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The right way (and some wrong ways) to be the Church in a pandemic

by
27 March 2020

There’s more to be done than just staying positive, Stephen Torr suggests

PA

A boy with food supplies waits for a lift during a brief lifting of the curfew in Sri Lanka on Friday

A boy with food supplies waits for a lift during a brief lifting of the curfew in Sri Lanka on Friday

THE psalm for morning prayer on Friday 20 March was Psalm 22, perhaps one of the most well-known lament psalms, given the use of it by Jesus on the cross. As I read through the psalm, I found it comforting to be able to give voice to some of my own thoughts and feelings by way of these ancient words.

These are unprecedented and difficult times right across the globe, and one of the things that the Church has to figure out in response is how to be the Church in the midst of it.

This has to be done in an authentic and honest way that reflects the faith that the Church holds to and the God she worships, who, out of free and loving choice brought her into being, and sustains her and the whole of creation.

It has to be able to reflect the same faith in that God who dwelt among us, died for the whole of creation and overcame death in order to proclaim that death does not have the last word.

Although Psalm 22 is not a perfect match in terms of the details of the situation that gave rise to it, this and other lament texts in the Bible offer us a way of continuing to be with God in the current situation. It provides a contrast to the false — here’s what I think I should pray but don’t really feel this way towards God — prayers and responses that the Church is often prone to using publicly. But how so?

 

LET me start by outlining what are the unhelpful responses that often emerge at this point. I read on Facebook recently someone recounting the healing of a blind man by Jesus with the use of spit and dirt followed by a comment along the lines of “Maybe our problem is we rely too much on doctors and not enough on Jesus.”

This is unhelpful. To suggest implicitly or explicitly that we simply need to have more faith, or that God only truly works in an interventionist sort of way while sitting back doing nothing during the time that the humans try and figure a problem out (or whatever else might be implied by such an approach), is to seriously undermine the wonder and beauty of the gift God has bestowed on individuals to aid, by those gifts, in the healing of people.

It is also to naively misunderstand the kind of world God has created, and how God interacts with that world. I, for one, am deeply thankful and appreciative of God’s calling to those who (knowingly or unknowingly aided by the Spirit) serve those in need, often with great sacrifice. Luke the physician would have been among their ranks, I’m sure.

A blanket belief that this situation can be resolved by increasing our faith misrepresents the God that loves the whole of creation freely to the point of death and resurrection regardless of what level of faith we have.

To think that God can and will only act if we have enough faith is a serious misreading of scripture, and suggests a very limited God hardly worthy of the name, and not the God of the Christian faith.

I am also unconvinced by the approach whereby, if we pray all together the same prayer at the same time on the same day, we’ll give God just what God needs to be able to sort this problem out.

Collective prayer is good and right, but not when used as a magic formula.

 

IN RECENT days, there have been tales of the air clearing in Wuhan, the waters becoming clearer in Venice, and dolphins being seen off the coast of Italy. All of this has the potential to lift our souls to the realisation that maybe, just maybe, God’s good creation, enchanted by the Holy Spirit, has a way of resolving some of the mess we have made of it.

It can lift our souls to the realisation that something bigger is happening amidst the pain of the Covid-19 pandemic.

We might also appeal to the way relationships are forming, and bonds of love and care are being constructed, as positive consequences of the current crisis.

All this is possibly true. However, if we wish to be the authentic Church, we cannot use these situations either as some trumped up evidence for God’s judgement on the world, or as some greater good argument.

By the first of these I mean the approach that says God has sent the coronavirus as punishment for our misuse of creation. Again, someone recently put on Facebook (I do read other sources, I promise) a passage from Haggai 2: “‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

The argument that ensued was that God may be forming a different kind of Church in the midst of this crisis. Again, this could be true. However, the person who posted it also included the three verses before these, which suggest that God caused that situation for God’s own end — inadvertently implying that God has caused this pandemic, too.

There are at least two problems here. First, if we’re going to claim that something is a judgement from God — an act of loving cleansing — we had better be certain that that is what’s going on, which I don’t think we can be.

Second, because we can’t be certain, it provides absolutely no help for those in the midst of this crisis. It instead portrays a cold and mean God in a world where people already have significant doubts about how loving God is or if God even exists.

This is part of a broader approach to suffering that argues that God allows, permits, causes (?) harmful events in order that some greater good can occur. The problem with such an approach is that, again, it brings into question the character of the God of the Christian faith and ends up justifying evil and suffering as part of some grand plan.

Taken to its natural conclusion, this leaves us with a sense of apathy towards suffering: why would you stop something that enables something greater to occur? At worst, it enables the labelling of something evil as good.

For the record, I am not suggesting that God cannot bring good from evil. The cross is, of course, an example of God doing just that.

All I am suggesting is that to claim that God has permitted or orchestrated such events in full knowledge of what Hegel referred to as the “slaughter-bench of history” to unfold is a troubling and unhelpful approach to take.

 

THE central problem with the above approaches is that they seek to explain too much, in a desperate attempt to understand what is going on. If we can explain, we feel like we are in control. But flawed attempts at explanation provide no lasting help to those who face existential suffering.

That’s not to say that legitimate questions don’t emerge, or that we can’t piece together some of the jigsaw regarding why there is suffering in the world. But some questions are largely unanswerable, and any attempt at a full answer is of no use to those at the sharp end of suffering. Not to mention the fact that the Bible seems more focused on what God is doing about the problem and what part we should be playing within that.

 

SO, how should we be responding?

Perhaps the best place to start is by affirming what the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann refers to as the “core testimony”. Brueggemann is referring to the story that Israel continues to tell herself in the Old Testament about who their God is, who they are, what the story is that they’re in and where this story is going, according to the God who is the author of it.

The same principle can be extended to the whole of scripture. The Church is to affirm our belief in a God who has overcome sin, death, and suffering, and who promises victory to all who turn to God and the whole of creation; and that this kingdom of life in its fullness is breaking into the here and now in anticipation of its full presence when Jesus returns to complete the implementation of that victory.

The Church is also to claim her role as the Spirit-constituted body of Christ by being the hands and feet of Jesus — empowered by the same Spirit that empowers the Son.

With this in mind, I am in full support of the way that the Church has been called to action by its leaders during this current crisis, and the creative ways it has been responding.

However — and now I finally get to Psalm 22 — the thing that often seems to be missing, both from senior leaders and on a smaller scale, is our inability to be honest with ourselves and others about the fact that we are scared, anxious, and have a lot of questions about what God is playing at.

I may be wrong, but I’m guessing that we all go through periods where we wonder what on earth God is doing, and when I read Psalm 22, and the lament genre of scripture more broadly, I am reminded that we are called to bring these emotions and questions to God in prayer. And that this must happen while we continue to cling to the core testimony.

We are called to do this for ourselves and facilitate others to do the same because this is the stuff of honest relationship. God knows what our hearts contain and desires this to be brought forth in honest dialogue.

Otherwise, all we are promoting for ourselves and the watching world is a brittle faith with half-baked answers. This presents a false self to the world. This is not healthy, not biblical, and not what we should be doing.

For a brief moment, this is what Job does early on (chapters 1-2); thankfully, it doesn’t take long for real, true, honest Job to emerge. The icing on the cake is when God affirms Job for approaching the situation in this way and rebukes his “friends” for trying to blame Job and explain too much (chapter 42.7ff).

Psalm 22, and other lament poetry, encourage us to recount where we have seen God previously, and recount the core testimony — but also to use honest words and emotions about our current situation, that we might be met by God in this place of true openness.

 

FOR many people, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought and will bring seemingly meaningless destruction to their lives. To explain too much is to offer nothing of use to them and us.

In time to come, we can reflect on how this experience may change how we treat each other and creation. But for now, what the Church needs to be is a people who, empowered by the Spirit, can live with the paradox of simultaneously affirming the core testimony in word and deed, as well as offering our laments to God about the world’s pain. Anything else would be less than the honest and open relationship that God desires with us.

The practical challenges are many, if we take this seriously. We have had a day of prayer in which we put candles in our windows as a hope-filled reminder of Jesus, the light of the world. How might we do something that creates national space for lament as well?

We created hope-filled collects for people to pray; but where are the collects that are inspired by the psalms of lament and Book of Job — prayers that have teeth, and bring honest, raw language to God about what many feel as we try to work through this time.

In order to aid the world, the Church must embody an honest relationship with God and lead others to do the same. Senior leaders and all others in the Church must not overlook the lament genre, which has such an important place in scripture for just such times as these.

So, as we walk this road together, let us think afresh how we might enable a deeper, richer level of honesty with ourselves and with God, as we cling to the hope of the resurrection that reaches into eternity.

 

The Rev’d Dr Stephen C. Torr is Priest-in-Charge of St Berteline and St Christopher’s, in Norton, Runcorn, and an associate lecturer at St Mellitus College.

 

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