Love in a time of lockdown
How lonely sits the city that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations!
The opening verse of Lamentations was not intended to describe the effects of an epidemic, but it is eerily appropriate. Take a walk through any city and what will impress you is the surreal atmosphere of quiet desolation. The buildings have not been destroyed, but many shop windows are boarded up or emptied of their contents. Traffic is sparse, pedestrians are few. Buses circulate with nobody on them, and street life has vanished. Here and there you can find a shop or a kiosk selling coffee or ice cream to people who are queuing two metres apart but that is about all. It almost feels as if Steven Spielberg is making a science-fiction film in which the whole world has become the set. There is no war or obvious calamity to blame – bodies are not lying in the streets, nor have people been abducted by aliens from outer space. An invisible virus, previously unknown and appearing from nowhere, has done what no great army or superhuman effort has ever managed to achieve. It has stopped the world in its tracks.
Here in the UK the effects have been particularly severe. The statistics, according to the daily press briefings, said as of 5 June more than 40,000 people have died of covid-19, but it is thought that the ‘excess death’ rate will take the figure closer to 65,000. Fewer than 2000 new infections are reported on any given day, but this includes only those who have been tested. Therefore, new infections seem to suggest that we are closer to 8000 per day – more than four times as many. As schools and other industries start re-opening, there seems to be uncertainty as to how social distancing will be tackled and whether the virus will spiral out of control. Nobody quite knows what is going on. Whatever else we have learned in the past few months; we now know that we cannot trust the state or rely on human efforts alone for our salvation.
At a time when people have been forced to confront their own mortality and many are reflecting on the meaning of their lives, it seems to me, that church leaders have been strangely silent. To be sure, nobody objects to their few words, but nobody remembers them either. This stands in sharp contrast to what we are finding at grassroots level. The wonders of modern technology have allowed many pastors and congregations to go online, and by all accounts more people are tuning in to them that way than have ever darkened the door of a church. We shall probably never know the full effects of this outreach until we get to heaven, but some of the seed that is being sown in this way is sure to fall on fertile ground. The Holy Spirit is not dependent on human authorities, whose limitations have been cruelly exposed by the crisis, but God has not been left without a witness and in time to come we shall look back and see how he has been at work, gathering his harvest in our midst.
There is much speculation about how the pandemic will change the way people live, but most of it is too optimistic. It may take some time for life to return to ‘normal’ but the virus will not kill original sin. The kindness and consideration that people are now showing to others is unlikely to survive for long. It is wonderful to see trained chefs cooking for hospital staffs and patients, but when their restaurants re-open, how many of them will keep doing that? The same goes for almost everyone else and we should have no illusions on that score.
Having said that, some things probably will be different. More people will be working from home, now that they know that they can do so. Cash transactions are likely to become rare, and may even disappear altogether. A lot of pubs, clubs and restaurants will not re-open and people who have got used to entertaining themselves at home may well continue to do so.
One of the more remarkable things about the lockdown is how few protests there have been at the complete loss of social life. Nobody is picketing pubs, demanding that they should open their doors. Neither are protesting crowds to be seen outside football stadiums. It must also be said that the clamour for the return of public worship is largely confined to the clergy, though in contrast to many others, Christians have been remarkably active. They have organised online worship events that include singing groups from all over the country, created networks that have allowed them to enjoy fellowship with each other, and in many cases communicated happily with complete strangers.
In the nature of things, it is more difficult to measure how far individuals have taken the opportunities provided by the lockdown to grow closer to God. Many of us have discovered that we have more time for prayer, for devotional reading of the Bible, for reading (or re-reading) Christian books that have been gathering dust on the shelves. I for one have been working my way through Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ great series of sermons on Ephesians, the first volumes of which I bought in 1980 – a whole generation ago! In a few of them I have discovered receipts dating from 1998 or so, which I used as bookmarks that have remained in place ever since.
A great blessing has been the ability to chat via Zoom or Skype to people all over the world, including some who live around the corner but whom I seldom see. Real conversations about things that matter do not often happen in the normal bustle of life, but the relaxed pace of the lockdown has made them seem natural – and welcome. I have grown to appreciate friends and neighbours in a new way, and that deeper relationship will endure.
Most of all, I have had more time to spend alone with God. I have realised how blessed I am, in spite of present inconveniences. One delight has been that I have had the time to enjoy the arrival of spring, to watch the ducks and swans swimming in the river and even to admire a deer who appeared one day in the garden. God’s creation has taken on a new colour in my eyes and I have come to thank and praise him for his great love in providing us with so many wonderful things that I have tended to take for granted.
More importantly, I have been given a new sense of hope and expectation as I have been forced to separate the wheat from the chaff in my own life. Much of the secular world has fallen apart, but it was never meant to be permanent and losing them has made surprisingly little difference. The things that really matter are spiritual and they have stayed the same. Indeed, they have shone with a new brilliance as the outward trappings of human life have fallen away. As the poet of Lamentations recognised:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning - great is your faithfulness! (Lamentations 3:23).
The Biblical writer was guided by the Spirit of God and could see beyond his immediate circumstances. He knew that the Lord does not abandon his faithful people, and that his mercies will endure. When the pandemic is finally over and fades into history, his steadfast love will remain. Let us use the unaccustomed leisure that we have to redeem the time, to lay up treasure in heaven, and to know that peace which the love of God puts in our hearts and which passes all understanding.
Gerald L. Bray is Latimer Trust director of research. He is also Research Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School of Samford University (Birmingham, Alabama). He is the author of numerous books including various titles published by the Latimer Trust. To see them click here.