Channeling our creative energy in a time of pandemic

Beverly Lapp. (Credit: Peter Ringenberg)

From Beverly Lapp, Vice President and Academic Dean

In the early days of facing a pandemic, new levels of productivity seemed to be all around. Musicians were some of the first, sharing live performances at prolific rates on social media. One friend decided he would post a song every day played on a different instrument “until this thing is over.” I considered what I might do as a musician during COVID-19, and impulsively ordered a microphone to enhance home recording efforts while sheltering in place. Three weeks later my piano remained untouched. In a time of crisis, my consumer self was overfunctioning while my artistic self stayed silent.

Other forms of productivity emerged. An AMBS student playfully suggested we should initiate a new course about pastoral care in COVID-19. I responded that I was assigning him to teach the course and that the syllabus was due in a few days. He emailed me an impressive syllabus a day earlier than the fake deadline I had provided. I thought I was calling his bluff, but he called mine.

On social media another AMBS student asked if anyone else on campus would be interested in learning American Sign Language so there could be communication through apartment windows. The usual banter ensued, and when someone suggested that studying ASL would be a good project for all of us at AMBS during shelter-in-place, I added my own comment: “Let’s pace ourselves, friends.”

Many of us are overwhelmed with resources and ideas. My day could be so filled with webinars about how to do things well during a pandemic that there would be no time to do the things.

As a dean, my creative energies beyond usual tasks have been centered on working with others on how we adapt to current realities. Communication is more important than ever, both internally and externally. Consultations with peers in partner institutions are a critical resource and even a comfort as we share our planning strategies. One recent call reached across nearly 8,000 miles to an administrator at Meserete Kristos College (MKC) in Bishoftu, Ethiopia. After agreeing that we had no choice but to postpone the summer courses three AMBS professors were slated to teach at MKC this summer, my colleague said, “Beverly, our countries and our institutions will meet this challenge with God’s help.” She then spoke words to me from Isaiah 40: “Those who trust in the Lord will renew their strength, soar on wings like eagles, run and not grow weary, walk and not faint.” (cf. Isaiah 40:31). I breathed gratitude for this message of assurance from a member of our global AMBS community. 

Losses abound as science informs next steps on levels from international to local. All the while, the canon of art, scholarship, theology, humor, worship, care-giving resources, and so much more is growing exponentially. Advocates are finding new ways to seek justice for those whose disadvantage is compounded in this crisis. In the midst of this initial creative rush, and as we wonder what is being called forth in us for the longer term, we see tragedy unfolding, and know it will touch us deeply and closely.

One of my new routines is a weekly open call with AMBS students to reflect on what we are learning and experiencing during these strange weeks. We recently talked about our anxious souls and distracted brains, and how we find we need more sleep and creative breaks to engage with art, nature, or exercise. And yet, these can feel like indulgences when there is so much work to do. As we wrapped up our call, I suggested that we honor our resting and creating impulses as sustaining measures in such a time as this.

Then, during a Holy Week unlike any other we’ve known, I listened to my own advice. I found myself at the piano, returning to a favorite volume of hymn settings by Carla Klassen, a Mennonite pianist and church musician based in Ottawa, Ontario. My Easter weekend obsession became her arrangement of “Low in the grave he lay.” The text I know so well echoed again and again through my consciousness as I sought to get the notes secure under my fingers. After allowing my artistic self to function more fully for a few days, my brain and soul felt reordered to embrace the work that is in front of me. 

Robert Lowry’s hymn is a musical and spiritual journey from grief to wonder to rejoicing. In a time when our lack of control is laid bare with such starkness, it reminds me that I know how this story ends. He arose. He arose. Alleluia, Christ arose.

My rendering is shared with permission from Carla Klassen, whose work can be found at her website: https://thehymnproject.net/