the new normal

Man in Bathrobe
This face-mask won’t protect you from Covid-19!

It’s weird/frustrating/ isn’t it, this Covid-19 lockdown situation? Life as we knew it has been put on hold and the canned music playing in the background of self-isolation, furlough and limited journeys outside our homes is becoming so familiar to us that we are almost unaware of it. The ‘new normal’ is becoming normal, at least temporarily. We are acutely aware of what we have lost during this time, and I am not wishing to ignore that or diminish how tough some people are finding this, but are we also recognising what we have gained? Here are a few things for which I am immensely grateful.

Our family is joining in the 8pm applause outside our house on a Thursday evening to express our collective national appreciation of the NHS workers and many others who are enabling us to survive this time. It’s evolving so that it’s not just hands clapping – there are pots and pans being hit by wooden spoons, car horns tooting and even music being played at high volume for everyone to join in with. When this is over, I feel that we must not lose that appreciation of those who, until now, have been unsung heroes.

In the UK we have all been inspired by Captain Tom Moore – a 99 year-old who walked 100 laps of his garden with his walking frame with the intention initially of raising £1,000 to support NHS workers. His determination and spirit captured our imagination and at the time of writing people have donated over £28million! It’s partly because of his self-effacing, unassuming attitude, partly because of his age (he wanted to do it before his 100th birthday) and partly again because we have realised how much we depend on and love the NHS. Let’s not forget that!

Community Spirit has blossomed to fill some of the emptiness in our streets. Many WhatsApp groups have begun in neighbourhoods, people are talking with one another (virtually or at least 2 metres apart) and saying hello in ways that they had not done before. We have got to know people from our street that we wouldn’t have recognised beforehand if we bumped into them, and we now have a weekly street ‘virtual pub quiz’, and Sally (my wife) arranged an Easter Egg hunt that was so well received that people asked us to do it again next year. Can we afford to lose this when the lockdown ends?

The country has moved online. Most days bring with them some new funny video that someone has created and shared online relating to the lockdown. It seems like half the country is joining in with online workouts and learning new cookery skills and other things from live videos. Many people have learnt how to communicate by video with friends and relatives who are distant from them. Churches have rapidly embraced the opportunity to live stream or record and share their services and other meetings which has enabled some people who could not physically attend to feel more connected. I have even started a YouTube channel with my magic rabbit called ‘StewTube Magic’ (you can see it here). (I had the funny experience this week of putting a video online and phoning one of my Ministers to see how he was only to find that he and his son had literally just started watching the StewTube Magic video!) How will this newly-acquired tech-savvy-ness change life after the lockdown? Can we incorporate it into our new new normal to ensure that we stay better connected than ever? And how can we ensure that those who can’t be part of the online experience remain connected too?

It feels that there is a growing appreciation of what’s important and what’s not. We realise that stuff matters less than people. Money matters less than relationships. For those who are forced to spend more time with those who live in the same house as them there may be increased tensions caused by living on top of one another, but can we also see the value of being with those we love in ways that we could never have imagined or engineered? When we emerge from the lockdown how can we make sure that we don’t lose this realisation and give in to the temptation to return to being consumers of stuff rather than creators of love?

The environmental impact of this freeze on so much polluting activity is incredible. I have seen pictures of cities that previously were blighted by smog now having clear skies, of rivers that were brown now being clear, of wildlife reclaiming our streets and it seems as if nature is flourishing in this time when human beings are shut in our homes. So dare we go back to the self-centred pollution-generating lifestyles of the past? Can we use this as a ‘reset’ moment that not only enables the planet to recover temporarily but enables us to hit the long-term environmental goals much quicker?

And in all of this, I want to ask: “Where can we take the gratitude?” We rightly applaud those whose work we now recognise as vital. We rightly enjoy connecting and communicating with people we had lost touch with or never known. We are grateful for a fresh appreciation of what matters most. We are grateful (and I suspect the planet is breathing a sigh of relief) that the environmental impact of this is so positive. But I suspect that without a belief in God you have limited places to take this attitude of gratitude. You see all of the things I have listed above are things that God, through the Bible, has been urging us to do since the words were written down. They are things that he has written on our hearts as important but which we have ignored or forgotten in the everyday busyness and business of what used to be normal. Perhaps in addition to the above you might also be grateful to him that these things are happening and that he is using this unprecedented time (yes, I finally used the ‘u’ word) to remind us of them – and perhaps see them as pointers towards him.

Be blessed, be a blessing

space to think?

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.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.
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…

Be blessed, be a blessing

1%

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.

Be blessed, be a blessing