Like the Romans in 1st century Palestine, the Covid virus is nasty, cruel, all-pervading, and has killed a lot of people. Our hearts go out to those who have lost friends or relatives, to those sick with the virus, and to many more feeling vulnerable and frightened. This post is not in any way intended to be insensitive or superficial, but a discussion earlier today made me begin to wonder what grains of comfort we might find in the midst of this crisis. It’s an ill wind blows nobody any good, they say. So might there be some positives for those with a mind to look for them? The more I think about it, I can see the potential for appreciation of the more positive side-effects of these disastrous times.
I can become thankful. I know that for extraverts this is a highly difficult time, but I’m actually quite enjoying it as a introvert. I’m thankful that, courtesy of the C of E, I have a lovely roomy house in which to be locked up, with a lovely garden in a tree-lined street. I give thanks for the technology which can allow me to communicate with others, but then put them on mute, and for a freezer full of food which needs eating up. Little things which I have always taken for granted now become opportunities to give thanks to God.
I can become prayerful. The other side of all this, of course, is that so many people don’t have any of those things for which to be thankful. I know that I am pretty privileged, but that fact can encourage my prayers for those who aren’t, like that bit we often tag on the end of our grace at meals about God making us mindful of the needs of others. So my heart goes out to those in accommodation they hate, or none; with people they don’t get on with, or even those who might harm them; those struggling without income and worried about food. Such people have always been there, but today I am much more aware of them.
I can read and study. Christians often have the mindset of going to church once a week ‘to be fed’. Whilst church leaders are working with technology to make virtual worship and teaching available, and climbing an almost vertical learning curve, what a glorious opportunity for Christians to get their Bibles off their shelves and just spend time reading and praying. Biblical literacy is at an all-time low in our nation, and a weekly dose of ‘a thought I had while I was reading the gospel for today’ will never breed biblically confident disciples. There are all kinds of resources out there for individual Bible Study, and all kinds of blogs and podcasts like this one which can help us engage with Scripture on our own or in small virtual groups.
I can be a good neighbour. I can remember a speaker once asking what was the next stop on from discipleship. The expected answer came, of course – Leadership. But the speaker disagreed: the next step for good disciples is to become good citizens. Citizenship is a much neglected subject in our preaching, yet a vital ingredient in NT discipleship. This current crisis is a wonderful opportunity to be even better neighbours, even better members of our local communities, even if we have to do it down the phone. Roman Emperor Julian wrote in the 4th century complaining that ‘it is a disgrace that . . . the impious Galilaeans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well.’ Elsewhere he urged that the Roman Empire should copy what the Christians were doing in terms of social services. Now’s our chance!
I can work better. Whilst I have plenty to do, it is interesting to notice how my working life is changing. I’m actually stopping for lunch, rather than eating a sandwich at my desk in the office while keeping going. I’m spending time each day on that cross-trainer which I had previously used for hanging towels on. I’m being forced to become a learner as well as a teacher, and I’m being encouraged to rethink all I thought I knew about how to teach. Paradoxically I’m finding myself less likely to pop into my study during the evening just to do something or other for 10 minutes: when my working day ends, the study door closes.
I can imagine a different future. When our world is rocked our natural desire is to get things back to normal as soon as possible, and the broadcasting of virtual services is a manifestation of this: how can we keep the show on the road as near as possible to the way we used to do it? That is all good, and we need to do that, but I’m really hoping that in some ways Church won’t return to normal. Perhaps Covid can challenge our idolatry of our buildings, our passive and unthinking going-through-the-motions services, our dependence on the paid professionals, and our desire to be fed rather than to feed ourselves. Perhaps we are learning to be church instead of going to church.
I’m finding myself praying about Covid a lot, of course – aren’t we all? But I tend not to pray ‘Lord, take this away and help us all to resume normal services as soon as possible’. Instead I’m praying that we will learn quickly whatever it is that God is wanting to teach us through this time of the shaking of the foundations.
This passage is perhaps the most famous from the prophecy of Ezekiel, and is a very visual and evocative text. Ezekiel is one of the exiles in Babylon, and has seen everything familiar collapse. The Temple is not just locked up: it has been razed to the ground. Many people have died, and the nation is locked in, not in their own homes but as prisoners of a foreign power far from home.
From a literary point of view this passage is a mash-up of two different literary genres, both of which can speak to us in our current exile from normal life. First of all there is ‘communal lament’ of the kind often found in the more miserable Psalms. ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off’ cry the people, as God’s people have so often done in times of tragedy. The term ‘bones’ is important: it refers to the very deepest, most hidden bits of our being. We know what it feels like to be chilled to the bone. It’s as though we’ll never ever get warm again. And when George Thorogood and the Destroyers sang that they were ‘Bad to the bone’ we understood that they were pretty much beyond redemption. And on a more positive note, when Adam meets Eve for the first time he realises that she is ‘bone of my bones’, in other words a partner in the deepest kind of union possible. In their time of exile Israel cried out in lament, and the Bible as always is not at all hesitant in recognising or recording their agony. It’s not a sin to feel despair.
But then there is also a second genre, a prophetic oracle of deliverance. The prophet answers the cry of the people with a response straight from the heart of God. This is what he intends to do about it. Prophets can have a reputation for being a bit miserable at times – ‘prophets of doom’ and all that – but here the message is one of good news.
Ezekiel answers the people’s agonised feelings by picking up the picture they have used – that of bones. You can’t get much more dead than the picture at the start of this passage. Those who like me love their weekly dose of Casualty will be used to seeing dead bodies revived through CPR and defibrillators, but I’ve never seen a skeleton revived. But Ezekiel shows them the impossible, as the bones join together, as they are clothed with flesh, and as the breath or Spirit of God enters them. No matter how dead you can get, says Ezekiel, you’re never beyond God’s ability to bring new life.
It’s as though Ezekiel listens to the people’s situation, and their feelings about it, and then uses that same image to bring hope. So what might God want to say to us in these unique times? How might a modern-day prophet use the images of plague, isolation, fear, loneliness and sickness to speak to us of God’s plans and purposes? Maybe that’s something worth thinking about during this period when we perhaps have more time on our hands than usual. What scriptural images can speak into our lament with prophetic hope?
Now that gatherings for public worship have been suspended in the UK and other places, the Diocese of Lincoln is continuing its ‘Homilies Project’ as a series of podcasts. Various people from the diocese have written homilies, based around the Gospel set for each Sunday, and these will be turned into audio podcasts and put online both on the diocesan website (https://www.lincoln.anglican.org/) and here on my blog. I can’t help you with bread and wine, I’m afraid, but I can share some teaching from the Word. So watch this space for the homilies, which I will put up each Saturday. Please share – there are a lot of lonely people out there who are really going to miss some biblical input. Thanks!
Who do you care for in a way that is ‘motherly’?
Who cares for you in this tender warm way?
Is there anything else from the passage not already discussed that speaks to you? What is it?
What will you do this week in your Monday-to-Saturday ministry in response to what you have heard today? #everydayfaith
Prayer Spend some time in prayer, responding to what you have heard today and listening to what God might be saying to you.