sermons Suffering

The Trauma of COVID-19 and the Easy Yoke of Jesus

The experience of living in the world of COVID-19 is a sort of trauma. Not, perhaps, the sort of trauma one gets from being buried by a fallen building for several days, but it isn’t nothing either. Our sense of what is secure and reliable vanishes into smoke. What does it mean to bear the easy yoke of Jesus in this new, radically uncertain, world?

And still the pandemic rumbles on, killing people all over the world, and disrupting and complicating our life here. When I began writing this, it wasn’t clear what would happen about the infection spike in Melbourne; now we know that people in thirty-six suburbs are back to the most restrictive lockdowns for a month, which is horrible for them, especially given that it is school holidays. We all hope that will work out, the disease will be brought under control, and the sacrifices will pay off. But who really knows?

Every time I write “these are unprecedented times”, times become even more unprecedented. And so complex, emotionally. I don’t know about you, but I look at the chaos overseas, and think myself lucky. Then I look at the situation in other states, and feel annoyed, especially when interstate friends and family are enjoying the opportunity to have a bit of fun at Victoria’s expense. Then I reflect that at least I don’t live in one of the suburbs under lockdown, and feel guilty about how frustrated I feel. And so on. And on. And on. It is deeply disorientating.

One, quite broad, definition of trauma is “a severely disruptive experience that profoundly impacts the self’s emotional organisation and perception of the external world.”[1]  There is certainly a question of degree here, and I would want to be able to distinguish between, one the one hand, being buried under the rubble of a collapsed building for 48 hours, and, on the other hand, my current sense of dislocation.

But, conversely, this really is big deal and it’s important to acknowledge it.

An important principle of spiritual discernment is seeing the difference between what is happening, and what is really going on. And what is really going on is that our whole way of understanding who we are and how we operate in the world, has been disrupted. Whatever the trajectory of the pandemic turns out to be, it seems certain that our lives will be permanently divided into “before” and “after.”

My grandparents were adults during the Great Depression, and it shaped them in ways I didn’t realise. For instance: they collected bits and pieces. String. Paper bags. I used to think: who can imagine living in a world where it’s worth saving paper bags? And now I see their point exactly. I ask myself: should I keep that thing I’m about to throw out? Might I regret not having it later? I’ve certainly become better at using my leftovers, for instance, in order to minimize my trips to the supermarket.

That’s what is happening. Worrying about the future, worrying about trips to the supermarket, trying to work out how to follow the health guidelines, trying not to touch my face so often, trying to remember to wash my hands. And so on. That’s what I’m primarily conscious of.

But what is really going on? Underneath my anxious preoccupations, what is the basic thing I’m afraid of?

We must all answer that for ourselves. It will be different for all of us. But there will be broad themes, I think. Which is where that trauma definition I mentioned earlier is useful. Things which seemed stable, predictable, understandable have proved to be very fragile. A lot of us, for instance, took for granted our ability to go wherever we liked, whenever we liked. Whether it’s a cancelled overseas holiday, or not being allowed to have a coffee with a colleague in West Footscray, things we took for granted suddenly aren’t reliable.

That’s what makes it a sort of trauma: whatever we had unquestioningly relied on is shown to be fragile, and we ask ourselves whether it is worthy of our trust. Our ability to control our environment to provide the sort of safe, comfortable life which our ancestors could only dream of, has been shown to be tenuous. All it took was a tiny little particle, something not even properly alive, to throw the whole teetering edifice of sky scrapers and super-jumbos and smartphones tumbling down like the collapse of the tower of Babel. All the expertise in the world can’t cope with something which doesn’t even have a brain.

What seemed solid is in danger of dissolving into smoke. Where do we stand? What can we rely on?

Jesus says: “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” I know that I’m weary, carrying a huge burden of anxiety and a sense of responsibility out of all proportion to my ability to affect things. I long for freedom, not from responsibility within my sphere, but from this overwhelming, crushing sense of powerlessness in the face of an uncaring universe.

The context of Jesus’ words is interesting. He had just been teaching and proclaiming his message through the cities of Galilee, including his adopted home town of Capernaum. It had not gone well – even John the Baptizer had begun to doubt him, and, from the context, it seems like the “wise and intelligent”, the experts in the law – the very people who should have been primed to see who Jesus was and what he meant – had completely failed to recognise him.

That’s surprisingly similar to our time, when the authorities are clearly struggling to get a handle on what’s going on.

But God had revealed himself to “infants.” Not people skilled in the law, rather people who didn’t have the leisure and education to devote themselves to the study of the Torah. The solution to the problem of living in first century Palestine wasn’t provided by expertise, but by God, who showed himself through Jesus.

Jesus reveals God to us, to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

We began the sermon talking about trauma, about the way it disrupts our lives and shows us that what had seemed so solid is in fact sinking sand. There is an ironic possibility hidden here. It is an opportunity to look beyond, look deeper than the fragile surface of life, to find the rock on which we can build our lives.

It isn’t that God sends suffering in order to teach us a lesson. Rather, God can work goodness even through terrible things. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” There is a Portuguese proverb which captures it well: God writes straight with crooked lines. Both of these capture something of the possibility of confidence in God’s providence and goodness. Something of the freedom that is possible once we find our primary identity in the God revealed through Jesus Christ.

The pandemic makes clear what was obscure. The opportunity it reveals is to take Jesus at his word. To lay down our burdens of guilt and shame and powerlessness, our slavery to the things which prevent us from loving one another and the world, and take up the freeing burden of being a disciple of Jesus. To trust the God who Jesus called “father” with our lives. To find God faithful, even in these challenging times of pandemic and uncertainty.

A sermon preached for Preston High Street UCA on 1/7/20 on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost.

[1] Michelle Balaev, quoted in Vox, The University of Divinity, June 2020 . It’s a pretty broad definition, from a literature academic rather than a psychologist, but there is certainly something to it.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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