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

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