TUESDAYS WITH TERESA: Do not be afraid

Our winter solstice has now passed (yeh!) and once again our days will begin to get longer.

This tends to lighten my mood each year, because I don’t like getting up in the dark and I certainly don’t enjoy darkness setting in around 5pm in the evening. The days are just too short for my liking.

Jesus instructed the Twelve as follows: ‘Do not be afraid. For everything that is now covered will be uncovered, and everything now hidden will be made clear. …… Do not be afraid……’

This is how the Sunday Gospel from Matthew (10:26 – 33) begins. The phrase “do not be afraid’ or a similar phrase is used many, many times in the bible. It just feels like the right phrase for us now in this time of a global pandemic.

I shared the following diagram with you in my message on 21 April:

I wonder in what zone/s you are finding yourself at the moment. It may be a mixture of all three. At the time of my writing the message in April, we were in ‘lockdown’ and most of us were certainly in the ‘Fear Zone’.

During these many weeks of working from home, I have come across various articles about our experiences in living with a pandemic, and I thought I would share with you an article written by David Williams in TGC (The Gospel Coalition) – Culture Shock and COVID – 19. David spent years working as a missionary in Nairobi and now works for the Church Missionary Society (CMS), Australia.

This is some of what he wrote about culture shock:

So how does an understanding of culture shock help us to navigate COVID-19? The language of culture shock entered the mission community through Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg. His classic article on the subject begins:

Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. These signs or cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life: when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, when and how to give tips, how to give orders to servants, how to make purchases, when to accept and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not.

Each part of his description rings true to our recent experience, except our need to give orders to servants. The world that we knew so well is suddenly operating differently. I feel anxious if someone stands too close to me at the supermarket. I am confused about how to greet my neighbour. I am not sure what rules apply if I go out for a walk. Simple tasks that were entirely normal for me in February became confusing and complicated by the end of March. We are experiencing culture stress because the culture we live in has rapidly changed. We are learning to communicate differently, using video conferencing rather than meeting face to face. The rules by which society is operating have become very fluid, and, early in the pandemic, were changing daily. Many of the support structures that enable us to live resilient lives have changed. We are experiencing stress from rapid cultural change.

This rings true for me, and provides me with a deeper understanding of some of what I am feeling - mind you, I would not have used the word stressed! I share this with you because at Mass at the Cathedral on Sunday night I was surprised to find just nine people present. I realise some people may not be aware that we have begun to celebrate Mass across the diocese with the maximum 50 limit, depending on the size of the church. Also, some may not know of the need to register beforehand. However, I wonder what is happening for us at this time of deep uncertainty, of being fearful.

Williams goes on to speak about culture stress in which we experience both gains and losses. He says the losses need to be grieved:

Experiencing these emotions is tiring; anyone who has suffered a significant bereavement knows how exhausting the experience is. We tell new missionaries that they will feel tired all the time and will need more sleep. It is no surprise that in the culture stress of coronavirus, many people are feeling tired. We talk about screen fatigue and of feeling “zoomed out”, but an aspect of this tiredness comes from culture stress. It is inevitable that we will be less productive and more emotionally labile.

Culture stress does not only bring emotions associated with grief and loss. We will be more likely to feel angry, anxious, frustrated, tense, fearful and sad. We will experience greater tension and conflict in our interpersonal relationships at home and in lockdown. Daily tasks that we normally complete without any thought are now sources of stress. All these are aspects of culture shock.

I identify with much of what Williams says. Last week at the Diocesan Leadership Group meeting, I expressed how tired I was feeling and yet I had rarely moved out of our home during the past few months. This week I will be back at work in the office environment, a different experience to add to the stressors of just being at this time.

He then goes on to speak about the U-curve that missionaries refer to as Culture Shock which looks similar to the elements of the diagram I shared with you in April.

This is also similar to a diagram which explains Phases of Disaster:

Our landscape has dramatically changed physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. I hope the diagrams in this week’s message help you to articulate or understand what might be happening to you. At this time, it is important to know your stress responses and plan for your own stress management.

Williams finishes his article with the following paragraph:

Trust your Heavenly Father’s love and care. Show me a missionary in their first three months in a new culture, and I’ll show you someone who is praying. New missionaries are forced to trust God for things that they have never had to pray about before. The coronavirus situation is, of course, different. We have not boarded a plane and travelled to a new country with its own language. We have not travelled anywhere, but our culture has changed rapidly around us. In the face of the culture stress we are experiencing, we need to turn to our Heavenly Father and learn, afresh, to pray. Like the new missionary, we are experiencing our own loss of control. However, we trust a God who is the same yesterday, today and forever. None of this is a surprise to Him. Our churches have an opportunity to learn to trust our Father’s care in new ways and with greater vibrancy and confidence.

This trust in a good and gracious God has been built up over many years. We become holy in the fire of the years and in the courage to keep walking, even when we fail and fall. Grace is not cheaply purchased.

May we have the courage to keep on trusting and not to be afraid.

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Teresa Brierley Image
Teresa Brierley

Teresa Brierley is Director Pastoral Ministries of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.