When Beethoven realised that he was going deaf and that there was little hope of a cure, despair called. He avoided this by casting himself as the hero who would not be deflected from fulfilling his true vocation. For Beethoven this was his art: his music. Although he could not know what posterity would make of his work, he knew that he must continue.
Beethoven’s vision of himself reflects what Joseph Campbell distilled as key elements in the journey of any hero. He believed that when we read the stories of heroes from different times and cultures, we find that they contain the same essential elements.
For Campbell one of the core features of the hero’s experience is that almost immediately after they accept their vocation, they face a major challenge which threatens to break their will to fulfil their call. So, in The Lord of The Rings, after Frodo accepts his destiny to be the Ringbearer who will take the One Ring to its destruction in Mount Doom, tragedy appears to strike. He and the Fellowship of those who are to assist him, are crushed by the death of Gandalf, their sage and guide; evil then weaves its way into the Fellowship and consequently it breaks apart. Yet Frodo, although his hopes have been trampled upon and grief rests in his heart, does not allow this radical change of circumstances to deflect him from his call and vocation: he continues to Mount Doom.
Now, think of Moses after he reluctantly accepted God’s call to deliver Israel from slavery in Egypt. After what seems to be initial success, he faces a major crisis: he and the people are caught between the Red Sea and the army of Pharaoh. The Israelites call out to him,
‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt? “let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”
But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.” Exodus 14:11-13 NRSV
Moses does not capitulate to apparent calamity, but, in the new context, continues with his vocation.
Campbell’s observation, which is not without its critics, has nevertheless something important to say to us, as individuals and as church communities, in our present moment of pandemic crisis.
Although Covid-19 has radically changed the local, national and global ‘landscape’ of our lives and we rightly should not try, or desire, to return to ‘what was before’; neither should it be allowed to ‘set the agenda’. The authority to set our agenda belongs elsewhere: it rests in the heart of God and our path is revealed to us by Him. Revelation is not only of the ‘Big Picture’ as we move from Creation to the New Heaven and the New Earth, but is also foundational in the particular stories that we are called to be a part of in our specific locations in time and space; whether this be as individuals or local, national and global communities centred around Jesus. These stories are woven into the great, loving outworking of God’s will and it is into these that the present pandemic should be seen to fit and not the other way around. Even if Covid-19 is the catalyst for us discerning a particular call of God, it must fit into that call and not be seen as the call.
Let’s explore two scenarios. The first is where we find our experience echoing that of Beethoven, Frodo and Moses: we know our particular call and vocation, but we face a moment of potential destructive crisis or challenge. If before the pandemic we were clear that God was calling us to a particular area of mission, unless we now believe that we ‘got this wrong’, we must not be deflected from what is at the heart of this call. True, the context and resources may have radically changed, the operational capacity and ability may be very different from a few months ago, but the call, the vocation has not changed. This is our particular story into which Covid-19 must fit. Even if we are tempted, we must not withdraw; we must listen to the new, and led by the Spirit of God, adventurously and creatively reimagine the outworking of what God has revealed to us.
The second scenario is when the pandemic crisis is a catalyst for us hearing a call of God. Once again, the pandemic is not the story, it is only a part of it. In itself it does not create a call, rather it helps us be aware of God’s call; a call, which perhaps we should have recognised before. At this moment, in our wider society we are evidencing a similar type of ‘awakening’, as true values and virtues are being brought to the fore: values and virtues, which always should have taken ‘pride of place’.
Remember the experience of the early church in Acts [chapter 8]: after the crisis of persecution they did not go back to their pre-Pentecost timidity, but as a vulnerable, scattered community they shared the gospel of Jesus in Samaria and to the ends of the earth, as they had been called to do [Acts chapter 1]. The persecution did not create the call, rather, it was a catalyst for them fulfilling their vocation.
The landscape into which we are entering is one where there is, rightly, lament and grief and where, understandably there is fear and doubt and we must not dismiss these, but lovingly engage with them. However, it may also be a time of temptation, when we are drawn to try to re-establish the comforting and the familiar and to invest our resources in these, rather than in the living out of our true story and the fulfilling of our particular call and vocation.
David McCarthy is the Church of Scotland Development Worker for Fresh Expressions of Church and has written ‘Seeing Afresh: Learning from Fresh Expressions of Church’.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.