“To Whom Shall We Go? Faith Responses in a Time of Crisis” edited by Irene Alexander & Christopher Brown

Book Review by Assoc Professor Alan Gijsbers 


From Luke’s Journal 2021 | Dying & Palliative Care | Vol.26 No.2

This book is a challenging gift from a group of “holy Scribblers” in Queensland.

They reflect on the COVID “crisis” (what a tabloid word!) through the lens of their own spirituality, their reflections on the Beatitudes, and their spiritual readings of the sages of the church. There are nine contributors, including academics and spiritual directors, with experience locally and in the Majority World. There are reflections, poems and liturgical prayers to direct our attention to the spiritual resources in Christ, as a support to deal with liminal situations. There are a series of questions for discussion from each chapter which allows for group discussion. I have been very provoked by their engagement in this exercise, for they see things from very different points of view, compared with my own limited perspective. They have therefore broadened me in thinking and praying very differently about the pandemic. 

For we all see the same pandemic differently. A common analogy is that the pandemic is the same storm for everyone, but we are in different boats – some are in tiny dinghies, some are in sleek cruise ships. Some are nearly swamped; others barely notice a ripple. How we see the pandemic depends on where we live, our job, and whether we have any dependents living with us. The age and cyber-experience (and access) of the dependents further colours our experience of lockdown. The pandemic is seen very differently according to the competence of our government, whether state, federal or international. It also depends on the size of our nation, and the competence or incompetence of its public health system. The pandemic response depends on government resources, both public health and economic resources, and on our country’s commitment to selfishness or to the care of others. 

It is easy to spend a lot of time lamenting our sins and situation when we need to spend more time reflecting on our Saviour and his love and resources.”

This makes one single emotional and spiritual response to the storm difficult, particularly if that response is seen through the currently spiritually fashionable lens of lament. Yes, we are called to grieve with those who grieve, and we are called to resonate with the deeply tragic expressions in Job, Psalms and Lamentations, especially if there is considerable pain and mourning with the pandemic, but there is also a place for gratitude, celebration and praise, even in the midst of trial. 

What are common New Testament themes about trials, other than lament? The New Testament was written in a time of hostility and even hatred towards the Christian faith. This does not mean there were no good people in society (the magistrate at Ephesus comes to mind) but the gospels and epistles are quite clear that followers of Jesus were to expect hostility. Jesus, in the Upper Room discourse, tells His disciples that they will have tribulation in this world, but they are to be of good cheer, take heart, be bold, and trust, for He has overcome the world (John 16:33). In the same discourse He speaks peace to His troubled followers, and He speaks of the joy of being one with Him and with the Father. The writer to the Hebrews in the twelfth chapter is quite blunt in the way in which he encourages his readers: Be inspired by Jesus’ obedience in suffering, accept the Father’s discipline as difficult but for your good, and pull yourself together, for you have yet to shed your blood (Heb 12:1-17). The disciples in a panic in a storm are confronted with the Master’s two rhetorical questions, “Why were you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40). It is easy to spend a lot of time lamenting our sins and situation when we need to spend more time reflecting on our Saviour and his love and resources. 

The pandemic has challenged us a lot in the comfortable West. We have had to cope with unpredictability, we have had our dreams snatched away, but has the Christian life not always been one of living by faith and developing resilience in the face of trial? 

I particularly valued the chapters based on personal experience of people going through some deep waters. “

It is great to see the breadth of spiritual reflection in the chapters, presented. I particularly valued the chapters based on personal experience of people going through some deep waters. However, I would have liked the writers to have placed a greater emphasis on Scripture. The opening quote is illustrative.

The editors have taken the words, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…etc” from the Northumbria Community Celtic Daily Prayer, but they did not acknowledge that the words were originally spoken by the Apostle Peter at the end of a long and difficult discourse by Jesus on eating his flesh and drinking his blood. (John 6:69). Likewise, my good friend, Paul Mercer in his excellent reflection on purity of heart describes the “eight deadly thoughts” of Evagrius, as a basis for reflection on purity of heart. It is instructive to compare Evagrius’ taxonomy with Paul’s taxonomy of the works of the flesh in Galatians 5. I don’t think either list is exhaustive, but Paul’s addition of strife, jealousy, quarrels, dissentions and factions, points to a far more communal approach to loving relationships than Evagrius’ more personal list. For in spite of the deep emphasis on the closet and time alone with God, in the end Christian love is a corporate exercise expressed and experienced in community.

Photo by Kat Jayne Pexels

I would have liked to see more emphasis on the positives of the covid “crisis”. It has exposed the weaknesses of our current society, the lack of affordable housing, the casualization of the workforce, and the problems of privatization of the public service, but it has also shown the possibilities of greater flexibility in working from home, the cancellation of the frantic lifestyle for a more leisurely pursuit of family life, and the opportunity of showing greater care and compassion for one another. We have become masters of Internet communication with further shrinking of the tyranny of distance. As an added bonus it has shown how bogus the 45th president of the US has been, and how this has led to appropriate judgement on his appalling leadership. 

This book is provoking, worth reflecting on and praying through. There is a lot more to it than this short review can compass and I will continue to think and pray through each of their chapters. I thank my colleagues for making it available to me.

Assoc Professor Alan Gijsbers
Assoc Professor Alan Gijsbers is University of Melbourne Specialist Physician in Addiction Medicine, ICMDA Board Member and chairman of the governance committee, former Chairman CMDFA, former President Healthserve Australia, and former President ISCAST.

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