Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Oblivion

 

America, America, the nation whose children shoot dead their fellow children. Why do they not understand? Why do they deny they have a problem, or acknowledge the problem but appear to be impotent to address it? Why? Because America is an addict, addicted to guns.

In the UK, we do not share this addiction, cannot comprehend it. But we are also addicted, to alcohol. It is routine for me to hear someone say, with no remorse, I have no memory of how I got from where I was drinking to where I was sleeping, no memory of the night before.

The two different addictions share a root desire, our deep desire for oblivion. The weight of the world, the demands placed upon us, the burden of a seemingly incessant present and a seemingly unrewarding future, all this pushes us to the edge of the abyss. We stand on the edge, look over, and take a step forward. Sometimes we jump pre-emptively.

The thing is, the desire for oblivion is built into the fabric of creation, by design. Sleep is oblivion. The sun sleeps by night, and the moon and the stars by day. Winter, spring, summer and autumn all sleep for three seasons (though we’ve ****ed that up). And Sabbath is a particular form of oblivion, a weekly rest from the clamour.

The difference between Sabbath practices and addictive behaviour is relationship, the recognition that oblivion with another, with an Other, is as healing as oblivion alone is wounding. That is why members of recovery groups acknowledge up front their need for a higher power, not to fix them (note the confession, ‘I am an alcoholic,’ not, ‘I was an alcoholic’) but to be with them. That is also why the Church has developed, over centuries, patterns of stopping, to pray, to yield, to trust.

We still struggle, of course. Just yesterday, hours before news of the latest school shooting across the Atlantic, I confessed to someone that at times I get so wound up that I am very glad I have no access to assault rifles and ammunition. I was not being flippant, nor seeking to shock. I am no different from others. We still struggle: but, trusting that nothing in all creation can separate me from the love of God that is fully expressed in Jesus, who will never forsake me, I choose to receive the oblivion my soul longs for, and the life that will flow out of it again. May it be for a blessing, not for me alone but for those who cross my path.

 

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

You become what you love

 

Eventually, you become what you love, and that in turn has an impact on the lived experience of other people. So God loves humans, became human, died as humans do and was raised to life for us, for as death came to all through the one man Adam, so resurrection life comes to all through the one man Jesus.

If you love money, eventually you become an economic unit, no more no less, and everyone else becomes, to you and in their lived experience as far as you impact it, an economic unit, to be devalued or over-inflated, scoffed at or envied.

If you love power, or a flag, or whatever else, the same dynamic applies. Choose wisely.

 

Monday, May 16, 2022

Under a cloud





The Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today recounts the rhythms of the people of Israel, having been brought out of slavery in Egypt, and on their journey to the land of promise. Here, low-lying cloud is understood as an invitation into rest, held out to us and guarded for us by the Lord, who knows when we need to rest, at times pausing briefly, at times stopping for a longer break in our wanderings.

As I reflect on these ancient words, the cloud is low-lying outside my door. After a glorious Saturday and a warm Sunday, and in the midst of a long dry spell, today we awoke to rain. As I reflect on these ancient words, neighbours walk along my street, rain hoods and umbrellas up, shoulders hunched, braced against the cloud. And as ever, the blue sky blotted out, a melancholy settles on me. But today, reflecting on these ancient words, I choose to respond to the invitation to enter into rest.

Not that I don’t have things I need to attend to today. There are things that need done in the camp, so to speak, the pitching of tents, the watering of herds, the preparing of food. I have funerals to prepare and APCM reports to write. But in order to do so, as well as possible, I shall need to enter into rest, into stilling my soul before the Lord.

 

Thursday, May 12, 2022

What does God smell of?

 

One of the schools in our parish is a special education school for children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder or complex learning difficulties.

The seventy KS4 (14-16 year-old) pupils who visited St Nicholas’ church on Monday asked great questions and made fascinating observations.

More than one reported back, ‘I am not a Christian, but I feel very calm and peaceful in this place.’

When asked for their first impressions on coming into the building, some students volunteered that it smelled like Christmas.

It is worth noting that these are not kids who only come to church at Christmas. That is not their reference-point. These are kids who have never before been in a church building, or, in a few cases, have been to a christening once. I don’t think they were implying that the church smelled of turkey and brussel sprouts, or of oranges. I don’t think that they associate the faint lingering ghost of beeswax polish with Christmas, either.

I wonder whether what they smelled was God-with-us (the heart of Christmas), detectable to the hyper-sensory and the trained alike?

 

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Ask why

 

Why? questions are to do with meaning, and with seeking connection to something or someone that is hopefully dependable. In my culture, two-year-olds famously as why? questions all. of. the. time. But not being at ease with why? questions, we push them towards how? questions.

How? questions are not-unimportant, and yield not-uninteresting answers, but they do not share equivalence with why? questions, and, I would suggest, are best asked on the foundation laid by why?

Why am I alive? is an essential question for our time.

The answer to, how is it that I am alive? would touch on a wide range of subjects, from biology to anthropology to socio-economics. The how? of my existence would include that my father got my mother pregnant and that she was able to carry that pregnancy to full-term (despite being thrown from a bus) and survive labour (despite having earlier, before pregnancy, gone through a coma). That, with the help of others, my parents managed to keep me alive through childhood (despite a poisonous snake dropping from a tree onto me when I was a baby) and with the support of friends I survived adolescence (despite two episodes of suicidal thoughts) to reach adulthood. That so far, I have dodged the bullet of death (despite very nearly stepping in front of a moving vehicle, through sheer absent-mindedness, on more occasions than I care to confess to you). Such stories are interesting, and they reveal evidence of connection, but they don’t reach the heart of those connections.

Asking, why am I alive? opens-up other stories, in which I am found...

 

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

On death and dying

 

Two very different funeral visits today. Every family, every life, every story, every act of hospitality differs from the next.

Two men, both with sons named Andrew, both of whose funerals will be conducted by another Andrew, in the same church, on the same day.

One had terminal cancer. Knew when it was time to stop fighting. Called the family together around him, told each one in turn exactly what they meant to him, said what he needed to say and then fell into a deep sleep from which he never awoke. Precious final hours together. This is that good death our whole lives are preparation for, and this act of love will be a comfort to his family. And while there are no guarantees regarding the circumstances of our death, we can plan for a good death, starting today. There’s a story in the Bible, too long for a funeral reading, of Jacob blessing his many sons, one by one, naming their strengths, and their flaws, before God, hallowing lives that will continue beyond his own. What blessing will you leave?

The other had Alzheimer’s. He also died peacefully, which is perhaps what most of us would want, but, in truth, few of us get. He had been, for many years, secretary of the local history society. Guardians of a collective memory that stretches back beyond living memory, and wider than personal memory. And it may seem ironic, and even cruel, that the secretary of such an august association should have his memories erased, one by one. And yet, this is a perfect metaphor, for none of us are ourselves unto ourself alone, we are all held in a network of archived, collective memory, of small stories of love that matter more than anyone looking in from the outside could ever understand. What stories hold you, when you can no longer hold on, to hold your mortal remains and your memory before God’s face?

Rest in peace; and rise in glory. In the peace and the glory of the One who is Lord of the living and the dead.

 

Monday, May 09, 2022

Lost, and found

 

Even though we know we need community, it is hard to take that first step. It takes a lot of courage to rock up to a church or a running club. And if we have become disconnected over the pandemic, it can feel twice as hard to come back.

You’ve lost confidence. But so, pretty much, has everyone else. So, while you imagine a gulf that has grown wider between you and others, it is perhaps more like a drop in water level when the tide goes out. And we can rise again, together.

You’ve lost appetite. But depression suppresses appetite, as does scarcity. Over successive lockdowns, our appetite for social connection has contracted, first as a necessity, a survival instinct, and in time a tipping from healthy to unhealthy. But we still need social contact, just as we still need food. The nature of our engagement might change. We might need to reconnect in a different capacity, carrying less responsibility or limiting the activities we re-engage with; but we do need to reconnect.

You’ve lost contact. And our mind games tell us that no-one has reached out to us, so no-one can have missed us, and if we aren’t missed, we aren’t wanted, and perhaps the friendships were not as real as we thought. But we haven’t reached out, because our capacity, our energy levels, have been depleted; and what is true for us is true for others. When we get together, we can look out for one another, but to keep looking out for those who stay away is a huge ask. Chances are, people have reached out to you, and you have reached out to others, but it is hard to sustain. When we come together, we find that people are glad to see us.

Yes, it feels hard to reconnect. But you have done it before, and you can do it again. Let’s do it together.

Mental Health Awareness Week

 

Loneliness

 

Today is the start of Mental Health Awareness Week (May is Mental Health Awareness month), and this year, the theme is loneliness.

Although it is perfectly possible to be lonely in a crowd, we tend to experience loneliness less deeply and less frequently when we are in regular face-to-face social contact with others. We know that the isolation of successive lockdowns saw an increase in reported loneliness, but since restrictions have been lifted many of us have continued to re-engage with the social and community contexts we were embedded in before the pandemic. In both my church congregation(s) and my running club, I have heard several people saying recently, with sadness, that it just isn’t what it was. And the reality is that they are right.

We may have come through the restrictions of the past two years, but the recovery is going to take a long time. Some experts are saying it will take a decade. And in the meantime, loneliness is its own pandemic, with attending depression and increased risk of attempted or completed suicide.

Loneliness is a mental health issue. And as with many health issues, loneliness in small doses can be positive, promoting us to reach out to others; but, at chronic levels, it flips into something that turns our bodies against ourselves. And loneliness is a public health issue: we share some degree of collective responsibility for one another's wellbeing.

What might you do to protect yourself, and those around you, from loneliness this week?

What help might you need? And who might partner with you?