“Extraordinary”, “Unprecedented”; these are words that have been much used in relation to the times in which we live. Lockdown, social distancing, essential workers, bubbles, personal protective equipment, are some of the words that point to the new reality which has impacted on us all in one way or another. The global pandemic has brought illness and death, damaged our economy and altered people’s personal security. As we adjust daily and weekly to our rapidly changing world, it’s helpful to look back and reflect on how people responded to unprecedented and extraordinary crises in their day.
The 1918-1920 Pandemic, known as the Spanish Flu, infected 500 million people, about one quarter of the world’s population, with an estimated death toll up to about 50 million. Within the space of a few months at the end of 1918, New Zealand recorded 9,000 deaths, with 2,500 of these being Māori. The four and a half years of war that came to an end in November 1918 resulted in 18,000 New Zealand deaths and 41,000 casualties. In the shadow of Anzac Day, at this time of lockdown, we are reminded of both the preciousness of life and the immeasurable value of peace.
Each individual, who makes up the statistics we are given on the impact of Covid-19 represents a person who was a mother or father, a brother or sister, and uncle or aunt, a son or daughter – a family member. Statistics can easily overwhelm and crowd out the individual and the grief of a family. That’s one of the reasons why people erected Honours Boards and other memorials, naming those who served, and in particular, those who were killed during war.
An extraordinary conjunction of the First World War and the influenza pandemic involved one of the two women whose name is on the St Luke’s Honours Board – Bessie Maxfield. Her father, Harry, had a large grocer’s shop on Great South Road. Bessie attended Remuera Primary School and trained as a nurse at Auckland Hospital. She was a Sister on the fourth voyage of the hospital ship, Maheno, which sailed from New Zealand to Plymouth in England, returning with injured soldiers.
Bessie was then transferred as the senior nursing sister to the troop ship, Tahiti, which sailed in July 1918 to England with 1,117 soldiers and nurses as part of the 40th reinforcements. They went via Sierra Leone in Africa to join up with a convoy. Freetown had just been infected by the arrival from Europe of the second wave of the flu pandemic. The day the Tahiti departed for England influenza struck. Three days later, over 800 were sick. Eventually about 90% of those on board came down with the flu. There were 68 deaths at sea, and 9 more after they landed, a total of 7% of those who sailed from New Zealand.
Among the 150 listed as patients in the New Zealand military hospital at Codford, ten days after arrival in England, was Bessie Maxfield. Formal inquiries were held in London and Wellington, with concern about the overcrowding and poor ventilation on the Tahiti, facilitating the influenza’s rapid spread. The medical staff was overwhelmed, with the two doctors on board succumbing very early. One of the findings of the London Court of Inquiry, was that, “Too much praise cannot be allocated to Sister Maxfield and the nurses under her charge, as all worked most assiduously and effectively to cope with the epidemic.” Bessie Maxfield was mentioned in despatches, repatriated to New Zealand in September 1919, and discharged from army service. She was recommended for the Royal Red Cross Medal, but this was rejected because she had not served long enough to qualify.
There’s a resonance between Bessie Maxfield’s situation and the impact of Covid-19. Tragically, we’ve seen the way that cruise ships, like the Tahiti, became vectors for the rapid spread of deadly illness among people in a confined space. But we’ve also seen the special service given by people like Bessie Maxfield at work in our hospitals and by essential workers. These extraordinary, unprecedented times reveal the strengths of our society and the many people who are willing to contribute to our wellbeing.
In the midst of the current crisis, it is very easy to be overwhelmed by gloomy news, and alarming statistics. Holding on to hope, when we see the global impact of Covid-19 on people’s lives, their jobs and relationships is a challenge.
How did people respond to death, injury and grief brought by the First World War and the influenza pandemic? Some turned to the resources of their faith. Among the sources of comfort was Psalm 46, one of the most popular of the Biblical poems used to express reassurance in times of crisis. This was reinforced by Issac Watts familiar paraphrase, often sung at Anzac Day services:
O God our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home.
The Psalms have played a crucial role in Jewish and Christian worship over the centuries. In Benedictine monasticism the 150 Psalms were said each week. For Presbyterians of past generations, the metrical Psalms were part of the regular diet of worship. They touch on the range of human experience, from “Rage to Ecstasy”. The same Psalm can contain wonderful insights and confronting concepts. Their poetic structure and use of images both delights and frustrates.
Psalm 46 is a response to a context of dislocation. It brings reassurance and hope. In the face of natural disasters, mountains shaking and waters roaring, people are told to see God as their refuge and strength and to be not afraid. It’s easy to see how this Psalm has appealed to people faced with death, destruction and dislocation. But the God of the Psalmist, who melts the earth, bringing desolation, making wars to cease, is the cosmic monarch, omnipotent, supreme, who can seem capricious and vengeful. There have been those Christians who have declared that this God was at work in the Black Death, in times of war, during the Influenza Pandemic and even today in Covid-19, angry with humanity and punished them for their sinfulness.
I want to offer a gentler interpretation of the Psalm, which does not see God as an angry judge, bringing destruction, but sees an understanding of God as love and compassion in action.
The dislocation brought by Covid-19 has resulted us living in our bubbles. But the message has been reinforced that we not only do this for our own safety, but for the good of our society. Our refuge has been the place where we live, where we have experienced acts of kindness from neighbours, friendly phone calls, emails from people not heard from for a long time. In response, we are able to reciprocate and reach out to others. This is a source of strength in our refuge. It does not necessarily remove the fear which we have about the future, but we find hope through solidarity and the sense that we are not alone.
The Psalm refers to “God is in the midst of the city … God will help it when the morning dawns”. Love, compassion, empathy, service to others have not been absent from our city. They’ve been in action in our hospitals and aged care homes where medical and ancillary staff, in spite of the threat to their own health, have continued to provide care, particularly to those dying without close family at hand. We’ve come to appreciate supermarket workers, those involved in food production and others who have put themselves at risk in doing their work.
For the church, the image of the body of Christ, made up of constituent parts, coming together for the well-being of the whole, is being reenvisaged. We see this in terms of the new ways of connectedness we are finding, whether through virtual zoom coffee mornings, you tube services, our community network, pastoral texts, phone calls and emails.
St Luke’s throughout its history has been concerned not only about its own life but has been involved in multiple ways of outreach. Love, compassion, empathy only have reality if they are incarnated, that is put into action. This incarnational approach was embodied in Jesus and is expressed in Colin Gibson’s hymn:
He came singing love and he lived singing love;
he died, singing love. He arose in silence.
For the love to go on we must make it our song:
you and I be the singers.
We are not singing solo – we are singing together. Our very name, the Community of St Luke, reinforces this sense of belonging. How do we reach out in new ways to those in need?
Many have been inspired by the example of Captain Tom Moore, the 99 year-old who set about raising £1,000 for National Health Service Charities by walking around his garden 100 times. Hundreds of thousands have responded by donating a staggering £20 million.
As a substitute for bringing food items at Church on Sunday, we can donate money online to help Presbyterian Support Family Works supply food parcels to needy families. There are lots of other charities we can also help from our bubbles.
A brief observation stimulated by our gospel reading. In 1987 I took part in a sixteen-day study course, “The Palestine of Jesus”. On our last day we went in search of Biblical Emmaus. There were four possible candidates. At the last place we sat at a table in the shape of a cross for our final service. Our course director told us we had not found Jesus in Emmaus or Palestine. He went around and named us and the places we came from one by one. He told us we should seek Jesus in the places where we lived and worked. We then broke bread and shared in communion before having a final meal together and departing.
In these extraordinary and unprecedented times, for the love, faith, hope and peace to go on, we must make them our song: you and I be the singers.
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 For a fuller account see “WW1 Sister Bessie Maxfield (22/421) and Staff Nurse Isobel MacLennan (22/449) – Mentioned in Despatches”, https://remueraheritage.org.nz/story/ww1-sister-bessie-maxfield-22-421-a...
 “Transport Epidemic”, Marlborough Express, 20 December 1918.
 How did the Church in New Zealand respond to the influenza pandemic in 1918? There was no level four lockdown, but a patchy response throughout the country. In November 1918, St Luke’s continued to hold its morning services, but cancelled its evening services, Sunday School and Bible Class meetings. The Presbytery issued a notice urging churches to comply with the Health Authorities request to “hold a brief morning service only”. (New Zealand Herald, 16 Nov, 1918, p.7.) A public health notice giving advice to people feeling ill ended with the words, “Don’t Worry. Don’t Worry. Be Cheery.” (Auckland Star, 9 Nov 1918, p.12.) Two young men from St Luke’s, Neil Smart and Arthur Ramsay, whose names are on the Honours Board, soldiers in training at Trentham, died of the flu on the 15 and 17 November 1918.
The story is told of the Revd James McCaw, Presbyterian minister in Lower Hutt. One son died in Trentham on 14 November 1918. His sister, Nan, died a day later. His wife and another child were seriously ill. An emergency hospital was set up in the church hall where McCaw helped feed the sick boiling up “a daily brew of beef tea in the copper”. It was said that “he presided over 10 or a dozen funerals” a day and together with Father Walsh “They buried the dead … irrespective of creed or denomination.” His son, reflecting on this time said, “My father lost a score of his flock and two of his children, but not his faith.” “One family’s story – the 1918 influenza pandemic”, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/sound/one-familys-story-1918-flu-pandemic
 Chris Glaser, “Rage to Ecstasy: Praying the Psalms”, https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/rage-to-ecstasy-praying-th...