by Pastor Graham Cooke
When we were away on holiday in February I hunkered down with Vasily Grossman’s epic wartime novel, Stalingrad, which was recently published for the first time in English. Having finished that, I’m now re-reading the sequel, Life and Fate, which has been around in English for some time. Both are set around the Battle of Stalingrad, from Summer 1942 through to February 1943. This was a grim time both for the invading Germans and the defending Soviets, and the outcome perhaps had more influence on the final result of World War Two than any other battle.
However, I first became aware of this battle through a rather more unlikely source. Those of a certain age may well remember the Monty Python sketch where a certain ‘Mr Hilter’ is found hiding away in a small guest house in Torquay. When his hosts try to give him local directions they discover that his map is of Stalingrad, rather than Torbay. “You wouldn’t have had much fun in Stalingrad, would you, Mr Hilter!” they say. After being lost in deep thought for a while he replies “Not much fun in Stalingrad…No!”
It certainly wasn’t much fun in Stalingrad for anyone. As always, when I find myself reading or watching about such events, I find myself wondering how on earth I would cope in those situations. Either in battle itself, or trying to survive in the stark conditions- I can’t imagine it. I just don’t know. I am very thankful that I’ve never had to find out.
As we find ourselves in lockdown, with the threat of a highly contagious and deadly disease, it is really nothing like being in Stalingrad in that dreadful winter. We are not experiencing nerve-shredding air-raids, or having to adapt to buildings laid waste, or loss of life on the same scale. However, for most of us this is the most restricted situation in which we have ever found ourselves. Who would have thought, just a few weeks ago that we would not be able to celebrate Easter by gathering together as normal! Who would have imagined seeing such empty shelves in the supermarkets? We’ve never before experienced those graphs of cases and deaths growing exponentially, quadrupling week by week as they have done for the last two or three weeks.
So how are we coping? How do we respond? Some people see this as the harbinger of the end times. I believe the end times started at that Day of Pentecost, following Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. The years since have been punctuated with regular outbreaks of plague and pestilence. In 14th century England, for instance, half the population died of the Black Death. They surely must have felt that the end was near. However, I also believe that Jesus could return at any time, so who knows?
One thing is clear- this is a stark reminder that the things we naturally find ourselves relying on and looking to for safety and security suddenly don’t seem so unshakable any more. Our regular incomes, our pension funds, our jobs, our health. The jittery nature of the markets remind us just how shaky is the foundation of modern capitalism. Even the comfort of the nearness of friends and family is now not so certain.
One of Grossman’s protagonists in the Stalingrad novels is Victor Shtrum, a theoretical nuclear physicist. Initially his work is portrayed in vague and abstract terms but as the book progresses it begins to dawn on us that, of course, what he is working in is what all nuclear physicists would have been working on at the time. Grossman writes “It was a long way from the desks of a few dozen physicists, from sheets of paper covered with alphas, betas, gammas, psis, and sigmas, from laboratories and library shelves to the cosmic and satanic force that was to become the sceptre of State power. Nevertheless, the journey had been begun; the mute shadow was thickening, slowly turning into a darkness that could envelop both Moscow and New York.”
He is talking about nuclear weapons, of course; harnessing the massive energy that holds things together to use it instead to tear things apart, to earth-shatteringly destructive effect. Suddenly theoretical physics becomes not so theoretical. As I was growing up it was the threat of a gigantic nuclear explosion that seemed the biggest threat to humankind. Now the threat seems to come from a tiny organism that we cannot even see.
In one sense, in the last few weeks everything has changed. In another sense, nothing has changed, expect our increased perception of the frailty of human life and the fragility of our worldly systems. Actually, life has always been this frail, this much under threat. In reality, death has always stalked our planet as it does today.
In psalm 46 the psalmist writes:
“God is our refuge and strength,
An ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
And the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.”
It certainly does feel that our whole world has been shaken. Yet, some things remain firm. God is still our refuge and strength, just longing for all of us to run to him. The psalmist goes on:
“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.
The holy place where the Most High dwells
God is within her; she will not fall…”
“…Nations are in uproar…”
Just as the threat to humanity hasn’t really changed, neither has the cure to that threat. Our relationship with the Lord is the basis of our joy, our hope. He is the source of our love and our motivation for living. This is the reality that should shape all we do. Thus it is still possible to rejoice in him and in his goodness to us, even as we pray for mercy, as we grieve for those who mourn, as we reach out to help those in need, as we behave responsibly for the sake of our neighbours and our nation.
Meanwhile, the most powerful course of action that is available to us hasn’t changed either- we can still pray. Indeed as we realise just how fragile our world is, then maybe we’ll pray with more urgency, more frequency, more passion, expressing our utter dependence on the One who is our refuge and strength, who is ever-present and who is our great Helper.
The psalmist ends with the great assertion:
“The LORD Almighty is with us;
The God of Jacob is our fortress.”
As Roy Bishop has reminded us in a recent prayer meeting here at Kennet Valley, God did not self-isolate, he did not stand at a distance to avoid infection, but rather he sent his Son right into the heart of our diseased human race, in order to take up our infirmities and carry our sorrows. In this way, ‘by his wounds we are healed.’ (Isaiah 53:4,5). The life that Jesus brings is the river that makes us glad.
As our normal activities are hampered, as our usual running-around is curtailed, maybe we can hear the Lord’s voice in this psalm:
“Be still and know that I am God!
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”
Let us make that our passionate prayer.
 Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate (Vintage, London) 2006, 751