Love in the Time of Covid-19

If you are interested in the way religious issues affect, and are affected by, current affairs and social movements, “Sunday” on BBC Radio 4, or its podcast, will give you plenty of food for thought.

Listening to the 15th November edition I was struck very powerfully by the contrast I heard in two responses to the Covid-19 pandemic in different faith contexts.

The first was evangelical pastor Regan King, who was committed to holding a church service in defiance of government restrictions. He talked about how the churches had “bent over backwards” to observe guidelines based on a “promise” that there would not be a second lockdown. He said “Our priority is fear of God,” and “We serve a greater law.”

When asked “What will you feel if, as a result of your decision, a member of your congregation gets ill, perhaps dies?” his response was this.

“It would be a tragedy, however, remember death is something that must come to everyone. We’ve developed a real idol of safety… We’re looking at hope beyond death…”

I’m sorry if I’ve misinterpreted this reaction. Only God knows anyone’s heart, and all I can do is talk about my human impression of what he said. And in all honesty I sensed a Pharisee spirit in both his words and his expression of them. The ritual of gathering on a Sunday was presented as more important than people’s lives. He tried to equate his rebellion against a temporary restriction with Jesus’s activism against engrained injustice. He was making a public demonstration of the goodness and value of his church’s ministry, rather than working quietly – preferably within the law – with vulnerable individuals, in the spirit of Matthew 6. And his callous remarks about death suggest he places little value on our Earthly lives. Why does he think we’re here?

The second interviewee was Priya Raja, whose mother recently died from Covid-19, and is now considering how to celebrate Diwali in the current circumstances.

After describing how her mother’s funeral could not take place in a normal way, but was adapted to respect Hindu rituals as fully as possible under the restrictions, she was asked “What’s your message to other people in the community who are preparing their Diwali celebrations?”

“I think Diwali is very important. It isn’t something that should be overlooked and if anything, with the year that we’ve had it is important to look at that time as hope and peace and reflection and celebrating the good times ahead. At the same point the one thing we’ve learned from this process is life is fragile. We weren’t expecting this, and this has happened, and it could happen to anybody, and that should be over and above getting together and celebrating. And we can celebrate, we can do mithais, we can get dressed up, we can have the diyas lit up, all within our own homes, without mixing, as per the government guidelines, and rightly so.”

Her humility, respect for law and life, and graceful, gentle spirit shine through her words. This is love. And this is someone who I would want to know and spend time with.

I don’t care what faith you claim to hold. If your religion is more important than your neighbour, there’s something you deeply misunderstand about your Creator.

(Image Source: The Indian Express, File Photo)

Do Not Worry

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:25-34 (NIVUK)

How Good!

I was surprised at how emotional I felt yesterday when I gathered with my friends to worship together in one building for the first time since March.

It was a beautiful experience, and this psalm seemed to fit the occasion.

How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.

Psalm 133

Comfort and Hope During Troubled Times

Don’t let familiarity breed contempt when it comes to these verses.  They are Jesus’ words, true now and always.

Comfort


Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry.

Matthew 11:28‭-‬30 NET

Hope


I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

John 16:33 NIVUK

The Road To Friendship

A few years ago, when I was “between churches,” I spent a season worshipping in many different denominations as a visitor, and felt that it was a very fulfilling experience. One group that I read about, but didn’t visit, was the Quakers – The Religious Society of Friends. I can’t remember my exact thought process at the time, but I think the main barriers were (a) the word “religious” in their formal title – it has negative connotations to me; (b) I was intimidated by the idea of silent worship – odd because I generally enjoy silence, but I suppose it made me worry that I would be stepping into a strange new world as an obvious “outsider”, compared with a “traditional” kind of service where I could just slip into the crowd, sing (or pretend to) and listen to a sermon with semblance of anonymity; and (c) there was no particularly convenient meeting house – which gave me enough of an excuse to allow the first two reasons to hold me back.

But I do recall being impressed with much of what I’d read about Quakerism, and it stuck with me.

Ironically, by the end of 2018 I found myself feeling like an outsider during traditional services. Neither the music or the message seemed to be connecting me with God, and hence I would feel uncomfortable socialising with my brothers and sisters because it felt like I was “faking it.” The circumstances leading up to this realisation were complicated, but conversations with leaders in the church didn’t bring comfort or new purpose, and so I drifted out of that community.

A lot of serious stuff went on during 2019. I had a mental health crisis which led, amongst other consequences, to taking over six months off work. As I recovered and found myself able to re-engage with the outside world, I must have felt something (or Someone) tugging my sleeve, and urging me to reconsider where I was going in my faith. I took another look at the article I’d read previously about Quakerism, and was impressed once again. This is what I read.

I was surprised by how much Friends’ beliefs correlated with my own.

  • “Quakers believe that there is something of God in everybody and that each human being is of unique worth.” You’d think that this would be standard, not just for all Christians, but for just about every person of faith. However, it doesn’t always seem so. You don’t need to look far to see people’s value going unrecognised for any number of reasons.
  • “Quakers seek religious truth in inner experience, and place great reliance on conscience as the basis of morality.” This may sound worrying, with a danger of slipping into the realm of moral relativism. But I do believe that when you have experienced a connection with God your conscience does become a very reliable guide. We’ve all seen disagreements and denominational splits based on interpretation of scriptural passages. I can argue with anyone that my actions are justifiable and bring up a bible verse to back me up – but I will know the truth inside as my conscience, my spirit, convicts me.
  • “They emphasise direct experience of God rather than ritual and ceremony. They believe that priests and rituals are an unnecessary obstruction between the believer and God.” From the first time Jesus described God as our Father it became clear that our relationship with Him is not to be filtered through human proxies. Yes, we can learn from others, just as we learn about other aspects of life from others, but our physical parents don’t require us to communicate with them via a third party unless something has gone seriously wrong, so why wouldn’t the same apply to our spiritual Father?
  • “Quakers integrate religion and everyday life. They believe God can be found in the middle of everyday life and human relationships, as much as during a meeting for worship.” This is something I’ve heard often from many church leaders, your faith is not just a two hour Sunday morning exercise. And I’ve always felt that my whole life should be a reflection of the image of God in which I’m made, although I have so often fallen so short of that standard.
  • “Quakers … are particularly concerned with human rights, social justice, peace.” I feel strongly about these matters, although I’ve sometimes struggled to articulate my concerns, or been afraid of the potential reaction if I do.
  • “Most Quakers regard the Bible as a very great inspirational book but they don’t see it as the only one, and so they read other books that can guide their lives.” You may well have noticed many times over the years that I’ve had trouble with the way some Christians (mis)use the Bible. I do believe that it is “God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” But that isn’t the same as being a literal account of the history of the world, or a complete guide to every aspect of human life, and it has certainly been twisted and used in many ways that God would not want. I also recognise that the light of God in each person means that the wisdom of other faiths has value, and can sometimes represent God’s truth in a clearer and more relatable way than misinterpreted Biblical text.
  • “Tolerance is part of the Quaker approach to life, so Quakers are willing to learn from all other faiths and churches.” I think I just said that.
  • “Quakers accept that all human beings contain goodness and truth, they do not accept value judgements based on race or gender, they welcome diversity.” This is all a consequence of every person being made in the image of God, and I would – respectfully – not have much time for anyone who disagreed with any of these beliefs.
  • “They are actively involved in social and political issues and believe in pacifism and non-violence.” I’ve become more politically engaged in recent years, as I’ve felt unable to just sit back and comply with – implicitly accepting – decisions that I believe are wrong and unjust. I like to regard myself as a pacifist, but not without qualms. I have overreacted in anger in the past, and I think there’s a limit to how much violence I could see being inflicted on myself, my family or my community without feeling the need to fight fire with fire. This is maybe the most challenging faith issue I’m working on currently.
  • “Doubt and questioning are valuable tools for spiritual growth.” My acceptance of this belief is evident throughout my blog, and conversations I have in the “real” world.
  • “Christ’s life demonstrates the full truth of God.” I believe this, and that is why I identify as a Christian.
  • “Quakers are non-judgemental about sex, which they see as a gift of God. Their attention is focused on the way in which it is used in human relationships.” Sadly I feel that sex, and sexuality, has been misused for purposes of subjugation and differentiation in many faiths, and somewhere in the noise, Christ’s central message of love gets lost.
  • “Quakers believe that human beings are stewards of the earth, and should care for it to ensure that each generation passes on to the next generation a world as good as or better than it received.” This is an area where I might say my spirit is willing but my body is weak. I feel a great concern for sustainability and climate justice, but I haven’t been as proactive as I need to be.
  • “Quakers believe that no one but God can join a couple in matrimony. They see marriage as more than a legal contract – it is a religious commitment. The couple promise to be loving companions and take each other as lifelong partners in a spirit of freedom and equality.” I would probably go even further and say that true marriage is only a religious (or spiritual) commitment. I accept the convention of legally recognising the commitment, as long as that doesn’t put freedom and equality at risk, but this is a societal add-on, not the original intent.

With so much in common, I felt compelled to visit a meeting, and found one that was much more conveniently located than I’d previously realised. On 18 August 2019 I dipped my toe in the water.

I was welcomed warmly, made to feel very comfortable and had the basics of the meeting for worship explained to me. It went exactly as the article I’d read had described: an hour of silent waiting punctuated by a couple of brief words from Friends, and ending with handshakes and a few notices. I was invited for tea and biscuits, and despite this always being my least favourite part of any Sunday (due to my strongly introverted leanings) I found myself actually feeling quite relaxed and part of the group.

I’ve attended every week since then, except when exceptional circumstances have prevented me, and I continue to attend during lockdown via Zoom. I soon felt quite strongly that this was where I belonged, but when I expressed this I was urged to take my time – as long as it takes – and learn more about Quakerism before committing myself to membership. Visitors (attenders) and seekers are always welcome, but this is not a society that actively seeks out new recruits, but rather it allows – and desires – prospective members first to be convinced.

What is it that gives me this sense of belonging? Several things. There are the people. They are similar enough to me that I recognise common interests and concerns, but different enough that I have something to learn from each one. They are the kind of friends I appreciate – caring and encouraging without being overbearing; recognising and respecting what I have to offer without demanding anything of me. It’s a community I enjoy being a part of.

There is the practical spirituality that seems to me to be the lifeblood of the society. What do I mean by that? First, whenever church affairs are being discussed, and decisions made, there is a real sense that all members are reaching into their experience and wisdom to discern as a group where the Holy Spirit is leading them. All voices are heard and respected, and the result is real confidence that the decisions are good ones. I’ve heard leaders of other churches refer to decision making in a similar way, but here I see it in action and I see it actually working. Second, Quakers are generally very active in society, campaigning and acting – peacefully – for the causes of peace, justice and equality that are so important to them. They walk the walk. And I’m not talking about those enthusiastic few souls you can find at any church who keep the mission work going – I’m talking about everyone. I don’t think it’s possible to be a passive Quaker. This is something that challenges but also energises me. I’m recognising how complacent I’ve been in the past, even when social injustices have made me very angry.

And there is the simple confidence that this is a group of people who epitomise what it means to be a Christian – to follow the way of Christ. That might sound odd when some denominations doubt that Quakers are Christians, notwithstanding their origin; and it might sound even odder when you consider that not all Quakers identify as Christian. But what I see is an outworking of the Spirit, a focus on the issues that Christ also focused on during His earthly ministry, very much a gospel-centred worldview. This is who I want to be.

I’m not a member yet, but it’s only a matter of time before that beautiful day. I find that I’m already identifying myself as a Quaker when I describe my faith to people. I talk about “our” values and beliefs. I feel that my journey of the last ten years or so has been some kind of education or apprenticeship in which I’ve been learning continually about Christ and myself, and how we connect. This is where we connect. Anticipation of the journey to come fills me with an excited fire.

The Parable of the Mysterious Stranger

In time of war in an occupied country, a member of the resistance meets one night a stranger who deeply impresses him. They spend that night together in conversation. The Stranger tells the partisan that he himself is on the side of the resistance – indeed that he is in command of it, and urges the partisan to have faith in him no matter what happens. The partisan is utterly convinced at that meeting of the Stranger’s sincerity and constancy and undertakes to trust him.

They never meet in conditions of intimacy again. But sometimes the Stranger is seen helping members of the resistance, and the partisan is grateful and says to his friends, ‘He is on our side.’ Sometimes he is seen in the uniform of the police handing over patriots to the occupying power. On these occasions his friends murmur against him; but the partisan still says, ‘He is on our side.’ He still believes that, in spite of appearances, the Stranger did not deceive him. Sometimes he asks the Stranger for help and receives it. He is then thankful. Sometimes he asks and does not receive it. Then he says, The Stranger knows best.’

Sometimes his friends, in exasperation, say, ‘Well, what would he have to do for you to admit that you were wrong and that he is not on our side?’ But the partisan refuses to answer. He will not consent to put the Stranger to the test. And sometimes his friends complain, ‘Well, if that’s what you mean by his being on our side, the sooner he goes over to the other side the better.’

Basil Mitchell

You can read more analysis of this in its original context here.

Reflections on Covid-19

I don’t know what I’m going to write. This post is for my “Christian Journey” blog, but I don’t know how comfortably it will fit. Covid-19 is part of all our journeys today, and I feel that I need to write about what I see, in others and in myself. I still don’t know what I’m going to write. I’ll just start, and see where I go.

I’ve been affected personally by the pandemic. Not as hard as many millions, but I’ve lost a friend of over 20 years who made me smile countless times. I don’t know if it’s that, or the loneliness of lockdown, but I’ve started getting quite upset, and angry, about some of the things I’m reading.

There’s the ridiculous conspiracy theories. As if this situation was deliberately engineered, or at least manipulated to subjugate or decimate the population. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen a huge number of bad decisions made in my own and other countries. Some people may have even made cynical attempts to gain from human misery. But whatever the genesis of this strain of coronavirus, its spread from the beginning has been the result of natural behaviours, viral and human. There is no evidence to the contrary, just theories concocted to satisfy particular world views. When I read the imaginations of conspiracists I don’t know how to feel. There’s anger that they and those who believe them are diverting precious time and energy from more helpful pursuits. There’s sadness that some hurting people will be fooled into believing fairy tales at a time when their emotions are most fragile and malleable. And there’s frustration that no amount of reasoned argument can change their mind, because if I don’t accept their narrative I’m either part of the problem or one of the gullible masses.

There’s the claims that the virus isn’t as contagious or as deadly as we’re told, and that the restrictions to our civil liberties are out of proportion to the threat. I’ve heard people suggest that the fact that the NHS hasn’t been completely overwhelmed shows that the UK government overreacted. I work in IT, and I have done for nearly 25 years, which means I was there at the heart of the Y2K panic. When we didn’t suffer blackouts and ATM failures and planes falling out of sky there was a large number of the population that ridiculed the effort and expense of fixing the “millennium bug.” I can tell you that there was a huge amount of code that had been written without any expectation of still running in the year 2000, or what the consequences might be. If the remedial work hadn’t taken place then it probably wouldn’t have caused an apocalypse but many companies and authorities would have suffered massive system failures and this would have led to all kinds of stresses for members of the public. Similarly, without social distancing and other precautions the already dreadful number of Covid-19 fatalities would definitely have been many times higher. Here’s an interesting article explaining how this can be demonstrated in responses to the 1918 influenza pandemic.

There’s the small number of religious leaders who don’t understand that God is omnipresent, who don’t understand that a church building is just a building, not the church, and who hold on to either a paranoid idea that government is trying to destroy religion by treating them the same as other groups, or a messianic belief that their congregations will be lost to the darkness if kept away from their physical presence for too long. I’m grateful to be part of a faith community that understands and works with the realities of this world while seeking practical ways to improve that reality for those who are truly oppressed.

And of course there are the political leaders who have failed to lead effectively. As I said to my friends on Facebook, I don’t expect perfection from members of the government any more than I would from any other human being. But I do expect a few things. I expect them to forego secrecy and spin in the face of a national and global crisis. I expect them to learn from their mistakes and from the successes of leaders elsewhere – not when this is all over, but now, while learning from mistakes could save lives. I told my friends there were three qualities I was looking for in our leaders: honesty, humility and compassion. Sadly in many countries, including my own, it’s hard to find leaders with all three of those qualities.

I don’t like the way the pandemic has highlighted the flaws in my own character. I’ve always known I have some hypocritical tendencies. I will look out of my window and make judgemental assessments of people walking or driving past, while trying so hard to control my own urge to go out for frivolous journeys and visits.

I like to think of myself as witty. It’s probably closer to the truth to say I have quite a dry, dark and bitter sense of humour. Part of me feels that this is the time for such humour to shine, but in fact as the death toll has risen things have got ever more serious, and I know that many of my humorous remarks would be inappropriate and hurtful, so I’m learning to rein them in.

And of course the situation we’re in is nurturing my negative emotions. There’s the anger and frustration I’ve already described. There are times of deep loneliness, sadness, bitterness and jealousy. My days have their bright moments as well, to be sure, but I feel that as lockdown continues the dark feelings get stronger.

What can I do? Trust God, of course, because through all our trials He is faithful. Remember that this will pass, and that those of us who survive will be stronger for what we’ve learned through it. And if all else fails, I’ll probably indulge in some chocolate. 🙂

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Psalm 23 (ESVUK)

Responding to the Pandemic

I’ve been wanting to say something here about Novel Coronavirus / Covid-19 / SARS-CoV-2 for a few weeks, but I struggled to find the right approach, and the right words. Fortunately Frank Viola today wrote a post that came very close to what I would have chosen, so I can direct you to his words:

It’s Not the Time to Binge on Netflix

He does a little self-promotion in his post, but that’s ok because the material he produces is generally excellent. I found the Martin Luther quote at the end of the post stunning.

All I will add to this is that there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This situation feels extraordinary to us because it is extraordinary to us, but similar events have happened throughout human history, and human beings have no doubt responded in all the same ways we are doing now.

I don’t want to discount the real pain and suffering of all kinds that the current situation is inflicting on people everywhere. The phrase “mourn with those who mourn” came to mind. Here is the passage that contains those words. This is for all times:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

Romans 12:9-19

A Prayer For Help

Why are you far away, Lord? Why do you hide yourself when I am in trouble? Proud and brutal people hunt down the poor. But let them get caught by their own evil plans!

The wicked brag about their deepest desires. Those greedy people hate and curse you, Lord. The wicked are too proud to turn to you or even think about you. They are always successful, though they can’t understand your teachings, and they keep sneering at their enemies.

In their hearts they say, “Nothing can hurt us! We’ll always be happy and free from trouble.” They curse and tell lies, and all they talk about is how to be cruel or how to do wrong. They hide outside villages, waiting to strike and murder some innocent victim.

They are hungry lions hiding in the bushes, hoping to catch some helpless passerby. They trap the poor in nets and drag them away. They crouch down and wait to grab a victim. They say, “God can’t see! He’s got on a blindfold.”

Do something, Lord God, and use your powerful arm to help those in need. The wicked don’t respect you. In their hearts they say, “God won’t punish us!” But you see the trouble and the distress, and you will do something. The poor can count on you, and so can orphans. Now break the arms of all merciless people. Punish them for doing wrong and make them stop.

Our Lord, you will always rule, but nations will vanish from the earth. You listen to the longings of those who suffer. You offer them hope, and you pay attention to their cries for help. You defend orphans and everyone else in need, so that no one on earth can terrify others again.

Psalm 10, Contemporary English Version

I’m not sure what led me to this psalm last week, but when I read it I was immediately reminded of many powerful people in today’s world that seem to fit the description of the “wicked” given here. And I recognised the frustration of the psalmist, wondering how and why God allows these people to apparently thrive.

But their “victory” is temporary, while God’s is eternal. Their “freedom” is an illusion, while freedom in Christ is deep and real.

We can cry out to God, and pray for justice. And we can do our part, large or small, in bringing it about. But no matter how dark the world becomes we can never lose hope, because the Light of the World has already overcome the darkness.

John 1:5, John 3:19-21, John 8:12, Ephesians 5:6-20

Leaving Auschwitz

I’ve heard people say that you can’t grasp the magnitude of the horrors perpetrated at Auschwitz until you have been there.

I visited today and I can confirm that what people say is true. In fact I don’t think I can comprehend it even now, after a three hour guided tour. It may be further beyond me now than it was yesterday.

The word ‘extermination’ was used frequently. I don’t like the word because in a way it seems to legitimise the Nazi view of Jews and others as a sub-human pest to be eradicated. ‘Death’ was also common – death walk, death barrack, and so on. But death sounds clean and natural, and there was nothing clean or natural about the death camps.

The only word that seems right to me at this moment is murder. And what I witnessed today was the gruesome evidence of the industrialisation of murder. And that inevitably leads us to ask many questions of why?

I’ve tried, in my less than adequate way, to answer the question of evil in previous posts, for example Is That All There Is. I can’t add anything new to that debate, I just want to briefly reflect on what the knowledge and experience of evil does to us.

I don’t think it leaves anyone unmoved. It either draws you closer to God, or further away. For me, the critical moment was when I entered the ‘Hair Room’. I felt my heart break, weighed down by sorrow and compassion for those poor (mostly) women. And as I was drawn closer to them and their memory, I also found myself drawn closer to God, who created them, and who loved each one of them more than I can imagine.

I think there’s something very profound connecting the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust and the suffering of Christ on the Cross. They are not the same thing, and I don’t have words to describe the connection I feel. I just know that there is a deep, deep significance in what I saw today, that somehow magnifies the life of every one of the murdered millions, and also magnifies the love of Christ for each one of them, and for each one of us.