Like all of us, I have read much over recent weeks about the current crisis: the causes of it, the handling of it, particularly by governments around the world, and where God is in the midst of tears, isolation and fear. One of the most useful reflections was offered by Tom Wright (former Bishop of Durham, scholar and prolific writer) who published an extended essay: ‘God and the Pandemic’.
In his essay he urges people to reject any understanding that suggests God send Covid-19 to ‘teach humanity a lesson’ or to punish us for our wickedness. He also rejects the notion that the current pandemic is a ‘sign of the end of the world’ as some have suggested, plucking out random Bible verses, not least from the Book of Revelation. He reflects, helpfully, that neither of these approaches reflects the overarching Biblical narrative, particularly when the narrative is looked at with a Christ-like focus.
Rather, Wright turns to the Psalms and he notes the number of laments within the song book of our Old Testament. The reality of God’s people throughout the ages is one of ‘lament’: a longing for God in the midst of tragedy, pain and suffering. The people had been in slavery in Egypt; they had been exiled in Babylon; they had lived under the threat of foreign influence and subjugation; there was the ever-present threat of natural disaster, famine and plague. The response of the people was to turn to God and cry out for help, wondering if God was with them. Always, God responded, but rarely in the way they hoped: God lead them from Egyptian slavery into the Sinai desert; in the far off land of Babylon they were told to look for God where they were rather than simply wait to return to their homeland and the Jerusalem temple. Even in the midst of plague and famine, God was present but not offering a ‘quick fix’ for those who were faithful.
For Wright, though, the most telling moment comes in the ministry of Jesus, when he weeps at the grave of his friend, Lazarus. The Bible’s shortest verse (‘Jesus wept’) offers the deepest insight into the heart of God and where God is during this crisis. God is on the front-line of care for those who are sick and dying; God is seeking to be heard by those who are making life and death decisions on behalf of the rest of us in government offices around the world; and God is weeping at the graves of those the rest of the world have chosen to ignore in places such as Yemen and Gaza, because we are so wrapped up in our survival we don’t have the time or the energy to care about them.
We too will lament with God: not least for the life which we had pre-lockdown that has gone and will not return. It is true for us personally, and for us as church. Church life will not be the same. Please, please be patient with the church leadership as we seek to explore ways in which we can safely return ‘from exile’. We have to return safely. I partly understand the frustration of those who have packed onto our beaches recently during hot weather, but to do so risks an extended period of further lockdown. Such actions will only cause more pain and mourning – for us and God. Be patient. We will be back in our building, but only when the lamenting Spirit of God says the time is right, not when others deem it appropriate.
With love and prayers