Apologies for a pretty long and scattered post here. Apologies for many thoughts being half-formed. Apologies for not being able to find anything else to talk about.
The Physical is Back
I think it is fair to say that the current situation is apocalyptic, provided we allow the word to retain its original sense. It isn’t the end of the world, it’s a revelation. That’s what an apocalypse is: an unveiling so that we see things as they really are. The current crisis was not our moment of losing control, but merely the unveiling of the fact that we never had as much control as we thought, that we have always lived subject to all manner of forces beyond our control.
It’s a fascinating in-breaking of the physical in a world that has for the last few years sidelined physical realities, favouring mentally or virtually constructed understandings. For Christians, this means that from now on, when we pray ‘Give us this day our daily bread’, we will be reminded that this is not a) well-meaning but redundant pious thinking, since we were really the ones who provide our own food, nor b) a physical metaphor for the spiritual reality of God providing for our emotional needs. When Jesus told us to pray for bread, he meant bread.
Spiritual > Virtual
In Colossians 2v5, Paul declares himself to present with the Colossians in Spirit, even though he is absent in body. This is worth reflecting on, since it may be our only way of being with each other for a good while. Physical is of course better that virtual, and virtual is better than nothing, but it is the spiritual bond that we have with each other that energises both the physical and the virtual presence that we enjoy. We all share one spirit (Eph. 4v4), and he was making us one even when physically separated long before Zoom meetings.
The Time to Think, and the Time to Act…
This is a great opportunity for the church to reconsider what it does, why it does it, and what it ought to be doing. It would be easy for us to just look for ways in which to do all the same things as we did before, but the moment of crisis may be the moment of renewal, if we are sensitive to what the Spirit is leading us to do. Let’s pray, fast, and earnestly search the Scriptures to consider how this might be an opportunity to cut away any dead wood that lends little to the real work of discipleship. I don’t actually know that would be, but I think this could be the right question. Perhaps we’ll even end up with the same answers, but a tested and proved commitment to them.
And the Time to Stop Obsessing About Time
One of the most humbling aspects of this in my experience has been the way in which this has exposed how much control I presumed I had over my schedule. I would never have contradicted James, the brother of Jesus, in saying: you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ But I only occasionally said ‘God willing’ and meant it, and the more frequent deo volentes or inshallahs were said a little more irony that they ought to have been.
Our inability to plan ought to humble us into considering the sovereignty of God — but considering it as something to fear as much as be comforted by, as it is not a doctrine to underwrite our plans or dreams, but in order that our plans may be sacrificed to whatever the Lord wills. God’s sovereignty is a grave in which to bury our anxieties, but only if we bury our ambitions with them, trusting that he will resurrect whatever is good for us.
Catholicity without Consumerism
The ability to livestream services and ‘meet’ via zoom, etc. certainly makes this whole situation far easier and more bearable than it would have been 200, or even 20 years ago. Let us give thanks to God. But it does give us possibilities that we didn’t have before. Now that I’m not constrained by my body and my geography, why shouldn’t I ‘attend’ a better church than the one I normally go to on a Sunday morning? Why shouldn’t I go to several churches?
The first question is so obviously consumeristic in its mindset that it shouldn’t need answering. We ought to stream the service of the church we go to, where the pastor who knows us, loves us, and prays for us preaches to us and for us. That seems like the obvious way to obey the numerous New Testament commands to honour our leaders (1 Thess. 5v12-13; Heb. 13v7).
The second question deserves a little more thought, and doesn’t necessarily have a one-size-fits-all answer, as there could be different motives. The ability to connect with various churches despite geographical distance could be a great opportunity for us to recover the fact that the local church is only an expression of the global church, that one, holy, catholic, and apostolic community. This could be a wonderful opportunity to churches to remember each other, and enjoy a virtual and spiritual fellowship that they wouldn’t ordinarily. On the other hand, it could be an opportunity to dip in and out between various congregations, ordering à la carte now that we’re free from the prix fixe menu. Working in student ministry, one task we face at the beginning of each academic year is to persuade students to commit to one church, rather than split their time between one on the Sunday morning, one on the Sunday evening, and one for the midweek meeting. Rather than undermining the unity of the churches, it upholds it— all are part of the body of Christ, so all are equally valid. Different churches are not necessary for different spiritual needs or moods. Livestreaming gives us the option to do virtually and without much thought what we would not do physically. Of course motives and reasons vary — not all churches are streaming services, one may have recently moved to a new city and not have joined a church near them yet — but as far as we’re able, I think we ought to continue to live within our bodies, and remain committed to one church.
Let’s Stop Praying Boring Prayers
What ought we to pray in a time like this? That God would strengthen and uphold the NHS staff? Yes. That we would be changed by this and grow more like Christ? Naturally. That we would remember his sovereignty? Of course. That more would come to know Jesus through this? A fine prayer.
But we could also, you know, pray that God would act and end this whole coronavirus situation himself. We can pray for a vaccine, and God may well speed the research such that we have one by winter, but we could also cut out the middleman and just ask him to sort it out. This ought to be stressed because we must hold on to the fact the Lord is God of the physical as well as the spiritual, and can work in the physical world directly, not just through human means. He may choose not to, that’s up to him. But perhaps we don’t get because we don’t ask, and perhaps we don’t ask because we’ve either forgotten that God can act, or we don’t want him to lose face if he doesn’t act as want him to. Neither of them seem like particularly compelling reasons to me. All this to repeat the point made above re. the physical and praying for daily bread.
I hope this will also mean that we stop praying in a boring way. Not all prayers in Scripture are prayed with equal desperation, so it’s not to say that all of ours must now possess an obvious fervour on the verge of tears. Having said that, I’ve prayed a good many prayers that talked as if God were an elderly relative who needed me to check in to make sure he’s got something to do, rather than the one who is more active than I am. Whether we realise it or not, if he doesn’t act, it doesn’t happen. We often pray best when we realise we have no other options.
A good starting point for helping us pray less boring prayers might be the 1662 Book of Common Prayer’s Litany. Its turn of phrase is imaginative, reverent, and memorable; the ground it covers is varied, earthy in one moment and exalted in the next. And surely there are no better times to pray ‘From lightning and tempest; from plague, pestilence, and famine; from battle and murder, and from sudden death, Good Lord, deliver us.’
The Hopes of a Pessimist
I’m adept at painting situations in their bleakest colours, and sometimes I would like to call for others to do the same. This situation is bleak. Zoom and YouTube have mitigated the social and spiritual impact, but I hope the novelty wears off soon. I hope this makes us appreciate more deeply our physical and our sacramental life together. Hopefully this will fill us with a longing for the touch of a brother and sister, and the taste of bread and wine. Real presence is better than memory.* Bonhoeffer put it best: ‘It is by God’s grace that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly around God’s word and sacrament in this world. Not all Christians partake of this grace. The imprisoned, the sick, the lonely who live in the diaspora, the proclaimers of the gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that the visible community is grace.’ (Life Together) This grace has been withheld from us for a little while. May we see it with fresh gratitude if it is given back.
I’m hopeful also that this will be for our own private spiritual benefit. With no commute, we have more time to pray. We may be cut off from each other, but no one is going to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ. How would Moses spend his self-isolation? Probably talking to God face to face as one speaks to a friend (Ex. 33v11).
So I’m hopeful. Hopeful that this testing will turn out to be for the renewal of the church. Hopeful that it will be for our individual renewal as we have more time for earnest solitary prayer. And hopeful that I’ll finally learn French, read Calvin’s Intitutes, improve my guitar playing, record my EP, and write my collection of short stories for children.
* Relax, Zwinglians, it’s mostly a joke.