Like many who are not schoolteachers, NHS staff or other key workers, in these recent weeks I have been getting used to spending most of my time at home, getting very acquainted with Zoom and the various tools we are using for online teaching at the university where I work. It’s been quite enlightening (and at times quite shocking!) to see how this period of enforced restriction has affected my sense of time: little jobs can stretch out to fill a whole day, and often I will look at the clock (or the calendar!) and be startled to see how much time has passed. On the other hand, many of the ‘urgent but not important’ administrative work that has often filled my day as an academic has been put on hiatus, and this has given a quieter, more reflective colour to much of my time. Looking ahead, with most summer plans now postponed or cancelled, this altered experience of time is unlikely to change drastically any time soon. (Even as I write this, of course, I’m very aware that many will have radically different and much more stressful experiences in this period, particularly those with children or caring responsibilities.)
How can I best use the time that I now have? There’s of course a natural and healthy desire to put it to work in the service of visible ‘outputs’: research projects, teaching materials, even home organisation or DIY projects. But this desire can also feel like quite a burden, especially in a period when the dividing line between work and home life is so flimsy and the normal day-to-day feedback loops of social engagement, recognition and affirmation are so weakened. I don’t want to be held captive by the need to achieve something visibly ‘productive’ at every turn, simply in order to feel that my daily work still has meaning.
I’ve found encouragement and fresh perspective on this situation from a couple of sources in the last few weeks. The first has been the experience of planting and germinating seeds (yes, like much of Britain, I’ve turned to gardening as a coping mechanism in this period, with enjoyable if amateurish results). I’ve been startled by just how long it can take between planting a seed and seeing any visible growth: like laying the foundations of a house, a lot needs to happen underground, within the right conditions, before the results are revealed. It’s not a process we can rush or force; we just have to be patient.
The second source of perspective has come from Tom Wright’s fantastic biography of Paul, which I’ve been reading in this past week. Tracing Paul’s missionary journeys and reading the breathless enthusiasm of his letters, it’s easy to imagine his life as a relentless torrent of missionary ‘output’, fired by a zeal carried over from his Pharisaism; but Wright highlights the long period (potentially a decade) that Paul spent in Tarsus after his conversion and before any of his missionary activity. In Wright’s view, these seemingly empty years provided the foundation (the roots, if you like) of all Paul’s mature ministry: he ‘spent a silent decade deepening the well of scriptural reflection from which he would thereafter draw the water he needed’ . In fact, it is startling just how many Biblical figures (including Jesus) endured an extended period of growth in obscurity before embarking on their public ministry.
Fuelled by these two examples, I’ve been trying to shift my focus from visible ‘outputs’ and towards the kinds of real, lasting personal growth that this period of enforced solitude might make possible. Perhaps this can be a time where I learn to listen to God more closely, because I have more freedom in how I order my day; perhaps I can choose to rely on Him more, now that many of the usual attractions of daily live are on hold. Perhaps as I’m made more aware of my own weakness I can become more aware of His strength and sufficiency. Do you have hopes for ways you (or the Church) might grow and be transformed in this period?
 Tom Wright, Paul: A Biography (2018), p. 69.