Sunday, 5 July 2020

One Hundred and Twelve Days of Being Closed - Reopening

So this week we have had all the regulations delivered to us that will allow us to re-open our church again. That is once we've made sure that the full risk assessment is complete, all the signs and sanitisers are in place, the seats spaced and the sides-people sufficiently trained. There's an awful lot of stuff that needs to get done.

We are therefore taking a cautious approach and will look to start small services next Sunday. One of the major reasons for this is that we won't be able to sing. To me that's a bit like a football match without the fans. Our sung worship creates the atmosphere in which we meet with God. It doesn't mean that we can't worship without singing. But our main service will be a very different beast, a wholly different experience, until we can return with the worship band and the volume turned up.

In the last four months we have developed an online service that helps us to meet together and stay connected to God as a church. The numbers attending have stayed settled at around 90 to 100 people which is a fair proportion of our regular main service congregation. This has been supported by a whole team of gifted and talented people. God has blessed us in being able to do this and we are likely to continue for at least another month.

The other complicating factor is that the church building is now filled with scaffolding as the painters move in to paint the nave area of the church for the first time for nearly fifty years. It makes sense to give the space over to them so that they can complete this work as efficiently as possible. This further month of enforced absence also gives us more time to plan and prepare.

Yet we do still have the chancel, a small area of already painted space, in which we can hold small services of Holy Communion. These will allow those who can't connect online to resume some pattern of worship for themselves. The services will be simple and small. Everyone will need to maintain their social distancing awareness. Hand washing on the way in an out will be compulsory and masks recommended.

This time away from the church building has reminded us of the vast difference between our relationship with God as Christians against than those of ancient Israel who worshipped in the great Temple in Jerusalem. For them it was all about a day spent in the courts of the Lord. This Covid crisis time has shown us that we have God with us in the form of His Holy Spirit wherever we are. We have this gift of grace because Jesus died so that we might know God's presence in every moment of our lives. As we begin to return to the church building may all that we do seek to bring glory to Him.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

One Hundred and Five Days of Being Closed - Hang On

In this last week I've heard about several people making major life changing decisions that have been provoked by lockdown. No one was making these changes earlier on this crisis yet now they feel able to recognise what isn't working and walk away.

There seems to be a general uneasiness about. Things are getting better but the anxiety and uncertainty are not going away. Perhaps it's just all the frustration of three months of severe restrictions on our lives that is making its way out.

Alongside this is a sense that we are almost there. The end could be in sight. We've seen other nations start to meet and make progress. But we still need to be careful and we don't want to see any more dying or death because we've all had enough. In amongst this, it seems that people have lost confidence in our government who send out ever more confusing messages about what we can and can't do and exactly when and how we are to do it. They try to control things with finely detailed regulations while relying on people's common sense when the risk assessments don't apply.

The frustration has bubbled over into two major stabbings, street parties that can't be broken up and city celebrations that will not heed the advice of local leaders. The hot weather hasn't helped. People get tired and grumpy when they can't sleep because of the heat.

It seems to me that we are now at the point of this rollercoaster ride of a pandemic where we hope that we've been through the last loop and just need to hold on tightly to get to the end. There's that sense of soon being able to get off and stand on solid ground again. As long as there isn't a hidden drop that they haven't told us about.

My hope is that the natural tendency to preserve ourselves will keep us cautious and alert. Who wants to catch the deadly virus now when the ride is nearly over? The number of people on the beach at Bournemouth this week would argue against this perhaps.

We are continuing to pray that God's hand will be upon our nation. That he will protect and guide us to the other side of this tie of trial. Now is the time to increase our prayers. Now is the time to be kind and generous, defusing tensions rather than adding to them. Now is the time when we must work even harder to overcome evil with good. May God be with us all.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Ninety Eight Days of Being Closed - Books to read in Lockdown

Ok this lockdown is getting frustrating. Everyone is getting fed up and the end does not yet seem to in sight. But there have been good things that this crisis has brought. A time to rest and recover from the endless cycle of busyness that abounds in normal life. The opportunity to reassess what is really important to us, what really matters. This has been surprising in its intensity. It's not been easy being stripped of all the distractions and trappings of our working identity.

There has been the chance to fiddle with the pieces of lots of jigsaws, go for long walks along the seafront and to binge watch box sets through the apps button. We've managed to get through a few series of classic TV shows. They've helped to create the routine that we have so desperately needed. There's the comfort factor of watching well loved characters in well worn plot lines.

There has also been the chance to read some books. This is my list of books read since lockdown started. They fall into three categories Church and leadership, non-fiction and novels to enjoy. This was helped by a trip to Waterstones with a big book token just before the shops closed.

The Power of Belonging by Will Will van der Hart & Rob Waller: discovering the the confidence to lead with vulnerability.
Reappearing Church by Mark Sayers: looking for hope for the church in our post-christian culture.
Story Bearer by Phil Knox: how to share your faith with friends by connecting up the stories of our lives with God's story.
Good to Great by Jim Collins: great read on how to turn the trajectory of an organisation around.

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle: a look at the secrets of highly successful groups.
Passchendaele, A New History by Nick Lloyd: just after we visited the battlefields in Belgium pre corona crisis as a way to put our present crisis into context with 500,000 men killed or wounded.
Traflgar by Roy Adkins: a biography of the battle with which our city is so closely linked.
The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf: the adventures of Alexander von Humbolt the lost hero of science.
A Fistful of Shells by Toby Green: a story of West Africa from the rise of the slave trade to 1850.
The Plague by Albert Camus: interesting account of a plague in a North African city, helpful in understanding some of the phases of lockdown.
Wilful Behaviour and also Uniform Justice by Dona Leone: wonderful relaxing reads as Inspector Brunetti solves crimes in the beautiful city of Venice.

But the book I've read the most is Bible. Every morning for around fifteen minutes to start the day. There is nothing that compares to God's word. I've been through John's gospel into Acts, the lives of Samuel, Saul and David and the psalms of the 60's and 70's. God's word will feed you and keep you on the right path. Make space in your day and see the benefits that result.

Saturday, 13 June 2020

Eighty Nine Days of Being Closed - Popular?

We all need to feel loved. It's a deep desire set in the very heart of us. But there are times when we need to make hard choices.

At the start of this crisis there was very little recent experience of handling a serious virus outbreak in this country. Our expertise was limited to annual flu outbreaks. There'd been recent deadly epidemics in the far east. There had been ebola in Africa.

To be honest we were caught out. Too confident that we were in control. The family of corona viruses had not previously produced a lethal killer. Somehow we underestimated what this tiny virus could do. Now we are living with the consequences of decisions made in those early days of our reaction to the pandemic.

Obviously it's too soon to be concluding that we failed to respond as we should. Yet as we see the countries who acted decisively to keep the virus out and limit its spread start to re-open again, it's hard not to feel that we have messed up at least a little.

In Rwanda they had one case and they ordered a lockdown the next day. So far they've had 541 cases and two deaths. New Zealand went hard and fast and are now watching rugby matches in packed stadiums. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But we need to learn the lessons that this crisis has taught us.

It seems to me that where leaders wanted to remain popular the crisis has been handled less well. In the USA, in Brazil and in the UK leaders who wanted to protect the economy against short term pain have caused much longer term damage in the end. We kept our borders open for far too long. Trade came before the lives of ordinary people and the safety of the frontline workers. If our government had gone further with restrictions as they did in France, Spain and Italy we would be further down the back of the curve by now.

It didn't help that most of those making the decisions went down with the virus themselves. They failed to protect themselves just as in the end they've failed to protect us. There will be a huge inquiry and people are upset and angry. We see this anger and frustration spilling onto the streets in protests and demonstrations already.

In the end that anger will be turned on those who created the plans and the policies. They didn't act decisively but delayed and dithered. Sometimes you have to make hard choices as a leader. Choices that are not popular at all.

Many people criticise the God we seek to follow because of the hard choices that were made in the Old Testament when the impacts sin were corrupting the of whole creation. That same God made the choice to send his only son to die for us on a cross. Jesus chose to die in the most dreadful way, alone humiliated and the object of scorn. When the enemy is a deadly foe tough decisions need to be made. They won't always appear to be the right ones and they won't always be popular.

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Eighty Two Days of Being Closed - Straight Back to Busy

Last night - a Saturday Night - it was announced for the 10 o'clock news that we will be able to reopen the church in just over a week's time. Open for public private prayer again. We knew that the shops were to open and finally the faith aspect of life was seen to be as important as access to greetings cards or body lotion. A grudging, reluctant admission that there is still a place for organised religion in our society.

This news only came after the announcement that Sunday trading laws are to be relaxed to help the economy recover. That might make some sense to those whose only aim it is to balance the nation's books but it fails to take into account what we've learnt in Lockdown. For if we've learnt anything we've discovered that people matter to us. Relationships and social interaction are important. We need to see each other face to face and enjoy the presence of other human beings.

It seems to me that we should have learnt that the one thing we don't need quite so much is the opportunity to go shopping.

By relaxing the Sunday trading laws more people have to work on Sundays. Fewer people are able to meet up with families and spend time together. It seems that at this point when more than anything else we need time to reconnect the government can only see pound signs.

In the end we only have so much cash that we can each spend. Most of us will find ways to spend that amount in six days just as easily as we can spend it in seven. The myth that Sunday trading helps us is destroyed when all other large economies on the continent survive supremely well with far stricter rules on which shops open on Sundays. Those countries can see that families and relationships matter more than the chasing after more money. There they see the need for people to be able to rest together and enjoy each other's company, to take a break from work so that they are refreshed and restored.

Before we rush back into ways of living that destroy us as a society we need to reflect. Surely this space to think should have shown us that our time together is precious and not to be taken for granted. Sending people out to fill shops on Sunday is not the way forwards. We need to build more resilient communities where strong relationships can hold things together in times of trial. This is what these last twelve weeks have shown us. Let's not miss this opportunity to change direction and follow a new path that leads to life. For our existence is made up of more than the sum of our possessions. Surely we've realised this in these last weeks!

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Seventy Days of Being Closed - Reset

It seems to me that new patterns are now falling into place. For us as a church, we have the systems set up to make things happen in the way that we want. The problem is that we recognise that however successful we are at this temporary existence we will need to gather strength to start again as restrictions are eased. We are busy getting on with what we are doing now and getting more used to being apart. Yet the real challenge still lies ahead as we finally fashion our new future.

The initial novelty of the crisis has long since passed. We thought that it might be a month at the most that we would be cooped up but this is now the day on which we mark ten weeks of church being closed. At first we hoped we might be able to meet in some way for Easter. Now we look forward to the next big festival of our year, that of Pentecost, in lockdown.

We have started new things and reached new people. There has been an increase in social get togethers in our church community, even if they are over the internet. We have been so encouraged by new people offering their thoughts on Bible passages each morning that we stream out across social media. The elderly and vulnerable have been supported with lots of good will. People are being nicer to one another and saying hello more, while also turning away just in case you share any microscopic virus laden droplets.

But we know that this is not how we are meant to live. We have to get back to somewhere more like what life should be. The schools are grappling with this as they prepare for pupils to return in a limited way. The shops are raring to go as soon as they get the permission they need.

We have all changed in the way that we act and interact. There will be less chance of the dreaded spread across communities because we've all been trained to behave differently.

Last week there was a post that said "Let's not go back to the old ways of doing things because they had normalised greed, iniquity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction..." This is a chance for a whole new way of doing life. A big part of that should be seeing that we are not ultimately in control of our lives. We never have been. There are always seismic shifts that knock us off balance. Perhaps we should search for the ancient ways as the Bible reminds us. Ways that helped humanity form decent civilisations across the millennia. Ways that had room for God, for worship and prayer. Let's press the reset button and start again to live in a way that would make God proud.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Fifty Eight Days of Being Closed - Uncertainties Abound

At the start it was easy. We knew that there was a terrible foe to fight and we all needed to play our part. Coming back from those deepest days of lockdown is not going to be easy. The close down was clear. How to reopen again will be less straightforward. There is the desire to get back to a more normal way of life. But it's so hard to see the best way to get there.

The government has been massively criticised for not providing enough detail or time to make changes and plans before the changes its proposed are made. They had clearly been talking about what they were going to tell us for days and days. Explaining those ideas to the rest of us proved more difficult than expected.

The lockdown has been eased a little bit. Odd things like selling houses and going fishing can start again. Yet for most of us little has changed and we're being told to use our common sense.

Those with a business were expected to welcome staff back to work on a Monday morning after the Sunday evening announcement. The paperwork for what they had to do when the workers turned up at work was only published two days later. Time to use your common sense it seems.

At our primary school today there was a very different mood amongst the staff. The task of getting things ready for six classes of fifteen children in three different year groups is huge. With a full school office of people working flat out together it might be possible. How to do it when people are separated and tired is an incredibly tricky conundrum.

The underlying issue is that there are more uncertainties than you can shake a stick at. We just don't know what to do next. It's becoming obvious that the government itself is making it all up as it goes along, just like the rest of us. In the end we all do our best. It is very hard to make any plans.

We are learning afresh to live each day as it comes. Jesus said some wise words about each day having enough trouble of its own so we shouldn't worry about what tomorrow might bring. Now is a time in which these words have never felt so real. We must trust in God and leave the future in His hands. He will hold us all as we pass through these days. We get through this with some prayer, using the common sense and patience that He gave us to triumph over uncertainty in all of its forms.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Fifty Three Days of Being Closed - Let's Pray

Well yesterday was a real mixture of celebration and trepidation. As our nation sought to remember the 75th anniversary of VE Day there was the chance to appreciate the wonderful benefits of the peace that was brought to us by the sacrifices of the Second World War.

The anglican clergy across the city created a zoom prayer for the occasion that reminded us all of the part played by Portsmouth in this conflict. The terrible destruction of the bombing of our city and the number of people who played an active part in the conflict has shaped our identity. It took many years for the rebuilding to create any sense of normality in the post war years. The loss within the community stayed in the psyche of all those who had seen the suffering or had been part of the trauma.

So we are a city that should celebrate the part that we played. Just along from us one street had every single house draped in the Union jack and bunting. The beautiful weather encouraged people to go out. There was a very loud Karaoke machine playing well into the evening. It was hoped that everyone stayed far enough away to remain safe.

But just a couple of roads in the other direction from us there is a care home. Just the day before I had to contact the relative of one of the occupants of that home who had died of Covid 19 to arrange their funeral. This relative told me that he was the fourteenth of the thirty residents to die in the last two weeks. The virus has got its hold and is wreaking its own form of devastation. The lives are lost and the loved ones left with regrets and no opportunity for a last hug or hold of a hand. Now they have the prospect of just 10 people attending a pared down funeral at the crematorium. It is sadness beyond our normal comprehension that has been repeated so often all across our land.

We are in another battle and we cannot take for granted the outcome. Tomorrow the Prime Minister will make his announcement to the people about the future steps of our lockdown process. It looks to me as if we will be under restrictions for many more weeks to come.

The VE Day celebrations reminded us of our need to work together if we want to defeat a determined foe. It was also a feature of the war that the whole country was called to times of prayer. Just before Dunkirk the whole nation prayed and a window in the weather appeared to allow the troops to be brought safely home. We are now at a point in this crisis when prayer is looking like the crucial component. Our church, along with many others, is offering ample opportunities to connect in prayer. So let God's people turn to Him to seek his face and pray so that He might come and heal our land.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Forty Seven Days of Being Closed - 2020 Vision

At first there was the Response to the crisis. For us it was about how were we going to function as a church and look after people? This phase was all about adrenaline and decision making - though some of those decisions were changed almost as soon as they were made. Our team pulled together and we did a pretty good job.

At that point we thought we might be in lockdown for three weeks and then emerge blinking into the early summer sun with the worst behind us. But now we can see that this is not going to happen. It looks like we have another month of severe restrictions with then a gradual loosening of the valve so that we eventually find our way back to a life that is sustainable.

The first information we were given was flawed. It underestimated the danger that this virus posed. We looked at Italy and Spain and thought well that won't happen to us. Whilst we have avoided the meltdown of our intensive care capability the number of deaths in our nation now looks like being the worst in Europe. Our leaders made decisions based the best evidence at the time but no one could quite comprehend just how bad this situation was. This is natural. No one wants to believe the worst. We all hold tightly to our well formed framework of what the world looks like and we don't want a virus to mess with it.

It seems to me that we are now in a phase of Realisation. We can no longer pretend that we will all be alright. Even graphs on the daily press conferences will not protect us. We have to realise that the world has changed and we have to find a new way to do life.

This year has not turned out as we expected and we need a new vision for 2020 and beyond. There are so many lessons to be learned from what we have experienced in these last seven weeks. Lessons about who is important and how much we need each other.

To have 20/20 vision means to see with clarity what is in front of you. It looks certain that the world has changed. There will be surface changes like the wearing of face masks and the number of people allowed into a shop that will go on for some time. But there need also to be deeper changes of perspective; about valuing one another and caring for everyone. We need to build more resilient communities where people know each other and look out for one another.

Let's not rely on government to make this happen for this can be in our own hands to achieve. The church can be at the very centre of this. Our mission has always been to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith. What if the new communities that we formed followed his example of compassion and love? How about putting him at the very centre of our 2020 vision?

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Forty Four Days of Being Closed - The Best and the Worst

It is a continuing source of wonder that the human race can respond in so many different ways to the same set of circumstances. If ever a situation has demonstrated that we are creatures with free will it is this crisis. Perhaps it's the fact that all the news in centred on just one topic that makes these distinctions so diverse.

So this morning there's a story that people were caught hiding in cupboards when police visited a pub in Sheffield where some serious drinking had been going on. Clearly the pub was meant to be closed. People had decided to go out and mix together despite the lockdown regulations. The fact that made it all the more disappointing was that this was the second time that the same pub had been raided. It's likely that the licence for the premises will be revoked. Let's hope that happens.

Then a little further afield the businessman Elon Musk has called for an end to lockdown in the US because it is harming the profits of his company. "Free America Now" he tweets from the safety of his mansion. In a country with the highest number of deaths on the planet, where there's a lack of health care for those who are poor, where the divides between the social strata have never been so great. Clearly some more electric cars are more important than people's lives.

BUT... Today is also the one hundredth birthday of Captain Tom Moore who will today be elevated to the honorary title of Colonel. He has received 140,000 cards to mark the day including obviously one from the Queen, has become the oldest person to have a number one record in the charts and raised the tidy sum of £30 million for the NHS. He has inspired art works and tributes from across the world. One man who decided to do what he could to stand against the virus and for the forces of good that are fighting against it.

It can seem that we are surrounded by doom and gloom, that the end of this in between existence will never come. Yet in the midst of this we all still have choices to make. Whose example will we follow? It's very easy to slide into a negative frame of mind that only sees the refuse floating in the gutter of life. In times of trouble we all need a hero to focus on. Who'd have thought that for our nation it would be a war veteran with a walking frame. But then who'd have thought that a carpenter from Nazareth would have made the impact that he did? Let's be sure to follow the right path as we make our way through these disorientating days.

Friday, 24 April 2020

Thirty Eight Days of Being Closed - God is so Good

Well we woke up this morning to find that President Trump had come up with the great idea that we could inject people with disinfectant to kill the coronavirus. The fact that it would also kill the people had not occurred to him. No one had thought that they needed to explain that. The South African President had a moment with his face mask that prompted widespread delight. He was able to laugh it off saying he was going to start a mask application TV programme and glad that he had brought a smile to so many. What a good thing that we have each other to help us get through this.

Each day we wait to hear what the 24 hour death toll has been; hoping that it will have really fallen and the end of this crisis is truly coming closer. That no more lives will be lost. It's so odd that by being separated we are achieving something together.

The sun keeps shining and this spring has been the best that I can remember clasped within the very worst of circumstances. There have been phenomenal amounts of blossom on the cherry trees - or have I just had time to notice that.

People are now actively asking what is God doing through all of this. For God is in it. He's there in the courage of those who take on exhausting shifts in the NHS on which they risk not only their own lives but also those of the people they might take the virus back to when they finish. God's in the care in the community which supply the goods at the food banks and the support systems which keep bubbling up. He's there in reminding us that a ninety-nine year old army captain can raise just as much money for charity as a night of TV personalities strutting their stuff with enormous creative resources behind them.

For the church, people are starting to see that this is as a chance to think really deeply about who we are and what we are trying to achieve. In just a month we have worked out how to do services in completely new ways that are connecting with a whole lot of people we've never encountered before. We've space to decide where we truly want to travel after this. There's a prayer that we will come out of this rested, refreshed and ready to rise again. Psalm 46 is written for a time like this. God is good. Be still and know that I am God. Find your identity in being my child. Let's hope we listen and hear this message amongst all the noise.

Monday, 20 April 2020

Thirty Four Days of Being Closed - All About Identity

Well it looks like we are over the hump but no one is taking it for granted. The news is giving everyday stories of death and despair which keep us safely ensconced in our isolated worlds. A new aspect of the crisis that has just started are protests against the social distancing restrictions in the US, Brazil and Russia. Apparently people don't think that the virus is dangerous enough to stay inside.

Tonight I was part of a prayer meeting organised by the Portsmouth Christian Supporters Club to pray for the football industry. We prayed that this time of great change will bring opportunities for the good news of the gospel.

In a small way I have experienced the stripping away of my identity that this lockdown has brought. No more services on Sundays or people to visit. I can only imagine how much worse it must be for professional footballers whose identity is bound so intently to what they do on a Saturday afternoon. Locked in the bubble of the football circus that creates obsessive level of interest amongst millions. No adulation from the crowds, loss of status and purpose all because of a tiny virus particle. There is the uncertainty of finances and security as all clubs involved struggle with the end of the season that may or may not happen.

In the end it's all about identity. Where do we find our true meaning? Does it depend on external appreciation or are we secure because we understand our relationship with our heavenly father. It is because we are loved that we can survive the storms that we face. Without that anchor, if there is hole where there should be a heart filled with love then there is ample space for all sorts of idols to claim their victim.

We all need a fixed point to see the world from. A place to stand that allows us to make sense of life. When everything changes because of a pandemic that need becomes even greater. Psalm 46 advises that we should be still and know God. Keeping safe by staying inside is a trial that forces us to face our own nature, our values and ideals. Perhaps at the end of all this we will have got to the end of our excuses and be able to accept that we need a bigger and better perspective with which to view the life that we lead.

Monday, 13 April 2020

Twenty Seven Days of Being Closed - Important or Essential?

So, it looks as though in this critical weekend we are reaching a peak and may soon see signs of things improving. This has inevitably turned thoughts to what life will look like after lockdown. It seems to me that there will be fundamental changes to the way we see the world. Our society has not experienced collective trauma like this since WW2. Our comfortable expectation of everything always being ok has been totally stripped away. If this had just been a pause for a couple of weeks perhaps we would have returned to the old ways unchanged. But with an experience that looks like lasting for months there is time for deep seated transformation to take hold.

What might happen:

We might give up on some the addictive behaviours that before this seemed so normal. You might have your own list but my hope is that there will be less gambling, less shopping, less obsession with sport and compulsion to spend so much on alcohol consumption. Now clearly I could be completely wrong and all that this time has done is convince people how important, perhaps essential, for them those elements of their life really are.

There will be less foreign travel. For some time at least different parts of the world will be experiencing  different rates of revival after the virus. So there are likely to be travel restrictions in place for many months to come. Each trip abroad will now be viewed as a chance of mixing with the wrong person in an overcrowded airport concourse and we will not want to risk travel as much as we used to. There will be fewer holidays abroad and less face to face meetings. It's time to look forward to exploring some more of the UK and our home tourist industry will need our support.

It will take years for our economy to recover. No one at this point knows the damage that has been done. There are very real fears that many small businesses, that are a huge part of our life, will have gone bust by the end of this. When will the pubs and restaurants that do survive be allowed to crowd people in again to have a bumper night's takings? How will all those forced out of work adjust to a new job market which might include doing tasks that foreign workers previously came here to take on? What taxes will the government seek to impose to draw at least some of the money they have promised in support back into the national bank account?

What's certain is that all this will actually remind us about what things really are important and essential. Part of Jesus' amazing teaching in the sermon on the mount was to advise us not to worry so much about the small stuff [see Matthew 6.25-34]. As well as never again taking for granted those small human interactions that we are all missing so much perhaps we will also have a much better understanding of what is actually important or essential.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Day Twenty Five of Being Closed - Love is all you need.

So here we are in the middle of this very strange Easter. The pandemic still has a firm hold on the whole world. Life in lockdown is like being part of a different world, a new world. We long for the old world order. We wonder if life will ever be the same?

Along with businesses, whole industries and institutions our churches are closed all across the world. Even asking people to gather in one place at a safe distance to sing an Easter hymn is out of the question. This weekend feels like such an important moment in this crisis. If we manage to turn the corner now then we may get through the worst of it soon.

So how will we look back on this time? What will we tell our children of how we responded?

On the whole the nation has seemed to respond well under the barrage of news reporting that convinces us that we must not put others at risk by leaving home. There are now signs of hope that the graphs are trending in the right direction. The Prime Minister is out of intensive care. The weather is still brilliantly sunny. The increased sense of community is still holding firm.

At an individual level it's interesting to recognise how this is affecting us as people. It's tiring in a way that you don't expect. This seems to me because of the sense of threat that you feel to be constantly under. When outside you have to watch each person coming towards you to make sure they are keeping their distance. If you touch anything when you are out you wonder if it might possibly have the virus on its surface. Arriving home there's the need to wash hands immediately.  Lots of people have reported more vivid dreams as if our brains are struggling to process what's going on. Waking up is hard to do after disturbed nights.

As a church leader I have found these last weeks completely exhausting. In this role there is always more that we can do. There are so many more people to call or contact than you will ever have time to reach. Each day is made up of decisions about how to your spend time. It seems that we have to make it all up as we go. There is no precise pattern or model to follow to navigate through this particular storm. We have done our best and there has been lots of encouraging feedback. There have been mistakes and moments of deep spiritual connection. In the end we seek to follow the three commands that Jesus gave us. To love God, love one another and love those around us. If we manage to do this, to be people of love, in this strange and difficult time then we may well be able to look back with pride.

Monday, 6 April 2020

Day Twenty of Being Closed - Lean on Me

There are so many ways in which this crisis called Lockdown is working out. At times there is hope at the end of the tunnel as other nations further along the curve start to see signs of improvement. But then tonight we have the news the our Prime Minister has been moved into intensive care and the whole nation holds its breath.

For some this whole experience has been a bit of an annoying unwanted break from the routine of work. Those protected by a profession without risks involved, in comfortable houses with large gardens are finding ways to wile away the hours and keep in touch with friends on social media. They may have lost some flights to an exotic holiday destination. They have the savings to cope.

Then there are those whose jobs are not so secure and have been pushed out of work onto the benefits system. Living in flats with small children and no chance to play on the swings this is more than irritating it is an enormous headache that will not go away anytime soon. When the debt is already crippling the prospect of more comes with a numbness that takes away the pain. There will be trips to the food bank and the hope that the landlord will be gentle.

But none of this superficial stuff reaches anywhere near the position that some find themselves. We all are so thankful for those who stand on the frontline. The ones who are actually keeping us safe by putting themselves in danger. Doctors, nurses and paramedics on long shifts with each and every day bringing the possibility of infection. They are supported by porters, cleaners and caterers who keep the NHS going. All need our ongoing appreciation. They, without doubt, are the reason that we will happily give up sunny afternoons on the beach. This is all getting much too real for us to moan or gripe. Clergy being told that there are plans for the days ahed when there will be no individual funerals because the system will be overloaded with bodies.

Tonight's events show that this virus is respecter of neither wealth nor status. Even with the very best care available, which we trust Boris Johnson will have been given, this virus can put you on a respirator in a matter of days. Now is a time for prayer. A time to rediscover our reliance on a God who saves. For there are some things too big for us to handle. And we need to realise in whose care we must leave our worst fears. The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding love, says Psalm 103. I will leave my worries with him tonight.

Friday, 3 April 2020

Day Seventeen of Being Closed - Hide and Seek

One of the best parts of our ministry as a church is that we own and run a church nursery school. This is a wonderful place filled with love and warmth provided by an awesome set of staff. It has grown and developed down through many years to be a place that won the best school award for our whole city last year.

While many nurseries have chosen to close ours is committed to staying open to serve the children of key workers. The children still there in these lockdown days have parents who are doctors, nurses and pharmacists as well as supermarket shelf stockers. Where usually there are a hundred children in and out each week the numbers have massively reduced down to just a handful or so. But we are open and those children will be cared for and loved. The staff have said that the nursery play ground has been a particular benefit to some children who would otherwise spend all their time enclosed in flats.

The church has always supported the nursery with regular visits and it has been my joy to make those times to tell a story and sing a song happen in these last couple of weeks. The problem is how to explain our current way of life to a small child of 2 or 3 years old?

As I walked through the very, very empty city streets it occurred to me that everyone was in a way hiding from the virus; that this time of fighting corona virus was in fact just like a global game of hide and seek. Those who hide the best stay safe and survive. The ones who hide successfully end the game alive. The last thing that any of us want is for the virus to find us.

The job for most of our nation is to stay inside and stay well. With a warm spring weekend approaching this is going to be a bit problematic. Yet this is the game that we have to play if we want to emerge from this weird dysfunctional form of existence anytime soon. Our playing well also protects those who can't hide but have to put their own lives on the line in ambulances, A&E departments and intensive care wards up and down the land. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica, "make it your ambition to lead a quiet life." For the next two weeks this should be our goal. Stay well hidden and survive. Then we and our NHS workers may all get to come out and play.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Day Fifteen of Being Closed - Adjusting Still

This takes some adjusting to get used to. The routine in places is falling into place. For our house it's a run in the morning or walk in the afternoon. Some phone calls to family and friends each day. Connecting with others across social media when we can. Reading books and watching TV.

But then there is also the keeping up with the news and the numbers of cases or deaths all across the world. We watch the ups and downs of the course of the pandemic as it rages across Europe and now on into the United states.

There are endless emails from the central church of England and the local Diocese to keep up with. Each are important bringing the latest instructions for funerals or news of the latest list of food banks that serve the city. They all need to be read and and inwardly digested.

There are so many changes that have all happened so fast. But we're grappling to make some patterns start to form in the midst of the seemingly endless storm. Tonight we restarted our midweek Bible Course with around fifty people joining online and watching the video sections together before breaking out into small groups for discussion and sharing. So tomorrow there is a social quiz night to get more people connected again. It's so good just to see people's faces again. Quite emotional to hear the buzz of people laughing and teasing one another.

There are always those who won't be able to join in for practical issues prevent them and often they are the ones who are most vulnerable and in need of company. We are still working hard to get a good process for ensuring that everyone is contacted regularly by phone.

Perhaps we just have to get used to this uncertainty. Perhaps we need to learn from St Paul who endured so many different trials and tribulations for in Jesus he found the way to a peace that passes all understanding. In Philippians 4.11 Paul says that he has learned to be content whatever the circumstances. We can do this by fully trusting in God but for me there's still some adjusting to do.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Day Twelve of Being Closed - Church is?

In church circles there are particular phrases that come in and out of fashion down through the decades. A little while back one of these was 'Church Without Walls.' It was a call to make sure that we didn't stay in one place, in one building, in one concentration of holiness that could make no impact on the world around us. There was a comment that the Devil was rather keen on church buildings because they kept all the Christians off the streets and out of the way. So this was desire to see us move out from our buildings and into the life of the world.

Well who knew that we would need a crisis like this to force us to take this seriously. For we have now officially left the building, which is locked up and alarmed, the heating switched off, the fridge cleared of food and all the bins emptied. I cannot go there to pray alone by myself and we certainly can't gather to meet to worship.

So for the second week we have Facebook live-streamed our service this morning. Last week we were at church with some tech support. This week we were in my study, Debs and I, hoping and praying that all would go well. This seems to be the best way for us to do church at the moment. There is the element of the immediate and something authentic that you lose in a recording. But it is also a bit scary. I must admit that I have looked at little video articles about how to talk to camera. Most of it is common sense. I tell myself that this is what I do every Sunday morning. Yet there is something different in talking to a camera on a format that will be saved for all posterity to see. It went well. Debs did great and despite the small mistakes we got good reviews.

So, we are now officially a church without walls. We are church scattered and isolated in many spaces and places. Yet we can still be God's people. His Presence is still with us. We can make an impact in the lives of our neighbours who before this we did not know. Debs has started a WhatsApp group for our short road and we have people from 16 out of 22 houses joined up. Today I sent news of my preaching to a group of friends from my days as a veterinary surgeon and a few of them watched and left comments.

Let's make sure that these days help to redefine what church is. For every crisis is a challenge loaded with opportunity. As Paul says to the Christians in a city in Asia before church buildings were even invented and where sporadic persecution was the normal way of life - Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people. Galatians 6.10.

Day Ten of Being Closed - This little light

So how do we see the world around us just now. The news reports are filled with shots of empty city streets and hospital beds. This is our new reality and it causes anxiety and fear. There are some balancing stories of hope but the news teams don't seem to report so quickly the number of people who recover due to the dramatic dedication of the wonderful health service staff. Obviously we need a coherent message that will keep us indoors and make us take this whole thing seriously. But perhaps we need a bit more hope that the light is still shining in the darkness.

Today two things happened to lift the gloom for me. Two small insignificant stories that sum up the other side of the equation.

The first concerns someone who is deeply involved in what we call pastoral support which basically means looking after people. This lovely lady, over the course of the last two weeks, has taken on the shopping for at six elderly people. We are trying to encourage her to spread the load and we will make sure that this burden does not grow too great. Despite all her trips to the supermarkets, standing in many queues and collecting many different receipts, there was something that she hadn't been able to find for her own family - Crunchy Nut Cornflakes. Amongst the odd items like milk powder and yeast the shelves contained none of this essential cereal. Nerve mind there would be plenty of time to look again. They were bound to reappear. Until late this evening a box did appear on her doorstep. Left with a small note that said to enjoy them. It says in Isaiah 58 that when we spend ourselves for other then we will be blessed. And this was certainly a sign that this immutable law of God's universe is still in force.

Then this evening I was able to be part of what we call Friday Fridge an event that has happened for thirteen years, which now supports those on the margins of society by giving them a place where they can come and receive some food and company late on a Friday evening. In the present situation we have needed to ask for our Bishop's permission to carry out any ministry from our church buildings. With this permission in place we have altered this event so that it just provides a takeaway service of food and hot drinks with extra detailed consideration of how to minimise the possibility of any contagion. So our guests lined up at 2 metre intervals to receive a cheese toasty and a bacon butty along with a couple of bags of assorted goodies donated to us from food outlets. We served nine people carefully and without rushing them away. It may not look like much but the light is still shining and darkness has not overcome it.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Day Nine of Being Closed - Hidden Heroes

The message of Lockdown is getting through. Each day there are fewer people out and less traffic on the roads. Yes some have not yet understood what is needed. But it takes time to change habits and adapt. It's so hard to give up on plans that have taken weeks and months to prepare.

People are being kind to one another - we were blessed by some flour and yeast from one of our neighbours. There was a bread maker hidden on a shelf at the back of our garage and there is a chance it can be brought back to life. We now have the time for bread to be made in our house.

Tonight we had our first show of unity by clapping at our front doors along the road where we live. It was quite emotional and unexpectedly good to do something positive together. Our nation coming together to support out health workers and show them how much they matter to us. After so many months of division we may just be starting to heal again.

Amongst all of this there are plenty of hidden heroes. This morning I went to visit the church primary school and our church nursery. I walked there and back without contact with any other people. Hands were washed at regular intervals. The reason for going was to support those who come every day to look after the children of those who are needed to fight the virus. The children of doctors, nurses and dentists, of pharmacists and other teachers, the children of those still needed by the navy to protect us in other ways.

The teachers at school now make swift journeys into work to care for children across several ages and connect with those at home who are all still striving for understanding. There are tweets and posts and each day the safe space they provide is helping us all to get through these strange times. One small effect of coming to the school and the nursery is that some of the little children have the chance to play outside in these sunny spring days. Those trapped inside flats have by far the worst of this. Yet the teachers and nursery carers can't rest at home and watch these days and weeks pass by. They are involved at the centre of the storm. They give up their days to make sure that the fight goes on without ceasing.

It is important to keep as much normality as possible in these uncertain days. Is it essential to go and lead an act of collective worship at school or to tell a story of Jesus at the nursery? If they foster the faith and the hope to help people carry on then perhaps they are.

We must not let the virus squash all mention of Easter. This is the season for new life to start and for new beginnings to arrive. Easter tells the story of freedom from oppression and that we are truly released from the curse of death. It also celebrates the role of hidden heroes who in the end are at the centre of a movement which can be credited with changing the whole world.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Day Eight of Being Closed - Faith not Fear

On Tuesday I have a day off each week- so no post. This is the Sabbath that God commands us to keep and I do my utmost not to work. This meant then that the first day after the big Lockdown was announced was a day of rest for me. It was good to know that we had already shut the church, with the heating off and everything tidied away. So the day of rest started with a run and then was taken up with mostly reading with time for recovering and a bit of tidying.

The book that I've recently started took me back to the battlefields of the first world war that we'd visited just a couple of weeks ago on a trip to Belgium - yes we managed to get that one in before everything stopped. It was good to be sitting in the sunshine as I read of the mud, blood and industrial slaughter that provides an alternative perspective to what we are facing now. As a TV presenter said this week, our current crisis is demanding that we stay home and watch the tele; not quite the same league as being told to leave a trench into a hail of machine gun bullets.

But what struck me today is how we need to remember to focus first thing, before all that news of the state of the world and the numbers infected hits us. Each morning Debs and I read the Bible before getting up. My current plan for doing this is an app on my phone that takes me through the whole Bible in one year. What I noticed this morning was that I'd been looking at the news app before the Bible app and that was not good. In days like these we need to be first focussed on faith if we want to keep on top of the fear. God's word gives us that firm foundation upon which the rest of the day can stand. It provides peace for the soul and space for a proper perspective to develop. Today's reading was from the book of Numbers in the Old Testament and was spookily appropriate in speaking of how people needed to be isolated outside the camp for seven days if they had succumbed to an infection.

Being isolated inside changes lots of things. It changes how we see the world and all that we have taken for granted for so long. It also changes how we see ourselves and who we really are. Often we are defined in our society by what we do. Now that doing part of our lives been stripped away. Now we have an opportunity to be. To settle into that place where can be comfortable as human beings not merely human doings.

As we realise that we are but dust we can rediscover that sense of wonder. We can start to live with faith in the one true God who came to deal once for all with the fear that keeps us from being set free.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Day Six of Being Closed - A New Normal

Today doesn't really feel like a Monday because yesterday was such a very odd Sunday. yet just a week ago we were hoping to stay open and continue all our planned events. Now we are all awaiting an evening news conference from the PM which is likely to tell us that we need to stay home even more that we already are.

To be fair there were lots of people out over the weekend. But they were mostly walking apart. And we were told that fresh air and exercise were good for us. The press though are like dogs with bones when they sense that things are not going well. The number of cases keeps going up yet still nowhere near the levels on the continent. So we will all need to stay in and the shops will almost all need to close.

The ultimate reason for why we need to do this has dramatically changed. It is no longer to save the elderly but now to support the valiant workers of the NHS who are quite literally putting their lives on the line to treat patients. This seems to be working. Crying nurses get more sympathy. It is a reluctantly obvious fact that old people are going to die. Many of them have become resigned to that destiny. So let's do this for our health workers and give up our freedoms because one day our lives could actually be in their hands and we will need them to be there.

Today we had our first virtual staff meeting. I want to record that it was on Google Hangouts as in years to come we will look back and marvel that we had this technology all the time and never bothered to use it before being forced to by the crisis. It mostly worked well. Our Children and Youth Worker couldn't join the group despite everyone else managing it [this was no surprise]. So I talked him through the decisions later. Much more hilarious, and this is making me chuckle as I write it, our IT guru who probably is a genius with a magical way of making all things IT work arrived late and then only as an icon who whispered ethereally into the discussion from another place for the whole of the rest of the meeting.

Our main decision was that our church building must close to encourage people to stay away and stay at home. This will also protect our staff and their families. It's the right decision. The time has come. We also made available some prayer resources to encourage people to develop their own prayer life where they are. Because for the foreseeable future there will be no getting together to do church. This is the new normal and we need to adapt. That's what our species is good at. That's why, to almost quote Gloria Gaynor, "we will survive". That's the way God made us and I trust that He is not finished with us yet.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Day Five of Being Closed - Mother's Day

One of the days that are always in the church calendar from the very start of the year is Mothering Sunday. To most people Mother's Day is a real chance to give thanks for the love and nurture they've received. There are many others for whom it is a more difficult day. Today it became part of the whole weirdness that we call the Corona Crisis.

The Prime Minister was asked by reporters whether he would visit his Mother and he said he hoped to see her. His aides later said that this would probably be by Skype. The poor man could do with a break at some point.

Instead of a children and youth service filled with light and life the church was closed. At nine I said the communion service and took the bread and the wine by myself.  It was quite emotional to stand before the empty chairs that should have been filled with the friends who make up our church.

The next item on the agenda was arranging for one hundred bunches of daffodils to be given out from in front of the church. We drew up instructions to make sure this went ahead as safely as possible. There were some early volunteers who had called in earlier in the week just to offer to help whenever they could. Good kind people turning to the church so that they could make a difference.

Then it was time for the first livestream service on Facebook. We had planned and practiced but still there were technical problems that held us up for a few minutes. It was so encouraging to have the responses and comments flowing in as we spoke. Debs did a great preach on Exodus 32. Lots to think about and reflect upon. It worked and we stay connected. Who knows what it will look like by next week.

We dropped some flowers in to people on the way home. Before another service in an empty church that was filled with beautiful worship music and another spirited message that was filled with hope. These are difficult days and tough choices have to be made. It looks as though things will get worse before they get better. We all need to make good choices. To protect mothers and each other on this strange Mother's Day.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Day Four of Being Closed - Normal Life

Today being a Saturday has less of a pattern than a weekday for me. There are usually odd things that crash in like meetings, courses or commitments that make a quiet Saturday something of a rarity. But today everything feels awkward and out of balance. It's as if we are all waiting for a new normal to appear.

There was no Park Run today as the restrictions really start to get tough. But it was a beautiful windy morning for an isolation run down the seafront. Then onto the left over emails from yesterday in the study before going down to church.

Last night we opened for our regular Friday Fridge event but in a new take away format. This worked really well and we served the usual guests who find some food, hot drinks and a warm welcome most weeks. It was hard not being able to give them a place to sit and relax but fighting the spread of the virus is so important. We cannot let down the efforts of doctors and nurses who are working so hard treating those already infected. There were five volunteers who did most of the work while I arrived after it had been done to chat and help clear up. At least we were able to show we care enough to be there for the guests at this difficult time. There are no easy answers to the problem of homelessness but we can always show compassion to those in need.

We had planned to have the church open for prayer this morning yet it really didn't seem right to be open for anyone. Prayer is something that we can do anywhere. This crisis is helping me to radically rethink just how we do church. It's not about the building but being where people are, even supporting them from a distance across a phone line or a video call. We really do need to become a church without walls. This whole episode looks likely to change us forever.

So church stayed closed and signs were changed and instead I helped put together bundles of daffodils and foliage for the Mothering Sunday flowers to be taken out tomorrow. The idea is that people come to collect and then distribute the bunches to people who would otherwise miss out this year. We trust that people will be sensible and safe as they do this. It may not make much difference but each little sign of grace matters so much at a time like this.

There were lots of people out today in the spring sunshine making the most of a walk in the fresh air along the seafront. People were keeping apart even to have ordinary conversations. A collection of eight church members talked across the space in the precinct about how weird these days have become. Even this level of interaction may have to change as we stay in even more and don't go out.

As a Smart family we managed to connect across a video app together today. It was so good to see everyone's faces and see their smiles. Tonight the two of us stayed in as we usually do before a busy Sunday. Instead of people to meet this week we have a live stream service tomorrow. All is prepared but we've never done a service like this before. Normal life seems to have disappeared so quickly. Our new existence is all so odd and ill-fitting. Who knows the new normal might just be an improvement.

Friday, 20 March 2020

Day Three of Being Closed - The Loss

Today was a mixture of getting things done and helping people mourn.

The things we got done were especially around lists of people to keep in contact with and working out how we might live stream a service through Facebook on Sunday morning. These are such strange days and even when one task is completed there seem a whole host of unexplored ones to consider. At prayers first thing we talked about reaching out to our community and there are so many ways that we could respond to the need. But there's this huge pile of things to get done.

What hit home most today were all the different ways in which this crisis is creating loss and bereavement for so many people in so many different ways.

We phoned a bride whose banns we were reading before her wedding in May. Due to the church closure this cannot now be done. The reading of banns is an ancient and essential part of a church wedding. So now the only route to a church wedding is a special licence. Even if you get one of those the service itself can only have five people present and one of them is the Vicar. Endless happy days have been trashed with all the sense of loss that goes with that.

Later I went into school to see the year six children on what might be their last day at primary school. The two classes were collapsed down to one by children already being kept away from school. Their teacher when I arrived was reading a letter to the children from the school and finding it hard to get to the end of it because of the emotion. The hope was that there would be other days that they would share if they do return towards the end of next term. We talked about Psalm 23 and Jesus being with them wherever they are and whatever they do. One of the parents had donated chocolate rolls to be handed out. But this wasn't the way their last day at school was meant to be. They had been robbed of that moment, of a proper transition at this important moment of their life.

In the office we had a conversation about who had lost the best holiday. Our walk along the Camino in Northern Spain is definitely not happening but that was trumped by a trip to Florida. In the great scheme of things to lose a holiday does not seem so much but it's still another loss to get used to. Like the loss of freedom to go to the pub tonight as the country has closed them all.

All of these, of course, are nothing compared to the real loss that is inflicted by this awful, awful virus. The loss of human life. For those who have to watch a loved one die behind the barriers of an isolation ward and then have no chance even for a proper funeral. This time of extraordinary pressure and pain has made us all question what is really important in life. At the end my prayer is that we will have learnt a lot about what really matters and how we should truly seek to live well.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Day One of Being Closed - Do Not Worry

Yesterday, in the afternoon, we got the news that all church services and gatherings had to be suspended. This was what we'd been expecting but it still took us most of today to get things sorted out. We wanted to be sure that we made good decisions that would bring glory to God and carefully work out what our underlying values should be in this difficult time.

It's important not to rush things even though you're under pressure. There's plenty of time to regret a wrong decision once it's made. We wanted all the leadership team to be included in decision making and to be able to move forward together.

There are big implications of this news for us practically. Our number one purpose is to worship God and now we are prevented from doing that together. But God is not restricted to church buildings and worship is something that we can all take part in wherever we are. Every crisis is a challenge but also an opportunity and now may be a time for us to expand our horizons and make changes that are long overdue in the way that we do church. We are being forced to rethink how we do communication and keep in touch. We need to step up our presence and passion to get things right across social media. God has given us this space to refine what we do and become more sure of who we are. So let's make the most of it.

Our mission and ministry will not be stopped by this directive. Now is the time to reach out with God's love as we seek to serve our community and care for those around us. We have spent a good part of today making sure that we will support those who are already part of our church community and then be ready to respond to those who may come afresh seeking consolation and compassion. The hardest part of the whole day was telling a 72 year old volunteer that they could no longer be part of our team greeting people at reception as we had a duty of care to take them out of the frontline.

The final task for this evening was preparing a collective worship session for school on the subject of Do not worry. Jesus words of the end of Matthew chapter 6 were the basis for this with a little bit of Proverbs 3 verse 5. We can trust God and bring our worries to Him in prayer. We may not know what tomorrow will bring but we can leave that in His capable hands. We can be people of prayer and find peace. This is who we choose to be.