It’s all about mercy

May 21, 2020 by

By Dr John Pilling (Retired Consultant Radiologist) and Bishop Michael Langrish (Former Bishop of Exeter):

This reflection all began when I had been praying and asking God “What is this crisis all about?”, thinking that, in line with the opinions of others, it could be God’s judgement, or his anger, or a wake up call? 

I awoke in the early hours the next day and a thought came to me “It’s all about mercy”.  I thought that was very odd and then it was followed by a fuller idea of what this might mean in particular with regard to those who had ‘lived well’ and now needed to ‘die well’.  This occurred to me with a certain surprising completeness and clarity.  

Initially a number of thoughts came back to me which I had been mulling over for some days.

  1. the death rate, its relationship to age and to existing medical conditions.
  2. the rumpus about COVID in care homes and the protection of the elderly.
  3. the need for older people to make sure their wishes are known about how they wish to be treated and/or die.
  4. the fact that this virus was likely to be present in the world permanently and certainly for years or decades

 Later on the idea developed further to include a broader consideration of mercy, not just with regard to the elderly.

We have become accustomed over the last 50 years to the wonders of medical science, a ‘pill for every ill’ and a solution to every health problem.  Almost nothing has been untreatable and a long life has been all but guaranteed.  But this is a very novel view.  Our Victorian forebears would not have shared it.  They looked for ‘a good death’, meaning a peaceful passing away in one’s own home surrounded by family and going into the arms of God.  How quaint that sounds now.

But COVID will be here for a long time and will continue to cause deaths especially in the elderly and vulnerable for many months and, depending on treatment options and vaccines, possibly years.

What is absent is an acceptance of this reality.  We live in an age in which ‘safety’ has become a prominent, if not the most important, value in society.  We assume that life will continue into a long old age and death is something which happens eventually to old people.  Fear has gripped many of all ages, especially young adults, and is beginning to paralyse our thinking and our reactions.  It has been stoked by a media obsessed with tragedies and focused unhelpfully on the dead and the dying.  Rather than give in to this zeitgeist  is it time to change our perspective on life and on death and inject some positivity and hope but how will that happen and how does the COVID crisis bring this into focus?

As we consider this ongoing crisis it is pertinent to ask ‘Where is God in this?’, ‘Where is humankind in this’, ‘Where is the church in this’?

‘Where is God in this?’

For God believers how should we understand this crisis within the simple context of our beliefs that God is a God of love and why is all this happening?

A highly virulent malicious virus is part of what can be called the ‘dark side’ of nature which also includes tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters.  We believe that it was through the logos, the Word of God, Jesus Christ, that God created the universe.  That work of creation is ongoing because, in Christ, there is a continual imparting of his own nature which is love.  Love freely given in the hope of eliciting a response of love.  With that response given freely comes the element of free will, which presupposes the possibility of darkness as well as light, rebellion as well as response.  The positive side of this is the glory of creation where personhood and responsibility exist on the one hand but there is still that ‘flaw in the universe’ which draws us as it exerts its own gravitational pull.  Christ knows his creation and in His life and ministry the ‘Word made flesh’ both experiences the depths of, and is raised above, its ‘dark side’.  Of course we know that the presence of viruses and bacteria are a necessary part of creation.  Without them human life would not be possible.  The good ones are an essential part of life.  It is when some become dangerous that we see and have to acknowledge that dark side of creation.  The ultimate goal is the promise of a new Heaven and a new earth which will be without such flaws.

So does God, the Trinity, create and set things running, then stand back and observe as with the deist ‘Blind Watchmaker’ analogy used by Dawkins?  Or is He all knowing and all powerful, able to micro-manage life on earth?  In which case why does He let this happen?  Or is He integral to the creation but in no sense a puppet-master pulling our strings and the strings of all life?  He has, after all, allowed us free choices to make good or bad decisions, to reject or accept that He exists so when things like this happen He is not distant; He is integral to it.  He is like the band leader of a jazz band, he provides the melody and then releases the members of the band to use that melody and improvise it with glorious and surprising results, but at times a player would fail to catch the tune, go off the beat or play a wrong note and things would become discordant for a while.  When this becomes general within the band (the whole of creation past, present, future) then things fall apart, But He is still there and still leading to draw all back into a harmonious whole.

This is one of the many paradoxes that Christians have to come to contemplate as part of the mystery of their faith.  In Christ God reveals himself in suffering and in apparent folly, both as Christ our ‘foolishness’ and Christ our wisdom.  He came and was humbled in his life, ‘taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness’ and humiliated in his death.  He was Almighty but was also the Crucified God. (1)  In Revelation ch. 5 we read ‘Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre of the throne’ and so we have that picture of the slaughtered Lamb on the Throne of heaven.  Our understanding will always be imperfect this side of the grave.  Christians believe that Jesus Christ came to redeem the fallenness of our nature, ‘that inherent flaw by which our better aspirations are frustrated’ as John Polkinghorne has described it, and to revolutionise our living.  He came to inaugurate the Kingdom of Heaven; we dwell now in that ‘now and not yet’ Kingdom.  It is the source of hope for our world and a glimpse of the age to come.  He is the God of creation, the God who is love, the God who has suffered and died.  Because He has suffered He is able to draw alongside us in our grief and in our need and show His mercy, his hesed. 

The Hebrew word hesed not only encompasses mercy, but also compassionate empathetic loving kindness with which God reaches out to us in our need.  Through us we reach out to others and reflect that same mercy and loving kindness.  As creatures made in the image of God we reflect his nature.  This mercy, hesed, is rooted in the God who is love.

‘Where is humankind in this?’

If we accept that God, who is love, who is integral to his creation and who works through humankind is at the heart of this crisis, standing with those who are the pinnacle of his creation then could it be that it is ALL about mercy.  Yes, there have been deaths, there have been tragic losses of life of mothers of young children and people with many years of life yet to live but this is not the whole story nor the only focus on what is happening.

There has been an extraordinary outpouring of mercy and loving kindness by people of all backgrounds, professions, cultures and faiths.  This is not a mercy which has been shown only by God fearing people or by the Christian church (which has been rather slow in a structural, organisational way to respond or act) it is a mercy which has been evinced from people of good will and Common Humanity.  We are people of community and it is community which gives us identity.  Through mercy we have seen community at its very best.  When the COVID crisis struck it was communities which reacted the fastest.  Within a few days there was extensive mobilisation of help offered to support the elderly and vulnerable.  This has not shown any sign of diminishing.

It is this drive to show mercy to our fellow human beings which has been so evident in the selfless commitment shown by those in the caring professions.  Many have committed themselves in extraordinary ways, workers sleeping at work, isolating from their families for weeks at a time so that they can continue to work.  They have put themselves at personal risk and some have died because of their determination to be agents of help and compassion to their fellow beings.  So often there is a cost to mercy.  In more ordinary times for those whose professional lives are spent serving the health needs of us all there may well have been the disturbed nights on call, the missed school play, the hastily swallowed meal in order to return to work.  In the present crisis the cost may have been in the form of an offer of help spurned or the disappointment of having volunteered to help the NHS to find that the help has not been needed.  In such circumstances it is best simply to get on with life and wait for the next opportunity to show mercy.

There will be plenty more opportunities in the next year or more to extend that hand of compassion, to show that mercy which is hesed.

Now that the first ‘peak’ has passed there will need to be an ongoing vigilance to see where mercy is needed.  The foodbanks have been hard pressed to cope in the short term but as unemployment bites and small businesses go to the wall, as families face the loss of one or more incomes then there will be a great need to provide support, to show mercy to those who are struggling.  Will we as a nation manage to continue to show mercy?

It might seem a bit odd to think of this awful disease and its consequences to be a part of God’s mercy.

Yet it may be that through this experience of the ‘dark side’ of nature we have the opportunity to re-evaluate our values, so often assumed rather than carefully considered, and thereby gain a new perspective on the issues of life and death.

One of those values is the assumption that length of life is all that matters, the longer we live the better, the more medical assistance that can be used to that end the better for every person.  There have been many instances of older people dying of COVID and a lament goes up about the fact that they have succumbed.  90% of those who have died are over 60.  90% of those older people have one or more underlying health conditions.  Many of those of all ages who have died have underlying health conditions.  Many of those elderly people would not have been expected to live much longer because of their poor health.

There has been criticism based on the reluctance to send older people to hospital and the assumption there is that hospital is the best place, in order to administer all the possible interventions to preserve life.  GPs who have suggested the signing by old people or their Attorneys of DNAR forms have been labelled either as cruel and uncaring or wanting to avoid their responsibilities.

So where does mercy fit in?

As medicine has become more sophisticated and treatments more effective there has been an assumption that if it can be treated it should be treated.  For some years it has been evident that as people age they are no longer dying of heart attacks, because of coronary stenting, nor of strokes because of better control of blood pressure and the use of statins, nor of infection, which leaves only cancer and dementia and general decline as possible pathways to death.  The number of people ending their years in care homes or lingering with unpleasant treatments for cancer or waiting simply to die has increased steadily.  Care homes provide excellent care for their clients, but it is not home.  On average an old person will spend 26 months in a care home and the staff will do their very best to help them be occupied and keep in touch with their families, however their life expectancy is by then limited.  It may sound harsh to our ‘sentimental’ ear but along comes COVID and many succumb.  And that is where mercy comes in, provided their dying is managed well.

Which is more merciful?  Where and how would the elderly prefer to die?  In a care home or their own home with good end of life care or in a critical care unit, having been put into an induced coma with their vital organs failing, their last contact with people being with someone in full PPE?  They may have been confused at that stage, frightened and alone.  Surely the former is more merciful.  Until this is acknowledged then more elderly people will suffer undignified and unpleasant deaths.  The discussion surely needs to be had and older people allowed to make informed decisions.  It is a kindness to ensure that the elderly have a discussion to help them make sound decisions about their dying.  There is much inappropriate resuscitation undertaken, sometimes because the patient has difficulty facing death, often in the absence of having a hopeful faith, but often because the clinician has a fear of litigation if they do not attempt resuscitation.  Living Wills, the existence of a Lasting Power of Attorney and the signing of a DNAR would assist a dignified dying.  During this COVID crisis one of the changes which has taken place when vulnerable or elderly patients are admitted to hospital is an honest conversation about the likely outcome of their illness and the treatment options which can be used.  Some patients found this reassuring and some found it surprising, even shocking when faced with the possibility of signing a DNAR form.  How much better if these conversations had taken place in advance of this illness striking.  In recent editions of the British Medical Journal there have been a number of articles assisting doctors to manage their COVID patients optimally.  There is a recognition that some will opt not to be put on a CPAP machine or a ventilator and then appropriate medication can be given to relieve their symptoms whilst they die, in as comfortable way as possible.  It has also been suggested that carers at home, without medical assistance, can be instructed to administer drugs to a similar end.  This represents a substantial change in approach and practice.

Have our medical innovations in the last few decades been used in the best way and to the best ends or have we simply drifted into a situation where the elderly have been suffering a lingering decline because treatments have been given without any thought but that life should be prolonged at whatever cost?

When I was a medical student I was taught by the older physicians, many of whom had qualified before the days of antibiotics, that bronchopneumonia was known as ‘the old person’s friend’.  When they were declining physically they would catch a cold, it would go to their chest, result in bronchopneumonia and gently they would slip away.  It was a natural end.  It was a ‘merciful release’.  Could this notion of a ‘merciful release’ inform aspects of how we are responding to COVID now?  Sadly for some the severity of their infection results in a distressing death requiring medical intervention to ease their dying but for others it would be more merciful to ensure that they could choose the place and mode of their death and have only the treatment they need to make them comfortable.  This would not be about saving money or rationing expensive care it is about kindness and mercy.  Whether or not you might consider this to be a merciful end to a long life or a lamentable tragedy depends very much on your perspective on life and death.  A Christian response might be very different from a secular one.

So as COVID will be here for a long time and will continue to cause deaths in the elderly and vulnerable for many months and, depending on treatment options and vaccines, possibly years, is it time to think again and learn about God’s hesed, His mercy?

‘Where is the church in this?’

There have been very few (?any) pronouncements from the CoE on this crisis beyond an order, later amended to advice, to close churches, even for private prayer.

It would appear that the hierarchy of the CoE has been drifting with the tide of secular thought and concern instead of paddling against the tide.   Justin Welby talked of the virus as an ‘unmitigated evil’, as if that were sufficient.

If we are a Kingdom people, and if we really believe in eternal life and an existence beyond earthly life then we don’t behave as if we do.  Have we been guilty of failing to proclaim almost anything beyond a cosy belief in Jesus our friend who is always on our side?  Christians are not protected from this virus, we are not promised immunity, we are just as likely to die as non-Christians.  We should have that perspective on life and death that, like the Christians in Rome during plague times, we would put ourselves in danger in order to come to the aid of those who are suffering.  Has the church been any more prominent in offering support and help to their neighbours than non-Christians?

A common response of institutions in the face of crises is to become consumed with its own agenda, keeping things neat and tidy, following its procedures and favouring process over substance .  The church is no exception and at times comes across to many as a divided navel gazing irrelevance.

Is this an opportunity to set some paddlers going paddling against the tide?

If so, how?

We can proclaim Truth.  As the crisis of COVID is replaced by a crisis of Fear we can proclaim the Gospel (Good News) that ‘perfect love casts out fear’ (1 John 4.18) and ‘the truth will make you free.(John 8.32)’  Whilst these texts speak to us of aspects of a renewed relationship with God, we too easily over-spiritualise them, ignoring their implications for mature relationship between human beings (all of whom are made in the image of God).  Both love and truth are given in trust, trusting that those who receive them will know how to use them and engendering in such receivers a trust in the giver in return.  Such is the basis of all healthy relationships and communities.  Much of the response by Government and the Church hierarchy has been experienced as paternalistic and directive, with many at times bewildered and confused by what is and is not permitted behaviour and why.  The directive that clergy were not to enter churches to pray for their communities or to stream services from them did nothing to reduce risk to anyone’s physical health yet arguably unnecessarily it limited an important aspect of the response that spiritual and mental health required.  Truth does not offer solely rules backed by fear, but instead an explanation of the basis on which those rules are made, and the information that enables the ‘ruled’ to judge for themselves the extent to which this is trustworthy or not.  To be loved absolutely is to know that and trust completely that one’s life is safer in the hands of another (the one who loves) than in one’s own.  All of this has implications for how we as citizens and disciples, in nation and church, are enabled as mature human beings to relate and behave as the lockdown is eased, as it must be.

We can pray.  The failure of the Church nationally (and locally) to call for a day of prayer (and fasting?) is culpable.  ‘Say one for me’ is still a remark often made to clergy or lay people known to be going to church – and not entirely in jest. One of the few things that non-churchgoers expect of us is that we will pray. Yet no call to sustained corporate prayer has been heard.  Why?  Loss of confidence in prayer?  A misunderstanding of what prayer is all about?  Certainly such exists in the idea that calling for a day of prayer is a bit like organising a bombardment of God, rather with the idea that if it all happens on one day, and is powerful enough, then somehow or other, God’s interest will be aroused to help us in our time of need.  But that is not prayer, as we have been taught in Christ.  That prayer is about the opening of our hearts to the God of mercy as ‘our Father’, that his will may be done, that the jarring sounds of our disordered creation may be drawn back to the beat and melody of his song of love.  Prayer is not so much our banging on God’s door, and not about our changing his mind.  Rather his knocking on our door, in order that we may be changed according to his mind. Yes, the gospel invites us to seek and find; knock and the door will be opened; but the emphasis there is on the door always ready to open and our need to respond to it. As Mother Julian of Norwich put it: “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance. It is laying hold of His willingness”.  It is all about his mercy into which, through prayer, we open ourselves to be drawn both individually and as a community as a whole.

We can combat fear.  Since we believe that our life on this earth is the beginning of a life which extends beyond the grave and that we will be part of that ‘new heaven and new earth’, when creation will be ‘liberated from its bondage to decay’, then we have a liberty to see life and death through a different prism.  We have been put into ‘lockdown’ in order to ‘save lives’ but this has been manipulated through the emotion of Fear, which has been used as the prime driver to change our behaviour and ensure compliance with Government policy.  Although we have an obligation to adhere to the rules for the benefit of all in society we do not have to be bound by the fear which is now paralysing large numbers in our society, nor by the obsession with safety, which is an illusion.  There are many young adults, who are in no great danger even if they contract COVID-19, who are now feeling deprived of their freedom, who need society with others and who need to work as their money runs low; for them this is causing anxiety and anger.  There is a need to draw alongside older people whose lives are naturally nearing their end, who are fearful of this virus, which has been so prevalent in care homes, to help them understand the choices they face and ensure that they are treated with kindness and that their wishes are taken into account if they become infected.  There are those who have been deprived of the opportunity to attend funerals, even of close loved ones, who are grief stricken and unable to deal with their bereavement.

Many parents are too frightened for their children that they do not want them to return to school, even though they seem to be in little danger from the virus.  Teachers are apprehensive for their own health as well as wondering how to manage children under ‘social distancing’ guidelines.  As businesses fail and jobs are lost there will be many needing practical, mental and spiritual support.  There will be much to do to continue that mission of hesed  for months, possibly years ahead.  This will be a marathon, not a sprint.

Do we not, as a church, have a calling to draw alongside all of them, to bring a note of hope to the hopeless, comfort to the sorrowing, a listening ear to the anxious, practical support to the disadvantaged, food for the hungry and prayer for them all?  If it is correct that there are thousands of people accessing church services on line, thousands praying for the first time, many recognising that they have spiritual needs in the midst of this change which may result in life never being the same again, then the call is for Christians to bring that different perspective, to share their hope of a life beyond the grave a life that starts here and now.

There needs to be nothing less than a ‘Call to Action’ to the church.  One would hope that the outpouring of mercy and loving kindness by so many in society will not wane, that ‘compassion fatigue’ will not become an excuse for backing down but, as the church, we need to commit ourselves for the long haul.  As Government scientists are now slowly beginning to acknowledge publicly that a vaccine may not be easily developed, therapeutics may take months or years to develop and this virus will continue to cause illness and death while herd immunity is built up there is a need for this to be spoken of openly; the church needs to be the guardian of truth in this regard.  It will not be a message well received and the implications of it will be unwelcome.  Are we willing to carry on where others might leave off?  Are we prepared to be that ‘light and salt’ which the gospel requires of us?  Are we going to demonstrate the ongoing hesed of God, his mercy, his compassionate empathetic loving kindness and are we going to do it to the end?

(1) We are indebted to Vinay Samuel “Making Sense of God’s Presence at times like these?” for these insights

This article has been published with permission. A summary will appear in next week’s Church of England Newspaper.

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