Have you ever stayed in a hotel and been woken up from a blissful dream by the shocking noise of an alarm clock that had been set by the previous guest? You sit bolt upright in a dark room at the ungodly hour of 3 am wondering where on earth you are and what has happened. Then you gradually realize that you are in fact in a rented room, in a hotel that you do not own. You then fall back on your uncomfortable pillows trying desperately to get back to the blissful carefree dream world you inhabited before this rude awakening. But your body is now full of adrenaline and cortisol and a multitude of other hormones that won’t let you get back to that blissful dream world.
It is an image that vividly describes where we as individuals, nations and indeed as a species find ourselves at this moment in time. The relentless creeping advance of climate change and the recent arrival of the deadly menace of COVID-19 have acted like rude hotel room alarm clocks that have awoken us and reminded us that we are living in what the novelist Julian Barnes calls “a rented world”. We have lived for so long in the blissful dream world of wilful ignorance telling ourselves that we are the “captains of our own ships”, the “masters of our own destiny”, all the while steadfastly refusing to accept that we are in truth guests in “a rented world”.
In the same way that the evident impact of climate change has forced us as a species to face the mortality of the planet so too COVID-19 has forced us as individuals and collectively as a society to come to terms with our own mortality. COVID-19 is another symptom of a mortality that is increasingly threatened by how we are choosing to live. The sad truth of human history is that we will not change how we live simply by enacting laws. Laws are made in light of the knowledge of the consequences of our bad behaviour. They prohibit certain behaviour but they don’t stop it. We humans seem to have an innate knack of finding ways to get around the law and if we can’t we simply break them.
Our shocking alarm clock awakening to the fact that we live in a “rented world” and our government’s attempts to control our behaviour makes it all to clear that the change that is need will need to run much deeper than legal cosmetics. If society is in the long term going to ‘get better’ we will need as individuals to experience a change of heart and mind, a turning around if you will. This is what the New Testament calls metanoia or repentance. When Jesus called out for people to repent, to turn around, it was not a call to personal piety. Nor was his call another way of condemning the human race for its sins. His call was intended to warn us of, to save us from, the consequences of living life in the wrong direction. He described his mission with these words, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.’ I don’t know about you but I think he might be a man worth listening to.