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New rhymes for pandemic times


Sharing our faith and our concerns with children helps to ease their doubts and fears.

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October 2, 2009
- Elsie Rempel

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Many of us grew up with simple rhymes: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away;” “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”

Rhymes often grow out of situations where advice is needed. Their sing-song nature sometimes makes the advice more palatable and memorable.

As we enter an era of heightened pandemic awareness, will we respond by writing rhymes to help our children live into a new situation? Perhaps our kindergarten teachers are already chanting “Many washes every day helps keep the flu away” or “Cleanliness is next to healthiness.” But are there more substantial things we can do?

I lived with my family in Europe when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in 1986. Our children, ages 12, 10 and 8 at the time, heard about radiation in the air and sand of their playground from the daily news, much like today’s children are surrounded by news items about H1N1. Without any reminders from us, our children began taking their shoes off and leaving them outside of the apartment, washing their hands as soon as they came in, and automatically taking a bath instead of arguing that they didn’t need one. Our grandchildren, 7 and 9, are now responding similarly to the new risk. They are washing their hands more willingly, more frequently, and learning to sneeze into their elbows.

But physical responses to H1N1 are not enough. We need to respond to children’s deeper questions about the spiritual side of living with illness and the social disruption of a pandemic. Questions like, “Why does get God let people get sick and die?”, “God won’t let me get sick and die, right?” “Why isn’t Auntie getting better if we’re praying for her?, and “Why do people have to suffer?” are already being asked by our children and will come with increasing frequency.

These deep questions about life and death, or about God’s role in illness and recovery, often force parents to face these questions for themselves. Children can handle an honest response like, “I think about that, too. Let’s both think about some more and talk about it again tomorrow.” Because many of us in the affluent West have grown accustomed to good health, a pandemic catches us off guard. We haven’t learned to place much reliance on the providence of God because we’ve been well fed and vaccinated. Now H1N1 is breaking through some of those insulating layers.

Perhaps the time has come to stop taking good health for granted, even as we do what we can to prevent virus infections. Perhaps the time has come for us to trust more deeply that God is always with us, and to remember that we can depend on God to sustain and guide us regardless of the situation. In this area, we adults have much to learn from Christian brothers and sisters who radiate Christ’s love in more vulnerable contexts. And, as we learn to deepen our faith in God and the church, we will be better equipped to help our children face and express their fears.

A new children’s book by Rebecca Seiling and Cindy Snider, Don’t Be Afraid: Stories of Christians in Times of Trouble, (MPN, 2009) can help families with young children travel this road together. Reading this book with younger children will not only help them understand good health as a gift from God, it will also open doorways for discussing fears related to a pandemic or other crisis. It will also help parents affirm for their children that our faith communities provide loving, caring, compassionate people whom God works through to ease our doubts and fears.

It is also time to remember that God expects us to reach out to our neighbours in healing ways, to prepare ourselves to respond to their fears and physical needs as the pandemic challenges the patterns of our work and community lives. Beyond Our Fears: Following Jesus in Times of Crisis, (MPN, 2009), a book and study guide by Pam Driedger for adults may also help parents confront some of their uncertainties.

Reading and discussing such books with other parents could help us learn how to model a responsible, relaxed, and courageous response to living with H1N1, and to understand and use this situation as a ministry opportunity, like African and other Christians who are boldly ministering to people with AIDS in our day, or like the Christians in Carthage in 250 AD, who, as a plague killed many in their city, organized care for the sick, even those who hated them, and believed that “God will reward you when you give yourself in service to others.” Surprisingly, the church grew during this terrible time of sickness and death.” (Don’t be Afraid, p.22).

God is with us, always, and works among us in redemptive ways, no matter our situation. This is good news that children and grown-ups can grasp and cling to whether or not it is reduced to a pithy rhyme.

See the resources mentioned above: