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April 2020

SHOULD CHURCHES BE REOPENED? ABSOLUTELY NOT!

Stocki in Ho's TV

 

Should Churches be reopened? Absolutely not!

 

It was in a little disbelief that I started reading that DUP ministers in the Northern Ireland Local Assembly were suggesting such a thing. However, being shocked at inexplicable utterances of politicians has sadly become second nature!

 

My biggest disappointment was not that they were suggesting that Churches reopen but the dangerous mixed message that it was carelessly throwing out to our society. 

 

I have blogged elsewhere today that I believe us to be in a difficult week in the endurance of these strange times. For some reason people seem more anxious, lonely and frustrated. I am not sure that anyone thought we would be locked down so long but even more wearying is the absence of an ending. 

 

Into such a fragile societal moment, mixed messages seem frighteningly life threatening. People who feel frustrated can get on the back of a political comment and start pushing for an easing of lockdown measures that can still put my life and your life at risk and pressure back on the NHS. 

 

So, there was the mixed message.

 

However, I am against the return to church for a few reasons.

 

Firstly, telling us we can go back to Church is so much more complicated than a simple phrase. 

 

Before lockdown was official we in Fitzroy had done a Coronavirus health and safety check. We had stewards on the one door with gloves on, to make sure people didn’t touch door handles. We had no offering plate or orders of service. We banned hand shakes and we kept the coffee area closed, asking people to leave without crossing social distancing boundaries. 

 

Those measure is themselves significantly curtail the “gathering” of believers. Fellowship is almost nonexistent. 

 

We also found that some of our vulnerable members, out of a wonderful sense of duty, broke good advice to stay at home and put themselves into dangerous situations in our pews.

 

When lock down does begin to lift we will have to add to those measures we already had in place. We will have to separate people, at least a pew apart. That will probably mean going to two services. Post worship fellowship will be discouraged. We might have to ban our more mature members, which is a very difficult call. 

 

The simple “Churches should reopen” call is a complex one. When people are looking for an embrace, a hand shake or social interaction, it might actually cause more frustration and push us in our self discipline more than might be helpful. It might well add to the mental health fragility.

 

Secondly, with the creativity of on-line services, teaching videos, bespoke worship, children’s and youth activities, Zoom prayer meetings, midweek groups and other meetings many aspects of Church life have been kept very much alive, maybe more vibrant than ever. Certainly more imaginative and with a further reach. 

 

That doesn’t mean I do not miss the live vibe of worship and particularly for me preaching with a congregation present. I long for that day but I would rather it was a day that was safer than we can call now. I would rather we could do more of the things that we need from Church.

 

Finally, I also want to make a call to fellow believers to listen to the call of God in all of this. “Love your neighbour” is a more intense and costly call at this moment than maybe any other moment in most of our lives. When we clash the writer to the Hebrews telling us “not to stop meeting together” and Jesus call to “love your neighbour” I believe Jesus wins hands down just now.

 

We need to be those modelling the self sacrifice of Jesus to our society. We need to be prepared to give up some of our desires for the health and survival of our neighbours. 

 

The idea that we would be the whingers shouting for some God given right to break lockdown leaves not only a very bad taste in my mouth BUT also flies in the face of all the teaching and example of the Jesus we claim to follow. God calls us to give up our rights. Let’s be exemplary in our love for our world at this time.

 

For centuries we have declared that God is everywhere and that we don’t need to go to a building to meet God. It is time to cash that cheque. 

 

Should churches be reopened? Absolutely not. Not just yet. The time will come… but we can wait…


6 WEEKS OF LOCK DOWN - WE HAVE ALL HIT THE WALL

Hit the wall

On the first week of lock down I warned that we were in a marathon not a sprint. In any long distance run or cycle or swim (I’ve only done the run!) there is a point where you hit the wall. It is usually about two thirds of the way. The initial enthusiasm has long gone BUT the end seems a long way off. Mentally and physically you weaken. You need a second wind.

I feel that we have hit this Coronavirus wall this week. Janice and I are sensing more anxiety, sense of loneliness, frustration and stir craziness this week than we have up until now.

This is understandable. Six weeks of new rhythms of living, learning new social media skills, the intensity of families cooped up or others on their own. All of this is hard work. It stretches our mental energy. When we feel a little weaker mentally and emotionally, maybe even spiritually then we will feel a little more on edge of ourselves.

So, as a pastor, I would ask that you are gentle on yourself this week and be gentle with those you live with or even those you engage with whether my choice or work. Be patient with others… and yourself.

When you hit this wall in an endurance run, there are choices. You can just stop and go for an ice cream. All that training and the first 16 miles of your hard work? Just throw it away. Lose the purpose of it all. The medal or the t-shirt!

Or, you can dig in. 

I have never competed in a full marathon but I have run long distances and have run through these walls. It is all about holding to your rhythm, not shifting too much in what you have been focused on doing. 

Let us not lose our nerve now. These are life and death days. Our lives, the lives of our neighbours and the health of those doctors, nurses and cleaners in our NHS and Residential homes are all dependent on us finding some perseverance. Let us not stand outside our doors and cheer the NHS on Thursday nights and then put them in danger the rest of the week!

As Janice read from Hebrews 12: 1-3 in our Facebook Live message yesterday, 

And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

There is a spiritual perseverance to this for sure. Those who are the praying kind should use that gift. 

However, this is a physical example that Jesus gives us. His life hit walls too. Praying in Gethsemane that God would give him a way out of the cross is a fine example of that. Jesus got up from that pleading prayer with that second wind and went to the cross, then through the victory tape of resurrection. 

Jesus life is an endurance to replicate as we hear him calling us to follow him, particularly through this Coronavirus valley of the shadow.

So, be gentle. Be patent. Persevere. We can do this. Love your neighbour! 


6 WEEKS OF LOCK DOWN - WE HAVE ALL HIT THE WALL

Hit the wall

On the first week of lock down I warned that we were in a marathon not a sprint. In any long distance run or cycle or swim (I’ve only done the run!) there is a point where you hit the wall. It is usually about two thirds of the way. The initial enthusiasm has long gone BUT the end seems a long way off. Mentally and physically you weaken. You need a second wind.

I feel that we have hit this Coronavirus wall this week. Janice and I are sensing more anxiety, sense of loneliness, frustration and stir craziness this week than we have up until now.

This is understandable. Six weeks of new rhythms of living, learning new social media skills, the intensity of families cooped up or others on their own. All of this is hard work. It stretches our mental energy. When we feel a little weaker mentally and emotionally, maybe even spiritually then we will feel a little more on edge of ourselves.

So, as a pastor, I would ask that you are gentle on yourself this week and be gentle with those you live with or even those you engage with whether my choice or work. Be patient with others… and yourself.

When you hit this wall in an endurance run, there are choices. You can just stop and go for an ice cream. All that training and the first 16 miles of your hard work? Just throw it away. Lose the purpose of it all. The medal or the t-shirt!

Or, you can dig in. 

I have never competed in a full marathon but I have run long distances and have run through these walls. It is all about holding to your rhythm, not shifting too much in what you have been focused on doing. 

Let us not lose our nerve now. These are life and death days. Our lives, the lives of our neighbours and the health of those doctors, nurses and cleaners in our NHS and Residential homes are all dependent on us finding some perseverance. Let us not stand outside our doors and cheer the NHS on Thursday nights and then put them in danger the rest of the week!

As Janice read from Hebrews 12: 1-3 in our Facebook Live message yesterday, 

And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

There is a spiritual perseverance to this for sure. Those who are the praying kind should use that gift. 

However, this is a physical example that Jesus gives us. His life hit walls too. Praying in Gethsemane that God would give him a way out of the cross is a fine example of that. Jesus got up from that pleading prayer with that second wind and went to the cross, then through the victory tape of resurrection. 

Jesus life is an endurance to replicate as we hear him calling us to follow him, particularly through this Coronavirus valley of the shadow.

So, be gentle. Be patent. Persevere. We can do this. Love your neighbour! 


A PSALM AT THE GRAND CANYON - CORONAVIRUS ESCAPES #11

Canyon Sunset

(this is a Psalm that I wrote, bedazzled by the wild wonder of the Grand Canyon when Davids Adams and Baldock shared a visit with me there in 1993...)

 

Oh God

You are a mighty spectacular God

Who touches me with your love.

 

I have been on the south rim of the Grand Canyon

And watched the sun go down to the west

I gazed down into the great crevasse

And stood with mouth wide open

Marvelling at this post creation doodle of the Creator

With the knife of the Colorado River

I have then turned and gazed on the masterpiece

Of orange, yellow, pink and mauve on a blue canvas

Wondering at this daily landscape painting 

Using the pastels of the afterglow

Of the sun saying goodnight.

 

In the morning, I have stood again

No less surprised

No less in awe

As the fluorescent orange ball rises in the east

To shed beams of bright illumination

Across the earth

The gift of another day.

 

Just when I think you are mighty and spectacular

You leave those words in tatters

You take my soul into new plains of the mystical

You caress my soul with a new flash of insight

Insight that is real

And then is gone

Never to be communicated

Because words reduce it

Words kill it.

 

Oh God

You are my God

I sing your praises

I celebrate the wonder of your art

I meditate on the vastness of your being

Never hemmed in by the finite mind

Bigger than canyons, than rivers, than skies

Give me your love

Give me your power

Give me your grace

So that I can be the ink of your poetry

To write of love, security, significance, the miraculous and hope

Into a world that so badly needs them

God wrote them in my soul

For I badly need them.

 

Oh God

You are my God

I praise you.


FROM A DISTANCE... (THE SONG WITH "AWFUL THEOLOGY")

Nanci Distance

Using the word "distance" so much in the context of social distancing, during these Coronavirus Times, this song came to mind.

From A Distance became a bit of anthem at the end of the 80s. Bette Midler actually won a Grammy with it, in 1991. recorded it. Cliff Richard covered it too!

It was actually written by American songwriter Julie Gold and first recorded by Nanci Griffith who recorded a few of Gold's songs.

When it was released as a single by Griffiths in 1987 Ricky Ross was a guest singles reviewer one month in Scottish music paper Cut. I remember him dismissing it not for the craft but for the "awful theology". 

It has taken my 33 years to finally take that "awful theology" on. I have been obsessed pastorally this past week with how God smashed all the distance between a Holy God and humanity, once at enmity with that Holiness.

Jesus wore our humanity, nailed the cause of enmity, tore the veil to the Holy of Holies, rolled away the stone of the separation of death. 

As God said to his prophet Isaiah (57:15) -

“I live in a high and holy place,
    but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
    and to revive the heart of the contrite.

 

As the apostle John said about Jesus: (John 1:14)

"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us."

 

So apologies to Julie and Nanci for using you as a way in to a wonderful truth for these times...

 

FROM A DISTANCE (MY RESPONSE)

"From A Distance"

Nanci, it was such a nice song

"God is watching us"

But no song ever got it more wrong

 

Distance, 

God smashed it

Distance

God broke it

Distance

God nailed it

Distance

God invoked it

Distance

God crossed it

Distance 

God tore it

Distance 

God rolled it

Distance 

God wore it.

 

"From A Distance"

Nanci, no one needs to hear this

"God is watching us"

But from the most intimate space of nearness.


GOD? WHERE HE HAS ALWAYS BEEN...

Stocki GL Night

(I wrote this for a series that Fr Martin Magill and I did for the Belfast Telegraph during Coronavirus Times... This was published on April 25th, 2020...)

 

Where is God? If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked that one, I could fund the NHS! During the worst of the Troubles, after 9/11, the 2004 Tsunami, Coronavirus… Where is God?

It is a difficult question. A mystery I would say, in no way to duck out of the dilemma evil throws into he philosophising needs of human beings.

However, my friend Inderjit Bhogal, Methodist minister, theologian and once Leader of the Corrymeela Community has a fantastic answer that not only satisfies me, for the most part, but inspires me and has me looking for the imaginative ways of the Divine even in the depths of our dark days.

Inderjit puts it simply. Check the first two verses of the Bible. That explains where God is and the rest of the Bible and our lives prove the point - In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 

There was an emptiness, a formless void over the deep. That wasn’t God. God was there though. Not only there but creating.

A few weeks ago, on Good Friday, we saw God in another deep dark void. The depths of humanity’s violence and injustice was highlighted on a hill outside Jerusalem. 

Look closely at that Easter scene. There is a dead man walking to execution, having been falsely tried. Where’s God? There are those gambling for a condemned man’s robes. Where’s God? There are two thieves nailed to crosses. Where’s God? The city is mocking, sneering, spitting. Where is God? 

God is central to the scene. He is the condemned. He is the mocked. He is the dead man between the thieves. When the sky went dark that Friday afternoon God was there, identifying with humanity in all its injustice. Dare I suggest God is creating resurrection right in the middle of murder.

So in the deep dark depths of Coronavirus I expect God to be where God always is, hovering over this murkiness, this tragedy, empathising with those who have lost loved ones and those fighting for their lives in Florence Nightingale hospitals. And… I do not only expect God to just be there but to be creating too. God will be weaving good in the seeming despair.

Members of my congregation have told me about neighbours arriving at their door with packages of food, I have watched strangers pass strangers at a safe social distance and ask how they are coping with lockdown. I have received generosity of money towards feeding the homeless. I have given endless references for volunteers wanting to help at Foodbank. I have shown a video in Church of two young men in a Ugandan slum doing their best to feed 5000 families as starvation threatens to take them before Covid-19.

Goodness, hope and grace at work in this valley of the shadow.

Then there are the lessons. Do we want to back to the speed life was? Do we want to live with the same empty priorities? Has what we used to think was necessary changed? God has not gifted this sabbatical. God would prefer it wasn’t happening at all. However if we listen we will hear God whispering to us to imagine better days and better way to live on the other side.

Where is God in Coronavirus Times? Right there. Here. Seen. Unseen. Hovering. Creating. Resurrecting. Where he has always been!


WEST NILE - CORONAVIRUS ESCAPES #10

 

West Nile huts

(A week or so ago our Coronavirus Escape was the journey from Kampala to Arua... Tonight we take the journey back home... at least the first couple hours... from Arua to Pakwatch where the bridge takes us across the nile into or out of West Nile... 

This poem is a little more relevant in that as I wrote it I was considering the different rhythms of life in West Nile... and oh how are rhythms have shifted gear these past 6 weeks...)

 

WEST NILE RHYTHMS 'N TEARS

Sun shines across hillocked green

West Nile beauty uniquely pervading

Signal pocked masts blight the horizon

Alien rhythm and unwelcomed invading

Women lining the road to Nebbi

Cassava baskets filled with nourishment

When Jesus said, “Worry not about tomorrow”

Is this the perfect balance he meant.

 

The western rhythms

They hypnotise us

Customise us

Conform our feet

Yes our rhythms

They can seduce us

Even reduce us

To an off beat.

 

Then between Arua and Nebbi

We climb over another rise

See the land laid out forever

Under mesmerising African skies

It seems like everything is possible

No need for a crammed up schedule

Maybe the more empty are the days

The more chance of a life that’s full.

 

These African rhythms

Can untangle the knots

To soothe our thoughts

And sense the Spirit move

Yes their rhythms

They come and find us

And realign us

To a soul chilled groove.

 

When I cross the bridge at Pakwach

There is always a tear in my eye

Joy in the coming

Sorrow in the going

The hello or goodbye!


CORONAVIRUS PERSONAL REFLECTION #6 - NOT MISSING SPORT AT ALL - WOW!

KDB Madird

So, here is the 64 million dollar Coronavirus Times question. Why am I NOT missing the sport?

This is quite the surmise. When the soccer season ends I am a miserable human, bereft not only of a lack of matches on TV but hating weeks without Fantasy Football. Often times the International Tournaments do not quell my yearning for the new season to begin. In order to feed my addiction I even started doing MLS Fantasy League in which I do not even know who the players are!

Yet, here is the mystery, since we went into lockdown and all soccer ceased I have not missed it at all. I don’t even need the Vintage Match of the Days that they are showing on Saturday nights.

Now, I know that the Premier League was over. Liverpool were safer than even City were a couple of seasons ago. It does need to be pointed out though that since that wee school boy from Donegal wrote to Jurgen Klopp to ask him to stop winning… 

Anyway, there seemed to be much still to play for. City were in the FA Cup quarter finals and are currently 2-1 on Real Madrid in the Champion League. I showed not bitter disappointment that the second leg was postponed.

It is unbelievable to me that just as the sport was coming into the business end, when matches get more tense, meaningful and dramatic I have not looked for it, yearned for it or missed it.

Perhaps I had been shaken from my spoiled western complacency and moved into more serious life and death issues and 22 players running round a field even if 11were called Real Madrid had became meaningless, the Emperor with no clothes that it always was. Maybe Bill Shankley has been proved for ever wrong. He said that Football wasn’t about life and death, it was much more important than that. Not so, it seems!

I have NO idea why. Is it that life is so unfamiliar that sport is not part of my brain’s daily brand new thought process? Is it that the speedy new tradition of watching a film every night with our daughters - I Am Legend was a tough watch last night! - more than filled the gap? Yet, what about Saturday afternoon? It is almost like a 50 year old habit was erased. Cured, some might say.

Beyond the football, I have always said that spring, as well as the tournament, starts on the back nine of the US Masters. No Ulster rugby. Wimbledon and the Olympics are gone. I haven’t given it a second thought.

Like everything else, and this might be my sermon next Sunday and Personal Reflection next week, I am asking if I want to go back to how life was before this lock down. When I ask myself that, I am wondering what I mean. What was there about that pre Coronavirus life that we would better to mothball and not get out again? 

This is becoming a daily surmise and needs much thought and dare I suggest it prayer. This has been a sabbatical, not gifted, but a sabbatical nonetheless. What is God whispering and screaming at us as we reassess all that makes us tick and life worthwhile? What have we not missed? What can we do without? What have we gained? What from this fraught testing must we hold on to?

I can see me going back to my love for sport. I think sport makes me stop. It takes me out of the mad schedule of my life. Not being in such a mad schedule has perhaps negated the need for a live game. 

Yet, something else nags. If we can get by without this sport so easily, is it worth the billions of pounds spent on it. Like all our other decadent consumerist over reaching, has this strange time shown us what is weighty in worth and what can perhaps float away in a post Coronavirus breeze. 


BRUCE COCKBURN - BREAKFAST IN NEW ORLEANS, DINNER IN TIMBUKTU - #10 Ten Albums Reviewed Over Ten Years Ago

Breakfast in New Orleans

The last in my series of Ten Albums Reviewed Over Ten Years Ago... My fav Cockburn album of the era...my original review...

 

The first track on Bruce Cockburn's new album is perhaps a good place to find the clues as to what this Canadian singer songwriter's career has been all about. There are lines of travelogue, as our hero enters the streets of what might be a foreign city (it usually is), there are the lines of social and political observation and the whole thing adds up to be being about this guy overwhelmed with the pace and clammer of the world around him and trying to find some sense. The last thing is that in the midst of all the poetic genius and lyrical provocation and illumination Cockburn is dying to make his contribution.

"Breakfast...Dinner..." is a very poetic piece with a couple of instrumentals and a cover version thrown in. So poetic indeed that many of the 8 original lyrics are spoken rather than sung though there is always a melodic chorus on which Cockburn is accompnaied by female vocalists - Lucinda Williams and Margo Timmins (Cowboy Junkies). It does leave me thinking that when I am introducing friends to the wonders of this genius's work that this will not be the album to start at. However, for those of us who are fans it is a perfect fulfilling of the potential that began with his return from the major label to his own independence on Charity Of Night.

That is not to say that the album is musically opaque. It is pleasantly bouyant stroll of a CD that has been influenced again by Cockburn's interest in world music discovered on his varied travels. This is best evidenced in the contibution Daniel Janke's kora playing. The kora is a 21 stringed African harp lute. Percussion is subtle but fascinating and of course Cockburn's guitar playing is virtuoso. Indeed on the Rykodisc website Cockburn tells us that the introduction of the kora effected the music written especially the rather sexually explicit "Mango".

Cockburn's poetic lyrics are well known and some of this album is as good as he's ever been. "Isn't That What Friends Are For" is a gem. As Bruce once sang ten years ago on "Don't Feel Your Touch", "to be held in the hand sof a friend is to be a king". After the obligatory and brilliant word picture of forest in an autumn sky, Cockburn makes observations huimanity's seeming insignificance: "Towering blades of grass/Glimpse only sometimes the amazing breadth of heaven". His last verse is powerfully poignant making you wish that you had a friend like this. He shaves and rolls up the ration of light he has and blows it "against those moments when the darkness blows under your door". Goose bumps!

Musical anoraks might see a couple of links to the last U2 album Pop. The Dublin band are friends of Cockburn and have confessed their admiaration, quoting him in God Part 2. Here their fellow faith pilgrim uses an almost identical song title "Last Night On Earth" and the chorus of the Pop version is "give it away" very similar to the opening track here. Cockburn's song, titled Last Night Of The World, he has explained is about refugees he met in Mexico whose dignity in their hopeless poverty makes our complaining a decadent obscenity. While introducing the song at Greenbelt he spoke of being on tour with Sam Phillips. One of the band carried a bag everywhere he went. When asked what it was for, he replied it was in case of the apocalypse at which point Phillips asked, what else you would need apart from two glasses and a bottle of champagne????!!!!!!!!!!

"Let The Bad Air Out" is a jaunty wee fun song about sin, as speedy as the album gets and is about ridding the world of all that is evil by just opening the window. "Use Me While You Can" is another work of detailed travelogue observation sitting around the idea of how small our time here is. Cockburn then offers that contribution that he always longs to make. He invites us to use him while he is around. And so we should. No other artist that I am aware of has ever met with such regularity the challenge that Woody Guthrie threw out; songs should not be just good but good for something.

And so we are back to where we started. Back to that opening song full of clues to this man's entire catalogue. He talks about this faith he has and lets us know the truth that we all need to take out into our world. Faith is nothing if it remains in our hearts or our heads - "it only lives when you give it away".

"Breakfast..." is Cockburn at the peak of his craft. Who else can play guitar this well and write poetry this good. No one, of that there is no doubt. After the early disappointment of the spoken nature of too many of the songs, I have now setltled into the realization that that is the nature of this album. It is beautiful but a beauty that never distracts from the hard truth contained within.