Frankie Webster co-ordinates CTC’s Olive Wagstaff Course, training lay Christians in community organising. In this blog, she reflects on how we can share the peace of Christ in a time of social distancing.
“I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even the greatest evil. For that purpose He needs men and women who make the best use of everything. I believe that God gives us all the strength we need to help us resist in all times of distress. But he never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on Him alone. A faith such as this should allay all our fears for the future. I believe that even in our mistakes and shortcomings are turned to good account, and that it is no harder for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds. I believe that God is no timeless fate, but that He waits for and answers sincere prayers and responsible actions.”
These words from pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer are ones I return to in times of crisis. As a resolute realist and a committed believer, it resonates with something deep within me. The passage is part of a letter later given to three friends and colleagues to read; following 10 years of Hitler’s rise and regime in Germany, the words are Bonhoeffer’s reflection on God’s calling on himself and others at the time. The simple earnestness of it is striking. Shortly after writing, he was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually martyred while in a concentration camp.
As churches respond to a global crisis at the local level, many are being called to reach out and offer both pastoral and practical support to individuals. Across the globe phone calls are being made, as people sit and listen to those on the frontline of fear, grief and despair. It is a calling many priests see as central to their vocation; indeed many priests spend the majority of their days in one-to-one conversations, praying, encouraging and listening in congregants’ homes. Yet many of us answering this call are struggling to know how we can support each other when there are clear restrictions on that ‘how’.
One of our lay leadership courses, the Olive Wagstaff Course (aptly named after a lay leader from St George-in-the-East who was committed to prayer, worship and social justice) is continuing to meet weekly online each week. Our conversations have been centred around this question of ‘how’. How do we support the grieving, fearful or angry? Be present with the lonely? Without physical and practical presence? One participant from the catholic parish of St Stephen’s Manor Park reflected on the importance of receiving the Eucharist and the struggle of not being able to do so in person during isolation. “However, what we have found is, we must now see our body as the eucharist – we have physically become the body of Christ and now we our offering ourselves”.
In his book reflecting on the Eucharist, Timothy Radcliffe talks about Jesus’ appearance to the disciplines in the upper room (John 20: 19-24). Jesus passes through the doors and walls (something we might all enjoy right now to avoid touching surfaces and washing our hands for the umpteenth time), yet Radcliffe says: “If Jesus is shown as walking through locked doors, it’s not because this is what the resurrection is all about, but because he is the one in whom all barriers are transcended”. The resurrection described in the gospel sheds light on the ways in which the current limitations of bodily communion have been conquered. By offering himself, Jesus overcame “all the absences – the distances, silences, misunderstandings, disloyalties – by which we are separated from one another and from God”. Christ’s offering of peace among the disciples fear and crisis in the upper room demonstrates that He too meets with us in our crisis as we support one another and those beyond the Church, as his living body.
This is not my first crisis, nor I imagine is it yours, and for most of us it probably won’t be our last. One of the saving graces of pain is that we know this: God wastes nothing (Isaiah 61:3). Beauty arises out of ashes in the most unexpected places, and a great blessing of being part of the body of Christ is that there are many “soldiers”; wounded, healing and whole who have much to teach us about tending to wounds. In a recent blog post entitled “Why suffering?”, Richard Rohr talks about these people and their pain as “sacred wounds”. He explains that we are transformed by these wounds, not because God loves our suffering but because pain is an inevitable part of a broken world, and yet, it bears repeating: God wastes nothing.
Since reflecting on the concept of “sacred wounds” I have begun reaching out to those known to me who have experienced loneliness, isolation, grief and beyond, to seek wisdom and listen to their stories. Many of those whom we are already in relationship with have a sense of how we can share peace with one another at this time. So much has been reflected back, but a keen memory for so many was this: the willingness of others to simply sit with you in the messy darkness of despair.
Every blog that Rohr posts is accompanied with a piece of art; below this particular post was Vincent Van Gogh’s “Wheat Fields with Crows”. In a letter to his brother Theo and wife Jo he describes the piece as showing “immense stretches of wheat fields under turbulent skies, showing extreme loneliness”, set against a flourishing countryside. This juxtaposed imagery speaks to the calling. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few” (Matthew 9: 37 NIV) or – perhaps a more apt translation for today “How few workers! On your knees and pray for harvest hands” (Matthew 9: 37 MSG).
So many are wounded by this crisis, so many it may completely overwhelm us at times. And so, it is for harvest hands that we must pray. Trusting that as we reach out to others, offering ourselves, sharing Christ’s peace in the exchange of words or simply in the quiet kindness of listening, we understand that we too receive his peace from the wounded and mourning, and trusting too that the physical barriers we see and the unseen ones we perceive are transcended in that sharing.