CovidDiary Day 11 (Tues 31st March 2020)

For all of us, the pandemic will be an experience to get through, to survive before things return “to normal”. We should all be involved in this effort to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, no question.

At the same time, and I don’t wish to say this callously, I think it is also important to consider that this pandemic is “not just a disaster to get through, but a moment to seize and change the world”.

OK, that’s perhaps a grand way of putting it. In less grandiose terms, perhaps, these times offer an opportunity to allow ourselves to be changed.

As I reflect on this shift in perspective—on the pandemic as a moment of change and opportunity—I think at one level of the massive structural changes that are happening in the UK:

  1. the intervention of the state and the medical and economic guarantees it has made (which I reflect on here)
  2. the changing nature of capitalism
  3. the public recognition of those we so easily took for granted, including NHS nurses and doctors, carers, restaurant owners, delivery drivers, cleaners. The scale of this recognition is at biblical proportions (“the last shall become first”).
  4. relatedly, our prioritisation of the elderly and vulnerable in public health policy

Other developments stare us in the face just waiting for those in power to do something. There is, for instance, a desperate need for a social stimulus to support charities and non-for-profits to carry out their important work in promoting social cohesion and care (for more on this, and the need for the government to let charities register more quickly and so receive gift aid status and to lessen the time for DBS checks, listen to Will Tanner between 19:00 and 32:00 here).

But at another level, I am thinking of transformation at the personal level. I have recently noticed a shift in my own habits, thinking and attitudes, and even some rare moments of moral insight.

The hesitant but unmistakeable wave to the bus driver on my morning walk. The conversation with the Sainsbury steward. The nod to the cleaner who passes my window in the morning.

I become more aware of people around me. Shared suffering creates this kind of solidarity. It reminds me of our inter-connectedness. Deeper still, it also offers an opportunity to create habits that work against the default mode of selfishness, to embody practices that go against the grain of modern life. In the time of the pandemic, there are more readily available, more pressing opportunities to look beyond myself and so challenge the prevailing individualism of late-modern life.

This condition naturally arises from a consciousness of shared fragility—the potential to be a carrier of the virus and so infect others, regardless of whether or not they are a stranger, is strong. As Peter Franklin puts it, “There’s nothing like a contagious disease to remind us that individual actions have collective consequences”.

So I give thanks for these moments of change amidst all the difficulty of this season in our national and global life.

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Since starting these diary entries, I have reflected on whether the pandemic is an abnormal time or whether, in fact, we are living in “the normal times” (I was convinced more towards the latter point when listening to Rowan Williams discuss the plight of those in the majority world, for whom the conditions of the plague are, at least materially, no different from their daily reality; full episode here).

But I’ve now come to a different conclusion. Or at least, a different way of looking at the matter. What if strained times such as these offer us the opportunity to re-think and re-shape the normal?

This isn’t to instrumentalise the pandemic. Rather, it is to reflect carefully and candidly on the social, economic and spiritual implications of the situation in which we find ourselves.

Of course these are abnormal times with their sad but necessary blend of spatial distancing and social isolation. And we hope for a return to “peace time” and an end to the virus and the tragic suffering and loss of life it has caused.

What if, in the midst of the survival, the mitigation, the spatial distancing and self-isolating, we also took time to re-think the “normal” order of things?

To challenge our assumptions not only about how our world might look, but about how I, how we, might be in it?

I think we have the chance to not only re-imagine the macro-structures of our society and world, but to also re-conceive of the individual habits, attitudes and desires of our own hearts (more on that in this wonderful piece).

All along, we assume that things will return to normal. And in medical terms, we certainly hope that will be soon. But what if the new normal we return to, will in some sense, be new? How, then, would we want to shape it?

By all means, let’s first and foremost survive and protect lives.

But please forgive me if I am also interested to see what new shoots might be growing up…and consider how I might tend to them in the days ahead.

CovidDiary Day 2 (Sun 22nd March)

I have begun to record my thoughts each day in a sort of virtual diary. The hope is to encourage and inspire reflection in the midst of the unsettling “time of the virus”.

A sunny walk along the path to Grantchester

Read Day 1’s Entry here.

It was a strange and unsettling feeling to wake up this morning and remember that churches across the nation are shut (in fact, a good number of churches are open for prayer–it is the services that aren’t happening). I honestly can sympathise with the sentiments of some who want these services to continue. Even for someone like me, who for now thinks that the sacrament is highly significant but not the sum total of Christian life and worship, I have to admit that I sorely missed taking communion with my brothers and sisters in person. And I can understand those who say that by cancelling services, the church look “no different” to the world around it.

On the other hand, if all major gatherings have been banned and we imagine a scenario where it was only church-goers that were meeting, we would be forgiven for thinking that this was irresponsible in the extreme. To flout governmental ruling in this way would appear damaging to the public witness of the church. Then there’s the fact that in keeping our distance physically, we are saving lives. As James KA Smith puts it, “How strange: this time in which we love our neighbours by keeping our distance”.

So it was that this morning, with some inner conflict, I followed the Church of England regulations (in turn following public health advice) and tuned in virtually for Sunday morning worship. The service, hosted by the Archbishop at Lambeth Palace, was on the whole uplifting and hopeful.

Today is of course Mothering Sunday. I appreciate deeply the love and care of my mother, the sacrifices she has made and the compassion and quiet inner strength she embodies to me.

For reasons I’ll come on to, I am conflicted, however, by the notion that mothers as a category of people, should be celebrated in church. (I feel the same way about father’s day as well, I hasten to add). Lest I be misunderstood and seem an ingrate, I want to celebrate my mother and father everyday of the year! I’m just not sure about the church being the context for that.

I therefore appreciated +Justin’s focus, in his sermon, on the ancient roots of Mothering Sunday.

Mothering Sunday is about place – about knowing where we are rooted, what gives us life, how we are related to others. It’s a place for starting from and returning to. In ancient tradition we return to the church where we were baptised, where we grew in faith.

This emphasis on the ecclesial mother makes more sense to me in a church context as it reminds us that our core identity is found in Christ. We are called to cherish and value tremendously our earthly families, mothers and fathers. At the same time, women are not somehow incomplete if they do not have children. Their core identity is found in Christ, rather than in biological motherhood. Sometimes this can get lost in the messaging of Mothers’ day even, or sometimes especially, in the Church.

I have just this evening read a brilliant article from an old colleague, Abbie Allison, at Theos who bravely and boldly shares her own concerns with the modern church and its view of the family, and of mothers–the oft-imagined paragon of womanhood in the church is the mother with children in her arms and at her side. But, as Abbie explores, what of those women whose mothers have died? What of those for whom the word mother conjures up memories of motherly failure or even betrayal? Or what of those who are unable to conceive children because of infertility? Abbie writes,

But there’s another side to the Church, which emphasises a different take on identity and family. A core Christian belief is that we are whole in Christ and Christ alone. This means that our fundamental identity is not found in being a biological mother, or in anything else, but in being a beloved child of God.

When churches move beyond preaching this message to modelling it through the way they talk about family, they can be a healing balm for the grief and identity crisis of infertility.

I’ve long wondered if we could remove fathers’ and mothers’ day as individual dates from the church (again, I’m speaking about the church) calendar and replace them with men’s and women’s days. Again, not out of spite for our dads and mums, but because all of us are, after all, men and women. This way, we could choose to celebrate the women and men in our lives in a more rounded and inclusive way. Incidentally, Russia, for instance, does this with Men’s day falling in February (initially for soldiers but now for all men) and Women’s Day falling on what is now our International Woman’s Day, 8th March. The realist in me tells me that we’ll never remove Mothering Sunday or Fathers’ Day completely from our church calendars. And so if we do end up doing fathers’/mothers’ day at church, there’s lots of scope for thinking how this might be done sensitively and creatively. Today’s service at Lambeth was a decent example of this, I thought.

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Throughout the whole day, I’ve been reflecting on a sentence I wrote in yesterday’s post: “In abnormal times, we find ourselves behaving differently”.

I began asking myself:

  1. Why do we behave differently in abnormal times? What specifically about this time and circumstance causes me to make conversation with the cashier I would normally ignore…even go so far as to ask her how her and her team were dealing with the stress of the moment? Or what about the present moment makes me think of an old friend or colleague who might be lonely or isolated when normally I would expend my efforts and energies elsewhere (usually, let’s be honest, on myself)?

Then I began to define my terms a bit more.

2. What do I mean by abnormal times? A moment of doubt followed: Are these, in fact, abnormal times? What specifically about these times makes them different from “ordinary”, “pre-Covid” life?

These are certainly unusual (if not unique) times. There’s social distancing and self-isolation, just to name two of the obvious changes (for those used to it, Mother’s Day without a family meal is very strange indeed). As I mentioned yesterday, this moment will be a (and perhaps it’s too early to say but perhaps the) defining moment of our generation.

But in my moment of doubt, the penny dropped.

3. What if our Covid-19 moment is, in some way, the “normal” time?

Of course these are unusual times. But when it comes to what really matters, is this time really different from any other?

Not to be too morbid, but think about death, for instance. CS Lewis, in reflecting upon the effect of the Second World War on death had the following to say:

What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier; but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us. Does it increase our chance of a painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering; and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all. Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstance would? Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy- five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past.

They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.

All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realise it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. 

Learning in War-Time (A Sermon preached at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, Autumn, 1939)

War, or plague or any kind of straitened circumstance does not in absolute terms increase our likelihood of death. That will always stand at 100%. Rather, these scenarios make death more real to us. They remind us more sharply of our mortality. War, or any “abnormal” circumstance “disillusions” us, in the sense that it removes the illusion of invulnerability that we might have held to in “peace time”. Lewis again: “The war [read Covid-19] creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it”. This it seems to me, is an uncomfortable truth of which to be reminded. And, as with all uncomfortable truths, it is a gift and mercy to us.

Above all else, it might aid us, as the Psalmist puts it, to re-consider our days aright that we might gain a heart of wisdom. If the virus does not in absolute terms increase our likelihood of death, then what will we occupy our hours and days with? The question should not be, “how should I live differently in these strange times?” but “as in all times, how should I live before God so as to glorify him and love my neighbour?”

When asked by an imaginary interlocutor, “how are we to live in an atomic age?”, Lewis gave the following response:

I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

“On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

Will the habits we develop in the time of the virus stay with us in peace time? If they are habits, practices, liturgies, attitudes and inclinations of the heart worth forming, then they are for all times.

[EDIT 28/3/20: The lockdown now makes the kinds of activities Lewis mentioned impossible. But we can still learn to have our fears perfected, as Matt Lee Anderson argues here]

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In a lighter moment today, I read the following family’s rule, which I took to be pretty sound advice for keeping sanity.

The entire above post notwithstanding (!), I have tried to take this to heart and have had a pretty productive day walking to Grantchester, cleaning, doing laundry, shopping for food and seeing my Mum for Mothers’ day (from across the garden hedge for obvious reasons!) which was very special. I also tried out our new hoover which was a lot of fun.

Me and the Dyson V7 (it came with the house!)

…the final bit of laundry beckons.

CovidDiary Day 1 (Sat 21st March)

I wanted to begin to record some of my thoughts on the fly in the hope of offering some encouragement and reflection at this unsettling time. I don’t know how long it will last for or how consistent I will be but here goes…

Morning prayer an encouragement this am: Ps 31:27—be strong, take courage in your heart, all of you whose hope is in the Lord. Immediately I was taken back to the version of Church of Scotland minister/musician Ian White which my parents used to blast out of the tape player of the family’s Ford Mondeo. As kids, my brother and I used to chuckle at how repetitive the lyrics were. Funny how they are now lodged deep in my memory.

A friend told me today that this is the defining moment of our generation. Years from now people will ask us what it was like to have lived during the Coronavirus. Hopefully part of our answer will be that we lived well and formed good habits…much like my parents did in playing Ian White to my brother and I those many years ago. Be strong, take courage in your heart.

Enjoyed a sunny walk with Olga to Waterbeach in the afternoon which was a mercy. Savoured the sunshine rays, all the more given I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be able to do this.

Fen Ditton from the riverside

Seeing the chapel where CH Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, started his ministry was also a treat. I wonder what he would have made of Covid-19 and how we should respond.

In the afternoon I ventured to the nearby Sainsbury’s on Sidney St and spoke with an employee there at the self-check out. I was struck by how normally I would have completely ignored this lady but here I was, in these extraordinary times, asking her how she was doing and how the store was coping with the stress and strains of panic buying.

This got me thinking. Make no mistake about it: Covid-19 has revealed to us the fragility of our human existence. It is unsettling, devastating and tragic.

It is also an opportunity. In abnormal times, we find ourselves behaving differently. A conversation with a good friend an hour or so ago reminded me of this, as he spoke about reaching out to friends on their own with a phone call or visiting elderly colleagues who had no one to look after them with a container of soup. In his Times column today, Graham Tomlin wrote about how this period is an opportunity for us as a nation:

Self-isolation, with no sport to watch, no colleagues to chat to, nothing to fill the long hours, can mean we start phoning or writing to friends we haven’t spoken to for ages, learn to play an instrument, try out longer and deeper conversations with family or flatmates. It can give us urgency to find new ways to reach out to friends and neighbours. It could teach us habits of quiet prayer or mindfulness, gratitude for what we do have but temporarily miss, reflection on our lives and what really matters, appreciation for the simple things of life. After a few months it could even teach us a whole new way of life…

For many this will seem indulgent. What new habits are there to cultivate when my job is at risk? When I have to teach my three children following school closures on top of my day job and being a parent and spouse? When there is the stress of obtaining medication or arranging an appointment when the health service is already so stretched? When my elderly parent is ill with the virus?

I don’t presume to hold any answers here, except to say that in these circumstances, sometimes it is enough just to get through the day. And I feel keenly the need to help those in such circumstances. I still haven’t quite figured out how beyond offerings to food banks and looking out for my parents. I still wonder what I might do for my neighbour—the one I wouldn’t ordinarily seek out?

While it might seem indulgent, there is still an opportunity for deeper reflection in this “fallow period” (and yes, I realise fallow can seem privileged for those with the responsibilities I listed above—so how about a period with different rhythms and routines?). It’s a chance to think about our habits, our values, an opportunity to spend time with loved ones, have deeper conversations, grow closer to those from whom we might have grown distant. “We have gifts to give one another in this time”, as theologian James KA Smith reminds us.

We must be realistic. Of course this is and will be difficult. It will stretch us to the limit. But in uncertain times, there is an opportunity for growth and for new, life-giving habits and sacrificial ways of life to emerge.