‘We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.’ – Dietrich Bonhoeffer (German theologian)
It was not the highpoint of my week to discover this piece of information from British Airways less than 48 hours before I was due at the airport. My irritation was exacerbated by having received confirmation of both this flight, and the exact seat assigned to me, just this week, even though the SA government announced a 3 week Lockdown for all but ‘essential travel’, which I – naively as it turns out – assumed would include me winging my way back to Blighty.
Things are slightly more complicated as we are not renewing our rental lease this year, which was decided before we knew about either cancer or Corona. A whirlwind of activity saw me baffled and bemused by the amount of ‘stuff’ we’ve managed to accumulate, which I can no longer blame solely on our children. However, we managed to sort and box up everything we weren’t planning to bring back and haul it into storage (thank you lovely friends with a capacious garage), as well as take six bags of goodies to the charity shop and distribute the largesse of our stock cupboard – mostly to the stoic lady who cleans this building complex.
That leaves us with seriously depleted supplies, a basic but workable living space and a great view. Unlike the UK, we are not allowed outside to exercise or walk dogs; only to visit grocery stores and pharmacies. I signed up for an on line exercise class and have already missed the first session thanks to the clocks changing, which doesn’t bode well.
None of this is that drastic when I think about other communities in Cape Town where social distancing is an impossible bad joke and fear has an open door. In townships where your neighbour’s front door is less than a metre from your own, where running water is not available 24/7, let alone soap, and where the disparity in the health care system is frighteningly wide, there’s no doubt that once again it will be the poor who suffer. The percentage of elderly people is small: approx 8% of the population is over 60 whereas 20% are over 65 in the UK*. Here life expectancy is not enhanced by good diet, reliable health resources, clean water and sanitation as it is back ‘home’. It is not possible to stock pile when you live hand-to-mouth; there is a huge strain on multi-generational families where one salary may be supporting ten people and unemployment hovers around 29% .
So, the interruption to my plans is little more than an inconvenience in the grand scheme. If this crisis has done anything, then I think it’s helped us gain a healthier perspective on the world, about what matters and where we all place value. Already the universal conclusion centres around people, family, unity, the togetherness of humanity – or ubuntu as its called here – connectedness, care and compassion. If it took a pandemic to teach us that, then it’s been worthwhile, although tragic that people have borne genuine losses on the way.
Truth to tell, we have been ‘social distancing’ from one another for years, living in small, nuclear families and a virtual world of friendships, and right now we have no other choice. It’s made us appreciate the three-dimensional connections we’ve taken for granted for most of our lives.
They say that life will never be the same for us. When we see clear skies in places where pollution was previously choking life, then that’s a good thing. We’ve seen the canals of Venice running clear and nature flourishing again. I wish that the people of the world would flourish in the same way by returning to their Maker’s instructions as their lives have been interrupted and we all have time to consider the real meaning of life during this enforced lockdown. Perhaps, after all, as Bonhoeffer suggested, it is God who has broken in to our frenetic lives to catch our attention and captivate us with His amazing grace, lavish love, and generous forgiveness for throwing Him out of His own creation with such arrogant abandon for so many years.
At a time when populations are prey to all sorts of fears and are looking for answers and solutions – and I certainly pray that the medical world makes double-speed progress on their promising discoveries – we would be wise to also look up and seek reconnection spiritually as well as socially.
In January 1933 Bonhoeffer preached a sermon in Berlin entitled: ‘Overcoming Fear’. The Hindenburg government was sinking fast, the threat of Communism loomed large and Adolf Hitler became Chancellor that month; the title therefore, was more than apt. We know what happened next, but the German people didn’t. Bonhoeffer addressed their anxieties with courage and a certainty that was not resting on the circumstances before them. I believe that his words will resonate and encourage us in our current crisis too:
And now… all of us are at sea again, on that voyage without faith, without hope, overwhelmed, in chains, in bondage, paralyzed by fear; we have lost heart, lost the joy of living, our limbs heavy as lead; each of us knows what it’s like… Fear is breathing down our necks.
…when everything else that keeps us safe is breaking and falling down, when one after another all the things our lives depend on are being taken away or destroyed, where we have to learn to give them up, all this is happening because God is coming near to us, because God wants to be our only support and certainty. God lets our lives be broken and fail in every direction, through fate and guilt, and through this very failure God brings us back; we are thrown back upon God alone. God wants to show us that when you let everything go, when you lose all your own security and have to give it up, that is when you are totally free to receive God and be kept totally safe in God… God is close to us then, not far away.’
The faith which Bonhoeffer knew so intimately and so personally saw him through time in Tegel prison, in Buchenwald concentration camp, and then at the extermination camp at Flossenbürg where he was hanged in April 1945 aged 39, just one month before the German surrender. He died as he lived, setting aside fear and, by faith, embracing God as Father and Jesus Christ as His saviour. This is how he described faith:
… Only the faith that leaves behind all false confidence, letting it fall and break down, can overcome fear. This is faith: it does not rely on itself or on favourable seas, favourable conditions; it does not rely on its own strength or on other people’s strength, but believes only and alone in God, whether or not there is a storm. It is the only faith that is not superstition and does not let us slip back into fear, but makes us free of fear.
This is the robust and vibrant faith which we all need today, and every day, as we navigate this new chapter of life in which so many of our plans have been abruptly interrupted.
* Approximate figures only.