I was always impressed by the girls at my primary school who could do that trick with their hands – here’s a church, here’s the steeple, through the doors and here are the people, and so on.
What impressed me was partly the uncopiable twisting wrists, the neatly knitted fingers, but it was also the way they could turn one thing – a human body into lots of little things: a church, a congregation, a parson climbing the stairs. You forget the person who’s telling the story, the person whose body this is, and just see the multiple elements in the story.
It’s a ‘wood for the trees’ point I’m making, I suppose. And at the moment, we can’t see the wood for the trees, can’t see the whole story, only the discrete and relentless details: death tolls and numbers of hospital beds, numbers of infected, the youngest victim, the oldest victim, the victims we love…
We feel swept away by a tide of sadnesses, anxieties and individual griefs. So, how do we ourselves fit into two stories that are unfolding around us at the moment: the current coronavirus outbreak, and the events of Holy Week two thousand years ago?
In a sense the stories combine in all sorts of meaningful ways. Morning Prayer this week takes us through Jeremiah’s Lamentations, a book which opens today with this verse:
How lonely sits the cityLamentations 1:1
that once was full of people.
How shockingly resonant! One of the earliest images at the beginning of this coronavirus outbreak was of Wuhan. Mobile phone footage showed a completely empty urban environment. Streets deserted. Airports and supermarkets desolate. It was chilling, and now we see it replicated across the world.
The mobile phone footage from Wuhan could be that verse beginning Lamentations brought to life. But in fact both the verse and the footage are misleading: cities can’t be lonely (or seated for that matter); and they’re not even empty. You just can’t see the people. The wrists haven’t twisted, the palms haven’t been opened to reveal: all the people inside. Our cities are full of people. They’re just in their homes.
Likewise, when we hear that the churches are closed, that doesn’t mean the Church is closed. How could it be? The Church is the people. Ultimately, cities aren’t buildings, the Church isn’t buildings. When we say we’re going to hospital we don’t just mean we’re going to a specific building; we mean we’re going to seek the wisdom and support of certain trained and dedicated people who will care for us – as people.
The thing I sense we’re having to learn from this whole experience is our need to reconceive many of our fundamental ways of being cities, towns, villages, churches, schools, nations, markets. None of these things are anything but people.
In his monumental (and monumentally brilliant) book Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze says:
Time itself unfolds… instead of things unfolding within it.Deleuze, Difference and Repetition
Perhaps we can allow ourselves to take a liberty with Deleuze (I don’t think he’d mind) and stretch the point a bit. It’s not our cities or our churches or our communities or even our lives that contain us and unfold around us: we are our cities, churches, schools, communities, and lives. The story unfolding has us all as a vital part.
This presents us with an enormous, creative and profoundly theological opportunity: we are the story. And it’s in the telling – in how we tell this story – that we become the people we are called to be. This is our story. We need to own it in the way the Hebrews owned their Exodus story, learning from it, growing through it and allowing ourselves to be changed by it.
Deleuze urges us
To become worthy of what happens to us, to become the offspring of one’s own events, and thereby to be reborn,… and to break with one’s carnal birth.Deleuze, Logic of Sense
The veiled reference in that final phrase is to John 3:1-8 where Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again, this time not of the flesh, but of the Spirit. I think part of what Jesus means here is that we’re called not see ourselves as unfolding in the story, but as part of the unfolding story. The difference is everything.
Our story – church, steeple, people, parson, stairs, cities – in His hands. Hands that heal, hands that bless,
hands that turn, palms up, to reveal us to ourselves,
hands nailed to a cross.
hold us in your hands now, heal us and help us.
Keep us from despair, guard us from hopelessness
and grant us a glimpse of your grace in the midst of our suffering.
Let us see our stories as part of the great unfolding mystery of your creation,
from glory to glory,
through your Son Jesus Christ,
in whose hands we place ourselves forever and ever.