The Western world has witnessed its mortality unceremoniously unveiled in a way that would have seemed ridiculous on New Year’s Day 2020. Until now the Western Church was comfortable. We were both saved and safe. But we’re not safe anymore, so what does that leave us with? We may need to rewrite our ideas of what a happy ending means. Jesus Christ is not a magical genie. But he is the Lord. He promises that every tear shall ultimately be wiped dry and that, while we are in this present darkness, we are not alone. When you dispense with the idea that Jeremiah 29:11 is the only verse in the Bible, you are still left with the rather splendid news that God will never leave you nor forsake you; that there is neither death nor life, angels nor demons, neither toilet roll famine nor a dearth of binge-able box sets that can separate you from the love of God - no matter who else you are separated from.
Letting it rain is one thing, but you still have choices about whether you put on a coat, stay outdoors, dance etc. You can still choose to live, not simply to exist. It requires you, I am learning, to seek out and take hold of the gifts and blessings in this deathly scenario: to be Lazarus.
Each week my girls are sending me footage of their antics which will outlast Covid-19. They are learning songs, writing stories, creating characters. Every few days my older daughter sends 200 words of a story we’re crafting together. I read it, write the next few paragraphs and send it back. I’m using my phone to film myself reading their bedtime stories. We’re watching live streams of arts and crafts simultaneously, then discussing and displaying our handiwork. We make do - until we can mend.
As Paul says in Acts 26: "I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening today may become what I am, except for these chains." I’m choosing to let my prison become my playground.
Amidst the grief of seeing my family broken and not seeing my beloved daughters, I can still rejoice. I can still choose to praise the Lord, because I honestly never had a friend like him. And I can rest safe in the knowledge that the things we really desire beneath the cosmetic blessings of the modern age – freedom, hope, joy, the knowledge of unfailing love – are just as available now as they were before someone ate a bat.
Andy Kind is a comedian, preacher and writer.