Theology for Pandemic Times
Honest Sadness Lament in a Pandemic Age John Holdsworth Sacristy Press 2021
Many of my friends have commented on their weariness with these weeks of lockdown. Government heralds progress with statistics about vaccinations delivered and the reducing infection numbers – and all that is all good – but these months have taken their toll.
Uncertainty, anxiety, isolation, loss of community and many of the things that enrich our lives have all served to reinforce our vulnerability. We are bounded and limited by time. We are not indestructible. We feel pain. We wonder why? So much has changed and the future looks unclear.
In the good old days ( if that is what they were) we had our friends and family to share our hopes and fears. We escaped to the cinema. We traveled to escape some of the monotony of work. We enriched our living with theatre, music and the company of beer and chat. These are tough times and unsettling for even the most positive and cheerful of us !
So into this space there is much to disturb our trust and stabilities, our rhymn and beliefs. We may be left bewildered by the commentators that suggest to us that nothing will be the same again. This is part of the soil within which this excellent book has been nurtured and grown.
John Holdsworth is a practitioner theologian and currently working as Executive Archdeacon of the Anglican Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf. His research interests centre on the communication of the Bible in contemporary culture. He knows how to write clear, accessible and useful books. His study guides will be know to many readers.
Eight chapters combine place ( Kofinou Camp, Bosnia, Bagdad, Lancashire, Newport Gwent ) with carefully articulated and integrated experience and story, biblical exegesis, poetry, theology, prayer and an invitation into reflection through suggestions for questions as the reader might ground this rich mix into the fabric of their own lives. There is a rhymn of theological reflection in this book that balances answers with questions. Holdsworth is unafraid to hold the gaps and imponderables. There is always space to stop and wonder.
The Biblical material is broken open, digested and expounded for guiding wisdom with authority. Here is a writer that knows and loves the Word as light, inspiration and truth. This is applied to a range of questions posed by the places and experiences within our pandemic times. Lament is the key theme – or drawing on the work of Walter Brueggemann asks we might be ‘communities of sadness’ (p v). We are invited to consider if discipleship demands that we give voice to lament as it it mirrored in our everyday experience. Has the Church capacity for this ? Can we stay with the questions, the struggles and the pain?
Incomprehension remains a uniting theme as lament is explored in Lamentations, the book of Job, the Psalms, Isaiah, Exekiel and Leviticus. In chapter 5 and drawing on the experience of the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf ( in the city of Bagdad) the reader is invited into thinking about the nature of good news. How do we become communities of hope that share forgiveness and power ( pp 76ff) ?
The journey into the teaching and witness of the New Testament opens up law and grace, power and weakness, endurance and love. The Church as community and household is a place of hearing, holding and journeying for us and through us on behalf of the world. This book becomes stronger and more persuasive as it articulates this outward facing conviction that the Church must always point beyond itself to God as it serves the world.
In chapter 7 we are taken into a moving discussion about what kind of God we believe in and how our lament might find expression in service and worship. God can never be domesticated or controlled or manipulated into our own ideology or comfort. Vision, honesty, passion and imagination are part of the experience and journey. They should shape our theology and discipleship.
Holdsworth shares the story of his wife and her journey with dementia. It is truthful and heartbreaking. It struggles to make sense and find the right words to article the questions. The pain of grief and the incompetence of those who wish to cover the wounds of living are named. In all of this reflection the reader is invited into asking the questions that we all long to ask. This is theology at its best – free of trite, formulaic short hand, tribal language and any fleeting satisfaction that we might gain from living on the surface.
We need to take risks as we peel away the layers of comfortable irrelevance that fears sadness and its power to a deeper truth of Gods love. We would do well to name our incomprehension as one of the starting points for hope and community.
This book stands in some sharp contrast to aspects of our ecclesial organisational culture. It bids us to let go of that which we cannot control in order to deepen our faith and to be able to integrate its love with our experience. This is a task of faith at all times but especially today as we move out of lockdown. We shall need to lament that which is lost and possibly never to be reclaimed.
We shall possibly need to think and feel our way into a different way of living and praying – more honest, certainly more relational and hopefully more deeply faithful to a God who is bound up in our struggles to flourish in community. Holdsworth establishes in the book a map, some skilful theological process and transformative biblical teaching.
This is theology at its best for Pandemic times. It deserves to be widely read and used as an enabler of growth in wisdom.