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Kindness amid the bubbles of life

Thursday, 2 July 2020  | Steve Taylor

Bubbles will surely be Aotearoa’s word of the year. It was how Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of Aotearoa (New Zealand), on Tuesday 24 March, introduced a month-long national shutdown in response to COVID-19. In response to the first cases of community transmission of COVID-19, a State of Emergency was called. ‘Stick to your bubble’, the Prime Minister announced. Schools and all public gatherings were to cease. The State of Emergency gave Police powers to run roadblocks and enforce limits. Only essential services could work. ‘Whatever your bubble is for the month, this is the bubble you must maintain. That has to be it, a small group of individuals’. Suddenly in Aotearoa, the word bubble acquired a new significance.

The word bubble invokes images of children at play, running across a park. Yet in Aotearoa New Zealand parks would close. Bubbles are fragile, a thin film stretched to the limit. Life indeed felt fragile as those at high risk due to age or prior health conditions were instructed to isolate. Bubbles evoke wonder, as soap solutions are gently blown to life by breath. Yet forecast of economic recession cast a grim shadow. Bubbles became the word that held our collective, yet uniquely individual, sense of fears and experiences of limits and fragility.

Yet limits invite kindness. In Aotearoa, one product of these twenty-eight days of bubble life was ‘Stay – Tūtahi’. In the first seven days of the national lockdown, twenty artists, each in their different bubbles, banded together to create a catchy ‘bubble’ song. A chorus, with words in Maori, ‘Ka putu, ka ora’, expresses hope and prayer. ‘We’re gonna be alright’ became our national bubble song.

An initial meeting of singers and songwriters over Zoom produced lyrics and a tune. Vocals and instruments were recorded on iPhones and in home studios. Individual tracks were digitally sent to producers, who crafted the final version over three days. ‘Stay – Tūtahi’ is available here, with all proceeds going to charity. ‘Stay – Tūtahi’ is a remarkable feat, a testimony to kindness amid the limits of bubbles.

Reflecting on bubbles, I find myself returning to the book Ruth. A short story, located between the chaos of Judges and the turmoil of Kings, it reveals generosity amid extreme limits. First, there are physical limits, a famine in the land and thus the absence of food (1:1). Second, there are cultural limits, as Elimelech, Naomi and their family cross cultures into the land of Moab (1:1). This results in relational limits, the inevitable initial consequences of anyone who moves communities. The limits of isolation increase with the loss of Mahlon and Kilion as sons and husbands (1:5). This means generational limits as the line of Elimelech faces extinction. Ruth is the story of fragile humans living in desperate times.

Amid these physical, cultural, relational and generational limits, God is named in 1:8. It is an astonishing declaration by Naomi: ‘May the Lord deal kindly with you’. In Hebrew, the word for kindness is hesed. It expresses a mix of God as faithful and God as kind. Hesed appears amid limitations. To use the language of bubbles, Naomi will bubble in Bethlehem and blesses Ruth and Orpah to hesed in Moab.

Yet the limits of a bubble begin to be pushed in the second chapter. Ruth seeks permission to glean. Amid leftover grain, on the edges of a barley field, Ruth carefully gleans for hesed. She finds God as faithful and kind in the person of Boaz. Initially, he meets her physical needs (2:14, 15). As the book ends, cultural, relational and generational limits are equally overcome by kindness (4:9-12). Indeed, the Lord had dealt kindly with Ruth. There was generosity at the table of Boaz and hesed in the new relationships as wife and mother. Finally, there was the ultimate overcoming of physical limits, a genealogy, as Obed became the father of Jesse. He became the father of David (4:22). Finally, in time, Ruth the Moabite is woven into the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5, 16).

The limits of a bubble bring to mind Julian of Norwich. An astonishing Christian thinker, writing in a time of plague (1348-1350), she penned the earliest surviving book in the English language to be written by a woman. For Julian, pondering suffering from her bubble, God is kind. This kindness is found in Christ who is the fullness of hesed, labouring in us to give birth to the fullness of love (Revelations of Divine Love, 60). Amid plague, it is a generous vision of a kind God.

Times of limits can produce a range of responses. There can be competition for scarce resources, a hoarding of what is precious, grief at the loss of what was, fear of having no future. There can be a desperate desire to pop bubbles, dismissing wonder and harming the fragility of our neighbour and ourselves. Words from the book of Ruth and the writings of Julian provide another response to limits. In times of limit, in every human bubble, God is hesed, labouring in us to birth the fullness of Divine kindness.

Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership. From his bubble in St Leonards, Dunedin he has written First Expressions: Innovation and the Mission of God (2019) and is researching creative ministry practice amid the limits of COVID-19. 

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