Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’, commends responsible, courageous living. It begins with the well-known words, ‘If you can keep your head when all about you / are losing theirs and blaming it on you...’ Less familiar perhaps is what a later verse says: ‘If you can make one heap of all your winnings / and risk it on one turn of toss-and-pitch, / And lose and start again at your beginnings/ And never breathe a word about your loss...’ For in Kipling’s view a mature approach to life includes being willing to take risks. This is what he believes is part of being ‘manly’ or as we might say resolute or plucky. Risk-taking does not come easy to many of us. But it can’t always be avoided as the present situation in the progress of the Covid-19 indicates. It is tragic that over forty thousand deaths have been reported so far. And our hearts go out to relatives and friends who could not be with their loved ones when they passed away or even attend their funerals. It is hard to imagine their great loss being compounded by this sad effect of social distancing. Yet such is the reality and every effort to control the spread of the disease involves a cost which has to be borne however much we wish we could avoid it. In the case of those who mourn now there are prospects of memorial services being arranged when restrictions permit. But the delayed grief must be hard to bear. When we observe the progress of the pandemic- in this country at least -it appears that we may have reached a new stage. For judging by the present rate of infections the virus does not yet seem to have run out of steam. So there has been the dire prediction that it might go on for some time still with the unpalatable conclusion that we might have to learn to live with it in the future. Living with that risk may not be altogether disagreeable. After all, washing our hands more often and more thoroughly is sensible anyway. And giving people, if not a wide berth, but suitable space is also considerate behaviour regardless of any ‘social distancing’ measures. Of course there will be disadvantages which might impinge on our freedom. The journalists amusingly point out instances of ‘ghost football’ and horse racing ‘behind closed doors’ as current examples. Travel may continue to be limited and there will be other restrictions to work with. However, a more problematic issue in living with risk of infection will be the requirement to exercise personal judgement, discretion and to use common sense as we seek to find a balance between acquiescence and personal liberty. In other words, we shall have to face the challenge of risk-management. But what is risk? A dictionary will tell us that it is doing something with a chance of bad consequences or of loss (as mentioned by Kipling in his poem). So taking a risk exposes us to some hazard or misfortune. When the weather is bad we may warn someone to wrap up warm to avoid catching a cold. And in the matter of risk-taking there are at least two kinds: foolish risks and calculated risks. It’s the latter sort which is of special interest here. For the ‘new normal’ as it’s sometimes called will present the challenge of deciding what it is best to do when options present themselves to us. An Army officer who served in Afghanistan was reported in a national daily newspaper as saying that when he entered dangerous situations he had no idea what he would face. He said, ‘I had no idea how I would manage my fear-you can’t prescribe to people dealing with their fear’. Dealing with risk (he said) is ‘a deeply personal thing’. He concluded that people will have to make their own judgements about the risk of the pandemic continuing and when ‘Covid-caution’ has to give way to ‘corona-courage’ (as it has been put). Common sense tells us that during lockdown we have been naturally, even inevitably, focussing on ourselves and our own safety. It will be a shock when things change and, when in order to live more freely and concentrate on economic recovery we shall have to weigh up the risk of contracting the virus against ways of enjoying our new freedom. Learning to live with the virus will mean that difficult decisions will have to be made and yet taking risks is part of Kipling’s vision of a balanced lifestyle. This should not surprise the Christian believer who appreciates the stunning fact that God is the ultimate risk-taker. Coming as Jesus, He accepted all that the world could throw at Him -even crucifixion. The oft-quoted gospel verse makes this clear when it says, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes may not perish but may have eternal life’. Having made Himself vulnerable for our sakes He knows what it feels like to be exposed to danger. We can constantly take much comfort from that assurance. Furthermore, while it is wonderful to be able to believe in a great God who is utterly beyond and above us, it is even more wonderful to know that He actually believes in us! For we gather from Scripture that He feels for us, understands our weakness, grieves when we go wrong and rejoices in our well-being. Amazingly we can even say that He suffers with us. During World War 1 Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy volunteered to serve as an Army chaplain. ‘Woodbine Willie’, as he was affectionately known by the soldiers to whom he distributed cigarettes as well as personal comfort, must have witnessed untold horrors on the battle ground. How did he survive such an ordeal? ‘My only real God (he said) is the suffering Father revealed in the sorrow of Christ’. We might find it hard to think of God suffering with us because we are taught that He is unchanging and thus completely dependable. However that does not mean that He is unfeeling. A lovely version of the verse in the prophecy of Isaiah (chapter 63, verse 9) speaks of God’s steadfast love for His people by saying: ‘In all their affliction he was afflicted’. A God who made Himself open to risk by coming to this planet and who can be moved by human heartbreaks inspires us and indeed helps us to face the future with courage. Should the virus become endemic in humans –and we trust that will not happen- we shall have to learn to live with the limited risk of contracting it in order to simply to live. But then we shall be able to say with the Psalmist, ‘Blessed be the Lord who daily bears us up’. A Prayer: Assist us mercifully, O Lord, in these our supplications and prayers, and dispose the way of thy servants towards the attainment of everlasting life; that, among all the changes and chances of this mortal life, they may ever be defended by thy most gracious and ready help; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Some more personal reflections following the progress of the pandemic
Michael L. Diamond, June 2020
Of course we should put it differently today but surely a great truth is contained in the words: ‘No man is an Island entire of it self’. Writing in seventeenth century somewhat antiquated English, the poet John Donne’s warning about not imagining we can go it alone still has resonance for twenty-first century people. Perhaps we need a cautionary word like this even more these days. For having experienced the unusually hemmed-in conditions of lockdown, it has become natural, even perhaps inevitable, to think about ourselves and our own safety before anybody or anything else. And while we are thankful for the National Health Service and are ready to applaud those who serve unselfishly in the caring professions as well as appreciating the medical and scientific research being carried out on our behalf, it is only too easy to overlook others and forget to think more widely. One way to adjust our perspective is to try to look from above as archaeologists are apparently doing in their work today. Discovering ancient remains has been the heavy and painstaking removal and careful sifting of earth. But now thanks to ground- penetrating radar an entire Roman settlement has been surveyed without anyone getting their hands dirty. Instead of spending hours digging, this new equipment has dispensed with spades and trowels and has revealed a Roman city (not far from Rome itself) complete with a bath complex, market, large temple, public monuments and a system of water pipes underneath the city walls. The Cambridge University archaeologists who have found Falerii Novi can truly be congratulated for discovering it all from above ground. If only we could sometimes look at the whole of life like that, adopting a perspective from above. Or perhaps imagine seeing ourselves, other people and the world as God sees it all and trying to picture how, for example, God regards the suffering of so many people worldwide. Obviously this ‘top -down’ approach has special implications for the current global pandemic. While it is less clear when it began, we all know where it first started. And since the focus of attention has been on the Chinese city of Wuhan we immediately recognise the international dimension of what country after country has been dealing with. So we are obliged to think much more widely than our personal safely or that of our closest circle of loved ones. Attention has been rightly drawn to the vulnerability of people in the United Kingdom from black, Asian and minority ethnic groupings, sadly including those who are particularly exposed to the virus by serving in the caring professions. But looking even further afield what chance have people in poorer nations with weaker health services than our own to beat this (or any other) disease? Reports of surveys appearing in national newspapers suggest that many times more people in some parts of the developing world could die of Covid-19 than was previously thought. A combination of less efficient health systems, governments struggling to cope and pre-existing health conditions among their populations lead to fears that the death toll in such countries as Brazil, India, South Africa and other African regions will turn out to be ‘dramatically’ higher than was expected with the prospect that it could be said that we are ‘sitting on a time-bomb’. We cannot be complacent and deceive ourselves that the disease when it reaches developing countries isn’t going to be as fatal as it has been here. It may well turn out to be even more so. And while we wait hoping and praying that a vaccine or cost- effective treatment will be found, it is clear that time is certainly not on our side. What then can be done and what, if anything, can we do? John Donne, who wisely reminded us of our dependence on one another, had quite a varied career. Born into a Roman Catholic family in 1572, he later became an Anglican during the reign of Elizabeth 1. He was eventually ordained in the Church of England, becoming Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. He is variously remembered as a metaphysical (or visionary) poet, a scholar, a soldier (even) and as a notable preacher. His Christian beliefs would surely have informed him of God’s concern for the well- being of the poor and suffering. ‘Seeing through God’s lens’ (as it has since been put) he would also surely have been aware of our responsibility towards each other including those less fortunate than ourselves. He would have found in the Psalms that ‘The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit’ (Psalm 34, v.18) and discovered the following earnest call in the New Testament the: ‘Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others’ (Philippians 2, v.4). He would also have noticed that Jesus simply assumed that His people would care for needy when on one occasion He said: ‘you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish (Mark 14, v.7). See also Matthew 25, vv.31ff and I Timothy 6, vv.17ff. Furthermore, he would have come across God’s specific command in the Old Testament to help anyone in need: ‘If there is among you anyone in not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand willingly’ (Deuteronomy 15, vv.7f). So as Psalm 41 says, ‘Happy are those who consider the poor’. This divine vision for a caring community now extends far beyond the confines of one country, be it Israel in Old Testament times or our own United Kingdom today, for nowadays we are very much a global community. Yet this doesn’t mean that we can leave all charitable work to government. Whether or not it makes sense for the Department for International Development to be merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and even if the pledge to spend 0.7% of our gross domestic product on international aid continues to hold good a truly outward looking Christian faith expects that we individually play our part. This can of course mean several practical moves such as the following: be informed and know where the greatest needs are; pray for places where weak governments and less efficient health services are struggling; lobby a Member of Parliament if need be so that foreign aid is focussed on the neediest people and countries; regularly support a Christian relief organisations such as Christian Aid or Tearfund (both mentioned below) by taking their literature for information and by praying and giving. Hartford’s link with Kitegomba in Uganda is also particularly relevant in this connection. Above all, it may help to try to think hard and imagine how all the pain and suffering in the world must seem to God. To have His eye view of how disease and death is hitting some countries and devastating the poorest of the world will inspire and motivate the generosity contained in the appeal to Christian believers: ‘...let us not grow weary in doing what is right...whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, especially for those of the family of faith’ (Galatians 6, v.10). For Information: Christian Aid www.christian Tearfund
Michael L. Diamond, July 2020
As a slight variation on the whimsical question, ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ another could be asked instead: ‘What on earth do we owe to the Greeks?’ Several answers could be put forward in reply. The Greeks of course gave us wonderful classical architecture. They left behind fine sculptures while their outstanding legacy of philosophical thinking is second to none. So it is hardly surprising to find out that the ancient Greeks lay great store on education especially if the famous philosopher Aristotle is to be believed. He said: ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man’. Obviously he believed in catching them young! But apparently so did Plato who held that ‘the most important part of education is the nursery’. And he went on to warn: ‘If a man neglects education, he walks lame to the end of his life’. Of course this idea is not just confined to the men-folk! All of us are capable of ‘limping’ through life in some respect or other for having neglected some part of our schooling as youngsters. It is interesting then to hear from the same philosopher what the best kind of education consists of. Plato said: ‘The noblest of all studies is the study of what man [or the human person] is and of what life he [or she] should live’. Modern thinkers have got a name for it. They call the age we’re living in the ‘anthropocene’ era because for better or worse the focus now is on human interests and behaviour and the effect our activities have on the environment. Sadly this is often detrimental to the well being of the natural world. So perhaps a good education should not neglect the question as to how we should conduct our lives since how we go on has a much wider influence than we sometimes imagine. The education of our children and young people is a particularly live issue at present as we come out of lockdown and schools cautiously reopen again. Much time has been lost and many children will need to catch up unless they have been especially diligent in on-line learning and home schooling. Working parents will need to be able to go to work without worrying about the safety of their offspring and the youngsters themselves will have to get used to working in class again. So what faces them as they return? Will it be comradeship and renewed friendships to encourage them or competition to spur them on? And what are we looking for as we seek to provide an all-round education for our youngsters? The answer may depend in part upon our outlook on life in general, that is, whether it happens to be largely optimistic, pessimistic or something in between. The political thinker Thomas Hobbes famously declared human life to be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’! But then he had lived through England’s Civil War and all the upset it had brought to everyone living in this country at the time. No wonder his outlook seems rather depressing! Perhaps factors like personal psychology and upbringing help to decide whether we turn out to be ‘Tiggers’ or ‘Eye ores’ (to recall those loveable characters in ‘Winnie the Pooh’ stories) and whether we see the glass of life half empty or half full. Yet surely a balanced education can help us to see the bright side of life without ignoring its shadow side and at the same time preventing us from dwelling only on trouble and gloom and not seeing the good. For, to be fair, the human condition shares both sides of this strange divide. The aims of a good education may be thought to produce fine character, a cultured person, good citizenship and, further, a consistent Christian approach to life and living. And regarding the last objective, the Biblical emphasis certainly begins with the young: ‘Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray’ (Proverbs 22, v.6). However Scripture boldly declares the path to wisdom by saying: ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1, v.7). Reverence for God does not in principle mean being afraid of Him. It is more like having a positive attitude of worship and obedience to a gracious Heavenly Father which even children can learn to adopt. In ancient times teaching the young about God was not considered optional among His people: ‘You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul...Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise’ (Deuteronomy 11, vv.18-19). The best start in life is to know and love God. And in the era of the New Testament Christian education was not restricted to children. Thus St Paul urged Timothy his protege in the faith: ‘Train yourself in godliness’ so that the young man would become ‘a good servant of Christ Jesus’ (1Timothy, 4, vv.6 and 7). True Christian disciples were -and still are -meant to be life-long learners, always open to God. A positive feature of lockdown so far as our churches in this country are concerned has been the provision of on-line Sunday services and often mid-week ones too. Imaginative efforts to bring church to our homes to compensate us for not being able to attend church and the ‘eucharistic fast’ (as it has been called) which has denied us participation in Holy Communion have been more than commendable. It is even thought by some that these will continue in some form after our places of worship have been reopened. But how much these virtual occasions have actually appealed to children and young people is a moot point. Unless special provision is made to design worship, prayer and teaching suitable for the younger age group this tranche of church members will continue to miss out to the cost of the Church’s future. If back -to -school is the current educational watchword warnings have been given, however, that this might mean offering students a reduced curriculum when they all return to their studies. The danger is that in order to help people catch up what they have missed by being a home they will have to concentrate on so-called core subjects. Maths and English will naturally head the list. But while this restriction lasts it will not constitute a rounded education. So in the present febrile social climate the study of history, for example, may be particularly apposite. Since the time of the celebrated poet Alexander Pope we have recognised the truth that a little learning is a dangerous thing. Understanding the past (upon which the present is built) is a far cry from simply digging up the wrongs of days gone by. Of course we try to see historical characters as they really were, ‘warts and all’. Yet weight must be given to both good as well as evil deeds in a chequered history such as ours. How otherwise can we form a balanced appreciation of the past? For, the truth lies not in one side alone but in both which a truly objective and critical historical sense is bound to recognise. As we credit our teachers for their noble work in teaching our children, caring for them in many ways and training them to be good contributors to society may we pray that the younger generation of which we are so proud be brought up to know and love our mighty God and Saviour and so see themselves, others and the world in the widest and best perspective of all. Michael L. Diamond, July, 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