Rev. Melvin Tinker, former vicar of St John Newland and Director of Theology for the Christ Church Network in Hull, speaks on how the Church can move forward in a post-Covid world.
This talk was originally published on the St John Newland YouTube channel and has been republished with permission. Watch the talk, or read the full script below:
The Canadian clinical psychologist, Professor Jordan Peterson presents a fascinating analysis of the 1959 Walt Disney film, Sleeping Beauty, which, in many ways as we shall see, is a story for our time. Princess Aurora had parents who were quite old and had been desperate to have a child. And so when this bundle of joy eventually arrived, understandably they didn’t want anything to happen to her and they became somewhat overprotective. This shows itself when the parents invite a whole host of people to the christening party with one notable exception – Maleficent.
Maleficent is an evil queen, and later in the film has the power to transform herself into a dragon. So she represents the dark, dangerous side of reality and the parents of Princess Aurora wants to shield her from such things in order to allow her to grow untroubled by having to encounter raw nature, if you will. Well, Maleficent shows up anyway and somewhat suspiciously in the first instance appears to be bestowing a blessing on the child, giving her exactly what her parents want for her which, in the words of Maleficent, is that she would ‘grow in grace and beauty, beloved by all who know her’. But then comes the dark twist as the blessing becomes a curse that on her sixteenth birthday she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die- (the spinning wheel representing the wheel of fate).
The spell is weakened by the fairy Merryweather into the princess falling asleep until she is awakened by the kiss of her true love. The King and Queen then go into overdrive to protect their daughter by banning all the spinning wheels in the kingdom. Of course they fail for there is one left in the castle tower and the inevitable happens- the princess finds it and pricks her finger, thus triggering the spell and at puberty falls into a deep sleep.
Peterson says she wants to go to sleep, she has been so overprotected that her life isn’t really much of a life and she doesn’t want to wake up. She remains in this comatose state until the prince arrives to save the day. The prince is also symbolic in that he represents the woman’s own consciousness, that without that courageous, forward going consciousness the woman will drift into unconsciousness and terror. She has to wake up and face reality otherwise her existence, if you can call it that, will be one of the sleeping dead.
What is the point of all that? It is this: over the last few decades we have been creating in the West a ‘Sleeping Beauty culture’, where fear has been the dominant outlook, shaped by the creation of worse case scenarios with the result that maintaining safety becomes the paramount concern. This is especially seen in the way many parents adopt the posture of the King and Queen in the story. This is the way the sociologist, Professor Frank Furedi, describes the situation:
“We can see the deleterious impact of safetyism and worst-case thinking in the sphere of childhood. Indeed, childhood has been increasingly organised around the anticipation of the worst possible outcome. Parents are now reluctant to let their children out of their sight. And children have come to view themselves as fragile and vulnerable. During the pandemic, this fearful view of childhood and children intensified. Children’s mental health was said to be at risk, and their physical development threatened. This worst case approach actually incited children to feel hopeless about their future.”
Furedi shrewdly points out that this fear which is socially dominant, now exacerbated by the Covid crisis, is not fear as an emotion when we feel instinctively threatened, for example being pounced on by a Rottweiler, rather he writes, it “is fear as a perspective, a cultural orientation towards the world. It provides the prism through which we interpret everyday experience. It feeds risk-aversion, a heightened sense of vulnerability, a preoccupation with safety, and a lack of confidence towards the future.”
Furedi speaks of ‘fear’, but for most of the 20th century it was spoken of as ‘angst’, a sense of dread, as you find in the philosopher Heidegger for instance who described man as ‘being towards death’, and unless confronted creates a kind of terror which overshadows everything else. It is essentially a pagan attitude, treading warily through the world for fear of upsetting the Fates. Another word to describe this sense of foreboding is ‘anxiety’ which one Christian writer describes as a ‘sickness of the soul’ such that our futures as a whole and the possibilities which lay before us don’t fill us with hope, but with terror. [John Webster, ‘Do not be anxious’, in Confronted by Grace, (Lexham Press, 2015) p 230]
It would seem this is where many of our contemporaries find themselves ‘post-Covid’ as revealed by a fatalistic acceptance that there will be no quick return to normal, even construing what is called a ‘new normal’. An Ipsos Mori poll, from 25 March had 36% of respondents saying it would take at least six months to a year to restore normality; another 36% stated that it will take a year or longer – a combined figure of 72%.
When fears which are rational are encountered as a threat, traditionally they have been overcome by courage, a gathering of ourselves and our resources so that we can face up to that which makes us afraid. And once we have done this then our confidence is strengthen enabling us to face future threats with similar resolve. This was a point made by Aristotle when he said, “We feel confidence where we have often met danger and escaped it safely.” In other words, facing fear can be a positive experience, clarifying and concentrating the soul, making us into better, more resilient people. But if we are placed in a situation where anxiety is heightened then we will feel that we are the ones who by feverish activity have to keep the threat at bay. We may even be willing to be subject to increasing social control surrendering all sorts of goods, if the perceived trade-off is that we will be made to feel ‘safe’. But as the Sleeping Beauty story shows, it is a poor exchange as we destine ourselves to a kind of endless sleep which is no existence at all.
When you think about it, it is not surprising that it was during the 20th century that anxiety began to rise in the West as this ran parallel to increased secularisation which involved ideas of God, religious activities and symbols being pushed further and further to the margins of public life and more people seeing this world as being the only world and so the ‘be all and end all’. Given such a limited view of reality, everything then has to find value and meaning in this world alone, and given the ever-present threat of death, it is not surprising that anxiety levels rose for you may not achieve what you want to achieve- it begins and ends in the here and now.
But we are not secularists or pagans, we are Christians and so we are to view things radically differently resulting in us feeling differently and so responding differently. The secular view of the world which feeds anxiety is a false view. And so we might well say that this kind of anxiety is a form of worldliness and when Christians succumb to it, acting as if the Gospel were not true at that point they are being functional atheists.
One of the main roles of the Christian minister is to help God’s people see things properly, which is where teaching biblical truths, doctrine comes in. This is the way one writer expresses this, “Doctrine fills out the true story of the world, directing the eyes of faith to the bright contours of the splendour of God, who has sent his light into the world in the person of his Son and into our hearts in the person of the Spirit.” [Kevin J Vanhoozer, ‘What are Theologians For?’ In Pictures at a Theological Exhibition (IVP Academic, 2016) p 67.] And that is exactly what we see Jesus, the minister par excellence, doing in Matthew 6:25-34 getting his followers to see the world as it really is by understanding God as he really is.
This is how Jesus speaks to our personal nightmares and worries, addressing the post-Covid anxieties which bedevil so many both within and outside the church. Jesus frames our problem of worry in terms of being ruled by a false master, what he called ‘mammon’ or ‘wealth’. This is not simply riches, but it can be extended to included seeking security and significance through the possession of material things. In other words, finding well-being primarily through this world alone. Sure, God is not completely ignored, there is an acknowledgement of his rule. But unless one is fixed on him, his kingdom and righteousness (v.33) we will be conflicted- trying to slave for both and this is psychologically impossible. One will lose out, and such is our fallen nature, it will be God. Such a focus on this world (which is where the word secularism is derived, from the Latin saeculum – the present age) is to adopt the pagan view of things according to v.32. Now, with the coming of Christ and his kingdom that can now change, there is a new possibility, a new relationship with God as Father and this makes all the difference replacing the ‘fear perspective’ spoken of by Furedi with the ‘faith perspective’ spoken of by Jesus.
The theologian John Webster describes the difference in this way:
“What is, then, the anxiety from which Jesus seeks to detach us? Very simply, it’s our failure to grasp and live out the significance of Jesus Christ. Anxiety is our failure-sometimes from fear, sometimes from pride- to allow that, in and as the man Jesus, God rules all things in heaven and earth, and therefore that our lives are in God’s good hands. When Jesus summons us from anxiety, he injects into the world of our responsibilities something utterly new, utterly different. He breaks the world of anxiety apart by saying that this world – the world of daily life and care, the world of work and responsibility – isn’t a world in which we and we alone have to bear the burden of ensuring that we survive. This world is the place of God’s kingdom; God’s rule in Jesus Christ is the great new factor.”
There are three key truths which Jesus highlights to free his followers from the cruelty of anxiety.
The first is that our fear is futile. Jesus is clear in commanding his followers not to be anxious about their ‘souls’- v.25, that is what animates and drives our lives. He gives a negative reason in v.27 in the form of a question, ‘Can such worry add to your life?’ The obvious answer is ‘no’, in fact it is the opposite, excessive worry reduces the brain chemical serotonin resulting in less happiness and more illness and so reduced lifespan.
Although we pride ourselves in the West as being ‘rational’ people, the truth is that we are often more irrational in our behaviour than we like to think especially when we are led by an overactive and ill-disciplined imagination which is shaped by doom-mongers. The 17th century Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal said that the imagination is the “dominant faculty in man, the source of all errors and the mistress of all falsehoods.” That is so true. This is especially the case when it comes to worrying about the future, which Jesus particularly pinpoints at the end when he says, “Do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will have enough troubles of its own.”
Let us suppose that you have a difficult task to face in a week’s time. Maybe you are going to have to confront someone and you don’t like confrontation. What happens? Let me tell you what happens with me: I imagine myself speaking to the person, I picture the room, the conversation, how it’s going to go- and boy I can really get worked up about it! The mind simply gets taken over; the heartbeat increases, facial muscles begin to tighten and anxiety bites. Has it ever occurred to you what a total waste of time that is? The fact is the conversation going on in your head, the picture of that meeting whirling around your mind is pure fantasy. It doesn’t exist. And what is more it will never exist. How many of the imaginary scenes which you have run past your mind actually come about when the time arrives? None. Sometimes the things you worry about in your imagination never happen at all. Which is why we say, ‘It might never happen’. So it achieves nothing.
But you may say; sometimes what happens is worse than you had imagined. True, but that simply proves the point I am making that you wasted your time being pushed around by your imagination- it didn’t even get the worse-case scenario right!
But just supposing that for once your imagination had been spot on – what difference would it have made to the outcome anyway? There is no point in bringing tomorrow’s possible troubles over into today says Jesus in v.34.
It is not difficult to see how this general principle applies to us as we come out of lockdown. In some cases the imagination will get to work as people envisage coming back to church, sitting close to someone who may be a relative stranger, singing without masks, shaking hands with the minister and before you know it they see themselves in the ICU struggling as they are being pumped with oxygen! This is not real and allowing ourselves to imagine it being real only serves to raise our anxiety levels and paralyses us into inactivity- the sleep of Princess Aurora.
Our fear in this sense of unfocused dread is not only the result of a faulty imagination, but lack of faith, v.30. Faith is not a matter of pretence, convincing ourselves that things aren’t as bad as they really are. Rather it is the exercise of genuine belief -the reliable lens through which we have access to reality, the reality of the providence of God which is the main thrust of this passage. Providence is God ordering of our lives and creation for his glory. The Christian is called to believe that everything is being ordered to this great end, including pandemics and their aftermath. This doesn’t mean we can map out our lives to fit it into some kind of masterplan. Faith, as John Webster points out, will sometimes need to be expressed by saying,
“Nevertheless- that despite the disorder and humiliation and disappointment nevertheless God is the one who proves himself in Jesus to be the good God who wills and pledges to bring us to glory.”
Webster helpfully pinpoints what genuine faith is which is being expounded here by Jesus, namely, “that deeply healthy state of the soul which lets God be God. It’s that free, unhesitating, joyful assent to the one in the midst of whose kingdom we stand secure.”
Why can we joyfully let God be God? Because of who God is which brings us to the second point: our Father is faithful.
Jesus is not urging us to close our eyes to the difficulties we face and simply ‘whistle a happy tune’. He is urging us to open our eyes to what is the case about the nature and character of God and our relationship to him in that he is our Father- a title pregnant with significance. I have met many fathers in my time, some good and some bad. My step-grandad on my dad’s side was as wicked as they come. But I have never yet met a father who has wanted his children to be anxious. Most I know will, as far as they are able, relieve their child’s anxiety, at least by offering re-assuring words, ‘It’s going to be alight’. Our heavenly Father has no such limitations. Everything is going to be alright- ultimately – and he really does not want to see us crippled with anxiety. So he says, ‘Think about me. Take time out to look at the creation I have made and how I relate to that.’
The method Jesus uses is arguing from the lesser to the greater what is called an a fortiori argument – ‘if ‘this’, then how much more ‘that’’? We tend to be limited and narrow in our thinking. Our culture peddles the lie that life is pretty much all about what you eat, drink and wear – in these we find our significance and security and so if they are threatened in any way we feel threatened at the core of our being for these define us. Accordingly, we will do whatever it takes to ensure we are safe, keeping at bay anything which might be a conceived to be a threat. Jesus says, ‘Don’t buy into that lie’. The truth is that life is much more than these things. In verse 26 Jesus points to what we can see around us with the birds. They are well catered for in terms of food and are not frantically killing themselves by hoarding up things in storehouses. So if they are looked after, will God not look after you who are more valuable in his sight
John Calvin puts it like this:
“We ought in the very order of things (in creation) diligently to contemplate God’s fatherly love… (for as) a foreseeing and diligent father of the family shows his wonderful goodness towards us….To conclude once and for all, whenever we call God the Creator of heaven and earth, let us at the same time bear in mind that… we are indeed his children, whom he has received into his faithful protection to nourish and to educate… So, invited by the great sweetness of his beneficence and goodness, let us study to love and serve him with all our hearts.”
We are more valuable than birds and flowers. Life is more than what we eat and what we wear. What that ‘something more’ is should set the direction of our lives and shape how we face difficulties with courage and confidence, which brings us to the third point, our future is certain – v.33, ‘But (in contrast to the pagans) seek first his kingdom [God’s saving rule in Christ] and his righteousness [God’s vindication of us in Christ] and all these things will be given to you as well.’ While it may be the case that in the meantime Jesus’ followers have to face hardship, persecution, loss, even hunger- in the end they shall receive God’s approval, living in his presence.
To seek God’s kingdom is to seek the overwhelming reality of God in Christ and to rest in his promises, knowing that our future is secure in him. God in Christ displays his righteousness, acting rightly to meet our need in salvation. Here is a final quote from Webster which I find wonderfully reassuring:
“God’s grace is nothing less than the name of Jesus Christ, for it is in him that our anxieties are set aside as utterly pointless. We must not be anxious because we need not be anxious. Our present experience of life may be very dark, undoubtedly. We may face fearful prospects. But even at its most burdensome, our lives now are not perilously poised over some great chasm into which we might fall at any time. No, our lives are hidden with Christ in God. And our future isn’t some dark possibility lying over the horizon waiting to devour us. No, it’s the place where we will encounter the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. That’s why we’re told that all things will be added to us.”
Working it out
As we know, the Lord Jesus expects his followers to put into practice his teaching without hesitation or qualification since this will determine how we will fare in this life as well as being prepared for the next as we see at the end of the Sermon on the Mount with the parable of the two builders (7:24-27).
So let me draw out some entailments for us as a network of churches.
- As leaders we must believe these things. The extent to which we do will be shown by the feelings we have had during the crisis and are having at present. On the whole has it been one of anxiety and dread or when such feelings have surfaced have we been placing them within a biblical frame of thinking? What sort of talk have we been engaged in when speaking of the pandemic? Has it been indistinct from that of the media and politicians with the emphasis on extreme caution, protecting yourself, fear of events getting out of control or has it been the language of God’s fatherly care, providence and sovereign rule? In short has Christ been central in our thinking and feeling or peripheral? What we have been thinking about tonight should help us make up for any deficiencies in these areas as we resolve to enter into the world of the Sermon on the Mount, its viewpoint and language.
- We need to help other people believe this. In part this will happen when folk hear us speaking in such terms which includes our praying. In so far as our small groups and the larger public gatherings are concerned, the way we should be praying about the Covid situation should be couched in language which reflects Matthew 6, exuding Gospel confidence and a humble trust in our heavenly Father. While being sensitive to other people’s fears (so we don’t go bounding up to everyone hugging them at the earliest opportunity) we should by our posture show that we are not afraid, not pulling back from people, but confidently showing we are trusting in our Lord. We need to take opportunities to share this teaching perhaps with leaders sending their group members texts which will encourage folk to think of God in this way. When we are engaged in conversation with people about the matter, let’s speak in these terms. An important element of this is establishing the priority of the kingdom, that life is more than having good health, that people’s salvation is of greater concern to God’s glory. And so in our prayer life I would suggest Covid should not be the dominant subject – to keep this front and centre will feed the fear narrative, rather matters of eternity are to be front and centre as they were with Jesus. When that happens then everything else is seen in their proper perspective, including disease. At the outbreak of World War 2, C.S. Lewis preached an important sermon entitled, ‘Learning in Wartime’. In it he said this: “I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective, The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life’. Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right.” When Lewis speaks of ‘the war’, we might substitute the word ‘Covid’ for us to grasp the same point that life has never been normal since the Fall and that will include whatever ‘new normal’ people talk about- but God and his loving purposes for his people and creation remain the same and we have to affirm that.
- It is not too late to take hold of the opportunity for us to publicly witness to a non-believing world showing that we view things differently, standing against the secularist mentality which is prevalent. I think in some small measure this happened with the outside services which took place at Christmas and Easter. It has happened by the simple fact that we have chosen to continue meeting together under restrictions when some churches have shut shop. Sure, some took this as an opportunity to criticise Christians for being irresponsible in meeting in crowds, but this should not cower those of us who sought to do this responsibly because in so doing we testify that worship lies at the heart of the purpose of life. Christ died so that we could worship- giving him his due as Creator and Redeemer and in doing this together we discover true value and meaning as we encounter him in Christ. By how we speak and act people should see that we are not people of fear but people of faith.
- Let me end by telling you about C H Spurgeon as he ministered to the sick during the great cholera outbreak in London of 1854. He soon found himself physically and mentally exhausted. Not only that, but he began to fear for his own safety. Yet, amid his fears, he learned to entrust himself to God and to His faithfulness. He recalled, “At first, I gave myself up with youthful ardor to the visitation of the sick, and was sent for from all corners of the district by persons of all ranks and religions; but, soon, I became weary in body, and sick at heart. My friends seemed falling one by one, and I felt or fancied that I was sickening like those around me. A little more work and weeping would have laid me low among the rest; I felt that my burden was heavier than I could bear, and I was ready to sink under it. I was returning mournfully home from a funeral, when, as God would have it, my curiosity led me to read a paper which was wafered up in a shoemaker’s window in the Great Dover Road. It did not look like a trade announcement, nor was it, for it bore, in a good bold handwriting, these words: — ‘Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation; there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.’ The effect upon my heart was immediate. Faith appropriated the passage as her own. I felt secure, refreshed, girt with immortality. I went on with my visitation of the dying, in a calm and peaceful spirit; I felt no fear of evil, and I suffered no harm. The Providence which moved the tradesman to place those verses in his window, I gratefully acknowledge; and in the remembrance of its marvellous power, I adore the Lord my God.” Spurgeon of course is not promising that no Christian will ever die of sickness. Rather, the Christian he says, “[needs] not dread [sickness], for he has nothing to lose, but everything to gain, by death.” That is seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.