From Fr Nicholas Clews
Wednesday 1st April
There is a video version of this reflection on the facebook page of St Margaret Thornbury
Tuesday 31st March
You can hear this reflection on the facebook page St Margaret Thornbury.
We are all bereaved. Not on account of the physical death of friends or family members, for the it is quite unlikely that any of us will ever know personally anyone who has died thorough Coronavirus. But we are in mourning for the loss of a way of life. It seems an age since those wonderful days when we could walk or drive where we liked, gather in groups without any anxiety, visit our friends or relations and give them a hug or shake hands without any sense that what we were doing was dangerous. We have lost a lot.
It is important to know this because in many ways we are all driven by our emotions and over the next few months we will all be driven by the emotions of people passing through bereavement. Our reactions to others will not necessarily be strictly rational.
Even now we can see controversy growing over how the Police enforce social distancing. Perhaps some Chief Constables are driven by anxiety; perhaps those who resist their actions are driven by anger. Perhaps those who try to carry on as normal are driven by denial. Perhaps those who want to hold the Chinese government accountable are driven by a need to blame someone.
We can deal with this by being aware of emotions, most especially our own. But we need to make sure that we and others are properly informed. The starting point is always knowledge of how the virus is spread and what its effect will be. And we need to make sure that we have the right information. Good sources are the NHS and HM Government. Advice from friends or obscure websites with no indication of its ultimate source should always be checked against good sources. From this essential information we can understand why the Government is calling for such radical changes in our behaviour.
But perhaps the great support we need to offer is emotional – phone calls to friends or family. But what I remember above all is that God is with us. The words of the prophet Isaiah may seem a little overdone but just because words are familiar it does not mean they are untrue; and familiar words can be very comforting:
Do not be afraid… When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
Monday 30th March.
Since our social lives have become so restricted, we have all had to find new things to do in our leisure time. Yesterday, my wife, Lynn, developed her new upholstery skills. I delved into the family photograph albums.
Looking back over old photographs can degenerate into mere nostalgia (‘Nostalgia isn’t what is used to be’ as the saying goes). And nostalgia can lead to the fantasy that the past was wonderful and if only we could make things as they used to be all would be well.
But looking back has its positive side. We are all products of our past, both as individual and nations, and at the very least we have to live with our past; at the best we might want to celebrate it. Looking back over the photograph albums has reminded me of what I already knew – that I have a wonderful family and we have had some good times together.
Looking has long been used as a form of prayer by Christians. The principle is that we discern where God has worked in our lives; there is an assumption that if we can see where God has worked in the past then we will have more confidence that he (or she) will work the future. Unlike with financial investments, past performance is a guide to the future!
The people of Israel believed in this principle very strongly as a nation. Every year they celebrated – and still celebrate – the Passover, when God delivered them from slavery in Egypt. At this time of year Christians do the same. But what we celebrate is not our rescue from slavery to an earthy ruler, but our rescue from the tyranny of Satan. The Jewish passover has become the symbol of this Christian hope.
We are approaching this time of year now, when we remember the Passover and also the suffering and death of Jesus. In a sense we relive his passion. But as we do so we have not forgotten that death ends in resurrection. Even in Holy Week we are an Easter people. Past and present are as one.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
From Fr Robert Johnson
Saturday 28th March
A trip to the Dales would have been wonderful in yesterday’s sunshine. But not appropriate. So in my statutory exercise period I walked out of the vicarage, turned right on Galloway Lane and headed towards Pudsey. Within minutes I found myself on the edge of a steep hill with a panoramic view of the Fulneck Valley and the Tyersal Beck. It was not quite Wensleydale but it was very beautiful. And all just a short walk from a very urban setting.This was a reminder that beauty, like God, is found close at hand, in the familiar.
That truth lies behind one of the criticisms sometimes made of the religious practice of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage, by definition, is going on a journey, somewhere else, to find God. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, but it can you encourage the expectation that God can only be found somewhere else. And so we can be left in a perpetual state of longing, wanting things to be other than they are, wanting to be in a different place, a different time, with different people. ‘If only….’ can be a very sad and even dangerous phrase. It prevents us from making the best of what we have. It condemns us to living in the past, in the future and never in the present.
Finding God in our immediate circumstances has long been part of the Jewish and Christian traditions. The prophet Jeremiah urged the Jewish people to make the most of their exile in Babylon, to settle down, find husbands and wives for their children and build houses. (Jeremiah 29:5-6) The apostle Paul writing from prison to the church in Philippi reminded his readers that God was close to them:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Brother Lawrence led a rather obscure and outwardly unexciting life in seventeenth century France, working in the kitchen of a monastery. He is remembered because he wrote down his experience of prayer in a book that is now known as The Practice of the Presence of God. Among his words are these:
“He does not ask much of us, merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you, in the midst of your troubles to take solace in Him as often as you can. Lift up your heart to Him during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing to Him. One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think.”
Fr Nicholas Clews
Thursday 26th March 2020
When I was a student at theological college, Holy week, the seven days leading up to Easter, had a very special feel. We stopped travelling to university lectures and stayed in college. We continued the usual routine of prayer and meals but the academic business of writing essays was put on hold. The sense of stillness intensified halfway through the week as we gave up conversation and ate together in silence. There was a great sense of expectation because we knew it would culminate on Easter Eve in a great celebration with a bonfire, the Vigil Mass and a party!
The present time feels very much like Holy Week to me. Yesterday, as I cycled round Pudsey and Thornbury during my statutory exercise period, the roads were virtually deserted. And as it was a lovely sunny afternoon it felt a little like a French provincial tiown settling into its early afternoon siesta!
But siestas always end with the rapid return to the bustle of normal life. Holy Week ends, with utterly reliable predictability, in the celebration of Easter. But if the present time feels a little like Holy Week to me, the strange thing is that we have no idea when Easter will come, nor what it will be like.
But the present time will end. There will be at least the opportunity for resurrection, for new life. And we need to begin planning for it now! If we don’t plan for it, it won’t happen. Last night I cleaned my study. I moved my desk and all the chairs and got rid of the cobwebs. I dusted, I polished, I vacuumed the carpets. It’s what I used to do in Holy Week. It was a symbolic way of putting the past behind me and preparing for the future.
The present time has been compared to ‘the war’. In many ways it is quite an appropriate comparison for it has brought us together in a remarkable way. When we go shopping supermarket assistants instruct us to stand on the markers placed two metres apart and we all obey instantly. Yesterday the government’s call for NHS volunteers was oversubscribed by a factor of two within twenty four hours. The nation that had been bitterly divided by Brexit is suddenly united again in the face of an invisible enemy from outside.
But in recent history we have of course enjoyed two world wars. And our responses to each were very different. After World War I the ruling class punished the working people of both Britain and Germany. The people of Britain came very close to rebelling and at times the ruling class were very much afraid of it. The people of Germany did rebel and found a solution that turned out to be very much worse than the problem. We responded in a very different way to World War II. The German and French nations resolved never to go to war again. The government of the United States committed vast resources to rebuilding Europe. Britain created the welfare state and the National Health Service and there has remained a consensus between the two major political parties these are both important to our national identity.
In the present crisis we have discovered new ways of living. We have learned to support each other and to look out for the vulnerable. We have learned that there are beautiful places to walk on our own doorsteps. We have learned that we don’t need to go shopping quite so often and that we can make interesting meals from surprising ingredients that we have found at the back of our pantries.
When we return to something like normal life the old problems will remain. But we can choose. We can choose to devote our resources to jetting around the world and driving gas-guzzling road-hogging luxury cars. Or we can choose to build better flood defences and develop low carbon technology.
The Book Deuteronomy sets out a very similar message from the Lord God to the people of Israel as they enter the promised land:
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
In a similar way, we have the opportunity to choose life or death. Or rather, we will have passed through death to find life on the other side. And the strange thing about the resurrection life is that it is very different from the life before. One of the strange characteristics of the resurrection of Jesus is that his closest friends did not immediately recognise him. He hadn’t stopped being Jesus. He hadn’t become someone else. But the experience of death had changed him. We, as individuals, as a church, as a nation, have the opportunity, the responsibility, to choose life. And the resurrection-life will be different from the one we knew before.
Wednesday 25th March 2020
Today is known in the Christian Church as the Feast of the Annunciation. It’s the day when we remember how the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that God wanted her to give birth to his only son. More importantly, it’s when Mary said ‘yes’ and God became one of us or, to use the jargon, became incarnate.
It was an incredible risk. Mary could have said ‘no’; infant mortality was high; and if you were a Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine there was a reasonable chance you could be executed on a trumped up charge of political subversion.
There is a great deal of ‘becoming one of us’ going on at the moment. A great deal of incarnation. It came home to me when I saw a photograph of a family member on Facebook, dressed from head to foot in plastic, looking rather like an astronaut. This is what doctors wear when they are caring for coronavirus patients. He wrote, rather flippantly, of it being the ‘new look’ for spring. Some of his Facebook friends described him as a ‘hero’.When we spoke by phone he was quick to point out that the nursing staff are the real heroes as they are continually in contact with their patients throughout the day while the doctors flit in and out for an occasional consultation. We then both agreed that much more visible but less acknowledged heroes are the shop staff who meet hundreds of members of the public every day, some of whom will be carrying the virus unknown to them, and most of whom will be met at a distance of less than the statutory two metres.
I did some shopping yesterday. I made a point of speaking to the shop assistants and saying, ‘thank you for being here’. One of them replied, with a smile, ‘People need feeding!’ My simple act of generosity, at no cost to myself, was invariably met by a similarly generous response. There is a technical, theological term for this: grace. Grace begins with the generosity of God but continues to be shown in the generosity of human beings. As John the gospel writer puts it
For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. (John 1:16)
I met a great deal of grace yesterday. I saw and spoke with God on several occasions, and God usually took the form of a shop assistant.
St Paul wrote
Jesus Christ, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Someone in our own time wrote:
What if the great initiative had not gone to plan?
Maybe the girl had said ‘no’;
or the usual childhood illnesses had intervened with death;
or the workman’s son sustained a minor but probably fatal injury;
or the Eternal One simply come to like his way of life
and chosen to avoid the necessary conflict.
Would The Two have been left in the empty nest?
Or lumped with son who wouldn’t leave home?
Sense, perhaps would prevail and another plan be sought.
Tuesday 24th March 2020
It is over thirty years since I trained for the priesthood, supported by a very holy man, Fr George Moffat. He ended his full time ministry as Rector of Bolton Abbey but we were together in a very different place, a coal mining village called South Elmsall, in Beyond-Wakefield.
Fr George had a passion for keeping the church open to all-comers during the day. I think this passion sprang from two key beliefs: that the church belonged to all the people of the village and not just the eighty or so who worshipped regularly, and that although it was possible to pray anywhere, some places were – well, just special.
The Jews knew all about special places. They had one that was special above all others – the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus and Mary and all their family made a regular pilgrimage there for the Passover celebration. But there was a time, some centuries before Jesus, when the Jews had been unable to do that. In the year 587 BC they were invaded by the Babylonians and their leaders taken away to exile in their captors’ city, which we might know as Basra, in southern Iraq.
There were many dreadful aspects to this exile but one that the Jews felt keenly was their inability to worship in Jerusalem. We know this because they wrote a song about it, which we know by the rather prosaic title of Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
Back in 1978 Boney M set this to music as the pop song By the Rivers of Babylon where it stayed at No 1 for five weeks and, according to Wikipedia, remaining one of the top ten best selling singles of all time. Its popularity can only be because its theme of exile and separation is one that many people have experienced over many centuries. And that now includes all of us.
We can no longer visit family and friends; when, last night, I tried to phone my elderly mother, who lives a hundred miles away, I received the message that ‘all lines are engaged.’ When I got through to her and tried to place an on-line grocery order for her – she is 91 years old – I found that either all slots were booked until well after Easter or supermarkets were not accepting new customers.
Perhaps all this was symbolised the fact that last night I locked St James Church and I do not know when I will open it. The passion that Fr George Moffat had for keeping churches open was contagious – and I caught it. Never have I kept a church locked and on one occasion I had to accept the resignation of a churchwarden in order to achieve it. That both our churches will remain locked indefinitely is a symbol of our exile. We cannot gather together for worship. We cannot even sit in a church. With the ancient Jews we might well lament,
How can we sing the Lord’s Song in a foreign land?
But they did. The existence of Psalm 137 is evidence of that! And we will. This morning I will say Morning Prayer at nine o’clock and my colleague at St Clements and St Augustine will say it at the same time. We will then speak by phone and have coffee together. I invite you to join me in prayer any day at nine or five o’clock. I will be phoning members of my congregations throughout this week and the Weekly Bulletin will be sent out-by email where possible or even Royal Mail where necessary.
If you would like to receive a copy of the Weekly Bulletin with a sermon please send me your email address. There is more than one way of being the church.
Oh, and I got through to my mother using the mobile network and at 5:30 this morning I found an on-line delivery spot. My mother will not run out of cabbage!
Tuesday 17th March 2020
I spent my time of prayer today with a piece of music called The Beatitudes, by Arvo Part. It’s a setting, lasting about ten minutes, of some of the best-known words of Jesus: ‘Blessed the pure in heart’ and so on. It’s a setting for a small choir, largely without accompaniment. I was struck by how it gradually got higher and higher in pitch, as if it were a picture of Jesus ascending into heaven, ascending into the clouds, getting smaller and smaller until he disappeared. When the skies are clear I can see aircraft above our house doing something like that as they set off from Leeds Bradford airport to the far corners of the earth.
Something rather surprising happens towards the end of this largely choral piece. We become aware that somewhere in the texture there is an organ hiding. As the words come to an end the organ comes out of hiding in a joyful, exultant, cadenza like passage, dancing high up in the sky. And it’s the organ which has the last word, not the choir which has dominated the piece. Words are now put behind us in a word-less ecstasy. It is as if Part is telling us that words can take us so far in expression and after that have to rely on music alone. Some emotions are beyond words.
This is not a new idea. Many early Christians latched on to the notion that God is so far beyond human experience that we can say nothing about him. He’s quite simply not like anything else in the whole of creation. Even to refer to God as ‘he’ or ‘him’ does not really make sense. We may call God our ‘father’ or our ‘Lord’ or our ‘friend’ but these words are very rough approximations. God is none these. He is God!
The Early Christians were not the first people to work this out. Five hundred years before the time of Jesus the prophet Isaiah wrote
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
And we can go back even earlier than this. When Moses stood before the burning bush and God spoke to him, Moses asked God for his name. (Exodus 3) He wanted to pin God down, define him, put him in a box – limit him. And God refuses to play the game. He replies ‘My name is I am. I am who I am.’ When the Israelites ask the name of the God who has sent him, Moses is to reply, ‘I am has sent me!’
The point is that we cannot know anything about God until we know him. Faith is not about intellectual knowledge but personal experience. That is why in Arvo Part’s piece of music the words do not have the last word. Faith goes beyond words. Or, to change the metaphor from music to food, ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’ (1 Peter 3:3 quoting Psalm 34:8)