REFLECTIONS & ENCOURAGEMENTS: understanding and growing through the covid-19 challenge.
Bishop Peter Brain Reflection 9: When everything returns to normal
I’m sure the sentiment of our indefatigable Prime Minister in these words of a couple of weeks ago was good. His desire for people to be able to get back to work, visit loved ones and gather for all sorts of occasions is understandable. But do we really want the old normal back again? Many have savoured new opportunities of time spent with children, nurturing their marriages or re-discovering the joy of old and new hobbies. The challenges are invitations to learn that less maybe better and the simpler more refreshing. So why would we want to go back to the old norms when there may be better ones available to us?
A way of thinking about this is to consider the place of thankfulness in our thinking. The new appreciation for the many people we rely upon and so easily took for granted, has been seen in advertisements thanking medical workers, shop assistants, bi-partisan political leadership, truck drivers and the like. Albert Einstein remarked: A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labours of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and still am receiving”. Thankfulness expressed to others, and especially to God for them, will go a long way to making these new found expressions of gratitude a new norm. It will certainly go a long way in keeping us from seeing others as rivals or feeling that any person’s work is more or less important than another’s. Thankfulness is a great antidote to pride and self-deprecation and a stimulus to contentment and service.
Thankfulness to God for those who are leading us through the pandemic, whether the PM, State Premiers, Ministers for Health, Chief medical officers and those in the back rooms doing research, benefit us greatly in a number of ways.
- Thankfulness keeps us from possible recriminations and blame when there is time to review what happened by focussing on what has been accomplished. There is an old ditty that runs: God and the doctor we both adore in times of trouble and no more. The problem righted God is forgotten and the doctor slighted! Thankfulness to God for the labours of others keep us from sinful tendencies which at best ‘damp with faint praise’ or worse seek to find fault with those who have done their best. If we are thankful we are more likely to experience the joy of Field Marshall Wavel’s words: it is amazing how much you can get done if you don’t mind who gets the praise!
- Thankfulness to God will keep us relying on Him as the primary source of real help. Doctors can only do so much, as the words of Dr.Ambroise Pare (recognised as the father of modern surgery) testify: I dressed the wound; God healed him. The scientist Kepler, remarked of his own research: that he was only thinking God’s thoughts after Him. With this in mind we thank God for the wisdom, whether of individual breakthroughs or of the accumulated pools of shared research. As we do this we are far less likely to put all our hopes in science to be our saviour in this or any other pandemic or regular sicknesses like cancer, heart attacks and the like. Having prayed for the researchers and medicos, as we ought, we will continue to thank Him for whatever relief has come, rather than neglect Him till the next emergency.
- Thankfulness to God has many observable health benefits. Arch Hart shared that in one university study, people suffering from a painful neuro-muscular disorder were instructed to regularly keep a record of things they could be grateful for. A kind word from someone. A gift from a neighbour. The smell of orange blossoms in the spring. Life is full of little things to be grateful for, and the sufferers learned to count their blessings. The results were astonishing. Improving in their pain management, they felt happier and emotionally more stable. The benefits are numerous at many levels: I’ve never met a grateful person who is an unhappy person (Lewis Smedes). It is hard to feel envy, greed or bitterness when you are grateful. (Arch hart). Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). A thankful heart cannot be cynical (A W Tozer).
- Thankfulness, being the antidote to the fatal sin of thanklessness, will deliver us from the whole range of relational sins methodically and logically flowing from our refusal to think rightly about God, thus preferring the bondage of lies than the freedoms of truth. These are set forth in Romans 1:18-32 and flow out of idolatry and a refusal to thank God for His obvious bounty. One thing leads to many others. Whilst we ought to rejoice in the research of science and the accumulated gains in medical knowledge and nursing care we are all the losers when we fail to thank God for them. We settle for far too less from God when we idolise science and shift it from its God given moorings. We end up expecting far too much from science and medicine and lose that peace that God alone can give us, when through no fault of their own, doctors/researchers can do no more for us. The pandemic, whatever its outcome, and I for one am praying that it will be overcome, should cause us to thank God not only for the work of all who are seeking to eliminate its worst effects, but for its reminder that we, individually and collectively, do not know nor can control everything. This will take the pressure of expectation off researchers, increase our prayers to God for them, keep them from pride and the corporate lawyers from suing, even if genuine mistakes are made. Above all it will keep us from the folly of idolising science.
- The challenges of isolation will be ameliorated when we are grateful to God. Isolation from others is not the worst thing for us. It is true that God made us for company, whether it be in marriage, with friends, in Christian fellowship and communities, but what we contribute to these relationships depends very much on how grateful we are to God. For example if I marry to become a complete person the chances are that I will not be a good spouse, since I will be expecting too much from my wife, too little from God and not enough of myself. The reality is that we are not ready to be married until we are ready to be single. In our churches we are looking forward to the time we can again worship and fellowship in real time and places, but unless our relationship with God, which the home isolation has given us many opportunities to nurture, is paramount, we will not be as strong contributors if we are more dependent on our fellows than we are on God for our wellbeing. Dick Lucas writing on the text Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts (Colossians 3:15) comments when Christ rules in the heart peace will rule in the Objective peace with God comes through personal faith in Christ (Rom 5:1-2) and subjectively experienced in us as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). Only then, will we bring peace to others in general (Matt 5:8) and in our fellowship in particular (Col 3:15).
- Perhaps it was a failure of Adam and Eve to thank God primarily and consistently for the gift of marriage that led them to believe Satan’s lie that they needed to look elsewhere for their true joys. It is so easy for people or things we once praised God for (remember the elation of Gen 2:23) to cause us to honour our own wishes above God’s. Certainly this is the thanklessness-sin of Romans 1:21 that spawned the terrible dislocations of true relationships, not only in sexuality, but also in the destructive ways expressed in 1:28-32. It would only be honest to affirm that these sins are not only evident in the world but present in our churches, foreshadowed by the many exhortations in the NT letters to the churches.
Practised thankfulness to God, will keep us from idolising even our Father’s choicest gifts, paradoxically enabling us to enjoy them more since we see Him as their source. Thanking others will enable us to value and respect each other more whilst not expecting from them what our Father would freely give us in Christ. If this were to become the new norm only in our churches, how much richer and attractive might we be to one another and our weary world.
The General Thanksgiving is a great prayer to keep us focused on our gracious Father.
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give humble and hearty thanks for all your goodness and loving kindness to us and to all people; we bless you for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your amazing love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us that due sense of all your mercies, that our hearts may be truly thankful and that we may declare your praise not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honour and glory, now and forever. Amen (AAPB 1978)
Peter Brain 29th April, 2020