by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s, Member of General Synod and Vice-Chair of the Ozanne Foundation
Are you old enough to remember this?
A woman is kneeling on the kitchen floor caressing her new fan oven in her lovely large kitchen, while the birthday party behind her descends into chaos abetted by a greedy dog and a very messy set of children’s menu choices. As half the table collapses and spills the carefully prepared food onto the floor, she simply turns away from it all and sighs sweetly, ‘Don’t you just love being in control?’ while making a thumbs-up sign – and a blue flame bursts weirdly out of the top of her thumb.
The thirty-year old advert was for a well-known British gas company. The presumption behind the marketing was that we all want to be in control of our lives, and we will pay good money for it. The underlying (unintended?) message was that our ability to control life is very limited, and we’re only a short step away from the chaos around us which we prefer to pretend isn’t happening.
People with resources – and that probably includes the readers of this blog, because we have access to the internet – may know in theory that we can’t control everything, but that doesn’t stop us trying most of the time to live as though we could manage our way through life. Our phone’s map app that takes us (and hundreds of other drivers) down a quiet road to avoid a traffic hold-up; the carefully planned holiday and child care; the good insurance cover and sufficient savings, and even the spiritual assurance of eternal life, will all see us through.
Till when? Till the unprepared-for comes along, whether a coronavirus or another disease or a relationship breakdown or the loss of income or a natural disaster or terrorism or the combination of Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough speaking out about the environment – and we realise that we’re not in control in the way that we thought we were.
But not being in control is the everyday experience of nearly all of humanity, past and present. A farmer friend of mine said to me many years ago with reference to food supplies, ‘We’re only three days away from anarchy.’ Chronic insecurity has always been our human lot, and history teaches us that the pride of those in control always goes before their fall.
The United Nations estimates that 8% of the world’s population could be pushed into destitution by the end of this year, largely because of the pandemic. It’s not only because of the direct effects of the disease, which the International Rescue Committee fears could kill several million people in countries with poor health systems and large numbers of vulnerable refugees. It’s also the effect of the collapse of distribution systems and export markets. From flower growers in Ethiopia to Bangladeshi garment makers, the International Labour Organisation has warned that over 1.5 billion people are in danger of losing their livelihoods, and therefore food and security for their families. All through no fault of their own.
COVID-19 as an immediate issue is reminding our society of how vulnerable we all are: not only those who live in the UK, but all of us across the world, bound together in complete dependence on one another. This pandemic is a shared global experience which invites us all to face the unsustainability of the world’s complex systems of control, which the global warming crisis underlies; and it’s a challenge to change, to do something about it.
The key to this is relationship. From a Christian perspective, everything depends upon relationship with God, the maker and redeemer of all. The love of God seen in Jesus Christ draws us into relationship with God as our Father and Lord, and changes – or should change – our perspective, from us being in control of our own life to living for the sake of God and others.
If God has made the world and it is good, then we must care for it. Not only for its own sake, but also to enable it to sustain the lives of ourselves and every other person God has made and loves. And if God has made us, and sent Jesus to suffer and die (and so letting go of control), and Jesus has been raised not to exercise power over others but to be good news for each and all of us, then we must care for one another and not make use of or forget anyone.
The pandemic reminds us that our lives are fragile and valuable, all of them. And also that, whatever hopes we might have had for the future, and the sorrow we feel when those we love die or when facing our own death, what matters at the end isn’t being in control, but being in relationship: held in love, in life and in death.
‘Don’t you just love being in control?’
Yes, we do!
But we need the burning love of God above all, and thereby love for our neighbours as ourselves. Which means being those who live in love – and not being those who have to control our lives or the lives of others.
So let’s get over it, and get on with it!
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