Corona Mail

Corona Mail written by Rev Bob


Corona 12

I don’t remember who was on quartermaster’s duties at the time, but the other day we ran out of marmalade. Admittedly it was the last jar of the last batch made from the Seville oranges bought in January 2019 – if we’re being totally, scrupulously, honest here I seem to recall bringing home maybe nine pounds back then – enough for three batches producing about thirty pounds in total. We have had other things on our minds lately so keeping count of marmalade jars remaining wasn’t very high on our list of priorities.

The next time we shopped I included a jar of marmalade – the only thing to be said in its favour is that it didn’t last long. Marmalade appeared again on yesterday’s list but as I wandered around Morrison’s (having previously made two trips to the tip) my eye was caught by lemons – on offer – and limes. I’m writing this to the sensory accompaniment of lemon and lime pulp being boiled in one pan, and shredded lime and lemon peel being boiled in another. It’s making my teeth water. Tonight the pulp will be strained through a muslin bag – we used to use a knitted cotton dishcloth until Ruth caught us and set us on the straight and narrow. The contents of the two pans will be united, six pounds of sugar added, subjected to extreme heat, cooled, bottled, and labelled before finally appearing on a slice of toast.

. . . There has been a slight pause in order to initiate the straining process, the peel continues to simmer away. Lemon and lime marmalade is something of a first – Seville orange is delicious, grapefruit less so, lemon and lime will shortly come under judgement. I tried baking corn bread the other day – it was edible but nothing that special – I’ll make another loaf to finish off the polenta but I shan’t be in any hurry to have another pop, not after we have unlimited access to wheaten flour in Tempo. As skills learnt are transferable I’m looking forward to ‘making ministry’ in a different context with a slightly different recipe, living ‘off-site’, working half-time, spending time with myself – and Jenny – moreso than I’ve been able to do these last thirty odd years.

. . . It is now the morning after and the marmalade has gone from teeth watering to making my toes open and close with a bang – even without the benefit of toast. The jars are warming while the pan sits cooling in order that the peel might settle throughout the mix – I’ve only tasted the drips that fell on the plate to test for setting – honest, but it’s very sharp and by the look of things will be a tawny orangey colour. I’m still something of a rookie when it comes to jam and marmalade – recipes are followed to the letter, times strictly observed but even so setting point remains a mystery. The change in consistency and appearance that wiser heads speak of are beyond my wit to notice. I remember some of my mother’s spectacular failures – strawberry jam that wouldn’t set, mincemeat that started to ‘work’ in the jar and acquired a delightfully alcoholic tang, but I don’t remember any of them surviving very long. There are some things that just cannot be hurried – marmalade and ministry among them – patience is the key to a profitable outcome. Quick fixes seldom last long and often necessitate further work that could have been avoided if more care had been exercised at the start.

From my perspective ministry is more about process than outcome – a group of people each with their own particular gifts and skills – working together for the growth of the kingdom and the good of the particular community in which they live. An exercise in co-operation that God will bless in God’s own way – sometimes even in ways that no-one thought possible. The role of the pres-byter is more akin to the conductor of an orchestra than a sergeant-major of marines. The particular blessing arising from a period of ministry is never down to one person no matter how willing some individuals are to seek the glory of it.

As time goes on it seems increasingly unlikely that we will be able to share in anything like a farewell service that we have known – if anyone has any alternative suggestions I’d be happy to hear them – my hope would be for a service in praise of the generosity of God who calls each one of us into ministry and developes in each of us a particular set of skills and abilities that enable a particular outcome – which may or may not be intended. Among the contributions to the ministry of the Welshpool Bro Hafren Circuit I would be hoping to celebrate are those of Michael Jones – he was Senior Circuit Steward when I arrived and is currently in hope of standing down or at least assuming a more consultative role, Stan Mountford – Circuit Property Steward without whom life in the Manse at least would have been quite fraught, his oversight of the management of the Circuit property portfolio, his willingness to go into bat against TMCP has been of inestimable worth, he too seeks to be relieved of his responsibilities. Michael Taylor is taking another crack at sitting down – he expressed a wish to do so when Sue left but was willing to continue with ‘light duties’ in Welshpool. Janice, Derek, Emma, Anthea, Kevin, Andrew, . . .  Church stewards, local preachers, magazine producers and contributors, tea makers and washers up, cake-bakers, gatherers in worship, readers of the Bible – we are together the people of God, the Body of Christ in this place, ours is the ministry that God has blessed, ours is the ministry that God will continue to bless in the times to come, wherever we exercise it with whomever we share it.


Corona 11

 Over coffee on the back step this morning Jenni told me of a conversation she had recently had with a friend from one of our previous appointments. It had been a brief conversation because she was leading a retreat on ‘Zoom’. There is something of the ‘technological Luddite’ in Jenni and myself which dealing with t’internet in Newtown has greatly exacerbated.

When we go on retreat we head off to a convent on the edge of Monmouth and the company of the sisters of the Society of the Sacred Cross. For the few days that we are there we ‘live apart together’ – sleeping in separate rooms, meeting up with each other only at meal times and for worship in Chapel, spending an hour or so together in the early evening in conversation about the days reading and contemplation – sometimes in the company of one of the sisters. Whatever Jenni’s friend thought she was doing on ‘Zoom’ it bore no relation to any retreat we had ever experienced – or for that matter would ever wish to.

Retreats are infinitely personal things involving God and the person, sometimes they involve travel and leaving home and there is a group that organises ‘retreats in daily life’. The only requirements are space, solitude and a degree of comfort. The introduction of ‘technology’ into the relationship with God is to me just a further hurdle to be overcome.

The experience of ‘quarantine’ has been quite enlightening for me. For long years I have treasured and nurtured the gift of preaching entrusted to me – reading all sorts of books to freshen my understanding and use of language, trying to help folk make connections between the stories they read in the Bible, their library books and their daily lives – to recognise that our experience of life is not significantly different to that recorded in the pages of Scripture. I have not entered a pulpit for nearly twelve weeks and am surprised to realise that I have hardly missed it at all.

The service of Holy Communion that I shared with the congregation in Newtown on the 15th of March – as the nation went into quarantine – was very strange. Even though we were together it felt as though we were worshipping apart – no handshake in greeting or farewell, no giving of bread and wine but rather a taking – yet now that we are apart it feels like we are worshipping together. I have realised that a congregation is a vital part maybe even the beating heart of worship for me – it is about a personal presence as much as about a Real Presence, it is about the embodiment of God – the sense of God – in the life of the individual.

My faith is about a quality of relationship – God with us – us with each other – a quality of relationship that can only be experienced as it is embodied. I talk to my children and grandchildren on skype and on the telephone, it is always a pleasure to see them, to hear their voices, but that pleasure is dependent upon a prior relationship – a relationship can be mediated by technology and any relationship that begins other than in physical contact will be significantly changed – for good or ill – when that first meeting occurs. Back in the good old days we were encouraged to ‘have’ pen-friends – whatever magazine I read as a child encouraged their readers to respond to a pen picture of a person and send their letters to the editor who would forward them on to the person in question.

I can be whoever I want to be in writing a letter, releasing tweets and snippets of information on Facebook or whatever, I can only be known as I am – as I am met – looked on, listened to, breathed in, touched and talked to. Maybe this is the time when the Christian church gets to grips with the technological communication of the Gospel – for some of those who hear the idea of joining a local congregation will be meaningless – their faith will always be private and personal to the exclusion of everyone else. They and the Christian Church will benefit more as they are drawn into the congregation of the faithful in a particular place.

As the national conversation moves on and we consider how to encourage people to get out and about, to meet and greet again, there is a conversation to be had in the Church around how we are to draw these newcomers to the faith into relationship in their particular community.

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A little over a week ago I participated in the most meaningful ceremony of remembrance and celebration on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of peace in Europe in 1945. There were no more than a dozen of us – neighbours, friends, and passing strangers who stood together for five minutes or so while another neighbour blew The Last Post and the Reveille pausing for two minutes in between. Meaningful certainly and, dare I say so, appropriate – after the opportunity of 75 years reflection I’m saddened to realise that we still think of war in terms of winners and losers when in reality such labels are only meaningful for a year or two. Perhaps if we could learn to celebrate the anniversary of peace in Europe we might begin to appreciate a new way of relating to each other as neighbours and equals.

Each year, as the seasons of Remembrance come  round, my heart goes out to those who were killed, to those whose lives were broken by the loss of limbs or looks or minds, to those whose hearts were broken by distant death or a ruined life returned to them in nothing like the shape it was previously lent. There are no winners in war. As we celebrate the ‘unsung heroes’ of the current pandemic my hope is that they will not be forgotten as quickly as the ‘unsung heroes’ of the Commonwealth who suffered and died as generously as the English, Welsh, Irish and Scots did. It took fifty or sixty years for the U. K. to include the ‘song’ of the Commonwealth servicemen and women in our notionally national celebration. Not until 1999 were we willing to hear the ‘song’ of the contribution to the war effort made by the gay and lesbian community. Not until the construction and planting of the National Arboretum was there any recognition of the heroism of the conscientious objector or those mistakenly ‘shot at dawn’ for cowardice.

The experience of life is far more nuanced than our understanding of history would lead us to believe. Are we required to suspend our disbelief in order to participate in such celebrations as this week past? Recognising the carnage, wastage and destruction that war is – whether considered in human, national, or material terms – the only fitting act of remembrance and celebration is an international commitment to live together in and to work together for peace.

My grandfather was in France in 1914 – 18, being ‘unnecessarily kind to defaulters’, my father was in Europe later on in the 1939 – 45 conflict. I value the contribution they made in their times to peace in Europe. I treasure that comment recorded for posterity in my grandfather’s discharge papers, that there, in the nearest thing to hell that humankind had so far created, at least one man was willing to light a candle; in a world that was reduced to black and white – or should that be khaki and grey – they were subtler shades to be experienced and valued.


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In the course guide of the Terry Pratchett School of Business Management, otherwise known as the Bromeliad trilogy – Truckers, Diggers and Wings – it is stated that “The important thing about being a leader is not being right or wrong, but being certain. Otherwise people wouldn’t know what to think.” The concept of ‘charismatic leadership’ is no new thing in the history of this or any other nation though the experience of such leadership is widely diverse. Our recent history throws up a number of names – Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler to name but a few. One characteristic they shared was to unite a diverse group of people in a common purpose and hold them together against the odds – however not always was the purpose laudable.

If we take things further back then we might like to consider the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus, and Paul in a similar light. The processes whereby diverse groups of people are brought together are relatively simple – a mantra is helpful, one that concentrates the thinking of the group by diverting their attention away from the contrary indications, the practice of scapegoating is another – pointing the finger at a particular group whose responsibility for the crisis may or may not be direct but who serve to deflect the attention from the particular activities of those handling the crisis. When done well most of us will have no sense that we are being manipulated at all.

‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives.’ works well as a mantra – if you’re still following the daily updates and find your attention wavering perhaps you could try counting the number of times the phrase is repeated in the course of the session. ‘We’re all in this together’ is another – perhaps you could try scoring that as well in your late afternoon viewing. Am I the only one who finds it slightly surreal that a Conservative government is now encouraging the population to protect the NHS, having signally failed to do so during the years of austerity, having presided over the explosion in the use of foodbanks and the malnutrition that is indicated by their very existence? I hope that in the ‘new normal’, encouragement will be given and resources provided to ensure that as well as washing our hands and catching our sneezes a healthy diet will be made affordable so that the population will be better placed to survive Covid 19 even if they catch it.

Hitler laid the blame for Germany’s troubles in the 1930’s squarely at the feet of the Jews. Donald Trump seeks to divert attention away from his own inept management of the crisis by blaming the Chinese. Before we became immune to the debate over the provision of PPE in the NHS and care sector there was a short-lived attempt to suggest that there was sufficient PPE for its proper use. Thankfully the population took matters into its own hands and started to address the real issue – the absence of PPE in the situations in which it was needed – rather than seeking to shift the blame from those who were managing the crisis to those who were trying to work with one hand tied behind their backs.

Sadly the Christian church is no better than it should be in this regard. In Acts 2 Luke records “. . . all who believed were united, and together they had everything in common; they sold their possessions and distributed the price among all, according as any had need.” My years in ministry and previously in membership of various branches of the church have brought me to the understanding that that is more mission statement than mantra, a direction of travel than a description of the current situation. A little later Ananias and Sapphira are selling their possessions and putting a percentage into the common purse, later again Paul takes the church in Corinth to task because in their celebrations of the Lord’s supper some of the congregation go hungry while others overeat.

It would be nice to think that as a society, at some point in the not too distant future, we truly might be ‘all in this together’, but that will involve significant change in the manner and the matter of life from the greatest of us to the least. “It is the one great and universal interest of the human race to be cordially united and to aid each other to the full extent of their capabilities.”

Robert Owen.

Please God, as soon as you like.

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In times of crisis it’s always good to have a slogan – a mantra – to keep everyone committed to the process “Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives.” “We’re all in this together” and so on. Over time it appears that the wheels are coming off and that further action is necessary. As the information around the procurement and distribution of PPE comes into the daylight it is difficult to avoid the fact that the ones exhorting us so loudly and frequently to protect the NHS were the ones who could themselves have been doing so much more. I thought the NHS was there to protect us rather than us the NHS but that’s another story – perhaps “Stay home – save lives – protect the NHS” would have been a more appropriate arrangement.

As the news coverage broadens out to include some of the unintended consequences it becomes obvious that some of us are more in this than others – the numbers of ‘front-line staff’, the black, African, minority ethnic community who live in closer proximity to each other, the elderly in care homes – these are among the groups that have suffered disproportionately during the outbreak, ironically these are the ones that up until the outbreak were understood to be unwelcome immigrants, uncommitted to the common weal of the United Kingdom. Fortunately there have been enough tame Covid19 stories going around to prevent us looking at some of the less comfortable ones. You might wish to ponder the length and detail of the coverage given to an elderly gentleman walking the length of his garden a hundred times and that given to a Sikh, Muslim, or Hindu surgeon who died as a result of the care they offered within the NHS.

Every now and again I’m asked what I think God is about in the twenty-first century – the short answer is hospitality – which happens to be the thing that God has been about forever – even before we sensed there to be a God to be about anything at all. There are references without number in both Testaments encouraging the people of God to the practice of hospitality, to the sharing of life with our enemies as well as our friends. Jesus’ arguments with the professionals, properly understood, would encourage us to an indiscriminate sharing of life without any limitation at all. Each time the people of God share bread and wine in the name of Jesus they are reminded of the generosity of God as well as the call to the practice of generosity which is the heart of the Christian faith. To be the people of God is to be unable to pick or choose those with whom we would share what has been given to us.

Whatever else the Coronavirus has demonstrated, I hope that we will remember that we are ‘all in this together’ – ‘all’ in this context being life and not just the current crisis. I hope that we will realise that in fact being in life ‘together’ is a great improvement on the social dislocation within which we used to live, and take steps to strengthen ‘the ties that bind’ rather than pursuing our own ends and agendas as we used to back in the ‘good old days’. As the national conversation turns to the process of the ending of quarantine and life ‘getting back to normal’ there is a part of me that hopes we might actually do better than that, recognising that for some – the homeless among them – life under quarantine has been far better than it was before.

For years now I have been banging on about the sharing of life, how we are each of us given to each other to share, encourage, help . . . each other, it has for me been a dislocating experience to hear God’s message so prominently and publicly repeated by many who would believe themselves to have no sense or use for God at all. When the Churches are open again I shall continue to remind any with ears to hear of how life could be so much better for all of us as we live as though ‘we are all in this together’


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We’re barely three weeks in quarantine and already it’s beginning to pall – the world in which I live has become very small. I meet very few people and share meaningful conversation with even less. My life is cabined and confined within the boundaries of Glandwr – apart from daily walks; the main topics of conversation are the weather or the virus. When I seek to broaden my horizons by tuning into the news I am fed some other perspectives on the weather or the virus. Is there nothing else going on anywhere?

I’m struggling to remember a book of Conan Doyle’s I read years ago The Voyage of the Korosko perhaps? If memory serves the main character is something of an obsessive – he refers to himself as a “one-ideaed man” and through the course of the book he comes to realise the frustration and the limitation of such a life, that chooses to ignore or fails to recognise the worth of the myriad other things that are encompassed within the experience of “occupational therapy twixt birth and death.” as Spike Milligan would have it. His redemption is to open his mind to some of those other things. I’m looking forward to the end or at least the lightening of quarantine as I seek other tasks to brighten the journey through it.

I am unclear of the correlation between Covid19 and cabin fever but am hopeful of surviving both. In preparation for the August ‘shuffle’ – Coronavirus permitting – I’ve tidied the shed and started in the garage. Returning some ‘lost property’ to its former owner I bicycled out to Llanllwchaiarn the other day – much to the concern of some of our neighbours – the most immediate aspect of which was the indication of the necessity of a better padded saddle or a more streamlined rump. Until I cycled it I believed Route 81 to be fairly level but I had to dismount and walk on at least three occasions. Given that the undulations in County Fermanagh are more pronounced I shan’t be purchasing a bike any time soon – perhaps a donkey-cart instead? In preparation/ anticipation for/of our arrival I’ve traversed the border from Carlingford to Foyle without leaving the comfort of my armchair – who knew that reading a book could be such fun, despite being no good for physical fitness?

When all this began we were repeatedly told that ‘we’re all in this together.’ The longer ‘this’ goes on the more clearly we recognise that some of us are more ‘in it’ than others. The frontline medical staff who despite the despatch and circulation of millions of items of PPE are still risking their lives by having to work around the absence of it; those ‘trapped’ in quarantine with abusive parents and partners; those who have fallen through Mr. Sunak’s safety net . . . Truth is I’m relatively comfortable, I have enough to keep me going if only I can motivate myself to start. My discomfort and inconvenience are as nothing to the risks and dangers that other folk face.

Celebrating the resurrection without going to Church was very strange indeed. We managed to feast as well as usual and avoid the excessive consumption of chocolate. We sang some hymns and tuned into the broadcast service with His Grace of Canterbury but I was left with a feeling of ‘it’s worship, but not as we know it’ – I guess for me worship is both co-operative and collaborative – I need other bodies to share it with. We sang our hymns outdoors just in case the neighbours were minded to join in. I was even tempted to go and sing in back garden of Newtown Church in the hope of some passing strangers dropping by but caught myself on just in time. We might well be all in this together but better not be caught together. I delivered half a dozen copies of the online service and appreciated the opportunity of conversation – at the appropriate distance of course – before continuing the journey.

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It feels as if I’m losing my grip – the fixed points around which my life ran pre-Corona are no longer operative – Sunday Worship, the Diary, conversation – I guess I’m fortunate to be able to tune in to Today, they’ll tell me what the date and the day is before telling me what’s going on. To be honest I enjoyed self-isolation and social distancing more when the sun was shining and I could picnic on the back step than I am at present. Little things seem to mean so much more these days.

We still live quite well, shopping periodically though not always finding what we seek, I joined a queue on Monday – I’m trying to do the shopping during the course of my daily walk – outside Tesco’s at two metre intervals for half an hour or so wasn’t so bad, what threw me was the redirection of shoppers to the tills – some of the aisles being closed at one end interfered with my more usual practice of aimless perambulation. It was okay but I don’t think you’ll find me outside Harrod’s any January soon.

There is much to smile at during the course of my excursions – one of the supermarkets has celery storks for sale as opposed to the usual variety – I guess they’re near enough the river if they come over hungry but they might find it awkward to negotiate the automatic doors. Passing a building site on the way back I realised they’d put the safety notices on the wrong way – as if those who were being told Do Not Enter were being advised not to leave the safety of the site to return to the world beyond – here be coronavirus . . . As we neared the park gate we stood aside to let a young lad sail through on his bike and loitered longer for his dad – struggling along behind with a scooter and cricket set as well as his own bike.

Would it seem strange to say how much I appreciate some of the changes that the coronavirus has brought? Is it just my imagination or are people more willing to stop and share a conversation – albeit at the appropriate distance – for all the social distancing that we practice unconsciously in more normal times the reminders that we are more intimately bound to each other than perhaps we would care to realise might be of benefit to us in the future. There are suggestions that certain behaviours are inappropriate in these times being rude to supermarket staff, failing to appreciate the contribution of the emergency services to the national health and well-being and such –suggestions that seem more than odd to those of us who try and hold our neighbours’ in respect at any time. I’d like to suggest that the truly appropriate time to hold such folk in respect is when they are denied appropriate salaries and necessary equipment to do their jobs properly, when they need special allowances so as to be able to feed themselves and their families – standing outside your door at eight o’clock on a Thursday night won’t butter no parsnips – however well-intentioned it is an ultimately meaningless gesture.

Cataclysmic events such as these awaken in all of us the longing for a better future – the land fit for heroes back in 1918, the end of The Troubles following the Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen serve to remind us that the hope is not always realised – disaster itself is not enough, changes of heart, mind and manners are also necessary – sometimes it’s just easier to go with the way things were. Such changes can be difficult, the refusal of such changes can be dangerous – some words of Rudyard Kipling by way of reminder, from his poem Tommy.

 

You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires an’ all:

We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.

Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face

The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.

   For it’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that, and “Chuck him out, the brute!”

   But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;

   An’ it’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;

   An Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool – you bet that Tommy sees!

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How fortunate, not to say providential, that Covid-19 arrived on these shores before the new immigration policies of the new government had time to significantly affect the numbers of immigrants. How remarkable their transformation from unwelcome, underpaid, unable to support themselves incomers – to key workers – the people on whom we depend to care for our elderly, clean our hospitals, and nurse our sick so that the rest of us can get on with our lives. I’m sorry that it took a national emergency to make us realise the situation in which some folk live all the time. Here’s hoping that the recognition of their new-found worth and status outlasts the crisis and ensures a more reasonable approach to their worth, status and other such matters in the future.

Some people are asking whether this might be the ‘end times’ – the days that herald the return of the Lord Jesus in clouds and glory. The only possible answer is that given by Jesus “No-one knows. . . Only the Father knows.”(Mark 13:32) For some of us these will be the end times because our life will come to an end in these times. I’d like to think that these will be the end times for homelessness, hunger, poverty, strife, because sufficient of us have recognised the injustice and immorality in which we live for what it is and have decided to do something about it, have decided to take steps to make the world a better place – a land fit for heroes – to borrow another phrase from the early twentieth century that turned out to be meaningless in the long run.

Those of you with time on your hands and a desire to better understand the ‘end times’ could do worse than catch up with Good Omens on the BBC iPlayer. The original text was written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman – both of whom are known more for their sense of humour than for the soundness of their theology – but don’t let that put you off. The questions they raise are the same questions that are raised in Mark 13 and the Revelation of St. John – though their answers are more entertaining! You might not wish to follow their answers though you will need to follow their reasoning. It is an interesting point from which to start your own eschatology.

I’m not sure that I can see God stepping into history again and bringing it all to an end – back in Genesis Noah receives a promise “. . .I will never again destroy every living thing on the earth as I did this time.”(8:21) The words of Jesus in Mark 13 and the angels in Acts 1 do not explicitly speak of an end but might well be interpreted as a new beginning. I’d like to think it could happen – if only to be able to say that it’s not my fault that things are the way they are. If nothing changes as a result of these crises it must be because God wanted nothing to change. On the other hand I find it rather scary to consider the possibility that the God of love, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – gentle, compassionate, kindly, well-intentioned, generous, large-hearted and open-handed will one day cease to be and become instead vengeful, vindictive, angry and violent. It’s one thing to recognise the force of humankind’s will to destruction but quite something else to lay it at God’s door. Is the kingdom of the God of love to be known at the last as the kingdom of fear? One who taught me my faith assured me that folk were more likely to be loved into the kingdom than driven into it.

I’m reasonably sure that for most of us life will go on, I’d like to think that for many of us – underpaid, overworked, unprotected, enslaved, hungry, homeless, refugee – life might significantly improve. That would be a new beginning worth working for, a recognition of our shared vulnerability that might lead to our co-operative activity to the future benefit of humankind. Robert Owen is one of Newtown’s famous but now forgotten sons – whose advice is found strangely apposite even in these topsy-turvy times ‘From each – for all.’

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With so much of it happening around, death became intensely personal for me this week. Given that none of us will survive life intact, given the increased risk of the current times – why does it still seem weird to hear the Prime Minister declare that ‘many of our loved ones will die?’ What of those who will die of ‘more’ natural causes simply because, Covid19 or not, their time had come? To be honest it feels weird to hear anyone in the public domain speak of death in this more personal language – yet death is as natural as life – for all of us, life comes to an end, for most of us without the assistance of virulent viruses, or should that be virii?

For those of us left behind there is neither a ‘good’ way nor a ‘good’ time to die. Always there is the yearning for more life – whether in qualitative or quantitative terms. Jeanette Winterson writes of “. . . the finality, the argument ending in mid-air. One of us hadn’t finished, why did the other one go? And why without warning? Even death after long illness is without warning. The moment you had prepared for so carefully took you by storm. . . Death reduces us to the baffled logic of a small child. If yesterday why not today? And where are you?” Over time there comes the recognition that death, like life, is something of a mixed blessing. To be honest, my mother-in-law had had enough, whilst grateful for the care she received, without which she would not have lasted so long, she was not pleased to be the recipient. The increasing loss of mobility, of sight, of hearing, was frustrating for her. At her request I joined my prayers to hers for her passing, I did not wish her dead but neither could I wish her continuance.

The Gospel for Sunday (28-03) is John 11: 1 – 44, the story of the raising of Lazarus. If we confine our thinking to the central event ‘the raising of Lazarus’ we miss so many other things that are going on in the background, adding tone and colour,  whilst allowing us – and the original disciples – to ponder more carefully what we mean when we speak of the life that is ours in Jesus. The story begins with Jesus being told of the death of his friend and the disciples seeking to hold him back from visiting the family for the sake of his health “Don’t go there because you might not get from there.” That’s right where we are right now – because of the virus any gathering of any number in a confined space is dangerous – when Mum is laid to rest in Inishmacsaint at noon on Tuesday there will be just six people, no prior service in Church just a hymn, some prayers and the scriptures at the graveside. Much as we would like to have been there we will be among those who, for the sake of our health, will stay away.

There are other attitudes and opinions included in the account – Thomas declares himself willing to accompany Jesus, even though death were waiting at journey’s end – at the end of the Gospel Thomas is recorded as being devastated – having outlived Jesus he is disinclined to believe the resurrection without seeing and touching the wounds of Christ. Martha – the helpful one put about because of the things to be done – knows the right answers but lacks the faith to warm them. Mary – the one who sits and listens at the feet of Jesus is content to sit in the house and weep with her friends. To all these Jesus declares “I am the resurrection and the life.”

The disciples, Martha and Mary are about to push the boundaries of their experience of life and love beyond any limit they can comprehend. For all that they have learned in their shared experience of life and love, for all that they have glimpsed of life and love in Jesus they do not yet fully understand life or love. The death of Lazarus brought them face to face with a loss almost beyond their ability to bear, the meeting with Jesus beyond the grave will drive them far into the realm of mystery and unknowing. Jesus declares himself to be both the resurrection and the life, that in him life and death are one. Jesus declares his faith in the God in whom all life lives and moves – in life and death God is with us as God is with Jesus – rebuking us when we seek to avoid or deny the changes and challenges life brings, helping us through when we find ourselves snarled up in them, always adding experience to faith, always calling us out from the house of tears, always calling us to life.


Corona Mail 3

 Back when I was a lad I was thrilled by the adventures of those who found themselves stranded – Robinson Crusoe and the Swiss Family Robinson among them. Back in the 1960’s being stranded required the absence of a ship/means of transport – shipwreck, being cast adrift or thrown overboard was vital to the story. I have found it strange these last few weeks to hear of people actually being stranded on the liner on which they have until recently been holidaying. Language is a fascinating thing and the meaning of words changes all the time – small wonder that some of us feel we live in a strange place even before we’ve opened the door.

There are points of similarity between ‘stranded’ and ‘quarantined’ but not enough to render them interchangeable – stranding was at best a small group thing – family as with the ‘Swisses’ above or siblings as with Ralph and Jack in The Coral Island, but more often than not an individual experience. At best it happened by accident, at worst it was a punishment. The location of the stranding was generally exotic and primitive – none of the ‘mod cons’ of the cruise ship being to hand. Part of the excitement of reading these tales was for me the activity of turning the chaos in which they found themselves into something resembling the civilisation they had lost or been cast out from and the protecting of that ‘civilisation’ when the pirates or the natives returned.

As we go into self-isolation and practice social-distancing are we being stranded or quarantined? It is for us a voluntary thing – at least at present but if too few of us take it up coercion may be brought to bear.  It is for us a partial thing – exercise for ourselves or our pets, provisioning for ourselves or our neighbours, before returning to the place of our quarantine. Slowing the possibility of transmission depends upon our ‘stranding’ of ourselves as a nation and as individuals – all of these experiences will have unintended consequences as well as the ones we live in hope of.

Before the beginning of everything – at least according to the recorder of Genesis – ‘the earth was without form and void’, chaos reigned until God spoke and imposed order where there had been disorder – in much the same way that world leaders do today (teehee). In the Hebrew scriptures there is a tradition of heroic leaders – seldom recognised or valued, sometimes cast out themselves, who in the encounter with ‘chaos’ become the person of the hour – Joseph, David, Daniel and Esther among them. As with all history we may safely assume that the stories have been shaped so as to illustrate a particular message. The following references relate to Joseph in Egypt, but you can follow the accounts of Daniel and Esther in the books that bear their name – living in strange times as we do we might need some novel activities to take our minds off our troubles. You might like to read the whole story before checking out the particular references.

 

1         A stranger in a strange land, not of his own choosing, Genesis 37:28.

2        Granted divine wisdom and blessed with success in his activities, 39:3, 22.

3        Faithful despite the opportunity to transgress, 39:7-12.

4        Skilled in the interpretation of dreams, 40:8b-23, 41:14-36.

5        Promoted because of their skills, 41:40-1.

6        Given a new name by his master, 41:45.

7        Saves the nation, 44:16-20

 

The point to be made and later reaffirmed is that of learning through chaos – leaders – political or spiritual – become such by their steadiness under pressure. Having survived testing under stress without wavering, remaining consistent despite every opportunity to cut and run, telling it like it is rather than as everyone wants it to be – only then can the person be trusted to lead the nation or the faithful to the place of prosperity.

Corona Mail 2

It is strange is it not when life and liturgy fall into step with each other? Here we are just halfway through the season of Lent when we impose upon ourselves a stricter discipline than usual and we find an even stricter discipline imposed upon us by Coronavirus/Covid 19 – social distancing, self isolation and for a lot longer period than the usual forty days. Interesting as well if people’s reactions are anything to go by – in the Gospel bread was the key to Jesus’ survival – ‘humankind shall not live by hand-sanitiser and toilet tissue alone’ doesn’t carry quite the same force as the original.

Stress and distress are revealing of the innermost selves we manage to keep sheltered most of the time, suddenly things are out there that we have never revealed to anyone – this is who I really am. Among the pictures of empty shelves stories of ‘Good Samaritans’ make the news – yet the world in which I have lived and worked for these last forty-odd years has been largely populated by them most of them quietly getting on with things in the hope that they won’t be ‘outed’ as an unsung hero.

In these surreal times in which we live – for most of us unlike anything we have seen before – people are hungry for advice and answers – what am I to do when . . . ? Some of the questions are beyond answering since this is something vastly different to anything any of us have lived through before – there is neither experience nor expertise on which to draw, from which to extrapolate what the appropriate solution might be. Social distancing and self-isolation don’t come easy to all of us – I suspect some of us have been keeping each other at arm’s length even when going through the motions of friendly and family life – they will obviously have the advantage in the current situation, keeping such distance for so long might have a damaging effect on the rest of us.

In this kind of knowledge vacuum all sorts of information will accumulate – little of which will be of any benefit. It was suggested to me the other day that this was a government plot – to what end they did not know but who cares? We are all of us aware that the current crop of world leaders are not what you might call inspiring of confidence – I guess that’s why the ‘experts’ are presenting so much of the advice and information – though it’s not that long ago that some of these same politicians were telling us that expert opinion was irrelevant.

Perhaps we need to look a bit further back for the necessary advice – ‘Keep Calm and Carry On.’ ‘Coughs and sneezes spread diseases, use a hanky.’ How strange is it that civilised as we are we revert to a more primitive instinct in crisis? All those things that we were instructed to do as children, simple basic hygiene – wash your hands and so on – perhaps being advanced and civilised we like our solutions to be more complex. Perhaps we are not as civilised as we like to think, perhaps our civilisation depends on some pretty basic practices – keeping clean, catching coughs and sneezes, keeping calm and carrying on, recognising the rights of those with whom we share the planet. We need to be careful what we forget.


Corona Mail – 18.03.20

Strangely I find myself in the situation many believe to be ‘normal’ for the clergy – working just one day a week – though now of course I’m not even supposed to be doing that. I’m six years shy of that magical 70 years and diabetic. I’m currently working in a circuit of five congregations in which perhaps ten percent of the total membership are under seventy. Most of them are wise enough to be following the current guidance and not exposing them-selves to unnecessary risks.

I find it a little strange to be at this stage where I am believed to be in need of protecting rather than working as ‘protector’ – a situation so many of those I’ve shared in ministry with over these last years are quite at home with. To hear them speak of those they work with as being the ‘elderly’ and they themselves old enough to be my parents can be quite dislocating – when they tell me that ‘. . . it’s not like it was when we were young . . .’ I cannot bring myself to tell them that I have no idea what it was like when they were young being at best an infant if born at all!

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this pandemic is in our minds rather than the reality – most instructions concerning the practicalities are clear enough until we find ourselves up against them. We should be seeking advice from those in their eighties or older – with clear recollections of what life was like the last time we experienced war first-hand. I’m two years shy of my ‘normal pension age’ formerly referred to as retirement and have recently attended the Connexional course for the similarly aged and wise. As I try and get my head around socially distanced worship – no handshakes and so forth, acts of public worship being postponed while churches remain open, Sundays that no longer revolve around leading worship – I’m not at all sure how to approach this. Is this the ‘practical’ aspect of my training for ‘retirement’ – learning how to manage the increased proportion of ‘leisure time’ that most people assure me will never materialise?

In earlier days I used to go on retreat – spending three or four days each year in silence in the company of the sisters of the Society of the Sacred Cross just outside Monmouth. Morning and evening prayer, Compline and Communion, long walks, lovely food, and improving books – three months is a lot longer than three days but perhaps the principles are similar. Periodically during the course of my ministry I have been given the gift of Sabbatical – three months in which to follow a particular course of study usually arising from the experience of ministry or following up a particular interest. In spite of my recent attempts to shrink them there are any number of books to be read or re-read on my shelves. I might even be able to produce a ‘piece of work’ that will incorporate the lessons learnt.

I guess for most of us there are a number of things that require our attention but that seldom seem important enough to get done – perhaps this is their time – as the virus re-aligns our priorities, preventing us from doing the more usual things we should take the time to start – or finish for that matter, things that for whatever reason have been left aside.

Yesterday morning I sat in the seat of custom in Newtown Methodist’s coffee morning – four of us on duty and just seven visitors – it was a long morning with little to do. I was reminded of my first holiday job on leaving school, selling furnishing fabrics on Bromley High Street – on those days that customers were in short supply every bolt of cloth was pulled from the shelves, their threads trimmed, ends folded, and shelves dusted before being replaced, the days with little to do seemed to go on for ever. It will be a long three months if we cannot find things to keep our minds and bodies active, if we ‘can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run’ it will be an easier load more lightly borne.