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.