I have spent most of today chairing or participating in Zoom meetings. Each one was efficient, disciplined and we did the necessary business. Digital media are seriously wonderful, enabling audio-visual contact with individuals or groups in ways that would have been unthinkable only a decade ago.

But, they are no substitute for the real thing. I noticed today that in one of the meetings we got the job done (in a non-Brexitty way, of course), but we lacked the incidental chat, the in-between keeping up with people, spotting the indexical signals that sometimes belie or qualify the words we use.

The truly face-to-face will one day return and, no doubt, will quickly be taken for granted again. But, for now the loss is real. The waiting for its return is not dead time; rather, it is the time for learning to value what we cannot have … in order to re-value it when we get it back.

The original draft of the Barmen Declaration by Karl Barth

I also had a chat on the phone with a friend for whom the particular preoccupations of the bishops are not high on the human priority list. (Which keeps reasonably honest my own calibration of what matters and how the church might be seen – or not – from the outside.) We talked about faith and where it ‘lives’, especially for those who claim simply not to have it. And it led me back to another chunk of Terry Eagleton (from his book ‘Materialism’, p.49):

Faith is not a solitary mental state but a conviction which springs from sharing in the practical, communal life-form known as the Church… It consists primarily in a commitment to the death, not in a set of theoretical propositions. Even Friedrich Nietzsche … thought that to reduce it ‘to a holding of something to be true, to a mere phenomenality of consciousness, was to travesty it.”

In one sense we don’t need a reminder of this. Faith can never be merely spiritual; it can never be other than visible in how individuals live their common life. This is probably why Jesus never offered a three-line definition of the Kingdom of God, but, rather, told stories and gave images that teased the imagination. Faith is not non-propositional; but, if it is merely trust in a set of propositions, then it won’t last long in the face of the world’s reality.

So, the common life of people of faith will demonstrate the integrity of that faith. Not just it’s efficacy or attractiveness, but also it’s reality and credibility. We can argue apologetics and explore the rationality of faith – but, do stop there and disembody it in communal life is to miss the point entirely. Ultimately, faith is to be exercised and lived and not just for its own sake; it is therefore entirely reasonable in the sense that Eagleton uses it when he writes (p.56):

To be reasonable is to strive to view a situation as it really is, a strenuous enterprise which involves lifting our gaze above our endemic narcissism and self-interest. It also requires patience, persistence, resourcefulness, honesty, humility, the courage to confess that one is mistaken, a readiness to trust others, a refusal of anodyne fantasies and self-serving illusions, an acceptance of what may run counter to our own interests and so on.

So, Bob Dylan has released his latest epic. 17 minutes of references to the last sixty years of politics and music. Brilliant stuff. Called ‘Murder Most Foul’, it builds from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963.

It also offers a bit of perspective. When we speak of “the end of the world” we usually think in terms of an ultimate event – the final cataclysm in which the place of humanity in the cosmos shuts down. But, history is a litany of endings of many worlds. I was only six when JFK was shot in Dallas, but I remember very clearly the impact the news had on my parents and grandparents. We were sent to bed early; the world as we knew it was shot.

Yet, life carried on for the world, despite the ending of a world.

Today is called Passion Sunday in the Christian calendar. If it was ever experienced by Christians as just another episode along the way to the cross, this year might well be different. For all of us, a way of life has been interrupted; for the church, the rituals – and locations – of commemoration and celebration have been dislocated, literally. But, the experience of dislocation returns us to the reality of the original story.

Jesus approaches Jerusalem, knowing that he won’t be leaving it alive. He is accompanied by his optimistic friends who haven’t quite read the runes and assume it will all end well. Despite the realism of Jesus and his straight talking, his friends just can’t think differently (which perhaps illustrates why politicians can be so slow in facing the devastating implications of pandemic threats). But, when reality hits and hope lies bleeding into the dirt of Calvary, the ended world has to be faced. No escape, no illusions, no romantic resolution.

This is why Terry Eagleton, in his book ‘Hope Not Optimism’ (p.12) can write:

Optimism does not take despair seriously enough.

There are some voices worrying aloud about the demise of the church because of our having to close buildings for a few weeks or months. People will lost the habit of going to church, apparently. Well, what will that tell us? But, it isn’t the only option and it isn’t necessarily the biggest challenge to the real power of Christian faith.

As we rehearse again today, Passion Sunday, no one is exempted from the power of human mortality – from anything the world can throw at us. That is why Christian faith is rooted in a God who opts into the world, not out of it. But, fully immersed in that world, we needn’t be bound by it. The Christian Church will be found to be authentic when it reflects the Jesus who, accompanied by fallible and fickle friends, is able to leave behind past securities and walk alone to a place of suffering, injustice and death.

Nothing glib here. Which is why I am so proud of clergy and lay people who are grasping the opportunity thrust upon them to re-imagine what faithful discipleship and service might look like now and into a changed future.

Eagleton also wrote (p.3):

Authentic hope … needs to be underpinned by reason … Hope must be fallible, as temperamental cheerfulness is not.

We listen to experts. We take advice. We recognise the possibility of getting it wrong. But, grounded in hope and love (of God and neighbour), we find ourselves grasped by authentic hope. Because, as Eagleton puts it (p.78):

If God knows the world, then he must know it as it is, in its freedom, autonomy and contingency.

This is the text of an article published in the excellent and impressive Yorkshire Post today.

There are some memories I try to forget. Anything involving Liverpool losing to a Manchester club, for example. But, there are others.

Years ago, when our children were young, we used to lead summer venture holidays for teenagers. We did this for years at a variety of locations in England. The final three years we took over a school near Alton Towers in the Midlands. Inevitably, we spent a day each time at the famous entertainment park, trying not to get too wet too early on the water rides. Then there was Oblivion. You got in a carriage and it very slowly climbed a very steep rail until it levelled out at the top. Then it stopped. You waited, trying not to look down several hundred feet. Then, it shunted forward and sent you plummeting almost vertically towards the ground.

I wouldn’t dare do it now.

It feels a bit like that in England in these strange times. Outside my window everything is quiet: no planes in the sky, no cars on the road, no children playing in the park. It feels like we are waiting for something to happen – for the promised escalation in deaths and casualties from the invisible virus that is sweeping the globe. It feels very uncomfortable. Waiting always does, especially when we know we have no control over what might happen next.

Well, this experience might seem strange to us; but, it is how most of the world’s population live every day. The difference is that we in the West have taken a rare sense of continuity and security for granted, and have been seduced into thinking that we can control our lives and destiny.

There are many reasons for this, but they are for another time and another medium. For now, we can simply recognise that what we are currently enduring will, if we’ll let it, strip away some of the false securities and illusions we have grown to assume. The current lockdown has removed some of our freedoms – of movement and association, for example – but it might also remove some of our fantasies of individual self-sufficiency. Enforced isolation will prove extremely challenging for many people as we seek to use technology and other creative measures for maintaining – indeed, building – social connection at a time of threat and fear.

For Christians this dual experience of both waiting and self-examining is (or ought to be) normal. We are now heading towards the end of Lent, a period of withdrawal, contemplation, fasting and prayer. At this time each year we strip back the ‘stuff’ that fills our life. We re-read the story of Jesus as he walks with his friends towards what turned out to be a cross. We try to live in the moment, not jumping ahead to Easter’s resurrection before we have lived with the uncertainty and not-knowing of the journey itself. We place ourselves alongside these people-like-us as they struggle with not knowing where they were headed. And, as we go, we dig beneath the veneers of our own self-sufficiency, rediscovering what is too quickly forgotten: that we are mortal; that we are interdependent; that we are not masters of the universe; that an acceptance of our mortality is the beginning of freedom.

Now, this might sound a bit ‘niche’. But, the forgotten disciplines of the Christian Church through more than two thousand years might actually offer us a perspective and a resource as we navigate our current uncharted waters. Identifying our propensity for selfishness might push us towards greater patience and generosity with others. Learning to wait for whatever is to come … might just help people gain some acceptance of not being in control of life. Learning to create order where the daily routine feels a bit loose … might just offer a better form of self-control.

This isn’t about mere piety for the sake of it. What I am suggesting is that the space in which we now find ourselves – unwanted, uninvited, unwelcome – is where we are. We either embrace and explore it, or we just hunker down resentfully and hope it passes.

Someone once said: when you are in the desert, don’t look for the flowers that grow in the fertile areas; look for the flowers that grow only in the desert. For, if you spend your energies looking for roses, you will be very upset and frustrated. There are some flowers that grow only in the desert – try re-focusing and look for them.

On a similar theme is a meditation by an Asian theologian called Kosuke Koyama who once wrote a book called ‘Three Mile-an-Hour God’. When we enter a desert, says Koyama, our first instinct is to get out as quickly as we can. But, we need to resist the temptation, learning instead how to live in the present moment and face the slowed-down truth about ourselves and the world. That is what Lent invites us to do.

It is clearly a truism to say that we live in strange times. We face an unprecedented challenge. Yet, we also have unprecedented means of building our communities and strengthening our bonds. Social media, foodbanks and support of NHS staff. Constant connection with isolated and vulnerable people – even those down our own street or in our own block whom we would normally pass in the street and hardly recognise. Our antennae can now be raised, our sensitivities sharpened.

Now is the time to turn fear into faith and hope into action.

Just over a year ago I sat in on a quiet day at the School of Theology, University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee. I picked up a book of poetry by RS Thomas and came across the following line:

Does the tune exist when the instruments are silent…

It’s a good question. And, in the current viral-caused exile, I might want to press it in a different direction: Is the tune still discernible when the ambient noise tries to drown it out? Or, as the Psalmist put it: How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

For that is the current task for Christians in the Covid-19 world. The kingdom of God, shaped by sacrifice, compassion, love and mercy, and coloured by defiant hope, courageous realism and grace-filled generosity, does not change. Amid the fear and threat, the invitation to subvert the running bass of restlessness struggles to penetrate the noise and sound a different melody. But, as we are discovering from the stories of individuals and communities giving themselves to the service and care of others, the whispered tune has a habit of breaking through. Listen for it.

For many Christians the shape and contours of worship have changed. In a week. But, the altered reality challenges us as to what lies at the heart of our hope. A building? A sacramental discipline? A devotional formula? Or the sometimes-distant reality of the God who let his Son give it all up until, on that cross, he had nothing left. Then, through the questioning of abandonment, he discovers what is left of God and faith and hope.

RS Thomas also wrote in ‘A Welsh Testament’:

History showed us / He was too big to be nailed to the wall / Of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him / between the boards of a black book.

Do we really think he can be confined in a book? Or a box?

REM didn’t just create an anthem; in the title of the epic song they put their finger on something vital. There are times when ‘my religion’ needs to be lost.

One of the constant messages to the people who took God for granted – read, for example, Isaiah 1-39 – is that sincerity is not enough, serious religiosity can be dangerous, that vision can be confused with fantasy. So, for example, thinking that God is there to make my life complete, to protect me from the contingencies of human living, or to exempt me from suffering, is a form of religious assumption that needs to be ditched. In the same way, reducing God to some sort of tribal deity is to create an illusion that needs to be abandoned.

The trouble is, we usually don’t have the courage to ditch religious fantasy. We don’t often take out our assumptions about God, the world and us, and examine them. So, it is left to trauma, loss or shock to shake us up and compel us to take a brave look at what we think matters and why.

But, losing dodgy religion can be a gift. Far better to live with reality – however messy or risky – than to live an illusion.

Generations come and go. And I discover that I am not the centre of the universe, after all. But, like any individual in any generation, I am called to be faithful to God’s way of loving, living and learning in my generation, recognising that mortality sets me free to live and die without fear.

One of the challenges of Lent for Christians is to avoid confusing process with event.

That is a shorthand way of saying that the stories we read in the scriptures cover a period of time, and we need to try to live with the narrative, not conflate it.

So, for example, the people to whom Isaiah addressed his writings three thousand years ago did not know the middle or end of their story. Those who were warned that exile might well be coming (Isaiah 1-39) didn’t know what that exile would mean in reality. Which is probably why they went into denial and didn’t take the threat seriously. Those who went into exile in Babylon experienced existential (as well as physical and material) loss, but they would soon have to come to terms with a new reality. Nostalgia wouldn’t help, nor would wishful thinking.

But, they also had no idea how long exile would last. There was no template for how to live in the strange land, with its different routines, languages, expectations, limitations, and so on. Even the immediate future was uncharted territory. We know what happened over the following decades, but they didn’t. So, they had to work it out as they went along, never sure they were reading the times right or not.

Sounds familiar?

We need to use our imagination to dig beneath the text. If you were born at the beginning of exile, you might have some memory of ‘home’. But, if you had grown up into your mid-adulthood in exile, exile is normal. What then of the memory of a home you didn’t know? So, how do you live, but also how do you think about how you live?

The point is that we can read these texts today in our search for wisdom, and even be surprised by how contemporary the recorded experience is. Basically, human beings face the same questions in every age. Yes, we have to navigate the particular channels of today’s phenomena; but, we should not be so arrogant as to suppose we are unique or even original.

A reading of the ancient texts tells us that we always need to expand our concept of time. The exiles were in for the long haul. Generations might be born, live and die in exile. Their grandchildren and their grandchildren might know no other reality.

So, the question remains: does our confidence – our faith – lie in a set of personally positive circumstances or some equation for securing a future? Or does it lie in a conviction that transcends the immediate good or ill that being human necessarily brings us? In Christian terms, does my faith lie in a formula … or in the person of the God who takes a longer view and, as we will re-live at Easter,  defies death itself?

Christmas Eve 2019, looking back from the ancient chancel of Ripon Cathedral towards the nave.

However, the interesting bit isn’t what you can see. Underneath my feet while taking the photo is the oldest stone-built place of Christian worship in England. Apparently. In the seventh century crypt you stand where St Cuthbert’s body lay en route to his burial in Durham.

So what? Just more old stuff – something Britain is full of?

Well, since that crypt was built in the 600s the world has seen quite a lot. The world has ended many times. The Norman invasion, plagues, the Black Death, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the English Civil War, the birth and death of an Empire, two world wars, and so on. People have lived their lives and died their deaths. They have wept with pain, been wracked by fear, and laughed at the absurdities of life.

We now live in times we consider to be unprecedented and fearful. But, the truth is that all times are fearful and, by definition, unprecedented. And after millions have lived their mortal lives, the cathedral still stands, the crypt bears witness to generations of chaotic people and sometimes-faithful communities. Still there. And so are we: still praying, still serving, still digging into the ancient wisdom of texts written by people who wrestled with the same existential questions as we do.

Old stuff gives us a sense of perspective. In the parish where I was a vicar from 1992-2000 – Rothley in Leicestershire – there is a Saxon cross in the churchyard. We drank wine out of an Elizabethan chalice. I baptised in a Norman font … and would look up at mediaeval windows and down at a Victorian floor. Hanging by the north door there was a wooden plaque which bore the inscribed names of all the vicars of Rothley going back to the eleventh century.

We are part of that continuum. One in which things change, but God seems not to. So, we do our best, try to be faithful in our generation, and hope to pass on to the next generations a world that will speak to them of faithfulness in unprecedented times. And speak to them of time.