Taking Back Control?

Added about 8 months ago by David Newman

GUEST BLOG: #BookOfTheMonth author David Newman takes stock of what we have learned from a year of pandemic, and explores aspects of life in lockdown that he hopes will continue into the future.

As spring has begun to show its colours of late, it has been impossible not to journey back a year and remember that time when we first entered lockdown, and could never have imagined what lay before us in the coming months. Covid-19 crept up on us and stole many of the securities and presumptions that underlay our everyday lives. We had just left the EU with the confident mantra of “Take Back Control”, and with deep irony we were plunged into the most uncertain and out-of-control time that most of us have lived through.

I remember listening to a Christian debate on suffering early in the pandemic, in which one of the speakers asserted that this was a time for the church to give a clear message that “God’s in control”. I understood the importance of trusting in God even when life was becoming very frightening and unpredictable. Yet I wanted to protest at such a message being proclaimed without qualification. What did it say to those experiencing deep trauma, sadness and anxiety through those days? If God was in control, then did it mean he didn’t care about such things?

We were quickly into Holy Week and Easter, and I found myself freshly surprised by the impact of the message of this festival at the heart of our faith. My wife and I were due to be leading a Holy Week retreat here at Launde Abbey for the eight people who had booked to come. With lockdown we pre-recorded the talks and put them each day on our website. It was astonishing. We averaged a thousand hits a day through the week, which was followed by unprecedented emails and letters of thanks. Somehow the events of the last week of Jesus’ life, so familiar and yet so large and important a part of the gospels, were speaking to pandemic-hit people with a fresh relevance and force.

As we looked at Jesus, we didn’t immediately see God in control, but God vulnerable, God overwhelmed with sadness, God putting himself in human hands and suffering. We saw evil being overcome not by some superior power of compulsion or control, but by persistent sacrificial loving goodness. I was recently reading a novel by Michael Mitton called The Fairest of Dreams, in which various characters contemplate the cross. He imagines the centurion looking at Jesus and saying: “He has surrendered everything. But he has not surrendered to the Emperor. He has not surrendered to Herod. He has not even surrendered to death. He has surrendered to love…” In Jesus, God’s power is revealed not as control but as love.

So in this pandemic I believe we have been given the gift of uncertainty, to help us learn afresh the importance of the power of love rather than the love of power or control. After the initial panic-buying at supermarkets and high-profile bending of the rules of lockdown, many people have let go of their normal lifestyles for the common good. Many heart-warming stories of care and sacrifice have emerged, from the NHS through to ordinary neighbourhoods pulling together. For all of us in the church too, we have had to learn the power of vulnerability and helplessness. Robbed of our normal patterns of meeting and worship we have been faced with what is left when it is just us and God, just us and Christ in us the hope of glory. If we have been prone to trust in our buildings, or our historic resources, our programmes and strategies, suddenly we have been stripped back to the simple foundations of our relationship with God and the power of the gospel. It is when the storm comes, says Jesus, that we discover whether our house is built on rock or sand.

All this finds expression in our ministry and mission which we have often wanted to control. We like to be the givers rather than the receivers, the sorted rather than the vulnerable. I remember once in one of the churches I served, we devised a hospitality scheme to provide Sunday lunch, where people could sign one list to host a meal or a second list to be invited to a meal. There were never enough on the second list. Yet Jesus said to his disciples “Take nothing for the journey – no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt.” That is really to go vulnerably. “When you enter a house, first say ‘Peace to this house’... Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you.” Allow them to give something to you – receive their hospitality.

I like to be a bit more prepared and protected when I go on a journey. When we went on holiday, the family joke was that I always had to have my briefcase. I argued that I needed somewhere to put the necessary travel documents and maps and reading material etc., but I know I was anxious too about not having enough to do, or not knowing where I was, or getting caught without the right backup. Like many others I have had to learn this year to live with uncertainty, a day at a time, enjoying the present moment. It’s not always been easy. However, I hope I have become more grateful for the small things, grateful for community, for other people, for God, for the power of love. When it’s all over I pray that we will not just “take back control”.

David Newman is warden of Launde Abbey, the retreat house for the dioceses of Leicester and Peterborough, where he leads retreats and conferences, offers spiritual direction and seeks to be a prophetic voice in an often anxious church. His book Growing Up into the Children of God: Exploring the Paradoxes of Christian Maturity is our April #BookOfTheMonth—get your copy here.

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