Voices of the Churches October 2021
From Deacon Michael Turnbull, Our Lady’s Church, Marnhull; RC Chaplain, HMP Guys Marsh The prisoner sitting across from me looked
Over the last year, I and many other church leaders have been spending a lot of time, thinking, praying and talking about the inspiration and comfort that we have found in the later part of the book of the prophet Isaiah. Speaking to his compatriots perhaps 70 or more years into their exile from Israel in Babylon, Isaiah held out to them a new hope. He spoke of the hope of return to their beloved homeland: of how a new Creation would spring up around them as they experienced their own Exodus from a land of slavery and exile to the Promised Land. But joyful as that return would be, his message contained a note of caution too. For having learned to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”, they would now need to relearn that song again. The song had been changed forever by their exile. It could hardly remain the same back in the old country, but neither could it be unmarked by the experiences they had undergone.
The parallels with our strange and alienating experiences of the last 16 months are clear to find. We may not have left our localities, or indeed our homes, quite as dramatically, but we have been exiled from much that we used to find familiar. And we too have learned to sing the Lord’s song in a different way. For some time, very much like the exiled Jewish people, we found our faith becoming a much more domestic concern, as we worshipped in our various ways in and from our homes. And those who have been able to return to their church buildings have not been able to assume that all would go on exactly as before.
But, for most of us, many of the restrictions are past – or we hope they soon will be. We are reaching the moment when we can stop, look around and determine what the Holy Spirit is saying to us in our new situation. So I now find myself drawn to a different part of the Old Testament: to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. These tell the story of those first Israelites who returned to Jerusalem and found themselves confronted with a ruined city and Temple. Under their secular and religious leaders, they turned first to their law and their history, reading it aloud in community, before turning to the practical business of rebuilding walls and roofs and streets – of making a fitting new home for God and for themselves.
So too life will slowly settle into its new pattern for us. In our homes, in our working lives and in our worship together, we need to take our time to pray and read and discern where God is taking us. I pray that we will find inspiration and challenge for a brighter and more hopeful future; one that looks something like the past, but builds on it something lasting and glorious: a new Temple of praise to our God built in lives of love and service to each other and to our community.