Pennies from Heaven?

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The return of lockdown restrictions across much of the country occasioned by increasing infections recorded have once again focused our attention of the reality of uncertainty. This uncertainty is not wholly unexpected as politicians and medical scientists warned that a second wave of the pandemic would occur in the winter months. 

The timing of the second wave is earlier than expected raising questions whether social policy has contributed directly to both the timing and extent of the virus spread. What makes the second wave so damaging is that any recovery from the period of ‘unlockdown’ is now under threat. Businesses claim that this second period of restriction undermines those early recoveries, creates instability and damages what is only a fragile confidence. The ‘new normal’ appears to be one of settled uncertainty and makes even simple planning difficult and problematic.

The effects of the pandemic on employment and prosperity are obvious and real and even though developed studies on the scale and seriousness of mental health damage remain outstanding, few doubt that the consequences will be profound and long lasting. What has marked out this particular pandemic challenge is that we are not accustomed to the sort of deprivations seen not since the second world war. In western Europe, we have become immune to living with a fragility which our sisters and brothers in other parts of the world take for granted. 

For the church, the challenges are little different from other parts of society – the loss of economy, supporters, morale and perhaps crucially, activity and gathering. When a great deal of our identity has subsisted in the things we do, the challenge of identity becomes acute. Early indications suggest that some ministers and some churches, deprived of key tasks, have struggled to re-identify or sustain a vision of ministry that is empowering.

The question I wish to address in this paper in whether there are examples in Scripture which might model existence and purpose that can sustain us in a time of deprivation. I will briefly consider some key events and examine whether the understandable desire for prediction and knowing is ultimately a cul de sac and that lessons which centre on waiting and listening will enable a better doing in due course.

Holy Scripture is replete with examples of piety couched in threat-plea-salvation language (often juxtaposed in order) and concept. The Psalmist (Psalm 64:1f) for example called upon God to hear and then act in the face of enemies; prophets such as Elijah became the agents of delivery often secured in the face of enormous obstacles (1 Kings 17:7f). Even the kings, often the cause of trouble not their resolution, occasionally recognized their dependence on God in the face of challenge (2 Chron. 20:12). The context of viral threat, the deprivation of liberties we have taken for granted and the loss of opportunity and employment provide parallels to these stories of threat and challenge.

The threats of plague and pestilence are well known in Scripture. In the exodus story wasting sickness came directly from God. This is not the first instance pestilence came as a judgment – Pharaoh felt the consequences of Abram’s deceit because of Sarai. This ‘misplaced’ judgement focuses less on the object of the judgement than the offense of transgressing divine command and law. What appears to be indiscriminate, unreasonable even, misses the point that the story is about intimate connection between God and law, woven into the fabric of creation. A breach of the law is an offense against God regardless where fault lies.

But there are other stories in Scripture which need to sit centre stage at this time and invite the church to re-learn patterns and rhythms which have guided the church in times past and might do so again. The reality of pestilence in the psalms is the threat inviting petition and deliverance. But the fowler’s snare and deadly pestilence are no match for Yahweh’s salvation if the faithful make the Most High a dwelling (Psalm 91).

The narratives which provide the most obvious base from which to work are the seminal events in the Old Testament. The exodus-desert experience and the exile-prisoner stories witness to the same experience of challenge and threat. Both also describe a new engagement with God and a re-orientation of accepted patterns and understanding. In both stories, whether historically contemporaneous with the ‘events’ or not, there are explicit promises indicating a specific outcome but also more general commands which suggest responding to the challenge with faithfulness and no more is entirely legitimate. Even when this pattern is not uniform it is broadly consistent suggesting the ‘answers’ are less about solutions so much as faithful response.

The exodus story bears the marks of an epic drama from the first encounter of Moses with God and reluctance to do much more than tend the flocks to the moment of recognition he would not see the longed-for promised land. Spanning much of the early books of the Old Testament describes how the Hebrews are formed into a nation. The threat of Pharaoh gives way to a new threat which is learning to be faithful in the desert space. This period of aridity is the time of law giving. The contrast between the clear landscape of legal boundary and a more fraught life of deprivation is suggestive. 

The inhospitable desert becomes the context therefore for the formation the law demands. There is challenge inherent to both: the physical environment is brutal and harsh, the demands of the law no less taxing. One provides a context, the other a means by which to navigate within it.

The exile also involves a journey and dislocation. This time from Jerusalem to Babylon. For some this was a period of imprisonment, for others there was significant economic opportunity. Nonetheless the God-fearers found in the dislocation the bitter experience of being separate from the promised land. ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’ (Psalm 137:4) was their lament- away from Zion, apart from God their conviction.

The shift in which God was encountered away from the promised land was seminal. This new experience of God opened the way for faith to express itself, liberated from location even when the land remained a promise and a return a firm expectation. This discovery (witness the visions of Ezekiel by the Kebar river) was less a theological paradigm shift – Yahweh had long been worshipped as the God of the heavens and the earth but it lifted the spatial locus of God away from one particular piece of land and suggested there was not one single lens through which the Lord was revealed and made known.

In the New Testament we might cite the experience of Paul relayed to us in 2 Corinthians 12:1f or the apostle languishing in a Roman jail but full of resurrection hope and confidence (Phil. 3:10). Both of these show that the context does not constrict a faith which cannot see the end point but invites faith and trust. Faith is shaped by the context but is not eroded by it.

How do these observations impact us today? It is easy to try to discover a moral or theological purpose in the events around us: what does this mean or what is God teaching? Although understandable, they are probably the wrong questions to ask. Behind faith’s expression, the idea that God is directing events as might some divine chess player, is erroneous. The experience of the exodus and of exile suggests that there is a great deal to be learned and that the art of watchful reflection renders answers that are less about solutions so much as directions, how to remain faithful when life is squeezed and challenging.

The church shares in the deprivations experienced across society at present. Worship is restricted indoors, social gatherings problematic and for ministers, much of the face to face contact whether in crisis situations or more generally, extremely difficult to sustain. A great deal of ministry has been restricted or diminished so that disorientation and uncertainty are real challenges. And yet within that, there has been the reorientation of worship and mission on-line and as we approach Christmas a creativity around the use of carols and winter-tide celebration suggesting adaptation is more natural and instinctive than we might have supposed.

In the New Testament the witness of St Paul was that he did not know the ‘distant scene’ but knew he must be faithful to the very end. This resolve was not simply clinging to a creed which had no expression shaped by immediate events. It was rather about re-learning and discovering new things in the infinite mercies of God. The opportunities to share Christ with the whole prison guard were not just happy coincidences, but because Paul discovered a purpose within the situation if less clear what the end might involve. Is there an extent to which God calls us to continuous uncomfortability because from within this pressure, life appears? St Paul held the reality of the cross and resurrection together in his letter to the Corinthian Christians precisely because when death is at work, there is resurrection life too (2 Cor. 4:12).

Learning to understand what is occurring around and within us invites a patient waiting which is at odds with high speed life and progress. It allows context to open new avenues for reflection about where purpose is discovered rather than reasons for something occurring. Ultimately it calls us all, disciples and ministers alike to be tethered to the good ways of God, not to lose heart and to live with what the Church needs to learn even if this feels like pennies from heaven and only a few of them.

+Andrew Bangor

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