Sunday, May 10, 2020

Thoughts about caterpillars and butterflies in a time of plague

This morning the leader of our zoom gathering had planned to start with Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, familiar words about everything happening in its time, probably appropriate for current circumstances. But earlier in the morning, she had the strong sense that we should read to v17. She was not sure why, but I am really glad she did.

I love Ecclesiastes, the collector of riddles, the riddler of the faithful (as Doug Ingram suggests). So I am often drawn to its enigmatic text, hoping it will give voice to and shape my muddled thoughts. Well, this morning it didn't disappoint. I don't know why God wanted my church to hear these words but I know why he wanted to bring them to my attention.

I have been wrestling with the issue of what church and mission might be like as we emerge from lockdown. Will we be the same distracted caterpillars, over-feeding on the same bush while constantly remaining the same, or will we be butterflies, transformed by the grace of God encountered in hard places and shaped for a new adventure with God in the world?

I hope the latter. Often the conversation about mission is about returning to what we used to be able to do when we could go out and gather for all sorts of activities. I hope those opportunities will return, opportunities to serve others, to show the love of God in tangible ways to those who need reminding if it. But that will be a resumption of caterpillar life.

Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 showed me something of the possibility in our discourse of becoming the butterflies we are called to be. It's simple advice, a little downbeat if read in certain tones of voice. It's about toil (v9 setting the themes for the short section that follows) but it is also about God's gift. And it was that which hit me with some force this morning.

What is God's gift? That all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil. It is God's gift that everyone should have enough to eat and drink and find delight in what they do. So why are so many hungry, thirsty and stuck in soul-destroying, unproductive and unrewarding labour? Because we have taken God's gift and kept it for ourselves. A few benefit from the majority's labour and live lives of ease and enjoyment as a result. The many sweat and toil under the harsh sun for precious little reward.

This is not God's gift; this is our abuse of what he has given us.

I started the day reading an alarming piece by Naomi Klein on the Intercept website about how the powerful are profiting from the current pandemic and are gearing up to profit more as we come out of it and the world returns to normal. Maybe this is why so many are suggesting that returning to normal is not what we want.

So, what's this got to do with mission after covid-19 and Ecclesiastes 3? I think it has to do with what our mission is about. We have been called to God - who has lavished the gifts of Ecclesiastes 3 on us; we have been called into a new creation set loose in the resurrection of Jesus; we have been recruited to a revolution whose manifesto is the beatitudes. So if our mission is about anything, it is surely about pointing to a world where everyone enjoys the gift of Ecclesiastes 3:12-13.

More than that, it is surely about seeking ways to make that world a reality. This means going beyond poverty remediation through foodbank's and night shelters (good, essential, though those they are) to poverty alleviation through adventurous reimagining of how we can use our resources to create the kind of world imagined by Ecclesiastes 3:12-13.

For the section doesn't end there. The riddler says he looked for justice and righteousness where he expected to find them - namely, I guess, in government and the courts, and possibly even the places of worship - and found only wickedness (the word the bible often uses for the selfish self sufficiency and looking out for me and mine that is all too evident in and around us).

Our mission needs to be marked by justice and right relationships - both enacted in what we do and agitated for in what we say and how we act towards those who should be distributing the power they so tenaciously cling on to.

I was glad to go to church this morning to be reminded of this and provoked into new trains of thought. There is so much more to say about this but I throw it out there for people to react to. So, over to you...


James said...

Thank you Simon. I hope this finds you well and your Friends and Family too. Grace still has hanging in her room a piece of craft she made at Messy Church, a bird with the verse in Matthew 6:26 and I found myself drawn to it when the lockdown began like so many without the answers. Nature is a beautiful illustration of how to act isn't it. But what you're saying and hoping for goes much further to my mind, using this time as a great opportunity to bring about change that is better for all not just seeking personal reassurance, but also showing the necessary courage to allow in God's help and not deny it, for the sake of everyone else. The folks at the wheel have a duty to consider the rights and needs of their passengers, may be pull over for a moment and listen. So as you told me once, we should pray that those at the wheel don't try to go it alone and ask for God's help, and act on it well. James

Unknown said...

Thanks Simon, that’s really provocative.

What we need in a sense is so simple. For everyone to be able to have a positive role in life, that they enjoy - and to benefit from the many good things we see in this world. With all the advances in technology over the last century, that should be more and more possible - even easy - but instead those who can continue to abuse those less fortunate or less strong.

It would be so wonderful to see the world shift towards the right direction, with the church playing her given role. I think it will continue to be a huge challenge for us to make the real change and start to consider (and actually treat) others as more important than will happen though, somehow! I hope I can get involved....