Anne’s reflection for this Sunday [this is a little longer than we expect to do each week, but it was already written so…]
Have you noticed some of the reactions to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic? How could you not, might be a better question! I wonder if you have observed anyone working hard to find a ‘reason’ for its spread.
We seem to want to know why, whenever there is no obvious why.
We seem to want someone to blame.
Conspiracy theories abound. One of these suggests that the Chinese started it as a form of biological warfare, having first created the bug in their laboratories, for the purpose, I suppose, of bringing about world domination.
Given the degree to which their own people suffered you would have to question that idea. However, it did have the effect of bringing a downturn to Chinese takeaway outlets in faraway New Zealand. It also meant, sadly, that some New Zealanders who might even ‘look’ Chinese have been subjected to racist and xenophobic abuse.
A friend of ours, who is a pastor in another denomination here in Christchurch, told me that he had two elderly parishioners who were taunted and abused in the supermarket because they were of Chinese extraction.
Crises such as these do not always bring the best out in us, do they?
The question of ‘Why we get sick?’ can lead us to a place of judgement.
Rather than admit that these things can be very random, and that they fall on the just and the unjust alike, we tend to fall back on the idea that the afflicted person must have done something or not done something that has brought this on.
This judgement often lies not far beneath comments people make about lung disease
– oh they must have smoked, or, in the case of obesity – they mustn’t eat well, or with kidney issues – they didn’t drink enough water, etc.
Of course, there may be some truth in some of these comments, there is often more that we could do to help ourselves, but surely the first thing that the sick deserve is our care and compassion, not our blame and judgement.
In biblical times there was an understanding that sickness is understood as a form of God’s punishment. The Berkeley Centre for Religion, Peace and World affairs says that, “Human health and flourishing are core values in the Jewish tradition. At times the Hebrew scriptures suggest that illness is the result of sinful behaviour; lepers, for example, are sometimes depicted as afflicted with their illness because of ethical shortcomings. The much greater emphasis, however, is placed on God as healer.”
When you become aware of this biblical understanding of suffering you can see why the disciples were keen to know whose actions had resulted in the blindness of the man brought before Jesus.
They asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus responded, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
It was Jesus’ response in that moment that has leapt out at me. To be honest, I was immediately struck by the apparent cruelty in his answer. This man was born blind so that God might be revealed in him. I sat with that for a day or two, wondering how on earth a God who is love could let someone be born blind so that God could be revealed in the man, for God’s own means?
Then it struck me, this is a story that tells all of our stories. Aren’t we all born ‘metaphorically’, blind so that God’s works might be revealed in us?
None of us are born being able to see, in the full sense of the word.
Some of us never learn to ‘see’ at all, but most of us spend our lifetimes gathering together small glimpses of sight that gradually help us see enough.
Slow, often unexpected revelation seems to be God’s way.
Light dawns as new things are revealed.
We are gifted learning opportunities along the way but we can miss these unless we have eyes that are ready to see them.
We all stumble about as though we can’t see, making the best of things and waiting, searching to ‘see’ if we are on the right track.
Those who believe their sight is ‘the sight’ risk both stumbling over themselves, and being dismissed, because they are a little tedious for the rest of us to stomach!
Surely these strange times that we are living into at the moment are a good indication of just how much we still can’t see.
The very shape of our everyday living is changing from one day to the next.
Who would have thought just a few short weeks ago that we would be closing our borders, readying hospitals for a possible influx of infection, running the race of our lives to ensure we have enough toilet paper, flour, sanitizer, yeast and other things we barely noticed before, let alone placed such a high value on?
Mart and I have said so many times in the past few days, thank goodness we had our big trip last year. There will undoubtedly be bunches of poor pilgrims stuck along the Camino right now, how they are managing doesn’t bear thinking about! Later, we wandered around Italy without a care, soaking in the sights, loving the culture – such a far cry to the situation there today! Back then we couldn’t see what was to come, we couldn’t have dreamed of what was to come.
We can’t see ahead now either. We just keep making our way, one day at a time, hopeful and enjoying the day, the now, as best we can.
This week I read a list of helpful tips about being resilient in these times. They were put together by a clinical psychologist called Karen Nimmo:
- Your reactions are contagious – be honest about your concerns but also be aware of what messages those around you pick up on. Base your words on facts and truths and model how you want those around you to be.
- Be curious – not paranoid. This is a profound opportunity to learn, about how a pandemic works and how to prepare for such an event. Keep up with the news but also keep boundaries around your exposure to news, social media and especially fear mongering.
- Don’t buy all the toilet paper. It’s human nature to want what others have got – especially when there is a shortage. But, of course, other people have bladders and bowels too. And if you do get the last pack in the supermarket, don’t brag about it, don’t go home like you’ve won the Olympic 100m sprint. Seriously, that’s a bit weird.
- Be right here, right now. In psychology, one of the most common styles of dysfunctional thinking is catastrophising – when you take whatever’s happening, imagine the very worst-case scenario, then worry yourself into a frenzy about it BEFORE it has happened. If you have a tendency to do this, give yourself a break: it’s super-common. But it’s also extremely unhelpful and can be a trigger, or maintaining factor, for depression and anxiety – not to mention a waste of mental energy. When you feel your thoughts running away on you, distract yourself with other activities. And use meditation (or prayer) to bring yourself back to where you are and what you have to do – right now.
- Connect with your people. There’s a reason we rush to call loved ones and family when disaster strikes. Of course, we want to know they are ok – or for them to know we are. But we are also psychologically driven to attach to familiar figures in uncertain or scary times. So, if you can’t be with those who matter to you, use technology to stay close.
- Structure your days – one at a time. If you have a tendency to get anxious, and especially if your routine has been shaken up (like you can’t get to your usual activities), its crucial to structure your time. Before you go to bed, write a list of five things you are going to do the next day – it will give you a framework to hang your day on, a way to keep moving forward and a sense of achievement at the end of each day.
- Show compassion. Reach out, leave a thoughtful note in someone’s mailbox, or email inbox. Connect in positive and loving ways. Hopefully the goodwill you spread will last longer than the pandemic.
And these are from me:
You might find a daily devotion that works for you.
This might be online, or maybe with an old but favourite book that you have used devotionally before. Rhythms are helpful for creating routine and purpose in a day.
Be kind to one another. Try to refrain from the impulse to pass judgement and blame. Everyone is doing the best they can, with what they have available. Blindness will abound in some form or other – we don’t need to be part of the passing judgement brigade!
Don’t be afraid to reach out, even if you just need a reminder that you are not in this alone. Practice neighbourliness.
And most importantly – remember God’s promise to never abandon what God has created!
As challenging as these times are, they may also bring an opportunity for us all to slow down and go deeper in our journeys with God. Who knows where a time of ‘less of us and more of God’ might lead us?
Personally, I find great solace in the belief that God can, and does, use whatever God chooses to open our eyes; to help us see those things we are blind to.
In the story from John’s gospel Jesus used mud and spit to help a man see.
What if God wants to use you, in the days ahead, to be a blessing for someone?
Are you open to that?
Jan Richardson, has written this piece she calls the ‘blessing’ of mud’ inspired by the story of the man born blind as told in John’s gospel.
Lest we think
in the dirt.
Lest we think
in the earth
beneath our feet.
Lest we think
in the dust
like the dust
that God scooped up
at the beginning
and breathed into
with God’s own
Lest we think
in the spit.
Lest we think
in the mud.
Lest we think
in the mire,
Lest we think
deep into the things
cannot bring forth
within the sludge,
cannot anoint us
with a tender
and grimy grace.
Lest we think
will not use the ground
to create us
to cleanse us
of our unseeing,
to open our eyes upon
and stunning world.
Questions for contemplation
- Was there a word, sentence, or phrase that stood out to you in the readings today?
- What is the intersection of this with your life at the moment?
- Can you think of a time when something unexpectedly dawned on you for the first time?
- Chew over this for a time: Who was it that ended up wondering if they were the blind? What would it be to consider our own blindness – and what may be revealed of God in this?