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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? 

Being Tired

I am tired.  I know the author of Hebrews encourages us to keep running the race of faith like Jesus, but he also said there would be a great cloud of witnesses cheering us one.  I am tired and, as we are socially distancing, there is no cloud of friends cheering me on during this “race.”  I am ready to finish the race, to try something else, but the finish line is not yet in sight.  So I keep “running”, but I am tired. 

You know those people who ask, you may be one of them, what new thing you have learned or done in lockdown?  I am tired of that question.  It is so positive!  I don’t always feel that positive.  Now I have done a few new things—some with moderate success, some total flops—so I haven’t totally “wasted” my time.  Still the positive energy of the question evades me because I am tired.

I think I am tired because I have actually spent all of the last few weeks learning.  I have learned about technology.  I have learned about making food with what is in my fridge and cupboard.  I have learned to make do.  I have learned I don’t need as much stuff.  I have tried some new skills, but more than any of that, I am learning a new culture.  And learning new cultures is exhausting!

I have moved many times in my life.  I have moved from one US coast to another.  I have moved across the Atlantic Ocean, twice.  I have moved from England to Wales.  Each move has involved learning how to live in a different culture.  And learning about different cultures is exhausting.  No matter how hard I try to listen, watch the way people interact, I make mistakes.  I say something that is not appropriate in the new context and hurt someone’s feelings or make a fool of myself.  It is not my intention to hurt anyone or look silly, but it happens.  I try learning more so it doesn’t happen again.  

I think the pandemic has created a new culture.  Each day we learn something else about what we are or are not supposed to do.  Wear face masks or not?  Stand two metres apart or not?  Wash our hands regularly and wash the items that come into our homes or not?  Travel or, in Wales, not to travel more than five miles.  Standing in queues at stores, waiting outside or downloading an app that says which stores have the shortest clues.  The list is endless.  And I find learning these new rules exhausting.   It’s a new culture with new rules.  And, rightfully, we are now thinking about adding how not to be racists and supporting Black Lives Matters more overtly.  I am tired.

I would love a holiday from learning, for just a few weeks, but breaks are banned at the moment! So I keep listening, learning, making mistakes, trying again—lessons about Covid 19 life and lessons about supporting BAME people. I am tired, but I have to keep learning.  If you are learning too, maybe we can cheer each other on as we walk this race.

I hope for an end

For a number of years I regularly watched a programme called “The Walking Dead.”  It was based on people surviving a pandemic and hiding from killer zombies.  As I am not a fan of science fiction or dystopia, I can’t quite believe I watched it, but I did.  

Today I again watch television.  People are randomly murdered by lawless groups, even “lawless” law-keepers.   Building and cars are torched in cities across the US.   Crowds rage and destroy. Crowds gather and protest.  A virus spreads across the globe and kills at alarming rates.  I almost feel I am watching a programme rather than the news. 

Yet, like watching the videos of people slain, I find the images traumatic.  They are not just worrying, they are frightening.  What is happening in our world?  Will this rage lead to change or simply destruction of individuals rather than destruction of oppressive systems?

When I see the images, I wonder, “Is this the end?”  When fear is not my driver, I have hope.  I hope that it is the end of a system that fails to value all lives, an end to labelling the lives of Black people as less valuable, expendable even.  I hope it is the end of us white people failing to hear or change or live differently.  I hope it is the end of economic systems which fail to reward people for working.  I hope is the end of education that leaves out whole histories or fails to respond to the needs of children from poorer economic backgrounds.  I hope it is the end to corrupt governments that uses money to maintain wealth and power in one segment of society rather than caring for all people in their nations.  

Some with look at these events and label the people involved in the protests as trouble-makers, as the problem.  They will fail to hear the cries for justice—though how can you fail to hear? 

I hope, instead, we can look at these events and see an end to injustice.  I hope we can listen to the voices raised and ask how can I support the cause of justice for Black people?  I hope we can see through the posing of the powerful and stand with Jesus.  I hope we can follow in  the footsteps of the oppressed to bring about what is good and equal and right for all people.  

Jesus came to stand with the outcast and oppressed.  He calls us now, not to cling to power out of our own fear, but to join those calling for justice.  I hope we can join him, rather than cower in fear, hiding from the coming change.

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 Black person 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 BAME 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 survey 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.