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Masks

Masks are now our norm.  Just like people they seem to come in all shapes and colours.  Some indicate our allegiance, ie a Welsh dragon.  Others are simply utilitarian and plain.  They are becoming a normal part of our lives. 

Actually, masks aren’t new.  They have always been our norm.  The person on the door at church or at work or in the shop, asks how we are and we say, “Fine.” Rarely, do we stop to tell them we are not fine; we are barely coping; we don’t see the point of this week.  Our ‘I’m fine’ mask goes up as soon as that question is asked.  We all wear “masks”, and we all are aware of that.

The other day someone said to me, “I met someone who knows you, Martha.’  Okay, who could that be?  When I heard who, for a brief moment, my mask came down.  I told a group a very personal story, about a very difficult time.  And after I finished speaking, I thought, “Oops, that information was not for public consumption.”  But it is now out there.  My mask slipped. 

Before our masks go up we can often tell how a person is feeling based on reading their faces.  There are certain clues that indicate anger or sadness, joy or relief.  Being physically masked inhibits our ability to understand another’s emotions.  Years ago a colleague told me that when a woman is veiled, “You learn to read their eyes.”  Well, I have to say, I am not very good at reading only eyes.  When someone says, “Oh, she has a twinkle in her eyes,” I can’t see the twinkle.  What do our eyes communicate over our masks?  Is there a smile in my eyes or sadness or fear or something else?  How do we communicate gratitude and kindness with our eyes?  

I now wonder whether our new physical masks will inhibit us from sharing with each other?  Will we limit, even more, who we allow to see behind our masks?  Will it become too hard to read behind the mask so we just don’t make the effort?  Will it cause those of us who too easily drop into “I’m fine” to limit what we share even more?

In The Velveteen Rabbit, the Skin Horse tells the Rabbit about being real.  He says, "Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real." 

The Skin Horse was worn and ugly because he had been loved. That loving relationship made him “real.”  As humans we are ‘real’ when we let our masks down and are honest with others.  Can we allow others to see behind our masks and truly love us, reminding us that we are real, true, and okay?    We are called to be whole, to be real, to be who we are behind our masks.  We still have to let our masks down sometimes and allow our real selves to be seen in relationships.

Working from home

I quite like working from home.  I haven’t always worked from home.  I have had office-based jobs, but I much prefer getting up in the morning and beginning my day “in the office” just around the corner from my kitchen or laundry room.

I’m pretty good with boundaries—though the advent of the smart phone did make it harder for me to switch off at the end of the day—whether that was 5 p.m. or 9.30 p.m.  At the beginning of the lockdown I felt like I was on the phone all the time, checking for updates and information.

I had to consciously stop that—after a couple months.

One of the negatives I have noticed about working from home is that the stress of work invades my home space.  When Amelia was no more than 4, we were making a cake on the kitchen counter.  Suddenly, the glass bowl was on the floor in pieces with cake batter scattered everywhere.  (And in that manse we had a carpeted kitchen so you can imagine the mess!) To my shame I shouted at her.  Of course, it wasn’t her fault.  It just happened. I quickly realised that what I was shouting about was not the broken bowl and wasted cake mix. I was shouting because I was stressed.  We were in the process of moving.  I was seeking a new church and the stress I felt came into our home.  

I didn’t have a boundary between work and  home.  Work stress found its way into the middle of my kitchen and bounced off my daughter.

Being in lockdown, working from home, dealing with regular changes in the pandemic rules, is stressful.  Now, maybe more than in other times, that stress doesn’t have the same kind of boundaries.  We can’t end our work day, walk out of our workplace, and shed the rawness of work on the way home.  Instead, the rawness seeps into our homes, under the doors of our work spaces, across the tables we use for desks, into our recreation time and our closest relationships—where we least want to find it.

I don’t have an answer.  I simply think it is so. When I hear waitstaff feel customers are ruder than “normal,” I wonder if that lack of boundaries and the stress of work is crossing barriers at restaurants as well as at home.  

I don’t have an answer.   I just know we have to take care—take care of ourselves and take care of those we name as precious.  We also probably have to give those around us a break—maybe they didn’t mean to shout at us but at the challenging situations in which we now find ourselves.  

I like working from home.  I also like shutting down my computer, putting my phone aside and doing nothing to recuperate from a tough day at the office.

In the beginning

 

In the beginning there was noise.   Then there was silence. 

In the beginning we noted the silence, an emptiness, a void.  As we watched the virus spread around the globe, the numbers of deaths climb up, maybe the lack of ‘normal’, the orderly queuing, the daily briefings, government u-turns, and working from home felt like chaos.  The quiet without traffic noise was welcome.  But the emptiness of isolation was overwhelming.

Yet  in the beginning we notices things in the silence.  We heard birds singing.  We say the sun rise and set.  We welcomed the light of the moon.  We found animals creeping into our gardens.  We turned our hands to growing vegetables and flowers.  There was life and creativity, and it was good.

But now there is noise again.  ‘Life’ is returning.  We feel the strain of working from home without the limits of 37.5 hours per week.  We pass people on the street and they no longer move away from us.  We feel stress—are they infected?  Masked faces reassure us and scare us.  

And the noise is increasing to another level.  Voices call to us to spend our money, revive our economy,  save our high streets, the shops and the shopkeepers.  Voices that shout “Covid-19 is a hoax!” Voices demand the return to “normal.”

The noise of all these voices drown the other Voice—the one that created and named creation ‘good.’  In the noise it is easy to miss a whisper asking us to listen to the ones who are hurting.  Three months of quiet were hard, but in them we heard and saw the beauty of creation. In them we birthed new ideas and we learned new skills—like Zooming.   

The voices now are demanding a return to ‘normal’ and I am find myself deeply sad.   I don’t want to be drawn back into doing ‘what we have always done.’  So I may be the voice wondering ‘Why?’  Why do we have to do it that way?  Why can’t we try new things?  Why do we have to rush backwards rather than allow the creativity and the silence to lead us in new directions?

It seems to me that so much of life—work, church, personal—has been trying to drown the whisper of Love that encourages us to be, to create, to listen, to offer time.  We have been running to keep up, but is that what Love wants of us?  I doubt it is to attend meetings or spend money.  I think it is more likely asking us to find ways to connect despite the brokenness of our connections.  

When I was a student, some of my peers wanted to “return” to an early church model.  That model was actually a few people gathering, eating, talking, helping each other, praying and listening to the stories of Jesus or the Hebrew Bible or letters from someone like Paul.  This was never going to happen. 

But is it happening now?   Is 2020 the beginning of another way of being church, authentic and small gatherings where people focus on scripture and prayer, where people share honestly with each other, where we get together to help each other in small groups?

In the beginning the chaos and emptiness lead to creation.  Can we face the chaos and emptiness of our world and then create, with God, a new way of being authentically church, authentically human, without the noise drowning us once again?  Can there be new life and creativity which we name ‘good’?  Can we offer ourselves to Love with an openness to doing church and life differently and say ‘In 2020, we trusted ourselves to God and leapt into the beginning of . . .”?

In the beginning there was love, connection, and hope. 

Blackberries

Different times in my life evoke different memories of  food.  As a child, my mother was a good and experimental cook.  I told my class she made the best re-fried beans—little did I know they came from a can.  My mom had to get a recipe from my dad’s student to make them for my class.

But she and my dad liked certain foods from their childhoods.  One of those was bean soup.  After we had ham, my mom cooked beans with the bone and salt and pepper.  I hated it.  The only good thing about the meal was her cornbread, but it was a cheap and nutritious meal for a family on a low income.  (Ironically, I now have beans as an important part of my diet though I like them with a bit of spice.)

When I left home, I ate with a new friend and discovered real garlic and onions.  My mother used dried or powdered in her cooking.  It’s real onions and garlic for me all the time!

From Wellingborough, one of the memories will be blackberries and apples.  Though I knew both of those from my childhood, we rarely pick berries, until Wellingborough.  Thanks to the previous ministers our garden had a bit of fruit, including blackberries bushes and an old apple tree.  Over the years I found all kinds of recipes to use the bounty, from cakes to apple butter.  Each summer morning, David or I picked the apples off the ground, deciding with were edible.  It was a joy and a chore.

Today I decided it was time to pick blackberries.  I had already determined my secret spot, away from the traffic pollution, a lovely overgrown area.  I delighted in the picking, noticing that someone had been there before me.  Noticing the sun highlighting the deep purple and rich red of the berries.  As I wandered down the path, trying to avoid the brambles  reaching out to catch me, I stepped on something.  I looked down and discovered I had stepped on an apple.  Did someone drop it while they were picking blackberries?  Then I looked up and to my delight discovered I was under a huge, overgrown apple tree. So not only was I able to have blackberries but apples too.  Apple and blackberry crisp here we come!

So often in the last few months I have been aware of what I don’t have—no meeting with people, no cups of tea, no celebrations.  Some things I don’t miss.  Some things I do, but this morning the apples and the blackberries reminded me of the generosity of God’s love.  Life is joy-filled, despite the losses of the pandemic.  And isn’t this just like grief—good and bad days, laughter mingled with tears, gratitude for what was and peace with what is and a tiny glimmer of hope for what will be.

Stress and Compassion

Let’s face it, everyone is stressed.  Everyone has less energy to do what is required in their lives.  It doesn’t matter if we are retired or have been working flat our or were furloughed.  We are all stressed.

I don’t suppose our corner of the world has known this much stress since we were engaged in war.  Of course, that stress was different.  There were clear goals, an actual physical enemy.

Yet even then people told me they were not isolated in the same way we are now.  One woman told me she loved her war years.  She was a teenager and enjoyed the freedom of roaming her countryside with friends.  She didn’t lack much and she didn’t live in a place bombs dropped regularly.  Others also lived in places far from the threat of war and only noticed its impact in missing men.  So there was fear and stress, but there were moments of relief, unless a person you loved was engaged in the warfare.

There are parallels—missing people, a clear but invisible enemy— lurking to catch us out like a spy or invading army.  We say we have found a community spirit, but there is also a sense which our neighbours could be our enemies.  They might be the ones who bring the virus into our homes.  On the other hand, when we are out to do our job or normal other daily activities, we might be the one who brings the virus into our homes.  Work and risk for all of us brings stress.

Let’s face, everyone is stressed.  We feel disconnected and isolated.  We don’t do the things we have normally done or see the people we normally see.  We are tired.  It’s hot (today anyway!)

Just as we all grieve differently, we all have different responses to stress.  As I evaluate my stress levels, I wonder whether I can train myself to develop a new response. When someone annoys me, can I take a deep breathe and pause before I say or do anything?  Can I remember that other person thought what they did or said made sense—even if it seems crazy to me?  In my pausing, can I give them, and myself, a break?

Let’s face it, we all need a break from this stress, this virus, this time.  We aren’t going to get that for awhile so we have to do our best to simply get through.  We have to find things to laugh about, and we have to have space to cry a bit.  We have to find ways to connect, whether it’s through an open door or window or talking to a stranger in the shop.  We are all getting on with life the best we can.

Maybe it helps to remember we are not alone in this.  Maybe not, but we have never been on a personal journey that so many others share. I hope the fact we are sharing the burden of stress can help me be more compassionate to my neighbours, my ‘enemies”, and even myself.

Grieving a pandemic

Saturday as I drove away from Oxford, I felt deeply sad.  I was very glad to see our children, to laugh with them, to plan with them, to listen to their concerns and opinions.  I always learn from them.  It is a joy to share time together.  And it almost felt normal.  Yet at the end of the day I was still sad.  There were no hugs.  There is no plan for being together again.  Life is very fragile.  WE hope we will be together again but we know others who have had that joy.  We do not know what the next few weeks or months will hold. 

There have been many losses in the past few months.  People have died.  Weddings have been cancelled.  Education has been curtailed.  People have been made redundant.  Relationships have changed and ended.  The list is endless.  All of these are grief.  They are big and little things to mourn.  

Grief is a very individual thing.  There may be a cycle of grief developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross but each of us go through that cycle differently and react differently,  Some of us are very open with our grief.  I remember my shock at attending a family in A and E whose son had died.  They were literally wailing as they grieved his death.  Some of us are very private with our grief.  I remember a woman whose husband died and she said she had been taught never to cry in public.  She said, ‘You will never see me cry, but know that I do—when I am alone.’  Grief is expressed differently in each of us.

For many of us this pandemic is simply a time of survival.  We  do our best to get through the time that stretches before us.  Energy is used for work and mundane tasks.  Tomorrow is a day that holds the same.  No wonder people want to go on holiday, despite the risk.  I have a desire to escape the mundane and the grief and feel ‘normal’.  A holiday might help me pretend there is a “normal.” 

Yesterday was a lovely day with no sadness at the end, but I find I move in and out of the cycles of grief.  I am grateful for what I do have.  I miss what will not be. I deny it is as bad as it is—surely everything will be back to normal soon.  I accept life as it is.  I am slightly angry—mostly at politicians, occasionally at people who invade my space or fail to see risk the way I do.    I don’t really bargain—but society seems to do this.  Are we trading  economic recovery for increased virus or opening  schools vs closing pubs? 

There is a sixth part of grief.  Apparently, Kubler-Ross came to this before her death, but it isn’t reported often.  It is meaning.  To best survive grief we have to find meaning.  I think for many of us faith gives us the shape of meaning.  I have not yet decided what the meaning in the pandemic is.  It is being suggested that is it challenging us to slow down, to respond to the climate differently, to value those who are underpaid but do essential work.  I think perhaps seeking meaning now, while we are so enmeshed in the pandemic, reflects a desire to circumvent the work of grief.  So I wonder whether we can sit with our sadness for awhile, allow others to grieve?  Through the work of grief meaning may emerge.  I am not ready for meaing.  I just need to cry some days and laugh other days--just get through togehter.

Normal?

We hear a lot about the “new normal.”  It’s in the media.  The URC use it to help churches think about how they can be in the near future.  But somehow it doesn’t seem to be sinking in—life will be different.  

It’s not just wearing masks, sitting two metres apart in church, or queuing in shops.  Life is different.  What we saw as normal is gone.  What the future holds is different.  High Streets may be polluted by flats instead of shops.  Churches may further develop virtual technology to connect and include people.  Outdoor cafe culture may become the way of the future.  It seems, however, that cars are still popular!

How we long for the return to the mundane routines.  So today I am doing such an ordinary thing.  I am making a funeral visit.  Now, for the family this is not routine or mundane.  It is, sadly, very significant.  But for me it is the bread and butter of my work.  The visit isn’t virtual or over the phone.  It is in person.  How ordinary and normal—not ‘new normal”—this will be.  I look forward to that.    

It is nice to return to something “normal.”  It was nice to drive to the Brecon Beacons on Sunday.  It was normal.  But there is a large part of me that doesn’t want to live in the past. I want some aspects of life to be different— to care about how I use my spending power and my vehicle and my other resources. 

Maybe the new normal is not about how we spend—though the government in Westminster wants us to spend, spend, spend— but how we use the resources of our time to nurture relationships?  We may be missing church, but a great deal of what we are missing about church is the people—the people who nurture and encourage us.  So what do relationships look like in the new normal?  Which ones do we cherish?  Which ones do we decide we need to be let go?

The “norm” for me is listening to people, understanding what is important to them, reflecting that back in worship and other experiences.  That is why a funeral visit is so important and “normal” to me.  I am looking forward to that “norm.”

Update—well, nothing is indeed “normal.”  There are visits that feel just like “before”, and there are conversations that seem like we live in a new land.  I don’t need to say anything else.  Instead I guess I have to remember all this is new to all of us.  I have to face into the new in the mundane and familiar situations and allow life to unfold without judgement.  Life may feel familiar in some ways and life will be different in some ways.  I just have to allow life to unfold—normal and different—and hope somewhere in it is a spark of love.

No more emails

Today there will be no more emails.  I notice that most days I spend the day on my computer or phone, checking emails and responding.  My phone kindly tells me how much time I spend on it.  My average usage is up dramatically since before lockdown.  

At the beginning of this COVID-19 journey, lots of people were talking about having the time to learn a new skill.  While I think this is a statement of privilege, I felt like I should buy into it.  So I warped up my loom, which great difficulty, and began a project. That project now sits in the corner of the room, untouched for weeks.

I do not have the emotional energy after a day of computers and phones and zooming for something new.  Just keeping a house together, staying on top of work, and walking each day are more than enough for me.

But I know the toll working all the time takes on people so today there will be no more emails.  
It is so tempting, just to check one more time, but I will put the phone away, close the computer, move out of the office.  

Instead, I will drag out something that I know well, something which gave me joy in the past, something creative.  Today I will pick up a sewing project conceived a couple of years ago.  I will begin to put the pieces together.  I will focus in a direction completely away from technology.

At the moment it isn’t giving me joy, but it is keeping me occupied and away from work.  It is allowing me to listen.  It is taking my brain away from COVID 19 to straight seams and matching patterns.

Today I have closed my computer and taken up my sewing machine.  Covered in threads and fibres, surrounded by colour, I will piece together fabric, open to what is being created.  I am the creator.  I will trust the Creator to renew and birth something of value—in me and in fabric.  Today there will be no more emails.

Fear, Guilt, Relief and ?

I find myself alternating between relief, fear and guilt.  I am so glad that life is easing.  It is lovely to be able to plan for things, to go places, to see people.  But all of this also leads to fear.  

As I meet more people, I am afraid I may come in contact with the virus.  Just yesterday I spoke with my daughter about spending time together and realised that there is a risk because they live and London and are commuters.  Should we see them?  Am I doing the right thing?  Fear of the unknown, unseeable becomes a factor in my decisions in a new way.

 And then there is guilt.  For four months I have barely used my car, now I want to use it all the time to go everywhere.  I don’t want to be limited to 5 miles.  And every time I think about a journey, I feel guilty because I am again adding to pollution levels.  Relief, fear, and guilt.  

Guilt has long been a part of my life.  I know the “right” things to do environmentally and socially but I don’t always do the right thing.  The right things impact my personal economics in uncomfortable ways so I sometimes I make good choices and sometime I make bad choices.  When I make bad choices, I carry guilt. 

Fear is also a strong current in my life.  I have been told I appear fairly fearless.  I have indeed done some amazing things—like change cultures and move to new places.  However, I don’t think of myself as fearless,  I remember the times fear stopped me.   I carry that fear a bit like guilt, secretly and shamefully.  

Now, I am fairly fearless at home, but beyond that I am conscious of a current of fear that each interaction I make could change my life or the life of another.  The virus is invisible.  I can’t see it to confront it.  All I can do is keep distant, yet keeping distant hurts.  I am afraid of how normal interactions, sharing laughter and singing could enable transmission.  I am fearful.

Finally, there is relief.  I am excited to plan for the future, to look forward to events and gatherings and being with people.  My relief is coloured by fear and guilt.  Do I want to go back to everything being the same as before lockdown?  I sigh with relief because I can relax just a bit, think about the regular and routine—but then I remember I can’t really.  Guilt and fear remain my companions for now.  So somedays there is the relaxation that comes we relief, but then the vigilance of fear and guilt return.  

Life might be easier now, but the pandemic isn’t over. For now relief will remain coloured with guilt and fear.  Choices have to be made clearly weighing risk.   And it seems grace needs to undergird everything—for sometimes I will get it right and sometimes I will get it wrong.  That’s the way of life in pandemic.

Fear, guilt, relief, and grace—my companions for some time to come.

Slipping Past

The days are slipping past.  How can it be July?  There is no holiday on the horizon, booked at the end of last year, to be enticing me into August or September.  How can it be summer?

The long, golden days are no more.  There is still sun, but it is now mixed with showers, but where is the rainbow that offers hope to the weary world?  It is not in my sky at the moment.
How can so many days have passed since we last visited with our kids and listened to wedding plans?

The sun hasn’t slipped out of the sky, nor have the days markedly shortened.  I know it is still summer, but my usual markers are not in my life.  Now each day is marked by virtual meetings.  It is Tuesday, it must be Bible Study.  If it is Friday, it must be Coffee Morning.  It’s a bit like those European trips, if it’s Monday, it must be Paris.  The days slip past so quickly, yet they hold so little to set them apart, so few of the events that mark the life of a minister.  There are no weddings, a few funerals, but no endless line of regional meetings, no thinking about worship in the context of different churches, no visits to hospitals, no coffee mornings where I turn down cups of tea.

The days slip past—I know I will not come out of this with a new skill.  I wonder what I will say about this time in years to come?  There is beauty in the noticing of creation and the simpleness of life.  But there is sadness—in hearing people fight with each other, in people hoarding medicines, in our failing to see our neighbours as human, in the continued brokenness of God’s creation.  

As I watch the news, I do rejoice with those who have survived the virus.  I feel sad about those who haven’t.  But the days slip past and I am afraid.  I worry.  I don’t want to find myself infected with the virus.  I want to protect myself and my family.  I worry about the economy and the future job market for our children and grandchildren.  The pressing wait of climate change has not lessened, just slipped slightly out of view.  

I don’t know what lies ahead.  Of course, the reality is that we never do, but for most of my life, I have plotted and planned where to go and what to do.  And now I wait; I worry; I wonder; I work.  
And the days slip by, one very much like the other.  The highlight—a trip out in the car for an hour or so, within the radius allowed—until tomorrow, when the trips become longer but the risk becomes more.  The days slip past, and I wonder what tomorrow holds.

A Home

I have lived in many houses.  The one that shapes how I think about “home” is the little pink house, which Brits would call a bungalow.  Though a small house it had huge plate glass windows at the front.  Two of those windows looked across the street to a field where a few horses grazed, and a wood beyond.  There was another window, at a right angle to the living room window that looked down to the bay, a few miles away.  The windows were taller than my parents, and about the width of the front room.  It was a little house filled with light.  From that house my brother and I boarded the yellow bus to go to school or walked down the street to our second school.  We walked up the street to our friends’ house, and played in the woods behind their home.  We created a world in the empty lot just beyond our neighbour’s house.  In that house we learned about love and loss.  We left to move across the country but after a year we returned, to the same community and the same house. 

That little house and the community there have shaped my expectations of home.  Light, love, and loss.  Friends shared laughter and food.  Friends supported each other through pain and celebrated the joyful moments.  It was a home.

I have lived in lots of places sense then.  Most of the houses I have lived have not been my choice for, as a minister,  I have lived in houses provided by the church.   The last house I lived in, I hated.  It was dark.  The floors made noise.  When I was in the bedroom, I could hear the tv in the living room through the ceiling.  I could go on, but I won’t.  Despite the fact I hated the house, it became a home.  There I experienced love and loss.  From there my last child was launched into the world. There my oldest child brought her long-term partner to meet our family.  There we shared meals with new friends.  There we created community—people who accepted and loved us and who we accepted and loved in return.

It takes time to develop roots.  I love the house I live in now, but I don’t have roots yet.  Will this house become a home? We have had a few “home” moments—a Christmas together, a 25th  birthday party, a wedding dress buying trip, a welcome tea party.  But in the midst of a pandemic, it is hard to imagine inviting people here to share a meal and laughing around the table any time soon.  I can’t imagine friends coming to stay or friends filling the house in times of loss.    

What makes a house a home?  Love, loss, but most of all friends.  How do you build relationships in a pandemic?  If it’s online, perhaps it doesn’t matter where you live. Maybe the laughter that digitally fills the study is making my house a home?  Maybe the prayer that digitally happens in the dining room is creating a home.  Maybe the listening that happens digitally in the living room is filling the house with love?  There is definitely loss—we have all experienced losses in the last few months, but maybe through these digital connections, there is more laughter and love than I imagine.

Rising

I rise.  Today as like every other day, I rise.  Some days it is hard, but I wake up and get out of bed.  Each day seems very much the same.  There are Zoom meetings.  There are tasks to perform.  There are no major markers or possibilities to pull me forward.  Each day is a bit like housework: one task is finished for this day, but  it isn’t finished. Dishes will again need to be washed.  The laundry basket fills itself.  The same tasks, the same walks, the same food.

I rise.  I make myself a drink, look at the paper and then think, “Which task to tackle first?”  “What meeting do I need to remember?”  “Who do I need to contact?”  And then as the day progresses, I notice what has distracted me.  What has kept me from completing my to do list for today?  What will I put off until tomorrow because it doesn’t really matter?  Each day is the same.

I rise.  And I wonder what will rise at the end of these three months?  Shopping? I feel the pull but I have no desire to go there.  Restaurants?  How I miss not cooking, but I have no desire to go there either.  Overseas holidays?  Not for some time.  Church gatherings?  I am not sure, churches, like restaurants, can be areas for spread of the virus.

What I want to do is see friends, look forward to conversations without the strange pauses of broadband or speaking at the wrong moment  because our cues for listening are off on the internet.  

Maya Angelou wrote a beautiful poem with the line, “And still, I rise.”  I have thought that these words were part of her response to sexual violence and racism.  Her image of rising again is powerful— a statement of hope and determination.

But these are not just words of hope; they indicate action.  Rising, we get up and start again.  Perhaps this is the power of resurrection.  By getting up every morning we act with hope—even if we don’t feel hopeful.  It is a commitment to a new day, new possibility, the surprise of a gift, maybe? We get up and allow another day to move around us.  We engage with the day as we can.  We ignore what we need to, but rising gives room for something, someone other than ourselves, for hope to spread light in our lives.  Maybe?

I rise.

Facing our enemy


In 20 years people will be reading what was said about the pandemic.  One of the things they will note is the language of warfare that is being used.  The virus is an “unseen enemy.”  We are waging a “war.”  We have to “stay safe”—as if our lives are about to be blown up by a bomb. 

This kind of language may be helpful to some, but it activates a very basic human response it us.  
This type of language highlights that we are under threat.  When humans are threatened, they respond with in one of three ways—fight, flight or freeze.  Our individual responses may vary depending on our personal circumstances, our families of origin, our histories, but these three response are basic human instinct.  

The emergence of the virus and the rules that were imposed have meant that all of us have had to flee—to hide in our homes and not come out until we are allowed.  In effect life was frozen for a few months.  And even if we remained working, we were working under different conditions,  retreating to our homes, in our individual family units.  We were not able to connect with people the way we would normally when faced with a crisis.

Another basic of humans is that we are relational animals.  So without the regular, supportive contact which enables us to cope and thrive, we have taken to technology in new ways—to find that  connection.  Or, if we are not technological beings and we are lonely, we may have become overwhelmed with anxiety or sadness.   

So we are literally threatened by something we cannot see.  We have had to flee from it, by hiding in our homes.  We have not had the usual routine filled with relationships to sustain us.  It has been a tough time.  And there is not really an end in sight.  Lockdown may be easing, but every choice we make may put us at risk.  The threat remains.  

How do we manage that?  Some stride out, confident that they are safe; they can “fight” it.  Others remain at home, retreating to avoid contact with the potential threat.  Some of us don’t really know what to do.  We make one decision one day; a contradictory decision the next day.  We long for the resumption of contact.  We fear what that may bring into our homes.

These are tough times.  I have no easy answers. I will make decisions that others think are crazy.  Others will make decisions that I think are risky.  Most of us are exhausted.  We are grieving—we have lost birthday and anniversary celebration; people have died; our jobs are gone; our friends are struggling; relationships have ended; the list is almost endless. I have learned that when I am exhausted and grieving, I don’t always make the best major decisions.  

So be gentle—with yourself and with others.  Allow for differences and changes of direction.  Remember, we are in the early days of our pandemic.  We have a long way to go before the virus is “controlled”.  We need each other in this crazy time.  If we want to use the language of warfare, let the virus be the enemy but trust that we, other humans, are here for each other, offering care and support as we can and when we can.

Sabbatical?

Over the course of my ministry I have had three sabbaticals.  Two were intentional, supported by the URC.  One, though intentional, was self-imposed and supported by David when we moved back to the US.  My sabbaticals were all about three months long.

My two URC sabbaticals had different outcomes.  For the first one I had to produce an academic paper, buried somewhere at Westminster College, Cambridge.  That document was to “prove” that I had used my sabbatical properly.  By the time of my second sabbatical in 2017, after it was approved by the Synod Training Officer, I set out on my path knowing that the only writing I had to do was for myself, or if I chose to my church.  No official report was required.  For me this was not only a relief but a recognition that, as a minister, I simply needed rest.  This, of course, is the essence of the word, “sabbatical” which comes from the Hebrew for sabbath; we remember that God “rested” on the seventh day after the creation.

We are now finishing our three months of lockdown.  Some people have described this time as a “sabbatical.”   For our environment it may well have been—rest from so many toxic fumes—but when people speak about this being a rest, I am uncomfortable.  I am uncomfortable because I am always conscious of those who have worked doubly hard in the last few months—in healthcare settings, in “essential shops,”  in discovering how to continue life with this virus.  I am conscious of those who have lost their jobs so worry about finances does not feel restful.  I am conscious of those who have been without their support systems, whether they are personal or professional—like carers and respite for families with children who have special needs.  I am conscious of those who are working in new ways and finding these challenges stressful, though not travelling to an office may be a relief.  I am conscious of those troubled by being unable to see family and friends, feeling trapped in their homes, without routine.

I am also aware of the strain so many of us are feeling.  We are living in crisis mode.  We have been vigilant against a threat.  We have seen the effects of the virus.  We are grateful that fewer people are dying, that the R number is coming down, but we have to “stay alert.”  This in itself is stressful.  How do we make choices to keep ourselves and others safe?  And how long do we have to live this way?  

I guess in the end what I am saying, is life hasn’t been a free-ride, despite what some people think.  
The last few months have not been “restful” or a sabbatical.   It has been hard—though we will experience and describe “hard” differently.  

This has been a tough few months.  It isn’t over.  It might be easier for some in the weeks ahead.  For others it is still a struggle.  When it’s tough, take a deep breath, and then put one foot in front of the other just for that hour or the day.  God is with you in the tough days and the restful days.

Stories that challenge


Last night we watched the fictionalised story of Anthony Bryan, a Windrush child, called “Sitting in Limbo.”  It was a disturbing portrayal of the injustice and racism Mr. Bryan endured once it was discovered that he did not hold a British passport.

As I watched the story unfold, I pictured myself in Mr. Bryan’s home.  I have been in many such homes in Wellingborough.  I have had the joy of hearing the stories of individuals arriving from across the Caribbean to work in England.  Some came first to Wellingborough because a family member was already there.  Some went first to London then settled in Wellingborough.  They came and worked and saved, married and sent for children and had children here.  They birthed our babies and wiped our bums.  They drove our buses and were our builders.  They built good lives, were proud of their homes and their families.  I heard many of their stories at the end of life.  I felt sad that I had not known them longer but grateful to know of their lives.  I enjoyed celebrating with their families and friend, lives built and the communities nurtured.  

As I sat with people, I also heard the stories of the children who the teachers assumed were not clever— not given opportunities to learn until, by accident, a supply teacher discovered they could read.  I heard the story of a woman, heavily pregnant, refused a glass of water from a chemist.  I listened to the woman who was literally haunted by some “ghost”/ trauma that kept her from sleeping and working.  I also know the stories that were shared with me were only the tip of the iceberg.  I am grateful for the bravery of those who trusted me with their lives and their experiences.  

So as I watched the film, I was angry—angry at a system that twisted and destroyed lives for the sake of showing some people that the government could control immigration.  I am angry at those who were complicit or misused their authority to hurt people and traumatise them.  

It would be easy to sit in that place of anger, however, I feel I must  move beyond anger and ask myself a few questions:  “How am I currently complicit in racism?  What do I do that supports systemic racism?  What do I need to do differently?’

I am not sure I know the answers, but I have to unpack the questions so that I can become a better ally.  Many of us know people mistreated by the immigration system.  We can pinpoint that mistreatment and find ways to address it by writing to our government officials.  I think we now have to go beyond writing to the government.  Can create an environment in which we listen and learn from those we know who are Black?  Can we change our language?  When our prejudices are activated, can we address those unconscious fears that rise in us?  Can we acknowledge our privilege and use our roles to include those who often struggle to find a place at the table?  Can we bring the issues around racism into the open and address them with grace, listening and learning, leaning into the pain we cause and changing ourselves?  When challenging racism, can we stand firm rather than letting the other person off the hook?

Jesus was not apolitical as we sometimes like to suggest.  Saying “Jesus is Lord” was, under Roman rule, a challenge to the authority of Roman for the Roman ruler was supposed to be the “Lord.” Jesus  stood with those marginalised within his community for their race, their disability, their gender.  His ministry included the outcasts as well as the powerful in God’s kingdom; this was radical in his time.  He also spoke against the oppressive Roman regime.   If we place Jesus in our time and ask where we might find him in our current political climate, I am pretty sure he is at the protests, proclaiming, “Black lives matter!” 

We are called to follow Jesus.  Can we join him in our time by standing with those demanding justice and equality and challenging our oppressive systems?