The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.
One thing that has stood out to me throughout this year is how little we as a society know how to have periods of collective lament. Much as we have often been united by shared grief, there has been little public expression of this: collective frustration, perhaps, but often not collective grief. Memes comparing 2020 to grotesque flavours of chips or combusting portaloos have been more common than lament. And while there’s value in this kind of shared gallows humour, it seems we might be the poorer for not sitting in shared lament.
In particular, we do not really know how to collectively repent. Often we turn instead to laying political blame or defending our treasured positions. We are unwilling to recognise where we as a society have to share the blame – not for the pandemic, but for the greed and selfishness that was often revealed when the pandemic came, or for the failure to love our neighbours as ourselves that lay at the heart of so many tragedies and conflicts in our year.
Here, in Jonah 3, we see all of Nineveh, “from the least to the greatest”, united in lament and repentance. When does that happen in our world today? We either unite in blaming our leaders or blaming someone else – another people group, another philosophy, another country, another creed. When do we sit together in sackcloth and say that we as a society have done wrong?
It won’t cure the virus. It won’t answer every grief or fix every wrong. But who knows what it might accomplish, if people from either side of the political spectrum, from different classes and post-codes could be united in recognising that our world is not as it should be and that we must share some of the blame?
But we venture on. Newness at least is in the air, on Capitol Hill, in the fruit jumping out of trees. We cannot slow this if we wanted to. Shopping aisles charge on towards Christmas, while my heart craves Advent. I could use the dark, the waiting, to bend soul's joints back into shape, could use the long silence to learn again to wait, to wish. We have not yet traced the evil to the root, nor will we. But our hearts may learn to sing a purer song if they remember this: the days we could not sing or hug or kiss, the days we passed at home craving our home where we are not apart and not alone.
Bursting with change and the newness of experience…
The year stands,
A heaving monument to grace.
“The Swelling Year”, 2019
I would not have written those words this year. I almost cannot imagine the world in which I did write them. Though I first wrote them in 2012, they seemed an apt way to describe the year that lay ahead – 2020 – when I released The Swelling Year this time last year. But have the words proven false, now that we know how 2020 has turned out? I don’t believe so. Though I would use different language to describe the longing for, and prospect of, grace to come in the COVID world, God’s goodness and providence are no less real now than they were 12 months ago. Each year stands as a living, breathing monument to grace. We may not yet know the ways that grace will have proven to have been at work in 2020, but we have glimpses. And so I will rejoice, sometimes feebly, sometimes confidently, in the truth of those glimpses.
The Swelling Year (1st Anniversary Edition) is available from Lulu.com now.
The scent was masked as we walked, though hints of pollen pushed their way through cloth to me, and on return as I parked the pram and set excited new walkers free to roam, I soaked my senses in the radiance of fruit trees delighting in new white-pink growth, and the hope that if not now, soon at least, signs are sure, sure to be soon.
Deprived of the ordinary markings of days - drives to work, birthdays, people to celebrate - we cling more fervently to organic signs, the constant shifts in the garden, which trees have blossomed, which ones have leaves, how tall the pea plant has grown, how white its petals.
These and the aphids signal time: those and the snails migrating, the worms beneath the compost, the dead bird by the granny flat, rising and falling daily tallies, who died youngest, who's all clear and how long until - we cannot say - only greet other pilgrims on the way, and pray.
Bins at the curb, I pause in a night of deep quiet and catch the thought that no-one else is here.
Sleepy suburban street rarely parties; nights are seldom wild around here. Yet silence catches with surprise: no-one walking home from shops, no night-time joggers, no cars coming home. No feet sharing this curb with mine.
And this weekly domestic act becomes a moment of strange resistance, a heartbeat-long yearning to see other neighbours lugging their bins, to duck down the street to No.16 and say, "This package is yours. The postie dropped it here by mistake." But it's after 8 and I've no mask; the edge of this block is the wall for my feet.
To love my neighbour tonight is to go back inside and pray.
Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation…
2 Corinthians 6:2
We did not choose you, would not repeat you. Grief has built upon grief: ash and smoke first, Then this, a time we can only call "Unprecedented". And how it goes on, How quickly "normal" becomes a word Stripped of all meaning. How quickly "Stay safe" Replaces "See you later." We saw none Of this coming. Jetpacks and life on Mars Were my childhood predictions, not this. Yet future creeps up unannounced, and we, Had we heard her coming, would have moved to Iceland, or bought shares in hand sanitizer. Neither would we have chosen growth, or grace Bulldozing our plans and saving us instead.
"Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created." St Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises
Even this, Ignatius? When all are in retreat in their homes, when consoling and desolating spirits vy for the attention of every moment, when truth is in short supply and what truth we have is despair,
even now can we catch divine movement behind a face mask, hear the Spirit call beyond garden walls, see will and purpose despite ailing hope, even now can we notice Christ animate the soul though it flags and fails?
As the changing but constant expectations of a year that no-one chose keep knocking and the day of the Lord lingers and tarries from my watch-post, I long
to take this one quietly, on the bench, with Saul and the others who couldn't run the race. No shame in being worn out when the swift themselves are flagging and the flags are all at half-mast or lower. No prizes for laps of honour, least of all in a mask. Preserve breath, preserve what energy you have left, I say.
I say. Though my words burn and I would be better served not to speak but to hear. A voice like a whisper, like fire, like a victor: My yoke is easy. My burden is light. No shoulders strong enough for burdens today; even then, there is grace.