We are (not) invincible: when you suddenly realise you are vulnerable
This is an unusual moment of reflection - perhaps fitting in what has been an unusual kind of year. We pause to remember this week something that actually is not entirely in the past, not closed and done with, not something we have moved on from, not something we can now look back on, but a situations we are still in. Although we hope that this spring will offer the beginning of change, for many people difficulties, losses and limitations persist. Many challenging situations remain unresolved and will continue to be unresolvable until life can return to something of its normal pattern.
So, as you head into this week’s day of reflection you might find yourself surprised by the power of your emotions. In fact you might already have found that thinking about what has past catches you, takes your breath away with a stab of emotion that stops you for a moment. We’ve all been playing that game of thinking ‘what was I doing this time last year?’, marvelling at our naivety and totally obliviousness of what was about to happen.
This year has been rubbish in some pretty obvious ways - but it has also challenged and raised questions over so many of the underlying foundational beliefs we have always had about life, the world and our position in it. Things we have always taken for granted - things that just ‘are’ the way they are. Or were …
And the impact of this has been an uncomfortable awareness of something no one particularly enjoys being forced to reflect upon: vulnerability. And not vulnerability in a global, depersonalised way. For the majority of people this pandemic year has made them aware of their personal vulnerability in a new, stark, sometimes even brutal way.
Health vulnerability: none of us are invincible.
The first and most obvious thing is that we have had to recognise our vulnerability to this virus - an invisible foe, which can and has struck many people unawares, and has such unpredictable impact that it leaves us all - even those of us theoretically at low risk - wondering ‘what if?’
It feels like a particular cruelty that some people were even unaware themselves of how ill they were, as the phenomenon of ‘happy hypoxia’ became recognised: people really not feeling too bad who then turned out to have dangerously low bloody oxygen, and sometimes fell critically ill with terrifying rapidity. Life is fragile, and we are all more vulnerable than we like to realise.
For some that vulnerability blow has been significantly stronger, as over 2 million people have now having spent over a year (bar some small glimpses of freedom in the summer) shielding. I was present with several people in the moment they realised the meaning of letters or messages defining them as ‘extremely vulnerable’ - the moment they realised their world was about to narrow right down, the moment they realised they should not even risk hugging their own children, or could not allow even their closest family and friends into their homes.
Many more found their vulnerability defined by their age, ironically for so many who had NEVER let that define them before, remaining active, confident and getting the best out of life and retirement.
And utterly tragically, some in residential or nursing care found their homes and living circumstances a source of vulnerability they could do nothing about, and so many lost their lives as a result.
Lifestyle vulnerability: what CAN you be sure you can control?
Meanwhile, even if we didn’t feel there was a significant threat to our life, we all experienced the vulnerability of our lifestyle or basic way of living. Aspects of our daily rhythm and routine were lost in a moment that was out of our control. We found ourselves cut off, unable to go to work, send our children to school or make basic decisions about who we saw when and where. Many faced for the first time the chance that they might not be able to go out and buy what they wanted when they wanted - and the power of the emotion that triggered was illustrated so clearly by the empty shelves as normally rational people panic bought, trying to cling on to a sense of control.
The impact of all this varied - for some people that first lockdown even had a novel pleasure attached, a relief from exhausting commutes or work hours as home working and furlough, particularly in an unusually warm spring, offered a chance to rest, catch up with family or enjoy things there normally wouldn’t be time for. But for others the loss of control was particularly cruel, leaving people forced to spectate as stories played out with gut-wrenching results: businesses that had been loved and cherished floundering, illnesses that could not be treated and became untreatable, relationships under pressure, people struggling or forced to face life’s tougher moments without the support they would usually have - even the most basic comfort of all: hugs.
Of course, the most poignant impact has been felt by the people who suddenly found themselves, quite simply, alone. Those living on their own, or in isolated circumstances. Students living away from home perhaps for the first time. Those whose households were already difficult, those suddenly cut off from sources of support, security or safe spaces like school or work. And people who suddenly found that the friends or family they thought they would always be able to rely on were out of reach or just seemed not to hold them in the same way: people who had never felt alone before but found they just fell off the end of everyone’s friendship lists, and were left forgotten and forsaken.
Cultural vulnerability: could you be at risk just because of who you are?
And in the midst of global pandemic, this has been an even more powerful year because of two significant moments where our society has suddenly exploded with righteous anger, distress and frustration. These moments, where an individual vignette - a story played out in front of our eyes in the news and media - has suddenly produced a unique clarity and perception of the reality of injustice in our culture and society - injustice which results in whole people groups being much more vulnerable than they ever should have been and ever should be.
We’ve cried out against discrimination, stigma, limitation and risk in Black Lives Matter protests, and recently in response to the murder of Sarah Everard, and many have literally cried that the same stories their parents’ generation told are stories they still empathise with today. We pray that these will not be stories or patterns our children’s generation will recognise in the same way and many who have never have been stirred to act before have lit candles, tweeted solidarity, marched and sat in silent protest as we vowed to see change, to force change if we have to.
Perhaps it is no surprise that in a season where we have all been so aware of vulnerability we cannot do anything about, these moments of seeing vulnerability that shouldn’t even exist - that we SHOULD be able to change (and in fact should have changed long ago) results in these eruptions of emotion and protest.
What does the Bible say?
So how do we hold this awareness of our vulnerability? As we reflect and recognise what has happened this year, how do we move forward without being overwhelmed?
If we sought some reassurance that we’re mistaken or not perhaps as vulnerable as we feel, to be honest there’s precious little as the Bible is all too stark about it. Peter just about nails it in the first chapter of his first letter, quoting the ancient but uncomfortable truth captured in Isaiah 40: "All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall.”
But actually, this poem he quotes in Isaiah 40 is about hope. It is about not denying our fragility and vulnerability, but reminding us of something else that is true and present - the strength and security of God. Isaiah 40 contrasts this power of God to the frailty of humans - recognising the relative insignificance we have as people - even as nations, or when gathered together as a stronger unified form. God wants to reassure that it is ok, He (speaking prophetically about Jesus) is coming, He has it covered.
This year we have hit in so many ways situations where we are uncomfortably aware that we have come so near to the end of our human abilities - near to the end of our capability and cleverness, flawed by a tiny virus and so aware it could, in theory, run rings around our plans to manage it’s impact; near to the end of our control as pandemic brings normal life to a standstill; near to the end of our capacity, as we face exhaustion and burnout living in this extended pandemic season; near to the end of our creativity as we just run out of ways to try to maintain ‘normal life’ against the relentless challenge of repeated lockdowns.
The question is - when we reach the end of ourselves and our humanity, is it the end? It’s an amazing relief and truth that it is not. Peter reminds us “For you have been born again, but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God.” (v23) As we recognise our own vulnerability, God urges us to become aware of something else: something bigger and better than humanity - something beyond us, something something secure, unshakable and eternal. A bigger better story playing out that is beyond this earth, this world and our perspective in it.
The challenge, of course, is what it looks like in practical terms. How do we, as the NIV puts it in Ephesians 3:17, root and establish ourselves in God, in such a way that even when the worst happens we can honestly say “I know the LORD is always with me. I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me.” (Psalm 16:8 NLT)?
Here’s the NLT version of Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:16-17 “I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong.”
It’s a pretty good prayer for anyone - and this season has been a fast track in learning much more about this kind of growing trust in God - often because of an essential need for that supernatural inner strength Paul prays for! For me and the many people I have been supporting across so many different sectors and professional spaces, it’s been a time of moving beyond instinct to an intentional, regular, sometimes even bordering on monotonous practice of deliberately, determinedly, sometimes even defiantly, turning mind and gaze to God, choosing to root hope in God, in something beyond what our eyes see in the moment, or the future that feels inevitable in human terms. It’s required practical exploration of new ways to connect with God in prayer, worship, and meditation. And in the times of greatest exhaustion or when emotions overwhelm,, realising the power of just sitting with God in silence and quiet, sharing the space together.
But its not easy. But it would be a LOT harder (if not impossible) without God! And I’d echo Will VanderHart’s recent reflections in his observation therefore that more than anything this season has made us realise how much we need one another. It would be so tempting to feel the vulnerability of human relationships after what we have experiened - to feel that self reliance and independence offer a more secure, consistently reliable foundation to build life on. But I pray we overcome that temptation, realising that was never the way we were intended to do this life and its challenges. We need God - and we need one another. And together we can make it through.