“Moments of great calm, / Kneeling before an altar / Of wood in a stone church / In summer, waiting for the God / To speak; the air a staircase / For silence; the sun’s light / Ringing me, as though I acted / A great role. / And the audiences / Still; all that close throng / Of spirits waiting, as I, / For the message. / Prompt me, God; / But not yet. When I speak, / Though it be you who speak / Through me, something is lost. / The meaning is in the waiting.” (‘Kneeling’ by R. S. Thomas)
What a great poem for a pandemic! Though R. S. Thomas was hardly the most cheerful of poets, some of his more melancholic poems, like this one, ‘Kneeling’, seem fitting for a time like this. Like everything else, our church here is closed – so we’re not kneeling in a church as such – but the sentiment remains, many of us searching for meaning as we wait for this pandemic to run its course.
‘The meaning is in the waiting’. Well perhaps, anyway. But really we have little choice but to wait, and so we do just that, wait. And hope. And pray. And wonder about the meaning of life in pandemic times.
Taiwan has now been on Level 3 restrictions since May 15, the day that Taiwan’s recent Covid-19 surge really began. We’ve been more or less grounded in our local areas ever since. The first 3 weeks of the surge were fairly chaotic, but by the beginning of June, things seemed to be calmer, and numbers started to stabilize and then fall. From a height of 535 daily cases on May 17, the general trend in numbers is steadily downwards; we’ve now had several days in a row with less than 100 cases. Today the reported figures are 54 confirmed cases and 8 deaths.
Current overall statistics are 14,748 confirmed cases, of which over 13,300 are domestic infections reported since May 15; and 643 deaths, including 631 since May 15. The vast majority of cases continue to be in the Greater Taipei area, and virtually all of the Alpha Variant. So far, the Delta Variant has appeared only in a cluster of 14 confirmed cases in the far south of Taiwan, but fear of it spreading and / or coming into the country with arriving passengers has led to increased travel restrictions on arrivals from 7 countries where Delta is a major problem, including the UK.
Level 3 restrictions are now scheduled to last until July 12. The government has extended it by 2 weeks each time, so we expect another announcement a few days before July 12 as to what will happen next. Vaccines are slowly arriving, donated so far by Japan, USA and Lithuania, with others ordered through COVAX and direct from vaccine companies. Some have been delivered, but the political and logistical problems are immense, so each actual arrival of vaccines is a cause for much rejoicing. The vaccination program has a clear list of priority groups and is strictly administered, currently they are vaccinating frontline workers, care home residents and those over 75 with their first dose. Vaccination Statistics: Total doses given: 1.93 million, people fully vaccinated with 2 doses: 36,700, which is 0.2% of the population. Clearly we have a long way to go. Thankful for progress so far, the rest of us wait for more vaccines to arrive, then another wait for our turn in the line.
In other good news, there’s been lots of heavy rain in the last few weeks in central and southern Taiwan, and reservoirs are being well replenished. Our worst drought for over 50 years may well now be a thing of the past. The typhoon season is already here, so we hope for more rain this summer. We’ve had rain up here in Greater Taipei as well, it’s so refreshing. And there’s been rainbows too, lots of them! It’s also the lotus season. Check out these nearby fields of delicate pink lotus flowers…
With the end of the school year, so our university campus is very quiet. Much is cordoned off, including our basketball nets and footpaths, gates are locked and there are signs all over with instructions for what to do and what not to do. Usually at this time of year, our student fellowship along with Advent Church members would be busy preparing for our annual summer camps for local children, but for the first time ever, they’ve all been cancelled, so it’s even quieter than usual. Our students have now gone off to find summer jobs, but with all the local restaurants closed, many are finding it difficult. For those in financial need, we are providing meal coupons to keep them going over the summer.
It’s high summer, with temperatures in their 30’s all day, top 20’s all night and high humidity all the time. Today it says it’s ‘32°C, feels like 40’. This comes just after sweltering our way through the hottest month of May since 1947, average temperature 27.8°C. All that sun means our solar panels, which cover almost every flat roof on the campus, are put to good use…
High summer also means we are inundated with cicadas, famously the world’s noisiest insects. From sunrise to sunset they make their presence felt, it is truly deafening! Inside, I have all windows open to let the breeze through, with electric fans blowing in all directions, rather than relying on air-conditioning. With cicadas chirping and fans blowing, a ‘quiet’ campus is definitely a misnomer. Very nice though to see a kingfisher here a few days ago, enjoying a quiet early morning visit to the pond.
Just outside the campus on the road to the sea, the abandoned buildings, like this old factory, add to the silence, reminders of times gone by….
while down at the sea, below the campus, the rhythm of the day is decided by the tides as much as by the sun. At one end of the small bay is an abalone farm, where the abalone are kept in tanks of bubbling water under black mesh…
and at low tide, the workers go along to the other end of the bay to collect up the seaweed which they then feed to the abalone.
I had no idea what an abalone even was until I came to Taiwan, but they are served here at banquets for Chinese New Year and wedding receptions. It’s a kind of sea snail, with the most beautiful mother-of-pearl shell, with a row of 9 little holes in the shell. The small abalone grown in Taiwan are known as Jiu-Kong 九孔 lit. nine holes (Haliotis diversicolor). It takes months for these small abalone to mature, and then it’s all over in about 30 seconds, the time it takes to eat one at a banquet. What a life for a poor abalone.
Also down at the sea are several old pillboxes, part of the original coastal defence system. Now no longer in use, one of them has been painted up. I wonder how those soldiers coped, stationed there all year round on lookout duty, guarding the coast, really just waiting in case something happened, always hoping that it wouldn’t. You really gotta wonder how they found any meaning in all that waiting.
I’m preparing a sermon for this coming Sunday, and I’m struck by Paul’s words in 2 Cor. 12. After appealing to God 3 times in the midst of his suffering, he hears God saying to him, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Those words gave Paul a completely new perspective on life, and gave him the strength to face all the terrible things he was going through, knowing that ‘whenever I am weak, then I am strong’. So relevant for us too today. May God give us grace to endure in this pandemic and beyond.
My second cousin, Kate and her husband have formed Sweet Talk Radio, and just released their latest video. I love it! Written during lockdown in Los Angeles, it kinda fits here so well. Take a listen…
For now though, my focus is on this coming Sunday, when the university has announced a major power cut to last most of the day. Now that’s a challenge. Normally I have a choice of 18 online services to keep me busy on a Sunday morning, and that’s only those of the Taiwan Episcopal Church. But this Sunday, there’ll be limited battery life, no Wi-Fi, no iced coffee from the fridge, no electric fans or AC, and of course no other place to go where it might be a bit cooler, since we’re generally grounded. God give us grace to endure indeed!
And now I’m off for my daily prayer walk round the labyrinth. Walking is more my thing than kneeling. The meaning may be in the waiting, but it’s also in the praying too. Thanks for all your prayers for us, and please continue!
(Photos all taken locally in or around the campus of St. John’s University, Taiwan in the last few weeks)