Monday, May 18, 2020

A Journal from the Plague Year: when the foundations are shaken...some thoughts for Mental Health Awareness Week

Health warning: These are very limited and partial observations drawn from my own experience. Please, please, please if you are struggling do not be afraid to ask for help. 
You can reach Samaritans on 116 123 or text SHOUT on 85258

An optimist by nature, with a plethora of blessings to count every day, I've always taken good mental health for granted. After all, I reasoned, if I could survive the loss of two parents in six months while taking A levels, and later deal with the grief of several miscarriages, it stood to reason that my psyche must be pretty robust.
Even when I realised, as I grew older, that "coping" was not always the wisest strategy, that there were times when the sensible thing to do was simply to shout for help, I rejoiced that occasional grey days when tears were not far away were always remedied by a good night's sleep. 
"God's mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning." seemed to ring true for me pretty much all of the time - even if I rarely managed to attend to quite how fortunate I was that this was my lived experience. I don't mean that I was always blissfully happy - but I was, and am, content. My job and my calling bring me joy, and I have an amazing family whom I love beyond measure, and a wonderful collection of friends with whom to laugh, cry and wonder. Honestly, I ought to be content, and at peace with my world!

Only - we are now seven weeks (or is it eight? maybe nine? time seems to have lost its meaning) into lock-down, and I, an extrovert, albeit a shy one, have not touched another human being since mid March. The hugs that I gave my family on our last outings together have had to last me rather longer than I'm accustomed to. Plans for spending Easter together, for launching my sabbatical with fish and chips and prosecco have, like that much anticipated sabbatical, long since gone the way of all flesh, and what had looked in January like a year to celebrate has been changed into a season to endure.

And the worst thing is - it's open-ended.

We have no idea when it will end so I can't comfort myself with "only four more weeks and we can be together", or even the hollow confidence of "It'll all be over by Christmas".
We just don't know.
Even if, in some madcap universe, the lock-down were lifted completely tomorrow, we all know enough of the ways of the virus to recognise that this would not mean that the world was safe again so we would be torn between longing to see those we love and fear that in doing so we might be risking their health and our own. Day by day, we feel that we are under threat, confronting the reality of our own mortality in ways that we have not had to in my lifetime, and that is deeply unsettling.

And all of this has made me realise how very conditional mental health is, how contingent on the prevailing environment. 
When my external points of reference are in the right place, it's easy to manage day by day, to ride the waves of even the more challenging situations at work, specially if there is something to look forward to.
Right now, though, there really isn't.
We dare not make plans - because that simply opens the way for more disappointment and frustration.
Even the prospect of returning to the Cathedral for worship is horribly clouded by the realisation that we probably won't be able to sing...
My children are 80 miles away in different directions so I can't hope to form a "bubble" with one of their households.
All I can do is sit it out - and sometimes that's fine, and I feel calm and able to look for signs of God's presence, signs of hope in the moment.
But not always.
Not by any means!

It all came to a head for me ten days ago, as we negotiated the complex jollity of the VE Day commemoration, and I began to realise that celebration felt like a preposterous concept. The days were running into one another, each day vanishing at an alarming speed but each week a stretch of formless grey that seemed set to last forever. I was not uniformly miserable, indeed I was finding tremendous joy in small things - in time in the garden, and birdsong in the city, in the sheer delight my dogs take in my presence at home every day, in music and poetry, in the sight of little hearts and thumbs floating gently up the screen as I lead live-streamed worship - each one a sign that despite lock-down I remain connected with a web of wonderful people joining me in praise and prayer...Yes, the moments were fine - it was the overall landscape that seemed so bleak.
When I caught myself quoting Hamlet
 "How weary, flat, stale and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world" it was like a bucket of cold water poured over my head.
"I think that's what depression feels like" I thought.
"Might that be where I'm heading? Sliding downhill into the slough of despond? Gripped by accedie?" (a state of spiritual listlessness whose dangers have been recognised for centuries)

I named to myself what was going on, and for extra accountability, (and because I'm an extrovert, so why waste a good crisis?!) I named it on twitter. 
And somehow, even the act of naming, of saying "I'm not sure I'm coping very well" made all the difference.
In taking that tiniest smidgeon of control, I suddenly realised that I still had agency...that though I couldn't do everything I longed to, there were nonetheless decisions that were mine to make that would actually make many things easier, that while this was not the way I had expected to spend my time this year, nonetheless the fact that I am here to spend it at all remains a gift which I am free to enjoy.

So, I'm trying to work round that sense of contingency on external elements...but also to cut myself some slack when those elements aren't in place. 
Heavens to Betsy, this is a global pandemic! Something that hasn't hit humanity for over a century...It's a collective trauma in which nobody is going to feel utterly comfortable and secure. Emotional resources will be spread a bit thin, and perhaps the best we can hope for in human terms is that we can operate like those weather houses where one figure emerges on sunny days and another on dull ones, so that within our networks there's always someone in a better place to offer smiles and suggest recipes for banana bread when we're having a grey day.

Mental health is as much part of our overall makeup as the state of our bodies, and our experiences of frailty here are as valid and blame free as a broken leg, a tendency to migraine or any other physical challenge we might need to negotiate on our way through life. While past generation were dangerously inclined to see any trace of vulnerability in our psyches as a sign of moral weakness, we know better now.
The relationship between body mind and spirit is unutterably complex but the resounding message of this season for me is that we need to learn to be kinder - to others, of course, but also to ourselves.

That feels like a reasonable goal for this Mental Health Awareness Week. 
What do you think?
I know it would make God smile too.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Sermon in lockdown Easter 5 for Coventry Cathedral

I wonder if you’ve turned to any box-sets for comfort and consolation during these days of Lockdown. Beset with unreliable internet at the Canonry, I’ve been enjoying a happy reunion with Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey on DVD – but more than anything else I’ve immersed myself in the life and times of the fictional President Jed Bartlett and his team in the West Wing.
Bartlett’s signature catch-phrase is “What’s next...” - and I think part of the appeal of the series for me is the way he models the kind of compassionate leadership I long for – so that I feel that whatever IS next, he will power on towards it, making mostly good choices. His confidence in tomorrow is infectious and reassuring…

Whatever you may feel about current government, not even their most ardent fans could claim that we are currently able to look forward with that sort of certainty. Right now the question “What’s next?” would sound more as an existential cry of despair than an eager response to fresh challenges...We have no idea what’s round the corner. Even as we begin to imagine the gradual easing of lock-down, we are very aware that the world to which we will return little by little will not be the same one we left back in March. For some of us, this season has been a helpful exercise in perspective. Stepping back from some of the frenetic busyness that has been part of life for many in the 21st century West has enabled us to reflect on what actually matters most and I have been involved in many many conversations of which the gist is “I do hope we DONT just “get back to normal” “. There’s a widespread recognition that life needed some sort of “reset button” and while this is  not for a moment a route to reset that anyone would ever have chosen, nonetheless there are good and important things to learn from our experience

But still and all, this is a difficult season.
We do not know where we are going so how can we know the way?
There goes my good friend Thomas, once again daring to express the uncertainties that are often part of the journey of faith.
And this time it’s fair enough, isn’t it?
Jesus talks about going ahead to get things ready for us in his father’s house -and then returning to take us there...but we’re not really clear where “there” might be. It doesn’t sound as if he’s planning a trip to Nazareth and inviting his friends to follow…
It’s a bit too easy for us to spiritualise this passage (and not this passage alone) and to downplay the very real confusion that it inspires in those who meet it for the first time. It’s often chosen for funerals – that sense of a real home ahead offering huge comfort to anyone who is mourning someone dear to them – but it’s not an easy read if you look at it closely. Even that promise to “take you to myself” can encourage a view of a God who is capricious, plucking individuals out of life just because he can...I’ve met far too many people who have lost any sense that God is on their side as a result of those words and I’m sure that in the months ahead we will have to engage with the grief stricken anger of those who feel that God CHOSE to allow their dear ones to die in the pandemic.
And if that’s not problem enough, what are we to do we do with those apparently exclusive words
“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No-one comes to the Father except by me”?

If  you and I have met, you may not be surprised to hear that I do NOT believe that this verse justifies a view of salvation that divides humanity into saved and  lost. I don’t read here the assertion that everyone has to have made a conscious personal decision to follow Christ in order to be welcome at the heavenly banquet. I know that this verse is often used to justify a belief that only card-carrying Christians will finally reach home in safety...but I cannot embrace that vision of Jesus as door-keeper, turning away all those whose faces don’t fit.
Nonetheless I am convinced that Jesus IS the Way, and in describing himself thus he confirms that the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday have opened a route for each of us to be whole and happy with God.
More, the model of self-giving, unconditional love which is revealed there is the way to which each of us must aspire….

This season has seen us stripping away so much that just doesn’t matter so that those things that are deeply true, deeply real, are thrown into sharp relief.
Surely this truth stands Head and shoulders above them all: that we are made to live in loving relationship with one another and with God...and that Jesus both models  and enables this.
To grasp that changes everything.

While I try to avoid cliches in my preaching, this gospel makes it practically compulsory to reflect on life as a journey...But notice that even here Jesus doesn’t spell out exactly where we are going. He says there’s room for everyone – an endless series of extensions surrounding the father’s house (a model that I was fascinated to see made real in  the ruins of 1st century  Capernaum)...but he doesn’t tell us much about the landscape or what we can expect to be doing with our time.
He does, though, make it clear how we’re going to get there.

If you’ve been finding it hard to love anyone very much in the frustrations of the current season...if you’ve decided you don’t much like, still less love, yourself, and heaven help your neighbour ...then be thankful that Jesus has cleared the path for us.
Listen, he says, I am the way. Let me hold your hand and take as I your personal relationships, in your political culture, as you respond to those whom might otherwise fear or dislike. Live my way. Seek to love and love and love again – no matter what it costs.

What's next?
I have absolutely no idea...except that there will be love.
Love as we journey, and love as we arrive.
Love lavished on us by the one who is ALL love…
So, do not let your hearts be troubled.
Believe in God. Believe in Jesus.
All shall be well.

A Journal from the Plague Year - Where it's at Part 2

DISCLAIMER These are my very personal ramblings...I need to think aloud to have any sense of what I actually feel so may not be totally coherent, am almost certainly NOT totally rational and would in no way set up my opinions, when I reach them, as in any way the last word....

So - having written in my last post about how it felt to discover I'd made a "church" in my dining room, and how that space is now sacred in a completely new and unexpected way, towards the end of last week the official C of E guidance changed, such that clergy could, if it felt appropriate, return to live streaming from their church buildings. There has been so much vitriol expended on clergy twitter in particular around the varying understandings of ministry of those who felt hugely disabled in losing access to their buildings (to the extent of defying episcopal instructions to vacate them) and those who embraced the new world of domestic liturgy, inviting anyone who happened upon their streaming into house and home...and I didn't think I had strong feelings either way. 

When our buildings closed as lockdown began I understood and shared the grief articulated by my historian son about the loss of the unbroken thread of prayer that had wound through our ancient buildings for centuries. I had loved that final week of opening the building for private prayer and standing in the midst each hour to offer prayer for the diocese and beyond as we headed into the crisis, not knowing who or how we might emerge...but already even before the Prime Minister announced lockdown that Monday night it seemed clear that something had changed, that what I had felt privileged to offer the week before was no longer appropriate. There are seasons in this time of trauma, whose nature we may not even grasp til they are behind us...but for me the role of the cathedral as an icon of faith, a focus of vicarious prayer in the best sense of the word, had shifted. Before the announcement came, I was already clear that I didn't want to continue with that model.

Then we found ourselves in lockdown, praying from home as the only option available - and after the gentle amusement of the early days, the moments when FB filters threatened to leave us all presiding in gangster hats and dark glasses or when dogs expressed their loud enthusiasm for the unexpected presence of their humans in the middle of the day, we settled into a new routine. We knew our spaces and inhabited them prayerfully and learned to cherish God's presence there in our little understand the fragility of the incarnation in a new stretch out a hand in the night and expect to find it held. Because we were live streaming worship, it often went comically wrong..sometimes the techi failures felt as if they were interrupting God but more often, for me at least, they underlined the utter impossibility of offering anything but the overwhelming evidence of those cracks in everything through which the light gets in...and it was all unquestionably REAL. This was God's people doing their utmost to learn to sing the Lord's song in a strange land, and for all the clunky changes of key and periodic husky voices, the music was alive and flowed through my soul.

However, after a particularly disastrous session last Sunday we had already begun to discuss recording worship. The initial thought had been that we would at least do that together...we would record ourselves worshipping in our different places at the same time...but because we were doing this in advance there was the opportunity to address those techi woes that seemed bound to beset us. I could imagine that working....but before we could follow through on our plans, the bishops spoke...and our bishop in particular was very keen to see the cathedral used once more. We entered a new era - in which I found myself delivering a sermon to the long-suffering Precentor alone, as he recorded my offering on zoom...this was DREADFUL. I felt deeply embarrassed by the whole process. Though I prayed as I always do before I started, it felt completely different, alien, uncomforable.
...We weren't exploring and listening for the Spirit together. Somehow the fact that it was being recorded seemed to bring with it a spurious claim to authority which I could not espouse...I spoke fast and the whole thing felt wretched (though I didn't and don't hate the content)

Then this morning I joined with the online congregation to view the recorded service - and have rarely felt more isolated or cut off. For me,the return of the Dean and his wife to the building, for all the beauty of their liturgical offering, prayed with grace and integrity, completely failed to engage me. I love our building dearly but it is a space designed to bring people together and today the fact that they were there alone (and rightly so - God forbid that in returning to our sacred spaces we should endanger others) simply emphasised a sense of priestly exclusion. The empty choir stalls behind them positively shouted that nothing, NOTHING about this was as it should be. Cathedrals are strange beasts - even for those of us who love them and have been called to serve God and God's people there - but to see the two of them alone in that building designed for thousands felt more like a historical re-enactment of the kind you meet in "living history" museums. It emphasised the dispersal of God's people as nothing had done before and seemed to emphasise the huge gulf between where we have been before and where most people are now. Cathedral worship needs music and crowds and splendour ....Sitting at my lap-top at the kitchen table I needed intimacy and consolation. 

Can I stress, this was not about the fact that I wasn't actively involved as President or Deacon, nor about the way that J & R worshipped. They lead worship really beautifully together and have often brought me to a place of deep engagement with God.
Equally, I have watched my colleagues preside daily from their homes and felt connected with them and with God in the moment - have found it easy and natural to make an act of "spiritual Communion" - and rejoiced that the Eucharist is in no way dependent on being together in one place. 

I understand that I may be in a minority of one, but it seems to me that there is something different going on here - something that smacks of clericalism (we are allowed in while you are not)...of anxiety that if people get too used to finding God at home they may never go back to church buildings, specially if those buildings no longer offer some of the experiences of music and ritual that we have valued in the past....and perhaps there's something about perfectionism too. It's much easier to aspire to that if you are offering a becomes a performance to be practised until it is as you feel it ought to be. 

A long time ago, a Bishop's Selector pushed me about a perfectionist streak she had thought I might be in thrall to. I was so much younger - and had an elevated idea of what I might offer, what the Church could offer...and talked passionately about the fact that if God had given us a garden full of roses, it was plain rude to simply offer a fistful of dandelions and wilting daisies - but that if those were all we had, then of course God would be delighted. I think right now the Church is in a place where fistfuls of daisies and cowparsley are a more honest expression of our common life and identity...and I shall go out and gather some to place in a jam-jar on the dining room table. 

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

A Journal from the Plague Year: Where it's at Part 1

And so the "phoney war" came to an end.
From opposite ends of our huge altar the Dean and I offered the Eucharist livestreamed on Mothering Sunday - the Mother Church of the diocese striving to continue to feed her children scattered in diaspora - and then there was just one more day of opening before lock-down was introduced.
I left the Cathedral to take a short, simple funeral for a long-standing member of the congregation whose death had nothing to do with covid 19 - but whose service was the first limited by the constraints of social distancing and the need to keep things moving because already demand for slots at the crem was beginning to grow...
With no particular thought, I added a few extra things to my bag. I wouldn't go back to my desk that afternoon...and I had a feeling that it might be a while before I was there again. I had no idea, though, quite how long...

That night the Prime Minister announced lockdown, the building was closed and we moved into a new phase of this extraordinary season. Now it was "home alone" for me and the dogs and I was so incredibly thankful for the temporary permission given by our bishops to preside alone...We continued our newly formed practice of offering Morning Prayer with Communion each day at 9.15 and began to see new communities forming around that service, as friends and congregation members and unknown visitors stumbled across us on Facebook and a little flight of hearts and thumbs up travelled up our screens. Libby and Willow began to experiment with canine contributions to worship, while Figaro did all that he could to sabotage it by leaping onto the tripod and ensuring that the phone was never quite straight...
To my surprise, I began to value this experience tremendously. It was indeed vicarious worship - but with more sense of a congregation present than sometimes when they are sitting in the far distant back rows of the nave...The regular need to stop and pray gave structure to days that might otherwise have slipped into free fall...And I loved that I was now in touch with people who had been part of my journey at many different stages - that for this season, we were worshipping together. I never once as I presided at Communion felt even notionally alone.

I'd created a worship space in the dining room. The table was a good height and size. The mantelpiece was already home to many icons and I loved that I could look out the window and see down the road - my neighbours homes - people I didn't know well, but with whom I was newly connected in our shared experience of lockdown and whom I could, as I broke bread and drank wine, bring in prayer into the circle of God's love. It worked well as a space...but what changed it for me was the experience of UNmaking it on Maundy Thursday. We had worshipped together each evening through Holy Week, - with my dear friend Charlotte from our beautiful neighbour church, St Clare's at the Cathedral delivering the sort of addresses that were like lights placed thoughtfully to transform the darkest corners. We were in a definite rhythm of prayer and it felt good - even if it wasn't the way we usually spent Holy Week.
On Thursday, though, we were beset by technical woes. The Deanery internet is no more reliable than mine here and after a couple of attempts it became very obvious that we would not manage to livestream a zoom service that included other voices...The decision was made that the Dean would livestream to Facebook, Charlotte's pre-recorded address would be stitched in afterwards -...and so, for the first time in ordained life, I found myself with no active role in worship on Maundy Thursday - and feeling pretty desperate about it. 
Enter two rather wonderful friends - both priests - who picked up my online wails of distress and offered to join me if I offered something online myself.
So that's what I did. And God was there and it was very very beautiful.

But it was what happened at the end that made this a watershed moment for me. 
After we had read the Gospel of the Watch I stripped the altar, extinguished all my candles, took down each icon, removed everything that spoke of "church" and left it heaped to one side. I listened to Psalm 22 to the Wesley chant, as I do every year and as I unmade church that evening in the gathering dusk, that very ordinary dining room in my suburban semi became non-negotiably holy ground, as much church as anywhere I've been.

As I left the room in darkness at the end of the Watch, I did so on tiptoe - not wanting to disturb the deep layers of God's presence that I was suddenly and wonderfully aware of.
And all through Good Friday and Holy Saturday I passed the dining room door reverently, removing my shoes, knowing that this was ground.

In all the increasingly fraught and fevered debates about whether or not clergy should be allowed into their buildings to live stream from there, I've held on to that overwhelming sense of God's presence in my dining room. I couldn't ask for more than that...and the room has been changed forever by this season so that whatever comes next, I've received an unexpected but unmissable gift.

It can't "compete" with the layers of deep prayer that have shaped our ancient buildings, with their patina of prayer and worship offered and received, but it was all that I needed - a place where God's presence was undeniable, where I knew, and know, God was as inextricably connected in those small things which hint at the transcendent day by day.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

A Journal from the Plague Year: Keeping the Hours

So - countdown continued through the weeks of Lent.
The Cathedral closed for public worship but our great West Screens were opened wide, our chairs spaced out to ensure social distancing and we gladly welcomed in those who wanted to come and sit and grieve or hope or pray.
We had agreed to offer prayers on the hour - and this soon began to feel like the most significant ministry that I had offered since I arrived here, a moment when the Cathedral came into its own as the praying heart of our city.
There was an overwhelming sense that those who came in brought with them all the concerns of  wider society, and that as we prayed for all whose lives were overshadowed by the pandemic, for the sick and the scared, for those offering care and those researching cure, we were articulating something that needed to be named and offered again and again.
While there were a smattering of familiar faces who found their way in day by day, nearly all  those who prayed with me were not regular worshippers with us, or, it transpired, anywhere else in the city.
"This seemed like the right place to be" said one lady.
"Your words helped me feel we might not go off the rails" said another.
Not my words at all, actually.
I mostly read a psalm or two.
 "Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another"
"God is our strength and refuge, a very present help in time of trouble"
I edged those dear familiar words around with faltering links of my own,
I told those present that they had been a precious stepping stone for others before us, negotiating their way through times as uncertain and challenging as those we were facing ourselves.
I told the story of the Cathedral to all who came, with the reminder that for Provost Howard and his congregation in 1940 the morning after the blitz must have been heavy with grief and with dread. 
No sense for them then of the new future, quite unlike the past, which was waiting out of sight around the corner.
I talked about the difference between faith and confidence...That at the moment confidence is hard to find but that faith is the underlying motif that has held us steady through generations..suggested we might pray that Lord's prayer together (finding myself automatically using the traditional form of words, as I always do at funerals, although the Cathedral generally opts for modern language), and, hour after hour, prayed a blessing - often this one.
"May the love of the Lord Christ go with you wherever he may send you
May he guide you through this wilderness, protect you from life's storms,
May he bring you back rejoicing at the wonders he has shown you,
May he bring you back rejoicing once again within these doors".

At home that first night, I picked up a novel - a recent acquisition from the charity shop - and a bookmark fell out.
On it, those self-same words...
It felt, by some mad and magical thinking, to be an endorsement of my prayers - maybe even a promise that we would regather in this space "after the dreaful flood was past".

Of course life is always uncertain and precarious. 
The covid19 pandemic has simply forced we, who thought we had somehow insulated ourselves from the ills that flesh is heir to, to confront our assured mortality. 
In the face of that, the instinct to pray, and to entrust ourselves and all whom we love to One who has never deserted fickle humanity, is alive and well as it has not been in my lifetime.
Stepping into that stream of prayer was a privilege I will not quickly forget.