I have been awestruck by the NHS and Care workers in this pandemic. At one stage I would have questioned the comments some made about not being hero's, because what they were doing was so heroic. Normal people, I felt could not have coped with what was being asked of them. Then it began to dawn on me that perhaps what was part of that statement "we are not hero's" was perhaps the truth that they were doing extraordinary things at a great cost to them and eventually that cost has to be met. We are not hero's perhaps means we are doing more than we have the resources to do, that physically, emotionally and mentally they are using up resources that are finite, when the demand feels anything but.
I was reading an interview by the Warden of the Sheldon Community in the book "Tragedies and Christian congregations, and she makes the point that in a disaster, there is a heroic phase where we go beyond what we normally can and she compares this to having to go overdrawn when you face an unexpected cost. As long as your careful you can pay it back, you may have to change your lifestyle a little, but as long as you recognise that you are overdrawn you can take care of it. If however you are always living right up to the edge of your resources and regularly going beyond them, that financial crisis can be a disaster. Our NHS staff and care workers have been working at the limit (and in some cases beyond) for the last three months and their sectors have always been demanding, in time and in physical and emotional energy.
So my prayer is for them and all who are working harder than we could reasonably ask. For their mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing. For those who have a duty of care to them and are aware of the need, but also trying to manage a crisis that is lasting months and still has a way to go, and finally for us, those who clapped and saw hero's taking care of us that we might know how to care for them in return.
The rainbow is a symbol that has expressed many different things: inclusion for the LGBTQI community, a diverse people becoming one Nation in post apartheid South Africa, our solidarity with the NHS and frontline workers during the pandemic. It also has an ancient group of spiritual meanings, from the creativity of the aboriginal people's rainbow snake, creating mountains and valleys as she slithers from one watering hole to another, a bridge to the Gods in Norse mythology, and in Judaism and Christianity it represents hope in the aftermath of calamity.
Think of Noah after 40 days in the Ark, landing on the mountain, the old world gone and a new one entrusted to him, he looks in the sky and sees the rainbow and in it sees a covenant between humanity and God that God will never allow the world to face such calamity again. The rainbow has been compared to a bridge or a bow. I have worn a rainbow clerical collar for the last year or so, because I hope that we can become a more inclusive world and that the Church can embrace inclusion fully. The meaning of the rainbow depends on who is viewing it, certainly hope, seems to be a common thread, spiritual yearning, whether in religious tradition or in songs like "somewhere over the rainbow" is in there too.
For me the meaning has become deeper through this pandemic. It speaks to me of hope and solidarity, between God and all people, and the commitment to build something better from this current crisis. I choose to be a rainbow person, awake to my shared common humanity, hopeful and creative, insistent that we build a cleaner, fairer world because the old way of doing things has not worked. Finally the rainbow reminds me to be grateful for the courage and compassion of so many. It was always there, but sometimes we failed to notice it. Perhaps that is the gift of the rainbow, it makes us look up and notice with wonder, what has always been in our midst.
Let me make a confession, not only is the title of this post a shameless knock off of Love in a time of Cholera, it's not even my knock off, it was said to me in conversation by the head of a Hospice this week. I think that takes care of the accusations of plagiarism deservedly heading my way.
The conversation though was really interesting. In the midst of this terrible outbreak which is taking lives, undermining vital treatments, because anything that damages your immunity system is just too dangerous, blighting our mental health, causing chaos to our economy and placing people (and especially Women) at greater risk of domestic abuse, there are also things we should hold onto. When all of this is over we should not simply return to normal, it will probably be impossible to anyway. We should reflect on what happened within our communities, how we started looking out for one another. We thought about the needs of families with children who would normally be at school, the elderly who would need shopping done for them, those experiencing food poverty. We came to see immigrants as our hero's working in the NHS and in care homes, often doing work that had been described as unskilled and lowly paid. We clapped the NHS and care workers and realised that the people we rely on the most we often reward the least.
We paused, thought and some of us prayed, we learnt to connect to each other online and Churches discovered that they could indeed be open when their buildings were shut. Those living in cities discovered what life with much lower levels of pollution could be like, we came to understand what it feels like to live with anxiety or depression, showing each other and ourselves just a little bit more compassion and some people began to think about what might be possible.
This time will come to an end, we will get through this, but there have been moments within it that must not be lost or forgotten as we decide how to build the world after Covid-19. If it is cleaner, if it is more compassionate, and it's community bonds are stronger than before, then at least a little of what was lost will be redeemed.
Do you remember Jaws? The theme tune was probably the scariest thing about the film, and while it suffered from rather a poor monster, it had a director who knew how to build suspense. Like many horror films, the moment the monster is seen it becomes less scary, we move away from fear into problem solving, OK how do we kill a giant shark, a vampire, alien, whatever it is, and before too long we find small children wearing costumes of the monsters (though not normally Jaws it has to be admitted) and trick or treating in them. Name it, look at it properly and it becomes manageable, a problem to solve.
This is true of our feelings, we don't need to deny them or pretend they are not there, or hide them away because they feel shameful, name them, accept them, perhaps even be curious about them and they lose some of their power to overwhelm us. Are you frightened? Name the fear and don't rush to resolve it, simply hear it, whether it is in yourself or someone else. When we hear what are friends are feeling we can help so much more if we do not rush into problem solving, but in that moment simply listen.
In the story of the Gerasene demoniac, Jesus asks them for their name and they reply "we are legion for we are many" now demons and feelings are not the same thing, indeed those difficult feelings are often the ones that need to be heard with most compassion, but it interests me that Jesus exorcism begins by asking for their name and from that moment on there can only be one outcome. If you can name it and I can hear it, we can cope with it, it's power to hurt is broken.
Do you ever feel things in your gut, before you make sense of them with your brain? Or experience emotion so strongly you need to move to express it?
We are not simply brains encased in flesh, we are bodies and our feeling and experiences are held in our bodies and in traumatic times, it has been said that our bodies keep the score (Bessel A. Van Der Kolk has written a book with this title) but at the moment so much of our spiritual lives involves sitting at a computer screen, either accessing worship through Facebook or Zoom or some other live streaming. Our bodies probably need something else as well.
Here is a suggestion, remembering that we have traditions of prayer walks and pilgrimages, use your exercise time to walk (or run) with God, begin with intercession, you probably know some Key workers, who are at greater risk than the rest of us, pray for them, you may know people who can not leave their houses (you maybe one of them and I will conclude with how to do this indoors) remember them too, talk to God about all the people you are anxious about. Now take a moment to notice where you are, what can you see, hear, smell, feel, taste. By doing so you are placing yourself in the present, finally tell God what you are feeling. There is something about addressing this stuff whilst we are on the move, that involves our bodies, and liberates our feelings and thoughts. If you are shielding and can not leave the house, you can move from the door, where you pray for those on the other side of it, to your window to notice the world and finally perhaps to the kitchen to make yourself a drink and tell God what is going on as you wait for the kettle to boil.
You may want a thought to complete your walk, here are two possibilities that open us up to thankfulness and remind us that God walks with us
A wandering Aramean was my father,
he went down to Egypt and sojourned there,
he and just a handful of his brothers at first, but soon
they became a great nation, mighty and many.
The Egyptians abused and battered us,
in a cruel and savage slavery.
We cried out to God, the God-of-Our-Fathers:
He listened to our voice, he saw
our destitution, our trouble, our cruel plight.
And God took us out of Egypt
with his strong hand and long arm, terrible and great,
with signs and miracle-wonders.
And he brought us to this place,
gave us this land flowing with milk and honey.
So here I am. I’ve brought the firstfruits
of what I’ve grown on this ground you gave me, O God. (Deuteronomy 26)
One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.
After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.
This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
"Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You'd walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don't understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me."
He whispered, "My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you."
I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you;
not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.
A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance,
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always, the fence of sand our barrier,
always, the sand between.
And then one day,
-and I still don’t know how it happened -
the sea came.
Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbors,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.
Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
Sr Carol captures the experience of having your life so turned up side down that you can not accommodate it into your normal life, but rather have to learn to live with the new reality. This is how I am feeling, not knowing when things return to normal, just knowing that normal will not be as things were, we will be changed by this experience, individually as well as corporately. Churches are in this with everyone else, working out how to worship together, do pastoral care and be a community that exists more concretely online than in buildings. We will also be facing the task of rebuilding our communities, reopening our buildings, re-establishing groups and doing so from a very different financial place than the one we were in when the crisis hit. At that point it will be important to recognise our solidarity with those who are going through the same kinds of conversations and challenges in their places of work. We are having to adapt at a time when we feel overwhelmed and somehow we will need to reach the point where we are at home in our new environment and can think clearly once again. As for now, perhaps we need to recognise the scale of what is happening to us and to each other, to be kind, forgiving and allow God to meet us in our unworked out messiness.
The three big days of Holy Week are normally Maundy Thursday with foot washing, and the last supper, and the stripping of the altars, Then Good Friday when we remember Christ's crucifixion and then Easter Sunday where with Fire and noise we proclaim that Jesus is alive.
This year I will focus on other things because I want us to be congruent. Easter Sunday won't be noisy, nor will it be celebrated in our Church building, Maundy Thursday will not include the journey to the Cathedral to receive Holy oils, nor will there be any foot washing or eucharist, Our lives are a little different at the moment. I will be reflecting on the Cross, on Holy Saturday I will be thinking about the plundering of hell and on Easter Sunday I will focus on hope emerging unnoticed, on the experience of the Disciples behind locked doors, still fearful and the risen Christ who speaks our name, softly and gently so that we can recognise him once more.
Good Friday brings us to Jesus on the Cross, artists have on the whole given Jesus a loin cloth that he would not have had on the day in order to keep things decent. The cloth offers no real protection, but it is a gesture. The face of Christ is unprotected from spit, or blood or sweat and in this he reminds me of those who are working in the NHS, a flimsy plastic apron is more symbolic of protection than actually any use, and faces are left exposed. We maybe less angry about this than we should be, we are moved by the heroic sacrifice rather than asking the question Jesus asks from the Cross, "Why?" Jesus death is not supposed to give us an arch-type for heroic sacrifice it is supposed to be the end of sacrifices. When we see our NHS staff and key workers left inadequately protected the right response is anger.
The picture at the top reminds us that we are living in a Holy Saturday moment, staying at home, behind shut doors, often fearful about what is going on outside, just as the Disciples were. But Jesus according to ancient Christian tradition is busy, he is plundering hell, that those trapped there might be freed to fullness of life in God's kingdom and the work of the NHS staff and key workers comes to mind as they care for us and fight this virus for us, they are truly heroic and their health and safety must not become an acceptable sacrifice that inspires rather than outrages us.
We are pleased that we have a guest blogger today, Canon Andy Bryant. Norwich Cathedral's Canon Pastor.
It is the silence that is the most poignant sign of these most unusual of times. The great Cathedral Church of Norwich stands locked, still and silent. I open my front door and gone are the noises of the busy city. Traffic sounds are rare and the voices of people rarer. Looking out the window nobody passes by. There is just silence.
Some people get nervous in the silence. They find comfort in leaving the radio on during the day to have the background of human voices. Or they full their house with music, keeping the silence at bay.
But I find this silence deeply re-assuring. For me this silence says: we are taking this virus seriously. We are following the rules because we want to help. And the silence – the absence of activity – is not just our ways of keeping ourselves safe, it is our way of supporting our wonderful NHS and its dedicated staff. The silence of church and city is our act of solidarity to protect the NHS, to minimise the pressure that it will inevitably come under. Our silence is our standing alongside all who have and will get the virus, and especially those mourning and the many more who will mourn before we see this through.
I do of course miss the music and liturgies of the Cathedral. I miss my colleagues’ voices as we join together in prayer, I miss their voices bringing alive the reading of Scripture. I miss the singing of the choir, their harmonies balm to the soul and the sudden surprise of a chord that breaks open the heart. I miss the sound of the organ filling the space and echoing in the depths of my being. I miss the Cathedral Community, their conversations and the sharing of their lives.
But though I miss these things I nevertheless value the silence for God is in the silence. Some long to hear God speak directly to them. They want a God who acts, gets involved, does stuff. Others mistakenly presume that the silence from God is the final proof of the absence of God.
But if we allow it the silence can nurture us and renew us. When life is in free fall and all the familiar landmarks have disappeared what I need to know is that I am held…and in the silence I feel held. Amidst the jumble of thoughts chasing through my mind the last thing I need is more words, either human or divine. Amidst the endless commentary on the events of this present time I do not need more words. Rather I need to be held, held by the One who even amidst my free fall I know will not let me go. A true friend is one in whose presence you can both be comfortably silent. A trusted lover is one who will quietly hold you, whose holding is healing, an anointing for a troubled body, mind and soul.
Silence provides the necessary space for letting go and for discovering what I most need to hold onto. Silence strips us and re-clothes us. It empties us and fills us anew. It bathes our wounds and binds them. It reminds us what we are not, and what we are, whose we are not, and whose we are.
It is captured for me in this quote (whose origin I have sadly lost):
Silence is the assurance of God’s presence, not absence.
Silence is the dark faithfulness of God’s promise…
When above all, we need to recover
A sense of the presence of God who is within,
And by whom we are enfolded.
It is in St John’s Gospel, Chapter 17:
You in me…I in you…they in us…I in them…you in me.
Embrace the silence that is around us at this most unusual of times. Allow yourself to be held in the silence by the One from whose love we cannot be separated. Allow the silence to nurture you and uphold you. Counterintuitively remember that the silence does not mean you are alone, but rather in the company of One who is beyond all words, all imaginings, and who holds you safe in the palm of the Divine hand.
Last Thursday, like so many of us I stood in my doorway and clapped the NHS workers. We know the risks they are taking on our behalf and frankly I am humbled by it. Perhaps like me you want to do something, there are 750'000 people who have volunteered to help the NHS. Almost every call I make ends with the other person offering to help in some way. We are living through an emergency and we want to do something. Yet almost everything we want to do, from picking up shopping or collecting prescriptions or taking food to the homeless, involves risk and not just to ourselves. We risk those we share a home with, the people who will need an NHS bed and the NHS staff themselves. Recognise that our well intentioned desire to help is something we have to contain. In an emergency the brain does strange things, we often talk about the fight or flight reaction, the same adrenalin can lead to a desire to rescue and nurture. All very sensible at the right time. We have to acknowledge those feelings but not give into them. We clapped the NHS staff now we have to give them the thank you they have asked for and stay home.
This is a photo of my Dad, it sits on my desk and while is not in great focus or taken with the kind of camera that would give brilliant detail, it captures the feel of him, or at least how I remember him.
He died on Christmas day, several years ago, I was in my parish and he was with the rest of my Mum's family. I can remember the feeling I had when I got the call, walking through the parish swearing loudly and then realising I was still wearing my Priests collar so trying to moderate my language. I had family, friends and a Church to help me through my grief. Those who are being bereaved now or living with a recent loss maybe unable to attend funeral's or the funeral will be limited to a few people. Those who would want to give you a hug and let you know they are there for you, are left wondering how to support you. Others of us will be reconnecting to previous bereavements because death is on the news so much and we are at home with a lot of time to think.
The words that helped me are ancient wisdom "those we love but see no more are no longer where they once were, they are now everywhere that we are". If you are bereaved or reconnecting with a previous loss you might like to light a candle, write those words and spend some time thinking about what the person you love has given you, what you shared with them, and how they remain part of you, perhaps you love something they introduced you to, perhaps there are values they held you try to live by. When you are ready thank God for them, and entrust them to the love that hold's our universe together and in which no one is lost and nothing is wasted.