Pandemic Pentecost

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Art by Mark Wiggin

Happy birthday, Church! It’s been a bumpy couple of millennia (could have done without that whole Constantine business, frankly), but here we are. It’s not the sort of Pentecost we’re used to – lockdowns and social distancing and Zoom galore – but maybe, like Easter, this gives Pentecost 2020 its own special authenticity. After all, two thousand years ago the disciples were hiding away, trying to figure out what to do next, waiting for God to make clear the way forward. And then the Spirit blows up their circumstances, wind and fire and a explosion of expression as suddenly the disciples are speaking languages they’ve never spoken before.

That last one is important. The Holy Spirit is a communicator, after all, and this feels like one of those moments in which the Church is learning to communicate all over again. It’s easy to get all Zoomed out, but look at the way congregations have been embracing the challenge of going online. And for many people who have needed to be part of an online fellowship due to the inaccessibility of many church buildings, this is an affirmation and a chance to show what the Spirit has already been doing.

Because behind all these Youtube videos and Instalives is code – language, if you will. And while Peter and the others couldn’t have even imagined Skype and Facebook as they spilled out onto the streets of Jerusalem all those years ago, the Holy Spirit could. Maybe this is its own little heresy, and if so forgive me, but I can easily imagine the Spirit biding his time to speak in a language of ones and zeroes, to send his fire through the wires and the broadband signals, to become the (Holy) Ghost in the Machine. This isn’t just theological musing – look at how many people have, in the midst of a lockdown, been able to explore issues of faith for the first time because so many churches have embraced technology? How many creative people – not just musicians and speakers, but coders and video editors – have been able to get involved in church services for the first time? All these new technologies, new expressions of art, suddenly they’re playing their part in the Church because the Spirit can bring together new languages and new creatives and make them shine.

Every year we hear the reading from Acts 2, and some poor soul has to pronounce the list of ancient nations correctly. But I think there’s a bigger idea within all this than we sometimes appreciate. Pentecost is a reversal of the Tower of Babel, language being used for unity rather than division, and in a world where so much much divides and isolates us, we need a big-brush approach to language. And so that’s a prayer for us – which languages do we need the Spirit to help us use? Sign language? Makaton? Braille? Many communities have been isolated from the Church because we don’t use their language, we can’t communicate with them effectively. May God forgive us for this; may God give us the wisdom and humility to learn from those communities that have already been led by the Spirit to embrace technology because it was the only way for them to form congregations.

The Spirit is a healer as well, and so may we use these strange and scary times to seek that healing – in terms of COVID-19, yes, but also in terms of attitudes and prejudices. I turn on my TV and America is in flames; I open my email and find that our local Chinese church is facing increased xenophobia as a result of the pandemic. Too many people thrive on Babel’s curse, and that’s something we have to confront. And then there’s the silence – of mental health, of domestic violence, of suicide, of injustice. Communication can help defeat those as well, as long as there’s power behind it and not just words.

The Spirit is big, really big. We can list his attributes – Healer, Communicator, Artist – but the whole is bigger than the sum of his parts. He can heal through art, heal through communication. He can make his people change and grow and signpost Jesus. He can make old things new again, and he can bring hope to the silence, even in lockdown.

Happy birthday, Church.

Holy Week: What To Do When You Can’t Wash Feet

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Maundy Thursday is a time of rituals. The name derives, apparently, from the Latin mandatum, ‘commandment’, based on Jesus’s insistence that we love each other, and so today represents service and charity: we re-enact Jesus washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper, we see the Queen give out Maundy Money to deserving pensioners (although this year it’s gone out through the post thanks to COVID-19. Times are strange.).

That love was, for Jesus, a very practical thing. The Son of God picks up a towel and a bowl of water, kneels down and takes the posture of a servant as he washes the sweaty, dirty, blistered feet of his followers. Here in the UK, we’ve developed another Thursday ritual over the last couple of weeks, cheering and clapping for the NHS from our doorsteps at 8:00pm, and I can’t help but bring the two together, especially the nurses and cleaners, porters and doctors who are holding things together while being over-worked and under-paid. I have a picture of Jesus washing hands and not feet, singing ‘happy birthday’ in a hospital staff room to make sure his timings are right.

There will be a lot of people grieving the cancellation of foot-washing services today, and I understand why. There’s an intimacy to our re-enactments that many find meaningful and moving. It can break through our pride and our self-consciousness and help us to practice humility, both washers and washees. Maundy Thursday helps us re-position ourselves, and that’s a particularly stark reminder this year, when we’re realising just how much we rely on those we take for granted, grocery workers and binmen suddenly on the frontline of a terrible pandemic. So maybe this year Jesus is also stacking shelves and emptying garbage, because although our church buildings are empty tonight, there’s still work to be done, love to share, feet to wash.

See, there’s a danger in washing each others’ feet in a nice, organised service (and how many people have a shower and change their socks right before going out, just so they’re plenty clean before the pastor and his bowl gets anywhere near them?). Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, showed them love and grace, but not long after he’s sweating blood in Gethsemane and instead of praying with him, Peter and the gang are falling asleep, right when Jesus needed them.

(We also don’t read of any of the disciples then washing Jesus’s feet. Well, apart from Mary earlier, and that caused all sorts of trouble.)

It’s easy to be a servant for an hour under controlled conditions. But we’re in the time of the Coronavirus, and conditions are anything but controlled. There are people who can’t go out to get shopping, there are those who can’t get hold of essentials because someone else decided to panic buy and start hoarding. There are people who can’t go on lockdown, key workers who have to be out there on the front line, putting themselves at risk, often without adequate PPE (and the list of medical staff who are passing away because of this is getting longer by the day). There are parents who now need to home-school, there are kids who are now trying to learn in a liminal space and time that’s beyond their experience and yet is adding to the climate change and economic chaos and political confusion that have marked recent generations. There are those at heightened risk from the virus because of inequality, poverty and lack of privilege and access.

And then there are those who have to make life and death decisions. There are those who can’t be with their loved ones in their final moments, there are families who have to choose who gets to go to the funeral and who has to mourn alone. There are those asking ultimate questions to which all our pre-prepared answers may feel trite.

And there are those who are vulnerable, the elderly, the disabled, the people who, from the beginning, have been told that they’re the ones most at risk, the ones who are spoken of almost as if they’re expendable, the ones who are left in limbo as political decisions are made in haste, the ones being asked to sign ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ forms, the ones who know that, if they catch this thing, they may well not recover. People whose feet are perfectly clean but whose hearts are breaking.

On this Maundy Thursday, the whole world is a Gethsemane. Jesus weeps alongside us, but as the Church we’re called, not necessarily to wash feet or carry out a ritual, but to embrace servanthood, justice and love. That’s not something we can be responsible for purely on an individual level – the world is big, we are small – but that’s why Church is a team sport. And in the middle of all this, I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit is with binmen and nurses and carers and delivery drivers and today, and every other day, is a day to follow His lead.

Holy Week: Turning the Tables

a2a3b96a746704bef869e148d1850939These are disruptive times. Work held its staff conference online this week, and I ended up feeling like one of the monkeys from 2001 who has just discovered tools. Webinars started but I struggled to enter them, looking increasingly like a grumpy old man raging at a changing world. I’m only 43 and yet I suddenly realised what my dad must have felt like all those years ago, back when I was the only one in the house who could program the VCR.

Change sneaked up on me. I’ve been merrily plodding on, just getting on with things, then suddenly the world shook and the tables turned and here I am, staring at a screen and barely knowing which button to press.

I’m 43, for goodness sake!

It’s Holy Monday, the traditional day to celebrate Jesus going into the Temple in Jerusalem and calling down the thunder. There they were, money-changers and entrepreneurs happily raking in profits from the pilgrims, throwing up billboards around sacred space and hustling a quick buck from uncertain times. And then an angry looking rabbi from out in the sticks appears, stampeding the cattle and throwing around the merchandise. A wild-eyed prophet yells the words of God and the world changes, if only for an instant. Someone somewhere consults a spreadsheet, runs the optics, and decides Jesus has to die.

Change sneaks up on us all. Sometimes we’ll do all we can to resist it, but sometimes that means going toe-to-toe with Jesus.

These feel like apocalyptic times – not in the pop culture, zombie hordes sense of the world, but in its original meaning of ‘unveiling’. We find out who we are in times like this, not just as individuals but as institutions, and that takes on an extra tension for churches. The Cleansing of the Temple wasn’t just a condemnation of Caiaphas and his minions, it set a precedent – our churches shouldn’t look like loan sharks or movie stars or political hustlers, they should look like Jesus. And if they don’t, well, don’t be surprised if Jesus starts throwing tables around. Heck, maybe he’s already started.

There’s one part of this story that I missed up until a couple of years ago. There’s a deceptively throwaway verse at the end of Matthew’s description of events: “The blind and lame came to him at the Temple”.

Why is this a big deal?

Because the blind and lame weren’t normally allowed into the Temple.

It’s interesting to see how Jesus’s radical act opened up the gates and gave more people the opportunity to encounter God. Maybe that’s a message to our churches – maybe we need to pray that the Holy Spirit would turn over some tables so that we would become a more welcoming and inclusive space. That’s especially true at the current moment – we’re suddenly faced with reconsidering what it means to be church and that gives us some real, timely, essential opportunities – and also to learn from the people who’ve already been doing this for years.

Of course, we’ve got to actually want this, and here’s the thing – often the biggest threat to our individual congregations is comfort, and often churches don’t really want the disruption. It doesn’t fit with the demographic or the ministry profile or whatever neatly-mown lawn we consider to be our harvest field. And when that’s the case, watch out, because it wasn’t just the Temple that Jesus needed to turn upside down, and we shouldn’t expect everything to return merrily to normal once COVID-19 burns itself out.

These are times in which we need to lean into disruption We need to use this opportunity to better use technology, as that’s how we’ll stay in touch with our communities. We need to reconsider how we look after each other, because grief and isolation can be devastating. We need to look at ourselves in the mirror and hope we see something of Jesus there and not just our denomination’s marketing department. In days of noise and confusion, we’re fumbling our way towards what God wants from us. But one thing is clear, we can’t lock the doors, we can’t hide in ecclesiastical bunkers. Because following Jesus means turning over our own tables; following Jesus means opening the gates.

A Time to Weep and a Time to Mourn

2013121303There’s a strange atmosphere in the world, normality and history rubbing shoulders and no-one quite sure what to do with that. My wife was able to do a supply run today, emerging from self-isolation to grab some basics from ourselves and some friends, and it was a heavy experience; a local farm is about the close because of the virus, shoppers look at each other with suspicion and mistrust, a country tries to evoke the spirit of wartime against an enemy that doesn’t even know we’re here. I don’t think any of us were psychologically prepared for this.

Lines from the Bible (or the Byrds, take your pick) keep swimming through my mind: “A time to mourn”, “A time to weep”. In one sense it’s obviously a time for these; as of a quick Google search ten minutes ago, 36,000 people have died due to COVID-19, 1,651 of these in my country. My family knew some of those victims, friends or friends of friends; of course it’s a time to mourn, it’s what we need to do at times like this.

And yet the scale of this pandemic can be guilt-inducing. The numbers are so big, the impact so devastating, that we can feel bad about the more prosaic effects this thing is having. We can feel self-indulgent when we see others going through hell, our heads  being messed with every minute of every day.

But it’s okay to mourn. I’m saying this out loud, in public, because even though I have no authority over your life or anyone else’s, I want you to have some sort of permission to deal with everything that’s going on. Not just the deaths, although these are terrible, each one a fracture in someone’s world, but also all the other losses we go through. We need to process, to reflect, to deal with the anger and doubt and frustration and to heal, because for all we’re told to keep a stiff upper lip, sooner or later we either allow ourselves to grieve or we simply shatter. It doesn’t have to be in public, you don’t need to be on Zoom for this, but like the man said, there’s a time to weep.

And so we’re allowed to mourn for our communities, for the businesses that are struggling or going under, for those losing their jobs, their careers, their livelihoods. We can mourn the loss, however temporary, of our libraries and schools and churches and coffee mornings and Slimming World meetings.

We’re allowed to mourn the lost opportunities, the trips that now can’t be taken, the plans that need to be cancelled, the goodbyes that can’t be said.

We’re allowed to mourn our rites of passage, all those kids pulled out of school without having a prom or a graduation, the chance to have their shirts signed or a fumbled first kiss behind the fire escape, the chance to bid farewell to the friends going in different directions after the summer has passed. The exam days and the results days and, for those of us who may be looking nostalgically back on this there are still the weddings and the stag-stroke-hen nights, the retirement parties, the anniversaries, all the markers in time against which we orientate our lives and the changes we’ve seen.

We’re allowed to mourn for justice, for inequality, for those struggling through this pandemic through no fault of their own – the healthcare workers who don’t have enough time or resources or equipment, the neighbours who don’t have enough groceries, all those who are starting to cough and run a fever but who can’t go to hospital because there’s no-one to take them, or they can’t afford it, or because they’ve convinced themselves they shouldn’t be a bother. All those dealing with the ugliness that situations like this inevitably reveal.

We’re allowed to mourn for all the impossible decisions, the doctors on triage, the managers looking in despair at their staffing budgets and overheads, the mourners who have to choose who among them gets to go to the funeral and the pastors who have to help them navigate that, the leaders who are trying to tackle a situation that nothing ever prepared them for.

We’re allowed to mourn for the things we don’t understand, like my eldest son who knows that things just aren’t right, who knows life has changed and the world’s been shaken but who doesn’t quite understand why, despite him asking every day but getting repeated answers from mom and dad that just don’t fit in with his jigsaw life.

We’re allowed to mourn the silence, we’re allowed to mourn the loneliness, the anxiety, the fear.

These too are loss.

And so I’m thinking about what it means to be a beloved community in times like this, and all I can think is that we need to create and hold space for the mourning and the tears, for lament and the sad songs that are still to be written, for the candles that burn, flickering in the dark, each one saying that we’re still here, we still hurt, we still love.

Then tomorrow we light the candles all over again, and the next day, until it’s a time to laugh, a time to dance.

Church in the Time of Coronavirus

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This is a strange time to be Church.

I think it’s because, for most of us, this is so unprecedented. We’re so used to be gathering on a Sunday, to meet and sing and pray and learner, that when we can’t do that it leaves a gap, a hole, Sunday morning in limbo. Maybe that’s why COVID-19 feels so apocalyptic, in its technical meaning of ‘an unveiling’ – we appreciate our communities, we want to see those we care about, our friends and family, and this whole situation challenges this, shows where we need to become more resilient, exposes the weaknesses in our structures.

That last bit is important. In the middle of a global pandemic, we’re now scurrying to figure out what it means to be church in the time of Coronavirus. Sometimes that’s a positive – we pull together, we figure stuff out, we re-discover our ability to innovate and adapt and do things we never thought we’d do because they always felt too complicated, too expensive, too radical. At other times, though, there’s a darker flipside to all this – we retreat, become entrenched, get into debates and arguments about theology and sacraments and whose sin is to blame for all this. For good or ill, we’re all just trying to get through this, figuring it out as we go.

But here’s the thing – we need to remember that this is a privileged way of looking at things. Because if we look beyond the centre, if we turn our eyes to the horizon, if we seek out the spaces that have, shamefully, been pushed to the margins, we’ll find that many of the answers we’re looking for are already here.

The Church of God already includes those who are living in isolation, because of illness or rejection or imprisonment.

The Church of God already includes those who have practiced church in online spaces, because sometimes buildings and communities have been made inaccessible for them.

The Church of God already includes those who have been rejected, scapegoated, othered, because we’re too damn good at doing all of these.

All these are part of the Church’s collective memory, experience and knowledge, it’s just that most of the us have been painfully slow in accessing it all because it’s out there in the margins, in the corners, in the places we’re ignored or avoided, belittled or patronised. In the past I’ve used the phrase “Be a voice for the voiceless”, but that was naive – plenty of voices are already speaking words that can help us through this current crisis, but it means we have to cultivate the precious spiritual discipline of shutting up and listening.

I don’t want this to sound mercenary either. I want the Church to be stronger, yes, but we do this by practicing love, respect and humility, and by giving all our voices space to be heard and acted upon. Because quite often the Holy Spirit will be speaking through those voices; sometimes an apocalyptic unveiling is a good thing.

In I Corinthians 12, Paul describes the Church as a body made up of many parts, before pointing out that the parts of the body that have been dishonoured are actually those we need the most. That’s a message we need to hear over and over again, but particularly now.

So it’s a time to listen and to learn. Listen to disabled Christians who’ve created online church because our buildings are so often inaccessible. To our brothers and sisters who can’t meet together because of persecution or rejection. To those who who know how to make resources stretch because they don’t have any choice. To those who sound the alarm because they’ve already witnessed the darkness that can come in the aftermath of tragedy, and who know that we need to be speaking out for justice. It’s a time to listen to the teachers and the nurses and the cleaners and the binmen among us, because in a time of crisis, our theology needs to be embodied out there on the front lines. It’s a time to remember that a global pandemic is impacting a global Church, not just the corners of Christendom with the pointiest hats. It’s a time to repent of all the things we could have done to make church bigger and wider and more present but didn’t, not until it affected us personally. And, more than anything, it’s a time to stop shaming the Body of Christ and finally start listening and honouring all its parts, all its people.