St Paul's Cathedral: Reflections for the fifth week of Easter
Love will win: Reflections for the fifth week of Easter
Specially-commissioned reflections on love in the time of COVID-19 by the Revd Professor John Swinton, Professor in Practical Theology and Pastoral Care, School of Divinity, History and Philosophy, University of Aberdeen.
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To be human is to be vulnerable
"There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
1 John 4:18
One of the things that has become clear in this time of Covid 19 is that being human means being vulnerable.
With the coming of the virus all of us are confronted with our vulnerability at a physical emotional and a spiritual level. There are pluses to that, but there are also negatives. I remember listening to a conversation early on when the virus was just beginning to emerge as a problem. It went something like this: “Yes I know it is serious, but so is the flu. Unless you have an underlying condition there is nothing to worry about.” This struck me as understandable, but quite terrifying. It reminded me of that dodgy line that Bono sang on the song Feed the World: “Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you!” I never thought that was a wise sentiment, but to hear it again in a slightly different form worried me.
Feeling vulnerable can be a breeding ground for unhealthy anxiety. Anxiety breeds fear and fear can very easily drive out love. One way of dealing with anxiety is to project it outwards onto others. “I can cope with this situation as long as I can persuade myself it is happening to someone else; someone who is not like me - they are old, vulnerable, sick, disabled – I should be safe enough.” Of course, now we know that no one is “safe enough,” but that dangerous dynamic of coping with anxiety by turning away from people still lingers.
I was in Australia when the crisis began to emerge. The big thing there was people hoarding toilet paper. No one knew why, but everyone knew they had to get it and lots of it! It was quite funny, but at another level, there is something deeply troubling about haording food and drink (and toilet paper) knowing full well that in doing so we put the weaker members of society at risk. It is a deeply troubling way of dealing with anxiety. The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann notes that the people of Israel developed a similar “scarcity mentality.” They always lived in fear that they wouldn’t have enough and even when they did have enough, they lived in fear of losing it. Sounds a bit like us? When our vulnerability is exposed, we discover our very own scarcity mentality.
As Christians, we are called to be generous people who recognise the reality of fear and anxiety - Jesus was pretty anxious as he moved towards the cross - but refused to allow fear to drive out love. Social distancing tempts us to develop an attitude that turns us away from people. Love always draws us towards one another. Love in a time of Corona virus recognises our shared vulnerability and refuses to allow anxiety and fear to drive out the power of God’s vulnerable love. Be assured, love will win.
To be human is to be loved
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
1 John 4:7-8
Towards the beginning of Michael Verdie’s recent powerful film Love is Listening: Dementia without loneliness, an African American woman with advanced dementia reflects on her life experience. “I don’t know where I am. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know where I’ve just come from. But I’m not fearful.” She pauses and looks deeply into the eyes of the person she is talking to. “Because I see all around me - I don’t see a lot - but I see patience.” She looks upwards and away, her eyes glaze over a little. “I see gratitude. I see tolerance.” She slowly looks back towards her friend and smiles. “I think I see love.” She smiles. “And your face is a picture of love.”
It’s a very beautiful and moving scene. Even when we feel lost, vulnerable, uncertain about the future and unable to work out where life is going, we can still feel, see and experience love. More than that, the presence of such love can drive out fear. The experience of dementia, at times, can be quite frightening. We need people who will love us out of our fear and help us to find love amidst the challenges. If we know we are loved, we need not be fearful. In the time of dementia - like all times - we need people who will act gently, patiently, kindly, humbly, respectfully, peacefully. We need people whose lives are filled with forgiveness, honesty and integrity (1 Corinthians 13). We need to be reminded of the presence of the God who is love. We need people whose faces are a picture of love.
To be human is to notice the power of small things
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
1 Corinthians 1:25
A few years ago, I was in Atlanta attending the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability. The Institute meets every year in a different American city. It is made up of a broad range of people: people with disabilities, theologians, philosophers, professionals and other interested parties. We just come together to be together and to learn, together.
One afternoon I was walking along the corridor of the conference hall and a woman came towards me in an electric wheelchair. She called me over. “I owe you something” she said. “What’s that” I said? “Money, I hope!” She began to cry. I stood with her for a few moments. Eventually she said “Three years ago at the conference in Chicago I was feeling like killing myself. Indeed, I was on my way to do it when I met you. You smiled at me. I decided not to.” I was stunned. There is a tremendous power in small gestures. A smile can save a life; a touch can shift a soul. We can change the world through the small things that we do.
Today we can change the world with a smile, an apology, a peaceful gesture, a letter. We can change the world by the way we are with our family, the way we love our friends, by remembering our neighbour who is alone and isolated. How we are with those whom we love and those whom we struggle to love can bring about beautiful changes. In order to do that we need to make ourselves vulnerable and sometimes that can be painful and difficult. But nothing good comes easily. The power of God is revealed in the small and foolish things of this world. Noticing such small things can seem, well … foolish. But small gestures have great power.
To be human is to belong
The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.
The other day I spoke to an elderly woman - Amanda - about the situation regarding social isolation, social distancing and the likes (she was in her doorway and I was walking past doing my 1 hour of daily exercise). She just laughed! "I have been in isolation for the past ten years! People have become experts at distancing themselves from me. But now with the coming of the virus, suddenly everyone wants to help me. It’s odd really."
I felt a bit bad as I was probably one of the social distancers she was commenting on. She lived but a few hundred yards away from my house and it took a pandemic for me to notice her. It is worrying that people can be amongst us and can be so vulnerable to being lonely, isolated friendless: to not being noticed. The real tragedy was that Amanda had got used to being lonely. She was genuinely surprised when people started to pay attention to her.
Loneliness is one of the most painful experiences for human beings to go through. God creates human beings and tells us very clearly that we are made for community, that our natural state is to be in relationship: to belong. We belong to God, we belong to creation, we belong to one another.
In order to feel that we belong people need to affirm us, to notice us and to offer the gifts of time and friendship. To belong is to be loved. Amanda had had very little experience of receiving the fruits of the practices of belonging, but now when things are so radically changed suddenly people want to find out about her. That is potentially a beautiful thing. But only if it continues. There must be nothing worse than finding company in the midst of a crisis, only for it to disappear again when things get back to normal whatever that “new normal” will look like. The revived sense of community that has emerged during this time of COVID-19 might just be a gift that we should not lose as we move towards healthier times. Love your neighbour.
To be human is to live into a new norm
They took palm branches and went out to meet Him, shouting: “Hosanna!” “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the King of Israel!”
People keep talking about the “new norm” that will emerge once we have got to grips with the Coronavirus. It is not however clear what such a new norm might look like. We really don’t know the long-term psychological and social consequences of social distancing. What will happen if we continue to implicitly or explicitly assume that everyone, including our family and friends, are potential threats to our well-being? Social distancing is clearly necessary. But how easy will it be for us to stop doing it? The new norm will not be the same as the old norm. But that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Think for a moment about the story in the gospels of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. People were really excited! It was a time of great expectation. “The Messiah has come!” (“yes, he’s riding on a donkey which is a bit odd, but let’s put that to one side for a moment …”)
Then came the passion and the chaos of the cross. Everything seemed to be falling apart. All of people’s hopes, dreams expectations that were embodied in Jesus seemed to come crashing down. There was nothing but grief, sadness, lostness, pain, suffering and fear. People inevitably feel deeply vulnerable in a time when their hopes and certainties are crushed and their control over the world is stripped from them.
But then came the resurrection. Jesus overcomes death and in so doing offers us new life in all of its fullness. This new life is not a return to the victorious hopes of Palm Sunday. The Crucifixion had shown us the reality of pain and suffering, and the lengths that God will go to help us to find God’s love.
The new norm that was heralded in by the resurrection was different. It was a call to go into the word and proclaim the gospel in the midst of pain, suffering and lostness. It was a revelation that the might of God is revealed in vulnerability and suffering love. The new norm was that people recognised their inter-connectivity and were called to live under the wing of God who is love: to care for the sick, to live life with and for others; to seek after wisdom, gentleness, peace, love and joy; to overcome the old Gods of greed individualism and false idols. To live together as one Body. The new norm of course included pain and suffering, but not without hope.
The COVID-19 crisis is not a good thing. It is horrible, painful, fearful. We have to name it as such. Nevertheless, if perfect love does drive out fear and if Jesus truly is risen then perhaps the new norm that will emerge when the virus is defeated will help lead us to a place where we can see life more clearly and love God and one another more fully.
The old norm may have been an illusion that we would be unwise to chase after. The new norm has to be built on stronger foundations.