It feels like we are living between times again. Lockdown is giving way to an easing of restrictions – now thrown into chaos by the hypocritical shambles of Dominic Cummings’ breaching of the instructions given to the whole country (and the government’s defence of him). Enough on that for now.

Christians always live in what we might call ‘in-between times’. There is always a ‘not yet’ element to whatever is happening in the world. What is surprising is that people should still be surprised that provisionality is always the name of the game for mortal human beings living in a material and contingent world.

Last Thursday was Ascension Day – Jesus leaves his friends to get on with the job. It’s as if he tells them it’s time to get out of the audience and onto the stage, or out of the stands and onto the pitch. They have watched and listened to him during these last couple of years,  it now comes the time for commitment to the cause. It involves conscious choice.

If you read the narratives, these were a people whose lives were in turmoil. Having put their hope in Jesus being the one to liberate them, they then watched him bleed into the dirt of Golgotha, their faith draining away with it. Then they start experiencing his presence again in various ways, discovering that they can no longer hold onto him or possess him – and certainly not appropriate him for their own sense of security or prosperity. Then, just as they are getting their heads around that one, he takes them up a mountain and leaves them.

Now, if I was one of them, I might be justified in thinking that the promised Holy Spirit would come immediately and empower me/us to do what Jesus told us to get on with. No chance. There’s now another wait (and we don’t know how long this might be, if ever). So, we have to learn to let him go, live with ourselves and each other, wondering how we are supposed to do what he left us with.

Pentecost will come. The friends of Jesus will be empowered to speak of the Jesus revolution in ways that everyone can understand. But, for now, they have to live with the double-whammy of (a) having been given a commission whilst (b) living with complete uncertainty about the future.

We don’t know what the future will look like for our society, our economy, our politics, our church. But, we do know that we are called to be creative, bold and adventurous. Will we make mistakes, misunderstand the calling, head in the wrong direction at the wrong time? Probably. But, Jesus in the gospels shows little surprise when his friends mess it up. What we can’t do is just go back to the fishing grounds of the old certainties.

Ascensiontide – between Ascension and Pentecost – asks us if we are up for it? Before we know what’s coming.

Lockdown means working back through the films I thought we’d seen often enough. The other impetus is that we have a young Austrian student friend living with us and most of these films are new to her.

Last night I couldn’t find what I was looking for, so we watched Shadowlands, the beautiful film about CS Lewis and his relationship with Joy Davidman. I am not an easily weepy man, but the final scenes have me blaming the hay fever again.

The story shows how a cerebral man, an intellectual apologist for Christian faith, comes up against experience and finds that tidy rationality – even in matters of faith – is inadequate when confronted by love and pain and loss and uncontrollable grief. The unarticulated inhibitors of emotional freedom, displaced into the secondhand living-through-literature (which is not to diminish it), slowly dissolve into helpless exposure of weakness and need. Lewis finds that he has been found by love.

We know from what followed that Lewis’s apologetics were humanised – fired in the fulcrum of loss. A Grief Observed remains one of the most beautiful accounts of the power of grief and the uncontrollable experience of powerless submission to raw truth.

A bit like coronavirus, grief can’t be “fixed”or “defeated” or “controlled” – it has to be lived with and gone through and accommodated. And at the end of it all lies what Christians call grace – being found by love.

Lockdown is a challenge. But, for me it also allows space for some conversations that might usually get squeezed between meetings and then forgotten.

Yesterday I had two. Both ran around how the current situation impacts us now and might do in the future. My question (or one of them, at least) is this: when life and its routines are disrupted or taken away, which wells do we draw from to sustain life and meaning? While everything changes above the surface and the shape of the future is uncertain, can we locate the underground streams that keep flowing anyway?

There is probably a better way of putting this. But, in a really stimulating conversation with a BBC friend yesterday morning we were wondering if this crisis has revealed the shallowness of many of our cultural or personal wells. It’s a question, not a statement.

For me, as a Christian, the wells – the underground streams – go back a very long way. The creation narratives in Genesis speak of order being brought out of chaos. The Exodus has a people’s settled world being ruptured and them being driven out of the familiar into the strangeness of a desert where they had to lose before they could gain – to lament the loss of a world before being in a position to reorientate towards a different future in a different place. (It took forty years.) Later the people get exiled from the land of promise (twice, in fact – in the eighth and sixth centuries BC) and take time to live with their loss … before settling in the strange land … and then, generations later, having to leave again. They return ‘home’, but discover that home is no longer what they remembered.

I could go on. The Christian tradition lives and feeds from these narratives of leaving and moving and settling only to be disrupted and moved again. And this experience is rooted in an acceptance of mortality and contingency and what goes with the freedom of living in a material world.

But, we don’t usually transition straight from one world to another. We have to stay with the loss, lamenting what has been lost, grieving for a world (or way of life) now gone. People will take a shorter or longer time to live with this. There will be anger, powerlessness and disorientation. And while this is going on some people will accept the new reality and start orientating towards creating a new world.

So, what are the narratives or assumptions that keep us nourished while all this goes on around and above us?

Christian faith does not assume a life (or world)of continuous security and familiarity. It is fed by scriptures that speak of transience, mortality, provisionality, interruption and leavings. But, they also whisper that the endings are always beginnings – the leavings open a door to arrivals that could not have been experienced otherwise. In other words, the loss can be seen as a gift – what Walter Brueggemann calls ‘newness after loss’.

So, as I have suggested to clergy in the Diocese of Leeds, we might be helped in articulating this by asking four questions: (a) what have I/we lost that we need to regain in the weeks and months ahead? (b) what have we lost that needs to remain lost – left behind in another country? (c) what have I/we gained that we need to retain in the future? (d) what have we gained recently that was useful for this season but needs to be lost if we are to move forward?

We might feel sometimes that we don’t have much to go on. The photo below is one I took on a visit to a farm in Gweru, Zimbabwe, back in 2007. During a drought and amid economic collapse, someone had planted a rose in arid ground and watered it each day. It was a prophetic challenge to the desert; it was an act of hope, of prophetic imagination. Today is not the end.

This is the text of an article commissioned by the Yorkshire Post for today:

Having grown up in a northern city that in my childhood still bore the violent scars of aerial bombing in the 1970s, I found it powerfully poignant to find myself one Sunday standing in the pulpit of the Frauenkirche in Dresden. I had listened to the stories told by my parents and grandparents of air-raid shelters, bombed houses, destroyed families – especially from the blitz on Liverpool in May 1941. Yet, here I was, standing in the pulpit of a church – now restored – that the Allies had fire-bombed on the night of 13-14 February 1945. And I remembered William Blake’s reference to a “fearful symmetry”.

The Second World War cost an estimated fifty million deaths. The casualties who stayed alive in some way are incalculable. I have had friends in Austria and Germany who were force-marched from their original home in (what became) Yugoslavia to near Paris and then back eastwards to the Danube, confronted by Soviet occupying forces. They were children. War was brutal.

Seventy five years is not a long time really. The unconditional surrender of the Nazi regime on 8 May 1945 brought an end to the conflict in Europe – although the slaughter continued in the Far East until August. It was, as the REM song puts it, “the end of the world as we know it”. A world exhausted by violence, fear and suffering breathed deeply … but then had to turn its collective face towards building a future. Not rebuilding, however. Nobody suggested that the world should return to some mythical golden age of the 1920s or ‘30s. Rather, they knew they had to take responsibility for building something new and untested.

So, while we rightly celebrate the courage and sacrifice of so many during those terrible years of Nazi tyranny and global conflict, we cannot romanticise it and simply stay with the echo of some past glory. We have to look to the future and ask – if we learn anything from history and those who paid the price of victory and peace – what is required of us in building the world our children and grandchildren will inherit.

If you go to the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, you will eventually find your way to the memorial to the Warsaw Uprising. Either side of a door in a courtyard there are two sculpted reliefs: one depicts the uprising, led by a 19 year old who refused to lie down and be slaughtered; the other shows Jews being meekly led like lambs, herded by faceless Nazi soldiers. In other words, people respond differently to threat and dehumanisation – and neither should be judged by those who never have to face the choice.

I asked an academic who took me there some years ago why the Nazi soldiers had not been given any facial features. He said that they could not be depicted as human. So, I asked if that was actually the problem: if we dehumanise the evil-doers by making them faceless, do we also avoid the shocking agony that the immense and systematic cruelties of the Holocaust were perpetrated by people like me and you? He wouldn’t answer, but the question has never left me.

Although I was involved in a distant way in the Falklands War in 1982 (in a previous job in Cheltenham), I was never confronted by immediate brutality or threat. I never had to make the hard choices regarding violent resistance or submission. But, then I also visited the museum in Berlin called ‘The Topography of Terror’ (built on the site where the Gestapo HQ had once stood) – which houses a harrowing account of how civil society gets slowly corrupted by people letting a little bit of civility or humanity go at a time. Eventually it has gone too far. The rest, as they say, is history.

VE Day saw an end to more than conflict. It marked the beginning of a world which needed to build new institutions for peace and stability. It was understood that peace took a very long time to build – especially based on growing trust and mutual accountability – but could be destroyed in weeks or months. And the problem is that we don’t see it happening around us or within us. If VE Day does anything, it should pull us up short and face us afresh with the consequences of both civil corruption and historical amnesia. Peace has to be built and protected.

Seventy five years is not a long time. But, it is long enough for us to learn and lose the lessons bequeathed to us by those who endured suffering in the past. As a Christian, faced with the ambiguous record of the Church in Europe in the 1930s and ‘40s, I can only turn back to the narrative in the Bible that sees humility – not hubris – as the key to peace between people and nations.

VE Day 2020 – a day for celebration and for reflection.

You have to watch it to the end.

 

When you get a bit Zoomed out (usually during a Zoom meeting, to be honest) distraction comes easily. For me it’s always songs that go around my head. It can be problematic.

Today has been complicated because there are two songs: one by REM and one by Bruce Cockburn.

’It’s the end of the world as we know it’ is the title of REM’s 1987 epic. It also chimes in with today and the uncertain future we all now face. I’ve always thought that obsessions with the end of the world are a clever way of avoiding the ending of lots of worlds – something that happens every day for someone somewhere.

What we are gong through now with Covid-19 is the ending of a way of life that we always assumed would just keep going and growing (like the economy). We can’t yet know what this death will give birth to because we can’t get to resurrection until we have done the loss of Friday and lived through the agonising emptiness of Saturday.  But, we will have to decide how to handle the disorientation of the ending of a world before we work out if or how to shape the world that might emerge from the ashes of our expectations.

This shouldn’t come as a shock. History tells us that the affluence of the West is abnormal and always precarious. Empires come and go, don’t they? Humility should trump hubris, but that might be wishful thinking.

Bruce Cockburn has been exploring the universe for decades and he has done so in the most beautiful poetry as well as the best guitar playing. (I know I keep banging on about him, but that’s just the way it is. Sorry.) yet, occasionally you get a bit of an oddity that is brilliant, but unexpected. One of these is ‘Anything Can Happen’ – a romantic tune, but killing words. Try this, the chorus:

Anything can happen
To put out the light,
Is it any wonder
I don’t want to say goodnight?

The verses rehearse some of the random and terrible things that might happen to anyone at any time. It is funny and sharp. But, it also questions our easy failure to face mortality and contingency – both fundamental to living in a material world which we can’t control.

This just makes the point that, despite our attempts at securing our security, we all actually live in the edge. Realising and accepting this is the beginning of human freedom. All the other questions then follow on.

It feels like the virus has compelled us to face what we otherwise suppress by busyness, distraction (“amusing ourselves to death”, as Neil Postman put it) or fear. (Today is also the 75th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s death by suicide – ending a war and opening up a different future beyond the destruction and death. But, that’s for another day.)

I never met the great Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, but I did go to his funeral in 2003. I had just been ordained as a bishop (of Croydon) in May and he died on 4 August. I was asked to attend his funeral, probably because I was one of the few bishops available in London and not on holiday somewhere remote. It was a very long service on a very hot day, but I learned a lot and it was an honour to be there.

I had read some of Metropolitan Anthony’s writings, especially on prayer. I don’t have a great for epic quotes – and quickly forget what some books have to say, even when I have only just finished them – but, the line I never forgot was this:

To pluck a flower means to take possession of it, and it also means to kill it…

This is the sort of paradox that runs through real life and makes everything we do somehow ambiguous. I can’t look at flower arrangements now without thinking of this (and hay fever).

In these strange days of lockdown and questioning, it might just offer some encouragement to those who struggle with the feeling of helplessness. When we are used to endless activity, maybe confusing this with virtue, it is easy to ask what value I have to offer when I can’t do what I normally do. For clergy this can be particularly challenging – needing to let old patterns of pastoral care and teaching die (for a time?) before we can orientate towards creating something new that is untested and feels less incarnational, perhaps.

Plucking a flower kills the flower, cutting off its lifeblood and turning into a possession for my limited and temporary pleasure. It has become a utility rather than a living thing. And we are taught that commodifying living things is not something of which to be proud – especially when it involves killing them. But, we still do it. And one could argue that we cannot live without doing it. Even beauty cannot be cost-free.

This illustrates the messiness of the world and what it means to live in it. The biblical narrative tells us that God is no stranger to this sort of paradox. Not only are the Psalms riddled with expressions of bewilderment, exuberance and lament at the difficulty of all this, but the Jesus bit is all about God opting into the whole business of living with contradiction and not exempting himself from it.

Sometimes we just have to learn to live with it. To stop trying to resolve every conundrum. To be patient with those who are slower to fix or accommodate to it. To recognise the call to humility that (to mix my metaphors) swimming in this mortal pool inevitably provokes.

No wonder, as the apostle Paul acknowledged, that “the whole creation groans in anticipation” of the fulfilment of all things while the ‘not yet’ persists.