By Andrew Grinnell
Does your memory ever fail you when you are in a conversation? Once I was talking with someone who I knew I’d met before, but I couldn’t quite place them. After a while I realised that unless I asked them where I knew them from, I could get myself into a bit of a mess. So, I plucked up the courage to say that I was sorry, but I couldn’t remember where we had met. ‘You stayed at our house last week’ was their response.
On other occasions, my memory lapses are less embarrassing. Often in conversation I’ll say something along the lines of ‘I was talking to someone last week about this very issue’, before asking myself ‘now who was it?’ Immediately my mind flits to the various locations that I have recently visited to ascertain where I was likely to have had such a conversation. After recalling the location I’d try to remember who I’d talk too before identifying the specific person. This has meant that the last two years of endless zoom meetings have been problematic. My usual strategy of identifying the place and then the person, hasn’t worked as most encounters with other people have been on my computer screen and have taken place in the same room in our house. Without the reference points that place provides, I have struggled to remember ‘who I was talking to the other day’. It’s been disorientating.
For many of us the last two years have been disorientating in so many ways. Whether it’s endless zooms, adapting to ‘new working conditions’, trying to both parent and teach your own children or remembering what the current restrictions are, we’ve all lost our ‘co-ordinates’ in one way or another. Recently I spoke to a friend who is a GP who said that at the height of the pandemic, their practice had to have two meetings a day to keep up with the ever-changing guidelines. That sounds profoundly disorientating and disorientation is exhausting.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says that there are three types of Psalms – Psalms of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. Psalms of orientation are those characterised by a sense of ‘orderliness, goodness and the reliability of life.’ They celebrate themes like creation and look back at how things were originally intended to be.
The Psalms of disorientation often reflect upon distressing situations. They provoke lament and contain deep emotions like anger and resentment. Psalm 137 starts with the exiles lamenting their extradition from Jerusalem, ‘By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down and wept’. It finishes in anger as they contemplate the kind of revenge they feel should be meted out on their captors. Disorientation disturbs and disrupts in such a way that deep and sometimes dark emotions come to the surface. Maybe COVID has been an experience of disorientation for us theologically as well. We have lamented the friends and family members we have lost. We have been angered that we have not been allowed to do things that we used to think were ‘normal’. Many of us have felt captive within our own homes. The Psalms of disorientation may provide language for us to articulate these deep emotions.
For Brueggemann there is a final category of Psalms – reorientation. Having experienced disorientation Israel couldn’t look back to imagine life it its original orientation. Rather, having experienced disorientation they were to engage in a new future, the new possibilities that Yahweh had for them. Their reorientation into this new future was to be a sign of hope. The anguish of disorientation was not forgotten, removed or absent but was reframed in the light of the newness that God had for them. They were to look forward, not backwards.
As we continue to experience the disorientation of COVID may we learn to lament all that has been lost. May we bring into speech the depth of emotion that has been experienced. May we look forward and cultivate hope for the new things God will have for us. May we discover more of the God who is with us in the depth of our disorientation.
By Andrew Grinnell, Urban Life