So much has changed in our daily lives in the past few weeks, that it’s easy to focus on all that is lost: freedom to go wherever we please, whether down the road or overseas; watching or playing our favourite sport; and choices about physical proximity and contact with friends and family. Not far beneath those constraints imposed on us are threats to our world view and cultural values: our national sense of being in control of our safety and security; enjoying recreational activities more as a right than a privilege; and feeling somewhat immune from global problems, insulated by oceans and immigration laws and wealth.
I have to admit I’m a “glass half-full” person, so maybe that colours my perspective, but I actually feel more hope than usual for us as a church, and for us as a nation. All the distress of recent months – droughts, fires, floods and now Coronavirus, has been a huge wake-up call. Complacency is out the window, as we all scramble to re-organise our lives, care for our family and others in need, and process it all emotionally and spiritually.
As I pray “where are you Lord?” and “what are you saying to me/us?”, I feel God offering us new opportunities and lessons that we are now in a better position to receive. From my long list, I will focus on three, which I summarise as humility, empathy and faith.
I’ve been taught that the virtue of humility is all about having a “right-sized” view of ourselves. Each human life is unique and precious. Yet we are not God, did not create the universe, and despite our best efforts there’s lots about life that we have little or no control over. In the affluent West, our culture claims that we can and should control our lives – largely achieved by accumulating wealth for a certain lifestyle, health care, retirement, insurance, etc. The great losses that we barely notice are that we no longer need to rely on God, so our faith muscles become weak by lack of exercise, and our interdependence with other people fades out of view.
Events of recent months that are a shock to average Australians – being unable to control the forces of nature, and having restrictions imposed on us – are part of normal life for most marginalised people, especially in the majority world. They are a great reminder of the reality that as humans we have little control over the forces of nature and the timing of death, and in fact our faith is vital to our existence. When my own inability to control the situation is so obvious, I suddenly find it easier to switch into relying on God, so that I stress less and can handle being much more flexible than usual.
During this pandemic, there is much to be feared for our friends and partners living in majority world contexts, where food security and medical facilities are stretched thin under normal circumstances. But they are way ahead of us in knowing their dependence on God, and knowing that suffering and loss are part of life. May we learn from them, as well as pray for and support them.
Empathy is about listening to others and understanding life from their perspective. I see two major opportunities for us to grow in our empathy with others.
Firstly, all of us in Australia are not in the same boat – the threat of sickness, and the restrictions on our lives, affect us in very diverse ways. Many people are instantly unemployed, stuck at home in a domestic violence situation, seriously ill, or facing mental health challenges with less support than usual. Others are busy juggling working from home alongside family needs, or perhaps even doing their usual quiet life at home with fewer interruptions. It’s a great opportunity to “lift our game” in the area of listening to others and responding to what’s happening for them, rather than jumping to conclusions or assuming they are just like me.
Secondly, as a global community we are in very different situations. In Australia, even though Coronavirus testing is quite targeted, a quarter of a million people have been tested, with only five thousand who tested positive, of whom 21 so far have died. It IS serious and scary.
But what about 1.3 billion people living in India, with very limited testing, an already inadequate health care system, and about 80% of the population working in the informal economy with no income security or paid leave? Meanwhile a friend in Indonesia was refused testing at the public hospital, despite being very sick with most of the standard symptoms, apparently because his condition wasn’t serious enough.
This pandemic is a great opportunity to walk the difficult path of empathy with the people we know and love here, alongside empathy for the world’s poor whose lives are permanently in crisis, and even more so now.
What better opportunity to grow in faith, than in uncertain times? Hebrews 11:1 reminds us that faith is about sure hope in uncertain things – it seems almost contradictory, but faith by definition involves uncertainty. The other biblical moment that springs to mind for me, is Easter and the confused disheartened disciples, in shock and grief at Jesus’ death, trying to still believe.
What springs to mind is a conversation a few years ago in India, with a recently joined team member who was adjusting to life in an urban slum. Tammy (name changed) was struggling to hold onto gospel hope in the face of such injustice and suffering. She had come from an affluent place where a theology of God’s provision and protection matched with life experience, and promises of God’s Kingdom coming seemed believable. But how to experience and believe that now? Together we realised that in an affluent context, it’s much easier to identify with “Easter Sunday” theology, where we experience the joy of victory over the grave. In an urban slum in a majority world country, “Good Friday” theology resonates much more with life: anguished submission to God’s will, voluntary endurance of suffering for the benefit of others, and probably confusion and lament on the part of disciples.
Perhaps this year we have greater opportunity to explore and develop this “Good Friday” theology, which is actually the foundation upon which the joy and victory of the resurrection can be truly experienced.