CORONAVIRUS TIMES

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.


DELIGHTED THAT THE CHURCH LEADERS CLOSED CHURCHES

CHURCHES CLOSED

I was delighted to hear that our Church leaders had made the call to close worship services and go online until February. 

This is not an easy decision for churches. Worship services are our family meals. It is the centre of the dynamic of our family life, when we connect horizontally with one another and vertically with God. For our church leaders to take such a decision after discussions with junior ministers at Stormont is a well thought through and sacrificial decision.

When Jesus called his disciples he said, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Self denial is at the centre of our faith. Jesus himself denied himself. As the King of the Universe he made himself a baby in a manger, a servant with a towel washing his disciples feet, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and dying on a cross of wood for all of humankind. That is the denial and cross carrying that Jesus tells us marks the church.

So when the world is struggling through a pandemic, hospitals at capacity, NHS staff being pushed to their limits and neighbours fighting for their lives and dying, then it is the right and proper Jesus way to deny ourselves for the common good. 

I was a little disturbed when Scottish church leaders attempted to get services open. My reasons were more than just the self denial.

If I was being harsh I would suggest that the current Covid 19 wave as seen in the 10,000 people admitted to hospitals across the UK since Christmas Day is because of our inability as a society to deny ourselves and love our neighbour.

For months we have tried to live as close to the edge of restrictions as we can. We have flaunted the very best piece of advice -  to minimise our contact with other people and to only do essential things. I do not think we have. 

Such a cultural change needs a strong example. It needs a swathe of strong influencers. What we see our neighbours do will make us think or be thoughtless about what we do. If we all slack on our alertness then the ripple effect a slackness across our society. 

What the Church leaders have done by closing worship services for a month, and going on-line until then, is a message to our own members to take this crisis and our responsibility for its curtailing seriously. They are asking us all for Jesus-like example to the wider society. With shops and theatres and bars and cinemas closed it would not have been a good witness for a self denying Jesus or a good role model for our country.

Families can survive without the family meals for a time. Churches can survive without gathering for a time,. That we have on-line services, prayer meetings and other such virtual connections is not perfect but it is a huge resource to see us through these difficult times. I keep saying that Fitzroy is not closed, it is just meeting in different ways. 

Let us be those on the forefront of setting the best example in these times. Let us be those who in the vanguard of the campaign to minimise the impact of this virus. Let the church be a shining example. We don’t have to do anything new or different. We just need to do what we are - cross carrying self deniers and the light of the world. 

Well done church leaders. God grace and imagination for the decisions you will face in the days ahead.


JOHN TRINDER'S WEEKLY ICU UPDATE 4.1.2021

Covid JT 4.1.2021
 
John Trinder's Weekly update on ICU bed status in NI. 
 
There are currently 87 patients in ICUs across Northern Ireland, compared to 80 last week and obviously still exceeding the usual maximum capacity we can sustainably deliver of 72.
Of these 87, 42 are COVID-19 (a 24% increase from 34 last week).
 
So our ICUs continue to be over capacity. At a time of the year when we are used to running at or near full capacity of the 72 longterm funded beds (i.e. staffed ICU beds) across Northern Ireland, we now have 42 beds occupied by just one disease which wasn't around in previous years. It's therefore hardly surprising that we have over-run our beds staffed with trained ICU nurses (see my earlier posts highlighting just what responsibility and activities ICU nurses deliver), that hospitals are struggling, and that hospital staff have been urging adherence to public health measures to avoid that single disease increasing further than necessary and forcing uncomfortable choices (beyond our usual triage) with what and whom to prioritise.
 
The graph attached shows the situation across all wards in Northern Ireland, not just ICU beds. A proportion of ward admissions continuously translates into ICU admissions after some time in hospital. ICUs take the sickest patients with a reasonable prospect of survival following intensive care. Of the COVID-19 hospital inpatients in Northern Ireland as of last night, the biggest age group is 80 and over (193 inpatients); however 43 inpatients are aged 50-59, 107 are aged 60-69, 20 are aged 40-49, and 11 are aged 20-39 years old.
 
As you can see, the second wave of hospital admissions in Northern Ireland didn't return to baseline in the way that the first did, so the prospect of a third wave hitting whilst the second is still putting so much strain on services is particularly concerning.
 
Please continue to follow public health guidance and when you get a chance to get vaccinated (in the absence of contra-indication), take it. It is the way out of this dystopian nightmare we're all experiencing.

KINDNESS

Kindness

These past ten months have wizened us. As individuals and as a social collective. Lockdowns have sucked out our vitality... aged us. Perhaps made us a little cynical. We started strong on neighbourly love and cheering the NHS.

We got to Christmas a little more inward looking and trying to push every restriction. As we look ahead to a tough hard January but ultimately vaccine freeing spring we need something.

Something needs to "turn us tender again" as my friend Martyn Joseph sings. Something needs to lift our eyes again. Something needs to kindle our compassion. Something needs to mellow us. Let me take you on a journey into one word that might be a spark. 

It all started in Glenarm. Well, a singer from Glenarm anyway. The Antrim east coast’s most successful singer Ben Glover has a song on his brilliant new record Shorebound called Kindness:

 

“May you know kindness 

May kindness know you”

 

It is beautiful, like a prayer. 

Then I turned south, down the coast. Frank Turner’s Be More Kind album features 4 co-writes with Bangor’s Grammy nominated Iain Archer. Though Iain was not involved in the title track, that song is called Be More Kind! 

 

“In a world that has decided

That it's going to lose its mind

Be more kind, my friends, try to be more kind”

 

Staying with Iain Archer, an actual co-write of his, released the same week, by the band Peace, Kindness is The New Rock N Roll. With a rock strut they sing: 

 

“Kindness is new rock and roll

Kindness is the climax of the soul

It's all full of love bursting from the seams

So lets make kindness the new rock and roll”

 

That was not all. I blogged these lyrics and someone pointed out that I missed another quotation from an album I had just reviewed at the time. The title track of Courtney Marie Andrew’s superb record suggested kindness more powerful than wealth:

 

Fortune might buy you diamonds, all shiny and new

But it can't buy you happiness, or love that is true

And if your money runs out, and your good looks fade

May your kindness remain

 

Finally, Ray Lamontagne’s title track Part of the Light sees kindness as a light in the world:

 

When kindness is the greatest gift that one can share

Why choose hate to subjugate your fellow man

I don't know, I don't know, I don't know

I want to be a part of the light

Please let me be a part of the light

I want to be a part of the light

 

I would suggest that there is a Biblical argument for kindness being part of the light as Lamontagne sings. There it is in the fruit of the Holy Spirit as the apostle Paul lists them in Galatians 5“love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” 

How does kindness stand out in that list? Well, a quote by a Bible scholar caught my eye, “It (kindness) is the grace which pervades the whole nature, mellowing all which would be harsh and austere.”

Kindness as  a grace that mellows ten months of the heart and soul's frustration. From within us... to one another. "May you know kindness and may kindness know you."

 

 


HERE COMES THE NEW YEAR (NOT ON ONE STROKE OF MIDNIGHT)

Here Comes 2021

Here comes the New Year

Not on one stroke of midnight

As in any other year

Because 

Last year was not any other year

Nor the year to come

These are two years blurring into one

But they will

Please God

Eventually split someday

And 

That split is where to concentrate our new

 

Instead of one single moment

We are in a year between years

Between the old and the new

A year of frustration

Head hurt physical distance

Heart hurt social restriction

Soul hurt isolation

 

But in this anxious blur

We have time to see again

To surmise

The possibility of great correction

The potential of the new in New Year

The hope of newer ahead

Than the older back there

Newer in how we see each other

Newer in how we see the world

And our delicate, precious and unique place in it.

 

Here comes the New Year

Let us hope in “all things new”.


SHOULD WE CANCEL CHRISTMAS?

Cancel Christmas

(Should we cancel Christmas? This was a question I was asked on a panel on Sunday Sequence on BBC Radio Ulster on December 20, 2020...)

 

With all our restrictions and lockdowns as a response to this virus sweeping across the country again, some have suggested that Christmas should be cancelled? 

Absolutely not. I want to suggest that if ever there was a year that we needed a Christmas then it is 2020.

Indeed, might this not be our best ever Christmas. “Sometimes I wish we get rid of all the busyness and get to the real meaning of Christmas”. Well this is the time.

Of course you cannot cancel the spiritual season of Christmas. The Church year revolves around two major events in the life of Jesus. Easter is about his death and resurrection. Christmas is about his birth. You cannot cancel a calendar that is very very old.

The modern secular Christmas might be another thing. In some areas shops are shut, travel is being banned and family bubbles burst. We might not be able to visit and we might not have a present for those who we visit. I guess we could re-arrange our family meals and staff parties until the summer when we hope that this will all be over.

For those feeling their variety of Christmas ruined. I understand. I feel some sympathy. Can I ask that for a second you take a glance at our religious Christmas. There are many things in the nativity scenes that you can learn from even if you don’t believe in the transcendent. As I often say, if you don’t believe, read them like Aesops Fables and you will learn much wisdom. 

Waiting and patience and hope and a bright light at the end of it is a big part of the nativity. So, if your Christmas seems ruined why not look ahead to Christmas 2021. See it as a glorious light at the end of this tough winter of our souls. Use it as an energy for this difficult year. Don’t say that Christmas is ruined but look ahead to when it arrives.

For those of us of faith Christmas has no need to be cancelled. It is lovely to gather and sing carols as a community but the truth of what we sing has spiritual energy whether we are full churches or in our homes watching online services. 

In the year that we have lived through Christmas could not be any more necessary. In a year when the circumstances of a world in pandemic have forced us to distance from one another and indeed at times to isolate. When we have been forced to spend hospital time, perhaps even die and often grieve in lonely ways Christmas has the most healing of messages. 

The followers of the baby born believe that this is God, flesh and blood and bone breaking down every distance to move in among us. Please let’s not cancel that! We need it more than ever!


NOTES FROM THE ICU FRONTLINE - 21.12.2020

ICU
 
My friend John Trinder is on the ICU (Consultant Intensivist) Frontline. This is his weekly update. This is to help us understand the decisions of politicians and why we need to be alert and careful and love our neighbours.
 
Weekly update #10 on ICU capacity in Northern Ireland.
 
The purpose of this is to help folk understand why there is ongoing serious concern about provision of hospital services (for much more than COVID-19, but clearly contributed to by the demands COVID-19 continues to put on the NHS in Northern Ireland). This indicates why there is a continuing need to follow public health guidance and also to counter misinformation and misdirection.
 
There are currently 81 patients in ICUs across Northern Ireland, compared to 89 last week and obviously still exceeding the usual maximum capacity we can sustainably deliver of 72. Of these 81, 32 are COVID-19 (static from last week).
 
So our ICUs continue to be over capacity, a substantial proportion of the ICU patients are critically ill with COVID-19, and this demand continues to impact adversely on other services.
 
In my own institution, in the last couple of weeks we have sadly lost several patients due to COVID-19 who were relatively young and died despite many weeks of intensive care.
 
You will be aware via national media of the strain our hospitals continue to find themselves under for general beds too, and no healthcare professional is comfortable with a scenario where a further large increase in demand for emergency or urgent care (for any condition) could put us in a position where patients either suffer or die from delayed treatment, or we would have to make rationing choices with life-supporting treatments which would normally be unthinkable.
 
Please take care and do your best to prevent avoidable injury and infection whilst the NHS is struggling under unprecedented load. This is certainly not the same as annual winter pressures.
 
Wishing all a peaceful and happy Christmas under adverse circumstances.

WHAT A 5 DAY CHRISTMAS BUBBLE LOOKS LIKE TO A CHOCAHOLIC!

Chocaholic

(my Coronavirus Column in the Belfast Telegraph on December 20, 2020)

 

So, the big tight lockdown is on its way. I guess we figured that it was coming if not quite that soon. Looking at the statistics and the pressure on the hospitals it does seem the only thing to do. Fair play. Strong leadership. We knock our Executive a lot. Credit where it is due.

Who would be a politician at the best of times… never mind at the worst of times! So, I have been giving politicians a bit of slack and a lot of prayer. Even the ones I don’t like!

Now about the week leading up to Christmas and the 5 day bubble! That is a whole other thing entirely.

I am a chocolaholic. I mean, the real deal. I could eat an entire packet of dark chocolate digestives with one cup of coffee. Indeed, I have! I have tried to go cold turkey and as I have passed a petrol station I have been fighting with the steering wheel to go in and get a bar of chocolate… no… keep it on the road! 

That bit in the Lord’s prayer about leading us not into temptation… need I say more! Well, with all the political advice for Christmas my lead us not into temptation is sparking into flames.

Before the lockdown, it seems that we are free to binge. I find this very dangerous indeed. It seems like someone is saying that they are going to fill my chocoholic house with chocolate. All my favourite bars and biscuits. I can enjoy them all for five days days. There will be enough!

Then the giver seems to get a little uncertain. Actually they are pretty certain that all of this chocolate will be dangerous for my health. Diabetes. Obesity. Heart disease. 

However, they don’t want to disappoint me by taking it away. They did promise after all. So they are leaving it up to me! It might kill me… so be a big boy…

Lead us not into temptation!!!

So as we travel this “freedom” week before lockdown, I have been thinking about the fruit of the spirit. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes about this work of the Holy Spirit - “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Now that is what I need for the week ahead. Given these dangerous freedoms… love… patience… and particularly self control… stop being some ethereal spiritual mystical fluffiness and become the very robust, deep down characteristics that we all need if we are going to make it through this - please God - one and only Coronavirus Christmas. 

Boy do I need that self control in the week ahead. The temptation to make up for 9 months of restrictions knowing there is a six week lockdown ahead might be overwhelming. However, if we yield then it will be hospitals that are overwhelmed.

So, for Christmas 2020 give me big basket full of the fruit of the Spirit. Fill my room with that rather than chocolate or anarchic self indulgence. Indeed may we all gift the fruit of the Spirit to one another.


A COVID CHRISTMAS AND THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT

Covid Christmas

Seeing the roads just as busy as ever in December 2020 is almost a frightening thing. I know that this has been a long hard year. I know that we are all weary in general and restrictions and lockdowns have only added to that. BUT… this is not a time for relaxing our focus. Vaccines are being rolled out and although it will take a few months rather than weeks, we are looking at a light brightening up ahead in springtime. 

So, let us travel on the journey towards that light by living in ways that will allow as many of us possible to reach that light and not be lost along the road. Let us travel in ways that prevent our hospitals from being over run in such a way that the NHS is not stretched beyond its capacity and that others don’t miss vital care,  treatment and operations as a result.

We know that the less we are in the company of others the better the chance of stemming the impact of the virus. It will take effort and discipline, selflessness and a commitment to the common good.

In my own efforts I am looking for some help. In his letter to the Galatians the apostle Paul talks about the world of the Holy Spirit. Interestingly he starts with the opposite. All the opposites are self centred and lacking in control -  “…hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like”

The good stuff… the work of the Holy Spirit is all about love and discipline and patience. - love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

When Paul calls the first of these lists the ways of the flesh and the second the fruit of the Spirit, he is not meaning that the latter is just ethereal stuff that floats around some mystical nirvana. The Christmas story earths all of Christian theology and practice. If the fruit of the Spirit does not come though in our everyday behaviour then it is all just a lot of hot air uselessness.

The fruit of the Spirit comes into its own in times like these. As we try to delicately tip toe our way through this killer pandemic these are the things we need to start working. If these things get to work in us then there will be more of us still alive and healthy to enjoy the post pandemic days ahead.

These are all inner characteristics that pour out into strong robust resolve and action. Loving your neighbour. Finding peace deep inside. Forbearance and patience with restrictions and each other. Doing radical acts of kindness. Perhaps most important of all in Covid-19 days, self control and discipline.

With the word vaccine cheering us up and the excitement of the relaxing of up restrictions around Christmas Day it would be easy for our self control to weaken. 

Let’s not allow it. For one unique Christmas let us avoid big crowds; shop less or in more creative ways; and keep our gatherings down to a minimum. Jesus said, “by their fruit you will recognise them”. Let us pray that we will recognise the fruit of the Spirit in the low numbers of people in hospital and daily death stats come February.