When will things get back to normal? Opinions differ widely. The optimists say everything will be fine by Easter and the pessimists reckon we’ll be wearing masks and social distancing for years. In between there is only uncertainty: who knows?
There is more consensus about what kind of new normal we’d like: a fairer, kinder world. Is that a genuine possibility?
I return to Paul’s letter to the Philippian church: Paul is in prison, facing the possibility of imminent execution and entirely dependent on his friends for even the basic necessities of life. Not a comfortable place – his words deserve a hearing.
He talks about being happy with what he has:
I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need (Philippians 4.11-12).
We don’t hear much about contentment. Our economy depends on stimulating ever-increasing demand; we are encouraged to want more; politicians promise endless economic growth. Maybe also there is a suspicion about people who call for others to be content with their lot: is this the rich telling the poor to keep quiet? Certainly not in Paul’s case. He speaks from privation rather than privilege, from below rather than from above.
We don’t like the idea a life without feasting or celebration. But Paul is not advocating that either. He doesn’t wear a hair shirt; he knows how to live it up as well as how to cope with lack. We fear that contentment will shrink our enjoyment of life. In fact, contentment by definition means the opposite, expanding our capacity for happiness. Being content you can enjoy today rather than dreaming of tomorrow.
One of the fringe benefits of lockdown in this country was cleaner air. Being satisfied with what we’ve got would help us to care for the planet and share with the poor. Contentment could be just the good news we need.
I’ve already mentioned Paul’s dependence on his friends for food and other necessities while in prison. I think that might be another fringe benefit of the pandemic – discovering a bit more about supporting each other and sharing with those in need.
Is this kind of new normal a real possibility? For Paul these things were not a mere possibility; they were his daily reality. He learned contentment “through him who strengthens me”. His friends were able to give him generous material and financial support because they could trust that Paul’s God would generously meet their needs too – “according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus”.
The best hope for a new normal is a rediscovery of Christian faith. For the last two hundred years Western civilisation has experimented with banishing faith from the public square. We’ve flattened out the world to two dimensions. We’ve sought to exclude the third dimension, where God comes to meet us. Only in a small private space are we allowed to “do God”. The history of the twentieth century suggests we might do better if we worked in all three dimensions.
There are modest signs of young people turning to faith in God.
But will Covid-19 kick-start real change? Will the church rise to the challenge?