Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Trauma


I absolutely love This Is Us, and would recommend it to anyone, with the caveat that you must watch from the very beginning and in unbroken sequence — this is not a show you can jump into, or in and out of. It is the simple story of an American family, told over several generations. But the casting is wonderful, the writing exquisite. This is small screen storytelling (four 18-episode seasons to date) at its finest.

What This Is Us boils down to is an exploration of trauma and its effects. The accumulative, generational trauma of turning to alcohol to hide from the monster your parent became through turning to alcohol to hide from the monster their parent became. The sudden, endless trauma of the unexpected death of a loved one. The ways in which our ways of seeking to cope with one trauma sow the seeds of another. And the ways in which our collective way of life — in this case, the American Way, but anyone living anywhere in the West will be able to relate — inflict trauma on all of us. As the story unfolds, we come to recognise that trauma is not a rare exception we can hope to avoid — why me? — but common to humanity.

This could be bleak, but it really isn’t. Heart-breaking, yes, but not bleak. Why? Because, true to life, the lives unfolding before us are shot through with faithfulness, hopefulness, and love that knows no horizon — the very things that transform life into a bitter-sweet tragic comedy and great romance, instead of something meaningless and cruel.

If we are to understand the trauma we all experience, we will need a range of insights to draw on, from the psychologist to the theologian, but, to communicate truth effectively, we shall definitely need skilful, collaborative storytellers. The team behind This Is Us show us how it can be done, and I am thankful for them.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Learning in lockdown


A simple but effective tool for disciples is the learning circle.



Life is moving through chronological time between birth and death, when it is interrupted by a kairos moment, a time of heightened awareness of the moment, where time appears to stand still. This can be because we are having the time of our life, or because we are stuck in a fog of grief, or because a pandemic has led to the suspension of normal life and we are held in lockdown for our own safety and the safety of others. And this interruption, like an X on a treasure map, marks the place to dig.

The first step is to observe the situation carefully; then to reflect on our initial observations; making sure to discuss these with another person or persons whose judgement you trust, because we all have blind-spots. However, we are seeking more than sympathy, or even empathy. Together, we need to come up with a realistic plan of what we are going to do; ask that person or persons to help us by holding us to account to do what we have agreed; and then, act accordingly. This brings us back to where we began — hence a circle (the first hemisphere describes metanoia, or how we come to change our mind; the second hemisphere describes pistis, or how we begin to live differently as a consequence of this) — now equipped to move forward as one who is learning from life.

Here is an example:

Lockdown +n days. I observe that I am missing my friends. As I reflect on this, I realise that even as a profoundly introvert person, I need social connection; and perhaps to empathise with others in the same situation, including those who are more extravert in personality. So, we begin to discuss this online, via social media, sharing our experience, need for others, and desire to be there for one another too. Which is great, but of extremely limited help if that is as far as it goes. For one thing, those who feel isolated tend to isolate themselves further. What we need is to come up with a plan. Someone suggests a zoom party. The idea gets pushed back and forth a bit, needing someone to organise it, and others to commit to it, until a plan is hatched; along with the structure in place to ensure that it happens; and then it does. And, having happened, we can learn from that, too, and perhaps duplicate or adapt the plan, going forward.

Healthy bodies in time of lockdown


Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus that the body of Christ (the Church) is one that moves, listens, shares, cares, and learns. In a broader sense, this is true of any healthy community. Any given person within the group may have a differentiated role, collaboratively ensuring that each function is working well and well-integrated, just as the human body is made up of different organs that work together. And, again, this is true of human society in general, with different personalities bringing different gifts to the party.

In times of lockdown, what might this look like, for us personally and in socially-distanced community with others?


Move

Am I getting enough exercise?

Am I getting enough (and not too much) sleep?

Am I eating as well as possible, given present constraints?

Within guidelines, can I shop for anyone? (or, who will shop for me?)


Listen

For those living with other people in households, are we taking time to listen to one another?

Is there someone who needs us to listen to them, on a phone- or video call?

Who is anxious?

Who am I listening to ‘out there’? Are they spreading fear, or hope?

How will I limit who I listen to, to a manageable volume? (do I need to restrict my social media use?)

Am I taking regular time to listen to God, in reading the Bible and in prayer?


Share

How might I bring some good news into someone else’s day?
(NB: not by bombarding them on social media!)


Care

Is anyone we know ill?

Has anyone we know been bereaved?

Is anyone we know struggling with their mental health?

Who can I phone (etc.) today?


Learn

What am I learning about myself?

Is there a skill I can take up? (learn to speak German ... to play the ukulele ... to bake bread ...)

Reflections


One week into lockdown, and a fortnight since the Archbishops suspended all public worship. My social media is full of Anglican clergy bereft of public worship and their role within it, actively transferring that role to livestreaming. Yesterday, I hosted a zoom service for members of the congregation at St Nicholas’, and it was good to see and hear them. But I can honestly say that I haven’t missed presiding at the Eucharist, privilege though it is; or gathering in a church building, lovely though the building is and lovely though at least some of the people are some of the time. I certainly haven’t felt any loss of identity, which I have always seen as to disciple people to hear and respond to God for themselves in the context of their own personal and communal lives. The way we have done gathered church has not necessarily helped that, and I am aware that as clergy the choices we make in our present circumstances will nurture the Church towards infantile dependency on us or towards deeper maturity. This is in no way a criticism, but a recognition that we face a fork in the road and must choose wisely which way to take.

A significant part of the reason why I am more relieved than anxious about the present upheaval relates to my past experiences of church in other places, significantly as a teenager at West Glasgow New Church and as a young adult at St Thomas’ Church, Sheffield. And this, in at least three ways.

Firstly, every Sunday for the last six years and counting since moving to Sunderland has felt like Psalm 137: ‘By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion ... How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’ Every Sunday has felt like living in exile, having to learn how to worship God away from the forms of corporate worship that have nurtured us, without a significant (critical mass) community of peers working out their faith together. That being so, someone might ask, why have we stayed? And an honest answer would have to include, there have been times we have not wanted to, but God, not least through circumstances out-with our control, has kept us here. But a fuller answer would also have to include, the place you are called to be is not necessarily the place you would choose, is not necessarily revealed in being the place of self-fulfilment, the ‘dream job’. Daniel and his friends did not choose exile (and, again, please hear: this is not a criticism of the church here, which, for others, is home rather than exile). David did not choose to live as an outlaw hiding in caves for many long years. Paul was not stubbornly enduring the wrong place when he spent years in Arabia and Damascus. We are where we are — and God is there, too. So, to those who feel carried away from home, (a genuine) welcome!

Secondly, there was a time in Sheffield, lasting about a year, where the church of which we were a part could not meet together as one. We were a church of many hundred, and had been worshipping in a former nightclub we had taken on (first job: deal with the beer-soaked carpets and black-painted walls) that was eventually condemned as unsafe. And so, on Sunday we were commissioned and sent out, to meet as smaller and lay-led groups in homes and schools and hotels and cinemas (who knew you could hire a movie theatre once a week?) and garages across the city; while the staff team (ordained and lay) figured out innovative ways of holding us together as one local church as we were scattered in many localised expressions. We could still meet together, and we didn’t have zoom; but there are parallels. This lasted about a year, before we were able to build a new home from a campus of engineering buildings, or, enough time to bed-in new patterns that were not simply abandoned when the immediate crisis was past. And that is something hopeful to draw on.

Thirdly, as I have already mentioned, the opportunity in the present moment is one of discipleship. There is no shortage of livestreamed worship to be found on the internet, some of which is excellent but all of which bends us towards being consumers; and there is certainly no shortage of platitudes to stick on your fridge door or Facebook wall. But what our congregations need is a good toolkit for living out their faith in time of lockdown (they will have the time to learn how to use them). Such tools are always best understood communally. The ironic gift of social distancing is that it has the potential to draw us out of self-sufficiency, or even dutiful patronage, to a greater inter-dependency and vulnerable sharing of life than certainly we have ever witnessed since moving to the north east. But further consideration of the discipleship opportunity will be worth further posts.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

On moving


In Jesus’ world there was an invasive shrub called the mustard tree, that, if it broke into your cultivated strip of subsistence land, was hard to drive back again. Jesus used it as an analogy for faith. He said, of you have mustard seed faith, you can say to this mountain, or to this mulberry tree, be uprooted and thrown into the sea, and it will be done.

Mountains, in biblical imagination, stand for meeting places with God. And the particular ‘this mountain’ Jesus was referring to was Mount Zion, the frankly unimpressive hill in Jerusalem on which the Temple was built. The Temple that, within the lifetime of many of his listeners, would be thrown down, stone by stone, by the Roman army.

The sea, in biblical imagination, stands for the chaos that always threatens to overwhelm, and at times succeeds in overwhelming, our lives as we have known them.

Trees, in biblical imagination, stand for people, and in particular, the people of God. The mulberry tree was valued for its medicinal properties.

In these days, our church buildings are shut. These are places where many of us have found that we encounter God in a special way. Yes, God can be — and is — met anywhere; but, nonetheless, in certain buildings the very walls are thin and the very air is thick with generations of family encountering God. And this experience can be translated into the place of overwhelming chaos. It won’t look exactly the same, but the principles can continue. What — and Who — you found on the familiar mountain can still be found on the mountain in unfamiliar surroundings. It isn’t a case of, the mountain never mattered, but, rather, that faith can move the mountain.

This is also true of other gods. At times, we read, the people set up high places, on the hill tops, to worship a vast array of gods. Mountains stand for whatever has given us a sense of stability, security, identity: our workplaces, our parental homes, our local pub, our football stadium. Though I would say that ultimately peace is only found in being reconciled to God, we all have our gods and our mountains; all our mountains are presently shaken; and every mountain can be moved.

The world has been overwhelmed by a flood, a viral tide. It will reach its furthest extent, and then flow away again; but we have not yet reached high tide. For now, for many of us, at least in the so-called developed nations, our mountains are unscalable. But a persistent faith will throw them into the sea, will give us — and others — solid ground on which to stand.

We see this, to an extent, in the ways in which we have moved to remote working, and, in the church, to meeting online for worship. We see this, to an extent, in the ways we are reimagining and, in some cases, re-discovering community.

Along with the mountain, Jesus speaks of throwing the healing tree into the sea, to take root in a submerged bed. Of a people who are not afraid to position themselves in the chaos and to bring healing in that place. I am seeing examples of this around me too, of this mustard seed kind of faith, both from within and from out-with the church.

When the sea goes out again, the tree planted in it remains. The mountain thrown into it remains. What will the landscape look like then?

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Annunciation


Today is the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Luke records,

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.

Luke 1:26-56

This year, the Annunciation falls at a time when much of the world is in lockdown. This, inevitably, provides the backdrop against which we hear, again, the exchange between Gabriel and Mary, between Elizabeth and Mary, and Mary’s song. It proclaims the house of David, the house of Jacob, and the house of Zechariah pregnant with new potential, and our understanding of our own households, not ‘known’ by another, as spaces that may be known as holy and transformed in a moment by the creator Spirit and our ‘yes!’

And Mary’s song, as a proclamation for our times. God, scattering the proud, bringing the powerful down from their thrones, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things, sending the rich away empty. I have heard some people say, in these days of fires and floods and pandemic, that these are acts of divine judgement — usually swiftly followed by, on such-and-such a type of person I disapprove of. They are not. But, every moment, every event, is pregnant with both God’s judgement and God’s mercy, and in some times — such as these — even those as distracted as we might see it.

We know, or ought to, that these days will fall hardest on those who have the least resources, unless, of course, we repent of our self-interest and pursue, together, a common good that leaves no one behind, but pays attention to the most vulnerable. And might continue to do so, once the immediate crisis is past, for, there will be others. In global terms, we, in the West, are collectively the proud, the powerful, the rich.

When I read of multi-millionaire chairmen of national chains refusing to support their employees, putting them at risk or sending them away to any port in a storm, I hope that when this is past, not one of their former employees, having found a more just and merciful employer, will return to them; and that no one take their place. That such men be scattered and brought down. If that sounds jarring, coming from a Church of England vicar, then perhaps you have forgotten the soundtrack. But we sing, or say, Mary’s song, the Magnificat, each day at Evening Prayer. A song so revolutionary, it has been banned in certain parts of the world at certain times.

Can you hear her singing?

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Wisdom


One of the earliest documents of the Church is Paul’s First Letter to the Church in Thessalonica. It concludes with a punchy list of advice in easy-to-memorise form, including:

Rejoice always,
pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

(1 Thessalonians 5:16, 17, 18)

This could just as well be advice for time of lockdown.

When Paul writes, ‘pray without ceasing’, he does not mean 24/7, like an app running in the background, but, without interruption to the regular rhythm of corporate prayer that punctuates the day. So, for those who are part of a community of prayer who find themselves unable to meet together to pray at this time, Paul would say, don’t let the habit slide just because your circumstances have changed. Certainly, practices may have to adapt; but don’t neglect them. In fact, join in with such established rhythms.

This is also good advice, in time of lockdown, for the rhythm of our days, in relation to work, and eating, and exercise. Yes, lockdown means that certain things, many things, will look different now; we will need to work out new ways; but, seek to maintain structure, and especially corporate or communal structure. We will need to be flexible, but also to resist the temptation to throw everything up in the air and see where it lands.

If it is your habit to go for a run three times a week, go for a run — on your own now — three times a week. If it is your habit to meet up with friends on a certain night, do so via technology. As far as you are able, begin and walk away from work-from-home at the same hours you work outside of the home. Break for lunch when you usually break for lunch. (Caveat: children need more flexibility, but nonetheless still need familiar structure; and this will take time to figure out: we have time.)

Also, look for those moments that give you joy — and share that joy with others. What can we celebrate, together, albeit virtually and at a distance? (Paul, in Athens, was at a distance from his friends in Thessalonica and unable to return to them in person; so started letter-writing, the social media of his day. We don't know whether he was, especially, a letter-writer prior to this.)

And, look for things you can be thankful for. These might be different from those things that give us joy, though there will be overlap. Joy strengthens the heart; thankfulness is the gratitude of the heart, for which, at times, the heart needs strengthened.

Today, I rejoice at — celebrate — the gift of life; and am thankful for the roof over my head. I am also made more aware of my unconscious privilege, and, in prayer, bring my life before God for the service of my neighbours, and in recognition of my need of them.

Monday, March 23, 2020

On freedom


John Locke, the English philosopher who so influenced the American revolutionaries, drew a contrast between liberty — the freedom to do what we ought — and licence — the freedom to do what we want.

Tonight, in the UK, we have (temporarily) lost a fair degree of licence, although many of us still have a great deal of privilege to do those things we want without leaving our own homes. But we have lost none of our liberty, beyond that which we had already given away by elevating licence as an idol. Who knows, but that in this time of national emergency, we might re-learn a deeper freedom, to love our neighbour as we ourselves have been loved by the God who comes to his people and sets them free?

“If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed.” Jesus, John 8:36

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Third Day


It is now very early in the morning on the third day since (Church of England) public worship was suspended. Very early in the morning on the third day is of symbolic significance to Christians, for it is when Jesus, risen from the spatial distancing of death and self-isolating of the tomb, first met with his disciples.

Of course, we know that our present circumstances — our own spatial distancing, and, for many in our congregations, the sense of being entombed in their homes — will continue. There will be no miraculous end to the suspension of public worship today (for we have not yet even begun to understand what transformative work God is up to in this disruption to our sense of our story).

Nonetheless, today we renew our hope in our risen Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, and draw strength to rise to this new day.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

DNA


As I pray for my neighbourhood and my local church congregation, in the light of the present public health crisis and suspension of public worship, I am reminded of our history.

The streets and homes where I live were, for the most part, built between the Wars. The parish of St Nicholas’ was created in response, and the church itself was dedicated at the end of the first week of the Second World War. The people then knew that it was important to sustain dependable patterns of worship, even — perhaps especially — in times of crisis.

They also knew that, far from ‘non-essential,’ social spaces are absolutely necessary for the flourishing of community. And for perhaps the first forty years of the parish, the church and its halls were a focal-point and hub of an often vibrant community life.

In our time, we find ourselves having to reimagine both how we sustain patterns of worship, and how we nurture community.

We may not have been here before. But it is in our DNA.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Seed


At Morning Prayer at present, we’ve been reading through the story of Joseph, he of technicolour dream coat fame, who interpreted Pharaoh’s nightmares as predicting seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph found himself prime minister of Egypt, storing seven years’ surplus, to sell over the following seven years of austerity. In this way, he saved his own family from starvation, bringing them from their home Canaan — for the famine was across the entire region — to settle in Egypt.

Today, we reached chapter 47. Deep into the famine years comes a point where the Egyptians run out of money to buy back grain; so, Joseph sells it to them in exchange for their livestock. A year later, and with the end of famine not yet in sight, they have nothing to give in exchange for grain except their land and their very selves, as slaves.

And so, in this way, all the livestock, the land, and the population of Egypt come into Pharaoh’s possession. The entire population are now slaves; with the exception of the priests of the gods of Egypt, of whom Joseph’s own father-in-law was pre-eminent.

Turn over a few pages, and past living memory, from Genesis into Exodus, and the scene is set for the particular persecution of the Israelites — a subset of slaves within the slave population; the Pharaoh turning one group of his slaves against another — and the stand-off between Yahweh, god of the Israelites, and the pantheon of Egyptian gods, fought over ten epic plague battles.

In other words, Joseph’s actions, which in the short- and medium-term saved both his birth- and adopted-nations, sowed the seeds for the misery of both.

An awareness of history (by which I mean the subjective stories we tell of the past, with all their interpretation and counter-interpretation) enables us to see that our actions always have impact, seen and unseen, intended and unintended, for good and evil — impact that will fall on others long after we are gone.

This should not paralyse us into inaction, but should cause us to act with greater humility.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Contingency planning


Today, the UK government has indicated that they are planning to ask, at some point within the next few weeks, those over 70 to self-isolate, for perhaps up to twelve weeks. [Please don’t comment on government policy here, as I do not set it. Thank you.]

Of course, no-one will be holding the over 70s prisoner in their own homes. People will need to make decisions as to what counts as essential or non-essential trips out, taking into consideration both their own health and their responsibility towards their neighbours at a time of public health crisis.

Nonetheless, this will have a major, disruptive impact on our lives — negatively, clearly; but also, potentially, for the positive.

Advance notice allows time for plans to be put in place, and our churches have a key role to play in this. We need to find the right balance between necessary spatial distancing that in fact resists social distancing. Because at this time, we need — and have the opportunity — to be more closely socially connected than before.

So over the coming days, we’ll be making plans. Plans that will draw us closer as we identify one another’s needs — one size will not fit all; and, in any case, will likely change for any given person over a period of time — and how we will adapt our practices to meet these.

And, as our demographic is heavily-weighted towards septuagenarians and octogenarians (with one or two nonagenarians), our congregation will need to learn to embrace being on the receiving end of care. Letting go of being benefactors, and growing in the far more vulnerable interdependence which may well result in new relationships with neighbours we had no contact with before. What an opportunity!

It is unlikely that our congregation will be unable to meet; but it is likely that many will be unable to join us for at least some period [UPDATE: this has now changed, with the suspension of public worship announced by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York on 17/03/2020. We shall not, in fact, be able to meet together in one place until further notice, but are encouraged to maintain a common worship at the same time, united in temporal proximity if not spatial proximity]. And this means that we get to learn the difference, almost lost, between death-dealing isolation and life-giving solitude. Ironically, to practice the season of Lent more fully than perhaps we have ever done before. For many of our parishioners, loneliness is all too familiar. Solitude comes with being on the periphery, for a short while, of a close-knit community. The present crisis contains within it, as gift, the possibility of a renewed neighbourhood that looks out for and in on one another, within which time alone is part of a healthy ebb and flow.

If you live in my neighbourhood and would like to be put in touch with your neighbours in practical cooperation, let me know.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Blessings and curses


Old Testament reading for Holy Communion today: Jeremiah 17:5-10

Blessings, and curses.

Curses are temporary measures, unpleasant at the time, imposed for the long-term benefit of the flourishing of life. They are not punishments, but, rather, opportunities.

Blessings are the lasting experience of the flourishing of life. They are not rewards, but, they can be received with thankful hearts or ignored.

Travel restrictions and social distancing in response to coronavirus are curses. They are inconvenient, and costly. And, for a time, necessary. Not as a permanent state, but in order that we can return to living life in all of its fullness, without fear, without negatively impacting upon others.

And the condition of curses is that they bring to light the best and the worst in us. The selfishness of stockpiling, of looking after Number One. And the selflessness of looking out for our neighbour, with special attention to the most vulnerable in society.

Curses reveal what is there, within us — reveal the heart. They reveal how we have understood blessing, whether we have known it as gift, and as gift that cannot be taken back.

Those who know that they are blessed, then, are able to be a non-anxious presence in times of crisis.

They are able to respond to the present pandemic, taking responsibility for themselves and for others, without panic. And so to provide shelter and sustenance for others.

Who will you look out for today? And who will you look to, in order to draw deeply on life?

Walk Through the Easter Story


Walk Through the Easter Story at St Nicholas’ Church

I am delighted that we shall be hosting groups from two local secondary schools taking part in this event, around ten Year 7 pupils from one and around fifteen Year 10 pupils from the other, in the last week of term before the Easter holidays. Hopefully, the church will also be open during Holy Week (the following week).

The purpose is to help pupils make connections between their own life experience and the challenges they face, and the Gospel accounts of the Passion of Jesus the Christ. My working assumption is that faith (all faiths) engage the gritty questions of life, so we don’t start from scratch, but have resources to draw on.

We’ll be setting up eight spaces in the church, depicting and interpreting key events. We’ll begin with welcome and an overview of the story (15 minutes), then extended time for student-led but church team-supported engagement (40 minutes: there will not be time for every pupil to engage with every space; they will need to choose where to go), before gathering for feedback and sending out (15 minutes). We might also offer hot cross buns and juice (to be confirmed with the schools).

Here are my notes around creating the eight stations along the Way:

X The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, Luke 19:28-44
Theme: Demos and Protests
Key questions: What matters to you? Where do you feel you are not taken seriously?
Summary: A banner-waving people-movement has come to Jerusalem to demonstrate their hopes and dreams, and are dismissed as dangerous dreamers by the powerholders of the day. Pupils will be invited to make their own placards for a procession of hope.
Location in church: steps to main entrance of church, and inner vestibule.
We will need: palm branches to decorate the entrance into the church; wooden batons, card, gaffer tape, and coloured pens to make your own placard.
Extra: connect to Palm Sunday practices, including the palm procession and public reading of the Gospel of the Passion.

X The Anointing with Oil, Mark 14:1-11
Theme: Grief
Key questions: How do you say goodbye to someone you love, and know will die soon, when there are no words?
Summary: Mary loves Jesus (not in the romantic sense; but as a friend so close as to essentially be a family member) and knows that he will soon die. She does something special, to create a lasting memory. Pupils will be sensitively invited to reflect on bereavement and related rituals, and to leave messages written on crushed hearts.
Location in church: around the font.
We will need: bunches of flowers; football jersey; tea-light candles, in glass jars; possibly the essential-oil burner and patchouli oil (a spikenard substitute); red paper hearts, and pens to write on them; a bowl to leave the crushed hearts.

X The Washing of Feet, John 13:1-20
Theme: Fashion Models, Role Models
Key questions: Is beauty skin deep? Are you at home in your own skin? Who do you want to be like, and why?
Summary: Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, and talks to them about serving one another. Peter objects. This moment engages how we feel about our bodies—are they holy or dirty, untouchable or our obsession—and also how we relate to other people, to their bodies and to their souls. Pupils will be invited to create a ‘mood board’ of cut-and-pasted images.
Location in church: rear of seated area, right hand side.
We will need: a large bowl, jug of water, towel; a selection of fashion/men’s health/etc. magazines, photo images of various positive role models, images of hands and feet; scissors, glue-sticks, large board(s) of card.
Extra: connect to Maundy Thursday practices, including foot-washing.

X The Last Supper, Matthew 26:17-30
Theme: Betrayal and Forgiveness
Key questions: Should you forgive someone who hurts you? Are happy memories lost to hurtful actions?
Summary: Jesus is betrayed by one of his closest friends, and yet speaks about the central importance of forgiving people. Pupils will be invited to reflect on friendships, broken and potentially restored, and to ‘send’ text messages saying ‘I forgive you’—or ‘please forgive me’.
Location in church: rear of seated area, left hand side.
We will need: a table, possibly set; bread, wine; as many old (disabled) mobile phones as possible.

X The Garden, Matthew 26:36-56
Theme: Gangs and Knives
Key questions: What do you fear? Where don’t you go?
Summary: Jesus is with his friends in a place that is familiar and ought to be safe, when a ‘rival gang’ arrives. Peter reaches for his sword, and strikes; but Jesus de-escalates the situation. Pupils will be invited to think about identity and belonging, to a group and/or neighbourhood, and to mark territory and dangerous places on a map.
Location in church: front of seated area, right hand side.
We will need: ‘structural’ plants, to create a sense of garden; play swords (?); a large-scale hand-drawn map of the local area (parish?) and pens to mark places on it.

X The Trials, Luke 22:54-23:12
Theme: Celebrity
Key questions: Why do we build people up to tear them down? Can authority figures be trusted?
Summary: Pilate is asked to judge ‘the king of the Jews’. The crowd who were delighted when Jesus entered Jerusalem are whipped into a murderous frenzy now. Herod hopes to be entertained by this charismatic figure, so often on everyone’s lips. Pilate and Herod form an unholy alliance. Pupils will be invited to reflect on our obsession with celebrity, and to write, anonymously, encouraging and wounding words that have been spoken over them.
Location in church: front of seated area, left hand side.
We will need: a panel of ‘judges’ chairs, score cards, a pile of today’s tabloid newspapers; two blackboards on easels (one for positive words, the other for negative words), chalk.

X The Crucifixion, Mark 15:21-41
Theme: Bullying
Key questions: (When) have you felt forsaken? Who stood by you? Who needs you to stand by them? Can scapegoats become transformative agents?
Summary: Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry Jesus’ cross. He, and his family, later become members of the Church. Jesus is humiliated, to the point of feeling utterly forsaken by God. The women look on, from a distance, powerless women condemning powerful men by their brave, silent rebuke. Pupils will be invited to add to the wrapping of the cross in brightly coloured wool, representing scapegoats and scapegoated groups who, in God’s grace, have the power to change the world for the better.
Location in church: between the choir stalls.
We will need: large wooden cross; a selection of brightly coloured wool, to wrap tightly around the cross, so that it is progressively transformed in appearance (we may also need a hammer and nails, to create anchor-points for the wool). Potentially, also images of Jesus on the cross; and images of persecuted minorities.
Extra: connect to Good Friday practices, including Three Hours at the Cross.

X The Empty Tomb, John 20:1-18
Theme: New Beginnings
Key questions: the end of the world is not the end ...
Summary: At the Last Supper, Jesus said he was going to the Father, but would come back for his friends, to take them to be with him. When Thomas had questions, Jesus responded, ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life’. Going forward, life would be different, and perhaps uncertain, but could be lived in a confident hope. This was the experience of the disciples, post- Jesus’ resurrection. As we gather to reflect on the session, we will offer every pupil a small compass, that attaches to the zip of a coat or a bag, as a takeaway reminder of the experience.
Location in church: the Lady Chapel.
We will need: small plastic compasses.
Extra: connect to Easter Day practices, including Easter Vigil and Blessing of the Light.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

World Book Day


The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Synopsis: The Very Hungry Caterpillar falls off the wagon and goes on an absolute bender at the weekend, but discovers grace on Sunday.

It is, rightly, a classic.

The other day, I was in the chapel, when someone came in. I was deep in concentration, writing notes for a colleague, and they startled me. They are an alcoholic, and had had a relapse, and had come asking for prayer — if I was willing to pray for them, given that they had had a drink.

Of course I was bloody willing.

They talked, I listened. And then I prayed with them, and spoke over them God’s forgiveness for their guilt; God’s deep cleansing for their deep shame; and asked for God to hold them and carry them when they could not hold nor carry themselves.

That is what we are there for. If you need to know.

Good and evil


Gospel for Holy Communion: Matthew 7:7-12

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” ~ Jesus

Good and evil. We love to compartmentalise things, to put people in boxes. There are evil people: [paedophiles; immigrants; if you live in America, socialists]. And there are good people: [for many of us, read, People Like Me].

Jesus will have none of it. It is simply a matter of fact, to him, that we are all evil. The word he uses has its roots in ‘pain-ridden,’ a pain resulting from toil or struggle. And we all know how human beings inflict pain on one another, unintentionally as well as intentionally. We all live with the struggle, and its attendant exhaustion, of trying and inevitably failing to do no harm. We recognise that, in the sense that Jesus uses the term, if not in the way we have limited its meaning today, I am evil, and so are you.

And yet, Jesus says, human beings, in their human condition, are capable of doing good, of giving good gifts to others. The word he uses is agatha — once a familiar girl’s name, now considered old-fashioned — and it means, inherently good. We are all evil, and we are all doers of that which is inherently good. All of us.

This is the paradox Jesus, and the Bible as a whole, demands we hold in tension.

Many of us believe that we are good, and not evil. Others of us believe that we are inherently evil, incapable of amounting to any good. Certainly, we like to believe that of others.

And we really struggle to come to terms with the revelation that a (hu)man like Jean Vanier, who gifted the world with such inherent good in creating communities of nurture for those with learning disabilities, could also cause so much pain, sexually exploiting six of the women who came to serve to make that inherently good dream a reality.

The season of Lent invites us, once again, to see ourselves and our neighbour with sober judgement. To see ourselves as God sees us — as beloved children, on whom he has compassion. And to depend on him for all that we need to share with one another.

For what inherently good thing do you need to ask today? Forgiveness? Healing? A lifting of burdens? Sobriety in how we see ourselves and speak of others? The creative order that brings chaos into harmony?

Don’t give up. For those who ask will receive, those who seek will find, and to those who keep knocking the door will be opened.