Lockdown letter: gratitude — Michelle Vimpany

The front cover of ‘Lockdown Letters’ which can be purchased on the Mentor’s Collective website

Port Elizabeth author and publisher Michelle Vimpany penned this “lockdown letter” in which she shares a personal journey from heartbreak to gratitude during the Covid-19 lockdown. Afterwards she initiated a countrywide community project which resulted in a book, Lockdown Letters in which 40 women — including 19 first-time authors — share their unique, God-centered lockdown stories.

On the mountainous hills of Plettenberg Bay, a plethora of vines has pioneered the fresh grapes of Bramon boutique Wine Estate. We sat in her vineyards for lunch, at a table overlooking elephants and the Tsitsikamma mountains, sharing an exquisite tapas meal with good, wise, camping friends of old. This day, our spiritual conversations were short-lived. We received a desperate phone call from our usually jovial teenage daughter:

“Dad, did you know our house is on fire!?”
“NO! Are you serious?”
“Yes dad, the house is on fire!!!”
“Rick, your children wouldn’t joke about something like that!”

Frantic discussions quickly ensued around the shaken tapas table. In a single moment, the place that our hearts called home was about to change; never to be the same. On that day we would suddenly have no bed in which to sleep, no warm clothes to wear, and no internet to connect with people or run our business. Our two flustered teenage children were frantic, having to cut short their annual summer holiday with us and pack up our campsite in Plettenberg Bay, while mom and dad frantically raced to Port Elizabeth to confront a devastating house fire.

The ramifications were significant. As we approached burning charcoal, crashed ceilings, fallen roof tiles, hot smoke and sopping wet floors, “Why?” was the precipitous, constant question, prodding its unwelcome way through my racing head.

“Because you are privileged,” I sensed the Lord say.

What! Should I be grateful because my house is on fire? Or happy over destroyed sentimental belongings? Should I be over the moon that I am overwhelmed; that my happy family’s daily routine is about to change considerably without enough notice to reorganise ourselves… Some creative, calm, how?

Contemplating, I stood in the street alongside paparazzi, neighbours, strangers and extended family, experiencing an overwhelming sense of support from the Port Elizabeth community. Before my teary eyes rose a whopping red fire engine pouring water over a flaming catastrophe that would take an entire year to rebuild. In an instant, I moved from being refreshed and reinvigorated on holiday, to utterly broken. My heart crushed alongside my community at the unexpected sight of trying to save what was left of our burning family home. Not because of cherished household belongings, nor the heartbreak of us humans that lived in her, but because of those that loved her; her visitors. This was a home that silently hosted church groups, ministered to the weak and the fatherless, and supported the poor. She cared dearly for the elderly and encouraged all those who entered her front timber and glass doors. Watching relentless flames falling in splendour, I pondered: “Where will they go now?”

Our burned home in Linkside, Port Elizabeth

A few weeks later, while our crashed house stood bare in the street’s “hall of fame” for all to see, a two-day challenging hike with friends seemed like a great idea for my husband. It was a manly mission of encouragement through the rugged terrain and ravines alongside the streams of the Winterhoek Reserve mountains feeding the KwaZungha river, an hour outside of Port Elizabeth. Their expedition, however, quickly became a fight for life. Another freak accident took place! During a rest on a kloof-top, a fireball exploded (sound familiar?).

I KID YOU NOT. From one gas canister to another!

“Plans have changed, we’re coming back today,” Rick said over the phone. “Some of the guys have been seriously hurt. I’ll explain later. I’m not sure when I’ll be home. Don’t speak to the ladies yet. I need to go. I’ll call you back when I can. Trust me!”

I panicked, and prayed.

Rick chaperoned his critically-injured best friend down the rugged ravine they’d just climbed up, and transported him to St George’s Hospital, where he was admitted to theatre for 60% third-degree burns. Rick then went back to the mountain to assist another gravely-stabilised friend to a helicopter. This was followed by a third desperate climb on the same mountain to find a lost teenager who had hiked ahead, unaware of the accident.

While our friends convalesced and our fallen home was emptied of burned belongings, a national lockdown was about to happen. Our family farm in the Karoo would welcome a peaceful break from our current dramatic chaos. We scurried to get our son back from his studies in Cape Town and hours later, all jumped into our double cab truck. Travel between provinces was restricted from 8pm that day. In the nick of time, our fatigued family drove into the Northern Cape Province. We arrived at the farm with our camping clothes, our dogs, and the treasured gifts of redeemed home-cooked meals given to us by our church family. We left behind a smashed house with its burned belongings, two critically injured friends in hospital, and the burden of a now-vacant rental property to look after from a distance. I reiterated my troubles to God in prayer. But the seemingly mundane answer to my “why” God question, profoundly remained: “Because you are privileged, my daughter.”

“Seriously! Am I sensing right? God, are you being funny here? Like you were with Moses when you constantly reminded him to build the temple in the precise way you told him to, on Mount Sinai? Again, and again…
“The way I told you on the mountain, Moses. Yes, like I told you on the mountain. Moses, remember that time on the mountain, exactly like that!” 1

By this time our homeless family had moved from rental booth-to-booth-to-booth2, beating around the “noes” and the “I am privileged” bush, with catastrophes and broken people by our side ̶ searching for better answers to all our sudden mishaps. Surely it was not just for God to say: “No, you can’t stay in the previous ‘temple’ you’ve lived in”? Nor to tell me: ‘I told you so. It’s just a “No” because… you are privileged”?

Again I sensed the Lord say: “You are privileged, my daughter.”

On the farm, I searched for God’s resolve, and waited. I found no contentment in the response that God kept giving to me, and struggled to accept that I was affluently favoured when the world around me was crashing, fast. I brought my reiterations to God’s attention, desperately seeking better answers to all our sudden mishaps.

“God, You and I need to talk about ‘mountains’… The government has now prohibited us from travelling between provinces. That means we can’t get home – no rebuilding of our dilapidated house, and isolation on the farm. No technology for news, no Harvest church YouTube videos, no leather boots to walk the veld, no electricity in the day, too few warm clothes, just swimming costumes and camping stuff in winter. Really, God? And by the way God, we can’t visit our friends in hospital, our water is running out because the wind isn’t blowing, and a lamb has lost her mother in the camp. Am I supposed to feel blessed and privileged when everything under my feet is a great big mountainous “no” and the windmill won’t work? Where have all the ‘yesses’ gone, God? Have they disappeared from my life like feathers flying off a shot duck, a zillion-times unexpectedly? And God, our son’s career has been put on hold and our daughter’s matric year has been disrupted, and more than half of our tenants cannot even pay their rent now…must their businesses close? Is this the God I know?”

“My daughter, you are privileged,” I sensed the Lord say!
“Seriously?” I replied.

One unique day, not far from my many “no” dilemma’s and :why” woes, God took me by the hand for a little dose of Himself. The heavens opened. In front of me our faithful Creator sketched stripes of blue rain from a massive heavy Karoo cloud, bursting and pouring torrents of sacred water over the thirsty farmlands in the near distance. For months I had tried to catch God’s attention. This day, on the broad stone stoep, He certainly had mine.

Burst Karoo raincloud (Good Hope Farm)

If He is an awesome God, should we not be awestruck by Him? In a wonder of nature before my eyes, a spectacular lightning show began dancing across the sky, showing off an Almighty power. This surprising display would last until twilight as the torrential rain cloud on the horizon hugged the farmhouse. In a circular motion, it showered over the farm’s barren dam and lands, as it crawled in the low sky around the front and back of the stead. I stood in a miracle, safe and dry on the stoep, in the middle of the commotion, with the sounds of pouring water, then hail, and electric bangs and flashes reaching out all around me. I should have been scared. I should have gone inside. But my heart breathed a sigh of thankfulness: “The drought has broken.” A silent reflection in the storm that quickly pulled me entirely in, away from my thirsty woes, to awe. I was ready to drink deeply from God’s cup and remember what I’d forgotten— history.

That morning in the minus two degrees wintery chill, I’d read over the pages of Nehemiah on the same stone stoep where I now stood. Shivering. My heart had started to warm from a sudden righteous anger. Blushed with the morning’s inspired biblical pages, I sat and waited on. I strongly began to detest how the Israelites tragically acted to God’s faithfulness and protection toward them. I couldn’t imagine being inconsiderate like they were. I wanted to whack them over the head with a whopping giant stick, TWICE! They became arrogant, they didn’t obey commands, they refused to listen, and they even appointed a leader to return them to their slavery. This is all a very familiar jingle, happening in the lawlessness of our world (and my heart) today. But the response most saddening, the one I remembered in Nehemiah’s pages as I stood surrounded by white, iced-up fields amidst the marvel of a bursting cataclysmic phenomenon that lit the entire twilight sky, was one I’d overlooked that morning. Reminiscing in awe, it abruptly gripped me… THEY FAILED TO REMEMBER MIRACLES!3

Was I like the Israelites? What was I doing here on a massive Karoo stoep, moping ungratefully like I was a slave? Arrogant about the silly little “noes” I’d lost and the have-not’s and could-have-had’s and should-have-had’s, when I was looking at a flawless miracle and could trust God with my life!

“You are privileged,” I sensed the Lord say.

In front of me was something far grander than a heavy storm. When we dwell on hardship, we fail dismally with remembrance. We forget the miracles of today; our frail eyes fail to see God’s faithfulness, just like the Israelites did. Lift the unseen, to the realm of the seen, I heard God say. Right there, in the middle of the storm I fell on my knees, convicted to confess my sin. I began to embrace a new season of supernatural strength, in my newfound skill of “on the back of REMEMBRANCE – get yourself to THANKS”. It was a relevant expression after waiting on God, established to quench spiritual thirst by being dead honest; untangling strangled frustrations on His lap; getting stuck into His Word; and patiently listening. We want God’s attention, but sometimes, He just wants ours in order to give us His power. Excitement swiftly stirred over my sopping wet heart, sweeping in an inexpressible warm joy that I couldn’t fathom for my sorrows. Yes, yes, yes! I am privileged. God is faithful!

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Our son, Dylan on the old tractor

As I mulled over all our recent calamities, I realised that they had left us incredibly blessed. Our home life had multiplied with unbelievable goodness: Special time with a dad of 91 and extra days with a son who should have been overseas. On the farm, our son cranked up the old tractor, invited me to sit next to him, graded the roads, built a motocross track, and repaired the old broken chicken coop. We gained three hens, and Ronaldo the rooster to keep in check the hens our son bought.4 At the desperate need of food, Benjamin the pot-shot hare hung in the tree; we ate from the pastures of the veld. We laughed with a precious young girl who picked bouquets of beautiful flowers and encouraged us with her sweet spirit. We cried with a brother to overcome strongholds.

For a little while, we lived with the sheep, owls, buck and eagles on our doorstep, doing God’s work. My computer ceased to operate while I tended to anxious hearts. The sun porch held our own church service with hot chocolate and marshmallows on a Sunday. Our daughter began online schooling from the farm next door. We had great fun on wet gravel roads as she explored her newfound driving skills. It wasn’t long before I could hand over the keys and she surprised her dad with a little independence of her own. The neighbours helped us, and we helped the neighbours. We thanked God when our hiking friends recovered. God’s words began to beat in my heart more strongly. My many “whys” and “noes” didn’t need any “yesses”. Even though I still had meltdowns, each time they occurred, I could look further into the eyes of Love Himself, drink deeply, be still, and draw strength from a miracle. God’s faithfulness and His goodness reigned supreme amidst our catastrophes.
Rainclouds are faultless.

Dylan grading the road

Finally, my heart had changed. Our faith must beat with God’s heart; remember history; and serve eternity. Colossians 3:15 tells us to, “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which as members of one body you were also called. And be thankful.” On that day I kneeled in the middle of the bursting Karoo storm cloud with chaos all around me, my heart could only see the wisdom of God when I turned to look through the eyes of gratitude. When I paused to drink of love Himself, to find history; those forgotten memoirs in my surreal predicaments that I could be grateful for.

Presently, we play an important role in history. The next generation will be learning about our ”lockdown letters” in their classrooms. We will soon be comparing notes of “quick, get the stale matzos” and cold coffees in the place of bread and grape juice, at the sudden grasp of online communion. When we are discouraged, we must not forget the past or come under condemnation over our silly imperfections of yesterday. The world has coined the past with negative connotations. We CAN live a victorious life in a catastrophe, by pausing to remember a miracle. Remembrance precedes thanks and spurs on gratitude for God’s life.

I deserve no glory for this first-hand revelation, since I don’t always feel thankful, appreciative, or grateful during catastrophes or crises. I don’t always like to pause and reflect on the hurtful past or feel confident to flamboyantly share my collapsed faith with a stranger. And I don’t always find God in the moments I’m pulled from tasting plush grapes beside lavish vines with good friends on extraordinary seaside mountains.

Join me today to pause, and be thankful to God for what He has done in your life through mishaps. Praise Him for who He is, and let us give Him thanks for what we do have. When we thank God, He acts on our behalf because He inhabits our praises.5 He says, “I am with you”, and because He is with us, our thanks heralds truth and revelation. Cultivating our lives on a bed of thankfulness is vital because it enables us to touch the wisdom of God. A thankful heart moves us beyond our arrogant self. It takes us to a special historical place where we remember God’s faithfulness and can contrast our actions with the way the Israelites responded. It is a place where we connect with the Holy Spirit, and what our Spirit knows is often far greater than what our mind has yet to comprehend. That is how we can operate beyond human understanding, particularly when the world around us is failing.

Taryn (daughter in Matric) and Richard (husband) on their way to school at the farm next door.

When I consider the catastrophes in my life, I’ve gained more than “things”. Precious perspectives are found when we fall on hard times and uphold a humble heart of thanks: Insight, knowledge, intelligence, far greater understanding, creativity, imagination, and an extraordinary empathy and compassion for others.

In the wild tempest explosions of the past few difficult months, I’ve learned that our fallen earthly “darlings” can all soon be rebuilt. Or bought! Yet, I am most thankful to know that I will never silently pitch the “unprivileged” label again. Our calling in life in a broken world is not disadvantage or mediocre living. God never expected that we should settle for less in our shattered moments. We are to drink deeply of Him. When we are “deprived”, we can search our hearts in our commotions for that which we are thankful, and turn catastrophe into gratefulness by inviting God’s work into our sorrow. In God’s wisdom, our calamities are renovated to boast the affluent glory of God – for our community, and for our desperate world, to extend our quenched conversations to the hills in works and deeds. This is ultimately for the unification of the Church, and for the greater good of the salvation of man.

The experience of gratitude is a God-breathed demonstration. It is one in which we are chosen to be highly favoured with the extraordinary work of our Father releasing His love to the Earth, replenishing and beating stronger in our hearts more than anything else. Of late, I’ve personally encountered this strength from God. It comes in the form of a message received through the leading of the Holy Spirit; an intentional engagement that begins in the pause of waiting, leads to remembrance, then advances through a grateful heart of thanks. It is an experience; a thought: one that is quiet, gentle, unrushed, and soundless. A peaceful encounter with a profound supernatural sway: one in which we personalise the glory and awe of God, and dance in the sacred faithfulness of His love. It is God marrying the Kingdom of Heaven into us.

Our daughter, Taryn with the first published book of Lockdown Letters received.

God is with us when we thank Him, and in the light of this most simple truth, we must consider that the impact of a thankful heart is immensely powerful. Possibly more than we can imagine! Our gratitude will ALWAYS open the door for the supernatural work of God in our hearts.

Lest we forget; REMEMBER THE MIRACLE!
By means of the storm,
God stills the sea;
Hush crashed waves
Of Galilee.
Tell Jonah to bring
A nation to its knees;
In the rage
Of a tempestuous sea.
By means of the pause,
God raises His hand;
Provides the lamb
For the sinful man.
Soars my soul
Up to His Throne,
Takes a sunbeam, as a pencil
And draws, me at home.
By means of the sick,
God heals the blind;
Awakens the dead man;
Stands the paralysed.
My broken accents
Declare I am weak;
Yet, He perfects me;
Calls nature to speak.
By means of absence,
God feeds the crowd;
Walks on the water
He changes to wine.
Frees the captive,
Parts the sea;
Great is the LORD
Almighty, Majesty.
By means of miracles,
wonders, and signs,
God unfolds His glory
In mine.
With Heaven’s power
I’ve escaped the tomb;
To Him all glory
And honour is due.
I am homeless PRIVILEGED!6

Michelle Vimpany

Notes
1 See Exodus 25: 8, 40, Exodus 26:30, Exodus 27:8, Exodus 31:11.
2 “Booths” were small temporary thatched shelters such as a house or shed of palm fronds and plants designed to remember the wilderness journey from Egypt to Canaan when God made the people live in them (Leviticus 23:33-43).
The Feast of Booths celebration was held at the end of the agricultural year when the grapes and olives were harvested in Israel.
3 See Nehemiah 9:16-18.
4 Unfortunately, Ronaldo was attacked by a mongoose, and died. With all the hens!
5 See Psalm 22:3.
6 Remember; A holy day (your catastrophe), the vine (Him), and spare a thought for the homeless (those that need to know Him).

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