2020 – the year we were not expecting

Peter Grimwood reflects on the pandemic, repentence, consumerism and a grace filled society.

2020 has proved to be the year we were not expecting. It was not supposed to be like this. A glance at my diary for 2020 is a salutary reminder. There they all are: the meetings cancelled, the services I did not take, the holiday that was cancelled and the concerts and theatre visit that simply did not happen. No, it was not what I was expecting nor you I guess. But using lockdown time to read something about virology and the history of epidemics I have come to realise that we should have expected it and that we have come very close to experiencing a pandemic before. When I passed through Hong Kong airport in 2006 and my temperature was taken at a passenger gate I should have reflected on why this was necessary. No we were not expecting this nor were we adequately prepared.

Yet pandemics have always been with us and it may well be that we are becoming increasingly vulnerable to them as our economies become more and more complex and inter-connected. And in addition as humans encroach more and more upon forests and other habitats so the risk of virus transfer from such creatures as bats to us increases. This is what happened with Ebola, another near miss for us, and probably with the covid 19 virus now. 

So what should be our first response now in the face of this pandemic and more generally in the face of environmental degradation? There is one word we can use: repentance. Repentance, the most unpopular word in the Churches lectionary. “Repent, repent” sang Leonard Cohen, “I wonder what they meant”. 

In traditional evangelical preaching a call to repentance always had a place. This call is followed by an invitation to embrace the grace of a loving God. This model has a great deal to commend it. 

Consider these words from a classic source:

We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.

Good gracious me but I thought following the devices and desires of my own heart was the road to happiness. After all this is what the advertisers tell me. And I need a new device for my Twitter feed and my Facebook posts. 

We have offended against thy holy laws.

Holy laws!  What’s holy about law? Surely we should love God and do what we like! 

We have left undone those things that we ought to have done.

“Ought”! These are the oughteries. Down with the oughteries!

And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.

Ditto the above.

So you see turning to God, repenting and asking for mercy may not find too many takers.

The other week I was walking through the Westgate shopping centre in Oxford – such places are the real sacred places of our time and we are being told quite seriously that it is our civic duty to visit them and spend as much money as possible. Later that day we had lunch in part subsidised by the government as part of a scheme entitled “Eat out to Help Out”. This scheme is financed by debt but how will these debts be repaid or will they simply be renounced? I only ask.

All of this is an aspect of consumerism – the pursuit of stuff – the good life as represented by materialistic pursuits. Repent, repent I wonder what they meant.

The Christian invitation is to reject the pursuit of stuff and embrace grace instead. Before dismissing this as a backward looking religious fantasy consider this quotation from a blog written by Natasha Parker from the Centre for Sustainable Prosperity at the University of Surrey.

“Research confirms that people who prioritise materialistic values and goals for wealth, image and status are likely to consume more and have a substantially higher ecological footprints than those who don’t. Studies have found that people’s values and goals have become increasingly materialistic since the 1970s and it is not hard to see why in our advertising saturated culture that portrays a route to happiness paved by what you earn, what you own and how you look. And yet giving priority to materialistic pursuits is consistently shown to lead to lower wellbeing and higher ecological footprints with the consequences that we can see all around us.”

So you can see that we Green Christians have work to do. And yet I cannot deny that I am hopeful. To embrace the grace of God is to be hopeful. Share the hope; embrace the grace.

In charting a way forward we need to be clear about what had happened to us. That we have lost our roots and descended into a self-love fuelled by consumerism. We have preferred money as a substitute for grace and debt as a substitute for money. As the prophet Jeremiah says; “We have forsaken the fountains of living water and dug out cisterns that can hold no water”.

We need to turn back to the sources of living water: to Jesus we might say and not only to Jesus we need all the wisdom not only of the west but also of the east. Not just the way, the truth and the life but also the dharma, the Tao and the satya. Do I fully understand these things? No I don’t, but I acknowledge my lack of understanding and that is always something. 

What might the elements of a grace filled society look like? Of course the key word is gift – that our existence and our planet are not resources to be exploited nor rights to be sued for but gifts.

That’s the key. Specifically:

Humility: not a popular idea but central to the Jesus way.

Community: We belong to each other and to the earth. That from which we came and to which we shall return. We are in communion with God and with each other through the earth. 

Love: It all comes down to this. Love of the neighbour and of the others, all our sisters and brothers within the created order. By love we can fill up the hollow spaces in our souls and know true peace and fulfilment. It’s been said before and it will be said again. Our calling and that of every faithful believer is to live as if this is true. The pandemic will pass but this calling will remain. 

Very often the truest words about our situation are uttered by pop songs. “I can’t get no satisfaction/cause I try/and try.” Best not to try but rather to embrace grace instead. Not only would we be much happier, but we can also save the planet as well. The promise is a joy without limit but at the same time joy in enough.

(Image by Joystick Interactive, UN Covid Response)

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