As the TV news looks at the different ways that we have engaged with television, streaming and movie watching over this past strange year so I have been thinking again about how peoples' engagement with worship services has been affected too.
For a couple of weeks I have been doing the two sermonic practices of Covid-19 times. One has become too familiar, gazing into camera for the online service. The other is almost stranger, looking out at a small percentage of my congregation all wearing masks which makes connection impossible. As I preach I have masked faces looking blankly at me in a way that makes me feel that I am mad (maybe true, I hear you say!).
I have worked hard to get used to both and to make the most of them. That is my job and I have always been determined since my first talk in the upstairs room in the Sloan Hall at Harryville Church in 1979 to do the very very best I could, with God’s help, every single time I speak. I actually have a fear of not being good.
In spite of all the masks ( I seem to have been able to ignore the blankness) and empty pews I have come to love the live preach again. I am standing in my five square feet of vocational real estate. That gives me a familiarity and confidence.
Then there is the live worship. Without doubt there is an adrenaline that comes off our Fitzroy worship bands that fires my inspiration. Two weeks ago it was George Sproule’s guitar solos and this past week Norman McKinlay harmonising with Alison McNeill.
So, if I would be honest and vulnerable enough to share the back stage chatter these past two weeks, I have driven home wishing that the recorded sermon that I, and the majority of Fitzroy, are about to watch on-line had been as good as the live one I have just preached!
Then something weird. The on-line sermons always sound better on Sunday than on the Friday or Saturday when I record. I am convinced God does some serious editing over the weekend!
So, I guess as someone with my reason to be on the planet it is good that I have learned to do my vocation in whatever circumstances. My fear though is that when we get back to full gatherings that the impact of the sermon will not reach that of the on-line.
I have gotten so many more responses to my on-line sermons. Specific ones. Personal. It has been quite astonishing on a weekly basis. If I got one thank you or personal comment per week before lockdown I would have been happy. I now receive messages for most go the week after an on-line service.
There might be various reasons for this. The first is obviously that every single person is in the very same circumstances. When I apply the text to Coronavirus everyone gets it. I also think that there is something about lack of distractions. There is a lot that happens in a crowded Fitzroy on a Sunday morning.
We might also be a generation, after 60 years of television, more conditioned to concentrating on a screen in our front room. Finally the on-line service is shorter and hasn’t the ”dead air” of people walking up to read or pray or take part in other ways.
Whatever the reasons, though there are some who do not enjoy the on-line church experience, I am under some pressure to make sure our ‘new different’ gatherings can be as spiritually potent as what we have been doing, and will continue to do, on-line. I look forward to that challenge.
Here are 10 of the things that I will miss most when the 'new different' finally kicks in...
1. Not worrying about what to wear. I have pretty much worn track suit bottoms, a t-shirt and hoodie for 13 months. I kinda liked it... and as for growing my hair! Yes!
2. Lunch with Janice every single day. We are pretty religious about the family having the evening meal together. For over a year we have been able to have lunch together too… and Janice’s home made chicken broth - yum!
3. Evenings to ourselves. In the “old normal” there were literally weeks without an evening without some meeting. The box sets we have binged on has been glorious... never mind the football seen live.
4. All the sermon preparation time. In my own restrictions, for health and love thy neighbour reasons, I have not been as busy out and about. That has given me so much more time to ponder the texts for Sunday’s sermons instead of rushing preparations at the end of the week. I believe they have been better as a result.
5. Less people cluttering up my own thinking time. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I long for the stimulation of conversations over cafe tables, in my office, over our dining table or pastorally in Fitzroy homes but I often get caught up in unessential chats that keep me away from reading, writing and preparation. I have so enjoyed that extra time.
6. That when I take the Biblical text and attempt to set it in the context of Fitzroy that it has been universally the same. So many have shared with me how much more they have gotten from the sermons on-line than when we were gathering. I have tried to explain that that is because I know the context of everyone in the congregation. The text should hit the spiritual bullseye every week!
7. Not having to drive to and between meetings. How much time do we waste in cars and buses and trains and what damage we do to the environment? I loved being in Zoom meeting within seconds and out of them the same.
8. Shopping being an unessential part of life. I am suspicious of the “I Shop So I Am” definition of our humanity and was pleased, personally and socially, that it went on hold.
9. The thriving of birds and wildlife. Without question there was been a breather for our environment during these strange times. With less humans cramming towns and fields and forests and beaches wildlife has been blessed. I fear a snap back to old normal.
10. My introverted personality has, like the environment, taken a breather in Coronavirus Times. I struggle in crowds. Oh it doesn’t look like it but I have social anxieties for sure. I have enjoyed the break. I fear that as many had their mental health stretched in isolation, that moving back into crowds will be a mental challenge for me.
(As Northern Ireland experience some opening up of restrictions tomorrow I thought I would list ten things that I am looking forward to when we open up fully... No hairdressers...)
1.TO GO TO BALLYCASTLE
We live in a house that comes with the job. Our home is in Ballycastle and that has become a place over the last 24 years that we have come to love. Restrictions have kept us from travelling up there since Boxing Day so we haven’t been for over six months. We miss it so badly. Walks by the river, up in the forest or across the beach and my favourite novel reading sofa.
2. FITZROY FULL
Early on in the first lockdown my friend Doug Gay wrote a song called I’m Missing You which breaks into the most hopeful of choruses, “One day there will be such a gathering”. I long for that gathering. I don’t expect us to be full for some time… but one day… no masks… no distancing… songs rocking and singing loud… tea and coffee and a catch up after. Please God, soon.
3. A 25th ANNIVERSARY MEAL IN THE SALTHOUSE
I had much bigger dreams for Janice and my 25th Anniversary. I had Cape Town, Hout Bay, Camps Bay, The Winelands, in my dreams but that’ll have to wait. A lovely meal looking out over our favourite piece of Antrim glen, north Antrim beach, the Seas of Moyle with Rathlin with Scotland beyond. Of course the most beautiful part across the table!
4. AN END TO THE ROWS
Should we wear masks? Should we not? Should we open Churches? Should we not? Should we sneak around the restrictions? Our different personalities have dealt with the virus differently and I have found more tension on should churches be open than anything else I have faced in parish ministry. I have found it all stressful. It will be great when those divisions are eradicated.
5. A BROWSE IN A BOOK SHOP
I am no shopper. Since record shops closed even less. BUT I’d love a walk down Botanic Avenue, into No Alibis for a few signed copies of great northern Irish books and a wee browse in the record shop across the road, if it opens again.
6. LET US GET A COFFEE
There are so many conversations at planning meetings or on social media when in ‘normal times’ I would say. “Hey let’s get a coffee and a good yarn next week”. I long for those long lazy chats about what seems trivia but never is and about issues we know are deep to begin with. Whether back in my office or in a cafe on Botanic Avenue. Oh yes.
7. HUG PEOPLE AT FUNERALS
I did an entire series before lockdown about the importance of “being with”. As in Emmanuel - “God with us”. It will be great to be back with people in their times of most need, to touch an arm, hold a hand and give people hugs at funerals.
8. IN THE SAME ROOM FOR A 4 CORNERS PLANNING MEETING
We have been saying for years that the 4 Corners Festival comes out of a monthly afternoon of laughter. Where Zoom meetings have been suitable for Directors’ Meetings, Planning Meetings need that banter and bouncing off each other. That has been difficult on Zoom so I look forward to catching up on the laughs and inspiration.
9. A GOOD GIG or FOOTBALL MATCH
I am not a prolific concert goer but it will be nice to get to the SSE to sing Run with all of Northern Ireland at a Snow Patrol gig or enjoy Glen Hansard or Declan O’ Rourke at the Ulster Hall. Over The Rhine and Martyn Joseph in Fitzroy would be cool too.
Our daughter Jasmine has started the University of Reading this year and it would be great to take her to a Reading match. Promotion for Reading might make that against City!
10. EXPERIENCING THE NEW DIFFERENT
I am fascinated about how the “old normal” will transform into a “new different”. I don’t think we will just snap back but we will have some courageous decisions to make if we are to use this year of sabbatical to reset our ambitions, priorities and desires. I am looking forward to seeing how brave I am, and we are, at following that silver lining out of this dark cloud.
After months of lockdown, we are opening up and I am amused and fascinated by what people are wanting most. “I need my hair done so badly”. “I want three families in my garden.” “I cannot wait to get to the holiday home”. “I want a meal in a restaurant.” I want a game of football.” “I just want to walk into a book shop and browse.”
If we have been watching and listening through this Coronavirus year then there are many things there for the learning. One is just how different that we all are.
We have all dealt with lockdown differently. Some of us have loved church on-line and some of us have hated it, longing for a gathering even with masks and no singing or fellowship. Some of us have played as loose with restrictions as we could, like bikers racing as close to the cliff as they can, while others were ultra cautious not even getting on the bike. Different. All different.
Jesus knew that everyone is different. He let Nicodemus come to him in the cloak of the night. He sat down with a Samaritan woman at a well in the heat of the day. He invited himself to Zacchaeus’s house for dinner. He gave a man his sight back but didn’t tell him who he was until much later. All different.
My life experience is that we humans are not good at understanding this or acting accordingly. We lazily think that we think everybody else thinks like us, will respond like us, emotionally react like us. We find it hard to understand when they see things differently or react differently.
I know that in communities and churches and families these differences have caused difficulties. All of our misunderstandings and relational friction is a result of not recognising that we are different.
We have all dealt with Coronavirus differently. We will all deal with coming out of it differently too. Like Jesus we need to see each other’s differences. We need to understand. We need to allow for it. We need to be patient and generous towards one another.
I am coming to believe that this is an act of love. That we need to stop to listen and watch and understand one another and allow the difference to live alongside us.
I am committing myself to a daily action, a daily discipline to climb out of my version of the world, my reactions, my responses, my perspectives. I need to cast off my intuitive idea that everybody reads the world like me.
Such a posture of humility and patience and grace is the very essence of Gospel, of God, of Jesus life, of the Kingdom. God is all about relationship and redeeming broken ones. Jesus was the word become flesh so that he could relate to us in our in all our foibles and eccentricities. The Holy Spirit gives us those things needed to understand the other and to love - “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
In these next weeks as we find ourselves wonderfully exiting lockdown let us be alert to the different speeds and ways that we will and let us treat one another with the patience, mercy and grace to our differences.
I am aware that I am about to embark on a minor complaint by a spoiled brat living in a wealthy part of the developed world at the beginning of the Third Millennium. Maybe the exposure of that is enough reason for the blog!
I need a wee break. Oh I am not talking European holidays. I think that is the maddest of ideas after two lockdown waves that has stretched our nation’s mental health. To go where there is a huge risk of bringing the virus and even new strains of it back. The £5000 fine is not enough.
No, I just want to drive 60 miles to my own house in Ballycastle. That is our house, that we own.
Where I am living is a house that comes with work and perhaps as a result has me psychologically unable to really take a break. I become an entirely different human being in my own house. I can switch work off. I can relax.
I also have favourite walks across my favourite beach in the world. The familiar scene every day that is never the very same familiar scene every day.
The light from the sky throws daily different hues across the most glorious creation. The waves are never the same. The sand and pebble patterns on the beach are everyday new and often full of surprise. There is a rock, just out from shore. A symbol. We walk in the shadow of Fair Head and feel its strength.
Or up the forest, on the side of Knocklayde. A challenging climb that is rewarded with fantastic scenic panoramas. And in the in-between wild fauna, butterflies and on the odd even more sacred occasion a deer right there on the path.
My favourite sofa, head back, legs up. No TV. Fragile wifi. A novel, a rock biography, never theology! Albums I have heard but never had time to really download into my soul. Family all around. Friends in the corner of the cul-de-sac. Sabbath. Rest.
We have not been there for so long. Coronavirus rules have banned us. We feel the strain. The virus, as I have written, has made us all weary. A week in Ballycastle would hit that tired spot like an inner spa and massage!
We are coming to term with not going. Oh maybe we could sneak. We have a valid excuse to check on the house. It is actually our house. Our only house. Maybe we’d get away with it.
Pandemics though are not about rules. They are about viruses, terrible illness and death and the impact on so many people as the effects ripple out. You can get away with the rule BUT the risk of the real consequences are unimaginable.
I have gone on about it like a mantra for an entire year but these days demands Jesus call to love our neighbours like no time in my near 60 years on the planet. I need to sacrifice my selfish spoiled brat erroneous thoughts of entitlement to fight the reach of Covid 19 and keep my community as safe as I can.
It would be anti-Easter to break the rules. How I as a follower of Jesus could lean into his passion and cross and not hear him say “follow me”. To hear him whisper those words as he reveals the ultimate sacrifice for the good of others and the common good while flaunting wise caution to keep my neighbours alive and well. Well, I am not sure I could dare to call myself any kind of follower of the Jesus of Easter.
So… we wait wearily. When Arlene and Michelle say “you can go”… GO we will. Until then. Patience, discipline, sacrifice. Glory be but people are sacrificing much more than this spoiled brat!
The hidden things. We do well to surmise the hidden things.
In 2000 I was leading a team of students on a Habitat For Humanity build in Cape Town, South Africa. We hit the ground with great enthusiasm and on the first day on site we dug the tenches for the foundations of three houses. Two would have done but instead of taking the late afternoon to rest we let our enthusiasm get the best of us.
When we finished it was exhilarating. I remember taking my gloves off and throwing the shovels into the back of the van. For someone who works on lap tops and at lecterns it was like the first hard days work I had done since my summer job green keeping at Ballymena Golf Club.
A couple of hours later we were in The Waterfront in Cape Town with half an hour to shop before our evening meal. My hands were sore so I picked up some painkillers and a bottle of water. My hands were by now is some pain. A medical student on the team sent me off for some pain killing tablets. So I did BUT I couldn’t get the top off the bottle of water to wash them down.
I understood the pain. I had quantifiable evidence for the weariness. Three dug out trenches. The lifting of the spades. The shovelling. There were no surprises at the conditions of my hands.
There are many things that weary us that are not as obvious. Hidden things. I find grief to be such. Bereavement is exhausting yet you don’t see the heaviness that you are carrying to make you feel tired.
This past Coronavirus Year has laid many hidden upon our minds and hearts and souls. We have been unknowingly burdened. We might not understand our weariness but I want to say that after a year of this strange kind of living it is totally understandable.
In March 2020 so many of the hidden energisers in our lives were ripped out without a sound. I didn’t notice them for such a long time. Indeed I thought I was glad to be missing them. Yet eventually even my introverted only child syndrome realised that I was weary because so many adrenaline stimulations were withdrawn from our lives.
All those casual conversations with friends. All the different places we used to find ourselves. High streets, shopping centres, sports stadiums, concert halls, cafes, restaurants. Sitting in the same few rooms for 12 long months is not as rich in spark. We end up weary. I certainly have.
There is more. All the worry about family who we cannot see. No church or singing. All the concentration on social distances and remembering to wash hands. The new skills needed to work social media. On top of all of this many have grieved without the familiar grieving processes of house visits and funeral services.
All these hidden things. There seems no evidence for why were are tired. But we are. With all that we have been through we should be weary. As my late friend the singer Rich Mullins used to say, “The life I’m living you should worry about me if I’m not weary. I’d had to have done a deal with the devil to not be weary.”
It is a time to be gentle with self. To be honest. Not to lie to ourselves. For me it is a time to fix my eyes on what we also cannot see, God’s grace and strength. There I might find resilience to make it through the weariness, that probably won’t come back until the hidden things return.
I wrote the lyrics of this a while back and Gareth Black did a great job at conjuring it into. song. Eleanor Black then added her voice.
In Fitzroy we used the song and video to follow the prayer below... remembering all who died during this year of Coronavirus and those who grieve in tough days to grieve.
Going through tough times
Has been even tougher
In this tough year of Coronavirus
It is as if there is an extra bitter twist
In the already hard to swallow taste
These have been even more deadly days for dying
An extra separation.
Lord you know that
This social distancing, for safety
Is dangerous to the heart
You created us so that
The heart needs proximity
To touch brows
And hold hands
“I love you,”
Lord we believe that
Jesus invaded every distance
Ripped the veil of holy detachment
To reach in close
To enter deathly places
To feel the isolation
To experience unfair separation.
So Lord we thank you
That Jesus sympathises, empathises
And understands our loneliness
Our grief and pain
And weeps with us
We thank you that nothing
That we have gone through in Covid 19 days
Can separate us from him
Or his love.
Lord this morning we remember everyone
Who has lost a loved one in this past year
Lord in these days of hellish distance
May everyone mourning know
That you were near their loved one
Closer than any of us could ever be
Pour out your assurance and comfort and consolation
Be close to them in their grieving.
Teach them to be gentle with their hearts
To not deny their grief
But to defiantly fix their eyes on you
Lord may they become reliant on you
May they find hope
May they know your care and repair
Of their broken hearts
In these tough days in a tough year
May they approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in their time of need.
Fear might be a common word as we begin to consider the long exit out of lockdown. I wonder if there will be a fear to go back into stores, to take off masks or to cross social distances. Will some fear that the vaccine isn’t full proof. A year of disciplined caution in how we live will take some time to undo.
My biggest fear is a spiritual one. In all the hardships of the Coronavirus Year it has brought with it opportunities. We have been given a time to stop, to breathe, to reassess and to reboot. In the midst of the tragic deaths, the mental health crisis and the pressures on health, education and the economy there has been perhaps a grace moment within it all.
In his book Let Us Dream, that I review elsewhere, the Pope wrote, “In every personal ‘covid’, so to speak, in every ‘stoppage’ what is revealed is what needs to change; our lack of internal freedom, the idols we have been serving, the ideologies we have tried to live by, the relationships we have neglected.”
What needs to change? We have been released for an enforced period from the clutter and fuss of what Marilynne Robinson calls the “joyless urgency”. I believe that in this Coronavirus retreat there are myriads of lessons invitingly hanging in the air. Are we going to grab them or are these sacred moments going to vanish, wasted.
That is my fear. Had we only had six weeks it would have been difficult not to just snap back into “old normal” but we have now been gifted enough time to conjure and hone a brand “new different”. It would be a sinful tragedy if we just go back.
I am thinking about my pre Coronavirus busyness, the clutter that distracted my life from love and family, the lazy lure of consumerism as some kind of pick me up, the time spent in a car or plane and the environmental price, where the ambition of our lives are directed, our human arrogance giving way to dependence on God.
So many things. We hope that the time to ponder, to repent, to rebirth is shortening ahead of us. The time to act is now urgent. I fear I will miss it. I fear we will miss it. I fear the “old normal”. Please God focus our hearts and souls and minds.
(this was my Belfast Telegraph column on March 6th 2021)
It happened this week. It happens, usually one day in March, every year. Janice and I are out for a walk with the dog and I notice it. The sky is blue and even more intriguing, the sun feels warm! It is the first glimpse of spring.
Every time it happens it brings a smile to my face and immediately George Harrison’s voice is in my ear... “Here Comes The Sun... little darling...” That Beatles’ song is for me me the ultimate celebration of sunshine. George Harrison's guitar seems vibrant with goodness and words and melody are full of hope
George Harrison wrote Here Comes the Sun at a time in rock history when things were far from sunny. Just two years after they sang ‘All You Need Is Love’, the Beatles were breaking up. It was while Harrison was escaping the managerial backbiting that he found himself in Eric Clapton’s garden, and with the sun shining he found some hopefulness. “It’s been a long cold lonely winter but here comes the sun”.
Winter is often a symbol of discontent and we have been living through a metaphorical winter have we not? Summer is where we would rather be. We all need songs of hope. We all need hope. I needed it this week. I have been a little under the weather this past month. The sun, the warmth, the song…
Singing Here Comes The Sun this March has more resonance than ever. There is a hope in the air that is even more than about flowers in spring. We are all looking at our world opening up again. The death statistics are falling, the pressure on our hospitals is easing, that vital R number is falling and we are all getting our vaccines. Hope is springing indeed.
Hope is a major word in the Christian faith. God bringing hope from the very first chapters in Genesis when all seemed to have been broken and irredeemable there is a hint of better days down the down the road.
The Old Testament is a long story of a hoped for Messiah who will bring hope to the entire world. Taking up with Jesus connects us to a long heritage and finds me part of God's story full of liberation, redemption and purpose. Faith in Jesus is not just some ‘pie in the sky when we die’ hope, but a belief in a divine presence that brings strength, grace and wisdom to change what is into what could be. As American activist Jim Wallis describes it, hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and watching the evidence change.
We all need the Here Comes The Sun moments. We all need hope. Perhaps one of the many benefits of the Coronavirus Year has been that many of us were stripped of all our arrogance and had to lean back on God. In our western world we can easily put our confidence in our wealth, our comforts, our medical knowledge and human intelligence.
Coronavirus threw us off our feet, left us struggling to orientate ourselves in this once in a lifetime experience. For many of us we found ourselves falling back into the arms of a loving God. It was good to find an anchor. It was good to find the truth of Emmanuel that word for Jesus that means “God with us”. That became our hope.
As we enter this more hopeful moment. As we begin to move out of the isolation, claustrophobia and home pressures and back to a more open Covid-19 free life maybe we need to commit to actually learn what we have learned and not just leave the lesson behind. The vaccine is not the saviour of the world. Scientific research is not our most robust hope. Jesus is our hope.