Yesterday, Time published an article by NT Wright on how we as Christians are not given answers as to the meaning of what is happening, but we are given the practice of lament. While I usually agree with much of what Bishop Wright says as he has been a profound influence on me, there has probably been no book, chapter, or article that I have agreed with him as much as this article. At the heart of it, his words express the experience of my faith that has been lived out after being repeatedly stung by the power of death and coming to a sense of near total social isolation. In many ways, my life has been an intensive form of the experience of the fear, anxiety, mourning, and loneliness that so many others are feeling right now.
In the life lived under the oppression of the dark, lingering, ever-persistent emotions that crises and tragedies create, the pain that emerged seem to contradict ever answer and explanation I attempted to formulate as to why what happened happened. In that place, lament was the only the action, the only means of grace that could sustain my faith when nothing else could take that depth of the pain away. Lament offers no answers, but calls forth an honesty to God that beckons forth a faith and hope that God will turn our weeping now into celebration tomorrow. It is there in that place, where all the intellectual explanations and answers for the tragedies of life will seem like straw, where such explanations feel like Job’s friends trying to console Job, that we can begin to discover a new vision and understanding about God and our lives, much as Job heard God by his hear and saw God with his eyes (Job 42.5). Lament doesn’t gives us an explanation, but it offers us a place to rediscover what has either been forgotten and seemed foggy due to the pain and to find something new that had never come to our hearts and minds.
As I echo deeply with Wright wisely reminds us of, I want to add lay one thing on top of what he said. For the Church, the threats of death and tribulation, whether they be from other people or from natural causes, presents an opportunity for the Church to discover its vocation and an opportunity to bring forth the message of the Gospel in ways previously unimagined.
Acts 8.1 speaks of the scattering of most of the believers, except the apostles, from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria. The threats to life and well-being presented a challenge that these believers faced with leaving their homes. While some might be inclined to see this as an act of cowardice, what is described then in Acts 8.4 reveals the blessing that happen as a result of the tribulation: these scattered believers began preaching the Gospel elsewhere, such as Philip, who was one of the seven chosen to serve in Acts 6.5, who preached the Gospel in Samaria (Acts 8.4-13), the Ethiopian Eunuch (8.26-29), and to various towns until he finally arrives in Caesarea (8.40). It was there in Caesarea that a man named Cornelius that an angel of God directed him to send for the apostle Peter (10.1-33), who had a vision of God calling him to eat what was unclean (10.9-16) that served as a revelation for Peter to understand the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles (10.34-48). While we don’t have a direct connection between Philip and Cornelius, their common location of Caesaraea certainly demonstrates that the persecution of the early believers lead to the spread of the Gospel to the city where it would be revealed to Peter that the Gentiles are also cleansed by faith and recipients of the Holy Spirit. The point being is that tragedy and tribulation are also times for the Spirit to lead us into new vocations, ministries, and activites.
An image to help understand our response as Christians to the Coronavirus is that of lament as we are scattered into exile. To be clear, we aren’t scattered into an exile away from our homes like the early disciples, but we are scattered from our churches, communities, and friends in a way that many people are perhaps barely familiar with. We are scattered because the threats of death have been uttered with power in the spread of COVID-19. In its here, in this place, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ call for us to bear our cross and not shrink away, but to consider how we are to be agents of God’s blessing and shalom as the curse of the illness spread and afterwards.
In 1755, the city of Lisbon was the site of one what was one of the deadlist earthquakes in European history at that time, if not the deadliest, that would go on to set the intellectual questions about God, the world, and suffering that would help define and influence the following centuries. There, the theological response of Christians was unhelpful to the rest of European world. Leibniz’s “best of all worlds,” formulated at the begnning of the 18th century, was derisively parodied by the character Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide. By contrast John Wesley said in “Some Serious Thoughts Occasioned by the Late Earthquake at Lisbon:”
And what shall we say of the late accounts from Portugal? That some thou sand houses, and many thousand persons, are no more! that a fair city is now in ruinous heaps! Is there indeed a God that judges the world? And is he now making inquisition for blood? If so, it is not surprising, he should begin there, where so much blood has been poured on the ground like water! where so many brave men have been murdered, in the most base and cowardly as well as barbarous manner, almost every day, as well as every night, while none regarded or laid it to heart.
Neither of these answers were satisfactory to the society of the European Enlightenment. Furthermore, neither of these answers really emerge from a full understanding of the Scriptural narrative. Leibniz’s optimism diminishes the need for redemption, risking minimizing it to simply God’s attempt to maximize goodness rather than a recognition that the world is not as it should be and that crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the way that a world that has strayed from God’s purposes will be restored. Meanwhile, Wesley’s consideration of judgment, which he admittedly hedges on a little bit, overlooks that God sends prophets to speak of His judgment before it happens. Post hoc reasoning does not reliably reveal the will of God as much as it reveals our own struggles. As Wesley was a man who lived in constant fear of judgment for himself, he himself perhaps projected that fear of judgment as an explaination for the Lisbon earthquake.
While it is perhaps premature to say now, the Coronavirus crisis may be the catalyst for the Church to springboard to a fresh theology, a fresh ecclesiology, a fress evangelism, and a fresh philosophy. But that will come not because we try to reframe the present tragedy into a present good, but because we mourt lament in the midst of our present exile caused by the scattering caused by present tribulation, we may in the future discover afresh parts of God’s Gospel as made known to us in the story of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that we can bring to bear for the future hope of life in our world, to transform the world through the One in whom new creation has been inaugurated.
To conclude, while we can not come to some God’s eye view that explains the theological and existential why’s of the Coronavirus, perhaps we can may be able to see and undrestand in the midst of everything the convergance of various strands that testify to the hand of God at work to face and overcome evil in the present form, including through the Body of Christ here on the earth.