What is it about songs that at certain times the words pop into your head and you start singing them? Which is exactly what happened last week when I found myself humming the line from Elton John's song - Sorry, seems to be the hardest word. 'It's sad, so sad. It's a sad, sad situation and it's getting more and more absurd.' I wasn't sure whether to change the word 'sad' to 'mad' but in truth they both feel fitting in equal measure.
I first noticed an article about Covid-19 in mid-December last year - it was about the sixth article as I glanced down and subconsciously wondered if it would grow as a story or fall away. Never would I have thought we would get to where we are today. Now the Coronavirus has crashed on our shores like an unwelcome tsunami and we are left in lock down to ponder on this unprecedented moment in our history with the simple question: What on earth is happening?
I'm not easily given to conspiracy theories - I mean I am old enough to have lived through the millennium bug. I'm a Pastor and so my default position is to start from the simple and build up. Trust people, unless you are shown the reason not to; Work from the premise that original goodness precedes original sin; Understand that human nature is the nature of what it means to be human and so what you find in your own heart is what will be revealed in the hearts of others - save for the extent to which life has been shaped by our childhood. It's a general rule of thumb - but one that's stood me in good stead over the years. Oh, and of course in crisis we all revert to type - which can be worrying.
So, when the internet started to churn out its theories around the pandemic I treated them with a 'healthy' degree a caution. Prophecy suddenly pops out of nowhere. People ask whether these are the End Times. Presumptions are made around the judgement of God. Theories surface that all of this is a master plan on part of China in its steps to world domination. I mean - what else are we to do with our time? Stay at home - and help save lives is the answer.
Bill Gates was speaking about a global pandemic some years back with the overarching message - its' just a matter of time. So, I guess you could slip in a prophecy about it with a good chance of accuracy. Anyhow, that's not the point of my writing. Not many of us can change the global situation - well - we can stay home and help save lives - and that matters. But otherwise our level of influence is more restricted - and when you look at the decisions which need to me made, we are perhaps grateful for the fact that such weight doesn't rest on our shoulders. And let's pray for those on whom it does rest.
For Christians we are journeying through lent, a time of inner reflection, of letting go and stripping away. One might conclude that the world is currently on the same journey. What are we left with when we deny ourselves - or indeed, find ourselves denied? It can be a scary road to take since the whole of society is built around our need to consume.
In an article for Time Magazine this week, Professor N.T. Wright was asked to address this exact issue. In the piece, titled, Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It's Not Supposed To, I discovered he returned to a familiar theme - that of lament, suffering and the mystery of redemption. He writes, 'Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centred worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world.' He goes on, 'It’s bad enough facing a pandemic in New York City or London. What about a crowded refugee camp on a Greek island? What about Gaza? Or South Sudan?' It is rare in the West that we live though a time that is outside our control or face a challenge that money cannot fix. We may have faced this personally of course - divorce, bankruptcy, death, abuse - all of these bring a sense of utter terror and loss - but it doesn't impact the collective psyche of the nation. That's what war does - it's what this pandemic has the potential to do. So, lament at a time of national emergency is not an unusual response even when we don't know why. In fact, the deeper traditions of the Christian faith and indeed the Hebrew scriptures teach us that lament is gift we receive in response to letting go. It takes us deeper to the heart of things - our sense of loss becomes the gateway to a different type of comfort.
Wright continues, 'The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments. Some Christians like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.' Lament in fact, as taught through the tradition of lent is not about loss as much as it is about re calibration- of building life around what matters.
I mean what if the virus took God by surprise too? Or what if he doesn't control things in the way we think of control? And what if God's actions in the world are not born out of power but out of love? Perhaps these thoughts are difficult to grasp but is it a more biblical approach? What if God does not use a wand to realign the pain of the world - but instead uses a cross? And if so, what does that type of redemption look like and how does it flow through the world? Of Jesus himself, the Bible says: 'Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers. We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help. (Hebrews 4:14-16 from the Message)'
I fear that looking for answers in a time of crisis is something of a meaningless pursuit. It's difficult because we can see ambiguity as a lack of faith and a disruption to hope. We like to think in a linear way and see faith more like a train journey than a wandering. The problem is what happens when we get derailed and we have to navigate our way back home? I have discovered God to be more a travelling companion and guide than I have train driver. During a season of lament, I suggest we allow our actions to forge in us who are becoming rather than what we are achieving. All of a sudden people seem to have time to talk; acts of heroism are borne of unsung heroes rather than trite celebrity; a bag of shopping thoughtfully delivered is a demonstration of real love. And perhaps we can get to the place where speculation around what is happening and why is not as important as who I am becoming and for whom. In closing the words of Eric Liddell come to mind, 'Circumstances may appear to wreck our lives and God's plans. But God is not helpless among the ruins.' And maybe that is the journey of lament - the one of which lent speaks and maybe this is the greatest sense of hope each of us can take from the current madness all around us.