Tuesday 26th November, Evening Prayer
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
In my old profession as an academic in international law, sometimes I was asked to lecture in rather exotic places. At one instance, I found myself lecturing in a country with limited religious freedom. I myself was able to attend churches reserved for foreigners, but our Christian sisters and brothers local to that country had to choose either authorised churches, which were under state censorship, or ‘unauthorised’ gatherings based in private homes or hotel rooms.
One day, I was approached by a local friend of mine, and he very cautiously asked me how a ‘real’ church looks like, how church organs or bells sound like, and what a ‘real’ priest looks like. I felt rather relieved that he asked nothing about ordinands. It turned out that he belonged to an ‘underground’ congregation that discreetly met in its members’ homes; as the congregation was unable to afford ordained ministers, he had very limited access to Eucharists or even formal sermons.
Upon hearing that, I was surprised and rather embarrassed about how I took for granted having God’s grace of being able to worship God without fear. But then this friend of mine turned to comfort me – ‘it is not that bad’, he said, ‘whenever I feel isolated, I’ll just read the Bible and imagine myself as being on exile in a foreign land.’
Perhaps we all have, in our own ways (great or small), had the experience of being an outsider, or a person who does not belong, having to live under the dominance of a power, an ideology or a value system that is foreign to us. This may range from extreme cases of having to live under an authoritarian government, to more common cases of having to sit in a lecture that is just a bit too dry. I, for example, used to feel like this quite often when I worked in a solicitor’s firm dealing with mergers and acquisitions. I am glad to say that I worked there for only forty-two days. After which I booked my first appointment with the DDO (note: Diocesan Director of Ordinands).
In our own time of loneliness, irritation and distress, let us open the Scriptures and find our courage and strength.
In Isaiah 40, our first lesson of this evening, we heard the prophet using his poetic language to encourage God’s people living in exile. Yet strikingly, as he calls his people to ‘lift up their eyes on high’ (40:26), the prophet extends his vision beyond the shackles and chains that trouble his people in that context, and turns to adopt a cosmic view in which heaven becomes just a curtain, and earth becomes nothing but a tent.
But would such language, grand and powerful as it might be, offer any actual help to anyone’s actual worries of the day: ‘no-deal’ and border walls, petrol bombs and tear gas, final exams and essay deadlines?
Yes, I venture to say, yes! And I humbly suggest that there are three messages that one could learn from the reading of today. The first message, as I can see it, is that ‘God loves us’. As the prophet cries out: look at the stars! Look at how God made and numbered all the stars in the sky, and called each of them by their names; before God, not even one star is missing. And if the stars, how much more for each of us – knowing that we are made after God’s own image!
The second message of today’s reading, I suggest, is ‘God’s justice will surely prevail’. As the prophet says: ‘it is [God] who sits above the … earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers’ (41:22). Before God, all nations (40:17), princes (40:23) and idols (40:19), together with all the troubles they may present from time to time, are ultimately no match to the supremacy of God.
The third message, it follows, is that ‘let us be magnanimous in our assured, ultimate victory’. Some scholars have pointed out that the prophet does not even mention the name of the oppressing power. This is perhaps not surprising: because before God, oppressive forces are little more than dust and grasshoppers – thus, of course there is no need to be concerned about their actual names. Therefore, with God as our defender and advocate, let us be bold enough to free our minds from the struggles that might trouble us from time to time, and be magnanimous in our assured, ultimate victory.
The Holy Scripture is full of images of foreigners and exiles. Scripture does not only equip us to survive during times of exile; it even calls us to live as strangers and resident aliens to this world (1 Peter; see also Hebrews). Bonhoeffer reminds us that Jesus Christ lived his earthly life among his enemies; his disciples deserted him at crucial times, and he died alone on the cross. Bonhoeffer goes further to say that it is a privilege, not a right, for Christians to live in a community among other Christians.
As our shared journey of this term is coming to an end, let us lift up our eyes on high, and seek God’s encouragement in our own endeavours and pursuits, and let us expect with hope and joy for an even better tomorrow to come. Amen.
Dr Kelly Shang is a final year ordinand undertaking exchange studies/formation at Westcott House; her sending diocese is the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, Australia. Kelly gives thanks to Rev Annabel Shilson-Thomas and Rev Timothy F. Merrill for their help in preparing this work.