Reflecting theologically on the pandemic and its bearing on Anna Chaplaincy
Updated: Jun 3
Anna Chaplain in Bromley, South-East London, Keith Nye, a former medical consultant has written a Theological Reflection on a Strange Eastertide 2020 :
I felt a call to reflect theologically on Anna Chaplaincy during Holy Week, but it wasn’t a normal Holy Week. We were in a world that was challenged by a novel and unpredictable virus that affected world health, economy and socio-political relationships between countries. A whole new set of rules was imposed that turned people’s lives upside down with isolation, shielding and – maybe the most profound effect theologically – lockdown of our places of worship for all faith groups.
Three strands stood out:
1. Anna Chaplaincy, rooted in local parishes and commissioned to work alongside others in pastoral ministry to ensure that older people of strong, little or no faith (including those with dementia) have their spiritual needs met.
2. Covid-19, a novel virus with various degrees of infectivity with high rate of morbidity and mortality.
3. Widespread lockdown with vast repercussions on daily living and, in particular for this study, closure of places of worship for all faiths, in the case of the Church of England, for the first time since the Reformation.
The Prophetic Imagination, with imagination being the overarching theme. When I was licensed by Bishop Michael Nazir Ali, my then Parish Priest, the Revd Simon Burton-Jones gave me a copy of Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination, published in 1978 and now in its third edition. It is a volume worthy of multiple readings in each of its editions and revisions.
What is Prophetic Imagination?
Brueggemann has, over 30 years, reviewed, revised and edited his conception of the mind, thoughts and subsequent writings of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. Brueggemann says that the interface of 'prophetic' and 'imagination' has turned out to be a most important one, although a pure happenstance, the title was thought of at a late stage of publication. It was, however, a most fortuitous choice. He has seen more examples of change shown in prophetic utterances in the last 30 years than in the approximately 1,500 years that it took 40 authors on three different continents to pen or stylus the approximately 780,000 words in the Bible. He has seen prophetic liberation theology, prophetic feminist theology, and then postmodernism when it became hard to define truth; fortunately Pontius Pilate had long gone.
Imagination is often thought of as having something to do with stories for children, something that isn’t true. Prophetic imagination employs that distinctly adult way that we image everything in every day life. It also applies to concepts that cannot be seen. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying that 'imagination is more important than knowledge'. As Christians we need to know God and maybe even use our imaginations to hear his voice or see him in other people or situations. We need our imaginations to fully partake of Christian experience and living.
We all know what a prophet is don’t we? Well, maybe Brueggemann would like to qualify the generally accepted definition. In a most telling interview with Brueggemann in February 2012, the American television journalist Krista Tippett who hosts a programme called ‘On Being’, covering religion, spirituality and ethics, live-streamed a video of the conversation that became the most-watched session ever shown by the network. Krista said, he helped her to understand that part of the prophet’s power is ‘to wield language poetically rather than stridently. Beginning with the words they choose, they transcend ideological splits that actually inhibit us from seizing the great challenges and problems of our time’. In The Prophetic Imagination we see that the greatest of the prophets clear the way for us to see the world as it could be and these prophets seem to appear at times of chaos and change.
As this is a theological reflection what is the relevance for us as Anna Chaplains, as Christians passing through the darkness of a worldwide pandemic, locked down in our homes and out of our places of worship, at a time of bewilderment, loss and grief?
Brueggemann begins with the far-reaching vision of Moses, possibly prophesying in the 9th century BCE then moving on through the 8th century BCE prophets, Amos, Hosea, Micah and 1st Isaiah. Moving forward to the 6th century BCE prophets, 2nd Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and the prophetic Psalms. For Bruggemann, Jeremiah best represents the prophetic imagination.
For us, as pastoral people, we must note that these prophets knew all about loss and grief but they didn’t hurry to get past it and move on. They knew instinctively that there would be hope in time; it was an inherent part of the new work of a God who is ever present and actively creating newness. He reminds us at Isaiah 43:19 “Behold I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert”.
We don’t know when this present darkness will pass, will the virus be tamed or come and go for an extended, undetermined period? Certainly everything has changed, some even go as far as to say that things will never be the same again. Would we really want to keep the old order? The prophetic imagination might look to the 8th century BCE prophets who restored Israel’s faith and loyalty to their God. Two centuries later with the loss of Jerusalem, the prophets with imagination, Ezekiel and Jeremiah, had to see past the destruction of the Temple and loss of the monarchy, past further exile, more devastating than anyone could imagine?
Bruggemann steps in here. Do we, or did we before Covid 19 hurry too quickly past loss and grief? Did we say ‘All will be well’ at a time when everything was far from well? The Hebrew prophets knew so much about loss and despair. They offer us a wealth of wisdom and prophetic imagination demonstrating the importance of dwelling on our grief and loss for a while. Then, with time, that four letter word, HOPE awaits. Hope belongs naturally to the prophetic imagination. We are reminded that the great Old Testament narratives of devastation and renewal presaged Crucifixion and Resurrection, the centre of our Christian faith.
The truth of the prophetic imagination is centred on our God, who is a living God, always creating anew, doing the impossible. In the Easter story we see life coming out of death, light coming out of darkness – even the darkness of a worldwide pandemic.
Turning to Isaiah 40:28,31- it asks us – “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God. He does not faint or grow weary; those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”
Ezekiel, a contemporary of Isaiah, saw in his imagination a time of truth telling that would be costly, urgent and subversive. His prophesies served as an important link between the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament thought. Salvation by grace is prefigured in God giving a new heart and pouring out his spirit to his people (Eze.36: 26). Ezekiel with prophetic imagination anticipates Baptism (Eze.36: 24-27). These Prophets had often to be the conscience of the people against obdurate, warring kings and handling these negotiations called for inspired imagination. There has been an increase in present day literature of the realisation that imagination is indeed a legitimate way of knowing. Garrett Green in his book Theology, Hermeneutics, and Imagination (CUP 2000) suggests that imagination is the extent to which it is reflective of a given and the extent to which it is generative of a new given. Maybe we can nominate Ezekiel as our clearest model for prophetic imagination and ministry.
When I began this reflection during Holy Week, seven weeks ago, I expected it to throw up more questions than answers. I also realised that it was very ambitious covering the elderly population, individuals living with dementia and their carers, family and friends. Those suffering the effects of Covid-19, patients, families, hospital staff at all levels, those suffering loss of family and friends and grieving. Members of the Church of England locked out of their places of worship, and people of all ages locked in their homes. Daily news offered little change, propaganda from ‘experts’, and little cause for optimism. BUT THERE IS HOPE for the world after Covid-19; the community spirit, helping neighbours with shopping, phoning friends in self-isolation, virtual church services drawing large virtual congregations.
I ask you, the reader, and myself, and I am confident of answers in the affirmative;
Can we use the prophetic imagination?
Can we believe in a Living God and imagine the world as He intends it and as He is working toward?
Can we teach ourselves NOT to gloss over grief and loss, learning from the psalmist that “God’s anger is but for a moment, and his favour for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 30:5).
In his preface to the 30th year celebration edition (Pentecost 2000) Brueggemann rounded up by saying “All functions of the church can and should be prophetic voices that serve to criticise the dominant culture around us while energising the faithful.”
Thus: Pastoral Care (Anna Chaplaincy) can be a prophetic ministry. Preaching can be a prophetic Ministry. Sunday Clubs for children can be a prophetic ministry (even session meetings can be prophetic ministry).
The interplay between prophetic texts heard imaginatively and concrete practice is a defining one for the church that will become more crucial and more difficult, and perhaps more joyous, in time to come.
And lo and behold on Easter Monday 2020, twenty years after the preface above, a book entitled Virus as a Summons to Faith, appeared, written by none other than 87-years-young, Walter Bruggemann.
He reminds us of Isaiah 43:18-19 “Remember not the former thing; nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing…” (my italics)
Brueggemann continues to say that it is possible, within the imaginative mind, to trust that the God of the Gospel is in, with, and under the crisis of the virus without imagining that God is the cause of it. He may be, in hidden ways, amid the crisis working hard checking egotism and excessive pride.
Under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic we must be alert to the uncaring manipulative global world that was allowed to expand unchecked. The virus has stolen a march on the most sophisticated computer algorithms, running rings around epidemiologists and we are as yet unable to do much to reduce the rate of infection.
If any good is to come out of this pestilence we must assert God’s newness and in an audacious act of imagination become prophets about a new post Covid-19 world.
Tomorrow, (Saturday May 23, 2020), I will be attending the Bromley Reform Synagogue for the Shabbat service (online) and I have a copy of the drasha based on the writing of Rabbi Steven Kushner, a reform rabbi from New Jersey. We will read from the fourth book of the Torah that we know as Numbers because of the census recorded in the opening chapter. The first significant word is B’midbar (literally in wilderness) and the whole book records Israel’s journey from Mount Sinai to the Jordan River, the edge of the Promised Land. The major character in this book is the Lord Himself. Even under extreme provocation God keeps His covenant with the Israelites, guiding them through the wilderness, feeding them and quenching their thirst. We will be studying Numbers 1:44-54. God commands Moses to take a census of all males over the age of twenty and the Levites are allocated their duties.
Why am I discussing this Shabbat service? There are only three places in the Torah: Egypt or Mitzrayim (“the narrow place” in Hebrew) at one end, eretz zavat chalav u’ d’vash or “the land that flows with milk and honey” at the other end. In the middle is midbar or “wilderness”.
We are probably in this wilderness during these dark days of the Covid-19 pandemic in the eyes of prophetic imagination. But we are at that point where God is hoping and helping us to make all things new, just as he was with the Israelites.
In Brueggemann’s latest book, Virus as a Summons to Faith, he points out that the young church in Rome was surrounded by corruption and St Paul, having been raised in a Rabbinical school and as a Pharisee, elaborated on the struggle for newness with the phrase “all creation is groaning in the anguish of labour pains” (Rom 8:22). He was quoting from Isaiah 42:14-15.
Newness was no easy task even for God as He created a homecoming for the exiles from Egypt in the Book of Numbers. The Israelites had groaned under their slavery and cried out for help. “Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel and knew.” (Ex 2:23-24).
It is now Saturday 23rd May 2020, and I attended Shabbat at Bromley Reform Synagogue this morning. I now understand more about wilderness (midbar), it is more than a large, dry, geographical area, it is a state of being. For the Israelites being lead across the wilderness, it was a place of wandering that must have felt endless. In their minds they may have felt they were still in Mitzrayim and yet it was a place of discovery, where they may have found their true identity, learned the Torah and even met God, and it was the only way through to the Promised Land and so it was also a sacred place.
This wilderness, I think, is the ‘absence’ that Brueggemann alludes to frequently. It is that extended space of time spent over loss and grief taught by Hebrew prophets. It is a time when we too can cry out under the pains of birth and call out to the Lord for help. In the talk that we heard in the Shabbat Service, we learned that in the Rabbinic literature as well as the Chasidic commentaries, midbar (wilderness) has come to be understood as the only place where all human transformation can take place. It is written that if you desire change, if you hope for anything new to come from within, you must first open yourself up like the midbar, this is according to Midrash, B’midbar Rabbah 1:7, “Make oneself like the wilderness, oseh atzmo k’midbar”.
The three places – mitzrayim, midbar, and eretz zavat chalav u’d’vash – represent the transitions of our lives and also the essential aspects of our souls. They are the mechanisms that make us who we are, and who we would like to be. We spend most of our lives in midbar seeking wisdom from the Torah or whole scriptures looking for that pathway to God. If we want to embrace others with a heart that is open we must become wilderness, empty ourselves, erase the ego and begin again.
Maybe during this period of darkness we should journey with the faith of Hebrews 11:1 with the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen, across the wilderness, aware of the truth of the prophetic imagination, waiting patiently it is centred around our God who is a living God, always creating anew, doing the impossible, as we have just witnessed in the Easter story, seeing life coming out of death, and light coming out of darkness – even the darkness of a worldwide pandemic.
If we can maintain the good things God has shown us in our communities - acts of selflessness, small acts of loving kindness shared with neighbours, acts of the ultimate sacrifice made by front line clinical carers shown to strangers that they have been sent to love and care for, the list goes on and on - as we travel together across the wilderness with our God who shares in the pangs of labour, revealing His plans for newness of life for His creation… can we rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him, and in His strength, with hope, while He finishes His new creation, on the far side of the wilderness, Amen.