Reflection for 10/5/20 – as written and delivered by Deacon Angie Allport
The psalms have taken on even greater meaning in these exceptional days of the coronavirus global pandemic. While the context in which Psalm 31 is written may not be the same as our circumstances, it expresses many of the honest emotions of grief and lament that many of us are currently experiencing. Verse 24 alone, “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord”, is one that you may find helpful to meditate on in these days as we wait on the Lord for the strength and courage that we otherwise find difficult to summon.
The psalmist prays, as we do now, for the refuge and fortress of God to protect us and for deliverance from that which is hidden and invisible, but would threaten our very lives. While written as an individual’s prayer, the psalmist inspires our collective prayer for the global community: God, incline your ear to us; rescue us speedily; be a rock of refuge for us; a strong fortress to save us.
In these days of isolation, when we have had to retreat to the fortress of our own homes, may we gain a new understanding of God as our fortress, the place of security and safety we turn to in this time of trial. God is not a fortress that barricades, but strengthens and reinforces, enabling us to look out for our most vulnerable neighbours, near and far – albeit virtually or from a safe distance.
There’ s something refreshingly honest about these prayers of lament which tell God how things really are, and this shows that God is interested in our physical suffering and our bodily wellbeing. That’s important to remember these days. The description of the psalmist’s symptoms is very resonant with our contemporary experience.
Jesus also turned to the psalms for strength and courage when enduring suffering. It is verse 5 of this psalm that Jesus quotes on the cross: ‘into your hand I commit my spirit’. This verse takes on particular poignancy as we face the reality that coronavirus has in leading to the end of life for many of our neighbours, near and far. It is into the hands of God that we entrust them to his eternal keeping.
And how we view our neighbours in these threatening times is brought into sharp focus in verse 11. Some have found it easy to ‘other’ distant neighbours who are thought to be carriers of the virus, holding them in contempt rather than compassion. Or we can find ourselves judging our closer neighbours who are panic buying important goods, while failing to understand the fear that motivated them. When the virus reached the UK, some of us became an ‘object of dread’ even for our closest friends – maybe even an object of dread for ourselves as we feared meeting others and infecting them.
Yet, Christian Aid Week has always been about how we can be good global neighbours. Asking ourselves how we can extend the love that never fails to our neighbours near and far has never been more important than it is this year. When our own hands and the hands of others have become something of a threat, and when many are no longer experiencing the reassuring touch of a hand on a shoulder, or no longer being comforted by the embrace of a hug, the references to hands in verses 5, 8 and 15 are particularly poignant. It feels particularly apt to pray, with the trust of the psalmist, that our times are in God’s hands, and for deliverance from hands that might harm us, including our own.
As we wash our hands more carefully and more often, we can pray to God to hold in his care all those we have held hands with, carried and hugged. We can also pray for those who we have never had the opportunity to embrace physically, but who we have reached out to with generous hands, giving what we could during many previous Christian Aid Weeks. And we can give thanks for all the hands that have made soup for church lunches, poured cups of tea and coffee, made toast for Big Brekkies, put up posters and bunting advertising events, sorted books and art for sale, and, of course, counted and returned the money collected. Christian Aid thanks God for the hands that have put love into action.
The world’s poorest people are the most vulnerable in the current crisis. They are less resilient, have less access to healthcare and will be less able to weather the economic impact. Christian Aid will continue to stand with them through this crisis and will be with them afterwards. Now more than ever, we need to share our love for our vulnerable neighbours by giving. This can be done online via their website, details of which can be found on the service sheet.
The promises of the gospel reading are often offered as hope and reassurance at times of bereavement and will have a resonance for those who have lost loved ones in recent weeks and months, whether or not as a direct consequence of coronavirus. The words of Jesus are a challenge and inspiration for this exceptional Christian Aid Week. His words of comfort: ‘do not let your hearts be troubled’ are spoken to the disciples who have good reason to have troubled hearts. He says these words at the last supper, just after he has washed their feet with his own hands, talked of his betrayal, of Peter’s denial, and his imminent departure. These are words of comfort offered for unsettling times and are also worth meditating on in today’s unsettling times.
With coronavirus resulting in many of us spending much more time in our houses, the spaciousness of the Father’s house, with many dwelling places, may sound appealing, particularly to those struggling to find their own space. ‘Dwelling place’ isn’t a term that we often use these days to describe the places where we live, but in this time of forced isolation, our homes have become places to dwell more than we may have ever known before. Jesus uses the word ‘dwell’ again when he talks of the Father who dwells in him. And in these days when our church buildings have had to remain empty and closed, we are presented with the possibility of gaining a deeper understanding of what it is to dwell in the Father’s presence and to know what it is to have God’s Spirit dwell in us.
While many are turning to mindfulness and meditation in these anxious times, this gospel also offers us the invitation to spend time dwelling in the presence of God, and to not let our hearts be troubled. For those who can find the space, our homes can become a dwelling place for spiritual retreat. And when we are finally able to leave our homes, we can still carry this dwelling place in our hearts wherever we go.
The gospels remind us how Jesus frequently rose early in the morning to take the time to abide with, and in, God. Maybe it is this dwelling with the Father that Jesus is referring to when he talks of doing the ‘works that I do’, along with healing, ministering and speaking truth to power. This time to dwell with the Father is the source of all his speaking and doing in the world. May we also take strength from our time with God as we consider what we can do in response to these exceptional times.
The honesty of Thomas in verse 5, a prelude to his honesty after missing the resurrection appearance, is an honesty to be welcomed in these difficult times. We share his uncertainty as we don’t know what lies ahead. Coronavirus has disrupted all routine and has many of us also saying: ‘we don’t know the way’. Thomas’s confusion invites us all to be honest in prayer before God, and to be honest with each other, as we seek to follow Jesus in these exceptional times.
At some point, perhaps not quite yet, we too need to face up to the honest questions that the response to coronavirus prompts us to ask – questions such as how we can re-imagine and re-create a world where no one dies of preventable diseases that we already have vaccinations for and medicines to treat. Why are there still more than 7,500 children under 5 dying every day from such diseases? These questions take on a greater resonance this Christian Aid Week.
In response to their confusion, Jesus’ response: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life,’ also takes on new meaning through the lens of the coronavirus. How precious life has become when we have come so close to our human frailty and vulnerability. What are the new truths that we need to face up to now that coronavirus has shone a light on the weakness and cracks in our economic systems? What is the new way we can all walk together to ensure fullness of life for everyone?
The gospel passage concludes with the call to action being encouraged in what has now become a digital Christian Aid Week – a call to prayer. Right in the middle of the last supper, Jesus encourages the disciples to ask him for anything and he’ll do it. He repeats his offer that he will do whatever you ask in his name. These are hard words to reconcile with the prayers that have seemingly gone unanswered in these difficult days. And they may have been difficult for the disciples to accept in the events that were to follow in the days to come. Yet these are the words Jesus wants his followers to remember when he’s no longer with them. He wants them to come to him, as he does the Father, with every cause, concern and request, even if they can no longer see him or be with him in person. These are words of hope and promise of connection for us all and always, but particularly in these days when we are so separate, but never alone. Physical absence and separation do not mean abandonment, and by entering into the dwelling place of God in prayer, he brings us back to the way, the truth and the life, again and again.