As we begin to invite people round, return to the workplace, send kids back to school and brave public transport, I am hearing people wonder what will we hold onto from our experiences of shutdown,
What have we learned? I feel there has been a palpable positive shift in the status quo, but will it last?
I hope we don’t pass too quickly through this stage in the rush to “return to normal”.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross pioneered our understanding of grief, clarifying five stages. I have been watching the world pass through them in the last couple of months: denial (young people partying on Bondi Beach), anger (crowds in the US rebelling against lockdown), bargaining (hairdressers protesting against the 30-minute limit imposed by the Australian government), depression (all of us grieving the loss of celebrations, trips and work), and acceptance (our understanding that this is what is needed to protect the vulnerable).
David Kessler worked closely with Kübler-Ross. He recently published a book about a sixth stage he discovered: meaning making.
I hope we don’t pass too quickly through this sixth stage in the rush to “return to normal”.
Arundhati Roy, the brilliant Indian novelist, has a striking metaphor of the pandemic as a portal: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
She is right about the historic shifts caused by pandemics. David Griffin and Justin Denham are infectious diseases experts who also know history. In an article in The Conversation, they talk about some of the key shifts which have happened, including better working conditions, deeper studies of religion and philosophy, and widespread questioning of authority.
We are hearing that people do not want to go back to the way things were. A Sky News story reported on a poll in Britain which indicated that more than half (54 per cent) of about 4300 people hope to learn from the crisis by making some changes in their own lives. They also hope changes will be made for the country as a whole.
So what does this all mean for the Christian community? How can we respond?
Here are some of my suggestions for what a post-pandemic world could look like, with Christian input.
1. A renewed appreciation of physical connections
While churches have responded heroically in obeying bans on mass gatherings, by moving services online, this should not become the new norm.
I support Brian Zahnd who has warned: “Don’t let a pandemic turn you into a Gnostic.” Gnosticism was an ancient heresy that compartmentalised the physical from the spiritual, leading to a denial that Jesus could be both fully human and fully God.
“To prefer digital over enfleshed is a … move away from what it means to be human.” – Brian Zahnd
While it has been a novelty to experience church from our lounge rooms, and I have appreciated still meeting as a church, Christianity is a way of life that incorporates the material world.
As Zahnd says, “To prefer digital over enfleshed is a gnostic move; it’s a move away from what it means to be human; it’s an insult to the Incarnation.”
Instead, we should take the positives of the online experience, understanding that the church is people not a building, and enjoying that our faith impacts our home life. It’s not just the one-hour gathering on a Sunday. But we should weave that into a deeper expression of our church experience post-pandemic.
2. Fresh expressions of hospitality in the neighbourhood
An amazing thing has happened: we are recognising our neighbours. Instead of furtively avoiding people as we drive to and from work and the shops, we are taking the time to walk around the block, to smile and greet people, and to take part in neighbourhood activities such as dressing up to put bins out.
Karina Kreminski and Armen Gakavian at Neighbourhood Matters have some wonderful resources to help individuals and churches pivot in this way, toward expressing compassionate renewal geographically.
3. A willingness to talk openly about spiritual matters
There’s nothing quite like an incredibly contagious virus with deadly side-effects to get people thinking about mortality and what matters.
Friends of mine said recently that they had not realised how focused on material things they were until the most important thing in the house became toilet paper, cans of soup and pasta. They had to do things like weigh up our ‘need’ for things with reduced income. And then there was the surprising danger of a simple trip to the shops.
Suddenly, the lure of luxury items and experiences did not seem as important as relationships, and purpose and meaning.
Even within Christian circles, I would have been hesitant to ask people directly about their spiritual welfare, or they may have been evasive in their response. But those conversations are opening up now.
4. A renewed commitment to the value of the earth and its inhabitants
In our busy, selfish existence, we may have occasionally signed a petition, joined a march, or written to a politician about the approval of a coal mine; or even ignored those requests in our social media feeds. However, this pandemic has heightened our awareness of our interconnectedness, not just as people, but with the environment.
One result of the pandemic, and reduced industrial activity and vehicle movement, is that the air is cleaner, and wildlife is more visible. As many have commented, we can hear the birds sing.
Will we be willing to make more permanent changes to help the earth breathe more easily?
5. A church more mobilised by compassion
Our church now has approximately half the congregation involved in running online services, contacting frail members, delivering services to the community, as well as doing all the background coordinating.
Tammy Tolman, a pastor at a church in Dapto, south of Sydney, has noticed a similar change in her church: “If we don’t take this opportunity now to reassess and rethink what God calls the church to be, then we miss an incredible opportunity. Going back to having one or two people up the front doing everything while everyone else sits passively would be tragic.”
6. Christians leading the way in innovation for the common good
I have noticed a renewed commitment by Christians toward use their gifting, skills and businesses to respond to recent crises, including the devastating bushfires and, now, the pandemic.
They are living out what Andy Crouch describes as the responsibility for all Christian leaders “to speak, live, and make decisions in such a way that the horizons of possibility move towards ‘shalom,’ flourishing for everyone in our sphere of influence, especially the vulnerable.”
I see it in a friend of mine who runs a Christian dance company and is having conversations with ballet dancers who do not want to return to an industry marked by bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination and an obsession with the myth of a perfect body.
They are mobilising for change.
The pandemic has given all of us, and especially the church, the time to reflect on the way things were, and the way things could be.
7. An understanding of the need for a foundation of spiritual health
While health workers, teachers and supermarket workers are busier than ever, others have noticed the difference in working from home, reduced commute times and changed circumstances.
I was speaking to some Christian entrepreneurs recently for whom this unexpected and unwelcome pause in activity has had unexpected benefits.
“I can’t remember the last time I had eight hours sleep at night,” commented one.
Another mentioned the way she and her family members have reconnected more deeply. They also have been able to get into better rhythms of encountering God in his word and prayer: “We are laying a more firm foundation for when things begin moving again.”
The pandemic has given all of us, and especially the church, the time to reflect on the way things were, and the way things could be. It’s not a new story, it’s an old story given fresh expression.
I sense there is the real possibility that we could live out Lisa Sharon Harper’s vision at the end of her book The Very Good Gospel: “Evidence of the presence of the Kingdom of God is thick wherever and whenever people stand on the promise of God that there is more to this world – more to this life – than what we see.”
“There is more than the getting over, getting by, or getting mine. There is more than the brokenness, the destruction and the despair that threaten to wash over us like the waters of the deep. There is a vision of a world where God cuts through the chaos, where God speaks and there is light. There is a call for humanity to exercise dominion over self and the rest of creation in a way that serves all, not just self.
“And there is a promise that as long as we follow God’s way, there will be life, healing, and love.”
Come, Lord Jesus, in us and through us, and ultimately to bring about the New Earth.
*Kara Martin published this article (in an extended format) on her Workship blog. Republished with permission