Tomorrow sees the end of the strangest, and in many ways the saddest, year of my life (and I imagine I’m not alone in that). Reading God and the Pandemic has just given me the vocabulary to describe it: it has been a year of lament. Here are the thoughts that crystallised for me as I read this short book.*
A year of loss and grief
I’m grateful that I didn’t lose any friends or family to coronavirus, although I know plenty of people who did. But I had another kind of significant loss this year and spent several months in what I can only describe as grief. I had no energy and often felt physically ill. This particular grief in turn exposed other, long-buried griefs stretching back to childhood and I found myself grieving all of them all at once.
At the same time, I watched both of my daughters struggle not just with the usual nightmare of adolescence, which is frankly bad enough, but the insidious and multi-faceted theft of their wellbeing through lockdown. In subtle ways that were particular to each of them they were – I say with baffled fury – robbed. I grieve for all the losses they suffered – and I suppose I also grieve the loss of power a parent has to make everything better for their children when they are younger, as opposed to the watching in agony that you seem to have to do instead when they are teenagers.
It wasn’t uniformly awful. In other ways, 2020 has been an incredible year. I still have the best job in the world with London Cycling Campaign, by the way, and it’s been eye-popping to see how the pandemic has brought about a tipping point in national and local governments’ approach to motor traffic. The balance is finally shifting away from vehicles in favour of people. As pop-up bike lanes and trial low traffic neighbourhoods are rolled out, the reign of King Car is starting to look wobbly. Being part of this work in London, of ‘building back better’, is a huge privilege.
There are two huge lessons that I’m taking from God and the Pandemic – lament, and something along the lines of build back better.
Don’t explain. Don’t preach. Just lament
Tom Wright is very clear that it’s not the job of the church to explain ‘what God is saying’ by this disaster. Likewise, we don’t need to cleverly justify how God can on the one hand be loving and sovereign and on the other preside over millions of deaths and global hardship. Nor should we be using it as a call to repentance or to faith – both calls have existed with unchanging urgency for two millennia. One thing we should be doing, howver, is lamenting.
He writes about Job in the Old Testament, facing massive and undeserved hardship, with no clue about the cosmic conflict that brought it about. Job lamented, good and proper. He cried and complained and stamped his feet and made his case to God, and in the end, God commended him for it. This, says Wright, is what we should do. It’s not about finding a reason for the situation, or trying to understand the nature of evil, or trying stoically to see this tragic situation as somehow the best thing that could happen. It’s about complaining and crying out and pointing out the injustice – to God. (I suppose directing it at God shows an inherent trust in his goodness. If we didn’t expect God to be good and just, we wouldn’t complain to him when bad stuff happens). A third of the psalms, he says, are laments – and some of them don’t even have happy endings.
If Jesus wept…
Then Wright writes about Jesus, weeping at the tomb of Lazarus. Jesus wept. And so should we. Never mind that Lazarus is about to be raised from the dead, or even that we believe we all will be raised from the dead and death itself destroyed. Right now, death is still heart breaking. It is loss and separation and grief. We are told to ‘mourn with those who mourn’ because you can’t have love without lament. To lament is to show that we loved.
Why do I find Tom Wright’s words on lament so refreshing? I think it’s because in my own corner of Christian culture, there isn’t much talk of lamenting. Praise and worship and joy are not in short supply and that’s good, a reflection of the truth of who God is. But we don’t lament much. No one stands at the front of my church on a Sunday morning and says ‘Let’s remember all the really crap horrible things that happened to us this week. Lift up your voices to God in a shout of grief and anger about the injustice of it all. Let him have it!’
And I’m not saying that anyone should. But in private, sometimes, it’s surely healthy to do exactly that. Shout, cry, stamp your feet. Let him have it. Don’t use empty worship or false spirituality to mask your pain. Trust God’s goodness enough to tell him exactly how you feel. Invite him into it.
The opposite of lament is not praise but denial. Denial and avoidance, I learnt this year, are deadly. Pretend that your hurt and pain don’t exist, sweep them under the carpet of your soul, and out will seep an invisible, toxic fog that envelops you and everyone you love. Don’t do it. Especially don’t do it and then come and sing songs in church on a Sunday like everything is fine. That’s play acting, hypocrisy, and Jesus had not-nice things to say on the subject involving whitewashed tombs and dead men’s bones.
Groaning without words
Then Wright talks about lamenting as prayer. He points out all the groaning in Romans Chapter 8. (There’s a lot of groaning in Romans 8, which is actually quite surprising when you think about it, because traditionally it’s the victorious ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God!’ chapter.) In Romans 8, creation and believers groan as they wait for redemption. And then there’s this: ‘We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Holy Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.’
My understanding is that as we lament and invite God into our lamenting, he turns those wordless groans into prayers that are understood by the heart of God. He is doing stuff through our tears. That might be stuff that changes us or the world around us or, most likely, both.
In my months of grief this year I made a conscious effort to invite Jesus in. As I sobbed my way through whatever pain surfaced, I felt he was with me, deep underground with me in my innermost being, walking with me alongside a series of subterranean lakes, each one representing a different grief, each one full of tears. At the time it felt endless. How could grieving take so long and produce so much snot?! But picturing him being with me in my sadness, feeling it too, seeing my tears, gradually changed the quality of my grief. It lost its bitterness. He somehow made the salt water sweet. Pain that is not mixed up with resentment or shame, and is shared by an understanding friend, can actually be a beautiful thing. It can become sweet.
I began to think the subterranean lakes might represent more than just grief – maybe a resource for the future, like an aquifer supplying a small town. Maybe my wordless groans will one day make good stuff happen for people other than myself.
Build back better
I’m calling the other point that Tom Wright gets across brilliantly, ‘build back better’. (I don’t think he actually says that anywhere in the book but bear with me.)
I’m not clever enough to understand Tom Wright’s books on the whole. As for the long books published under the name of Reverend T. Wright, forget it. I start them, I read the same passage three times, I underline some bits, but I generally never finish them. However, I’ve listened to several of his talks while doing long boring home decorating tasks, and over the years, I’ve started to grasp one of the main points of his teaching.
Here it is, in my own words:
Following Jesus is not about receiving a get-into-heaven-free ticket, to cash in when you die, so you can waft around heaven for all eternity. It is about becoming part of his kingdom, here and now, and to play your part in a massive build-back-better project so that God’s ‘will is done, on Earth as it is in heaven’ – and where we will one day see his glory cover the Earth as the waters cover the sea, evil and injustice eradicated and creation fully restored.
And as I’ve grasped that, I’ve found it massively exciting.
The churches I’ve belonged to have tended to focus on one part of God’s restoration project – restoring people’s spiritual relationship with God – which is vital, but it’s not the whole picture. If Wright is right, we are called to be part of restoring everything.
Wright points out that the early Christians’ response to famines, pandemics and the like was to get stuck in fearlessly and make a difference. Famously, it was the Christians in Rome who cared for (and died with) the city’s plague victims when everyone else had legged it to the hills. Over time, not only did these believers help people, but they changed the mindset and the culture around them. They made it better. It was Christians, then churches and monasteries, who laid the foundations for our modern national health services.**
God works together with those who love him
In God and the Pandemic, he points to every Christian’s favourite Bible verse, Romans 8:28. We’ve all got used to hearing ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him’. But Wright suggest that a lesser-used translation is more accurate (which has been in the text notes of the New International Version forever, apparently). It reads:
‘in all things God works together with those who love him to bring about what is good’.Romans 8:28, NIV text note
This is about us humans, being transformed to become more and more like Jesus, motivated by his love, working together with him to make ‘all things’ good.
This is why I am filled with rage by the injustice of rampant, dangerous motor traffic dominating our streets and blighting the lives of the vulnerable. I feel it because he feels it. He wants goodness and justice in every dimension of our lives, and the dimension he has given me to care about happens to be streets. This is why, when I walk around the streets in my neighbourhood that have recently been miraculously transformed by a few planters keeping out the through traffic, and see families cycling and kids playing and hear birds singing, I am filled with stupid amounts of joy. This is one dimension of his restoration project unfolding before my very eyes – and I get to play a part in it.
So there we have it. How do we respond to a pandemic, or to anything that is wrong with this world? Mourn, cry, grieve, groan wordlessly before God – then throw yourself into making whatever difference you can. You won’t be doing it on your own.
*written in the first lockdown (I think he makes books as effortlessly as most people make omelettes and yet they’re all brilliant).
** I didn’t appreciate how much Christianity has been foundational to what we now consider an entirely secular modern worldview until I read Dominion by Tom Holland (or most of it) – highly recommended.