Professor Walter Brueggemann is a highly respected Old Testament scholar, teacher, prophet, pastor. He writes prolifically online and in print. He has just published his 100th book, Virus as a summons to faith. In the forward to the book, Nahum Ward-Lev writes: ‘“The summons Brueggemann hears in the devastation caused by the Covid-19 virus is the same summons that all prophets hear in the midst of calamity: the call into right relationship with Living Presence, a call into deeper, more caring, and mutually beneficial relationship with all that is. The devastating effects of the virus summon us to renew our covenantal relationship with God and to renew our responsibilities within that relationship.”
In an online article entitled, Abandoned, Brueggemann reflects on how we move forward in faith amid despair, through disciplines of faith. He writes: The coronavirus has caused many people to feel abandoned, and in actuality to be abandoned. I have been thinking about biblical articulations of a season of abandonment. To be sure these abandonments are not on the scale of being God-abandoned, but they no doubt move in the same sphere. We are all familiar with Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34), quoting from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1)
It is worth noticing that Psalm 22 moves at the end to a great assurance and affirmation: “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” (vv. 21-22). It is possible that Jesus implied the entire Psalm, speaking not only of abandonment but also of God’s rescue. God is always present. As a result, abandonment on the lips of Jesus is not the final word.
And yet, we need to recognise the lived reality of people’s lives – the genuine experience of divine absence and the real experience of being abandoned. Any assurance that flies in the face of this lived reality is not likely to be compelling or reassuring.
Let us entertain the claim – pastorally, theologically, historically – that Israel in exile was indeed God-abandoned (and that Jesus on the cross reiterated and replicated the abandonment of Israel). This claim is pastorally useful amid the virus, because it recognizes honestly and takes seriously the lived reality of those who die without the presence of loved ones, those who are left economically bereft, and those who are mandated to continue to work in unsafe environments.
The summons of faith amid abandonment is that we should in such circumstance maintain, with intentional resolve, faithful practices and disciplines that belong to our baptism. There is an antidote to despair in the regular practices of the disciplines of faith. It does not seem a far stretch to imagine that these practices that fend off despair include at least the following:
- In seasons of abandonment people of faith tell sustaining stories.
In ancient Israel they told the big stories of YHWH’s faithfulness, accounts of deliverance and transformation. These are the stories that evoked the characteristic mantra of wonder in Israel: “For God’s steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1, 2, 3, ff.) The telling of stories of the actions of the faithful (like Elisha who fed a hundred hungry people, 2 Kings 4:42-44), resonates with contemporary stories of generosity and sacrifice amid the virus. The telling of such stories keeps our attention fixed on life-sustaining reality in contexts that seem death-delivering.
- In seasons of abandonment people of faith sing defiant songs.
There can hardly be any doubt that singing is an antidote to despair. The songs of Israel are indeed these stories, big and small, set to rhythmic beat. The repertoire of such singing is limited and clearly defined, staying always with the wonderful transformative wonder of God, and with the attentive compassionate mercy of God. The singing constitutes a defiant act that refuses to permit life to be defined by circumstance. Life – the whole life of creation! – is occupied by the unutterable wonder of God. Such singing is not unlike the “We Shall Overcome” singing of the Civil Rights Movement. Israel’s hope-filled singing is not restrained by the shabbiness of circumstance.
- In seasons of abandonment people of faith pray without ceasing.
The prayers of Israel, along with the songs and stories of Israel, focus relentlessly on the wonder of God. The prayers of Israel are prayers of praise and thanks, voicing God as having faithful powerful agency in the world. The prayers of Israel easily address God as “Thou” (You!)
“Your way was through the sea, your path through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (Psalm 77:19-20).
In the presence of this overwhelming “Thou,” however, Israel does not hesitate to voice the legitimacy of “I” and “we”: “I cry aloud to God, aloud to God; In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord…I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints” (Psalm 77:1-3).
Thus the prayers of Israel, with articulation of “Thou” and claim for “me,” gives voice to both sides of the fidelity that sustains in the midst of abandonment.
- In seasons of abandonment, people of faith perform story, song, and prayer.
These covenantal acts, however, do not permit faithful people to withdraw into a closed or simplistic sense of “I-Thou” or “me and Jesus.” People of faith practice neighborly obedience. Thus Zechariah can say, just as Israel emerges from exile:
“Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor, and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another“. (Zechariah 7:9-10)
There is nothing remarkable about this catalogue of obligations, except that it is mouthed just at the cusp of homecoming. In its season of abandonment, Israel had not forgotten – and always remembered – that the performance or covenantal fidelity – even amid abandonment – consists in radical, restorative neighbourly actions for those left behind. To the familiar triad of “widow, orphan, immigrant,” the prophet adds “the poor.” Action toward the left behind who are treasured by God is a primary strategy for resisting despair in abandonment. Even abandonment does not diminish the urgency of the life of the neighbour!
These practices that might be given many forms of articulation are disciplines of resistance. Even (or perhaps especially) in dire circumstance of abandonment Israel does not cease to be the faithful people of the absent God. Such actions refuse despair, because they constitute an act of both remembering and hoping. At the same time these disciplines refuse denial because they look circumstance full in the face. For every praise there is a lament. For every thanks there is voiced need. For every act of neighbour, there is a sense of the legitimacy of self. By such resolved practices faithful people are not overwhelmed by circumstance. They rather redefine circumstance as a venue for a chance to live differently by fidelity that yields energy, courage, and even joy.
Brueggemann concludes: I am not, dear reader, making this stuff up; you can see it every day among the faithful!
This is adapted from the first of three articles in a series published by Church Anew.