What I have learned from lockdown
So much that is profound has come out of lockdown.
So much that is tragic and heart-breaking has come out of lockdown.
So much also that has restored my faith in human nature has come out of lockdown.
Just where do I begin?
Before I write about anything learned from lockdown we need to focus on the real reason we are like we are today and will be for some time to come.
We need to remember the pain of those who mourn, and the agony of those who have died or who are dying still today.
We need to pause with the millions around the world caught up in the agony of Covid-19.
We need to pray that the UK population will not lose their memory and will not forget to do social distancing, not forget to wash their hands, not stop realising that the the danger of a second epidemic is as real now as the first ever was.
Without wishing to be cynical, I believe the government has had to make a calculation based on the country’s economic welfare, which of course is important as it affects our wellbeing in lots of other ways, but that this calculation has loosened the chain on the tiger of Covid-19 a little more than any of us would care to realise. The tiger could reappear again in a significant way, and we need to be extremely cautious. Of course, for other reasons, I agree the lockdown has had to be loosened, for we cannot remain in our own cages for ever, but we now have our cage doors open and the tiger is about. So we need to be very, very careful.
But my main concern is looking back at the memories of the BBC report from the Covid-19 ward in London and other such reports and realise we only saw a tiny iota of the immense amount of suffering that has occured. Therefore, before I say anything that I have learned from the lockdown, I simply want to pause and stand with the victims, weep with the mourners, empathise with the vast agony of suffering that so many are experiencing. Jesus wept over Jerusalem and today he weeps over the entire world. So do all of us who care for our world.
Our hearts are broken. Our world is undone. We bow our heads in grief.
The next thing that comes to me is the wonderful reality that we have recognised who our true heroes are in our culture.
Not the celebrities who for so long have bewitched so many minds with the paper thin depth of their characters. Not the super-rich earning the income of many a small town in the space of a day.
For once our culture has turned towards the true heroes, the doctors and nurses and shop assistants and care home workers and bus drivers and tube train workers and police and teachers and…..so many others who have been Christlike in their sacrificial service for the sick and vulnerable.
I am particularly pleased that care home assistants have been recognised by our culture at last as I have always thought that that is one of the most challenging and least recognised jobs. Now it like the other jobs I have mentioned has been acclaimed as the heroic and noble work that it really is. So often I have met someone who works in a care home who hasn't felt valued in the way they should be. May these people now be our heroes for the future too, not just for this crisis. I include of course all the other jobs that have now been recognised. Supermarket workers, another heroic job, on the front line. Taxi drivers, on the front line. Police and ambulance workers on the front line. Doctors and nurses and cleaners, on the front line. True heroes of our time.
I use this word with fear, because the pain and loss of loved ones I have already mentioned is by far the most central and heart-breaking reality of this lockdown period.
Yet at the same time, focussing on the reality of death means we are also faced with the reality of life, something I learned from taking funerals during a difficult time in my ministry. As I arrived at the crematorium to take the funerals during that difficult time I became conscious of my own life in a new way, and it helped. So it is from the darkness of death new life can emerge.
So out of this crisis some shafts of light emerged, not because of the disease or the tragedies connected to it, but directly because of the lockdown experience, which for us all has brought physicial imprisonment, but for the fortunate few, in which I include myself, has also set us free.
Many of us have been forced to live life slower and found this to be an incredible blessing. I know I have.
Challenges still come at me all the time of course, but the pace is more manageable than normal because there is a whole layer of ministry missing – numerous face to face meetings, church services, and even more emails than I have received during the last few weeks of lockdown.
Because the pace of life has slowed I have been able to balance my life better, taking more time to do gardening, sort out various cupboards in the Vicarage I have not touched for several years, go for country walks with my wife and new puppy, and appreciate the Spring and early Summer weather in a way I have not done perhaps ever in my life before.
Of course I realise that for many the lockdown has been a nightmare and still is, and I pray for such people every day. I realise how difficult it must be to be in lockdown in a flat in an urban area, away from the possibility of a walk in the countryside. Or even more painful in an abusive situation or in extreme isolation as so many are. So I am more than painfully aware that my experience of lockdown has been so much more positive than many people's, and I feel almost embarassed to even write positives here. But I am also aware that naming the positives will also help those reading this who like me have found the lockdown has had hidden blessings.
I have heard this same experience of hidden blessings from others.
We have learned to appreciate life for what it is, rather than for our futile attempts to turn it into something of our own making. As I remember Michael Palin saying in an interview a couple of weeks ago, the lack of diary commitments enforced on us is actually quite liberating ( though having said that I now have four funerals to take in the next couple of weeks – so this is not entirely true for me now!).
I also love the fact that there has been a sense of duty and concern for other reawoken and inculcated into the British people during the lockdown. I have sometimes been too negative about us as a nation in the past and feel quite ashamed at my previous cynicism. I have a new sense of respect and indeed love for our country as a result of how I have seen so many respond during the lockdown, caring for their neighbours, applauding the NHS and keyworkers, supporting and even working for local charities, Whitstable being a wonderful example of this.
Actually, despite there being many examples of exceptions, where people have broken the rules and continue to act idiotically, I feel very proud about the way we as a country have reacted to lockdown, and whatever political storms may be happening now , believe that we as a nation will continue to behave responsibly through the “Track and Trace” period we are shortly to enter.
So to conclude, where is God in all this? I am currently working on a course looking at these issues, in conversation with a Christian apologist and philosopher Peter S Williams. This looks at this subject in greater detail and is available on the All Saints Whitstable website.
But for the purposes of this blog my main answer is that we cannot fully approach the question of God and suffering and death till we first grasp the miracle of life in the first place.
Each one of us did not ask to be here. Life was a free gift. One of the things that lockdown has helped me and others realised is that the simplicity of living life as free gift from God, valuable in its own right without needing lots of things added to it, is essential to our happiness.
We had forgotten, before lockdown, that life is a gift, and that any suffering or death that comes our way, which of course it will at some point or another, is part of the reality that life was never “neutral” anyway. Worldly life was never eternal, it was always fragile and vulnerable. It was always something that came out of nothing, the beginning of a human pulse deep within the womb. It was always the growth of the human brain and awareness of light and colour and sound and the pulsing of blood around our veins. It was never a “given”. It was never a “right”. It was and always is a miracle, a gift, a beginning and an ending, at least in this world.
The miracle that even atheists agree was never likely to have ever developed, given the delicate balance of the earth’s resources to produce life in the first place, is that we are here at all, is that we can breathe, and live, and hope, and learn.
Breaking out of the confusion of reality we emerged as human beings, and the life we now live is a gift, and has become even more precious, even more sacred, as a result of the reality of death that is closer to us now than we have ever known. The light breaking through the gloom is only visible because of that gloom, otherwise it would be simply a sheet of light with no meaning.
It is within this framework that we start thinking about God, the reality of the spiritual, and breaking in of the Holy Spirit, the presence of Jesus, rather than point our finger and laugh at God or his apparent absence from the reclining couch of the spoiled Westernised fool who takes life for granted and expects everything in life to work as well as the £1750 TV in the living room - a fool that, but for the grace of God, I would be too.
Paradoxically, it is only when life itself breaks, and we have to go into lockdown, that we find life again. Death leading to life, a constant bible theme.
The Resurrection springing from the darkness of the tomb.