Ben Boland is an aged care chaplain and author based in Australia and is a Faith in Later Life Church Champion. He recently spent time working in an aged care facility dealing with Covid19, while self-isolating in a hotel. Here he reflects his experiences:
No balcony, no microwave and no breeze. The only face-to-face contact I have had in the past two weeks was with the police; they came to my door concerned, as I had been ignoring my phone. My head swings between feelings of “poor me” and “stop your whining!”
Welcome to life in hotel quarantine. Neither my family, my home nor my town have had a single case of COVID-19. The closest case was one couple, an hour’s drive away. Unlike so many, I have not lost loved ones, lost my job nor had my hours cut.
But a few months ago I chose to travel to the hot zone of Melbourne, to work in an aged-care facility dealing with COVID-19. I am not a sadist; nor am I stupid. I am simply a chaplain. Thankfully, I am now home again in New South Wales and have also “recovered” from my experience of two weeks’ quarantine. Being confined for a fortnight was a testing time. It was also a potent time of isolation that helped to develop my own faith.
Here are some of the things which I wanted to take home from my solitary stay.
Relating to the outcasts
Perhaps the biggest passion sparked by my hotel quarantine has been the challenge to relate to the outcast (or those who constantly live with isolation). Feeling like an outcast as I observed the outside world from behind glass or on my balcony, I thought about how a central part of Jesus’ earthly ministry was relating with outcasts, such as “sinners,” Samaritans and lepers. Towards the end of the New Testament, James writes that “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after [relate with] orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27).
Clearly, relating with people who are outcasts is a core component of Christianity. As I have looked at the Australian church, I fear we have divided the outcasts. Many organisations exist to give support to orphans, but far fewer exist to give support to widows. There are many books about ministry to the outlaws – The Cross and the Switchblade, Chasing the Dragon, The Shot Caller – but I know of not one about a life dedicated to ministry to older people or people living with dementia.
As the church, we can be fighting to keep chaplains and Scripture (or RI) in schools, yet many nursing homes barely receive one church service per month. Clearly, orphans and outlaws need relationships but so do other “outcasts” – those living with disability, mental health and dementia. We also need to heed James’ instruction to “not show favouritism.”
My six weeks away was the longest my wife Beth and I have been apart since marriage. I really missed Beth on multiple levels but the upside of being forced to have a long-distance marriage was I got a sniff of being single – and it was tough!
In churches where marriage is the norm, it is very easy for single people to be excluded. I know of some horror stories where couple have been deliberate in not having meaningful relationships with single people on the basis that it prevents adultery. Scripture is clear that the only place for sex is marriage – but being married does not mean we should not have meaningful relationships with other people. Indeed, we are called to deep relationships with others, and particularly fellow believers.
Jesus had male and female friends who were both single and married. However, just as only having Christian friends is wrong (love your neighbour, not love your Christian neighbour), only having friends who are either married or single is a sign of spiritual immaturity. At its best, the church is a diverse group of people who are in relationship with God and each other.
My two weeks of isolation helped me to formulate a theology of isolation. I came to realise how not all relationships are good and isolation for a limited time can be healthy, but people do need meaningful relationships with other people. These do not necessarily have to be sexual or romantic. There is something within us that means a relationship with God will not dispel our need to meaningfully relate to other humans. Sadly, though, our ability to have meaningful relationships was broken by The Fall – the introduction of sin into our world. As such, all people will face varying degrees of isolation throughout their life. In fact, Jesus himself experienced isolation. And isolation is both faced and perpetrated by some Christians.
Thinking about God’s view of isolation also kept driving me to look beyond myself. While faith and salvation impact an individual, Biblical Christianity is a ‘team sport’ and is based on meaningful relationship – love – with fellow believers and other people.
Being in Melbourne/quarantine meant physical church was not possible. While I enjoyed a combination of Tim Keller and Song of Praise, I was reminded of the impossibility of my local church having the resources for such material. Additionally, I was struck by the lack of human relationship – congregationally and with my pastor, both of which are core to church!
I came to realise during my quarantine that it is too easy, particularly for introverts such as myself, to see relationship-building components of church as additional rather than core business. This applies to both ‘traditional’ and virtual church gatherings.
To relegate relational components of traditional church to the bread around the ‘real’ sandwich of church (e.g. before and after) is unbiblical. We need to actually think, plan and encourage the relationship building components of church. For example, when only small gatherings are permitted, we should encourage small groups of believers to engage with a church service together. This would facilitate not only teaching, worship and prayer but also fellowship. There is a real temptation to allow the blessing of livestreaming to excuse us from physically turning up and engaging in the relational and sometimes uncomfortable nature of church.
COVID-19 has also reinforced my need for relationships with fellow believers. My spiritual growth requires not just Scripture, prayer and worship, but relationships with our fellow believers.
As an introvert who works with people and lives with depression, it’s very easy for me to not want any more people time. But isolation has reminded me I need relationships with fellow disciples! Yes, we are all busy, but we need to prioritise time together. The saying that “quality time only occurs with quantity time” applies.
As a chaplain, I am passionate about evangelism. The pandemic has particularly pushed my thinking about this because this year is the first in a long time where I will not be organising a large community event that proclaims Jesus. When I think of evangelism, there is a tendency to think of Billy Graham, tracts and outreach events. All of which God has and does use but perhaps I have forgotten, or at least neglected, the value of relationships? As my lack of physical relating in hotel quarantine has kept leading me back to, close connection with others is such a vital thread in the fabric of all we do.
To paraphrase the apostle Paul in Romans 10: How can they hear if we do not relate with them? I hasten to add that relationships simply for the sake of evangelism are as broken as a relationship which never mentions the gospel. I need to relate to my neighbours because God, and we, love them.
I hope you don’t have to spend two weeks shut in the one hotel suite to mull over such helpful truths. And remember, as you go about your COVID safe life beyond the confines of hotel quarantine: theology without action is dead. So get busy living it out.
Ben Boland is an aged care chaplain, and co-author of Jesus Loves Me (part of the HammondCare and Bible Society ‘Faith for Life’ suite). He also writes and speaks about aged care ministry. Ben is also a Faith in Later Life Church Champion.
The views and opinions included in this article belong to the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of his employer. His employer takes no legal responsibility for any comments or opinions expressed here.
This is taken from an article originally published by ‘Eternity’.