John 14:1 – “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
Psalm 121: Redux – Carla Grosch-Miller
I look to the horizon –
What will tomorrow bring?
Today I can scarcely stand.
Who will come to my aid?
How will I survive this?
My eyes are drawn beyond –
beyond the ruins that lay around me,
beyond the deep ache that has taken up
residence within me,
beyond the limits of my capabilities,
the weakness of body and mind.
There I find You.
Your stolid peace immoveable
in the vicissitudes.
Your easy breath unimpeded
by our anxious wrangling.
Your gentle Being implacable,
before, beneath, and beyond.
You at the beginning.
You at the end.
You in the middle.
Always, and everywhere,
Creator and re-creator,
keeper and lover,
shelter and sustainer,
From this time on and forevermore,
I put my trust in You.
It’s hard to know where to begin. Having survived the ‘once in a generation’ divisive debate about Brexit before dealing with the ‘worst in a lifetime’ local flooding, we’re now faced with the ‘once in a 100 year’ pandemic. And as I type these words on a wet Wednesday in Pontypridd, I do so knowing that much will have progressed by the time these words are read by others. Advice and outlooks seem to be changing by the minute…which is perhaps why it’s most important than ever to return to ancient words which were spoken to confused and concerned friends of Jesus as their feet dried, stomachs gurgled and hearts warmed in an upper room in Jerusalem;
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
Do you think the disciples heeded that advice over the following few hours and days? I very much doubt it. I’m sure that it was only in hindsight that Jesus’s friends even began to understand the world-transforming hope that he spoke of that evening. The hope that tells us that nothing – nothing high or low, imaginable or unthinkable, in the present or the future, in life or in death – that absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God made known through Jesus. It’s a hope that shines brightly even in the darkest night. It’s a hope that has seen our foremothers and fathers find goodness, joy and love in times of war, famine, plague and pandemic in the past…and one which might enable us to do the same today. As Dev Patel puts it (when paraphrasing the great Julian of Norwich amongst many others!) in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – ‘Everything will be alright in the end…so if it’s not alright, it’s not yet the end’.
Today, however, everything is not alright. On these shores – and across the world – we are faced with a pandemic of epic proportions. Our ever-incredible health service will be stretched; many vulnerable people will be isolated; and many will die. How, then, might we continue to be a people of good news in the face of such difficulties? We’d be wise to learn from our sisters and brothers down through the centuries…and from those in economically less developed countries today where disease and death are encountered daily…as we ponder this question. How, for example, might we emulate the minister Martin Rinkhart who, midst the horrific conditions of the latest plague to hit his hometown in the 1630s, still served his neighbours and saw God’s loving presence in the world, as witnessed in his hymn ‘Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices’? How indeed. Well, as always, it’s wise to look to Jesus. So let me suggest four things to take into consideration as we step into the next unknown few weeks together…
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served,
but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
As followers of Christ, we are called to follow the example of the servant-saviour. At a time of crisis, this is perhaps all the more significant. Throughout the centuries, Christians have been known for their love, care, service to the sick. Some historians even claim that the Antonine Plague of the second century (which killed up to a quarter of the whole Roman Empire) can be credited with the spread of Christianity as Christians served the sick and offered the belief that the plague was not the work of angry deities but the result of an imperfect creation. In the weeks and months to come, we must be signs of God’s kingdom; must reflect God’s love for the world through acts of service. Already many stories are doing the rounds of amazing acts of kindness and compassion…not just through people of faith, of course…and we can be encouraged and inspired by such acts. So how might we serve? Well that will depend on our age, health, gifts and context but there are things that we can all do – little things as some saint once said! – such as making a phone call or sending a card. Some acts of service will seem small – but from pearls to mustard seeds – God uses the small things to shake the foundations of the world. Other acts might be more sacrificial. One’s thoughts immediately turn to the village of Eyam and the huge sacrifice that the residents of that village made in order to save others – a seventeenth century exemplar of the importance of social distancing. The sacrifices that we will need to make will hardly be so great…but they will be sacrifices nonetheless;
The first sacrifice Christians must make to care for our neighbour [sic] is our convenience,
as we enthusiastically participate in aggressive sanitation measures and social distancing.
This kind of humble care for others is a powerful force.
Lyman Stone, Foreign Policy, March 13 2020
Such thinking takes us to our second lesson from Jesus – the need for self-care;
That evening, after the sun was down, they brought sick and evil-afflicted people to him, the whole city lined up at his door! He cured their sick bodies and tormented spirits…While it was still night, way before dawn, Jesus got up and went out to a secluded spot and prayed…
Here we see Jesus, at the very start of his ministry, demonstrating his understanding of the significance of self-care. Just like today, Jesus was faced with a huge crowd of people who were in need of physical and mental help. Through Jesus, many were healed. And yet, Jesus did not stay up all hours and heal everyone who was brought to his door. Instead, he left that place and spent time resting and reflecting with God. He took care of himself. He carved out time to pray, recuperate, think…and in doing so, he felt emboldened to journey on, sharing with others the good news of the gospel. Just today, I’ve received messages from members who have expressed guilt at self-isolating or taking time from work but guilt is never of God whilst love of self is. Our bodies, our lives are gifts from God and it is when we take care of them with love that we can best share that gift with others. Please take care of yourself – be kind to your self – over the next few weeks and months. It is not selfish but actually selfless. In his teaching on the 10 Commandments, Martin Luther – who was no stranger to the perils of plague – suggested that the command ‘thou shalt not murder’ should be expanded to mean ‘we must not endanger others through negligence or recklessness’. Heeding Government advice/instructions and looking after ourselves at this time is, actually, for the common good.
Let us, then, take care of ourselves. Part of that will include time reading scripture. The following, as the pretentious tattoo on my right-hand wrist attests, is one of my favourite passages;
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ,
if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit,
if any tenderness and compassion,
then make my joy complete by being like-minded,
having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.
Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,
not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
God humbled Godself to become human. What the what?! This, for me, is the great scandal of Christianity – the Earth-shattering truth that speaks of a God who blew Empire and Temple systems apart by demonstrating that God doesn’t love things by excluding them but by uniting with them! For Jesus’ coming categorically revealed what God had been telling us all along – that God seeks solidarity with creation, not separation…and God revealed this in the only way we could understand – by living a human life, dying a human death and rising again in a human body. This is sacred solidarity writ large. And so we are called to service, self-care and solidarity. It’s a shame that it takes global crises to show us that we can’t retreat to our silos or raise the drawbridge of our personal fortresses but rather than we are all interconnected. That all life is mutually interdependent. Just as God took on flesh to stand shoulder to shoulder with us, we are called to stand alongside Jesus and the ill; the isolated and vulnerable, alongside nurses and doctors and wider NHS staff teams, the teachers and police, delivery workers and the unemployed, the refugees, the homeless, the suffering in our street and on the other side of the world. There will be hardships. There will be losses. But we will get through this together. So let us pray for each other, talk with each other, serve and love each other in the strength of the Spirit, following the example of Jesus, and surrounded by the love of God.
So that’s service, self-care, solidarity and…finally…sabbath;
By the seventh day God had finished his work.
On the seventh day he rested from all his work.
God blessed the seventh day.
He made it a Holy Day because on that day he rested from his work,
all the creating God had done.
The concept of Sabbath has been a central part of the Jewish and Christian story for millennia. Whilst scripture offers various justifications for Sabbath rest, the common thread is that God’s creation – humans, flora, fauna – need to rest, to heed Sabbath. By doing so, God’s shalom might infuse all creation. What if, whilst acknowledging the discomfort, anxiety and challenges that face our enforced time of rest, we also might seek God within it. With many aeroplanes grounded, car journeys restricted and factories closed, there have already been signs of a reduction of carbon emissions, an improvement in air quality and a rejuvenation of previously polluted rivers. Might we take this time of enforced rest as an opportunity to spring clean our lives; to declutter the things that stop us from living life in all its fullness; to view it as a time to pray, to cook, to write, to paint, to learn, to listen, sing, watch the birds, read, experiment, reflect, to simply be? Abba Moses, a monk, priest and ‘desert father’ from the fourth century CE is best known for his quote ‘Sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything’. For some of us that will sound more terrifying/foolish than for others but whether from monks, nuns, prisoners or hostages, there are countless examples of women and men who have found God in isolation. And that was without central heating, a duvet and a large glass of pinot noir! So why don’t we make the most out of this enforced Sabbath and discover how God might meet us there.
Service. Self-care. Solidarity. Sabbath.
These next few weeks and months are going to test all of us to the limit and, perhaps, beyond. Yet if we follow the example of Jesus, heed the advice of the scientists, and share this journey together, then – by God’s grace – we will come through this period grasping more firmly than ever the belief that nothing – nothing high or low, imaginable or unthinkable, in the present or the future, in life or in death – that absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God made known through Jesus the Christ.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus said. “Believe in God, believe also in me.”
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
The rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.