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.