The coronavirus pandemic is scary in both the scale of things and the speed it spread (taking advantage of how interconnected global travel has made us). It’s also scary for individuals who may have caught it (and their families) and for those who are worried that they might. Maybe you are worried about the dystopian nature of the measures being taken to try to contain the outbreak. I don’t intend to diminish the significance or impact of this. I pray that you may find some comfort about it.
When I was little and had been naughty one of the punishments was being sent to my room to “think about what I had done.” I wonder whether this virus is providing us with a moment that otherwise would not have existed to think about what we have done: as the normal commerce, travel and activity of 21st Century life are suspended does it give humanity an opportunity to pause and reconsider what’s important? Will a period of isolation help us realise how much we need one another? Will the inability to do lots of the things we take for granted mean we no longer take them for granted when they are restored? Will there be things we have to do without that we realise we actually can manage without and don’t restore them to our life afterwards? Will we realise that helping one another builds community while selfishness builds walls?
Those don’t have to be questions that are only answered at a global level. We would do well to consider them as individuals, families and communities.
And I wonder if this is giving the planet a rest from human pollution and giving us an opportunity to make some of the planet-saving changes that we need to make but which the relentless activity of 21st Century humans has made it impossible for us to contemplate until now?
The first half of Psalm 23 might just have a global significance, not just a personal one.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,[a] I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
I don’t believe for one second that God has caused this pandemic, but maybe we will allow ourselves to listen for his voice in it…
Just over 2 years ago I had a major operation to sort out an aneurism on my aortic root. And our wonderful surgeons, doctors and nurses in the NHS did an amazing job of repairing and restoring me (not forgetting all those behind the scenes who cleaned, adminned, physioed and all the other unseen heroes), for which I am incredibly thankful.
In the pre-op meeting with my surgeon he was very reassuring but he needed to tell us about the risks. He said that there was a 1% risk of me dying during the operation. That was scary. Of course he also said that if I didn’t have the operation there was a 100% chance of me being killed when the aneurism burst, so it was a ‘no-brainer’.
But it was interesting how much bigger that 1% became in my mind. It wasn’t a disabling thought that stopped me functioning, but it was there – hovering in the background.
At least it was until a very wise woman suggested that I draw a circle and shade in 99% of it. She didn’t say anything else, just left that hanging.
So I did. It looked a bit like this:
And suddenly things were back in their right perspective. Yes, there was still a risk of me dying, but there was a 99% chance of me living. As my surgeon said, if you knew there was a 99% chance of winning the lottery, wouldn’t you buy a ticket?
I am aware that there will be some people for whom the spread of Covid-19 is alarming because, unlike a common cold, it carries a mortality rate with it. And each day the media (bless it) updates us on the figures – those who have caught the virus and those who have died from it. But the mortality rate is 1%.
Now across the world there are stringent emergency measures being put in place to try to limit the spread of the virus and slow down infection rates and they can make the 1% look huge. Yet there is a 99% chance of survival. While there are going to be a lot of isolated people over the next few months we can use social media to keep in touch. We can help each other out.
Here are a few ideas I have had and have gleaned from others:
Home food delivery slots from supermarkets seem to be in massive demand. How about getting together with your neighbours (especially if they don’t shop online) and doing a joint order?
Think of someone you know who is in a job that means they can’t stay at home and bake them a cake, send them a message, pick some flowers or do something else that says that you’re thinking of them and appreciate what they are doing.
Send an encouraging email, text message or social media post to someone different every day.
Don’t panic buy. We’re in this for the long haul and there will be enough for everyone if we all carry on buying supplies at the normal rate. Stockpiling is selfish. If you have stockpiled, perhaps you could make a gift of some of your resources to someone else?
If you are a follower of Jesus think about how you can apply his teaching – such as the parable of the Good Samaritan – in new, practical ways. And offer to pray for people.
I am sure there will be lots of other examples of how we can support and bless one another. Be imaginative. Be generous. Be kind.
Recent tragic events where high profile people have taken their life or had their reputation destroyed, and the ‘abdication’ of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, have brought into the spotlight issues about kindness.
One of the issues is how people use social media. A response to these events that has grown from the general public has been a rise in awareness of the need for kindness. I have been tempted for a while to unsubscribe from some of the social media sites I use because of the abusive nature of some of the comments and the apparent inability or unwillingness of the social media companies to monitor and clamp down on this. I find it abhorrent how some people feel justified in writing hideous things about other people, often only known to them by their public reputation, and can’t begin to understand how painful and hurtful it must be to be on the receiving end of this. (I have not left yet because I feel it is important to try to be a positive influence in the cesspool* of hatred, trying to write positive words of encouragement in the face of the abuse.)
And I almost weep as I write this, but Christians can be some of the worst in being judgmental and condemning others who hold different views to them. How that fits with Jesus saying that people will know that we are his followers if we love one another I don’t know.
Of course it’s not just social media. Look again at how the mainstream media treat people in the public gaze. Every so often when there is a tragedy or they get caught being unethical or illegal they talk about self-regulation and not being intrusive into people’s lives but it seems that they can’t help themselves and before you know it they have crept back into their old ways. And we (the general public) encourage them. If people didn’t buy the newspapers or watch the TV programmes they would either have to change their ways or fade into obscurity, but we fuel their intrusive, abusive and accusative approach to ‘journalism’ by avidly consuming what is presented to us.
It strikes me that recent the call for kindness may be tapping into something that is in the heart of human consciousness. I think it’s part of the way that God put us together – a glimpse of his nature inherent within us. And it’s something the Bible talks about, and which God’s Spirit cultivates within us if we seek it, nurture it and practice it (in Galatians 5, NIVUK):
22 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance [patience], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”
I don’t think we can generate these things on our own. We need to seek the help of the One who created them. Pray that these things would become hallmarks of who you are. And if you are a follower of Jesus think about your social media profile and see how much of that fruit is evident…
But we can’t leave it to him either. Find ways of doing these things and you will find that they grow faster within you – God’s Spirit will have fertile soil to do his work. And notice that all of them are for the benefit of others (in part or in whole). They are not much good to us if we are not in relationships with other people. But other people will be blessed if we bear that fruit.
And I may be a bit ideological here but what if we all bear more of that fruit, even just a little bit? How much more like heaven on earth will our existence be?
Be blessed, be a blessing.
*If you think I am being melodramatic or overly critical here, just read some of the comments below almost any news article online or when a high profile person makes a mistake.
Just over a week ago I returned from sabbatical leave, which was incredibly refreshing and a time of great personal blessing. I didn’t do a lot of travelling… or so I thought until I had an email from Google this morning. They kindly told me how much I had travelled in the past month. Apparently I have travelled over 1000 miles by car or train. And I have walked just 4 miles! THAT is definitely wrong, I have no idea how they missed so much walking activity (honestly). And it doesn’t take account of all those visits to the gym either.
I could look at this two ways – I could either be amazed at how they have been able to keep track of me and tell me so much information about me (including places I have visited) or I could be concerned at how much they are tracking me. Do I really want my every move recorded and reported? I guess it depends on what I think their motives are – benign, benevolent, commercial or sinister? Time to update my security settings I think.
It feels reminiscent of Psalm 139. Here are the first 6 verses:
1 You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. 2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4 Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. 5 You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.
I don’t find that sinister because I know God’s motives. There is something incredibly reassuring in these verses – reminding us that God knows all about us and is for us. If you have time read the rest of the psalm and, for a while, I suspect that feeling of reassurance will grow. Then you will reach the final stanza in which the psalmist pleads with God to slay the wicked and destroy all his enemies. I suspect we’re tempted to leave out those verses when we read the psalm in public. But they’re there because they’re honestly how the psalmist felt. We need to be honest with God because, as the first verse tells us, he knows us. I suspect the psalmist wasn’t sure about including those honest verses because he finishes with:
23 Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. 24 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
That’s a good prayer for all of us, whether or not Google is tracking us. May we known that we are known, anxious thoughts and all, offensive ways and all, and may we be led in the way everlasting.
Recently Sally (my best friend to whom I am married) and I went with a couple of friends on holiday to Center Parcs in UK. It was a great time away and we enjoyed a range of different activities including crossbow shooting, laser clay pigeon shooting, an escape room, meeting some owls as well as splashing in the pool, screaming down the rapids and enjoying being leisurely.
I was interested that at the end of some of the activities (the competitive ones) certificates were awarded for those who had been best (and we got one for escaping from the escape room too). I can understand that for some children that’s exciting but at first I felt slightly patronised when I was awarded my certificate for coming third in the laser clay pigeon shooting (Sally came first). It didn’t feel like much of an achievement. (Of course when I was top in the crossbow shooting I suddenly decided that the certificates were more significant!). However it still felt a bit like some school sports days where everyone gets a medal regardless of where they finished. And that felt a bit silly for people in their 50s!
But on reflection I realised that encouraging one another and building each other up is a really important thing to do. Perhaps we ought to be awarding certificates for: the timeliest provision of a cup of tea/coffee at work; the tidiest bedroom in the house; the tastiest meal of the week; the kindest act in public…
Of course, that’s silly isn’t it? But just for a moment think about the awards that you might receive. Think about the awards that you might give to someone else. And rather than make a certificate (you can if you want) why not take the time to go and tell that person that you appreciate what they have done? Why not give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done by yourself?
There are quite a few times in the New Testament where churches are urged to be places of encouragement and affirmation. Some are good at it, others need some more practice. But the problem I can see is that sometimes we (churches) have kept the encouraging and affirming for ourselves. I don’t think that we’re meant to limit our appreciation. I think an attitude of gratitude should be one of the distinctive things about followers of Jesus that others should be able to see in us and receive from us as a sign of how much God appreciates them too.
I recently smashed my little toe against a chair leg. It hurt. I yelped. The pain was so bad that as I looked down at my little toe I half expected to see it hanging limply from my foot, or even having been amputated altogether. It wasn’t, it was still attached correctly. But it hurt.
Over the next 24 hours the toe gradually grew purpler, remaining as tender as ever. Then other colours starting joining the party in my little toe and migrating across the whole of my foot. I was sure that my toe was not broken because when I (like a brave little soldier) flexed my toes it joined all the others in bowing its toenail head. It hurt, but it worked.
Having a poorly little toe had several wider effects. One was that it affected my gait slightly. I don’t think I limped but there were occasions when I shuffled. Another was that putting shoes on or taking them off hurt a lot so once I got a pair of shoes on I tended to keep them on for the day. And I realised that I really did need a new pair of slippers which, had I been wearing them at the time of the impact between my toe and the chair leg might have protected me from the worst of the pain.
As I reflected (bravely) on the pain in my toe I was reminded of some words that Paul wrote about churches in 1 Corinthians 12 (NIVUK) – my emphasis:
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.13 For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 And so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
15 Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.
I had taken my little toes for granted, ignoring them unless the nail became too long or sharp. They were weak, irrelevant and I could do without them. However, once one of them was damaged I realised just how much work they do, and how much they are needed to help me keep my balance and to walk. Tiny little things in relation to my whole body, but really useful.
A while ago I spoke about the ‘body of Christ’ metaphor in the Bible and spoke about armpits. If I asked people which part of the body they thought they were, I don’t think anyone would say that they are an armpit. But armpits are essential to help prevent the body from overheating. Why do they get hot and sweaty? They are one of the body’s heat-sinks, a place where excess heat is got rid of.
Now, if I am asked to speak about the ‘body of Christ’ metaphor I might also speak about little toes and how important they are even though they appear insignificant. I might speak about how the whole body is affected by a little toe that has been badly bruised by being smashed into a chair leg. I might speak about how it’s indispensable. I might even suggest that perhaps Paul wrote this after he had hurt his little toe at some stage because he seems to understand how much it affects you.
So if you are a part of a church and feel insignificant, perhaps you are a little toe. You may think that you don’t do anything but by being part of that church you are helping to provide balance. If you weren’t there the church would be diminished. You are part of what helps the church to move forward – God can speak through you in decision-making as much as anyone, which is why you ought to try to get to church meetings if you can.
And if you are in pain, ill or unwell, if the church is any good, it will affect them all. You won’t suffer alone. You won’t feel neglected. You won’t feel as if you don’t matter because the love that is received from God is shared between you, among you and through you all.
And if you are part of a church leadership, make sure you watch out for the little toes in your church. They are essential and as important as everyone else, and if they are hurting you ought to feel it too.
I have a lot of issues with some of the ways in which the Genesis Creation narratives are used by Christians. They are theological poetry (look at the way that the verses in Chapter 1 are set out in your Bible – not like prose, more like the settings of the Psalms) and narratives that are designed to emphasise the who rather than the how – who created, who humans are, who we are in relation to the planet, who we are in relation to one another. If we start to use these foundational chapters as a science textbook we are asking them to do something they are not designed to do – like using the clothes washing machine to wash the dishes.
But that’s not my major confession today. That relates to chapter 2 verse 18. Chapter 2 is very much the tale that tells us how we should be stewards of the planet and the life that teems on it rather than masters, and the story that shows us the importance of human relationships and companionship. The thing I have got wrong for all of the [coughs loudly to disguise the large number] years I have been reading the Bible is my growing unease with the description of Eve being created as “a helper suitable for him.”
My chauvinistic prejudices are shown in all their glory here if I explain that I had always assumed (and been unhappy with the implications of that assumption) that the ‘helper’ was subordinate to the person being helped. In effect, I had read ‘assistant’ or ‘support act’ rather than ‘helper’. Now don’t get me wrong, I fundamentally believe that all humans are made equal and I do not believe that men are superior to women – we all have the same ‘made-in-God’s-image-ness’ inherent in our being. And that is why I have been uncomfortable with the use of the word ‘helper’ because I had always read it as suggesting inferiority when I do not believe that there is any inferiority or superiority between any humans.
Part of the problem is that I have only read the passage in English and relied on the translators to give me the best equivalent word for the ancient Hebrew. If you explore the ancient Hebrew word which we translate as ‘helper’ it carries with it a sense of someone who assists and encourages. It is someone who provides support for someone who needs help.
And the same word is used several times in the Old Testament to describe the help which comes from God.
And we translate a Greek word used for the Holy Spirit as ‘helper’.
And when you add the word which qualifies ‘helper’ in Genesis 2 (which is translated as ‘fit for him’) it actually means ‘suitable for him’ or ‘matching him’. A literal translation is ‘like opposite him’. It actually has nothing to do with superiority.
I am much happier now. Especially when I reflect that ‘helpers’ are more often the experts. A good football coach has greater knowledge and experience which they use to help a team work together as well as possible and offer tactical changes and inspiration that help them to win games. A teacher has vastly more knowledge of their subject than their students as they help them to understand it. A breakdown assistance mechanic has far more knowledge and ability than the driver of a broken down car as they help them to get back on the road. And a magician’s assistant is often the one who does the difficult and dangerous work that makes the magician look good. A ‘helper’ is an empowerer who in many ways is greater than the one who is helped.
So that is my confession. I have wrestled uneasily with that word for so long – finding it jarring with what I believe about God and humanity – and now I can embrace it and relax knowing that because there are others around me who are my helpers I am able to grow beyond what I am now.