CORONAVIRUS TIMES

LESSON OF CORONAVIRUS - WE ARE ALL DIFFERENT

Everyone-is-different-doodle

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.


BALLYCASTLE BANNED AGAIN - WHY IT WOULD BE ANTI-EASTER TO GO

Jani and Jed Beach

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!


SURMISING THE HIDDEN THINGS - CORONAVIRUS WEARINESS

Covid-fatigue

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.


BE GENTLE MY HEART - MARKING ONE YEAR OF LOSS AND GRIEF

 

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.

 

Lord

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

To whisper 

“I love you,” 

"Thank you,” 

“Goodbye.”

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.

 

Amen

 


MY BIGGEST FEAR AS WE EXIT LOCKDOWN

Exit lockdown

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. 


HOPING IT IS ON THE TURN - HERE COMES THE SUN

Hope

(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.


PAUL COOKSON - FIGHTING TALK AND CAN OF WORMS; A Covid 19 Poetry Diary

Cookson

 

I cannot get enough of these books. Flicking across their pages I laughed, I sympathised, I welled up, I remembered and I raged. Paul Cookson has been writing poetry for decades but it is almost as if his gift was honed for such a time as this. He has captured ten months of living through Covid 19 with a holistic breath and depth that I don’t think he ever thought about doing when he set out.

Paul Cookson is a funny funny man. I have watched him doing his day job, grabbing the attention of Primary School children making them laugh and opening them up a love for poetry. I have actually laughed so hard that I thought I might pass out!

In the innocent Coronavirus days back last March, Paul committed to writing a poem every day. I bet he regrets that commitment. A few rhymes for a week or two turned into a year! Yet, every day there on Facebook… another poem! I followed the days, then weeks, then months on Facebook. Every day. 

Writing a poem every day is quite a task. It is not the quantity of the poems that impresses. It is that every day he found something of a weightiness to say. I have found these books a rather astonishing way to look back at the strange year we have lived through. Actually reading them, looking back has been much more profound than when I read them at the time.

Now, let me explain. Mr Cookson has a few roles in his poetic life as well as making a Primary School class love poetry. He is the Poet-In-Residence for the National Football Museum as well as for Everton in the Community. He is Poet Laureate for Slade too. He is even in a band with Slade drummer Don Powell!

So there are some wonderful entries about football and Glam Rock. However, this collection encompasses national issues and communal issues that sit alongside Paul’s own personal experience. It is a rich tapestry of what we have been going through. There are dull days, mental challenge, grief, tributes, praise for the NHS, sympathy for teachers and lots of political critique. 

These collection are about Coronavirus life in all its fulness in a punchy clever arranging of words and rhymes. They are an entertaining national history. Thank you Paul for committing to that first poem and keeping on… and on… and on. 


GIVING THANKS CHANGES PERSPECTIVE

Gratitudewall1

(I wrote this article for my Belfast Telegraph column, February 5, 2021)

 

It was just a momentary whim. 

As our weekly Fitzroy Zoom Prayer meeting began I suggested that for the first ten minutes we didn’t ask God for anything. Instead we would just gave God thanks. I admitted that it difficult to not be asking for something in prayer. It is like the old Fruit Pastilles advertisement that suggested you couldn’t suck without chewing.

We did it. Ten minutes. We gave thanks for family. For neighbours. For phones. For social media. For food and electricity. For gardens and parks. For a walk in the fresh air. For God and faith and hope.

There was so much to fill ten minutes of thanksgiving.

It was a mood changer. So often in these times we can focus on restrictions and all the downsides. I am not daring to suggest that there are not some serious challenges to this kind of living but we need also be aware of the blessings that we have as make our way through.

Something else heightened my thanksgiving.

Irish singer Declan O’Rourke has a new record out soon called Arrivals. In seeking it out I discovered an album of O’Rourke’s that I had somehow missed. In 2017 he recorded an album called Chronicles Of The Irish Famine. It is an astonishing piece of storytelling, songwriting and music. 

Missing the record at the time might have been fortuitous. To be listening to an album about the famine, the hunger and disease that decimated the Irish population, was poignant in the middle of Coronavirus. There is one song about a priest pleading with God for help for his people. There is no food. It is a freezing cold winter. People are dying everywhere without any kind of help at all. 

As I compared our Tuesday Zoom Prayer meeting and the desperate prayers of a priest during the famine I had even more reasons to be thankful. Most of us are living in good homes, with heat and comfortable furniture. We have clothes and shoes. We have plenty of food available in the shops with electricity to cook it on. Never forget the running water. Those of us who have gotten ill have had the most amazing NHS to look after us in well equipped hospitals.

When the apostle Paul writes to the church at Philippi he isn’t living in some comfortable world with all mod cons either. He tells this little community of faith to Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” Later he goes on about the tough times he has known, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

It seems that Paul was way ahead of me. He knew the spiritual benefit of the spiritual practice of rejoicing and giving thanks. Rejoicing and thanksgiving remind us not only of the blessings, no matter how fragile our world might be, but also of the one who gives us reasons to be thankful. Paul found strength in Jesus.

I invite you to join me in spending time this week in thanksgiving and rejoicing. I pray that it will help us all “be content in every situation”.


100,000 DEATHS... BE THE LIGHT... OR BE THE DARK...

100 000 deaths

(this is my Belfast Telegraph column on January 22, 2021...)

 

“There is always light

If only we are brave enough to see it

If only we are brave enough to be it.”

 

The words of that “young skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother who had a dream about being President and ended up reading a poem for the one”. Amanda Gorman. What energy. What poise. After her big moment, she spoke to James Cordon about how words are how she does her magic. 

Ms Gorman’s poem at the inauguration of the 46th President of America had me in tears at one moment, cheering like I was at a soccer game at another and feeling the call of God by the end.

The Coronavirus days are not going away. They seem to be getting worse. Watching the news at 6 can be harrowing. There is a lot of isolation and fear. We are locked down now until at least March 5th, almost a year since went into the first lockdown. 

It is dark. Way more people have died in the UK than in the Second World War. Think of the sacrifices people made to win that war. We need to show similar resilience and commitment. Your country needs you.

Yet, many are flouting the restrictions and playing loose with the lives of their families, neighbours community - even themselves. I have come more and more convinced that those who are ignoring this war on the virus should be made as socially reprehensible as drink drivers.

We have a choice. To be the light. Or the dark. 

I had a hand in writing the theme song for this year’s 4 Corners Festival that begins on January 31st. The song and the Festival is all about breathing hope. I feel a little insecure quoting it in the same article that I write about Amanda Gorman but the chorus goes:

 

Will we be the dark

Will we be the death

Will we be the kiss

Will we be the breath

 

Though we don’t use the word light in the lyric you can see the stark challenge. We are hoping that the 4 Corners Festival is a light and breath of hope across our city in the first week of February. On a daily basis we as a society have a choice to be the the dark or to be the light in our neighbourhoods, cities and town lands.

 

The light is actually most powerful when it shines in the deepest darkness. Oh how we have seen that light shining in the exhausting compassion of our NHS, as well as the staff in schools, those who have served at Foodbanks and so many others who have made the shadows more bearable in this strange year. 

 

What I loved about the last few lines of Amanda’s Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb was how she took two lines from Jesus and blended them. Jesus declares “I am lhe light of the world” — “If we are brave enough to see it”. He also looks at his followers and tells them “you are the light of the world” - “if we are brave enough to be it”.

 

That is where in Amanda Gorman’s poem I heard the call of God. She held the charisma and unction of the preacher and I heard those words as an encouragement in the darkness of what we are struggling through:

 

“There is always light

If only we are brave enough to see it

If only we are brave enough to be it.”

 

God, give me the courage…

 

Find out more and book events - https://4cornersfestival.com


WHEN NEW IS NOT REALLY NEW... YET!

Jools New Year

(This was my Belfast Telegraph Coronavirus Column on Friday January 8, 2021)

 

Just a couple of weeks into a new year and not much has changed. If anything we are further back into the old. We are back into lockdown. Oh there was a stroke at midnight nine days ago but 2021’s “NEW” is going to take much more than one or twelve gongs on Jools Holland!

We have every reason to hope in a “NEW” 2021 but not yet. It is going to take time to roll out the vaccine. It is going to take time before the life of 2020 splits off into the whole “NEW” thing of 2021.

It has had me thinking about the apostle Paul and his new life when he converted to Jesus. There he was persecuting the Church. He was anti-Christ, if you like.

Suddenly, in one instant on the road to Damascus he was blinding by a light. The light of Christ. 

Paul’s life was turned around in one dramatic moment. However, the “NEW” didn’t come for some time. He had to go and wait in a house in Damascus until God sent Ananias to give him back his sight. He then spent three years in the desert being prepared by the Holy Spirit. It was only then that the new Paul became the greatest missionary of Jesus church.

I cannot help but see us in a potent place just before the real “NEW” year dawns. It is a place of reflection, leaving the past behind, making big choices and creating a better future.

One of the many lessons we have learned in Coronavirus is that timelines are difficult to set in stone. Yet, a few months from now the vaccine will start to kick in and we will start to peer out again. Again, that will not be on a stroke of a clock. It will be gradual. Then somewhere further through the year we will be free from this restricted life.

In these few months still restricted we need to be reflective. We need to be asking if there were lessons to learn during this crazy year. What of the old normal do we want to eradicate from our lives when the “NEW” opens up. 

We need to be resolving to live better ways. TO make better choices. To love our neighbour more. To be prepared to deny ourselves, as Jesus asked us to do, and as we have been forced to do in Coronavirus Times. 

The new year is here already but the “NEW” of 2021 is yet to break in. Let us see it is a time of preparation for how God might want us to live in and shape the future.