Songs from a Strange Land 

As for a lot of people ‘Zoom’ seems to be an integral part of my life during this lockdown period. At a recent ‘virtual’ meeting with City Church Leaders we had an open discussion about the joys and trials of caring for our respective churches during this season. One of the people, peeping out of a little square on my laptop said, ‘It feels a bit like building a plane in the middle of the air’, which summed it up brilliantly!  I have lost count of the amount of times people in the media and in everyday conversations have said that we are living in unprecedented times. The world has come to a standstill, we face a deadly unseen enemy and we have no idea how long this will go on for and what the world, our nation and the church will look like when we emerge from it.

Naturally, my primary concern is the church and in particular the one God has given me care of. I have heard some voices of doom and gloom suggesting that this will spell disaster but I can’t see how that squares with the words of Jesus: ‘I will build my church and the gates of hell will not conquer it’ (Matt 16:16 NLT).

Neither do I believe that COVID-19 has been sent by God to judge nations for same-sex marriage and abortion (a view that has been touted by some). My understanding of the Bible informs me that this dreadful pandemic is the result of a world that is affected by the consequence of sin (see Gen 3:17-18) and is presently, ‘groaning as in the pains of childbirth’ as it ‘looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay’ (Rom 8:22, 21 NLT). As Christians we live with the tension of the pain and trauma of the terrible suffering and upheaval that has come in the wake of this pandemic and the hope of the new creation to come. So it is vital that, rather than thunder a message of judgement and doom, we sound one of hope and love.

Although this is a season unlike any other, in recent times, there are parallels that we can draw from the Bible.
In the Old Testament God’s people were scattered when they were sent into exile for 70 years. There was no Temple to worship in and make offerings as the Psalmist, who was in exile, lamented:
‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?’ (Psalm 137:1–4)
However, those seven decades were not wasted. Quite the reverse – it was a season when the Jewish people renewed their relationship with God and shed their idols. They emerged as a very different nation to the one that had been forcibly evicted from the Promised Land.

The New Testament picks up the theme of exile, using the word ‘diaspora’ meaning scattering, which is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to describe the exile. Peter addresses his readers as ‘God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia’ (1 Pet 1:1 NIV). And James says that his letter is written to, ‘The twelve tribes scattered among the nations’ (James 1:1 NIV). My view is that James is using the image of the twelve tribes to refer to the whole people of God (who probably would have been Jewish believers at that time). The important point is that he saw them as being scattered, like their exilic ancestors. 

So how does this impact the way that I shepherd the church God has placed in my care?

First, it helps me to understand how bereft people feel. They are no longer able to gather to worship and spend time with one another. We are ‘singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land’. Of course we do not need the Temple to worship the Lord because we all have access to God through Christ, wherever we are. However, the very word ‘church’ describes people gathered together by God to worship and serve him as a community, which we cannot do in isolation. We have done what we can using modern technology but it is not the same. We are in exile.

Secondly, it gives me hope that this this will be a time of spiritual formation. In the last few weeks I have strengthened my own rhythm of prayer, spending my usual time with God in the morning, pausing for prayer at midday and closing the day with the Examen. One of the most important pastoral tasks I have during this time is to help our people instil this into their lives and encourage them to maintain it when we emerge.

Thirdly, it makes me realise that the Church I shepherd may be very different from what it was when we last gathered together. I do not know what kind of change this will be nor the extent of it but I am preparing for it.

Fourthly, it challenges me to listen closely to God. I must hear what the ‘Chief Shepherd’ is saying and share this with the flock to prepare them for the future God has for us.

Sooner or later the world will emerge from the darkness that COVID-19 has inflicted on it, blinking in the sunlight of the new day. It will take time for the church to adjust to being in a very different environment to the one we have been quarantined from. However, in the words of Peter (who describes us exiles):

‘[We] are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’ [1 Peter 2:9]

I am thankful that we can know and share God’s light in this present darkness and excited about what he has in store for us on the other side of the pandemic.

Simon J. Robinson, 09/04/2020