Monday 27 April 2020

Who needs normal?

A phrase I often hear these days is some version of “when we get back to normal.” I think I know what it means – a time when we don’t need to keep 6 feet between us; when we can use the parks and the trails; when we can meet one another, shake hands and share hugs without fear; when children can play with friends, people return to work, worshipers gather together. That’s a normal I think many would recognize.

But there are some parts of normal I wish we could banish, leave behind on the other side of March 15 (or whenever lockdown started in your community). We hear the voices calling for a “restart” to the economy. They aren’t as loud as south of the border, but they’re there. In the daily briefing a couple of days ago, a reporter asked the Premier, “Since the majority of COVID cases are localized in seniors’ facilities and particular communities, why can’t the rest of us get back to normal?” The response was a quite powerful reminder that the province entered this together, will go through this together, and will emerge together. But the sentiment is out there. People have published the calculations suggesting that the death and sickness rates are acceptable if things can go back to “normal”—meaning buying and selling. A number of provinces have (or have promised to) roll out their plans for spinning up the economy.

So, what’s on your list of “normal” that you want to work at and pray about and form community to resist?  Here are some of mine, in no particular order:
·       An unintended consequence of the economic slowdown seems to have been a degree of recovery for the rest of Creation. I imagine you’ve seen the photos of suddenly clear skylines or repopulated waterways and so on. I hope those aren’t all photo-shopped! While some level of revived economic and industrial activity is unavoidable, perhaps – having seen the dramatic effect lowering those levels can have – we can see that it is possible to make a difference and the Creation can be helped to heal;
·       We have seen the significant leadership being given by calm, thoughtful and courageous women, both a number of global national leaders and public health officials in Canada and abroad. I hope that demonstrated competence will affect a change in some knee-jerk reactions about who has the qualities to lead and a deeper degree of considered evaluation of all who are willing to offer leadership gifts;
·       I hope that what we have seen, both courageous and tragic, will help us continue to push back the privilege of the arrogant white male. Whether it has been reporters calling out politicians distorting facts in press briefings or our response to the shooting rampage in Nova Scotia, we’re seeing some “normal” or “excused” behaviours questioned. Why are we not calling it an act of terrorism, when it’s a white male at the centre of a historically awful swath of violence? Do we imagine, for a moment, that if the perpetrator were of another skin colour that the language of “domestic terrorism” would not be employed? Or, if we want to reserve the “terrorism” language for acts that are clearly ideologically motivated, why do so many insist on mental health language as opposed to acknowledging that this is one foreseeable consequence of society celebrating certain traits and ways of interacting?
·       I hope that, having seen it in action, we do not forget how possible it is for our country and provinces to move resources into caring for the most vulnerable.  The speed with which so many levels of government, business and not-for-profit made funds available is genuinely breath-taking. Programs that previously would have taken months if not years to see the light of day, came out the doors in hours. Certainly, they were imperfect and needed tweaking. But the attitude clearly was – there is a need, we need to act, we can fine tune later. When the need for greater fiscal probity reasserts itself how can we continue to remind governments and one another of what is possible, particularly for the marginalized, when the will exists?  The various forms of relief and support rolled out amount to a de facto guaranteed annual income. Having had the experiment, can we continue this as a means of fundamental economic justice?
·       We call them heroes now – I hope we remember those who we are feting in this moment who generally labour at impossibly low wages, cobbling together a variety of part-time underpaid positions, simply to eke out a living at or below a subsistence wage. Can we find the way to narrow the often-obscene gap between the pay to the CEO and the front-line employees? Can we continue to maintain the pressure on provincial regulatory bodies so that reasonable salaries and numbers of employees are available to care for the frailest of our brothers and sisters? Can we begin to shift our profit-fixation, that inevitably restrains or reduces the participation of front-line workers in the revenue generated by corporations? In a weird way I am grateful to those who have the courage to express the conviction that a few deaths are worth it to turn the economy back up. Not because I agree with them! But because they are declaring the operative prejudice of so much of our economy: the people exist to work and produce, rather than healthy, safe, meaningful and fulfilling work being one expression of human living. I hope we have learned that there truly is more to life than the jobs we do (when we have them) and we have a counter-narrative to those for whom the economic measures related to profit are the be all and end all.

So, what are some aspects of “normal” that you would like to change? I believe that an unanticipated benefit of COVID 19 is the opportunity to do a genuine reset on some of our behaviours and attitudes. Here are some questions to help you reflect.  Maybe you want to employ them with others to create coalitions for change where you live and work.
·       What do you not miss? Are there aspects of your previous pace of life that you want to change? For instance: travel, endless meetings; time away from family?
·       What have you noticed in yourself with the changed pace: more creativity, more peace, deeper connection or re-connection with people? 
·       Is your organization really conducive to the well-being of those who work in it? What needs to change to achieve that?
·       How do we alter the conversation? Here are some other change methods, based simply on altering the questions we pose:
o   What do I need to control?  What can I unleash?
o   Who can make this work?  What interactions will make this work?
o   How do I avoid resistance?  How do I welcome resistance?
o   How do I influence individual actions?  How do I influence the field (or culture)?
o   How can I create change?  How can I transform the energy that already exists in the system?*
We have the time to dream and pray about a new way of being.  What are you praying for?

*For more questions like these, see the TED talk by Kathleen Allen:

c2020 I. Ross Bartlett 

Thursday 23 April 2020

The natural resource of connection

No doubt the events of the past weekend have brought these feelings into sharper focus but sometimes it’s the absence of something that leads to greater awareness.  Take natural resources for instance. What comes to mind when you hear that term? Generally, I think of those gifts of the Creator that are too often needing protection from over-exploitation: water, forests, land and the things found under the land. Have you seen any of the before-after photos of different places in our world and how they look after just a month of reduced human industrial-commercial activity? I’m sure my more environmentally-aware friends will caution me that it’s merely cosmetic change – but at least it’s change for the better. Those are natural resources.

What about human relationships? Are they a natural resource? Even we card-carrying members of the Happy Association of Introverts (motto: “Caring – at a Distance”) need that connection. I’m sure there are sociological and psychological as well as anthropological arguments for connection. Because most of us, most of the time, take those for granted, we don’t realize what they contribute. Or maybe we focus only on the annoying connections – but even those can widen our frame. 

We have heard about the epidemic of loneliness in western society. About how Britain has a government ministry created to combat the scourge which has very real and measurable results downstream in physical and psychological manifestations. It’s a media commonplace to talk about how we are so very connected and often very much alone. Different surveys offer different numbers, but the conclusion is pretty constant: growing numbers of us have fewer and fewer meaningful contacts. A congregation I know started a free meal program with the intention of assisting the economically marginalized. The surprise was how many of those who took part in the ministry were not from the named group but from those who were lonely. Even sitting in a church hall at a table with strangers over a meal was a welcome relief!

In contrast to some other social crises we might recall, Covid-19 is pushing us apart. Lots of folks are resisting that push: can you think of a time when as many artists were offering free concerts or free readings on-line?! A way for them to perform, when their normal avenues have dried up entirely, but just as importantly a way for us to share something that often draws us together: music, whether in a kitchen party or a concert hall. Physical distance requires people to be separate. What we’re seeing is a refusal to equate the physical with the social; if we must be physically distant, we will work extra hard at being socially present. Yet there is still a growth in stress, loneliness, anxiety and fear. In such a situation people look for hope.  They also look for parallels. The on-line vigils in response to the violent rampage in Nova Scotia last week are another expression. Keep us apart one way, we’ll find another way. And those ways are effective in a manner that is more than just a poor substitute. A vigil yesterday organized by some very astute and thoughtful colleagues in Region 15 had over 1,600 participants from every corner of the country. If we had been able to gather physically, would we have even thought to do it virtually? Those of us in Nova Scotia would have the comfort of being together – but we might have missed the outpouring of love and support that was so powerful in the virtual vigil. You can see it here:
There’s another coming up on Friday organized by folks in Colchester County. I imagine that too will be hugely subscribed.

Rodney Stark, in his book The Triumph of Christianity (which, notwithstanding the title, is not triumphalistic) makes the strong argument that Christianity grew in the first four centuries of this era in large measure because of the mercy Christians showed to all, and particularly those who suffered through two great plagues that ravaged the Empire. According to contemporary records, while non-Christians often fled the plague-struck areas, Christians carried the obligation to care for those in need, saving many lives through simple provision of food and water that allowed an estimated two-thirds of victims to recover. There’s also an argument made that, precisely because of this ministering, Christians developed a “herd immunity” which gave the appearance a divine blessing as proportionately fewer sickened and died.

What conclusions might we draw from a social historian’s reflections about 2nd and 3rd century plagues? By all means, wash your hands, for your sake and for the rest of us. Cough into your arm, elbow-bump – or even better nod politely from two metres away. Honour the call to not congregate – even in worship, but certainly not at the beach. But, if one of one of your neighbours – church member or not – needs assistance, even if they are diagnosed positive and needs you to serve them, please do so. We pray that it may not come to this but if our health care resources become overwhelmed and volunteers are needed, consider that.  Simply because you belong to Christ. Follow all the directions given by Health Authorities and encourage others to do so but continue to show mercy and serve others as Christ calls us to do. Refuse to succumb to fear and Face Book terror. 
You may have already heard of Martin Rinkart, pastor to the people of Eilenburg when the plague struck. In 1637, 8,000 people died of disease, including Rinkhart’s spouse, most of the town council and clergy. At one point he was conducting 200 burials a week. When Covid-19 fear threaten to overwhelm us and those for whom we care, it’s helpful to remember our most precious resources and the God who makes it possible

“Now thank we all our God,
With heart and hands and voices; 
Who wondrous things has done, 
 In whom this world rejoices.” 

And later, speaking of the bounty of God

 “Keep us all in grace, 
And guide us when perplexed, 
And free us from all harm, 
In this world and the next.”

Martin Rinkhart, “Now Thank We All Our God”, Voices United #216

©2020 I Ross Bartlett