Jeff Short chats with former Bishop of Durham Tom Wright about his new book as he describes that this is a time for lament and admitting we don't have easy answers during these times.

God And The Pandemic

Jeff: You have a book out and it just seems to be the right fit for the time that we're living in: God and the Pandemic. Somebody said tome, well, he was quick off the mark. What's the back-story to the book?

Tom: The back-story is quite simple really. Last year I was doing some projects with a different book and I was interviewed by somebody on Time magazine and I wrote a short article for them and that was all right. Then when the pandemic started, about three months ago, the same editor on Time magazine said hey, Tom, can you quickly write me an article about God and the pandemic, 800 words. I was very busy with something else and I thought I can't possibly do that; I haven't got anything to say. So I was about to say no and then I started thinking wait a minute there are a couple of things that do need to be said. So I wrote a short article and they put it in the magazine, which was nice, and then I started to get flak on Twitter. I don't look at Twitter but friends were telling me. And emails from people saying how can you possibly say de, de, de when the book of Amos says this or the book of Revelation says that and I realised I was starting up a bit of a storm. So I did a couple of lectures here in Oxford and online for a New York friend and as I was doing that I was thinking well, then we're going to need to bring in the book of Job and we need to say something about the raising of Lazarus and Romans 8 and all sorts of stuff. So I eventually said to my publisher it might just be a little book and he said well, write it as quick as you can because if it's going to happen it's got to happen quickly. So I did, it took about three days.

Jeff: In true Tom Wright style it's so very well laid out. You start with the historical perspective, which was an eye opener, that in previous times if there was an outbreak of plague where people took to the hills, the Christians stayed to nurse. The rich would flee but the reason people stayed was because of Jesus.

Tom: Which is fascinating. Because the Christians were into medicine and healthcare for everybody that they could, irrespective of payment ability and likewise they were into education; they were into caring for the poor. Nobody else in the ancient world was doing that. One of the main lessons, one of the things that I found really exciting that it made me look at that passage in Acts 11 with new eyes, that when the church in Antioch hear there's going to be a famine they don't say oh, dear it must be that God is cross with us and we need to repent of something. Nor do they say oh, it must be a sign that the Lord is about to return - they believed that the Lord might return any time but they didn't say this must be a sign of it. They said this is going to be very difficult for some people in particular. Who is going to be most at risk? What can we do to help? Who should we send? I think that sums the thing up. We tend to want to ask the question why? What bad thing did we do that God made this happen to us? That's the wrong question. The New Testament regularly says no, God is in charge but his in-charge-ness looks like Jesus, and looks like Jesus giving his life to save us. So we are now to be the community that acts that out in relation to the wider world.

Jeff: There's a temptation to say this is God's punishment or else to say this is God's indifference, we're just to get on with this or else to retreat behind a few scriptures. I've seen so many times posted on Facebook words from Psalm 91 for instance, about dwelling in the shelter of the Lord, resting in his shadow, refuge, fortress, in him I'll trust. And yet we've seen some outstanding Christians even in this city of Stoke on Trent who have died from the Covid. There's this sense that throwing up a few verses from the psalms isn't that helpful.

Tom: No, that's right. And of course it is important to say that we trust God in and through death and out the other side. In the book I quote a lovely passage from Martin Luther who was faced with an epidemic as people have been frequently throughout history. This is not a new thing. It's only we in the comfortable west who have imagined that we have eradicated disease so we're now all right. Ha, ha, if only. The psalms are great but the psalms also include those passages like Psalm 44, interestingly one of the ones which Paul quotes and alludes to in Romans 8 of all places, great passage. Psalm 44 is the one that says all these bad things have happened to us but we have not gone wrong, we have not been false to the covenant, our heart has not turned back. In other words so what on Earth is going on? But it's a lament and this is the great tradition which I have tried to come back to again and again in the New Testament as well as Old; the tradition of lament, of not saying here's the answer either in what caused this or necessarily what's God going to do through it but just holding the present dire straits in the presence of God and saying this is bad and we are weeping with those who weep. Because the world is out of joint and we are sharing that groaning. And that takes us straight into Romans 8, of course.

Jeff: As I said it's so well laid out, you give this look at the Old Testament and you bring the book of Job out. A statistic you put in: a third of all the psalms are psalms of lament.

Tom: I'm not sure if that's actually in terms of the numbers of psalms or the total verses but a lot of them are. I mentioned 44 but 42 and 43 - like the hart desires the water brook so longs my soul for you, oh God, but it's not working right now, God so what's going on? Send out your light and your truth; please let them lead me because it's not a good place where I am. Jesus himself quotes that psalm in John 12 and he quotes Psalm 22 on the cross my God, why did you abandon me? Then there are psalms like Psalm 88, which is one of the darkest and most sorrowful, and apparently despairing psalms in the book. The only redeeming feature from that point of view is that God is right there in the middle of it. And that's the message. Not that God will automatically rescue his people from things but that he is there in the midst and that is of course what the gospels are all about; the God who made the world coming in person to the place where the world is in need to take the worst of it upon himself.

Jeff: Some other themes that you pull out really caused me to stop and think. You say the Passover, the children of Israel in slavery, they never look at sin, they look at this as a consequence of life and famine and things like this. They never look and say what have we done to upset Yahweh that we would be in slavery.

Tom: Which is fascinating because if you read the story of Genesis, Jacob had messed around big time. His sons were a real shower, thy messed around a whole lot. Then they sold Joseph into slavery. They were not doing well. But nobody ever says we are here in Egypt because of all that. Rather it's exactly like John 9 when the disciples say to Jesus was it because this man sinned or his parents that he was born blind. Jesus says that's the wrong question; neither him nor his parents. That's not the point. The point is so that God's mighty works might be revealed in him. Of course, there are connections between sin and suffering from time to time. Book of Lamentations: we messed up, you sent us into exile, this is terrible and we're sorry. Yes, that's there. But the two strands in the Old Testament, and I've been thinking about this since I wrote the book, there's the great strand of the covenant, which says Israel has to keep the law, and if Israel doesn't then exile will result and it will be horrible. That's all true. That lands up with Jesus on the cross bearing the curse as in Galatians 3. But then there's the other strand which says no, there's the innocent sufferer from Psalm 44, Psalm 22, Isaiah 53 particularly - the suffering servant who is precisely innocent. That strand too ends up with Jesus on the cross. What this was teaching me, as I was writing this book, was it's a kind of exercise in -we use these long words - in what we call hermeneutics: how to read the bible as a whole, not just scooping up a couple of verses here and there. How to see the bible focussed in on Jesus and then moving outwards into the beginning of this strange world, which we call the church, which we call new creation, the time of the spirit.

Jeff: There is a temptation for Christians of a certain persuasion to see from a position of we are in a new covenant and we are observing God punishing people for sin. It was a temptation for people to say to Jesus why did that tower fall on those people while they were worshipping? Why were they slaughtered by the Romans?

Tom: That's right, it's at the beginning of Luke 13 and it's interesting because this is a kind of turning point in the history of prophecy that the whole of the prophetic tradition goes on through John the Baptist to Jesus himself who spoke of himself as a prophet and was acting as and seemed like a prophet. People said he's like Jeremiah or Elijah. That whole prophetic tradition was warning Israel that because of Israel's sin, certain bad things were going to happen and specifically the upcoming fall of Jerusalem, which Jesus is quite clear, especially in Luke's gospel it comes out, this is Israel's last chance. But this is the point, that was the last chance and that parable about the wicked tenant is that God sends one messenger after another, after another and they beat them up or kill them and finally he sends his own beloved son. And the whole point is this: there can be no other last chance. This is the last chance. So from here on everything is different. Jerusalem is destroyed. We are now in the new world with the risen Jesus leading the way into the new creation. And during this period, during this overlap of the ages where the new has been launched, then we are to be the Romans 8 people who discover that the Spirit groans within us. In other words God sent his very own spirit to enable us to lament wisely in the presence of God, if that isn't too strange an idea. And it's out of that there comes a conviction that God is working all things for good through those who love him, which I explain in the book. Romans 8 is just amazing.

Jeff: There are some wonderful things in it, the promise that God works all things to good, not that all things are good, but in the midst of it there is something going on of God that you may be able to look back afterwards and recognise his hand upon it. It stands in contrast to the people who say - I had a listener write in - why doesn't God send thunderbolts? You answer that wonderfully in the book.

Tom: This goes back to the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers and the hungry for justice people. They are the thunderbolts that God sends. Here is a world in a mess and God sends peacemakers, people who love justice, people who are mourning, grieving for the current state of the world. And it's through such people that in the early days we have hospitals, orphanages, schools, the care of the poor. And that tradition has gone on. One of the most extraordinary things about where we're living now is that the secular world has taken that on. Even when people deny everything about God most people in most societies in the world today know that they ought to care for the poor and the unhealthy and so on. That is part of the odd legacy of Christianity. We have to reclaim it in the church and we have to pray for those who are on that frontline.

Jeff: I almost feel as if I'm on Master Chef as a judge and I'm saying this taste comes through, this flavour comes through. But the mission flavour that comes through is when you go to John 20 and say 'our mission must start with tears, locked doors and doubt.' I thought my goodness; I've got a sermon there for when lockdown is finished. It's a wonderful triptych that you've put there.

Tom: It wasn't me that put it there; it was John writing the gospel. There's more there, you've got Peter and John running to and fro in confusion and alarm, they don't know what's going on. Then it's (13 15?) the tomb and then it's the disciples hiding behind locked doors because they're afraid of the people around, they may come for them next. Then it's Thomas saying I've got to see him, I've got to touch otherwise I'm not going to believe. I love it, it's so vivid and it's out of that there comes faith and hope and mission where Jesus says as the Father sent me, so I send you. For many years now I've realised that is how to make the transition from the very specific time and ministry of Jesus himself to the worldwide commissioning of the church in the power of the spirit. Everything about what Jesus was for Israel has to translate into everything that the church has to be for the world. That's why we're given the Spirit because we can't possibly do it in our own strength. That's the dynamic that out of the tears and the locked doors and the doubt the Spirit moves us out into mission.

Jeff: One of the surprising things that people have found is that in the time of pandemic we've almost become accidental missioners. Where people are putting things out on Facebook and youtube we're suddenly finding people who we never imagined would, are looking in to us. I saw it best expressed on a sign outside a church, it said the building is closed, God is making house calls.

Tom: That's very good. Well done, whoever thought of that one. In the book I quote the poem from the great contemporary Cambridge poet Malcolm Guite where he talks about doing Easter with locked churches and he says where is Jesus? "Not lost in our locked churches. The locks are loosed; the stone is rolled away, And he is up and risen, long before, alive, at large, and making his strong way into the world he gave his life to save. No need to seek him in his empty grave." I was very struck shortly after writing this book I discovered that the Archbishop of Canterbury has been going regularly to St Thomas's hospital as a voluntary chaplain, putting on his personal protection stuff and praying with people, ministering to those and being with the carers, with the medics. And I thought that's a great example of somebody leading from the front. Justin has come in for a lot of flak because of the closed churches and so on but actually he's been out there doing what matters where it counts and I take off my hat to him for that. That's all about as Jesus to Israel so the church to the world.

Jeff: It's a lovely picture there. You say the time of lament must also be a time of prayer and hope and out of lament must come fresh action. Going back to where we started the interview, the historical thing it caused me to think of the plague village of Eyam where the Rector and his predecessor who had never got on come together to tell the people to stay in the village and did something very positive and sacrificial and Christ-like. What do you think the fresh action that would come, working out of lament?

Tom: I do think we have learnt a great deal from the lament about the churches being shut. Yes, I totally agree God is making house calls. But there is also a sense of sorrow and maybe people will value the regular meeting for worship more than they did and I know that because services have been on line a lot of people have been 'attending' in other words logging on, perhaps from their bedrooms or wherever. That's a wonderful thing but I think most of us have realised real deprivation about not being able to see our Christian brothers and sisters face to face on a regular basis, at least once a week. And particularly not to share in the Lord's Supper, the communion service, the Eucharist. That is not incidental. Christianity is public truth. The danger is in our contemporary so-called secular world, people think of Christianity as just a little private option that some people do on the side, like some people play bridge, some people like tending their roses and some people like saying prayers. Well, they can do that online can't they? But actually, no. Part of the point of going to church is that this is public truth; it belongs on the high street and out and about. I think out of our lament should come a fresh appreciation of that but then particularly out of our lament should come a determination to say to our politicians, our leaders who have been flailing around goodness knows this has caught them totally by surprise obviously, I don't think there are any other parties that could have done it any better by the way, to say to them we need to take the world Health Organisation by the scruff of its neck and say please will you do your job because I'm not sure it is doing its job right now. Part of the mission in John 16 is to convict the world of sin and righteous judgement. In other words the church in the power of the Spirit has to hold up a mirror to those in power and say this is what you're doing and you need to do it better or differently. We need to learn the lessons about world health and to have protocols in place, which we didn't have in place either as a society or as a church. More intimately than that if it's real its local and we've seen a lot of people, 'on the street' quite literally, checking on their neighbours, phoning them to see if they need groceries and are you alright for masks if you need to get out - all that sort of thing. That's wonderful and we need to recover that sense of community and caring for one another and precisely not being an isolated, locked-in society. CR

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