An early sloe

It feels like this is a long winter, locked down as we are, waiting for the days to lengthen and for a freedom that we hope will arrive along with spring and warmth. The seasons have become close to us. In our forced hibernation we are more attentive to the work of seasons than perhaps we have been before.

Seasons disarm us from our attempts to control. You can’t rush spring. There is only waiting. And they remind us that there are seasons to life that only waiting will bring to a close or open up. We live with the malaise of living too long in a culture that feels it can grab what it wants whenever it wants it, disconnected from the uncertainty of seasons.

Its the same I think in life of faith and in the life of the people of God. Sometimes there is only waiting and in that waiting trust. These are spiritual and communal winters which form us if we are minded to live in them and into which the stories of former communal winters play an important role. I have been living in 1 and 2 Peter this winter, listening to this letter as one to a scattered, persecuted minority whose hope was not in the next conference or church growth seminar, but in the promise of return of Christ. And I have been reading Belden Lane’s wonderful book ‘The Solace of Fierce Landscapes’ which opens up the long importance of wilderness and barrenness in the Christian tradition as places where real and deep spiritual growth happens. He quotes Gary Snyder: ‘Great insights have come to some people only after they have reached the point where they have nothing left’.

I wrote this poem as we moved into winter and as an awareness grew of the lengthening winter of Covid for society, for life, and for the church (which will surely emerge from this very different to how it went in). It is so tempting to feel there is some great thing we can do in this season to prepare for spring, or hurry it along. I suspect though we are being invited to wait and pray, trusting in the God of all seasons who invites us to be faithful in winter or in summer.

 
                                   An early sloe
  
 Close by the smothered ruins of the parish church
 The sloes are swelling early,
 Full blue promises of autumn
 With their patina of frost,
 Portents of the age to come,
 The dark hours in the heart of winter
 Waiting for the earth to tilt its hinge
 And fall into another year.
  
 In all things seasons.
 In all things flux,
 Between time dormant,
 Time flushed and verdant.
 Sometimes the meadows ring with hymns
 From village folk walking back through cattled fields
 To cottages and hearth.
 Sometimes a gravestone drowning in bramble
 An east wall sinking into stands of hazel.
  
 All is not lost
 The sloe blooms early, 
 The chiffchaff fall on the thickets round an old church gladly
 As the summer turns and winter feeding grounds
 Draw them southward,
 Creation groans and the Spirit
 Bends the grass, the trees, the sallow flax, 
 Which fills the gloaming
 With the promise of another time, another dawn. 

Ambition for 2021? – be more human

Funny that I haven’t heard to many people talk of New Year’s resolutions this year. I guess everyone is taken up with the enormous pressures and anxieties of Covid. Besides, it takes a certain kind of stability to make resolutions – to say that, “all things being equal, this ought to be possible”.

I guess for many of us, and certainly for me, when we talk about ambitions we think about things we would like to achieve, goals we would like to meet, aims would like to fulfil. Yet one thing about the past year is that our confidence in meeting the usual aims that we often set ourselves has been shot.

At the same time what our experience of Covid and lockdown has meant for many is a reappraisal of what is important. Locked down in our houses, unable to realise that dream to travel to such and such a place, unable to develop that idea, stripped perhaps of the usual agency to do things we want so – we have had an opportunity to rediscover the gifts of time, of unhurriedness, of the people around us, of neighbourhood and solidarity with people in our street.

Some time ago I wrote about ambition in a book called Stepping Into Grace. I had come across an amazing piece by a Rabbi called Joseph Soloveitchik1 which develops this picture from the creation stories of two kinds of human. The human of the first creation story (Gen1) is the human of material domination and manipulation, the human who looks at the world as something to find resources from with which to achieve and create (Gen 1:28) . However the human of the second creation story (Gen 2) is the human of relationships, community, a human who recognises that the flourishing of life happens in the midst of these connections and depends on them. I concluded at the time that whilst the second vision of humanity seems nobler and more holistic, it is also true that the first vision of humanity has enabled so much in terms of the development of civilisation and so much that we now take for granted in terms of a good life. The Gen 1 vision must therefore serve the Gen 2 vision rather than be moved on from.

I have since come across Iain McGilchrist’s amazing book, The Master and His Emissary2. McGilchrist, who taught literature before retraining in medicine and developing an interest in neurobiology, develops a thesis about the differences between the hemispheres of our brain, a thesis that connects remarkably with Soloveitchik’s two visions of humanity. McGilchrist basically argues (with extensive reference to the scientific literature) that the two hemispheres of the brain provide two very different ways of being attentive to the world. The left-side is rational, calculating, systematic, focussed and attends to the world in order to grab what it needs from it. The right-hand side is all about the bigger picture, ambiguity, the relationships and connections of the world, the ‘between-ness’ in which the reality of life takes place.

The really interesting thing that McGilchrist does though is to take this theory into the realm of philosophy. He argues that the west has become a culture dominated by the left-brain’s view of the world. Furthermore, this dominant view becomes not just who we see the world, but increasingly how we make the world, ie how the world is. However, a proper balance of these two ways of being attentive to the world is described by his governing metaphor – the master and his emissary. The right-brain with its big picture view of things in conversation with one another is the master, who sends his emissary into the world to get what it needs and manipulate the world toward new outcomes. And it is in retaining the right-brain perspective as the master that is key – because in doing that we are able to hold our tendency to see the world through our own limited lens in relationship with others.

So what does this have to do with ambition? Well perhaps Covid, and all that has happened in the past year is something of a wake-up call to our left-brain dominated world? Our rational and calculated plans have been cancelled and we have been invited to inhabit a world of greater ambiguity and interdependence than before. We have been invited to recalibrate toward a more right-brain world, a world shaped predominantly by community and relationships not gain or grabbing.

So rather than putting our resolutions on hold until it all blows over – perhaps we should resolve to lean into what we are being invited into? We are being invited to be more human, not less. To discover that to be made in the image and likeness of God is to have this drive to work and achieve, but only in service to a humanity that is connected and interdependent. Where our contribution, and our perspective must come into conversation with that of others. How about aiming to be more right-brain in 2021? Read more for pleasure. Draw. Sit still. Listen to music, without doing anything else. Go for a walk with a neighbour. Walk your street and just notice things about it. And when your left-brain argues that that doesn’t achieve anything – just ignore it.

  1. Joseph Soloveitchik The Lonely Man of Faith (Random House, 2006)
  2. Iain McGilchrist The Master and His Emissary (Yale, 2010)

The future of church is not a new form but a new ‘imaginary’

In these turbulent and unprecedented times for the church two questions, related to each other, have gained immense attention. What is church? And, what is the future of church?  As church buildings have been closed and people have debated the importance of gathering physically in an ecclesiastical space for worship, the conversation, whether about the Eucharist, or about sacred space, is really a variation of the one question – what is the church? Likewise as we have begun to see new forms of church form online, hybrid forms of church evolve as people find ways of gathering in gardens or public space whilst also connecting via Zoom, and as institutions start to forecast the financial impact of the virus on resourcing the church, the conversation is really a variation of the question –  what is the future of church?

But in all these conversations I often feel we are starting from the wrong end of things. We tend to start start with forms. We start with the forms of church we are familiar with and then ask – can these new forms that are emerging legitimately be called church? Conversely, we see the old forms that are dying or restricted in their expression and ask, can church without these forms really be church?

However, the church has never been about form – in the sense that you cannot define church by its form. The church has had as many forms as time and cultural context have fostered. Duerksen and Dyrness in their book Seeking Church explore the history of church and argue that every church form is really a product of the conversation between Scripture, tradition and context. So for example, the early church form, based around communities meeting in people’s homes was shaped around the collegia, the voluntary associations that were a feature of Greco-Roman life, particularly in urban areas. Early Christians took that form and adapted it for their expression of church. Likewise the congregational model of church that is normative for the church in the west has deep roots in the social and political contexts of the Reformation, with varied levels of rejection of the political control of the church by the state and an emphasis on individual choice.

The church has no form that exists outside of its cultural context. The church is always provisional. The church is an emergent phenomena in history.

In the west is we have inherited a dominant form of church which (whilst if covers a whole range of dissimilarities) you might describe as a congregation that meets in dedicated space and the range of expressions of Christian life oriented round it. The issue is that it’s hard for us to imagine anything different. And the problem is often that we turn what is really a longstanding cultural expression into something that acts like a benchmark for the very nature of the church.

We have what you might call an ‘ecclesial imaginary’1 – an internal and deeply embedded way of seeing ourselves as the church in the world. Our ecclesial imaginary is the unconscious, often unthinking way in which we live out our identity as the church in the world. And our ecclesial imaginary in the west is deeply influenced by the form of church that has emerged and evolved since the Reformation and in the era of modernity.

What I genuinely believe is that we are being invited to explore a new ecclesial imaginary for a new cultural era in the west. And we are being invited, by the Holy Spirit, to lay down our assumptions and prejudices about church forms in order to allow space for new forms to emerge from this imaginary. I have summarised how I see these ecclesial imaginaries in the diagram below:

What characterises this ecclesial imaginary more than anything else is the place of the church’s agency in the world. One of the key theological developments of the 20th century, the missio Dei, is coming into its own in the 21st. In this ecclesial imaginary the church is not seen as central to the mission of God in the world – rather it is God by his Holy Spirit who invites a more peripheral, or eccentric (that is ex-centric) church to participate in the flow of transforming, reconciling life in the world as the Kingdom comes into being.

As John V Taylor put it ‘our theology would improve if we saw the church being given to the Spirit rather than the other way round’.

On the differences between these two ecclesial imaginaries a great deal of our present debates and conflicts arise, particularly around the degree to which the dominant paradigm of the last 500 years should be resourced, whilst the Spirit continues to invite the church into new territories that do not immediately promise to deliver along the rubrics or metrics of the past. This is where the friction lies. And it is not a case of out with the old and in with the new – but a recognition, in our multivalent cultural context, that both these imaginaries must find a way of living together in a way that enriches the other, for the sake of the Kingdom.

1 ‘Ecclesial imaginary’ is a riff on Charles Taylor’s concept of ‘social imaginary’ which he describes as ‘the way ordinary people “imagine” their social surroundings, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms, it is carried in images, stories and legends, etc.’ (The Secular Age, 2007)

Is pioneer ministry a ‘neoliberal destruction’ of the parish system?

A recent pair of articles by the parish vicar and commentator Giles Fraser certainly caused a lot of heat – though, as ever, in the world of social media rhetoric and hyberbole, not a great deal of light.

Being accused of a pernicious campaign of ‘asset stripping’ toward the ‘neoliberal destruction’ of the parish system’ might simply be brushed off with a laugh were it not for the fact that a great number of people, judging by the comments that followed the article, seem to think this might well be the case.

Fraser’s article began life with the tweet of a job ad in the Church Times for 2 Associate Archdeacons in the Diocese of Sheffield. It carped at the managerial tone of the language as a symptom of a deeper malaise of business-speak in the church. It was Michael Northcott however who poured petrol on this spark of cynicism. His retweet interpreted the ad as part of a ‘corporate strategy to hollow out an organisation with managerialism by dissolving its historic processes.’ Despite no reference in the ad to Fresh Expressions, or pioneer ministry however Fraser’s subsequent article for UnHerd makes the FX/pioneer ministry movement the chief protagonist in this enterprise.

Which to anyone involved in the movement is quite frankly hilarious! But whilst I’m tempted to change my Twitter handle to include #neoliberaldestoryeroftheparishsystem I would rather we took Fraser’s argument at face value and provide some responses.

Fraser’s narrative construction, which will lead the uninitiated to the door of neoliberal destruction, is that a) evangelicals have never liked the devolved power of the parish system and b) saw the centralisation of finances into Diocesan control as another obstacle in the way of their vision of the church c) came up with Mission Shaped Church in 2004 as a way of by-passing the whole lot and create a kind of parachurch. Again, put plainly, and to those involved in the movement from 2004 (and before) onwards this is ludicrous. But let’s respond anyway:

Firstly, anyone who has read Mission Shaped Church will know that, whilst it was written for General Synod and therefore for an audience concerned with the function and ministry of the church, it contained a great deal of cultural reflection and theology. It was essentially a work of practical theology, not a manifesto for a parachurch organisation. That said some of its recommendations for the church were swiftly implemented.

Perhaps the closest thing to a suspect in Fraser’s crime story might be the Bishop’s Mission Order (BMO). This new piece of legislation gave permission for the development of Fresh Expression across parish boundaries. They have provided the basis for the structures, alongside parishes, as a means to create new expressions of church. But that is not the same as parachurch. I lead Poole Missional Communities, the holder of a BMO, which hosts two Fresh Expressions and supports a number of (self-supporting) pioneer ministers. But let’s be clear – its is a Bishop’s Mission Order. Within the legislation there are clear points of accountability with the authority of the Bishop and with the synodical structures of the Diocese. BMO’s are not parachurch, floating somewhere apart from the parish, they are intergrated and in dialogue with the parish system.

Secondly Fraser’s contends that huge amounts of resource are being ‘stripped’ from the central organisation of the church to fund pioneer ministries and Fresh Expressions. Whilst it is tempting to response with a blurted ‘as if!’ – lets respond more reasonably.

The experience of virtually every pioneer I know is of a Diocese whose policy is that attendance has to fund ministry. Funding for pioneer work almost exclusively comes from Diocesan mission funds and hypothecated funds such as the Strategic Development Fund (though more on that in a moment). Most pioneer and FXs are under the pressure to reach sustainability with 5-7 years – which without the advantages of legacies or donations from wealthy benefactors which was the provenance of many parishes – is, on the whole, wildly optimistic. I am now a self-supporting ordained pioneer minister. I live in my own house. I know a good many pioneers who have similarly found creative ways of funding their own ministry in order to fulfill what they believe is God’s vocation for them.

Furthermore the vast majority of fresh expression are within parishes. Overseen and supported by parish people, parish resources, accountable to the parish vicar. The last significant piece of research also found that the majority of these communities are led by lay people. In other words i) they are part of the parish and ii) they do not cost the parish a great deal of money!

Finally if it is the Strategic Development Fund (SDF) that is in the dock, seeing as the Church Commissioners agreed to access the capital of the fund (not just the returns on investments), then it should be clear that i) pioneering is the Cinderella at the ball of SDF, most money goes into congregational church planting ii) the criteria for a successful SDF bid is now even more strongly oriented toward ‘resource churches’ in large urban centres. I shall just leave that there.

But perhaps this also makes clear some unclarity in categorisation. Whilst there may be some slight overlap between pioneering, fresh expressions and ‘resource church’ planting, on the whole they represent distinct networks and approach the challenge of mission in radically different ways. (See the work Tina Hodgett and I have done on the ‘pioneer spectrum’ for a fuller explanation). To elide the HTB network and the proliferation of resource churches with Fresh Expressions and pioneer ministry is a basic category error.

But let me finish by taking on Northcott’s interpretive lens of ‘neoliberalism’. To support his view Northcott references Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue. Which is interesting because MacIntyre in the same book makes the case for ‘living tradition’ ‘as an historically extended, socially embodied argument’. He argues that tradition to be true to its calling as a faithful custodian of truth and virtue must allow creative dialogue. The narrative of any organisation must be a dialectic, not a monologue. Pioneers and leaders of fresh expressions are not the agents of some neoliberal plot to hollow out the church. They are to the church what creatives and saints have always been, prophets at the edge seeking to faithfully improvise, in dialogue with the traditions and structures of the church, in new contexts and a proliferation of emergent cultures, to keep the tradition alive.

Is coronavirus a threshold event for the Church?

Last week Chelmsford Diocese announced it was bringing forward a planned reduction of clergy numbers from 2025 to the end of 2021. 60 clergy from a present total for the Diocese of 275 will be but in the next 18 months – that’s just over 20% of the current number. The Diocese cited the financial pressures created by Covid-19 as a key reason for the decision. Similar kinds of decision are being considered, if not being made, up and down the country as the financial impact of coronavirus starts to become clear.

I have been involved with numerous conversations in recent months about the future of church ‘after’ Covid-19. I say ‘after’ because we may well be living with Covid-19 for some time to come. And ‘after’ Covid, that is without the virus circulating and with a tried and tested means of treating and eliminating any reoccurrence, will undoubtedly be a world living in the long shadow if its presence and impact.

In that sense I wonder if coronavirus may well be a threshold event for the church. What does that mean? In organisational change theory ‘threshold events’ refer to events that tip systems into a new structure and a new way of operating. Increasingly sociologists, borrowing from complexity theory in different scientific disciplines, see organisations as complex self-organising systems. Organisations are less like machines and more like organic environments where flows of information and conversation take place. Different flows are dampened or amplified within such a systems. A system’s stability is formed around a set of governing principles held within the relationships – what some call a ‘dominant logic’ or ‘attractor’. New information or circumstances can be absorbed into the system and the system can adapt. But systems under pressure begin to move into disequilibrium as new information, new ideas, or new circumstances challenge the dominant logic and begin to invite the system into a new formation.

It is in these circumstances of disequilibrium that systems can change quite quickly with the occurrence of a ‘threshold event’. These events can be quite small and have a disproportionate effect on the system – the classic theoretical example being the butterfly flapping its wings in one place causing a hurricane thousands of miles away. In another example cited by Michael Moynagh in his book Church In Life, a group of young adults got together and started a breakfast for homeless people in the basement of their declining inner city church in the US. It started with a handful of organisers who funded it themselves. The initiative was not suggested or planned by the leadership. It just happened. But over the next 15 or so years it changed the whole ethos and vision of the church, from a declining white bastion of conservative theology to a growing multi-cultural place of worship and witness in its inner-city neighbourhood.

Covid-19 is not a small insignificant event. Its huge. But its context in terms of the Church, already struggling with issues of decline and sustainability, already under pressure and in disequilibrium, means that it may well be the event that shifts the Church into a new way of being and doing.

If this is the case, what are the implications? I think it means asking a different set of questions. We need to ask what a new dominant logic might be?  What candidates are out there for a faithful way of being church that may well be more suited to the world that is to come? Has the age of digital church arrived? Will church affiliation be more blended than exclusive, a mix of digital and local, gathered congregation and neighbourhood presence?

For those in leadership this theory of organisations invites a humility and vulnerability about our own human agency. We would better see ourselves as stewards and storytellers. We would do well to ask – where do I see new and faithful forms of church emerging that are responding well to this evolving world? How can I weave their life into the ongoing story of the church?

Finally, whilst concepts like the ‘dominant logic’ of a system or organisation come from sociology this is not about selling out the future of church to a social theory. Instead it opens up a conversation in which the creative presence of the Holy Spirit can be listened to. It is in the conversations and flows of relationships within the Church where the Holy Spirit mediates the presence of God and speaks ‘from the future’, inviting the church further on in her journey. It is in the threshold places that the Holy Spirit so often speaks and shapes the future. Are we listening with ears to hear where the Spirit is leading?

Pioneer parables – The Farm

I’ve been experimenting with the parable as a story form. In his book ‘Parables as Subversive Speech’, William Herzog talks of different kinds of story. Myths create a social world. The apologue is a form of story that defends (provides an apologetic for) a social world. Action stories (ie novels etc) explore the world. Satire begins to poke fun and question our assumptions about our world. But parables are designed to subvert a social world and help lend imagination and credibility to the building of alternatives. He argues that this is precisely what Jesus is doing in the gospels, telling stories of subversion that expose the injustices and up-end the assumptions and normative practices of the time in order to create the possibility of a new social order.

In so many areas of life we are crying out for new social orders, new cultures, radically new ways of being and doing that are not just tweaks or adaptations of the status quo, but whole new paradigms of principle and action. These paradigms seek to be faithful to the purposes of the old, but achieve them in very different and imaginative ways.

The church is no different.  And whilst we can argue about different ways of doing; different techniques, structures, financial plans etc. what we need is a new paradigm. Reason, argument, protest, prophetic action all have a part to play in that. But perhaps parable might have an important place too.

There was once a farmer who managed a large arable farm on behalf of the owner. The farm was losing money and its future was uncertain.

The farmer invested in the best machinery and used the best fertilisers. The farm was amalgamated with neighbouring farms to reduce costs. The farmer did all these things and worked day and night every day of the year. But the farm continued to lose money.

Then one day the farmer said ‘I know what I will do – I will stop growing crops and I will listen to the land. The land is dying and everything with it. We will work with the land and with the God of creation and see what happens’. And she let the land breathe and allowed herself some rest.

Then the farmer called a meeting to communicate her plans. She sold all the machinery and laid off all the staff.  The staff were angry and said the plan was crazy. Other local farmers heard about the plan and shook their heads. Word reached the landlord about the plan and he wrote an angry letter saying ‘The farm needs to pay its way!’ and that the farmer wouldn’t have his support if she carried on in this way.

Then the farmer said ‘I know what I will do – I will introduce ancient breeds of cattle, horse and pig to graze the grass, and to trim the trees and to till the soil.’ These breeds had been largely forgotten but some in the farming community still knew about them. They managed the land naturally and fertilised its soil and new life began to return in amazing and surprising ways.

So the land continued to heal. The trees began recovering. Insects returned; butterflies, moths, beetles, bees. Birds began to nest and thrive.  The call of the turtle dove was heard once again.

And then the farmer welcomed people onto the land. They walked its paths and sat under its trees, they listened to the bird song and witnessed clouds of butterflies.

And many of them went home and became like the farmer. They listened to their land and worked with the God of creation. And watched to see what the future brought.

You can read another pioneer parable here.

This story is inspired by Wilding by Isabella Tree, which tells the story of the rewilding project on the Knepp Estate in Sussex. Something I’ve also blogged about in the past.

 

Life That is Truly Life – IV

‘Sleep is my greatest enemy’ (Netflix Tweet, April 2017)

‘Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed’ (Bible, Luke 5 vs 16)

 

The entertainment world, like everything else, found itself adjusting to the realities of lockdown. Unable to create new content, soap operas ran out of content and the broadcast schedules started to fill with repeats. However, there has been something of a resurgence in programs about creativity and about nature. I have discovered the discipline of drawing and am now trying to sketch something every day. This has been inspired by the brilliant Grayson Perry’s Art Club which each week offers a theme for people to explore their creativity with.

What is the connection between lockdown and this resurgence of art and nature? We have time, yes. But we are rediscovering something far more fundamental – attention.

The modern world seems hell-bent at robbing us of the precious faculty of our attention. We multi-task, respond to a spectrum of communication channels almost simultaneously, address an endless deluge of notifications and devout ourselves to avoiding getting behind the curve and staying ‘on message’. All at breakneck speed and invariably whilst constantly on the move. We are living in what many are calling the ‘attention economy’. App coders, streaming services, smartphone manufacturers compete in a world where the key resource is not so much our money but our attention. In 2017 Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings argued that their chief competition was not HBO or Amazon – no, he said, ‘we’re competing with sleep’. And, he added, ‘we’re winning!’

Attention is so precious – that we are being robbed it of it every waking (and increasingly sleeping) moment, is not just a pragmatic challenge, it’s a spiritual one. For everything truly life-giving, loving, profound and true about being human is built on attention. To listen is to give attention. And to listen is to love. To love is to give attention. The deepest love is the love that offers one’s attention without contract or utility, but just for the other. And to be loved, accepted, welcomed, grounded in the world is to be given attention – to have someone, or a community sit with us and say you are worthy of our undivided attention.

Phones can’t do that. Netflix can’t do that. They suggest they can, but it’s a lie – and a very expensive one. And that feeling you get when you get to the end of binge watching a Netflix series or a new level of Candycrush, that mix of weariness, disappointment and shame – that is the cry of your soul that knows the difference and yearns for the real thing.

Lockdown has brought as up for air – it has reminded our withered souls that the people around us in our homes and communities, the nature in our gardens, and the insignificant things like the view of the carpark, or the way the dog sleeps in the frontroom, these things with the benefit of our attention yield an abundance of life, true life.

Jesus got the fundamental need for attention. He was busy. Crowds followed him and people constantly drew on the limited resources of his time, energy and attention. He regularly withdrew to spend time in lonely place to give attention to God ‘his Father’. He couldn’t keep offering attention unless he was attended to. And in his teaching he kept inviting people to ‘have ears to hear, and eyes to see’. In other words to give this attention. He wasn’t in habit of giving simplistic rules or easy religious laws. He invited our attention –  our lives, our love, our presence. All our attention flows from this fountain of attention, the steady, unchanging presence of God – if only we might stop long enough in our distracted world to offer it to him.

Life that is truly Life III – Sacrifice

‘Our life and our death is with our neighbour’ (Anthony the Great)

‘This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.’ (The Bible, 1 John 3:16)

One of enduring images of this time will surely be that of NHS doctors and nurses pictures of their puffy red faces at the end of a long shift caring for Covid-19 patients whilst wearing PPE. Each Thursday evening we have clapped at 8pm for the NHS and other keyworkers. However, few of us can genuinely understand what it means to work at ‘the frontline’ of this pandemic in the way that so many are. These images take us to the reality of that experience.

What they communicate is the personal sacrifice that people are making every day to care for others. The NHS and other caring services such as care homes are in one sense run on the usual basis of a contract of employment. But they would probably collapse if a significant amount of their operation was not run on something else – personal sacrifice. We call the temporary hospitals and the Covid-19 wards and care homes affected by the virus the frontline for good reason. The military metaphor may have its shortcomings but one thing it does do is highlight the reality that people are putting their lives before others because that is what they feel is the right thing to do.

Unlike the NHS, the world does not generally run on the principles of sacrifice. The global economy, running the worn-out tapes of modernist economics, still conceives of the human being as homo economicus. Humans, it says, are basically selfish individuals who will compete for scarce resources to get what they need, the market will do the rest.  But as this time shows us, we are not fundamentally homo ecomonicus we are homo agape. People who will love for sake of others. We are people, who given the opportunity, will give ourselves for the sake of others, even in the threat of death. VE day, the 75th anniversary of which is today, is a poignant reminder that this is true in numerous generations.

And we are homo agape because we are made in the image of God who in himself lives out this principles of self-giving to others. God the Father gives the Son into the world, who in turn is sacrificed for the life of the whole world. It is a way of life based on the principle of abundance – that the world is a good place, a rich place, a place created by a good God who knows what we need and will hold us and provide for us even in death. Consciously or not I believe that truth is embedded within us. We know we are better than selfish individuals scrapping over the last of the hand sanitisers. We applaud the NHS nurses, staff and other keyworkers because our hearts and souls would have us live by the principles of abundance and self-giving to others and we long for a world in which that is more truly the case.

The Lighthouse – A Parable

There was once a lighthouse that stood on a cliff above the shore. It was an important lighthouse warning ships away from danger. It had stood on the cliff for as long as anyone could remember. But the cliff was starting to erode and fall into the sea.

Each winter storms came and some of the cliff would be lost into the sea. And each year the storms got worse. And each year the edge of the cliff got closer to the lighthouse. So the people of the village got together and asked – what shall we do? Soon the lighthouse will fall into the sea and the lighthouse will be lost and ships will not be safe.

And some said – the lighthouse has always been here, it will be here for years to come. Don’t worry! And others said – we will move the lighthouse! Brick by brick back from the edge of the cliff. And others said– the lighthouse wasn’t built to last forever! If you move the lighthouse it will only last a few more years before you have to move it again!

But some posed a different question to the people: if we let the lighthouse fall into the sea, what other ways are there of doing its job of warning ships away from danger? They argued that the storms were here to stay, the weather was getting worse, the erosion of the cliff was going to continue because the climate was changing.

The argument raged on in the village. Some taking one position and others another.  A group started with the aim of preserving the lighthouse in its present position.  Another group started a fundraising campaign to move the lighthouse in from the edge of the cliff. And a small number began talking to the sailors and the fisherman asking them for creative solutions to the problem of how to know where the rocks are and how to warn ships to avoid them.  And the storms came and the cliff continued to erode and the lighthouse continued to get closer to the edge of the cliff.

Life that is Truly Life II – Simplicity

 

This piece is the second of a series that I’m offering as conversation starters in the context of the crisis we are all going through. Coronovirus has turned the world upside down. Old ways have been mothballed. New things are emerging. Many already talk about a new normal beyond the crisis in which something of the good we have experienced is allowed to take hold. My (admittedly early) take on this is that the impact of the virus has been to clear a space for glimpses of a better humanity. And it is one that is full of the values of expressions of the Kingdom of God. This is no coincidence. Our inner yearnings, and our very created make-up lean in that direction. So these reflections seek to explore those connections and make something of a case for them.

Only when the last tree has been cut down, the last fish been caught, and the last stream poisoned, will we realize we cannot eat money (Cree Indian Saying)

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Jesus, Gospel of Matthew 11: 28 -30)

The coronovirus pandemic has been called by some ‘the great pause’. It really does feel like the world has ground to a halt. In the first weeks as many people moved their work online a strange fatigue set in. Was this the tiring nature of online video meetings? Or was it our bodies responding with relief to a chance to live at a more humane pace. Trains are empty. The sky is free of vapour trails. Those living under flight paths talk of the bliss of the silence they are experiencing, many for the first time. The air feels cleaner and nature closer. Animals have taken advantage of the quiet streets and begun wandering around our towns. Are there more birds? Or is it just that we are noticing them more? Certainly, people have noticed a rising attentiveness in themselves. We are noticing that doing nothing, is not doing nothing. It is instead relaxing into a kind of happy purposelessness. Such ‘wasted’ time has had no value. And yet we are learning to feel its value.

There is an old story from early colonial times when western explorers were starting to travel into Africa’s interior. The indigenous African tribesmen who had been recruited to carry the luggage of the explorers refused to journey at the pace required of them. They would keep stopping for rests that seemed far longer to the explorers than necessary. When they were eventually confronted on their ‘laziness’ they responded: ‘We cannot continue – we are waiting for our souls to catch up’

Modern western life as it has proliferated across the globe has promised prosperity but severed us from our souls. We hardly know who we are anymore. Many of us cannot quite remember why we get up and race around to do the things we do.  And even if what we do has recognised value, there is never a moment to stop and reflect, breathe, reshape and begin again. Our souls have been left behind. And when we break (as soul-starved people do), we are not given time to heal, we are just replaced.

When Jesus talked of his way of life he talked of it being like ‘a light yoke’. What does that mean? The yoke was the thing you put on an ox to connect it to a plough. It had a heft, a weight. This metaphor was commonly used in Jesus’ time to refer to the burden of a Rabbi’s teaching. Rabbi’s didn’t just teach knowledge , they didn’t just give advice, they invited people to follow their way of life. This was their ‘yoke’. And Jesus is saying his ‘yoke is easy’. Those same verses were translated into modern idiom by an American pastor called Eugene Peterson like this ‘walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace’

Is it a coincidence that in losing its faith in God the western world has severed us from our souls? Is it any coincidence that in discarding spirituality we have dehumanised ourselves and brought the planet close to environmental collapse? How do we go back? Maybe we can’t. But we can go forward in a new way. Wait. Wait for your soul to catch up. Then listen to it. Ask what it needs and don’t ignore it.