Midday Prayer Apart But Together

Isolating is hard work. To begin with, for some, it may have its attractions. A holiday! Stepping out of the daily grind for a bit. Like being snowed in – cocooned. The world stops turning for a bit.
Holidays and snow have end points. They are set-apart times measured in days, weeks at the most. Now we are in a new time, an immeasurable time. We are communal societal creatures. We need the company of others. Even those living a monastic community life set apart from the world, have each other. And while apart they focus together on prayer for that world.
So, I invite you to be a new community with me. A praying community. Each day at Midday I will pray in our White House prayer space. Pray with me. Pray wherever you are. If you can’t stop at Midday, find your time.
Using the same form of words will unite us in spirit. Sharing our prayer intentions and speaking the names of those we need to remember, in the silence of our private space, will draw us together. Send me your prayers, for people, for situations and we can share them.
Today we begin. There is no time like the present. Today at Midday I will use this prayer and in the silence I will name today my family. It’s a long list! Join me. Name your family today.

Did God send the Coronavirus as a warning?

At the end of a recent visit to a Year 10 RE class at our local High School, a student asked me: “did God send the Coronavirus as a warning?” 

My instant answer was “no!” But I could not expand upon that because the bell had gone. And this question does need a more fully developed response than a simple “no!”

In different ways, this question has been asked of me a lot: ‘why did God take my son?’ This was from a Mum whose 22 year old son died after a post university round the world gap year. He was about to take up a place at a London law firm. He had his whole future ahead of him. 

On the flight from New Zealand he must have developed the deep vein thrombosis which killed him in the night, just a few days after returning home and sharing his amazing adventures with his family.

His Mum blamed God. “I was a good parent. Why did God do this to me, my family? Why not to those parents who don’t bring their children up properly?” She was very, very angry with God. Who else could she blame?

More recently I have heard the same language of God responsibility: “God spared…. God took…..” My response to all of these expressions of what God does, is the same:

This is not God!

Right back to the earliest writings we have about the nature of God, we read that people thought of God in this way. God was the source of all the inexplicable things that happened in the world. Floods, plagues, wars, enslavement, seizures, disease, blindness, death. There was no science to explain natural disasters. There was little understanding of disease. There was little understanding of human psychology and human behaviour. 

For everything that went wrong it was the fault of humans who had sinned and therefore God intervened to teach humanity a lesson and put things right. 2,000 years ago Leprosy was thought to be a disease that struck people who had sinned, a punishment from God. Lepers were banished from society and had to live in leper colonies. They had to wear a bell to warn people if they came near. People lived in fear of lepers. It was understood that the disease could be transmitted but that was as far as the science went.

Then came Jesus. Jesus healed lepers. Jesus gave a very different picture of God. Not a wrathful, revengeful, distant God but a Father God, a God of love. 

Jesus showed us a God who wants us to love him and love each other by being his hands and his heart. This God does not bring about disasters or plagues or leprosy. This God does not take life but gives it in all its fullness. And it is not just many Christians who believe this. With Jesus, people began to understand God in a very different way. Not a despot but a loving father. A loving father does not kill his children. 

This is where we began to grow up! Jesus said, ‘take responsibility!’ If people are hungry, feed them! If they are sick, heal them! If people are suffering, alleviate their suffering! Jesus showed that we must be the heart and hands of God. God does not cause bad things to happen but God is right there in the middle of that pain, suffering with us, and God is right there in the middle of helping to put things right through us. 

God gave us all the means by which we can ensure humanity survives, the planet survives. Like Christianity, most world faiths have a fuller understanding of the nature of God than they did in the distant past.

But think back to that first advert for the National Lottery – the pointy finger from heaven and the boomy voice “it could be you!” 

This is still, despite our much more sophisticated and civilised 21st Century society, the image so many people have of God. A God who picks and chooses, takes or saves. A God who intervenes to be on someone’s side. Who supports one side in a war “we have God on our side.”

This is a primitive God. A God who people did need thousands of years ago to explain a world where there was little explanation. A God you had to appease by giving gifts to, making sacrifices to.

This was a world view then of a helpless child and a despotic father, that unfortunately still lingers today. No wonder people struggle with God! 

Did God send the Coronavirus as a warning? Most definitely not!

The amazing thing about this planet is that it has everything we need for life and we are discovering all the time the complexities of life from micro organisms to us. We now know that without the insect world we cannot survive. 

Now we know that Leprosy is caused by a harmful bacteria. We also know that there is good bacteria and we need these to survive. We now know that there are good viruses.

So where and how did COVID-19 start? Dr. Joseph Fair, epidemiologist, virologist and NBC News Science Contributor writes: 

”It started in what we call a ‘wet market.’ These are markets typically where you have wildlife, livestock and humans in close proximity together. We know that’s a recipe for a pandemic just from a historical precedence. That’s where SARS came from when it first emerged. That’s most often where Ebola will emerge from in Africa. Those kind of markets, which are very common throughout the world, are breeding grounds for epidemics and pandemics.”

So, God did not send the Coronavirus. It was bred by humans, by us, in harmful conditions and we need to take responsibility, not put it on to God. This is a learning curve for humanity. Now we understand that wet markets breed harmful viruses it is in our hands to put this right. 

It is also important to recognise that not all viruses are harmful. Maybe some viruses are here for a reason. We need them. Mario Mietzsch and Mavis Agbandje-McKenna from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Florida write:

“…we are now finding out, not all viruses are detrimental to human health. In fact, some viruses have beneficial properties for their hosts in a symbiotic relationship, while other natural and laboratory-modified viruses can be used to target and kill cancer cells, to treat a variety of genetic diseases as gene and cell therapy tools, or to serve as vaccines or vaccine delivery agents. The ability to treat diseases using viruses, often referred to as virotherapy, has become the subject of intensive research in recent years.”

We are learning all the time about how the world works and how we can work to make it a safe and flourishing planet for all God’s people. God does not cause bad things to happen. 

God has given us the means by which we can learn when things do go wrong and ensure they don’t happen again. It is up to us to live up to the gift we have been given.

It is up to us to live up to the gift we have been given.

Holocaust Legacy

Truda Fink, daughter of Kuba and Resia, born in Lvov, Poland, murdered in Lvov at the age of 10

I lived in ignorance of Jews or the terrible events of the Holocaust until well into my 30’s. As a child growing up in Bristol, I never encountered a Jew or learnt about the Jewish faith or the Second World War at school. The only Jew I sort of knew was Jesus, and in my Sunday School pictures, he had long blonde hair, no beard and of course, was almost 2,000 years old.

My parents both served in WW2. My Dad was in the army and stationed in Egypt for 5 years. My Mum was in the Women’s Royal Air Force and stationed in the West Country. The Holocasut never came up in those ‘what did you do in the war?’ conversations we had with our parents back then. After I visited the camps in Poland last March, just before my Mum died, I told her about the trip. She said “we never knew about any of this at the time. There was nothing in the papers, on the radio.”

When I began my first teaching post a Year 9 literature set text was ‘Friedrich’ by Hans Peter Richter. This novel, first written in German, that I taught, was my first introduction to the experiences of Jews in Hitler’s Germany. Friedrich Schneider is a young Jewish boy growing up in an apartment house in Germany, with the narrator as his neighbour and friend. The narrator tells of the persecution of the Jews through Friedrich’s eyes. Friedrich is forced to switch to a Jewish school and is thrown out of swimming pools and cinemas. An angry mob goes to his house and kills his mother. His father is sacked and has an emotional breakdown. Friedrich finds a girlfriend, Helga, whom he likes, but soon he must stop seeing her, or she will be sent to a concentration camp.

Friedrich and his father are forced to do whatever they can to make money to survive. Friedrich helps his father hide a rabbi in their house, but soon Friedrich’s father and the rabbi are arrested. Friedrich, who was not home when the police came, now must live in hiding. Herr Resch, their former Landlord, returns to their house after an air raid and notices Friedrich on the step, apparently unconscious. Herr Resch decides to get rid of him by kicking him, and they realize that Friedrich is dead, killed by shrapnel. Resch then remarks that Friedrich has died a better death than was expected.

This was not an easy read for my 13-14 year olds or me. It was a novel, I had no idea how believable the story was. However, alongside, we also read ‘Ann Frank’s Diary’ and this true account of a young Jewish girl in hiding who died in a concentration camp, began to give me a glimpse of the horrors of the Holocaust. Enough of a glimpse for me to imagine the unimaginable. There I wanted to leave my limited experience.

Years later, in Manchester, Mayor Jane Black, invited me to take part in a civic trip: Journey to Poland, a three-day-tour through the camps. Every nerve in my body said no. I had had opportunities to visit before. But this time I said yes. Saying yes, did not make it any easier. On the trip last March were Jews and non Jews from all over Bury and beyond. Some knew each other but each person’s exerience was unique to them. Some shared these, wrote about them and took pictures. I couldn’t do any of these things.

My way of coping with the horrors of the Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz II-Birkenau extermination camps, was to retreat into myself. The 800 Jewish children from an orphanage in Tarnow, who were marched to a clearing in the nearby Buczyna forest and and silenced, I could not speak of. Just reading aloud the name, so near to mine, given to me: Truda Fink, daughter of Kuba and Resia, born in Lvov, Poland, murdered in Lvov at the age of 10, was more than enough.

I later found Truda’s name in the room-sized memorial book of the dead in the Auschwitz museum. Unspeakable horror. But unless we do speak history will simply go on repeating itself. I know our legacy is to ensure that children do not grow up ignorant or fearful but embracing our common humanity.

It is hard being known in a crowd

Can you spot the face of Christ?

Yesterday a friend said to me that she thought a good way to greet another as they come towards us is as though we are meeting Christ. This begs some questions. Would we recognise Christ today? Would we spot him in a crowd? Would he stand out for us? Or would he be just like everyone else? Would we pass by without even noticing? Probably.

I remember once being with a crowd of people and suddenly seeing an image of Christ (for me) in the abstract design on the back of someone’s tee shirt. This really fascinated me but then bizarrely, for some reason, I kept seeing faces of Christ in all sorts of places. In rocks, adverts, even food. Remember the Christ in toast image?!

The face of Christ in toast!

We can read that before Jesus was baptised he came out of the crowd. It would have been a large crowd gathered by the River Jordan as John the Baptiser was a crowd-puller. He was dressed as for a stage, with a part to play, in sackcloth and with a leather belt, just like all great prophets should look. Or at least, that’s what a crowd in Israel 2,000 years ago thought.

But out of that crowd came someone who John said was so great that he was not even worthy enough to tie his shoe laces. Christ was unknown in that crowd. Yes, they may have known someone called Jesus, that carpenter’s son from Nazareth. But they did not know that among them, rubbing shoulders with them, was Emmanuel – the word for ‘God With Us’. That here among them was the Christ, the Messiah.

My friend is quite right. Christ, the Messiah is with us, in the crowd. Once we start seeing the face of Christ in those we meet in the crowd, like my faces of Christ experience, we just won’t stop.

Now wouldn’t that change the world!

Did the Wise Men have 20/20 vision?

Welcome to the new year and new decade: 2020. 20/20 vision is a term used to express normal clarity or sharpness of vision measured at a distance of 20 feet. If you have 20/20 vision, you can see clearly at 20 feet what should normally be seen at that distance. Having 20/20 vision does not necessarily mean you have perfect vision. 20/20 vision only indicates the sharpness or clarity of vision at a distance.

Matthew’s Gospel tells us the story of the Wise Men or Magi (from the word Magician. This group of men (we don’t actually know how many, just that they brought three very precious gifts to give to a very precious person – a new king). The story tells us that the men lived a long way to the East from Bethlehem. They may have come from Persia (now Iran). In their own country they were revered for their knowledge of the night sky. They made charts to show all the known stars, galaxies, constellations. They studied everything that had been written about the night sky of the Northern hemisphere.

When this very learned group of men saw a new star rising the first thing they did was to consult their books and charts. But they could not find the star. It was definitely new. What they did find was a reference to a new star being a sign that a new king had been born. This was very exciting. So much so that they collected precious gifts and set out to follow the star as it travelled, to see where it led so they could worship this new king: pay him homage.

The Church of England has traditionally been described as a three-legged stool.

The Church of England has traditionally been described as a three-legged stool. Why? The thing is with a three-legged stool is that if one leg is not quite right, say a bit shorter than the others, then it would just topple over. There have always been three key supports for the Christian faith: the bible or scripture, tradition, that is, how we have come to be as we are, and reason, that is, how we know what we know and what more can we know based upon our study of scripture and the traditions that have formed us. It has always been important to keep these three legs in balance. But there is a fourth leg.

But it is growing a fourth leg.

The fourth leg is experience. Learning from our protestant friends we are coming to understand that we need the fourth leg of experience to understand the scriptures and our tradition to be able to reason or understand. We need to experience in order to know. Education has understood this way of learning for years: experiential learning. In religious terms we need to experience the Holy Spirit at work in our lives for the rest to fall into place.

Back to the wise men and 20/20 vision.

The Wise Men are a great example of a four-legged stool. They used their sacred texts and their traditional understanding of what a new star could mean to reason that, if this was the case, they needed to go and check it out. They had 20/20 vision! They had the clarity of vision to see that they needed to go and find this new king wherever he was. This meant a dangerous journey. It meant taking risks. It meant going among people who were different to them. Most of all, it meant riding out for themselves. They needed to live the experience.

and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.

Were the Wise Men changed by their experience? Reason tells me they were. Wouldn’t you be? But there is something else as well that suggests they were transformed, made new by seeing the Christ child. This was the Son of God or Emmanuel – God with us, after all! King Herod, the despot ruler, was seriously threatened by the thought of this potential usurper of his throne. So he asked the Wise Men to return to him once they had found the new king. You would expect them to do that. After all, out of respect they had called on Herod first. But they didn’t. Instead they went home by a different route to keep the Christ child safe.

Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.

Here it is. A message from God in a dream. We can read in scripture that the people of God often receive messages from God in dreams. Joseph also received the same message. You have to be open, trusting and receptive to God to receive those kinds of messages. Yes, the Wise Men certainly had 20/20 vision. They studied, reflected, reasoned but essentially, they experienced the living God, in the world, and starting in 2020 we must do that too.

Food For Thought

30 years ago, in November 1989 the Berlin Wall was brought down and for the first time in a generation people could travel freely between East and West Germany. Families were reunited.

In the August of that year Stuart and I, together with our two younger children, Matt aged eight and Rosalind aged six, visited the Taizé Community in Bergundy, France for one of its week-long meetings that take place all the year round. It was our first visit. During the summer months there are special weeks for families. We discovered that this meant, as well as the three times of prayer each day when the whole community came together in the Church of Reconciliation (Taizé Brothers, Sisters from the community of St Andrew, old and young visitors) our children met with others in age-related groups whilst us parents met together in small discussion groups. Most of the children could only speak their own language but, being children, this was no barrier and play and friendship-forming happened very naturally. 

In our small discussion group there were parents from Ireland, Holland, Italy and Russia. Thankfully we talked in English. – a sort of Taizé English where, over many years, it was found that just saying a small piece and allowing others to understand what had been said, before moving on, meant that discussion felt very reflective, spiritual almost.

The couple from Russia told us how they had come to be in Taizé. They were Christians but could not openly practice their faith. They had heard from others about the Taizé Community – a community of Brothers: protestants, catholics and anglicans, pledged to dedicate their lives to reconciliation between the Christian denominations, between the world faiths and to work for peace. The Russian couple had learnt all this from friends in West Germany they had never met but corresponded with. They made a plan to visit Taizé. This was a long time in the making. First, they had to live at separate addresses in Moscow. The Mother lived with their five year old son in one district under her own name and the Father lived in another. They did not openly meet. Families were not allowed to travel out of Russia in case they did not return. On different dates each parent separately applied for a travel visa. They prayed for their visas to be granted and saved their money. The visas were granted.

When the family arrived in Taizé they had no money. The Russian rouble was worthless outside of Russia. During their stay the Brothers asked if we could all contribute a little to a fund so that the family could travel home via West Germany to visit the friends who had helped them but they had never met. We were so glad we could do this little thing for them.

One day during our small group discussion the Brothers invited us to share our prayer lives. When and how did we pray? For most of us it was the same story, particularly the Mothers. We were so busy that our time for personal prayer was very squeezed. Some expressed their resentment at that. We had so much to do with caring for our family and the house, getting meals ready, doing the washing. Some also had paid jobs. If only there was more time!

It was the turn of the Moscow Mum. She said, in her broken English, that she did all these things and had a full time job, but had plenty of time for prayer. She had a daily routine for prayer. Each evening, after work, with her son, she queued at the bakers for bread. The queue was always long as the bread was rationed. There were also queues at the grocers, the butchers and everywhere. There was very little food on the shop shelves. No-one talked in the queues because you could not be sure who might be listening, listening for something you might say that would get you into trouble with the authorities. So the queues were silent and the Mum from Moscow prayed. It was peaceful she said.

We were all silent at the end of her story. I think we all felt ashamed of our Western arrogance. I tried to imagine her prayer time. To me, it felt full of fear, not peace. None of us knew then that things were about to change. When, three months later, the Berlin Wall came down, the Russian family would just be returning to Moscow from their stay in West Germany. I imagined the new world they were returning to. The thawing of East-West relations, the eventual free movement of peoples, plentiful food. I did pray their lives would be better.

Now, in this country, people queue at Food Banks. They may not be fearful but I have spoken to many Mums who say what they feel is shame. Ashamed that they simply cannot pay their rent, pay their utilities, clothe their children and put food on the table every day. Going to a Food Bank is not a choice, it is a necessity.

Charities we support working in Africa are very focussed upon the sort of giving and support that enables people to have a livelihood. Send a Cow is one such example: https://www.sendacow.org Send a Cow believes in equipping people: 

“Families get back the skills and confidence they need to get the most from their land. 

Families can grow enough food, earn a living and go after their dreams”

Maybe it is time as a society we woke up to the reality of Food Banks. It is December. People are stocking up on food for a Christmas Feast. It is at Christmas that the gap between those who can afford a family Christmas and those who can’t is at its starkest. In my former parishes in Derby our Churches Together group gathered from every church special Christmas food and gift bags for our 49 Food Bank families as well as the usual bags. It was the least we could do, or was it? 

It is election month. Can we ask this question of the candidates: “In this day and age in our country are Food Banks a necessary evil?” People are driven to Food Banks because their income cannot cover the necessities of life. If we can support African charities like Send a Cow, focussed upon giving people the skills they need to build a livelihood, instead of giving them handouts, why are we content to see people queuing at Food Banks in this country, collecting their handouts?

A government of this country should be focussed upon ensuring that no family is living this breadline existence. Zero hours contracts, part time low income working and increasing rents and living costs mean that, try as they can, families who have to resort to Food Banks will simply never catch up. We are not the Moscow of thirty years ago where queuing for food was part of daily life. Food Banks are not a necessary evil because they should, in our free, Western, democratic and affluent society, simply not be necessary at all.