Broken Ground - 1 Year into a Global Pandemic
One year ago, unbeknown to me, I was leading my last ever service as Pastoral Chaplain at HTB. Within four days we would be in Lockdown 1, and over the course of the next three months many elements of our lives (beyond Covid-19) would also change. A question that I have been asked a lot recently centres on the turbulence of the last 12 months, with people beginning to try to make sense of the changes within the framework of their faith. ‘Will: What do you think the Lord is doing?’
My answer is that I really don’t know. There is a real danger of projecting our own ambitions into the answer we give. It is also fundamental to my theology to state that whilst I believe God will rebuild from the ruins of our lives, he has not orchestrated this disaster for our betterment. Holding the bias of my own hopes in mind, I thought it might help to explore on paper some of the shifts of the last year from an emotional health perspective.
In Micah 1:4 we read, “The mountains will melt under Him, And the valleys will be split, like wax before the fire, like water poured down a steep place.” It strikes me how much of the last year has simply been unsettling; that the ground beneath us has become fractured and unfamiliar.
It pushes me back to change management models like Kurt Lewin’s “Unfreeze – Transition – Refreeze”. This might seem a very pessimistic view of human adaptability but it is depressingly familiar to me. The reality of our lives is that we are transfixed on stability and familiarity; the last 75 years have been some of the most stable in history. We are consequently unfamiliar with truly broken ground, and un-exercised in managing uncertainty. If there is to be a redemptive work in the structures of the Church, surely it will be a tendency toward less structure. Foundations that have projected strength have in fact served as feet of clay, leaving us rooted to the spot, not rooted in God’s prophetic voice for the world we live in today.
I am conscious of my own anxious wrestling with the need for reassurance; a core component of anxiety disorders. Whist I practise ERP techniques to increase my tolerance of uncertainty, I can always fall back on the security and normalcy of life. Three consecutive lockdowns have been painful in so many ways, but I equally cannot deny that for me personally there has been a growth in my ability to tolerate the abnormality. (I say this with some nervousness, since I am loath to make glib ‘silver lining’ comments when so many have lost so much in this pandemic.) To frame it more spiritually, I wonder if many of us have come to the end of ourselves and finally abandoned ourselves to trust.
Self-reliance is evil. It is contra-gospel and anti-human, yet it has been a ‘god’ of our modern age. It has been deified to the expense of our charity, compassion and community. From a mental health perspective, we are all convinced of the necessity of community and its centrality to recovery and fulfilment. Yet society at large has often regarded this outlook as ‘neediness’ and patronised us with knowing smiles. The Church has also elevated self-reliance, although it has used the terms ‘well-discipled’ or ‘spiritually-disciplined’ to identify those people in its congregations that don’t appear to need others. Again, my hope is that this broken ground provokes in all of us an awareness of just how much we need each other. God has called us into community not into isolation; ‘neediness’ should be celebrated not reviled.
A core part of this greater community is one that reflects full equality for black and brown people. This year has been one of deep tragedy with regard to racial justice, but we have also seen the tendrils of hope for the realisation of a more equal society and church (there is still a million miles ahead of us). I am grateful to Ben Lindsay for his leadership and generous education over the last year. I pray that we see an acceleration of this vision in the year ahead.
Giants have tripped and fallen this past year. My cinicism has risen as a result but so has my hope. It has hurt, especially the news of Jean Vanier. I am still processing this and other disappointments, and am grateful to Dannielle Strickland for her prophetic wisdom on the subject. I have always believed emotional health work, personal therapy, accountability and transparency are essential components of leadership and I pray that we will insist upon them in our governance and structures from now on. We also need work harder to integrate our spirituality with our sexual selves, including our misassumptions around aging and sex which propagate a very split and potentially dangerous disconnect in some individuals.
We have also seen a breakdown in our assumptions around the idols of power which have stratified society into the ‘haves and have nots’. Mental health stigma has been a terrible thorn for the wounded to bear alongside their other suffering. They have been some of societies ‘have nots’ that powerful people tolerate but do not celebrate. Yet suddenly, (and again not completely) there has been a shift in the discourse and a far greater acknowledgement of commonality of our struggle. Covid has propagated a surge of mental health issues within our communities and we have a healthcare mountain to climb as a result. Yet it has also broken the assumption that mental health issues are the preserve of a ‘weak’ minority of society: They are our struggles and straddle every corner of society.
We have been forced to exchanged big for small in so many areas of our lives, but my hope is that we may also have exchanged shallow for deep: Deeper relationships, deeper faith, deeper gratitude and deeper fellowship. Broken ground is harder to navigate, it slows you down and requires the collaboration of others. But that’s the point: life was never meant to be lived that fast. People were never meant to commodities that we traded on our journey to ‘the top’. What do I think God might be saying? Well probably, ‘Be Kind.’
Will Van Der Hart, 23/03/2021