With lockdown now into its eleventh week (longer if, like some of us, you went into self-isolation the minute the alarm bells sounded) I’m beginning to wonder if this is what the ‘new normal’ really looks like. For those whose businesses have folded, who have no familiar routine to return to, or who find themselves prematurely retired, getting out of bed in the morning may be the biggest challenge they will face in the ‘new normal’ day. Despite the long weeks of lockdown, nobody is prepared for this sense of purposelessness and for the depression that comes with it.
The shock of the new, if it is new at all, returns us to the age old problem of solitude and loneliness, of purposelessness. But perhaps we also misunderstand the nature of purpose, when it comes to what our lives are for or about. St. Paul, in his letter to the fledgling church in Rome, writes that God works all things to the good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28) It seems that love, calling and purpose are very closely related. They are bound up in each other.
That, you may say, is all very well for those who have the time to ponder these things, whose thoughts and concerns are not taken up with how to pay the rent and feed their children, once the furlough money stops and their wages with it. And yet there is a connection between loving God and the harsh realities that many people will face post-lockdown. I think it has to do with our ability to somehow anchor our fears and uncertainties in a deep conviction about the transforming possibilities of love.
Every now and then we see these possibilities arising in the most unlikely contexts, in the angry confrontations that we are witnessing on both sides of the Atlantic at the moment, and in the way they oblige us to confront our complicity in what can only be described as the historic sins of slavery, racism and all forms of prejudice. Where we confront prejudice in ourselves, we must turn and seek forgiveness from those we distrust and at the same time fear, because prejudice and fear belong together. But the hardest thing is not the seeking of forgiveness. It is the acceptance of it.
Accepting another’s forgiveness obliges us to open our hearts to those we have wronged, and who we now fear, and then to keep them open. It obliges us to go on accepting love. We have seen small instances of this happening. Riot police taking a knee before protestors and the gentle acceptance of love and forgiveness that follows. Black people refusing to hate white people. The walls of hostility come down, momentarily perhaps, but also irreversibly. Hope replaces despair. Somewhere in all this the loving purposes of God are at work.
The Christian Church is called to embody the loving purposes of God. But it cannot do this unless it re-connects with its own humanity, unless it thinks of itself not as an organisation, or an institution, but as a vulnerable body of human beings called to live out God’s purposes for the world. The Church defines itself as the body of Christ to the extent that it knows itself to be a people whom God loves and who love God. Where there is indifference to God, there is also indifference to the suffering of other human beings. So, for Christians, the living out of God’s purpose begins with self questioning, first in regard to whether we love God and, secondly, in the extent to which others feel our love for God in the way we think of them, speak of them, and act towards them.
All of this returns us to the acceptance of forgiveness which is at the heart of the Christian faith. Accepting that we are forgiven, keeping our hearts open to this often painful reality, disposes us to love others as Christ loves us. We still have time, before the end of lockdown, to decide whether we want to live our lives in the knowledge of this world transforming reality.
Pentecost is upon us, the season of fire and purgation. Is this what we are seeing in Minneapolis? The anger is righteous, though the violence is not. The poet Yeats might have envisaged it as ‘mere anarchy loosed upon the world’. Random chaos, in other words.
It’s easy to think of anarchy as random chaos but this anarchy, that we are seeing right now, is rooted in something. It is not random. It is the unforgiven sins of history being visited upon us, yet again. It is also a kind of holy void which God may be filling with the rage itself.
I have been reading the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament recently and it seems to me that God is not averse to the use of extreme violence, something that I have always found puzzling. But perhaps this is only due to my own partial understanding of the picture, when it comes to the Bible in relation to the violence we are seeing in Minneapolis and elsewhere in the US.
What if we think of these events as reflecting something of Pentecost, the feast of fire which emboldened and enlivened the disciples and the Church of today to stand for the truth? The anarchy we are seeing is dangerous because it has spilled over into attacking one of the last remaining institutions that speaks for truth and objectivity. Suddenly what is righteous dissolves into dangerous anarchy. A reporter is arrested, on camera, while reporting these events. There is a complete absence of law enforcement – no police, no national guard. The streets belong to the angry and the oppressed.
We feel something of this dangerous situation wherever there is a failure or absence of wise governance, or of leaders with integrity who can be trusted. It is almost naïve nowadays to talk of trust in relation to politics, perhaps because politicians so despise the people they are paid to serve that their arrogant patronising of them will, they think, go unnoticed. But sooner or later, far too late, people will wake up to the fact that they are being played for fools. The rage of the oppressed (and there is none so potent) and the contempt of the powerful for their own people runs the risk of spilling over into ‘mere anarchy’, not only in Minneapolis but, as the Cummings affair suggests, also in the UK.
It is time to hold the fire of Pentecost in our hearts, so that its energy can spill over into a world crying out for leaders and law enforcers who will enact justice, speak the truth and let the oppressed go free.
How will the Church, post Covid respond to this challenge?
There is a great deal of anger and pain being expressed on social media, regarding virtual church services. Are the issues themselves the cause? Or are there other things surfacing in our common life?
There is a monumental twitter and facebook spat going on at the moment, having to do with whether and where it is or isn’t right to celebrate the Eucharist outside a church. It’s raised other questions too, about the validity, for want of a better word, of streaming worship and whether church buildings should remain open, and if so for whom. There is a great deal of anger and pain being expressed, to the extent that I find myself wondering whether the issues themselves are the cause, or whether other things are surfacing in our common life of which, until now, we were not aware.
The controversy seems to be largely focused on church people, ordained and lay, some of them highly placed. Perhaps it has extended itself more widely in the social media scene, and it is only because of my fairly limited following that I’m not aware of whether other people are concerned about these questions, whether they feel they have a particular interest in them. I think I can safely hazard a guess that most of my non-churchgoing friends are fairly indifferent to them. So where does that leave those of us who, willingly or not, have been caught up in this fracas?
Where it leaves us has to do with what it is about these questions that really matters to the individual and how the whole question of public worship needs to be thought about theologically. It would take a book to answer the second question, even if it were to be limited to the contextual circumstances of a pandemic. But I think there are other more pressing pastoral issues at stake right now. These have to do with feeling very disorientated and afraid in these unprecedented times, and with the attendant anxieties which that fear brings to the area of public ministry, to its relevance and place in our lives. In this respect, it feels that those of us who are ordained are coming adrift from our moorings. It would not be fair to blame bishops or other church leaders for this sense of dislocation because many of them are probably feeling the same way.
Be that as it may, our passionate attachment to the issue of public worship and its attendant questions may also have to do with fearing the loss of a certain kind of purpose, of calling, perhaps. Ordained people are feeling vulnerable, especially those who do not have other paths along which they can minister, such as the continuation of food banks, homeless shelters and other permitted good works. Church buildings witness to the abiding presence of God in our midst in practical, as well as spiritual, ways. We all belong to our buildings, as our buildings belong to us. We also belong to one another in the context of social media.
I am not a parish priest, but I can imagine only too well how at a loss many priests must feel when they have only the internet and the phone to rely on for exercising pastoral and liturgical ministry. The tone of the exchanges on social media does not seem to acknowledge the challenges they face, still less express the affirmation which they must be needing. There is very little kindness in it all. If we were to begin to outdo one another in human kindness, we might find that questions of liturgical practice under lockdown would resolve themselves. Would the Church then look significantly different after Covid?
Quite a bit has been written about the Church’s structural future, but we also need to think about what that structure will embrace, and what it will convey to the world. Will the Church consist of people who are so anchored in God’s love that whatever they do or say will convey God’s love for them and for those they serve?
Right now, we are like the frightened disciples, huddled in the upper room when the risen Christ appears to them. They are busy arguing about the truth of the reports they have heard, as we are busy arguing about how public worship is to be conducted under lockdown. They are unstable and afraid, as we all are right now. Christ breathes peace into their individual fears, as he breathes into ours. He makes it possible for love to take hold of them again.
To be effective in ministry, wherever that takes you, is to know God’s love, to love God in return and to love his people. It also should inform how we conduct discussions online.
I decided early on in the lockdown that this would be an ideal time to embark on a sustained reading of the Old Testament, a part of the bible that I have rather neglected, apart from a few choice books and passages. It happens that the Church lectionary, whose bible readings I use every morning, is taking us on a journey through Exodus, kindly omitting the lists, genealogies and other more cumbersome sections and sticking to the interesting bits.
This morning we got to the part where the people, in the absence of Moses, who was busy up a mountain, are constructing a golden calf for themselves by melting down all their valuables. They then proceed to ‘worship’ it. When Moses comes back down the mountain he is furious with Aaron, the priest who he had left in charge and who tries to explain to him that a riot was about to break out, so he had to give people something to keep them busy (collecting the gold and making the calf) and which might help channel their aggression into something more creative and positive – ‘worship’, presumably. God is even more furious than Moses and commands that the calf should be melted down and the people made to eat it. End of today’s reading.
History is all very well, but not all history improves the mind of the one reading it, especially biblical history read in the wrong way, with the wrong pair of glasses on, as it were. Allowing for this, we still have this story in the bible and it invites quite a bit of thought about God, specifically, whether the God of the Old Testament, who it appears was quite happy to poison the population in a fit of jealous pique, and the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ, are the same person. Some of us put off thinking about this for as long as possible. Others, in the past, have thought a great deal about it and decided that the OT God is not the same God as the one Jesus worshipped as Father. These thinkers have, for the most part, been written off as heretics.
Be that as it may, it’s tempting to dismiss the question as irrelevant, or even to dismiss God altogether and, given his Old Testament reputation, many people have decided to do just that. But this is also where we can miss the real point of the golden calf story. I don’t think we are being invited to ponder the existence of God here, or even what kind of God he might be.
What we are being invited to reflect on is ‘idolatry’ and its cognate, ‘worship’. Again, it’s easy to dismiss the idea of idolatry as being of interest only to a pious religious minority. But this is not quite the case. Idolatry is very much with us as a deeply destructive inclination which surfaces in the human heart from time to time and takes the form of various kinds of addiction. Addiction fulfils, for a while at least, a need.
One addiction that I, for one, am falling victim to during this pandemic is the hold that social media is starting to have on me. It is a ‘hold’ because I cannot, given the present set of circumstances, see a way of dropping out of it altogether. I need the people out there, even if for most of the time they probably don’t need me. I need the conversation platform which both these amazing facilities offer us. What I don’t need, and certainly don’t like, is how easy it is to unconsciously transfer one’s present mood, be it of anxiety, irritation, boredom, or impatience onto the medium via whatever conversation channel gets me going. I try to think before I tweet and I generally do, which is why I seldom say much. But if you don’t say much, you don’t get much back.
This suggests that neither twitter or facebook, or any other social medium, are conversation partners in the real sense. If you neither give nor receive, being on social media amounts to voyeurism. On the other hand, if you engage full bloodedly you can very quickly find yourself tilting at windmills, with the thread either vanishing into thin air or becoming too stressful to continue with, allowing for all the clever things you can do to mitigate the situation, like ‘muting’ and ‘blocking’. At the end of the day, both of these scenarios are idolatrous because they have failed to meet the need for genuine human exchange, for genuine conversation.
Idolatry is about throwing away one’s soul. Perhaps idolatry creeps up on us because in times of great stress or emotional need, we forget we have a soul. A ‘soul’ is that aspect of a human being that reflects the light and goodness of God, something that is purposed for conversation and relationship with that God. This returns me to Exodus and the anger of God in the face of the people’s idolatry. Idolatry is not just disengaged voyeurism. It requires our passions and intelligence. It requires our souls. It seduces and as a seducer it brooks no competition.
The people were happy to give away their souls in return for a brief period of respite from boredom, anxiety, discomfort and even hardship. They were happy to forget who and what they really were, a people called to be in a proactive relationship with God, not as passive spectators, but as worshippers.
To worship God is to engage full bloodedly with the realities that are going on around us and to try to see them through the eyes of that same loving God. I would say that this puts an altogether different picture on our present predicament, in the context of covid and lockdown, and on how we might relate to one another through social media. There is a way to ‘worship’ fruitfully through social media by engaging the heart and mind with those who need reassurance and kindness, not with a clever retort shot off the cuff in a moment of irritation in which we only bare our own fear and insecurities, but in a gentle ‘like’ or affirming comment. Let’s have the humility and grace to acknowledge, in this time of trouble, how much we all need those ‘likes’ and comments. We know what they really mean to us, so let’s be the first to give them.
There was no internet connection this morning. Like many people, I find being unexpectedly cut adrift in this way frustrating but this morning it induced panic. It takes very little to throw a day off kilter during this pandemic. We need certain structures to stay in place for the various components of the day to hold together, so that the day retains its shape and forward momentum. The internet is vital to structure, but it must not become indispensable.
Perhaps what we need right now is a modified rule of life, broadly suited to the situation we are in but adaptable to individual circumstances and to the kind of stress inducing situations which would normally be quite easy to deal with. We need habits of mind to fall back on, a basic template for living in a way that ensures that a person thrives during this period of lockdown, rather than just surviving it.
We could start by being more kind to ourselves. This is not selfish individualism. Being kind to oneself when there is so much suffering everywhere is quite difficult to achieve, given the feelings of guilt it can induce, and the mental and spiritual distortions that these feelings can lead to. It helps, in this respect, not to get over tired. We need to live within our physical and spiritual means if we are to remain emotionally stable for the duration of this pandemic. Getting up an hour later not only ensures we are more rested, it brings the added benefit of shunting the whole day forward, making the day itself feel a little shorter.
Having got up a little later, spending the first hour of the waking day in the presence of God, sustained by tea if necessary, gives a person a firmer footing on which to begin the day itself. It is important to be honest about what we feel during this hour, while at the same time not allowing yesterday’s preoccupations and emotions to dominate it. A certain equanimity is needed for grace to do its transforming work. Facing one’s real emotions and allowing them to be held by God may provide a way for them to be used as the means for building something new for ourselves or for someone else in the day that lies ahead.
Whether a person lives alone or is part of a household, the way in which they spend the first hour of the day will significantly impact on the hours that follow because during that first hour, we can be open to the possibility of seeing things differently, of noticing things around us. In being available in this way, to the good that is around us, time acquires a value of its own. Learning the habits of openness allows for reflection and for consideration of what others, close to us or far away, might be thinking or feeling at any given moment.
The first hour spent with God also teaches us the value of silence. While it is important not to run from silence by filling the day with internal or external noise, we need to be kind to ourselves where these distractions are concerned. Most of us need social media right now because it connects us with people. It is a great antidote to loneliness and can be a real source of encouragement and support to anyone who engages with it in a generous and creative way. Social media works best when we consciously use it to support or enrich the lives of others. Giving and receiving ‘likes’ and positive comments strengthens our sense of belonging together in these difficult times, so we should be kind to ourselves by not feeling guilty about the fact that we find these positive interactions good and helpful.
It is equally important to have a meaningful project to work on, not just to fill the time, but to give substance to the day and to dilute the stress that comes with living with other people in a more concentrated way than we’re used to. Any project or activity that leaves a person feeling better about themselves, whether it is writing a novel or clearing out a garage, benefits those they live with.
This is a blessing in itself and a direct result of what normality may yet look like for years to come. Perhaps we will have got used to not having to prove ourselves, to achieve and to be driven by the need to work or be busy because we cannot bear the thought of time wasted. Perhaps we will become less in need of proving ourselves and better at living within our limits and at the same time living richly towards God and other people. So much death and suffering may yet teach us to value not only the time that is given to us but life itself.
This is the last of 4 podcasts for Holy Week and Easter Sunday, designed to speak to the global pandemic crisis that we all face together.
This is the third of 4 podcasts for Holy Week and Easter Sunday, designed to speak to the global pandemic crisis that we all face together.
This is the second of 4 podcasts for Holy Week and Easter Sunday, designed to speak to the global pandemic crisis that we all face together.
This is the first of 4 podcasts for Holy Week and Easter Sunday, designed to speak to the global pandemic crisis that we all face together. I’ve uploaded this instalment first, just to make sure it’s working. The rest will follow in good time for people to read and use them as a resource for next week.