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This should not be happening

I am sick, and I am tired.  No, this has nothing to do with lockdown or the pandemic.  I am sick and tired because I have seen two incidents of racism in the media today—one of which led to the death of a man and rioting.  I am so sick of this.  

Now, please don’t get me wrong.  I think all these incidents should be recorded in order to be shared with appropriate law enforcement officials.  Sharing them widely is inappropriate.  Allowing the world to see them in this way retraumatising people involved and others. Yes, we need to know what is happening, but we should not be traumatizing people by showing them in the media or on social media. (https://qz.com/725940/videos-of-police-brutality-now-resemble-modern-day-lynchings/)

These incidents SHOULD NOT BE HAPPENING!  No person of colour should feel that the USA or the United Kingdom is a threatening place for them.  No white person should think they have a right to treat a of colour person without respect or decency.  No law enforcement officer should mishandle someone just because of the colour of their skin or their accent.  When are we going to learn?  I am sick of it.

We white folks like to think we are not racist, but racism is deeply embedded in our society. Did you know that Guinea Street in Bristol is named for the area of Africa from which people were stolen and enslaved?   Are you aware of the role of Edward Colston, Bristol philanthropist in enslaving people?  Are you aware of the connections between Scotland and the Caribbean and the enslavement of Africans?  Did you know that “Penny Lane” of the Beatles fame in Liverpool is named for James Penny, slave trader and anti-abolitionist?  (Liverpool surpassed Bristol and London as the slave-trading capital of England by the mid to late 18th century.)

Okay, those histories do not mean we are all racists, but they remind us that we live with a painful legacy of enslavement, of seeing other human beings as inferior, and of treating them with disrespect.  We continue to live out that legacy now.  

You might like to think we aren’t like that in the UK, but in August 2011 Mark Duggan was killed while in police custody.  Following his death riots ensued.  Maybe you saw the surgery of BAME medical staff who felt they were put closer to risk during the pandemic than their white colleagues.  
It’s uncomfortable to read, to think about, but we have to face into it.  We, who are white, have to change our behaviour.  

If we really believe that all human beings are made in the image of God, we have to live that way.  We do not have to agree with everyone.  We do not have to like everyone.  These decisions, however, cannot based on colour, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality.  We have to treat ALL people with respect and decency.  We have to demand that our police do the same.  When we hear racism, we have to find a way to confront it.  When we see prejudice, we have to take a stand against it.  

Over 30 years ago I was in a meeting.  I used a phrase someone found offensive.  She was African American.  She took me aside and told me why.  I felt ashamed as I thought of myself as an open person, but I heard her.  I changed my language.    I examined my heart.  I am grateful.  If we truly believe that God loves ALL people, we have to find ways to confront our own prejudices and those in the people we encounter so that there are no more videos or reports of people being killed or threatened because of their skin colour, nationality, sexual orientation or gender.  Enough already.

A Place of Privilege

Some days I simply think about how I am going to survive the day.  What will I cook?  What will I accomplish?  Will I connect with someone or not? Other days I am thinking about the big issues we are facing.  Some of those issues revolve around church—what we can do now and what we might be like in the future. Some of those issues are about economy and climate change.  Some are about fear and loneliness.  

Life is strange, but day by day I become more and more aware of my privilege.  My life is not under threat.  I have a house and an income.  I am okay.  My family are okay.  I am privileged.

As I reflect on my privilege, I am also conscious that I have a responsibility.  I am not sure what shape that should take, but I need to care for those who are less privileged from my place of privilege.  

My daughter sent me a message yesterday asking how the church is addressing racism.  How do I respond?  I am “attending” a conference on preaching and climate change.  How are we going to address that?  We have people in our churches and communities who are hungry, homeless, jobless, how am I going to address that?

Poverty and injustice are not going away because we are locked down.  When we return to “normal”, they will still be live issues.  How do I respond to them?  How do we, as church, respond to them?  

Earlier I wrote about being patient.  Patience, while a personal characteristic, is not a part of working for justice or climate change.  People in poverty need our attention now—not our patience.  Creation needs our changes now—not our patience.  Of course, when I think this way, I become overwhelmed—again.  Perhaps, the key to being a bit less overwhelmed is to wonder not just what can I do, but what can we do together?  How can we join together to address poverty, racism, injustice, climate change?  What we have done in the past may not be what we do in the near future, but we are called to act together.

God does not love us based on our actions, but our relationship with God changes how we act.  Our actions flow out of our understanding of God’s love for us, others, creation.  Jesus addressed injustice in his time.  As his followers, we now look at our context and find ways to address the injustices before us.  

So we begin  I think we being by acknowledging our place of privilege.  Perhaps, as we reflect on the pandemic, we will be more aware of privilege and able to acknowledge our own privilege.  From the place of privilege we can use our voices, our incomes, our understanding to support those who are not privileged.  We find the areas that we can best address.  We find people with whom we can work because this gives us more power than we have has individuals.   We act.   And when we become jaded or overwhelmed, because we are acting with others, we have people to support us so we can keep going together.  Gosh, that sounds a bit like church!

Some days I can only think about how to get through the day.  Other days I develop plans for how we can be God’s people together.  I look forward to hearing how other people are developing ideas.  Maybe after all this we will be God’s people in new ways, tackling injustice together in God’s name.  

Patience

Whether we like it or not, we are having to learn patience.  When I watch the news or read the papers, my eye is caught be every story that promises life might return to “normal.”  Once I read it, I’m not sure I believe the headline.  I am shocked by leaders who push for churches to get back to “normal” always wondering how the congregation of 12 elderly people will keep themselves safe and their building clean?  

So I am trying to be patient. It isn’t easy.  When I have to wait in a queue, I try not to distract myself with my phone.  That’s the usual thing, isn’t it?  When we cannot do what we want to do immediately, we pull out our phones, check Facebook, Google something, look at our emails.  We complain about our children saying, “I’m bored,” but we don’t deal with boredom very well either.

So now when I stand in the queue at the grocery store, I look around me.  I watch people.  I notice the sky.  I listen to conversations.  I note the state of the building.  I don’t find it easy, but it is now part of my living—to wait without complaining or letting frustration take hold.  When I can’t do what I want to do NOW, I focus on being patient.  I trust that eventually I will be able to enter the shop and find what I need.

When I send something in the post or order something, I also have to wait.  Nothing seems to arrive quickly anymore.  No point paying for first class post when you know it will take several days anyway.  So I order, though not a lot, or a send and I simply trust the item will arrive at some point.

Perhaps patience and trust live together?  I have trusted my life to God.  It has not always been an easy ride, but my faith says that God will take care of me.  That doesn’t mean I will have lots of money in the bank or the most expensive possessions.  It does mean, that if I am listening, God will give me the skills I need to survive whatever is thrown at me.  So perhaps for this time, the skill I need is patience.

Faith has to do with living in a way that is aligned with values of Jesus. I believe Jesus taught us about love and justice.  What shape do those values take in these strange days?  We may begin by noting the work of people who risk their lives to care for the rest of us.  What is the appropriate way to support them now and in the future?  We recognise that others are at risk—with little money, need for food, support with housing, access to services, fragile mental health.  How can we individually and corporately support those still at risk?  Faith does not stop while we live in lockdown.  What we can do may shift, but we still act in love for others.  

So while we live in lockdown, I continue in faith,  and develop the skill of patience which comes from  God.

Groundhogs and glimpses

Some people have started referring to these days in lockdown as “groundhog days.”  This is a reference to a movie in which Bill Murray relives the same day multiple times until he gets it “right”—in effect becomes a nice person.  Each day he wakes up and knows what is going to happen because he has already lived that day—the only difference is how he reacts.

For those of us not working  these last weeks may indeed feel like we are living the same day over and over.  For those who are still working, however, each day holds a challenge, often something not previously imagined.

Some like to say we are all in this together—and we may be—but each of us experience life in this time very differently.  Some have embraced it and learned new skills.  Some are desperate to get out and back to their previous lives.  Some are somewhere in between.  Some wonder what the future holds for them—having been made redundant or making major shifts in life patterns at this time.

Before the pandemic for many of us life had a routine.  We lived day by day, often with very similar patterns.  It was holidays and celebrations that made one day very different from the previous day.  But now we are conscious that the days run into each other—not much to make them different or they are radically different.  Either way our days are lived in extraordinary circumstances.  Part of what makes them different is our reactions.

Many years ago I read a book about a monk who found God in washing dishes.  What always struck me was that God was present in a very simple way, in an ordinary task.  God wasn’t found in the glorious monastery garden or the grandeur of the church, God was present in the kitchen, in the cleaning up, in one of the most ordinary and dirty tasks of life.

I confess I am not always aware of God’s presence.   Learning from Brother Lawrence, I have faith that God is present in my home working, in my daily tasks, in your drive to work, in your interactions with people, in your office.  Despite the changes in our lives, God is still present.  God is still the ground of our being.  This is the essence of Jesus’ message—God with us. 

We may feel like every day is the same.  We may feel quite challenged by today.  However we feel, God is with us, present in our actions and the life of those around us.  I hope you catch a glimpse of God today.  I hope someone catches a glimpse of God’s in you today.

From Anxiety and To Compassion


How do we handle anxiety?  Whether we acknowledge it or not, our world is “plagued” with anxiety.  We see it in politicians, who smirk at questioners and avoid answering, co-workers who are late to work, fail to meet deadlines, cannot focus in meetings, family members who cry when we speak to them, seek clear answers in an unclear situation, strangers who shout at others on streets and in shops, push others out of the way to get toilet paper.  Anxiety is expressed individually and corporately.  Our own responses to anxiety may vary from need control to totally losing the plot.

My anxiety comes and goes depending the day, the tasks ahead, what I am missing.  Sunday, we should have been celebrating Mothers’ Day with David’s family.  I wasn’t anxious, but sad.  Today, I have a lot of tasks ahead, and I am more anxious.  Some of my anxiety stems from the fact that I am tired of learning about new ways of working, of not really knowing what I am doing anymore.  For me, learning has always been an essential characteristic of living and ministry, but today I feel like I have learned enough.  I have tried enough new things, seen enough of other people’s homes through Zoom meetings.  My curiosity has peeked. I simply do not want to do anything else  and my brain isn’t functioning at my ideal capacity.

Malcolm Gladwell writes about people learning skills.  He says, though some dispute this, that once one has put 10,000 hours into a skill or a job, one becomes an expert.  Well, I have put those hours into ministry.  I thought I had a good level of the basic skills need to be a decent minister.  Now, I feel deskilled.  I don’t know how to use Zoom well enough.  I make trivial mistakes I would not normally make—thank goodness my work isn’t life-threatening!  I feel an edginess each day as I tackle the tasks before me.  Some days I have to leave the house simply to refocus and restart because my thoughts have stopped having a clear order or making sense. 

Now, I am sure I will recover.  I am resilient.  I have changed job, changed culture enough times to know there comes a point at which I will become comfortable again.   I also know I am being changed by every day in lockdown.  I do not know what the changes will mean for me long term.  Maybe I will cope differently with anxiety.  Maybe I will be more honest with people.  Maybe I will want to work differently.  I am changed but don’t know yet how exactly.

One thing I do know—compassion grows from experiences like this.  When I can move through my anxiety to think clearly, what I  know that I want to be part of a community of compassion—a place of support for those who are anxious and traumatised.  Our communities may look different for some time, but I hope, however they are formed, they can all be built around compassion—an ability to love others fiercely, to welcome strangers and make room for all in our gatherings—virtual or in person.  

What Remains?

From a young age death has been part of my life—sometimes at the corner and sometimes in the middle.  Friends of my parents lived on a bay near our house.  Their toddler drowned.  After high school one of my peers died.  Suicide or drugs? We were not quite sure.  When I was nine, my father died, ripping the fabric of our family apart.

At university I learned about a relatively new movement—hospice.  I found the idea of death in the midst of one’s family appealing, having had my father isolated in hospitals.  I have worked in hospices three different times in my career.  The last time was just over a year ago.  One thing it taught me was I am vulnerable.   Some of the patients there were much older than me.  Some were much younger.  Many, however, were very close to my age.  Some days I wondered whether I could face death in the face again—not just their deaths but the possibility of my own.  I have always known death was close, but this last experience of hospice reminded me how close.  I found that reminder uncomfortable.

As I sit in my home, hiding from a virus that threatens my life, something I can only fight by washing my hands and distancing myself from people, I, again, feel my vulnerability.  Most of the time I don’t think vulnerability.  Lockdown is a daily reminder of my limitations—and of the limitations of the society we have built.

I like to pretend death is far off.  I like to pretend I have not vulnerable.  I like to pretend I can control life.  Unfortunately,  death is closer than I like to acknowledge.  I do not control the world or even my small corner of the world.  Stuff happens that is beyond my control.  Sometimes it happens because another person puts it into motion.  Sometimes it just happen.  I am not in control.  Lockdown reminds me, like hospice, that I am a human being and, as such, I am vulnerable.  

I have bought into the view of life that limits my exposure to my vulnerability.  This worldview is  not the truth.  Even without a pandemic I have experienced events that wiped out life—hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, death, broken relationships, joblessness.  All of these experiences changed me.  They destroyed my sense of safety.  Still, after each one, I rebuilt.  I saw others rebuild.  I buried the pain, sadness, anger, and redesigned a worldview in which vulnerability was pushed to the edge or under the carpet.  In lockdown, I can no longer push that vulnerability away.  As a human being, I am vulnerable.

As I reflect on my vulnerability, I have also read a book called “The Theology of Trauma.”  In it the author writes about the uncomfortable place of Holy Saturday—the day between the end and a beginning, a day of not knowing and not yet.  She asserts that this day is more like our experience of life, of our vulnerability.  Despite the fear, pain, anger of Holy Saturday, what remains, Rambo writes,  is love, embodied in us by the Spirit.  Love is breathed to the disciples by Jesus.  That love guided them in the days after his death and resurrection as they tried to understand the meaning of these events.  Love remained for them. In our own daily Holy Saturday, a time after and before, love remains.

As I come to terms with my vulnerability, and I reflect on what a virus means for the life of the local church, I cling to the affirmation,“Love remains.”

Blue Skies and Empty Chapels

Above me are blue skies.  The brilliant blue of the crayon called “Sky Blue.”  It isn’t often the skies are that vivid in colour.  Yet is seems they have been that colour for almost 40 days.  
The beautiful blue skies have blessed our days of lockdown.  I find that quite ironic.  While we talk about the world healing during lockdown, here those blue skies have declared their freedom,  Okay, that is a bit anthropomorphic, but the blue skies strike me as a statement—of beauty, of wholeness, of creative power.  Or perhaps they are really only a reminder of the time we have to notice them.
Those blues skies will remain with me as a reminder of the pandemic.

Around me is an empty chapel, echoing with the sounds of feet walking down the long aisle. The quiet and stillness we often hear in ruined abbeys is now present in our empty buildings and at our funerals. I have led funerals for very small numbers of people, but now, only a few allowed.  The silence of the empty chapel reflects the pain of saying goodbye to a loved one without a community of faith to support  those who grieve.  Of course, God’s love is with them, but at a funeral that love has seemed to me to be embodied by the community who gather to mark a person’s death, and life.  The conversations at the funeral, the gatherings after the service, the stories told, the hugs offered, the drinks shared, the voices raised in toasts, the silent tears, the roars of laughter are to me an offering of love.  We gather at funerals to offer the grieving love.  Instead, I hear the emptiness of the chapel.  That echo of emptiness will remain with me as a reminder of the pandemic.

We are seeking signs of hope, of number of cases declining, of communities not touch, yet, by Covid 19.  We are hopefully awaiting guidance for coming out of lockdown.  We are looking forward to a time when life will be more “normal.”  I wonder what will remain with us?  What memories will shape us?  What lessons will we have learned?  When I look at a blue sky, I will think, “Spring 2020.”  When I enter the stillness of the crem chapel, I will pause to remember the sadness of loss during a pandemic.  When I drive to a meeting on Thursday nights, will I pause to thank God for the NHS and key workers?  

What remains and what reminds may be two different things.  What reminds is blue skies, empty chapels, queues, Thursday nights, Zoom church.  What remains is God’s love, simple, complex, connecting, supporting.