There’s no shortage of cataclysmic, world-shattering disasters in scripture – particularly in the Old Testament (the New Testament just is cataclysmic and worldshattering). Floods, famine, pestilence, invasion, exile as well as the smaller but equally disruptive and traumatising personal disasters to which all humans are subject – childlessness, betrayal, violence – all feature in the story of God’s people. And the ‘why’ question is a natural and very common response as people look for ways to make some sense of whatever it is that they’re experiencing. I’ve always been struck by Isaiah’s unexpected perspective on the activities of the Persian king, Cyrus (it’s quite long – you’ll have to look it up. Start with chapter 44).
The surprising thing is that the prophet is imagining Cyrus as God’s chief change agent who will ultimately defeat Babylon and restore Israel. I can’t really imagine that the exiles in Babylon would have viewed the emerging Persian superpower and the inevitable context between the two powers with much hopefulness. Cyrus was not one of the children of Israel – he was an outsider, a foreigner, a most unlikely liberator.
Similarly, I’m not hearing any great sense of hopefulness attached to the disruption brought by COVID-19. After the initial excitement of having to respond quickly and reorganise pretty much everything, the reality and consequence of COVID-19 have now started to sink in. Uncertainty, fear and loss started to colour the world. Both in the church and in the community generally there’s lots of looking backwards – wanting to return to ‘normal’, to the known and familiar, to a world in which we could (usually) call all the shots in our own lives – gather freely, shop whenever, work and worship predictably.
Familiar and comfortable routines have all been changed and no one is really sure how it will unfold from here or even what ‘normal’ is anymore.
Instead of looking backwards, what would it mean to look forwards instead and ask ourselves, as Isaiah must have done, what is God doing here? What has been exposed as a result of COVID-19?
For the last three months, I’ve had more meetings than I’ve ever had in my life (and that was a lot!), all of them online. I’ve heard from church members, ministers, Presbytery leaders, Parish Mission leaders, Uniting leaders, school principals, Synod staff, as well as General Secretaries from the other Synods.
Aside from a new and very welcome enthusiasm for working together, I’ve been really impressed by the missional attention and imagination that’s been brought to all our conversations.
As the vulnerabilities in the global economic system are laid bare and the cracks in the Australian social landscape become wider and wider, there’s a sense of urgency about organising and equipping ourselves to respond in word and deed to the evident and growing human need. Back to ‘normal’ is not possible, there’s simply too much for the Church to do and whatever the new ‘normal’ is will be made by the work we do together in response to what we see God up to in the world around us.
Will COVID-19 change the church? No, it won’t – the church won’t be changed by a virus but it absolutely will be changed by the Holy Spirit.
It’s the Holy Spirit that is blowing through our locked doors and shuttered windows to open eyes and hearts to where God is calling the church.
My prayer is that we will muster the hope and find the courage to keep looking forward and working together – reorganising and equipping the Church to bear witness to the living God among us.
Come, Holy Spirit, come!
Rev. Jane Fry, General Secretary