Restoration – Three reflections
What will we find when we return from exile? Isaiah 49:8-13
When I say ‘restoration’, what do we think of? The picture or furniture expert, whose job is to bring the object in question back to its original state of being? Removing the dirt and grime, the accumulation of perhaps centuries, so that what the creator wanted us to see is revealed. Is this the same as the restoration we’re asked to consider now? To get back to some original mythical, elusive pure Eden; or is it to strip away the non-essentials of our own dirt and grime …what we might call sin, except that it isn’t quite that…..and discover who we really can become and what God wants from us as people, as communities, as worshippers. Do we know, or can we imagine, what we want to find when we return from our state of exile?
We’ve been barred from being close to others in person, from being able to do the everyday activities we’ve taken for granted. Only seeing people on a small screen or at a suitable approved distance. No going to church. No social activities. No hugs or cuddles outside of your household, tough if you’re a single person. Some even frightened to go outside. We have in effect, been as dispossessed as the people of Israel in their Babylonian exile; and those who haven’t got the money to afford, or knowledge to operate digital access have been the most deprived exiles, dependent on someone knowing that they even exist. I suppose the real question is what do we want to restore. What things mattered to us before all the disruption of the past few months, but more crucially, what might be important to us after we emerge into the open – so to speak. What have we learned in our exile?
God allowed the people of Israel to be taken away from Jerusalem and homeland because they disobeyed how God commanded them to live. And when in a strange land, they found that they had to become strong communities to continue their way of life. But at the same time, realise the reasons for their captivity and consequences of their disobedience. Once they learned that their exile was in fact their own fault, God brings them back to home, to their holy city Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. And God will bring us back, like the exiled people of Israel.
I’m not suggesting in any way that disease and death and subsequent lockdown are God’s punishments for how we’ve been treating creation. Bad things can happen to good people. But just returning to the same place after lockdown isn’t an option. Restoration will need to be into somewhere different, where we realise that everyone and everything is connected. What will our new Jerusalem be like, and what will we want to find there? Have we taken away enough of the dirt and grime to see clearly what God will expect of us?
Why can’t we have it all back the way it was? Psalm 27:1-12
When we return to our Jerusalem, to our churches and fully into our communities, and find what’s left and what we have to rebuild, we could look at where we are and think that we should just carry on with our lives as though the previous 3 months had never happened. And there’s a strong sense of religious tradition which dictates that nothing should be changed. Yes, we’ve been doing all this live streaming and reaching out to people who may never have been inside a church before, or who are ill or housebound, or simply curious. But there might be a yearning to just ‘get back to normal’, whatever that is. Normal could mean that we believe God wants us all to gather in one place and that God wants us all to worship in the same way; which more often than not means of course that God likes it the way I like it. Or – in many churches but fortunately not here – only the way the Vicar likes it.
The reality is that we can never just go back to a previous existence in both life and worship, we need to move on. Restoration has to include change. Change is inevitable, change which will unsettle many, please some and greatly displease others. In our restoration to life in the dwellings of the house of the Lord hopefully we will have learned from how we’ve had to adapt in our exile, and abandon the idea about blindly returning to ‘the way it was.’
When we were thrown into lockdown overnight, with Easter on the horizon, I was invited into an online thread which was discussing how we were going to manage liturgy and worship during Lent and particularly Holy Week. The almost exclusively clergy membership were overwhelmingly concerned with how they were going to reproduce exactly what they would have done if there hadn’t been any restrictions. And, I might say, for some of them, in how to bend the rules and guidance to breaking point. It made me sad to think that very few of the group were interested in discovering new ways of making Holy Week special by creating worship which didn’t rely on only rigid tradition. And there was a lesson in having Holy Week in some places as a period of desolation, of deliberately NOT including much of anything traditional; but waiting until we could all gather together in person to remind ourselves about the value of both desolation and celebration.
There’s a danger here. If the only thing we, as worshipping Christians, are looking forward to is ditching everything we’ve created or experienced since the middle of March and reinstate the status quo of pre-lockdown, how does that contribute to our restoration. Psalm 122 says I was glad when they said unto me we will go into the house of the Lord. But although the house of the Lord will be the same physical setting, it almost certainly will not be the same spiritual one we left behind 3 months ago. Are we going to restore being a worshipping community which voluntarily locks ourselves into having it all back the way it was because it’s too frightening to venture beyond familiar boundaries? Or are we going to be open and creative enough to welcome our restoration as part of a resurrection into a new way of being church and community? It’s our choice. Do we actually want it all back just the way it was?
It’s life Jim but not as we know it. Matthew 5:1-12
Now, before any of you Trekkies jump on me saying that Mr Spock never said this in any Star Trek episode or film, I already know that. But it’s a good tag for the reflection on this Beatitudes reading.
When we look at the Beatitudes, we may think that they’re a set of promises which are idealistic pie in the sky. Nice comforting stuff which says that even if life is tough now, it will be OK some time in the future. It certainly isn’t what we find at the moment. The meek aren’t inheriting the earth – it’s the rich and powerful who are manipulating it for their own purposes or profit. Those who mourn all the deaths of the past weeks and months are rarely truly comforted. People who hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness are obstructed by mechanisms of officialdom; who put commercial and economic objectives ahead of a fair deal for as many as possible.
Maybe it would be better to think about the Beatitudes being Jesus’ blueprint to restore humanity to that relationship that God wants us to have with both God’s kingdom and each other. For the way things are really meant to be, not wishful thinking about ‘wouldn’t it be nice if’. A template for Jesus teaching us about God’s will but leaving us to work out the ways of putting that will into practice, where everyone and everything matters to both God and us.
We may think that restoration will be accomplished when things return to the same place we left, once we’re ‘allowed’ by the authorities to meet anyone we want to, when and where, in unspecified numbers; and that we can go back to our churches and gather together in one place like we always have done. When we can return to being communities…but we still might not know who our neighbours are. Well I hope not. That wouldn’t be restoration, it would be retreat. In order for our restoration to be complete we have to experience a sort of resurrection, dying to an old life and rising again, changed.
I hope we will have been changed by the dreadful experience of lockdown. I hope that in the future we’ll always feel uncomfortable somehow with what we unconditionally accepted before, always discontent with the status quo, always searching for life – but somehow not as we’ve known it up to now.
As we are restored and follow Jesus to be formed into the values of the Kingdom, we start to experience our own resurrection, here and now. We will be changed. What we will know will be life, but certainly not as we know it now. It will be what Jesus promises us, life in all its richness. We will be reborn into a new life, to the start of our resurrected life; and in that life we might start to know truly what God’s will is for us as we experience this rebirth, this restoration. A resurrection which takes us into something perhaps frighteningly unknown, but wonderfully new. If we’re brave enough, we’ll discover that it will be life, Jim, but not as we have ever known it.
©Leslie Spatt 2020