Faith Matters

Churches seek to help amid Covid-19's burden of suffering

Irish Council of Churches president Dr Ivan Patterson shares the challenges of supporting people grieving or caring for the sick amid the coronavirus pandemic

Dr Ivan Patterson

Public health measures introduced in response to the coronavirus pandemic, including the closure of cemeteries, mean that traditional funerals have come to an end. Picture by Mal McCann

THERE are times in Christian ministry when it is hard to offer explanations or give answers to some of life's experiences.

I can vividly recall a telephone call that asked me to go to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, where a young mother was seriously ill having just given birth to twins.

I left immediately and by the time I arrived at the hospital the young mother was dead. A year-and-a-half later one of the twins died.

How do we explain this in the light of the fact that we believe that there is a loving God who is all powerful?

In my prayers, at that time, I asked God "why?" but was unable to find an answer.

Reflecting on these events some years later I still have no answer to give as to why such tragedy should be the experience of a family.

However, I believe that God was not unconcerned for them and that as I travelled with them over time there were evidences of God's love and grace supporting them.

How life has changed for us all these past weeks as we are confronted with the coronavirus and its devastating effects.

We rightly pay tribute to all who are on the 'frontline' and who selflessly serve us in our hospitals, care homes, grocery stores and elsewhere.

Our hearts break for all those who have lost loved ones and are unable to have traditional funeral rites.

Many are asking 'why is this happening?' and turn to the Church for an explanation as to why God allows such a tragedy to afflict the world.

The Bible gives us no reason to suppose that God is guilty of sending the virus or that Christianity can offer us an explanation.

Rather we are to be drawn, in prayer, to the heart of God who in Christ suffered pain and isolation and death and who by His Spirit comes to people in grace to give new understanding and hope.

In the Bible we find a prayer-tool that God's people have utilised to navigate their way through pain and suffering.

It is the discipline of lament. Lament is prayer. It is when, with tears, we cry out to God. In this way we are able, in our distress, to be honest and intimate with the Almighty.

It is that inner 'knowing' that faith affirms and assures us that while we may feel alone we have a caring Heavenly Father who walks with us through the dark valley.

The Covid-19 virus has not allowed family members to be with their loved one during their illness nor beside them at death. This has placed an additional burden of suffering on those who grieve 

Lament looks forward to what God will do in the future for, as the Bible record shows, God is not immune to our troubles.

Jesus weeps at the grave of his friend Lazarus and St Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit groans with us as we ourselves experience distress.

Lament is realising that God is our only hope and that he will respond to us on the basis of his character which is full of grace and love.

The Prophet Isaiah writes: "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you."

Lament enables us to be part of one another's grief and pain as we ask God not only to hear our prayer but to minister to others by His Holy Spirit. In that sense it can be a community activity.

That prayerful discipline of lament has been at the heart of the members and ministry of the Irish Council of Churches (ICC).

Our desire is that people will be upheld by prayer and supported with appropriate pastoral care, especially those who are grieving or waiting for news of a loved one.

We also acknowledge the emotional and psychological burden that is placed on our healthcare providers.

The ICC has been in contact with the National Association of Funeral Directors and with the civil authorities both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland to offer our help as they design protocols surrounding death and funerals and seek to ensure that appropriate pastoral care is offered.

We are gratified to see how these professional people have shown compassion and are making every effort to ensure that everyone is treated with dignity and respect.

The media has been informing us of the numbers of people who have died from Covid-19 and we are alarmed by these both locally and internationally.

However, statistics can sometimes obscure the fact that each one represents a person who was loved and that has such ramifications for many families.

The Covid-19 virus has not allowed family members to be with their loved one during their illness nor beside them at death. This has placed an additional burden of suffering on those who grieve.

As Churches we assure people that now, and in the future, we will be there for them to offer pastoral support and to walk with them as they begin to move forward with their lives.

The ICC, working on behalf of our member Churches, seeks to represent people's concerns, as far as we can at this difficult time, and to enable those concerns to be heard.

We have been well received by the statutory bodies to date and thank them for their willingness to engage with the Churches.

For many this pandemic has engendered fear and uncertainty and we pray that our resolve may be strengthened so that we can live more hopefully looking to a better day.

The Psalmist (Psalm 46) reminds us that God is our refuge and strength, a hope in our time of trouble and Jesus said that "God so loved the world that he gave us his only son so that whoever believes in Him does not perish but has everlasting love" (John 3:16).

For Christians our hope rests In God and to Him we cry out for the healing of our people both spiritually and socially.

Rev Dr Ivan Patterson is President of the Irish Council of Churches, starting his two-year period in office this month. He is a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church.

The ICC was founded in 1923 in the aftermath of the civil war and is a national body through which its member Churches engage, dialogue and act on a wide variety of issues. It meets jointly with the Catholic Church as the Irish Inter Church Meeting.

Rev Dr Ivan Patterson, President of the Irish Council of Churches

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Faith Matters