The Big Story

When I close my book at night and turn off the lights, in the minutes before I fall asleep, I often listen to a podcast on my tablet. The other week I came across a new podcast – Jon Richardson and the Futurenauts – which is worth a listen. Before I eventually fell asleep, there was talk about the issues facing society due to the pandemic measures, lockdown, and the unknown economic impact that will follow. One of the threads of discussion was about the fact that more than 85% of people are unhappy in their jobs, and when asked why, the expert talked about the fact that most people do not feel that they are contributing anything to benefit wider society through the jobs that they do, going on to say that the social contract is broken, there’s no sense of anything bigger than ourselves, something beyond ourselves that we are a part of.

This seems to me to be an accurate assessment of the western world at least. For centuries, the meta narrative, the big story underpinning society, was the Christian story. In this story, everybody has a part to play, everyone is valued, everyone is known and loved by the Creator God…..for God so loved the world that he sent his Son…..

With the increase of secularisation, this narrative has largely disappeared from the national psyche, and the void has been filled with individualism, where the rights of the individual are paramount and each individual has the right to live as they want, without regard for the greater good. Truth has become relative, society has fragmented, selfishness is almost encouraged.

The Christian narrative is the opposite of this……the big story of the creator God who came to be with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, who taught us that there is nothing more important than loving God and loving our neighbour, where love means wanting the best for our neighbour, wanting other people to thrive, to know abundant life, before wanting anything for ourselves. The Christian narrative sees the value in community, the value in each individual, the value in being with each other in relationships of respect and mutual recognition.

Society turned away from this narrative perhaps because the church lost its way and focused too much on the ‘things of the world’, the trappings of influence and power. The church forgot that it is to be in the world but not of the world, and as a consequence became too consumed with introspection and fear of irrelevance to be able to meet the challenges of the changing times.

But due to the pandemic, to the lock-down measures, there has been an enforced time of pause for thought….for reflection….a chance to assess where we might go from here, how we might re-imagine society functioning going forward. And I would suggest that we could do a lot worse than rediscovering the Christian story as a basis for a just and loving society. No, not we could do a lot worse – we couldn’t do any better!

Easter Sunday

This is an article that I wrote for the local newspaper and Diocesan Newsletter:

And so Easter day arrived and we celebrated the resurrection of Christ, the reason for our Christian faith. This is the day when Christians remember that three days after his crucifixion, Jesus was seen and spoken to by his followers, and seen by many different people. This was the confirmation of all that Jesus taught and preached during His three-year ministry, undeniable proof that He was really the Son of God and that He had overcome death once and for all.

But this year, the celebrations have been different. Because of the lockdown due to the pandemic restrictions, we were not able to gather together, in church buildings or elsewhere, and so have been celebrating in our homes, through the use of technology and through the use of common prayers and readings done at set times each day. And while this has been hugely important, this coming together at the same time though separated by distance, it isn’t the same as coming together in worship and fellowship in each other’s physical presence.

There have been some benefits to our worship during isolation for sure. We have been joined by people from Dunoon and Rothesay – from the two churches in this linked charge – and from people in other churches across Dunoon. We have been joined by family members and friends from across the country – from London to Edinburgh, Derby to Darlington and places in between. We have been joined by people who are on the way to moving to Dunoon, delayed by the lockdown. The services have been accessed by many different people, and more people have joined regularly than we might have expected. This period of lockdown has perhaps allowed for a greater focus on the disciplines of Lent and Holy Week, and the enforced quiet for so many has given a space for reflection and prayer.

But we have missed the opportunity to come together in our spiritual homes, the ‘wee church on the hill’ that is Holy Trinity, and the church on the front that is St Paul’s in Rothesay. We have missed the physical actions of the liturgies – the processions of Palm Sunday, the hour at the cross on Good Friday, the walk of witness and later the gathering outside in the dark before the Easter fire on Holy Saturday, walking in to the darkened church and lighting the candles and singing the Exsultet – the great song of praise. And we’ve missed the sharing of communion, the remembering of our Lord’s great love for us in the sharing of bread and wine…..

While we may have missed all of this during this time of lockdown, this time of forced isolation, for many, many people, isolation is the reality of their lives every day. There are people who are isolated because of physical difficulties, or social problems, or because of their mental health difficulties. There are people who are isolated because they are ‘different’ or see themselves as ‘not fitting in’. There are those who are isolated through economic circumstance, or social injustice, those who are isolated through their own ignorance or wilfulness. Isolation – loneliness – separation – this is perhaps the essential problem of human existence, and has been brought into sharp focus as we have all been forced in to it at this time. And this is why Christ came – so that God could be with us in the most intimate of ways – in and through the person of Jesus Christ.

So maybe these strange times are an opportunity for the church – Christ’s people (not the building) – to join in God’s mission of being with people – whoever and wherever they are – sharing God’s love, affirming their worth, building God’s Kingdom.

Holy Week with a difference…..

The days leading up to Easter are known as ‘Holy Week’ in the Christian calendar. There are usually services every day during the week, with Christians from across denomination and church getting together to mark this special week. There are also highlight services – on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday – with the big celebration of Easter on Easter Sunday, the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus – the sign that God’s love for us transcends death.

This Holy Week will, however, be very different, as due to restrictions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 we will not be gathering in our usual way. But we will be coming together to mark this week. We will come together regularly online for prayer and worship, and we will stop at the same time each day and light a candle and say a prayer  – coming together in time even though separated by space – an opportunity to remember that we are not alone. And we will each be putting a changing display in our windows to mark our way through the week, a home liturgy for Holy Week – the picture is the study window in the Rectory on Monday night (and it is intentional that one of the candles is not lit).

In amongst all of the different preparations for Holy Week, preparing PowerPoint and sermons and so on, there is something that I have noticed. During these first weeks of lockdown, though we are isolating ourselves from each other, there is a sense in which we are coming closer together. Hopefully we are becoming more aware of each other’s needs, more mindful of the need to be respectful, more generous, less greedy. Maybe in our solitude, we do spend more time thinking about other people, that we are having more concern for the less fortunate in our communities, those who have lived in isolation for many months prior to the changes the pandemic has caused.

So, these are reasons for hope – and that is ultimately what Easter is about – the hope that the darkness does end, that the risen Son shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome him! Christ is risen….Happy Easter!

Approaching Holy Week

As I write this, it is 15 days since church services were suspended, and 9 days since church buildings were closed and ‘the lockdown’ began……and everything feels rather strange.

Someone described this as feeling like ‘we’re all at that stage in musical chairs where the music has stopped.’ A good description as the frantic scramble to get where we wanted to be and to stock up on pasta and toilet paper has passed, and we are now where we are, with whom we are…and the music isn’t going to start up again any time soon.

But while for many people – those in the front-line of care or delivery of goods or providing essential services – life continues at a pace, for many more things are very different. Working from home, spending a lot of time on the phone, ‘zooming’ services, preparing for Holy Week in the knowledge that I’ll be doing everything sitting in front of a computer – this is all far from the ordinary.

And in this ‘far from ordinary’ time, we should perhaps take this unique opportunity to reflect on how much we have taken for granted prior to this pandemic. Not just our elementary freedoms, but the apparent expectation people have that their every demand will be instantly met by supply (in the western world certainly). A few weeks ago we would have been outraged if we couldn’t get our favourite extra-virgin olive oil from the supermarket, and we took it as a basic human right to be able to buy an avocado at 3.00am.

But now we are all too aware of the fragility of the supply chains, of the fact that resources are scarce, and that there may not always be enough to go around. We might be waking up to the truth that money can’t buy what isn’t there – and so maybe when this has passed (as it will surely pass), maybe greed in our society will diminish, maybe we will see an increase in patience, maybe sharing will become the norm.

Because we do see glimmers of this happening now in and around the panic and anxiety of these times. We see it in the help that people are offering each other, friendships fostered and nurtured over the phone or through video chats, supermarkets dropping off free groceries to sheltered housing, an Italian florist giving away flowers just as his shop had to shut, garden centres in the UK giving away bedding plants so they don’t go to waste, a tattooist donating all of their surgical masks to the NHS, and many more stories that gladden the heart. So there is hope….

And this is what Holy Week is about – the pain followed by the hope – the hope of Easter. Easter is the desperately needed reminder that pain and death and loss do not have the final word – a reminder we need more this year than most. In the resurrection of Jesus we are reminded that there will always be hope – and we can see that resurrection hope mirrored in our lives if we know where to look.

So even when things seem at their most hopeless, when perhaps we feel like the disciples did on Good Friday, hang on to the hope we have in Christ. Or as Tony Campolo, the American Evangelist says “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin!”

Psalm 137

We are fortunate in the Rectory, to be able to walk about in the church grounds from our front door, a good way to ward of the ‘trapped within four walls’ feeling during this time of lock-down. As I was doing that this afternoon, I stood looking at the church door – closed since earlier this week – and Psalm 137 verse 4 came to mind……..

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

These words, first written by the psalmist in exile, may well be our words now as we are exiled from our church buildings, exiled from each other…

But like the exiles who first uttered these words of lament, we will find that God is just as much with us in these new circumstances as in the old. God is just as much with us in our ‘virtual’ worship, just as much with us in our isolation. We need to learn to listen, or pay attention, in a different way.

The early Christian hermits, the Desert Fathers, Julian of Norwich and others sought out isolation to better hear God. So, during the days ahead of us, do take time to use the quiet, the change of routine, the forced isolation to listen to what God maybe saying to you….

Locking the doors….

Another day, another announcement, another email from the College of Bishops, this time asking us to close our churches to the public to prevent the spread of COVID 19.

So it was with some emotion that I traipsed down the path from the Rectory to the church to pin a notice on the door – ‘The church is closed for a time’……

But we will be back!

Now, I know the church is the people, not the building, but there is something liminal and numinous about coming together in worship in a holy place, a place set apart for this very purpose. So we will be back, and when we are, we will rejoice!

But until then, we must learn another way to be the church. We are scattered through the community……and perhaps that is the way it should be at this time. We are in amongst the community, praying for health workers, government leaders, each other, and ourselves.

And we are finding ways to come together online, in a virtual gathering, but with real worship. Last Sunday, we were praying together, hearing God’s word, chatting before the service even, and next Sunday we are going to do the same, and may even have a go at singing together!

We will find ways to celebrate Holy Week and Easter….I’m thinking about a series of meditations through Holy Week, the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, and then Easter Sunday morning will have to be greeted with an alleluia, even if it’s only the pheasant who hears.

At the top of this post, I have inserted a photo taken by someone else (hope you don’t mind Sarah), a photo just used as the Facebook cover photo. Alan’s words are an appropriate ending – ‘The building is dark, the doors are locked, but there is hope in the morning sunrise.’

Because there is hope in the morning Son rising….we are an Easter people, and we live in the light of the resurrection. So we will be back, to worship and praise in this wee church on the hill. We will be back as soon as it is safe to do so.

A strange day….

Well, the first Sunday without public worship……but we made plan….. and 32 of us gathered together in as a virtual church in a Zoom room for a Service of the Word. A couple of people read from where they were, and there was a short sermon. All in all, I think it went well, and I think people appreciated the opportunity to come together, even if it was through a computer screen.

And on this strange day, moments of blessing, as we were joined by the son of one of the regular congregation – and as he said at the end, this was the first service he has been to for 25 years. And my daughter joined us from London…..lovely moments of grace in trying times…..signs that God is with us.

So moments of hope, even when you read about the selfish people who ignore the isolation guidelines and gather together in defiance, when all they are doing is prolonging the need for isolation. Moments of hope, like our neighbours gratitude when Sarah dropped a bag of flour off for her, even while people queue outside supermarkets to stack their trollies with food they will never eat.

We will come out the other side of this, but as a society will we come out stronger, or broken? Surely we can’t get through this and return to what we were before……so let’s work together and pray….really pray, that we come through this kinder, more selfless, more generous, more caring, more loving, more respectful, as people and as a society.

The picture today is a candle in the window of the Rectory, lit at 7.00pm together with brothers and sisters across these islands, a candle of hope in times of darkness. The candle was the one given to us at the end of the Candlemas service this year…..the light of Christ.