We talk to ourselves constantly and tell ourselves stories about what has happened and what will happen. This morning it was overcast and dull and depressing and rain was predicted for later and I was already telling myself that I wouldn’t be able to go into the garden. And I didn’t. Yesterday it was colder, but bright and sunny and I told myself that I’d be out there and getting a list of jobs done. I did get out there into the front garden, but a friend going past stopped to talk. I ended up clearing leaves in the twilight with few jobs done. And that was OK. It was good to connect – but I didn’t fulfil my story.
Things rarely follow our internal script and turn out the way our story predicts. Life and other people intervene. The stories of past events can also alter and shift with time and reflection. Our stories also come up against other people’s stories. We may listen to theirs, be interested, discuss and empathise, or we may just ignore. Other people’s stories may help us to understand something better, or to question our own assumptions and standpoint.
We live our lives through stories – our own and other people’s. We read stories in books and newspapers. We hear them on the radio and see them on television. We pass them on through social media. They help us to find and confirm our place in the world. They may challenge us or confirm who we think we are. They have an effect on our mood, our motivation and our state of mind. As master storyteller Ben Okri says, “Stories can conquer fear…They can make the heart bigger.”
At their best, stories contribute to our understanding, our growth and our relationships – to our becoming the person we would like to be. In great part the Gospels are a succession of stories about Jesus’ life and ministry and, like all great teachers, Jesus told stories to give us insight, stories that have stood the test of time and speak to us today: the good Samaritan, the sower, the mustard seed, the talents (thank you Kim for your illuminating address on this a couple of Sunday’s ago) and so on. Like many of our stories, Jesus’ parables are not true. Unlike many of our stories, Jesus’ parables point to the truth.
In my last blog contribution, I suggested that the uncomfortable feelings many of us are feeling are feelings of grief. So is there anything we can do to feel more comfortable, especially as we are entering a further period of restriction and loss?
Just knowing can be helpful. Knowing that these feelings are a natural and normal response to loss can help us towards acceptance and compassion for ourselves and for others. We can be sure that others are feeling disconcerted and perhaps distressed by what has happened and the uncertainty that continues. We are all in need of empathy, understanding, love and support as we navigate the ‘new normal’.
David Kessler reminds us that there are five stages of grief, that they are not linear and that we may move back and forth between them. There is denial – for all of us, perhaps, early on and for some a permanent stance:This virus won’t affect me. There’s anger: You’re restricting me and preventing me from doing the things I want to do. There’s bargaining: OK, if I social distance for two weeks, everything will be better and then I can go back to life as normal. There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will ever end. Finally there is acceptance:These things have happened and this unpredictable situation continues; I have to figure out a way of living with the uncertainty and live my life as fully and satisfyingly as I can. Acceptance is where the power lies.
We all want predictability and control, but we know that we can never really have these. Life shifts and changes, sometimes more rapidly and drastically than we feel we can handle. The place to be is in the present, as Jesus reminds us, dealing with ‘what is’ now, letting go of what we cannot control and dealing with what we can. In practical terms, just taking a gentle full breath and letting it out slowly can help us come back to the present. Naming five things in the room as we breathe can help to restore equanimity. It slows us down. It is easy to get ahead of ourselves and imagine negative scenarios. Jesus reminds us not to be anxious . He asks, “Which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? “ (Luke 12:25-27). He reminds us that God knows our needs, just as he knows those of the lilies and the ravens.
It is important to acknowledge what we are going through. To be kind and compassionate towards ourselves, recognising that we are human, that these feelings are real, a signal of our discomfort, but also, that they too will shift and change and pass.
Human beings need connection – physically, person to person. That was brought home to me a couple of Sundays ago when I returned to church for the first time. Yes, we were spaced out and we wore masks. But people were still recognisable and smiles were still discernible – because we smile with our eyes. Safely distanced I also had a real and meaningful conversation.
It has been wonderful to be able to attend ‘virtual church’ on Sunday mornings and, like many of us, I have been on Zoom to meet up with groups I belong to. But, of course, it has not felt the same. And nor would it. Walking home from church, I realised that my feelings have been confused during this prolonged period of lock down, social distancing, easing of restrictions, tightening them again and releasing them again. I have enjoyed the opportunity to explore ideas and do projects that being restricted has afforded me. At the same time I feel uneasy. The rhythm of life has changed. Things I took for granted, everyday things, I have to think about. Do I feel safe doing that? Am I allowed to do that? Is that wise?
Insight into what I was feeling came to me in an email. It contained an interview with David Kessler, who with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote the well known book ‘On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss’. Though the interview took place at the height of the pandemic in March, I found his observations still pertinent. ‘Yes’, he says, ‘we are grieving’ and doing so for a number of losses.
We feel the world has changed and though we know some of it is temporary, it doesn’t feel that way. We know the ‘new normal’ will be different, but what will it be like? What will be different? The loss of what was normal, the fear of economic loss and the loss of connection have created an unseen but real collective grief – and we are not used to it.
We have all lost connection with friends and family, with some of our nearest and dearest. For some of us, the grief may be deeper and more long lasting, because we have lost loved ones permanently and been unable to mourn them and say farewell. Even now, the loss continues for those with relatives in care homes. Current visiting restrictions make the loss two fold – to members of the family and to the person in the home. Others of us have lost jobs and businesses, income, security and identity.
And we haven’t finished yet. Anxiety about loss in the future can create ‘anticipatory grief’. Will there be another corona virus spike in the Autumn? How will it affect me? What is going to happen? The Covid pandemic has been like that all along, an unseen and unseeable threat until it strikes. We know it is out there and that undermines our sense of safety.
To feel a sense of loss and bewilderment is fine. To find that I am not the only one feeling these feelings is comforting and to understand these feelings as grief is a good start.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”.
It seems like a very long time since Sunday 15th March. That was the last time the Choir sang for a Sunday service at St. George’s.
We finished singing for Evensong that evening not knowing we wouldn’t sing together in Church again for a very long time.
Now that the government guidance has changed I’m pleased that members of the choir will be able to sing again for the first time on Sunday 6th September at the 10:15am Service.
Given the nature of the guidance I’m afraid it’ll only be the choir allowed to sing. Congregational singing is still a little way off resuming again, however rest assured, we’ll do our best to sing on your behalf. We’ve decided not to include any hymns during the morning service for the foreseeable future. I realise how tempting it would be to join in and sing along to all of our favourite hymns. That time will come and I look forward to the day we can sing together again as a Church community.
The choir won’t be back to full strength for quite a while yet, however I’m incredibly grateful to those who have said they’ll return in the short term to provide music for our services.
These are difficult times for us all, but hopefully the music offered on your behalf will benefit us all in some way until such a time as we can all sing together again.
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!