Last week my husband and I were lucky enough to escape from lockdown, in our motorhome as soon as campsites opened. We headed for the northeast coast as we didn’t know the area at all and we certainly didn’t want to head south to crowded beaches. Our base was Beadnell Bay which is situated at one end of a hugely long white sandy beach which was firm enough to walk along in peace and quiet.
As usual we popped our heads into churches wherever we were and many churches which were open for private prayer had just been left unlocked, with only part of the church accessible and all the hand sanitiser and wipes necessary. One of these was St. Aiden’s church in Bamburgh with its monument to Grace Darling who came from there. I have found that since becoming church warden I have a slightly different slant on going round churches, and frequently find myself thinking ‘Thank goodness we don’t have one wall of the building that is 1,000 years old!’ Many of these churches were of that age and had names like St. Aiden, St. Ebba, St. Oswald and St. Cuthbert.
All that were open had provided clear instructions about cleaning precautions, where you could sit, one way systems etc, although some like St. Ebba in Beadnell, a very small church, had the whole of the nave blocked off and you just stood at the back, and that was fine. Only one of all the churches we entered including the church on Holy Island (Lindisfarne) had a notice stating that regular worship in the church building was about to restart. That was the only church with a steward inside as well and we chatted to her for quite a while as she was very knowledgeable. She said that they had measured the church and could fit 40 people inside with the correct distancing and when I asked her how many they normally had at their main Sunday service she said about 60! I don’t envy the sidesperson who has to turn away number 41 etc.
I felt extremely thankful that St. George’s is a very large building and although that often brings its own problems hopefully we will be able to accommodate all who want to come to our services. We hope to start worship in the church building on Wednesday 5th August with Sunday 9th August being our first Sunday service. Details about which services and when will follow later but at least we can see a light at the end of tunnel.
If you listened to Elaine’s sermon on Sunday morning you will know that it was on the theme of everyone is welcome and at the end she said that we had been assessing what needs to be done to get the church building clean and safe for people to come in for private prayer. We spent part of Sunday and much of yesterday on that task and with a small but very willing band of helpers, the church is looking very clean and will be ready for opening on Sunday 5th July for private prayer.
There will be differences as we have taken away soft furnishings and drapes and anything that can’t be easily cleaned and there are the yellow and black arrows on the floor showing the one way route in and out of the building as well as hand sanitiser, gloves and wipes as needed.
However, back to Sunday in our house! As we got ready for bed Dave said he could hear a strange noise. I had taken my hearing aids out but I too could hear something. He then said ‘Is the cat in here?’ and yes, we could definitely hear a soft meowing. We looked in the wardrobe, no not there, then he said ‘Is it in the loft?’ Yes the noise, stronger now, was coming from the loft. The loft hatch was opened and the ladder let down and there was the cat.
This would all be fine except for one thing, we don’t have a cat! The cat in question is one of the two cats owned by our neighbours who live in the other half of our semi. Their loft is converted into a bedroom and somehow this young lady had wriggled her way through a solid brick wall into our half of the loft. Dave got her down and tried to shoo her out. She stood on the stairs and gave him a look which said ‘What? Can’t I stay now I’m here?’
No, all are not welcome in our house at 11.30 pm at night if you have four legs.
Yesterday afternoon Dave and I organised a socially distanced walk with two friends but I had to send a text message to put back our meeting time as I knew we were never going to make it. The reason for our delay was that we had been down to church with James (Director of Music) to try and clear all the downspouts etc after there had been some water ingress following the heavy midweek rain. The gunge that collects at the top of the downspouts has an appalling smell although I think that the decomposed bird that we found in one place didn’t help. There were interesting comments from passers by walking down the avenue as we were to be seen on the church roof, including the inevitable ‘Don’t jump’.
So before we could go anywhere my other half had to have a shower and wash his hair before anyone would want to be within 5 metres of us, let alone 2. While we were walking along one of our friends asked ‘So is St. George’s open for private prayer now?’ He was surprised that my answer was no so when we stopped for our mid walk refreshments I explained why.
Firstly imagine any building that has had nothing done to it for 13 weeks, there is dust everywhere. As we have only been allowed to have one person walking through and checking on a weekly basis it is still as it was left mid March after the Mothering Sunday streamed service. The March magazines are still on the table at the back and the Easter season crucifix is still in place. Before we can open there is a cleaning job to be done on quite a grand scale.
Next, just like any other venue opening to the public we have to make it safe for staff, volunteers and visitors. The necessary PPE has been ordered so we have masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. We will need to be able to direct people to where they are permitted to sit and cover up the areas that they cannot use such as hymn books, children’s toys etc. Also we must make sure that people know exactly where they are allowed to sit, so that we can maintain the 2 metre rule. For all of this we need the yellow and black marking tape that is to be seen everywhere and although that has been ordered it hasn’t arrived yet.
Lastly we will need a rota of volunteers willing to be there when the church is open. Not only will they need to direct people along the route in and out of the church (probably a one way system) but they will need to watch very carefully where people sit, so that the seat can be wiped before anyone else sits there. Unfortunately none of us have X-ray vision to see who is a potential carrier, so we must assume that we all are.
When we do have everything in place, be sure that we will let everyone know that another tiny bit of normality is returning. Meanwhile stay safe.
The Bible Study notes by Peter Hall included with last Sunday’s issue of The Lance were, as always, both informative and thought provoking. They considered Genesis 18:6-8, part of the Old Testament Reading for the First Sunday after Trinity. The complete reading tells how The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, and describes how he saw three men standing near him. Abraham at once provides unstinting hospitality to his guests, washing their feet and supervising the preparation and personally serving them a fine and plentiful meal. Abraham is told that even though he and his wife Sarah are advanced in age, she will have a son.
The three men are not described. On meeting them Abraham says “My Lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant.” Their words to him are sometimes spoken by all three – “They said to him …”, but also by one alone – “Then one said …”, a mixture of plural and singular.
In a fascinating book, The Dwelling of the Light by Rowan Williams he describes and explains the imagery in early icons of Christ created in the Orthodox Christian tradition. One of these is the fifteenth-century iconographer Andrei Rublev’s portrayal of “The Hospitality of Abraham”, sometimes referred to as “The Old Testament Trinity”. Rowan Williams notes that it is obviously stretching things rather to approach this as an icon of Christ, but he continues with a carefully considered and revealing commentary.
In the very early Christian Church, this passage in Genesis 18 was taken as a foreshadowing of the revelation of God in three persons – the Trinity. As Rowan Williams notes, the central figure is wearing a tunic of dark red or mulberry and a blue mantle. Over his right shoulder is a vertical stripe, which resembles a deacon’s stole. The figure is therefore dressed as Christ is almost invariably portrayed throughout the centuries of Eastern Christian art. The right hand, held over what appears to be a chalice, has the first two fingers extended in the classical gesture meant to command attention, but is also a gesture identifying someone engaged in teaching.
What is also significant is that none of the figures looks directly forwards at the viewer. The central figure looks towards the figure on the left, who in turn looks across at the figure on the right. The figure on the left looks towards the central figure. As frequently encountered in icons, the eye of the viewer is constantly drawn from one figure to another, connecting them and giving them a distinct unity.
This led me to ponder on the nature of the Trinity in its time before the Incarnation. There is the remarkable passage in John 8: 56-58. Jesus speaking in the temple says, “Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he could see my day; he saw it and was glad.” Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” Significantly, Rowan Williams concludes his consideration of this icon by noting that what Rublev does by clothing the central figure with the garments of the incarnate Christ may suggest a particular theological point. Nothing is known of God the Trinity that does not come through the Word incarnate, he states, yet here is the clothing of the historical redeemer worn by a figure more than historical. Is there here, Rowan Williams asks, a reminder of some kind of which we lose a dimension of full understanding if we simply identify the action of the Word with what we know of the historical Jesus?
All this complex theological questioning diverted me from the points that Peter was making in his notes, which concentrated on the very generous nature of Abraham’s hospitality and concluded with three very searching questions:
1.After the lockdown, who will you invite round for a meal? My immediate thought was of my family with whom, before lockdown, we frequently shared meals. A meal with them would restore something of what we’ve missed over recent months. But then I wondered, is there someone we know for whom lockdown has been a far more testing time? – such an invitation could provide something much more restorative.
2. Is it more important to serve or be served? The answer is surely to serve, but are there not times when we need to accept what is generously offered to us by others? At the Last Supper, Jesus prepared to wash the feet of his disciples; Simon Peter could not at first accept this – “You will never wash my feet” he protested. Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” At this Simon Peter relented – “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (John 13: 8-9).
3. If you were making a meal for God, what would you make? For me, this was the most difficult question of all. The meal would have to be of the very best, but this is unlikely to be the case if I made it myself; my culinary skills are rudimentary – “not so much cordon bleu as cordoned off”, as Les Dawson would have said! The most satisfactory way for me to provide a meal of quality would be to order a take-away! But this would not be offering something I had prepared myself. Perhaps I would need to choose something very simple and have a couple of trial runs ahead of the actual meal. It wouldn’t be haut cuisine, but it would be the best I could provide on my own. I feel that perhaps God would understand this and accept graciously what I had to offer.
As Janine has said in her blog, we have all had to learn new methods of communicating and living during lockdown. This has involved lots of zooming, phoning of friends, buying groceries online and more baking than usual with the corresponding increase of waistline!
However there are sometimes unexpected advantages. I have one friend in particular who lives on her own in a very small village in the midlands. She has spent the last few years devotedly visiting her Mother in a care home each day, reading to her and bringing her treats, chocolate buttons in the main. Obviously she was unable to visit as we went into lockdown and initially found this very hard. Sadly her Mother died three weeks ago, thankfully not of Covid-19. There were lots of phone calls between us and on the day after the funeral I rang to see how things had gone. She just said that it had been beautiful and she was so thankful that only she and the four immediate members of her family had been able to attend. ‘I don’t think I would have coped with a lot of people there.’ So there was a silver lining to this cloud.
There are also the amusing incidents. Our next door neighbour ordered a pile of turf to be delivered last week to re-turf his lawn. As always seems to happen, the minute you lay new turf, the weather turns scorching hot and the new lawn needs constant watering. When the lawn was laid there were three spare rolls which he gave to us, so my husband set to immediately to replace the worn patches of our lawn. He was lying under the magnolia tree in the front garden when I went out to ask if he would like a cup of tea. Two ladies walking down the road were giving me very strange looks and then as they got to the garden gate one of them said, ‘Oh I see now, we thought you were talking to the tree.’
I assured them that no, this was my garden gnome and I kept him under the tree whenever he misbehaved. They probably now think that I’m very odd and who knows, they may be right!
It’s incredible how quickly we can adapt to new routines. Only a few months ago the world looked very different to what it does today. At the start of the year, Covid-19 was just rumbling in the background. Then it became more serious: ‘stay at home’ became the new mantra, the cafes, pubs and clubs shut, then the shops, and then the schools and churches. All of a sudden, 2020 would be anything but normal for most people.
Like many families, our family has been on a journey to find a new way of living and working and that has been a huge learning curve; there is no text book, no reference point, no similar incident to learn from. Policy analysts often talk of organisations with memory i.e. organisations such as the NHS or governments that can learn lessons from past events. But what if there is no similar past event to learn from?
As individuals, as families, as a church, a parish, and a country, we have all had to adapt to this new world. Some people have embraced that with passion and enthusiasm; others have found the process incredibly challenging. Either way, life looks different for us all and it will probably continue to do for some time to come.
Even though the early signs of an easing of restrictions appear, the world into which we return will look very different to the one we left. Schools may be opening, but only for some children; shops may be opening, but don’t forget to queue; and we can now meet people, but only six at a time and only outside.
This week I’ve been reflecting on the things that now define my life on a day to day and week by week basis. I’ve been surprised at how easily new things have become part of everyday life. And so, as we turn our thoughts to the future, I’ve been asking myself “what do I want to take with me into this new world and what do I want to leave behind?”
For me, the last few months have been defined by cake, cameras, car park shopping, and community – and I would like to keep all of these! Each week, Elaine live streams a Messy Church Bake off on Friday, and each Friday afternoon I get a knock at my door and find the fruits of that Bake Off on my door step. Carrot cake, fairy cakes…all have been gratefully received. And that is how most of our ministry is happening at the moment – either filmed or live streamed via the camera on our iPhones. Who would have thought that a phone camera would become such an essential ministry tool!
One thing that has changed significantly has been shopping and after 2 months I finally gave up on the supermarkets and have embraced shopping ‘old style’ – and it is wonderful! Every Thursday morning, we grab our shopping bags and head to the car park at the Jolly Sailor pub where we buy meat from a proper butcher and fruit and vegetables from a proper green grocer. Inevitably, we bump into someone we know (while socially distancing) and there is such a community atmosphere – long may it continue!
While the lockdown has been incredibly challenging, let’s not be in too much of rush to return to what was before. We have a golden opportunity to rethink, reflect, and reimagine our day to day lives. So, let’s ponder a while, let’s take our time, and let’s take the opportunity to shape the world we return to for the better.
Peter Hall’stalk during the streamed Communion service on the morning of Sunday 24th May was one with which I was able to identify in a number of respects. Peter noted that it was the two hundred and eighty-second anniversary of what has become known as the famous preacher, John Wesley’s evangelical conversion; an event at which Wesley himself noted he felt his heart strangely warmed. Some of the facts and figures surrounding his ministry are extraordinary. He travelled on horseback some 250,000 miles to preach – at Peter’s mention of this I remarked to Anne that this is slightly greater than the distance of the Moon from the Earth! Peter obviously finds great inspiration from Wesley, as his mention of this anniversary and what it means to him revealed.
Anniversaries have always seemed to me to be important markers and reminders of events in the lives of people who have inspired us. Because of my interest in the organ and its music, one such is the organist and composer Jehan Alain. He was born on 3rd February 1911 at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the eldest of four children in a particularly musical family. His father, Albert, was a church organist and composer who had studied with the leading French organists of his day. He was also a keen amateur organ builder who, over decades constructed an instrument in his own home on which his children and pupils learned. Jehan’s younger sister Marie-Claire Alain, the distinguished organist and lifelong champion of her brother’s music, noted that the house was full of music; the older children teaching the younger ones, who in turn stimulated their elder siblings with their enthusiasm. Jehan was not a child prodigy, but soon became an accomplished organist who was able to deputise for his father, playing for services from the age of eleven. He later studied at the Paris Conservatoire, and was awarded prizes for harmony and fugue, but was sometimes frustrated by the rather formal teaching.
Jehan’s strong Christian faith is revealed in a number of his works, the most famous of which is almost certainly the organ piece Litanies, composed in 1937. At the head of the score he wrote, “When the Christian soul in distress can no longer find any new words to implore the mercy of God, it repeats the same invocation over and over again in a blind faith. The limits of reason are reached. Faith alone continues upward.” He also noted about its performance, “It must create the impression of an ardent supplication. Prayer is not a lament, but an overpowering tornado flattening everything in its way. It’s also an obsession: you must fill people’s ears with it – and God’s ears too!” An irrepressible rhythmic drive propels the piece and, unlike many of Alain’s works, which tend to conclude quietly, it finishes on an astonishingly forceful chord.
His most extended work, composed towards the end of his life, is Trois Danses, a sort of poem of life. The three movements, played without a break are, “Joies” (Joy), “Deuils” (Mourning) and “Luttes” (Struggles). It was intended as a symphonic poem for orchestra, but has come down to us only in two manuscripts, one for piano, with a few notes on orchestration, the other, a transcription for organ.
At the outbreak of WWII, Alain enlisted in the French army as a dispatch rider (he was a keen mechanic and motorcyclist). He saw the entire Flanders campaign, joined the evacuation to England from Dunkerque, returned as a volunteer for a mission in the last battle on the Loire and was killed near Saumur five days before the French withdrew from the War. He had been assigned to reconnoitre the German advance on Saumur. While on patrol, nearing a bend in the road, he spotted a troop of German soldiers and, abandoning his motorcycle, opened fire on them, killing sixteen before being shot himself. He was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre for his bravery
He had been working on the orchestration of Trois Danses at this time and, as Marie-Claire recounts, the sheets of music blew away from his side-car and into the fields. These “strange papers” were played with by Anjou peasant children, until his work completely disappeared, “washed away by the rain and torn to pieces by those innocent hands.” Fortunately, we have the organ transcription, and it is in this form that the work is known and performed. The sub-title of the middle movement “Duils” is “Dance funèbre pour honorer une mémoire héröique” (Funeral dance to honour the memory of a hero), which, as Marie-Claire notes, if not a coincidence, seems to be a curious and almost disturbing premonition.
Even in its organ transcription (and perhaps for that reason – Alain composed unerringly idiomatically for the instrument) the powerfully searing climax of “Duils” is overwhelming. The movement nevertheless ends with a desolate monody, and it is only at the conclusion of the final movement, “Luttes” that there is any sense of release – the struggles end in triumph.
On June 20th it will be eighty years to the day since Alain’s untimely death at the age of just twenty-nine. I shall listen to Trois Danses, Litanies and some of his other pieces, and ponder the life and work of a man whose last diary entry stated unequivocally “I believe in God and Jesus Christ” – a credo very much affirmed in his music.
We have a great deal to be thankful for in the ways we are able to use technology to help us at the moment. Even my technophobe husband would agree with that and is an enthusiastic member of the St. George’s choir quiz night each week. It has also meant a massive learning curve in many ways and achieving Morning Prayer this Tuesday without any omissions or technical hitches was a first for me.
The ability to actually see people as well as speak to them is very important as we read facial expressions and body language in conjunction with the spoken word. So for church life there is a weekly meeting of the strategy group, a small group who are working to keep everything in order for the moment life begins to return to normal. The new Bishop of Chester was presented to the Diocese by Zoom and we were able to watch as various people, including our own vicar Elaine, asked him pertinent questions.
I’m sure many of you have managed to keep in touch with family members and friends through technology. However there was a new experience for me on Tuesday and that was an online physiotherapy consultation for a painful knee.
The old injury that has flared up was caused while on a skiing holiday and I’d like to say that it was a spectacular fall while on the slopes but no, I slipped down some granite steps before I got anywhere near the snow. The result was big damage to muscles in my right buttock which has ended up causing problems over the years. So when my knee became very painful over the weekend, the only thing that I could think I’d been doing differently was spending many hours at my sewing machine. Is there such a thing as sewing machine knee?
I sent a tongue in cheek message to my physio, who is also a friend, asking just that question and she replied asking me to phone her via Messenger which I did. She then gave me a thorough consultation via our phones on video settings. My phone was propped up against a vase on the hearth as I obeyed her instructions so she could see the problem. She was then able to send me an exercise programme with video examples. Amazing!
Can cast your mind back to the evening of 18th November 2011? Do you know what you were doing? Who you were with? Where you were?
Just in case you can’t remember, Friday 18th 2011 was Children in Need night. I was at home watching the show with my family as I do every year. But this year was different.
In 2011, Gareth Malone (a creative choir master) choreographed an event that even the most experienced producers at the time would have balked at. Children’s choirs scattered across the country simultaneously sang a song that was synched collectively and broadcast live. The song was Keep Holding On by Avril Lavigne.
In our ‘locked down’ world where we are increasingly engaging with rapidly advancing social media and technology, it’s easy to forget the scale of that achievement. To put it in context, this was the year the iPhone 4 was released (we’re now on iPhone 11), nobody had heard of Zoom, and it would be another 4 years before Facebook offered the facility to live stream.
Until that evening, I’d never heard of Avril Lavigne or that song. But something spoke powerfully to me that evening. It wasn’t so much the words of the song (I don’t remember them), instead it was the meeting of the most basic of human needs (connectedness) through the use of advanced technology that had a profound impact on me. Nine years later I still remember that evening vividly
I wasn’t a Christian at the time but 3 months later I came to faith in a remarkable way (that’s another story). I quickly felt drawn to media ministry. I had no skills or experience in this area and no previous interest. However, I was captivated by the use of images and media in ministry. So, I learnt about photography and how to edit short films, and I developed a media ministry at the church I attended.
The memory of the Children in Need choir in 2011 came back to me over and over again during this time. I became convinced that the church (my local church and the wider church) would be involved in local and national collective acts of online worship. These acts of worship would show the wider public a different side to the church; they would be positive; life giving; an unprecedented opportunity to spread the gospel message in a way never seen before.
Trusting in God
I felt God’s hand in all of that but I didn’t share those thoughts with anybody. At the time (and until very recently) they seemed bizarre and even fanciful. Few churches actively engaged with social media or had an online presence. Many feared the negative potential of social media. The technology seemed out of reach and complicated. Furthermore, if we believed the reports, the public had no appetite for the gospel message and the church was in a rapid and unstoppable state of decline.
Of course, God has bigger ideas and look where we are now! In the midst of a terrible global pandemic the church has adapted and responded in a way that was unimaginable only 3 months ago. As church buildings closed for the first time in history the church hasn’t just shifted on line, it’s exploded online. And last week we saw churches across the country and the world take part in synchronised online acts of worship such as this:
and then the children joined in!
Keep holding on
As I wrote this blog, I looked back on that song from Children in Need 2011. I had never really listened to the words until now, they weren’t that important at the time. But, as I listen to them now, I’m taken aback by the lyrics. Here’s the first verse:
You’re not alone Together we stand I’ll be by your side You know I’ll take your hand
And watch the full Children in Need Children’s Choir here:
God speaks to us in many ways and all prophecy should be tested. An important test is that prophecy should always edify, exhort and console, and build up the church (1 Cor.14:3-5). Having watched God’s wonderful prophecy being realised within such terrible circumstances I’m sharing this with you now for encouragement and to glorify God.
So, when you’re having a bad day, when the technology doesn’t work, when you are wondering if anyone is watching your podcast, or when you asking yourself “what’s the point?” please take these words of encouragement:
God is in this and all this is in God’s timing. He goes before us, beside us, and He is behind us (Is.45:2; Psalm 139).
God equips us individually and collectively for everything He calls us to. (2 Tim.3:16-17)
God did not want this but He will use it to grow His church in wonderful and creative ways beyond anything we could ever imagine (Rm 8:28; Eph. 3:20)
We are not just ‘making do’ here. We are actively part of God moving and working amongst us and in this situation. We all have a role to play in this (2 Peter 1:20-21)
And lastly, when things get tough, please “Keep holding on, you’re not alone”.