Sometimes it feels as if we are being asked to do the impossible! That’s true at the present time for while we are being urged to ‘Stay Alert’ at the same time we know it’s also sensible to try to keep calm and collected. How can we do both? This shows that entering lockdown is simpler and easier that coming out of it. Even given that the intention is to ease restrictions gradually the dilemma remains. We must watch out for danger signs all around for us and others and yet, if we can, be relaxed about it. William Shakespeare could have been describing our experience of lockdown when he wrote (in ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’): ‘But now I am cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d, bound in/To saucy doubts and fears’. Certainly people nowadays talk of having ‘cabin fever’ and of feeling shut in. For those who can’t or don’t go to work after seven weeks of being confined to home life largely goes on as before. When shall we see the family again? When shall we get to the hairdresser or be able to attend church? We are still under siege! The re-phrased government slogan calling us now to ‘Stay Alert’ in order to ‘Control the Virus’ and ‘Save Lives’ of course means continued social distancing, careful hand- washing and the appropriate use of face masks. Yet partially lifting lockdown still means balancing extreme caution on one side against ordinary common sense on the other. Somehow we have to ‘Keep calm and carry on’! Why is this so essential? It’s because we are fighting a kind of war against an enemy which is silent and unseen, which is no respecter of persons and knows no boundaries. Like death the virus is a great leveller and we deeply regret the thirty-four thousand or more who have tragically lost their lives in the battle so far. Perhaps many of us will want to approach the current situation stoically with the typical British stiff upper lip. If this happens to be our style then we are echoing those famous Greek philosophers who lived three hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ. The Stoics believed that happiness came by making a conscious effort to live not in the past or in the future but in the present. It’s no use regretting the past or worrying about the future, they said. If you can’t change the situation or leave it, just stop complaining and get on with it! There is something in what those Ancient Greeks taught and many Christian people discover today the value and importance of living in the present moment. Indeed this is what the Serenity Prayer suggests we do when it asks: ‘God, grant me the grace to accept with serenity the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can. And wisdom to know the difference’. On a similar note the Duchess of Cambridge has been reported as suggesting people produce photographs illustrating the themes of ‘resilience, bravery and kindness’, qualities which are surely needed in achieving the balance between alertness and serenity in the present circumstances. In an article in the Church Times (of 3/4/20), a Christian psychologist offered some thoughts on what can be learnt from times of stress and trauma: we are forced to see the world in a new light, to re-examine our assumptions, review our priorities and discover new things about ourselves and others. A learning curve like that may feel uncomfortable at times but on the matter of keeping alert Christians have always had something to contribute. St Peter urges believers: ‘Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around’ . Or St Paul says, ‘Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert...’ And in another of his letters he warns, ‘let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober’ . After all Jesus himself had bid his disciples maintain a continual alertness especially regarding the prospect of his Second Coming. (I Peter 5, verse 8; Ephesians 6, verse 18; I Thessalonians 5, verse 6 and Mark 13, verse 33). It should be second nature for Christian believers to concur with the idea of keeping vigilant in the current circumstances (or any other) as they fulfil Jesus’ command to watch and pray’ in the face of trials and temptation. So, it’s significant that recent surveys have indicated an encouragingly modest increase in people praying and reading their Bibles. Furthermore, like many parishes up and down the country, in Hartford we have benefitted from inspiring on-line Sunday services with hymns, prayers and uplifting addresses coupled with lovely views of our churches, beautiful sacred music and reproductions of great religious art. And besides encouraging and using the technical expertise of church members, such services as they are being directed into peoples’ homes are surely reaching many more folk than those who usually make up the regular weekly congregations. Recently, after the intercessions during one such service in a Sussex parish the following words were said: ‘May we never be afraid to trust our unknown future to a known God who is always with us. We will never walk alone’. It must be said that one of the more fascinating features of lockdown so far has been watching on television the daily ministerial briefings from 10 Downing Street. This has given viewers an unique opportunity to observe government ministers close up and to see and hear them being questioned by members of the public and quizzed by ever- persistent journalists -looking for some crack in their armour. In addition have been the informative contributions of medical and scientific experts with their colourful charts and hopefully descending graphs. Yet the story their facts and figures tell is still not very heartening. Until the numbers of deaths have declined we have to remain alert or as our French neighbours have been exhorted ‘restez prudents’ , that is continue to be careful or vigilant. So far the steps taken on the long road to recovery seem rather few and the thought of remaining largely as we are for quite a while longer is not appealing. The Prime Minister in one of his television appearances said he is relying on everyone to ‘use good solid British common sense’ to see us through. So we must try to combine vigilance with a calm determination to trust in the reserves God has given us and not be daunted. For as the Lord assured the Apostle Paul: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in (human) weakness’ . (2 Corinthians 12, verse 9). A Prayer: God, who...taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen. One of the almost shortest possible letters appeared in a national newspaper the other day. It simply ran: ‘Dear Sir, I am fed up with being fed up’. We know how that correspondent feels! Though brief but very much to the point this sentiment echoes the feeling of boredom and frustration which many of us experience as lockdown restrictions continue and don’t seem to come to an end. It seems such a long time ago when at the end of last year (or was it the beginning of this year?) when something happened which was to change countless lives the world over. A new and unknown virus invaded human lives globally and turned them upside down. And apart from the enormous personal suffering and tragic deaths Covid-19 is leaving in its wake, it’s the mysterious nature of the disease which is so disconcerting. For as we are only too well aware, this enemy of human health and well being takes no prisoners. Usually the elderly but sometimes the young, occasionally even the new born and too often members of particular ethnic groups may succumb to its vicious attacks. While huge efforts are being made to find a vaccine to protect us from the virus and research is trying to establish whether so-called ‘herd’ immunity is likely, large-scale testing aimed at tracking the extent of the pandemic is being carried out. All this is being done at great expense in order to save lives and secure livelihoods. But as a Swedish epidemiologist has warned, ‘we’re in the early stage of a virus we still don’t understand’. However, the recent Mental Health Awareness Week has emphasised the need to take into account the effect this uncertain situation is having on a particular aspect of human personality. For while we value and want to protect both our physical health and our financial prosperity, there is also the crucial matter of our mental well being to consider. And in times of stress and anxiety such as we are going through now the urgency of attending to that part of ourselves becomes a real cause for concern. The usual advice for keeping calm while being under stress (whatever its cause) goes along common-sense lines. So to begin with an obvious suggestion it is to make sure we are eating well and getting enough sleep. Exercise is also important to relaxing the mind especially when combined with getting out in the sunshine and absorbing vitamin D. In addition, laughter (they say) is the best medicine-if we are able to see the funny side of things. Then it helps to work out what is troubling one the most. And to pinpoint the cause of anxiety it may be good to sit down and even write down what is bothering one in particular. Is it a financial problem or worry about work? Is loneliness a threat to our peace of mind? Is it a very practical issuse, say, the use or otherwise of face masks? Is it the prospect of not having a foreign holiday? Is it whether it is safe to send children back to school? Is it concern about how overseas health services are managing? Or is it simply the question as to when lockdown will end? It’s said that understanding the enemy is half way to defeating it. So knowing what triggers anxiety and naming it is a great step towards dealing with it. In this case, however, the most worrying thing may well be a simple fear of the unknown. A further interesting suggestion about alleviating mental strain was offered by former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks in a recent BBC ‘Thought for the Day’ broadcast in which he commended the therapeutic value of kindness. For of course showing kindness to someone as well as receiving kindness from others tends to take one out of oneself and plainly does you good! Perhaps this is what a contributor to Crosslinks (missionary society) Prayer Diary had in mind in a personal observation: ‘Like everybody else, I am looking forward to normality, but no doubt it will be a different normality, where we appreciate each other more deeply and have strengthened our faith in the one who is faithful and never changes’. The self healing effect of thoughtfulness towards others should indeed be taken into account as we try to look after our own mental well being. That last comment reminds us that stress can also be eased by talking to someone about it. After all, as it’s often said, ‘a trouble shared is a trouble halved’. And in the case of Christian believers we always have someone to talk to. This is illustrated by the words of the hymn ‘What a Friend we have in Jesus’: ‘Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged; Take it to the Lord in prayer’. A unique and powerful way to release tension in lockdown is to turn our anxieties into prayer. It may be true, as a recent university survey is apparently discovering, that the over 50’s and, more surprisingly, extraverts are experiencing less stress at the present time than younger and less outgoing people. However another survey conducted by the University of Copenhagen has found that there is a rise of 50% in searches on Google for ‘prayer’ as people presumably of all ages and types turn to God for comfort in a crisis. The conclusion is that ‘we pray to cope with adversity’. The ever changing sight of the river running past the main door of Hartford Church is partially hidden by large trees growing on its bank. They are a constant feature which we always look for as we imagine their roots reaching deep into the water and drawing strength and vitality from its life-giving source. This is how the Bible describes believing people: ‘They (it says) are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all they do they prosper’. The Psalm from which these words are taken pictures people being sustained and even fruitful in tough times by their relationship with a Creator-Saviour God whom they love and seek to please. Come wind or rain, heat or cold the Hartford trees survive well because they are fed by the river. So, Christian people have a hidden source of inner strength and refreshment which is always available. For, as the Psalm goes on to say: ‘the Lord watches over’ them. Jesus did not ever promise that his people would have an easy time in this world. He even warns that they would face religious persecution. But, as He did so, he assured us that we can have peace in the midst of trying and adverse circumstances. This is because He told us: ‘I have conquered the world’ (John 16, verse 33). For our part we do well to heed the advice of another Gospel hymn: ‘Trust and obey, for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey’. Lancelot Andrewes, an Elizabethan bishop of Winchester, was recognised in his day as a great preacher. He is also remembered for his prayers, one of which is appropriate to echo in these days of lockdown: Be, Lord within me to strengthen me, without me to preserve, over me to shelter, beneath me to support, before me to direct, behind me to bring back, round about me to fortify. Amen.
Some more personal reflections following the progress of the pandemic
Michael L. Diamond, May 2020
I imagine that you, like me, have been watching the Sunday and other services from our church at home. By doing our bit to observe lockdown we hope and pray that the excellent work of the National Health Service will be protected and that this will lead to the saving of many precious lives. As it happens, during the course of my ministry, I have been in several prisons, including one in this county. It was only to visit of course! But I did not expect to experience lockdown personally, let alone at home. Nor did I ever expect that our churches would be closed for public worship, although I think it once happened for a while in the early Middle Ages when we managed to fall out with the Pope at the time. So it’s about doing church and engaging in Christian worship rather differently: digitally and at a distance. It’s a case of church at home. This means we can even stay in our pyjamas if we liked; surely no one would ever know! Yet, joking apart, how Psalm 42 expresses some of our thoughts as we miss going to church when it says, ‘My heart breaks when I remember the past, when I went with the crowds to the house of God, and led them as they walked along, a happy crowd, singing and shouting praise to God’. Then the Psalm-writer adopts a more positive tone as he asks, ‘Why am I so sad? Why am I troubled? I will put my hope in God, and once again praise him, my Saviour and my God’. As we know only too well, the corona-virus is an invisible, largely unknown and certainly a strong challenge. It is of course a danger not only to health but also to the national economy. So, extreme measures have been taken to combat it. However, I was amused to read that Dr. Tilly Blyth of the Science Museum said, ‘The second week into lockdown, my kids turned to me and said, “Mum, for once we’re actually living in a historic moment”’. But let’s face it, living in unprecedented times does not suit everybody. I wonder how you feel about the lack of human contact. Not seeing loved ones and friends can leave us feeling isolated, alone and even friendless. Many have said how they simply miss a hug, that is, receiving or giving one or both. Yet, can we manage to think at all positively despite this unsettling situation? Can we imagine light at the end of the tunnel however long it turns out to be? Can we picture a time when things get back to normal? That should give us hope. But, what about just now? As we try to understand what effect this surrender of personal freedom is having on us do we perhaps realise that it has at least given us the gift of TIME - time to think, time to listen and time to pray? Maybe that’s a rather special blessing in our usually busy lives For instance, we have the opportunity to listen to Nature: simply to enjoy the quiet and to appreciate the singing of birds on some of the lovely spring days we’ve had recently. And it’s funny how when humans retreat Nature begins to take over as the New Forest donkeys and Welsh goats invade the streets and wild boars come out to help themselves to crops in Italian fields and gardens. So we have the chance to do things more slowly and thoughtfully and to consider what is important and what is less so. Maybe our houses have not ever been so clean and tidy and our gardens more manicured and weed free! Think, too, of the books we’ve meant to read or the crafts we could take up or that DIY that’s waiting to be done. And besides jigsaws, puzzles and board games, there is the joy to ringing someone up and making sure they are not lonely too. Yes we are living in a kind of limbo wondering how long it will last and whether we can avoid a second peak of the covid-19 onslaught. The Christian poet and thinker, Malcolm Guite, (known to some of us in Hartford) put it well when he wrote: ‘...our world is shrinking now, and we are held in a still space between ‘’before all this happened’’ and ‘’when this is all over’’: a space between memory and hope.’ Certainly there is hope. For if anyone is feeling particularly friendless at the moment, let me say that there is no social distancing with God! We are assured of this fact in the New Testament: ‘(God) has said, ‘’I will never leave you or forsake you’’’. Then it goes on: ‘So we can say with confidence, ‘’The Lord is my helper. I will not be afraid.’’’ A few sentences later we are greatly encouraged to read: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today and for ever.’ Can we believe that whatever we are going through and however we feel, the Lord is close by? He is near us and accompanies us on life’s journey. He is the same unchanging, loving and merciful in the midst of life’s ups and downs. Very soon after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, two people were walking back to their home village about 13 miles from Jerusalem. All at once they became aware that Someone else was walking beside them. It was Jesus having risen from the dead although they didn’t recognise Him just then. As they reached their destination, Jesus made as if to go on but they begged Him to come and stay at their home. He was invited in and so that’s just what He did. Then the two travellers knew who He was. Staying at home? We do not need to be alone. Do we feel lonely and friendless? We can say with the authority of Holy Scripture that if we invite Jesus into our home He will come in with His gracious presence. It may of course mean doing a ‘spring clean’ for none of us is perfect. But then He comes to the humble, penitent believer bringing His unique peace and joy transforming our homes. An Eastertide prayer Risen Christ, You filled your disciples with boldness and fresh hope: Strengthen us to proclaim your risen life And fill us with your peace, To the glory of God the Father Amen.
Living with Lockdown
Michael L. Diamond, April 2020
Some personal reflections following the progress of the pandemic