Have you stopped asking big questions?

Painting of a cholera sufferer

This morning I read a helpful article entitled Coronavirus: Ten reasons why you ought not to panic. There are good reasons for us not to go into meltdown including: the fact we know what coronavirus is; the fact that we’ve been able to test for it since January 13th; the fact that the situation in China is improving; the fact that 80% of cases are mild and that there are 13 times more cured cases than death. In addition, symptoms appear mild in children; the virus can be wiped clean; there are already vaccine prototypes and antiviral trials are already underway.

However, undoubtedly, the coronavirus has exposed our fears, especially the fear of death. The past few weeks have reminded me of Dowlais history that I’ve found fascinating since first hearing of it. On our front wall by the gates, you will see the date our chapel was built – 1842. The chapel was soon re-built as cracks appeared due to mine workings undermining the foundations and a new building was completed in 1856. However, shortly after the construction of that first building, death came to Dowlais Top.

In 1849 there was an outbreak of cholera, spreading quickly due to the large numbers of people continuing to move into the area and living in unsanitary conditions. Cholera is an infection of the small intestine and was contracted as a result of drinking water contaminated by sewage containing the cholera bacteria. The bacterium would cause vomiting and ‘rice water’ diahorrea leading to extremely rapid dehydration. Individuals would lose multiple litres of fluid in a day. Victims would go into shock, suffer painful cramps, sunken eyelids and shrivels on the fingers and hands. Finally the skin would turn blue explaining why cholera is sometimes known as ‘the blue death.’

Painting of a cholera sufferer
Painting of a cholera sufferer

We have much to be thankful for today. Living conditions now far exceed anything known in 1849. An 1844 report describing Merthyr, Penydarren and Dowlais stated:

There was no water supply – there were some privies at the few decent houses, but none at the cottages. Slops and refuse were thrown on the unmetalled highways and streets, and on mounds of coal-ashes at every turn. There was a great number of poor as indicated by the fact that between 6,000 and 7,000 persons, out of a population of 37,000 (one out of six), were relieved from the poor-rates annually.

Merthyr Tydfil, with Penydarren and Dowlais, may be regarded as chiefly a large cottage town without public care for supply of water, drainage, or cleansing; the open character and small height of its straggling buildings, and consequent exposure to sun and air, saving its population from still greater evils than those to which they are now exposed from the filth so abundant in it.

In other words, it is no wonder the place was so badly affected by the cholera outbreak of 1849. In that outbreak, about 50% of sufferers survived, but death came to most homes. Fear spread as those fit and healthy in the morning could be dead before nightfall. The cholera appeared first in late May when a child of four was infected. Six had died by the end of the month. The death toll increased as the months passed, and by August the daily death toll had reached an average of 36.  Local historian, W Edmunds wrote:

Hardly a house escaped without feeling the lash of this scourge … Some were carried on carts to the burial ground, from the midst of the heartrending cries and sighs of the widows and orphans.

List of cholera precautions
List of cholera precautions

Towards the end of August there were signs that the death toll was decreasing, but death continued well into November.

List of cholera cases in Merthyr Tydfil September 1849
List of cholera cases in Merthyr Tydfil September 1849

Fear of the disease caused many to seek after God and pray for His protection and salvation. In a few months, many new members were added to the congregations of Dowlais. The minister of Hebron baptised 179 people in September of 1849 and W.R.Davies of Caersalem (the Dowlais chapel that established Hebron for the people of Dowlais Top just a few years earlier) died of cholera that year after baptising 150 people on the previous two Sundays.

To be clear, the world is a different place today. It seems that coronavirus is now under control in China and it is suggested that the death rate is likely to be less than 1% – a very different picture to Dowlais in 1849. Although coronavirus is something we will worry about it seems certain that there will be a vaccine.

Can we learn any lessons from Dowlais 1849? In Luke’s gospel, there is an account of an occasion when people went to Jesus to tell him the news of the day. Something awful had happened in the city of Jerusalem and people told Jesus all about it. Luke writes:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them; so you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Luke 13:1-3 (ESV)

Some ordinary Galileans had gone up to Jerusalem to do what other Jews did – offer sacrifice in the temple. It seems that when they were in the very act of their worship and offering sacrifice, they were killed. Pilate, the Roman governor, is held responsible. For whatever reason, it seems Roman soldiers had killed innocent Jews whilst they were worshipping, on the orders of Pilate. There is the gruesome detail of their blood mixing with the animal blood they brought to sacrifice.

As Jesus speaks to those who brought him the news, he makes reference to another event. There had been eighteen people going about their business one day in Jerusalem, when a tower fell on them and they were killed.

In his response to this news report, Jesus begins by correcting a misconception. It seems that some had reached the conclusion that the victims of these events must have been particularly bad people. Jesus said, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?” He then answered his own question – “No.” If we are not victims of tragedy, it is not because we are better than people who are.

After Jesus corrects their faulty thinking, we might expect him to go on and explain the problem of suffering. But that is not what Jesus did on this occasion. Instead, he wanted to use the opportunity to talk about something else.

Twice, Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” We might have an idea in our heads that Jesus was just a miracle worker. He healed the sick. He fed the hungry. He did nice things. But you don’t have to read very far in the gospels to see that Jesus said some hard things that would not have made him popular. This is one example. Jesus told the people they needed to repent.

The word repent means a complete change of direction. Jesus implies that people have got life completely wrong. They are going in the wrong direction and they need to turn around. He says, “This is serious. Unless you turn around, you will perish too.”  Death will come to all of us. We all share a common resistance to death, but all of us will die. The message of Jesus to the people was clear – you need to change direction, before death comes to you.

Jesus went on to tell the parable of The Barren Fig Tree:

And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Luke 13:6-9 (ESV)

What do you do with a useless fig tree that no longer bears fruit? Most people would cut it down and use the space for something else. But in the story that Jesus tells, the vinedresser gives it one more chance. The point of Jesus’ parable is clear – every day you wake up with a healthy body and a mind that still functions, is another day God gives you to change direction. It seems that in 1849 many in Dowlais made the most of the days they realised they had been given.

In 1913, in a little South Wales village called Senghenydd there was a huge explosion at the Universal Colliery. It was and still is, the biggest mining disaster in British history. Four hundred and thirty nine miners were killed. My great-grandfather was one. Today, there is a memorial garden in the village, with tiles giving the names and addresses of the men killed. I took my children there a few years ago and we found our ancestor’s name with his address. We walked around the village and found the house he’d lived in over hundred years ago. That stone terraced house has probably changed very little in its outward appearance. Somehow, seeing the house, made the story much more real. I calculated how my grandfather would have been only six years of age when his father was killed. I imagined a man who went out through that front door on the 14th October 1913 for the last time. He never came home.

Jesus taught the people that every tragedy reminds us that each day is another opportunity to change direction. As people heard the news about worshippers being murdered in a Jewish temple and towers falling on passers-by, they were to reflect that they were still alive. God had given them another day.

Things happen that make us ask questions. When you are reminded about the frailty of life, it’s as if God is bellowing for your attention. Do you have the answers? Jostein Gaarder, a Norwegian philosopher, likens philosophy to a magic trick. The extract below is a little weird, but bear with it. He describes how philosophy has its origins in man’s sense of wonder. He writes:

Man thought it was so astonishing to be alive that philosophical questions arose of their own accord.

It is like watching a magic trick. We cannot understand how it is done. So we ask: how can the magician change a couple of white silk scarves into a live rabbit?

A lot of people experience the world with the same incredulity as when a magician suddenly pulls a rabbit out of a hat which has just been shown to them empty.

In the case of the rabbit, we know the magician has tricked us. What we would like to know is just how he did it. But when it comes to the world it’s somewhat different. We know that the world is not all sleight of hand and deception because here we are in it, we are part of it. Actually, we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat. The only difference between us and the white rabbit is that the rabbit does not realize it is taking part in a magic trick. Unlike us. We feel we are part of something mysterious and we would like to know how it all works…

As far as the white rabbit is concerned, it might be better to compare it with the whole universe. We who live here are microscopic insects existing deep down in the rabbit’s fur. But philosophers are always trying to climb up the fine hairs of the fur in order to stare right into the magician’s eyes.

I told you it was weird. I bet you’ve never been compared to a microscopic insect living deep in a rabbit’s fur before. Gaarder says philosophers are the brave insects that climb up the fine hairs of the rabbit’s fur. They want to know the secret to the trick. They are the ones hungry for truth.

Children are generally much more inquisitive than adults. Children will often ask the questions that we stopped asking a long time ago, like – why is the sky blue? Every now and then, we might start to ask those questions again.

Gaarder recognises in his strange illustration that not all people climb the rabbit’s fine hairs. He writes:

All mortals are born at the very tip of the rabbit’s fine hairs, where they are in a position to wonder at the impossibility of the trick. But as they grow older they work themselves ever deeper into the fur. And there they stay. They become so comfortable they never risk crawling back up the fragile hairs again. Only philosophers embark on this perilous expedition to the outermost reaches of language and existence. Some of them fall off, but others cling on desperately and yell at the people nestling deep in the snug softness, stuffing themselves with delicious food and drink.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ they yell, ‘we are floating in space!’ But none of the people down there care.

‘What a bunch of troublemakers!’ they say. And they keep on chatting: Would you pass the butter, please? How much have our stocks risen today? What is the price of tomatoes?

What kind of person are you? Have you stopped asking big questions? Are you more concerned with trivialities? There are lots of reasons we might have stopped asking big questions. Many of us lead busy lives – we just don’t have time to stop and think. Maybe if we’re honest, we don’t really want to stop, pause and reflect on big questions. Does my life have meaning? Why am I here? What will happen when I die? Times like this – the times of coronavirus – are when we might stop and ask the big questions again.

You may already think you have the answers. Many people do. What is life about? Let me give you one popular idea. It might be an approach to life you have adopted.

Humanism. Modern day humanism is about finding meaning for life without reference to God. Stephen Fry, a well-known celebrity has narrated a video for the British Humanist Association called, How Can I Be Happy? He describes how all of us need to find our own meaning. He says:

It may be walking in the woods, and caring for…grandchildren, or cooking, watching soap operas, and savouring a favourite wine or a new food.

He finishes with this:

The time to be happy is now, and the way to find meaning in life is to get on and live it as fully and as well as we can.

It sounds very romantic. Maybe you think it’s a good approach – get busy and make the most of life. But the approach has its problems. Life is never that simple. For a start, Stephen Fry’s salary can probably access a range of experiences that mine can’t. That might make me bitter and jealous. It might make me go through life with a chip on my shoulder.

There are other problems. If your passion is walking in the woods, what happens when injury, ill health or old-age keep you indoors? If what gets you up in the morning is the joy of your family, what happens if a grandchild tragically dies? Do you have the answers then? Does this approach help you cope with coronavirus and your fears about death?

When times are good, we don’t ask questions. It’s when things get bad, we need the answers. It’s important to have the answers. Sometimes things happen that jolt us into asking questions. At other times, things seem to be going just great – it’s then, we snuggle deep down into the rabbit’s white fur.

Coronavirus and anything else that stops us in our tracks reminds us that we live in a world where we are not in control. We are living – but we will not live forever. And all of this reminds us that we need the Good News of Jesus Christ – the One who came and died and conquered sin and death to bring eternal life to all who will trust Him and follow Him. Christians in 1849 Dowlais came to be able to say the words of Scripture – and Christians in Dowlais today are still able to say them too, along with Christians all over the world – O grave, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?