Connecting in Crisis

Revd. Dr. Donald MacEwan — University Chaplain 

I once attended a funeral in Edinburgh for an old man called Willie. I knew him because I was his Age Concern visitor, and had seen him in hospital and then at his hostel. There were two other people there – a minister who conducted the service and a social worker from the Council. Neither had met Willie. I was the only person there who could picture him, who knew his rasping voice, who remembered his lame jokes about football, who was aware how cantankerous he could be. A quarter century on, his face still comes to mind.

It was sad that he had died, but sadder that at the end of a long life, I was his closest connection, a 25 year-old student volunteer. We humans are social animals, and we usually thrive through touch, play, smiles and conversation, family and community, embrace and love. The time of the virus has made these connections harder to maintain. Perhaps the most important response we can make to the virus is to foster our human connectedness, in conventional and new ways.

As a Christian, I also believe that all creation is connected to God, from whose love all has come to be. My own experience is that I have thrived when most connected to God in openness, prayer and reflection. And I hope that connection with God has made me open to the needs of others, to the vulnerable, and to this beautiful, fragile planet.

Revd. Jane Barron — Hon. Church of Scotland Chaplain

A nightly mass “mooing” that has lifted spirits in a town during the Coronavirus crisis is being replicated across the world. Every evening at 18:30 BST, residents of Belper in Derbyshire (England) gather on doorsteps and lean out of bedroom windows for a two-minute cattle chorus. The […] bellowing has now spread to India, Japan, Australia and the US. 

BBC News, 10th November

Connections! I’m uncertain as to how spiritual people may feel this is? Perhaps this is the bovine equivalent of baying at the moon – except these were human beings, prompted to connect with their fellow humans in the most quirky of ways. Why, we may ask?  Could it be a mutation from NHS clapping – lots of people who live near one another making an offering in the form of a noise, together, at the same time, certainly not in tune and ultimately laughing together, feeling relieved in some way after months of feeling the walls, whether real or imagined, closing in. 

The Church of Scotland website is encouraging readers to go online to make a spiritual connection. It talks of the Church being, at its best, the sign of another kind of connection, one between heaven and earth. It reminds readers of the importance of keeping the connections with our various mission hospitals around the world, maintaining links and bringing healing and hope to people suffering from HIV/AIDS and leprosy in Nepal and Kenya. Several parish churches in Edinburgh have installed defibrillators outside, which could in themselves bring a very immediate form of new life. Connections. 

I was a radio journalist before I was called to ministry in, as it turned out, the Church of Scotland. One of best things about this formative work was the experience of networking. When I began my Contacts Book was empty; by the time I left the Station it was filled with the names of people and organisations complete with jottings and notes I’d added along the way. My first experience of parish ministry showed me the value of connecting with many people and organisations in my patch, whether they shared the faith or not. The joy of reaching out and making my life and the life of the church bigger, more relevant, richer, felt deeply gospel as I ruminated on the nomadic Jesus. He persistently added to the number in his circle, and in turn enriched families, communities, towns and finally Jerusalem. I’m certain he was enriched by them as well. But a warning label needs to be attached.

Let’s consider some of the ways connections bring darkness and misery to people, animals, all life forms and the environment. The new presence of something or someone can be good or ill. It may be intended for good but be badly judged or implemented. For example, a person may connect with someone suffering from acute depression meaning to introduce a lightness, a laugh, a distraction from the hell they’re in – but this well meaning half hour may have the opposite effect. I’ve seen this happen in hospital. The new connection was ultimately hellish for both people. Another example: years ago, a new road system was built near where I live to make faster connections from one side of the city to another. Opinions varied depending where on the bypass you lived! 

I suppose I’m coming at this from my understanding of the meaning of the word which, back in the day, was ‘to bind,’ or we could say ‘to join together.’ There are numerous usages in the Bible, possibly the best known being when St Matthew reports Jesus saying, What God has joined together let no man separate.  This is often said by the officiating minister or priest in a marriage service. I believe this needs to be deeply unpacked, if we use it at all, lest two people are married to misery for many years, which I cannot believe is good. Connections do bind us to something new, for good or ill, on both, all sides. 

Which is why some of the best interfaith experiences (including the planning of worship) I’ve had have concentrated on what binds us in a positive way. The religious scholar Karen Armstrong writes in her book Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life, “One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community in which all people can live together in mutual respect […] All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao.”Karen Armstrong gave an award winning Ted Talk some years ago calling for the revival of Confucius’ Golden Rule: “Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you.”

I believe this deep, deep wish for connection within humankind and Creation is flexible and spans barriers across the sacred and the secular. I believe that is its strength, and I’m caught in awe and wonder to think how such a joining, such a binding, such a connection may bring the peace we all surely seek in the marrow of our being. I offer the thought, therefore, that we should continue to be intentional in connecting, talking, working for others’ health and peace knowing we may get it wrong, or slightly wonky – perhaps doing more homework before we (I should say I) blunder in. In the meantime perhaps mooing will get me in the mood, which may prompt a move to action. Let’s all try it! MOOOOOOOOO

Jared Michelson — Hon. Cornerstone Chaplain 

A pastor once suggested that some religions or philosophies find the meaning of life by looking within, but others, like Christianity, find the meaning of life by looking without, to something external.

Philosopher Charles Taylor speaks of the ‘ethics of authenticity’ as a way of describing the contemporary tendency to look ‘within’ for life’s meaning. We often think we have a unique, individualised identity and vocation which must be uncovered through a process of self-discovery. When we speak of ‘finding ourself’ or ‘being true to ourself’ we reflect something of this perspective. Many of us view our lives as an enfleshed Instagram: our identity is seen as the product of content curation. We are all ‘influencers’ now, choosing just the right people, careers, identities and stories to include in our lives and form us into the sort of people we feel we are ‘meant to be.’

When we gaze at the ethics of authenticity in the cold light of day, however, we might begin to find it somewhat superficial. First, this conception of the self, which many of us take for granted, is a modern, largely western phenomenon. It is frightfully individualistic, allowing others ‘in’ only when they conform to our self-discerned sense of identity. Second, this approach might at first blush seem to involve few demands or judgments. It seems only to say: ‘to thine own self be true’ or – to put it in more modern language – ‘you do you’. Yet Taylor has labelled such an approach the ‘ethics of authenticity’ for a reason. The insatiable demand to be true to a vague calling or purpose which we discover within ourselves leads many of us to feel we have a duty to attain perfect self-fulfilment. Finding a job then is less about a pay check and more about sacrificing anything and everything – our leisure, yearly earnings, the well-being of our families, and at times our own integrity – in order to secure a sense of purpose or meaning in our work, to feel we are ‘making a difference,’ as we often say. The ethics of authenticity also makes significant moral demands upon others. It demands that other persons and institutions respect and honour my self-directed, self-chosen path to personal fulfilment and identity. Third and most simply, this approach that finds meaning solely by looking within is constantly threatened by egoism and self-delusion (just think of those convinced they are ‘meant’ to be pop-stars before their audition on Britain’s Got Talent).

Yet it would be a mistake, and a mistake the pastor I cited at the outset is in danger of making, to think that the solution is to locate meaning, purpose, and identity purely ‘outside’ ourselves. In fact, this knee-jerk reaction threatens to undermine one of the most fundamental Christian beliefs: the doctrine of creation. ‘Creation’ is not about unhelpful debates regarding the age of the earth. It’s about the ultimate origin and end of all things. It’s less a question of cosmology, and more a question about why there is something rather than nothing. As Wittgenstein famously said, “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” And it is that mystical question that the doctrine of creation addresses.

The Apostle Paul says:

The God who made the world and everything in it […] gives to all mankind life and breath and everything […] [He made humans] that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’

Paul’s statement implies that the journey to God, if God really is the Creator of all things and the reason there is something rather than nothing, is both a journey within and without. It’s an intellectual journey seeking to understand the origin of the cosmos, but simultaneously an existential journey to understand the one in whom ‘I live and move and have being.’ It’s just as much a discovery of who you really are as it is a discovery of why the world exists.

Finding God will lead you outside of yourself. It will show you that there is more to the world and more to you than your immediate desires and inclinations. And yet when you go on this journey beyond yourself, you will also find that the deepest core of your identity, your deepest inclinations and longings, align with and resonate with the God who is your source. When you met the One who is infinitely beyond you, it’s only then that your heart really begins to sing within you.

In narrating his own journey towards God the Creator, the early Christian philosopher and theologian Augustine said:

For God did not create and then depart: the things [made by] him have their being in him. Look where he is – wherever there is a taste of truth. He is very close to the heart […] Adhere to him who made you. Stand with him and you will stand fast. Rest in him and you will be at rest. Where are you going to along rough paths? What is the goal of your journey? The good which you love is from him. But it is only as it is related to him that it is good and sweet.

Augustine found that his journey ‘without’ was also a journey within. His journey to the Creator re-enchanted his vision of creation and his sense of self. In a time of isolation, connection with the God who is ‘nearer to me than my innermost part,’ as Augustine also says, is available to us as the goal of a journey we may not even know we are on. A journey that leads us both beyond the created realm and within to our innermost part.

Sandy Edwards — Hon. Humanist Chaplain

Most people will, I am sure, realise that we are all connected as members of the human race; we are linked by our common humanity. Our success as a species is due to our huge variation, both physically and within our great array of cultures. As individuals we can of course connect with any of these cultures and even leave our own culture to live in a different country from the one we were born into. We can have children with someone from another country, with a different language and way of life. This is one of the ways of connecting, but can often cause problems if the two cultures are very different and there is a big division in lifestyles and beliefs.

I have been using the term “culture” rather than “race,” a word which is often used to describe people who are different from “us” even though, as I said at the start, we are all the same (human) race and can interconnect with one another. For thousands of years, we have been separated by countries and a wide range of climates, each requiring a different way of life; it is thought that because of this we acquired a number of differing beliefs. These probably arose out of a desire to explain the world and our place within it through imaginative myths and legends, many of which have lasted to this day.

Our connection with our differing immediate environments, from tribes in the rain forest with a living space which is entirely natural to those living in a modern city surrounded by artificial structures, will affect us in different ways. Their perception of the world will be very different as is their connection with it. It is easier for those living surrounded by the natural world to understand that we are all part of it as are all living things. In this country, living in or near our countryside makes this easier, but many cities now have green spaces, parks and gardens. Walking in a wood, by the seaside or an open landscape can often give us a sense of wellbeing, something which has a sound scientific basis. Going for a walk or gardening is often now prescribed to alleviate stress rather than medication. In cities, allotments are of great value in this area. In many cases this can help with depression if also connected with someone to talk to and who listens.

This is certainly useful with our present and often lonely, stressful and worrying times. We as humans need to be able to connect with one another, be part of a community and connect with our world, even if just a small part.

Barbara Davey — Hon. Quaker Chaplain 

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,

For want of a shoe, the horse was lost,

For want of a horse, the rider was lost,

For want of a rider, the battle was lost,

For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost,

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Traditional

From an early age, we love the patterning that connecting brings: think also of This is the House that Jack built, or I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. I can well remember the hilarity of word association games to while away tedious car journeys, our children devising ever more intriguing and bizarre connections between nouns – rain, umbrella, John Cleese, dog, rag and bone man, ‘break a leg’, Aladdin …

The connections of family and friends that we might value as children, giving us at best a sense of security and identity, can come in time to seem inhibiting, stultifying even. We arrive at university with a desire for new connections, ones we hope will flow well, will energise – friendships, maybe, with kinds of people we’ve not encountered before, areas of study we’d barely heard about at school. A time both daunting and exciting.

Looking back over my life, there have been times too when I’ve relished having no connections, of being alone, anonymous, disconnected – that has also been a period of growth for me, leading me in due course into new connections, new communities. 

A community that I value greatly in my life now is my community of faith as a Quaker. It nourishes me, challenges me, and grounds me in my daily quest of living well. Our full name is The Religious Society of Friends; so it is perhaps not surprising to read this passage in our book of Quaker faith & practice:

One of the unexpected things I have learnt in my life as a Quaker is that religion is basically about relationships between people. This was an unexpected discovery, because I had been brought up to believe that religion was essentially about our relationship with God. If we are sensitive, we find that everything that happens to us, good or bad, can help us to build a vision of the meaning of life. We can be helped to be sensitive by reading the Bible and being open to experience of nature, music, books, painting, sport. […] It is in and through all things that we hear God speaking to us. But […] it’s in my relationships with people that the deepest religious truths are most vividly disclosed.

10.20 – George Gorman, 1982

As the pandemic has taken its toll I have been moved and humbled to hear the ‘Lost to Covid’ stories in our press and media. Many of these, far too many, have been members of the BAME communities here in the UK, often shopkeepers, taxi drivers, grandmothers, teachers who were respected in their communities as place-holders for connectedness. The accounts I have read make clear the lost were points of reference, their presence offering stability and a sense that across the community members were valued, cherished. They will be sorely missed. Are there place-holders for connectedness in your life?

I expect over the past year we have all been reflecting on the connections that matter most to us. Mindful of the query 

Do you try to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit?

(Quaker Advices & queries 3)

I have sought new ways to affirm those connections in my daily practice as a Quaker, and my faith feels strengthened, my practice becoming a vital daily touchstone. For months I sorely missed being able to worship together with Friends in person, but to my joy I discovered that worshipping ‘by myself’ did not mean I was alone – I felt connected in a way that was all the more powerful for being unexpected. This is a rich resource that I can carry within me, wherever I find myself. 

Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life

Of course there are dark days too – during this COVID time many have spoken of an eerie disconnection, a sense of fragmentation and loss, of feeling lost. In one of my recent poems I wrote

There’s a sense of fracture, of concentration fiercely held, yet dissipated.

What to turn to? Where to start? And the finish?

A few lines further on, I refer to a tree in our garden 

… the late-flowering ornamental cherry. 

A wary passer-by tells how she admired it for weeks from a distance

“It kept me going,” she says, “It was magnificent.”

We are each finding new ways of connecting, to hold us steady.

The connections we make are like threads woven into the fabric of our lives. Sometimes we lose sight of them, only to find they reappear years later: connections rely on separations, on a sense of otherness, and that is also something to be cherished.

I’d like to finish this series of brief reflections with a poem by Imtiaz Dhaker, who describes herself as growing up a Muslim Calvinist in a Lahori household in Glasgow – it speaks to me in a gentle, tender way of the rich mulitplicities of connecting.

This line, that thread

Draw a line from finger to heart.

Draw the water from well to mouth.

Place a mark where the words were said,

map the distance from north to south.

Take it apart and start again.

Look out of the window at your neighbour.

Look in the mirror at your own face.

Breathe on the glass to blur the border,

watch it become an unowned space.

Wipe it away and begin again.

Hold the end of a single thread,

loop it to others, weave it to lace.

Spread it out to see if the holes

are an imperfection or a kind of grace

with their open heart, their otherness.

Imtiaz Dharker  from  LUCK IS THE HOOK  Bloodaxe Books 2018

                                   

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