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What in the World has Happened?: A Reflection by John P. Downey

The Covid-19 Pandemic has disrupted life throughout the world like nothing else has in decades. Few corners of the earth have been spared, and perhaps, in the end, none will be. Certainly life in most aspects has been disrupted in Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania, and this disruption has deeply affected the Church, including the Episcopal Church in our region. It is only human to ask, “What in the world has happened?’

The question reaches beyond epidemiology into politics, economics, social justice, and the environment. But unless one is completely secularized (and there are many such people), the question probes even further. As Brueggemann puts it, “in the midst of our felt jeopardy and our hope for relief, our imagination does indeed range beyond the immediate to larger, deeper, wonderments.” (p.16 – page numbers refer to items found in Further Reading at the end of the paper).

What kind of God would allow this to happen – or maybe even cause it to happen? This is the “wonderment” not only of the scornful, but of the faithful. What meaning can be made from it? What purpose can be found in it? How is God with us now? How is God leading us into whatever is coming next?  The way we engage such questions in this pandemic time will likely shape us for many years to come – and that will in turn affect the life and mission of the Church in our congregations and communities.

When we turn to the Scriptures, we find various perspectives on God, the world, and how they relate. These may seem to contradict each other, but they also may be viewed as creative tensions which arise from our limited capacity to understand. In the Hebrew Scriptures we find the Deuteronomist view (actions have consequences, the righteous are blessed and the unrighteous are cursed), and the Wisdom perspective (life is random, often unfair, and, in the end we all die). Brueggemann identifies a third, the Exodus pattern of God’s power bringing about God’s purposes. (p.5).

Each of these provides a distinct way of responding to the question, “What in the world has happened?”  Are we suffering the consequences of somehow violating God’s commandments or the built-in order of creation? Is God’s power working to bring about something new in God’s purposes, even if there is “collateral damage”? Or is God simply beyond our capacity to understand and the way of wisdom is to accept it and figure out how we can best live with it all?

We may be inclined to choose one of these interpretations over the others, or to think we should. But since the Bible contains them all (and no doubt others), perhaps we can also hold them all. Each one might provide insight into certain aspects of the questions the pandemic has stirred, even if none of them adequately covers it fully. We could wish it were simpler, but this may be what we are offered as people of faith.

Prayer is one way our theology comes into focus. In the short books they wrote in the early days of the pandemic, Walter Brueggemann and N.T. Wright both explore lament as the beginning point of prayer for times like these. They consider as well the “groaning” of creation, the Church, and the Holy Spirit, which Paul writes about in Romans 8. Here is a convergence of prayer “too deep for words” as the Spirit prays within us even when we “do not know how to pray as we ought.” Wright holds that this is a key to how God’s power is understood in light of Jesus. (p.44). Lament, even when it is no more than wordless groaning, gives birth to the future God unfolds.

At the end of his book, Brueggemann prays unashamedly, “End the virus!” (p.70). If we were to pray this, or something like it, what would we expect could happen? What understanding of God and God’s relationship to the world do we hold? How is it like the various biblical views?

How do we lament? What would it mean for us to pray, “End the virus?”

This leads on to another place the rubber hits the road for our theology – preaching. How we understand God and God’s relationship with the world is unavoidably present in any preaching which has the ring of authenticity, even if it is not explicitly stated in a particular sermon. A sermon often seeks to locate us in the patterns of the biblical story. Are we in a time like the wilderness wandering, or the Exile, or the Acts of the Apostles? Pope Francis, in his “Urbi et orbi” meditation before a dark, empty, rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square in the worst days of the pandemic in Italy, imagined us in the disciples’ boat during the storm on the Sea of Galilee. What understandings of God inform our use of biblical narratives and imagery in our preaching?

Along with the use of Scripture, preaching is informed by an explicit or implicit theology, including an understanding of the Gospel and its implications. N.T. Wright contends that, since the central moment in history has already happened with the death and resurrection of Jesus, we do not have to over-explore questions of “why?” as in “why did this happen?” or “who is to blame?” Rather we are free to emphasize what are we to do as Spirit-empowered people to serve those most in need at this time. We may find, however, that many among us do have a concern for the “larger, deeper, wonderments” and will want to hear something in sermons about the “why” questions.

What Gospel is proclaimed in our preaching? How do we address questions of “why” and “what”?

Further Reading:

Brueggemann, Walter. Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Anxiety. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2020.

Pope Francis, Urbi et orbi meditation, March 27, 2020. https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2020-03/urbi-et-orbi-pope-coronavirus-prayer-blessing.html

Wright, N.T. God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and its Aftermath. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reflective, 2020.