Gratitude, and Desert Places
We are living in unprecedented times, and none of us know quite how things will end. One of the unwanted side-effects of the current pandemic is that too many people are wanting to offer us their interpretation of events. The most bizarre, I suppose, is the unspeakable Trump who seems to imagine that the COVID-19 virus is a sinister weapon developed by the Chinese in order to undermine his business interests and to sabotage his chances of re-election as president. A little less far-fetched is the conviction that the virus is God’s judgement on a world that has turned away from his ways. I am as happy as anyone to denounce a culture that is too often characterised by anxiety, self-obsession, and greed. But, as Richard Holloway told us decades ago, when similar suggestions were made about the AIDS virus, the idea of God as a bomb-throwing terrorist simply will not do.
Here are two things that bear in on me in week two of the UK lock-down.
The late Oliver Sacks wrote a little book before he died in which he urged us to develop ‘an attitude of gratitude’. All prayer starts with thanksgiving. So, I am grateful for life in all its fullness; for eyes to see, and ears to hear, and legs that work – in spite of the passing years. At a time when our movements are necessarily restricted I am grateful for a comfortable house on the south side of Edinburgh, and for a lovely garden. I am grateful to be able to walk out of the house into the park and to walk round Arthur’s Seat with stunning views; first over the Forth looking out towards North Berwick Law and the Bass Rock; and then over Duddingston village and Duddingston Loch towards the Lammermuir hills; and then finally over the city of Edinburgh itself. It takes me an hour and twenty minutes to walk round the hill. And when I get home I’m grateful that Sainsbury’s self-delivery continues to operate through the crisis. And I’m grateful that I have more books that I will be able to read even if the lock-down lasts for a year. Currently I’m reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, a long overdue corrective to my western-European-centric view of history. And I’m reading Leap over a Wall, the late [great] Eugene Peterson’s 1997 book on the life of King David.
Peterson writes about David’s years on the run, living on the edge of the desert, fleeing from the murderous intent of King Saul. He writes specifically about David’s time at En-Gedi, a remote spring on the edge of the wilderness above the Dead Sea. We were privileged to visit the Holy Land back in 2013, and were able to take in Masada and En-Gedi, and the Dead Sea on a day trip out from Jerusalem. The wilderness for David was frightening, a place of danger; but it was also a place of truth and a place of beauty. A place where he learnt more about himself.
There are two other wilderness stories in the Bible: the forty years that Moses led the Israelites through the desert, during which they were trained to discern between idols and the living God; and the forty days that Jesus fasted in the Judean wilderness, during which he learnt more about the true nature of his Messiahship. Deserts are both a physical reality and a spiritual metaphor. For many of us the COVID-19 pandemic is a wilderness experience. We feel cut off from family and friends. We are not clear about the future path. We are aware of our limited, human resources. For David the wilderness was a life-enhancing experience. A time when he learned a new dependence on God. “Take pity on me, God, take pity on me, for in you I take refuge … until the destruction is past.” [Psalm 57: 1] My prayer is that this difficult time, this desert experience, will enable us to look differently at the world around us. And we pray that for world leaders too.