Years ago, when our children were young, we used to lead summer venture holidays for teenagers. We did this for years at a variety of locations in England.
The final three years we took over a school near Alton Towers in the Midlands. Inevitably, we spent a day each time at the famous entertainment park, trying not to get too wet too early on the water rides.
Then there was Oblivion. You got in a carriage and it very slowly climbed a very steep rail until it levelled out at the top. Then it stopped. You waited, trying not to look down several hundred feet. Then it shunted forward and sent you plummeting almost vertically towards the ground.
I wouldn’t dare do it now.
It feels a bit like that in England in these strange times. Outside my window everything is quiet: no planes in the sky, no cars on the road, no children playing in the park.
It feels like we are waiting for something to happen – for the promised escalation in deaths and casualties from the invisible virus that is sweeping the globe.
It feels very uncomfortable. Waiting always does, especially when we know we have no control over what might happen next.
Well, this experience might seem strange to us; but, it is how most of the world’s population live every day. The difference is that we, in the West, have taken a rare sense of continuity and security for granted, and have been seduced into thinking that we can control our lives and destiny.
There are many reasons for this, but they are for another time and another medium. For now, we can simply recognise that what we are currently enduring will, if we’ll let it, strip away some of the false securities and illusions we have grown to assume.
The current lockdown has removed some of our freedoms – of movement and association, for example – but it might also remove some of our fantasies of individual self-sufficiency. Enforced isolation will prove extremely challenging for many people as we seek to use technology and other creative measures for maintaining – indeed, building – social connection at a time of threat and fear.
For Christians this dual experience of both waiting and self-examining is (or ought to be) normal. We are now heading towards the end of Lent, a period of withdrawal, contemplation, fasting and prayer.
At this time each year we strip back the ‘stuff’ that fills our life. We re-read the story of Jesus as he walks with his friends towards what turned out to be a cross.
We try to live in the moment, not jumping ahead to Easter’s resurrection before we have lived with the uncertainty and not-knowing of the journey itself.
We place ourselves alongside these people-like-us as they struggle with not knowing where they were headed. And, as we go, we dig beneath the veneers of our own self-sufficiency, rediscovering what is too quickly forgotten: that we are mortal; that we are interdependent; that we are not masters of the universe; that an acceptance of our mortality is the beginning of freedom.
Now this might sound a bit ‘niche’. But the forgotten disciplines of the Christian Church through more than 2,000 years might actually offer us a perspective and a resource as we navigate our current uncharted waters.
Identifying our propensity for selfishness might push us towards greater patience and generosity with others. Learning to wait for whatever is to come … might just help people gain some acceptance of not being in control of life. Learning to create order where the daily routine feels a bit loose … might just offer a better form of self-control.
This isn’t about mere piety for the sake of it. What I am suggesting is that the space in which we now find ourselves – unwanted, uninvited, unwelcome – is where we are. We either embrace and explore it, or we just hunker down resentfully and hope it passes.
Someone once said: when you are in the desert, don’t look for the flowers that grow in the fertile areas; look for the flowers that grow only in the desert.
For, if you spend your energies looking for roses, you will be very upset and frustrated. There are some flowers that grow only in the desert – try re-focusing and look for them.
On a similar theme is a meditation by an Asian theologian called Kosuke Koyama who once wrote a book called Three-Mile-an-Hour God. When we enter a desert, says Koyama, our first instinct is to get out as quickly as we can.
But we need to resist the temptation, learning instead how to live in the present moment and face the slowed-down truth about ourselves and the world. That is what Lent invites us to do.
It is clearly a truism to say that we live in strange times. We face an unprecedented challenge. Yet we also have unprecedented means of building our communities and strengthening our bonds.
Social media, food banks and support of NHS staff. Constant connection with isolated and vulnerable people – even those down our own street or in our own block whom we would normally pass in the street and hardly recognise.
Our antennae can now be raised, our sensitivities sharpened.
Now is the time to turn fear into faith and hope into action.
The Right Reverend Nick Baines is the Bishop of Leeds.