Church unity: one of many pandemic opportunities

Four ways to make this Easter count

How we long for the day when things will be back to normal! It’s a strange, fragile season we’ve all been thrust into – unprecedented. But we’re all in this together so, this Easter, what might be opportunities out of this pandemic period that somehow unite us all?

Opportunity 1: Prayer for Church unity

I’ve been pondering how Christians everywhere – whatever “flavour” or “tribe” – are in the same boat of now all being digital communities. And in the midst of growing secularism, I’ve been challenged to pray for Christian Church unity, especially as we all declare this Easter Sunday, with one voice, “He is risen … He is risen indeed!”; “Jesus is Lord. Jesus is King!”

Perhaps this can be a time when Christian churches together can be praying for Church unity and joining with Jesus’ prayer: “The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind – just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, so they might be one heart and mind with us (John 17:21, The Message).

This is the basis of “spiritual ecumenism” – praying for the unity of Christians in the way Jesus “wants it, where, how and when he wants it.” (as German theologian Walter Kasper put it)

According to Kasper, spiritual ecumenism recognises that Church unity is “not our work but the work of the Holy Spirit”, for such unity is only achieved “in the Holy Spirit.” He continues: “As the first disciples prayed unanimously after Jesus’ ascension into heaven together with the women and with Mary for the coming of the Spirit (Acts 1:12-14), so we should also pray for a renewal of the event of Pentecost. In this we should make Jesus’ prayer our own that we should be one.”

Being a follower of Jesus is not just an individualistic “thing”.

This necessitates an “openness for the working of the Holy Spirit who alone can open the heart towards sympathy and empathy.” This enables us to “overcome prejudices, to admit and repent the errors of the past and our own faults.” Kasper argues that the Spirit “helps to overcome the notion of competition and to recognise the gifts given to others and to accept them also as gifts for us. He leads us to carry the burden of others (Galatians 6:2) and to share in solidarity the joy, suffering, hopes and sorrows of others.”

I’m profoundly moved by Kasper’s words about spiritual ecumenism. Being a follower of Jesus is not just an individualistic “thing”. We’re called to be part of Christian communities, and all those Christian communities – whatever flavour – are part of the worldwide Christian Church, who together declare “Jesus is Lord. Jesus is King!”

Further, as Pentecostal scholar Harold Hunter highlights (quoting David Carter), unity and mission go hand in hand: “a united Christian Church has impact – that they may be one so the world ‘may believe.’”

Each morning I’ve been praying for this spiritual ecumenism – the unity of Christian churches – as I’ve engaged prayerfully with the Psalms.

Opportunity 2: Praying the Psalms – adoring our one, true God

My morning ritual – meditating upon the Psalms, praying for Church unity and for those who are suffering and vulnerable – has become an important rhythm before I reach for my device to read the latest COVID-19 update.

I find the Psalms particularly helpful in the age of COVID-19, given two-thirds of them contain lament. However, all of them (except for one – Psalm 88) lead us in a stunning reorientation back to the reality that “You are God – the majestic, mighty God.”

Praying the Psalms slowly, out aloud, can help us stay hopeful and peaceful in the midst of these challenging times.

The Psalms suddenly shift from lament and erupt into worship. They lead us into adoration of God: “every cloud is a flag to your faithfulness” (Psalm 57:9, The Message); “As high as heaven is over the earth, so strong is his love to those who fear him” (Psalm 103:11, The Message).

We can be reminded of these great truths that we can visualise from our windows, balconies and gardens as we gaze up to the skies. Creation around us is a herald to God’s faithful love, protection, power and stability.

When I lived in Vancouver, I’d gaze at the mountains and murmur “You are my rock” (Psalm 18:2, NIV). Keeping our eyes open to the Psalms’ earthy visuals, drags us into the reality that God is “other”, enormous and stable. There is no other God.

Praying the Psalms slowly, out aloud, can help us stay hopeful and peaceful in the midst of these challenging times.

Opportunity 3: Reflecting upon “God with us”

Another helpful rhythm is the “examen of consciousness” at the close of each day. It’s simply a time to pause and prayerfully ponder what happened during the day and reflect upon how conscious of God and others we were during that day – to offer thanksgiving for any attentiveness to God; confession for self-absorption and times when we ignored God and “neighbour”; and to pray for a greater awareness of God’s presence and compassionate love towards others the following day.

For in the age of COVID-19, we’ve all been slowed down from the rush of life. This has provided opportunities to engage in intentional rhythms that can help us grow in our noticing – our attentiveness to God, deeper intimacy with our Triune God –  and more generous love for others.

Perhaps this is an opportunity for our hearts to be “enlarged” in the waiting.

Opportunity 4: Remembering the hope of Eternity

I’m reminded once more of the Australian soldier Arthur Stace (1885-1967), who though illiterate – in fact, barely able to write his name – wrote the word “Eternity” in chalk more than 500,000 times on the streets of  Sydney during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. (Eternity News masthead pays homage to Stace’s street art)

This was Stace’s visual reminder that we are all, as the caption for Van Gogh’s painting of 1890 declares: “At Eternity’s Gate.”

I close with the words of a song by Josh Fox and Jason Ingram that have been resonating in my heart this past week:

“How we long for the day
When every sorrow will be washed away
And all of your glory will be revealed
So we sing come Lord Jesus come

And the heavens will open wide
All the angels will fill the sky
And the anthem we sing
Jesus is King

All creation will be released
Every nation will bow to thee
And the anthem we sing
Jesus is King

How we long for the day
When every injustice
You vindicate
And all of this world
Will fade away
In the light of your glory
In the light of your face.”

My prayer for us all this Easter and through this trying COVID-19 season is captured in these words: “May the God of green hope fill us up with joy, fill us up with peace, so that our believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!” (Romans 15:13, The Message, made plural).

Dr Robyn Wrigley-Carr is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Spirituality at Alphacrucis College. She also is an ADM Senior Research Fellow for 2020, and the author of new book The Spiritual Formation of Evelyn Underhill.