Look Around, Look Around.
It's not often we know that we're living through history. I've tried to be alert to it (but mostly failed miserably). It has predominantly felt unreal, but also magical - in the sense that truly magical things inspire awe, wonder and fear in roughly equal measure.
The song in the musical Hamilton in which we meet the Schuyler sisters has been in my mind and on my lips for much of this time. Angelica leads her sisters through the revolution-torn streets of Manhattan, singing ‘Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!’. The youngest of the sisters, Peggy is less than convinced, while Eliza, in the middle, seems, well, in the middle:
Peggy: It’s bad enough Daddy wants to go to war
Eliza: People shouting in the square
Peggy: It’s bad enough there’ll be violence on our shore
Angelica: New ideas in the air!
Look around, look around…
Who is right? They both are. Both perspectives are true and real and accurate. They are both valid ways of seeing and interpreting the world-changing events.
This pandemic has been devastating for many people. It has caused immense suffering and loss and will continue to do so for many years. The financial implications alone of pausing the economy and borrowing from our futures to pay so many, many wages for so many months will be enormous. Political unrest will continue. Unemployment will continue and poverty will grow. The mental and physical health toll on frontline workers will crash like a tsunami. And many thousands of people will be left with unresolved grief caused by losing loved ones from a distance.
It has been a truly awful year for many people.
But for many others it has been a year of opportunity, of possibility, of new beginnings. Entrepreneurial delivery services have opened up, online platforms have flourished. People have taken up new hobbies and learned new skills. The housebound have been able to participate in church, in theatre, in concerts all over the world and to have exactly the same experience as the able-bodied audience. Neighbours have met each other and talked, perhaps for the first time. Christians have had a reason to introduce themselves to their neighbours, offer help and build relationships. During the first lockdown there were stories of impromptu orchestras and choirs forming in the streets as people took their talents outside and joined in with their neighbours, distant but together.
And of course, most significantly, many people have been led to consider the bigger questions of life and faith, have joined Alpha or Christianity Explored courses, have joined churches and have even been baptised when that has been possible.
It has been a year of tragedies, of disasters, of intense struggles. But it has also been a year of joy and delight; a year of wonders; a year of miracles.
Today has been designated a National Day of Reflection. For most people that will mean a day of reflecting on the sorrows - looking around at the conflict, the sadness and the loss. For the Angelicas among us, perhaps it will mean looking around with excited anticipation at the opportunities we’ve been given, the chance to ‘build back better’, the phoenix that could arise from the flames.
Perhaps an Eliza approach might be better; an approach that sees the suffering, but also sees God’s sovereignty.
Isaiah 43 has kept coming back to me over the last few months:
But now, this is what the Lord says –
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour;
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
The wild animals honour me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise.
(Isaiah 43:1-3, 19-21. My emphasis)
The wilderness and the floods and the fire are real, but God’s promise isn’t just that ‘when it’s all over’ he will put everything right. He is with us right now, in the midst of it. He is the water of life in the wilderness, the stream of nourishment, blessing and abundant life flowing through the middle of the desert.
He is still God, he is in control, he is worthy of our praise.
Look around. Look around.