Coronavirus is not so much an event in history, it’s a history-making event. We refer to the world as pre-and-post the World Wars, pre-and-post the Berlin Wall, pre-and-post 9/11, I think we’ll now refer to the world as pre-and-post COVID-19. Hundreds of thousands have been killed by the terrible disease, millions have suffered and, in our attempts to shield the vulnerable, “lockdown” has created ghost towns of most offices and cities, amid the collapse of entire industries.

It’s hard to know where to begin making sense. Is there any sense? Solemnity and awe should garner our approach to the question – the deep humility which is appropriate in the presence of the profound. This is a breathtaking tapestry where brown, horrible patches are interwoven with brighter colours, the appearance of silver linings in other places. When we walk away, we know that something has to change. Almost as if our humanity or something about our souls depends upon it.

To remove God from the picture is to remove the possibility of an answer

For many people right now, concluding for atheism seems like the obvious thing to do; the kind of suffering which has come with Coronavirus seems incompatible with the existence of a loving God. Yet our conviction that we have been face-to-face with real good and real evil and the unpalatability of there being no meaning at all suggests we cannot remove God from the picture. To remove God from the picture is to remove the possibility of an answer.

The stories of our lives are in fact stories informed by God’s story and what God has done, is doing and will do in this world. CS Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” If that is the case, what is it we think we’ve seen or heard? What is this tapestry made of brown patches and bright colours? The stories we used to believe about the world are called into question.

Relationships birthing rainbows

For example, where does our newly discovered solidarity fit into the story you used to believe? In the period pre-COVID, we thought we were the absolute sovereigns of our own lives, that we were essentially invincible masters of our own souls, vulnerable not really to anything, dependent not really on anyone. That myth has been blown apart – being “true to ourselves” is not enough – families and communities have been shown to need each other, but we have a choice as to whether to walk in that new light.

Relationship and solidarity are the reason behind why so many rainbows have sprung up in windows across the country. When we realise our dependence we want to say thank you to those who hold us up. God displayed the first rainbow ever put in the sky as a reminder of his faithfulness to us. Relationship is at the heart of the world because relationship is in the heart of God. There is a completeness to our lives walking in relationship with our creator, when we say “thank you” to him too.

The moral tapestry of our lives

Does the story we used to believe about material prosperity also need to be revised? We used to think there would be no constraints on our consumption and ability to accrue wealth. But just a few weeks ago we were scrambling for the last toilet rolls in the supermarket! Coronavirus has destroyed the myth of materialism – and in the longer term, the need to tackle climate change will do the same. We have found that the deep tapestry of our lives and the universe is not material, it is moral.

After the Grenfell Tower tragedy three years ago, Ben Okri wrote a remarkable poem using the cladding on that building as a metaphor for our lives.

There’s cladding everywhere. Political cladding,
Economic cladding, intellectual cladding — things that look good
But have no centre, have no heart, only moral padding.
They say the words but the words are hollow.
They make the gestures and the gestures are shallow.
Their bodies come to the burnt tower but their souls don’t follow.

Ben Okri

Nigerian poet & novelist, Extract from 'Grenfell Tower, June, 2017'

Do you, like me, live a life with moral cladding a lot of the time? Culturally, the answer to those questions must both surely be “yes.” And as individuals, in our search for intimacy, we spend our lives trying to project an image of someone we are not in order to get people to like us and to love us. But true love depends on the person knowing exactly who you are, what you’re like, and loving you just the same. God knows the real us and he still loves us.

Besides saying thank you to God – we can ask him to make us clean on the inside, to give us new hearts and the ability to live new lives in relationship with him. A life which is transformed by the power of love. Romans 8:28 says God works together all things for the good of those who love him. That’s not so much about ‘Divine Favouritism’, but about the inner sense of choosing to go through the highs and lows of life together with God.

Rethinking justice

We also need to rethink justice. The debt obligations which now burden our children form a sort of amorphous cloud over the future. But what is staring us directly in the face are the cries for justice among communities of poverty and BAME communities disproportionately affected by the virus [1]. We used to think justice was about an appeal to the Government, where rights are created and removed as we refine the ideal societal structure and reflect these ideals in policy without corruption.

But Coronavirus points us through and beyond that, to the need for a better story of justice – something better than the best that earthy institutions are capable of.  Is there a story where the worth of every person is known and every cry of the heart is heard and something has been done about it? Is there a story that brings us together in relationship, which recognises the moral fabric at the heart of reality, and which speaks hope against the backdrop of unequivocal judgement of evil and injustice?

God loves in the ‘second person’

In the 8th Century BC, when the people of Israel were in great distress as a nation, the prophet Micah came along. Their reality was one of economic devastation, injustice in the streets and alienation from one another. However, they did know something of what was good – their experience had suggested it. So, the question is asked: “What is required of us?” The beautiful answer of Micah 6:8 is to act justly, to love mercy but thirdly – and crucially – to walk humbly with God.

Our own relationships to God are at the heart of making sense of Coronavirus. Yes, there are things we can understand about Coronavirus and about the unfolding story of our world objectively. Stories which exist and can be comprehended in the “third person”, so to speak. But there are things about this which are much closer to home – the personal sense of loss, of alienation, of lost dreams and desires of our heart which only we know about.

It’s moving to think that in the context of a disease which attacks the lungs, Jesus died not being able to breathe

It really matters that there is meaning in the big picture but what matters even more is that God is loving in the “second person” kind of way. Not just that he is loving in the abstract, but that he is loving in the personal and direct, in his faithfulness to each of us. It’s not just that God loves, but that God loves you. He tells the story which makes sense of the world – but he also invites us into a story in which we may find what makes sense of our lives.

The offer of Christianity is to walk in this true story that our pain is not the end. No matter our experiences in this life, they are latent with a promise. A promise that what we see is not all there is or one day will be. Coronavirus is certainly a history-making event. But the biggest history-making event of them all has been the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s moving to think that in the context of a disease which attacks the lungs, Jesus died not being able to breathe.

Jesus’ suffering resonates on many levels in our world right now. At the cross we see God’s judgement, his love, his power, his mercy, his justice come all together – all fully expressed – and none at the expense of another. What we’re left with is that invitation to take down the cladding of our lives, be restored to relationship with God through forgiveness of what’s gone wrong and then walk humbly onwards with him.

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[1] As described by a report by Public Health England: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/892085/disparities_review.pdf