17 May 2020

A recent survey in the US asked the question “If you had one question to ask God what would it be?” By far the highest response was “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?” The COVID crisis has amplified that question for many.

Walking in Cheam the other day I saw a man with a bright yellow Day Glo jacket on which was emblazoned an arrow saying “Keep away”. Cycling into Box Hill Village I noticed a perhaps well intentioned poster on a house saying “Go Home. Save lives”. In our society with its tradition of an open face, the face mask is commonplace.

It is a novel sensation to be deemed a death threat. We have suddenly all become dangerous. We are all potential carriers of some deadly contagion. We are all fragile and mortal yet the talk is now about death rates, almost as if death is an exotic import into Europe that arrived in January 2020. We are suddenly challenged by the reality of death. We question the sustainability of our society. We worry about our safety nets, be they economic, medical or relational. There is now talk of the “myth of normality” as COVID transports us into a new culture.

This Sunday I want to use our zoom service to reflect more deeply on where is God in this whole crisis? But for the moment here are a few thoughts to get us started!

Jesus’ ministry embraced terrible illnesses, unwanted social isolation, untrustworthy authorities, corrupt religious leaders, economic exploitation and injustice and personal betrayal. And this is where he still meets us- in the midst of a global pandemic as all the wonderful things round us reveal their fragility. He remains as available to us now as he was to those who first encountered him. In Luke 10 the disciples are sent out by Jesus on Mission- a both chaotic and euphoric experience. As they report back on what happens Jesus makes an extraordinary comment- the most important thing, he says, is that they should “rejoice that your names are written in heaven”. What this crisis may well do is produce not just an awakening of community solidarity but an awareness of spiritual priorities.

Horatio Spafford was a prominent Chicago lawyer and Church Elder. In 1871 a great fire devastated the city. In 1873, two years after the fire, the family planned a visit to Europe. Because of re zoning issues in the city following the fire, Spafford stayed behind but his wife Anna and their 4 daughters set sail for Europe on the steamship Ville du Harvre. On November 22nd the ship collided with another vessel and sank in mid Atlantic killing 226 people including the four Spafford children. Anna was rescued. When she reached Liverpool she sent a two word telegram to her husband “Saved Alone” As Horatio sailed for England to join his wife his ship paused over the spot where the tragedy happened.

Spafford wrote a poem at that moment which became a much loved and well known hymn to a tune eventually composed by Philip Bliss.

“When peace like a river attendeth my way; when sorrows like sea billows roll;

Whatever my lot Thou hast taught me to say “It is well It is well with my soul”

In these uncertain and difficult times we are being invited to spiritually pause and take stock. One writer put it this way “Don’t allow the misplaced assumption that life is on pause to obscure the possibility that this could be among the pivotal periods your entire existence. “ In that amazing movie “The Shawshank Redemption” one prisoner says to another, “I guess it comes down to a straight choice: get busy living or get busy dying”. Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life, life in all its fullness”.