This the script of a radio Thought for the Day which I didn’t broadcast yesterday:

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, it’s just possible you haven’t grasped the situation.” So wrote Jean Kerr in 1957 in her introduction to Please don’t eat the Daisies. Well, it’s one way of looking at a crisis, I suppose.

Of course, one of the most used words these days is just that: crisis. And it appears usually to describe a very negative state of affairs – one full of challenge and despair.

However, the word seems to derive from the latinised form of the Greek ‘krisis’ which indicates ‘judgement’. The verb ‘krinein’ means “to separate, judge or decide”. Which all sheds a different light not only on the word, but also on the situation in which we find ourselves.

“Never waste a crisis!” we hear – often, I suspect, from people who don’t have to endure one. But, if ‘crisis’ refers to a point of decision or judgement, then it might be worth dwelling on it for a moment.

In the New Testament Jesus speaks of judgement in terms of the need for a decision which will impact on the whole of life. Whether or not to follow him and see the world through his eyes was more than a lifestyle choice. It wasn’t that his disciples were offered a range of fulfilment options from which they could choose the most appealing. Rather, they were offered something rather sharp: follow me – in this uncertain world which you can’t actually control – and you will probably end up, like me, on a cross.

Or, in the words of that epic speech in Trainspotting, “choose life” by facing up to what you decide really matters when all is stripped away and, faced with your own mortality, you have to choose which way to go. Or whom to follow.

I find this particularly poignant this month because it is 75 years since the execution of the young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His theological ethics told him he shouldn’t kill; but he was implicated in the failed bomb plot to kill Hitler. He had to choose. And he faced the cost of that choice before making it.

In the current pandemic crisis the choices might seem less stark. But, they still have to do with life and death – not least whose death might be acceptable; they have to do with that fundamental question about whether the economy serves society or people the economy; they have to do with choosing how to take responsibility for re-ordering society in the future on the basis of a better and more humane vision for the world.

I think one place to start might be to consider the impact of this pandemic on people in countries where they do not have the resources to do what we can choose to do in the UK. Our choice will indicate whether we love our neighbour or not.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

“April is the cruellest month” is how TS Eliot began The Wasteland – written in the wake of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Well, this April presents challenges that no post-war generation would have considered even conceivable only a couple of months ago.

A few years ago I was in another place that knew something of suffering and hardship. Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe had gone from being the breadbasket of Africa to what can only be described as a basket case. Inflation was running at over ten thousand per cent and the infrastructure in the country was broken. So were many of the people we met.

One day we visited the school and farm run by the Church just outside Gweru in the Midlands Province. Our guide took us to the cattle dip which by then was disused, breaking up and a bit sad. He explained that they needed money to put up fences around the farm to stop the neighbours’ cattle coming in and infecting the others with ticks and other diseases. Until they kept the others out, they wouldn’t be able to use the dip.

But, then one of our group – a Zimbabwean – asked why they needed fences. Instead, why not get the neighbours to pay a small fee to have their cattle dipped – that would mean that all the cattle would be clean, no infections would intrude onto the farm, money wouldn’t be wasted on easily breached fences, and the farm would gain a little income. 

I stood there wondering why I hadn’t thought of this. Instead of closing down, the best response was to open up. The best defence was to support the interests of the neighbours.

This shouldn’t have surprised me. The Hebrew Scriptures tell how a people prepare to enter the land of promise. But, before going in they are told that the society they shape must be one in which everyone counts – in which “loving one’s neighbour as oneself” (which Jesus quoted much later) was a command and not a policy suggestion. Peace and prosperity could only be secured if the mutual interests and accountabilities of all were promoted and defended. Counter-intuitive it may well be, but God’s call to look after the interests of those who are poor, marginalised, homeless and strange was essential. Only if they were cared for could the new society be considered just or godly.

A society that thinks it can secure itself by excluding (or, even, scapegoating) others simply erects fences. And as the world eventually moves into a post-pandemic world, big choices will have to be faced – and the cattle dip might offer a lens through which to look at them.

According to Emily Dickinson, “to be alive is so amazing, there’s hardly time for anything else.”

I think I know what she meant.

One of the gifts of the current coronavirus crisis is to force an awareness of the fragile wonder of simply being alive, of what it is to be mortal. Gift? In the face of so much pain, bereavement, economic ruin and uncertainty? Really?

Well, it depends how you choose to face the present reality. It won’t go away, will it? Wishing it was different won’t change anything. We can direct our anger and grief at the people we want to criticise: government, politicians, scientists who can’t agree, people who break the rules. Or we can take the opportunity to appreciate afresh how fragile life actually is.

I heard from a friend the other day who tells me that the sheer business of ‘normal’ life has been useful in keeping the hard questions at bay. Just keeping going has offered a convenient firewall, enabling him to avoid asking if all the activity, work, relentless pressure is really what his life should be about. Strip it all away and the questions can’t so easily be avoided.

Not everyone is at the same place. And you can’t compel anyone to ask questions they don’t want to ask. But, forced by circumstances to stay at home (and run meetings on Zoom), I intend to think hard about how I shall live and work and prioritise in a changed future. I need to think again about the value of what I used to think mattered most.

For, having often maintained that the beginning of freedom for human beings is the acceptance of mortality (and its implications), and faced by the existential challenges of so many people’s current suffering, I can only then go on to ask the consequent questions of why I matter and how I should then live.

Being alive is a gift not to be taken for granted or squandered.

It’s at times like this that the Psalms come into their own.

The thing about reading the Psalms every day, regardless of how we are feeling, is that the poets provide people with a vocabulary for the spectrum of human experience. From exuberant joy to the depths of despair, there is something for everyone.

One of the repeated laments that finds its voice in a coronavirus world is that unanswered question: “How long, O Lord, how long?” When will the pain end? When will the exile from familiar ‘home’ expire so we can return to ‘normal’? It is a simple human articulation of frustration.

So, we find ourselves now not knowing when the lockdown will be relaxed or end. In the UK we are now in week four or five and there seems to be no imminent end in sight. And therein lies a problem. If we knew when the rules might be relaxed, or when increased association might be encouraged, we could measure out the days and weeks. If I knew that I would have to live for ten weeks in lockdown, I could then shape the weeks and days in order to do certain things and mete out the space. As people keep saying, this is a marathon, not a sprint. But, as one of my colleagues observed, a marathon has a known end and the runner can train for each stage of the race. So, we might actually be having to run a series of mini-sprints just now.

What can we do about this, then? And which wells can we drink from as we seek to navigate these strange times?

Well, the biblical story begins with the bringing of order out of chaos. That’s what the creation narratives in Genesis are about. And, although human beings seem to have a propensity for reversing this (bringing chaos out of order), there is something in us that needs to shape, to order, to form.

But, we can only do this effectively if we also have a sense of perspective – one that does not arise within us naturally, but can be learned by looking and listening and studying. One of the key themes in the Hebrew scriptures is that of time. The Israelites spend over four centuries in Egypt before being liberated in the exodus. They spend forty years in the desert going round in circles before they can enter the land of promise. Exiled in the eighth century BC (and again in the sixth), several generations or more find themselves in unwelcome territory and hoping for a swift return home. And so the story goes on.

The question it raises is how we should live in ‘exile’ when we have no idea how long the exile will last? How were the Israelites to live meaningfully – and order their common life – when they had no idea for how long this exile might last?

The trick remains the same for us as it did for the exiles three thousand years ago: shape now in the light of the past and with a vision for the future. The prophet Jeremiah put it simply: “Seek the welfare of the city.” In other words, attend to what you can shape – now – and what is in your control. You can’t kill the virus or make the political decisions, but, you can shape your own life in small bits and in ways that do not militate against the common good.

So, for now, this suggests that even if I can’t speed up the process of lockdown, I can break down the uncertainty into smaller timeframes (mini-sprints). I can take the week ahead and decide what I want to have done by the end of it. I then break down each day of the week and create a routine that pencils in the things I have decided to do. I can then measure backwards after a week and see what shape I gave to the empty time.

This might sound like a luxury for those with the space or freedom to do it. Living in a large house with a garden is very different from living in a block of flats with loads of children or a difficult or violent partner. But, by creating some shape to ‘short time’, we take some control over what seems “without form and void”. And this is better for our mental health.

This shaping of now derives wisdom from the past and aims to fit us (by the reforming of our vision of who we are and what matters) for an uncertain future. We might not be able to control the future, but we can shape ourselves to cope better with whatever comes our way.

(I realise this is all obvious, but it shouldn’t do any harm to set it out again.)

We never walk alone. One of the things discovered by many people in the recent strange weeks of Covid-19 lockdown is that we have the time and space for a new questioning.

Four resources might help us along the way. We can look at them in the company of others who might be wanting to do their own ‘walk to Emmaus’. This isn’t just for Christians; it is for the curious. And it doesn’t predetermine an outcome. That’s the point.

The first is Francis Spufford’s wonderful Unapologetic – a race through the emotional appeal of Christianity. Funny, sweary, intelligent and passionate – it can be read alongside other resources of apologetics.

Secondly, Tom Holland’s brilliant account of the way Christianity has shaped the world and much that we take for granted in our now-secular culture: Dominion. It is surprising, erudite, but genuinely unputdownable.

Thirdly, Rhidian Brook’s new collection of Thought for the Day scripts: Godbothering. I do Thought for the Day (on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme) from time to time – I am doing next Friday – and I know how tricky it is. I read Rhidian’s scripts and wonder why I can’t write like he does. Beautiful use of language, vivid storytelling and imagery, imaginative theological reflection on the stuff of life. No wonder he is a novelist and screenwriter.

Fourthly, a book of sermons. I have a problem with books of sermons: preaching is an event – you have to be there; context and audience matter. Reading them later, almost as a flat script rather than a spoken event, can render them interesting-but-dull. Not when the preacher is Mark Oakley. His recent collection of sermons, The Way of the Heart, demonstrates the power of language beautifully and powerfully deployed. Moving, challenging, arresting – I wanted to stop in every paragraph and meditate on the way the words go deep. This is a wonderful book and a challenge to all preachers.

Of course, there are many more resources. But, that’s a start. Readable, accessible books for helping us on the journey from Easter.

Easter Monday. All sorted, then. We’ve had the glorious light of new life and the future is all bright.

Well, not quite. Like everything in life, the end is always just a new beginning. And the beginning will demand of us not some sort of relaxation into spiritual satisfaction, but a new engagement. The journey continues.

The text I always go to today is Luke’s account of the two friends of Jesus walking back from Jerusalem to their home in Emmaus. They are still trying to work out what the whole Jesus experience was about. He wasn’t supposed to die – that doesn’t fit the theological or political template for ‘messiah’. Now, you can come to terms with the finitude of death – after all, it is an incontrovertibly factual phenomenon. But, how are we supposed to make sense of the reports that the dead man is now appearing to his friends again – the same, but different; recognisable, but strange. And those wound marks …

How to make sense of this? How to fit experience into a fixed theology or re-shape theology in order to account for real experience?

So, as they walk together – possibly a married couple – they try to work it out and get nowhere. Then a stranger comes from behind and joins them on their walk through the hills. But, instead of simply telling them how to make sense of it all (which would have saved a bit of time and proved his credentials), he asks them what they are talking about. They tell him: the weird stuff that has been going on in Jerusalem. “What stuff?” he asks. “Are you the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on?” they ask. Jesus willing to sound ignorant, irrelevant, out of touch?

Jesus lets them tell their story in their terms. Only when they have framed it in their way – noting that it doesn’t compute – does Jesus offer to re-tell the story of God and his people in a way that re-describes both experience and theology.

Yet, it is only when they get to the couple’s home that they eventually recognise who their accompanier was. Yes, the penny dropped while they were breaking bread together; but, what they noted was that their hearts had been burning within them while they were listening to him ‘re-describe reality’ (in Brueggemann’s phrase) and frame the Scriptures afresh.

And us?

Today we are invited to walk – maybe for the first time – in the company of others who don’t quite ‘get it’, asking the real and powerful questions and trying together to work it all out. No just saying “This is the word of the Lord” as we so readily do in church, but, rather, a wrestling with the meaning of this stuff as if our life depended on it. Taking it (and Jesus) seriously by arguing with him and listening to him. Not just passing on as if he is theologically interesting so long as he demands no shaking up of me or my thinking.

The Church’s calendar takes from Easter on a journey of re-discovering this Jesus – rehearsing the story and trying to hear it afresh. It invites us to find someone else, read the story again together, argue the toss about what it all means, and see where it leads. (Which might be back to Jerusalem, but changed by what happened on the way to our Emmaus.)

That is the point of the church in the days to come.And we can do this on the phone, on Zoom, on FaceTime, or in any other medium. We can do it over the garden fence or across the balconies. We can do it any way we like.

We just need to take it seriously enough to do it. The journey starts with a single step.

Easter Day. The day when Christians rise early, watch the sun come up and join together in numbers to celebrate the resurrection. We belt out those great Easter  hymns, listen to those breathtakingly dramatic Gospel readings, and, in my case, hold back the tears as the cathedral choir sings the Gloria from Mozart’s Coronation Mass.

Not this year. Today our churches will be empty and silent. There will be no cry of “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” to which the congregation should always be tempted to respond “What?! You must be joking!” Instead, we will be in our homes, joining together remotely or in distant prayer.

In other words, the church of Jesus Christ will be living the Easter faith for real. What we really believe will be seen in how we, bearing the wound marks of sacrifice, offer hope to a weary world. For we are not afraid and we look at how to love our neighbours by keeping our distance from them. And we will learn whether we really do think prayer is worth the effort.

Wherever we are and however we worship today, we will be confronted afresh by the shocking and outrageous “proleptic invasion of the end times in the present” (in the words of Wolfhart Pannenberg, if I remember them rightly). It will only come as a shock, however, if we first have lived through the bewildering agony of Good Friday and the empty fear and disillusionment of Empty Saturday. Only then can we experience – imaginatively – the disorientating irruption of the extraordinary into the normality of life.

We appreciate the light when we have stayed with the darkness. We can be surprised by joy once we have loved with the loss and the pain.

The thing about the resurrection narratives is that they don’t do propaganda. Surely the risen Christ would have put everything right, wiped out the pain, turned disfigurement into glory. But, no, the gospel writers clearly lacked that sort of imagination. For, the risen Jesus still bears the wounds, the scars of torture and violation. A reminder of the past, or a glorious statement of the present reality – that this risen Christ is still earthed, no stranger to the horrors of human existence for too many people.

(I recall the late Dennis Potter, in his final interview, saying that “religion has always been the wound and not the bandage”.)

And, as Mary discovers in the garden, this risen Jesus cannot be held onto. He can’t be possessed or commodified. He can’t be corralled into my own securities or illusions. He can’t be appropriated to make my life happier or better or safer.

Yet, he knows Mary’s name. He knows our name.

Easter whispers to a world that isn’t expecting or waiting for him that violence, death and destruction do not have the final word in this world – or in our broken and seemingly fragile lives. God does, and the word is ‘resurrection’. Which is why, some years ago when wondering how to condense the mystery of Easter into a tweet, I wrote that “Easter means … being drawn by hope, not driven by fear.” Why? Because Christians, if they have truly been grasped by the resurrection, put their hope in the person of the God who raised Christ from real death, and not in some formula for guaranteeing personal security.

And that is why I can wish everyone a Happy Easter. To do so is simply to invite anyone to be open to the surprising possibility that the world is more than meets the eye.

Empty Saturday. The worst.

You know what it is like when you have been bereaved. You somehow get through the hours that follow and life is thrown out of kilter. There is a sense of real unreality about what has happened. The world has changed for ever, but the rest of the world just keeps turning as if nothing remarkable had happened.

Eventually you get to sleep. And when you wake up your mind plays games with your mind. And you gradually work out that the death was real and the loss is total. It wasn’t a bad dream; it is too real. Everything in us wants to make it better, heal the deep wound of grief. But, there is no magic sticking plaster, no easy healing.

In fact, as Asian theologian puts it in his ‘Three Mile and Hour God’, when we are led into this sort of desert of emptiness, the key is not to obey the instinct to get out as quickly as possible. We need to stay there, facing the pain and the grief and the raw loss – living with it and going through it, not running away from it. For, it is through the experience itself that eventually we will be ready and able to be surprised by the light of healing.

So, today I need to stay with the pain. Resist the temptation to run away or distract myself as some sort of psychological or spiritual anaesthetic. Stay at the tomb. Feel the confusion – it wasn’t supposed to end this way. Live with the questions and face the horror.

And wait. Wait. Wait.

Good Friday. Darkness. Loss. Suffering. Death.

When I was a vicar we used to start at the church door on Good Friday and walk around the building, re-telling the story of God and his people, Jesus and his friends, and end up leaving in silence to the sound of a nail being hammered into wood. It was visceral. This year we accompany Jesus and his friends as they experience distance, fear, disorientation, dispersal and aloneness. I think it is a gift to go beyond mere imagination and into the experience itself.

Most of Jesus’s friends deserted him. They ran away and hid. And Jesus, to whom some of them had pledged total loyalty and allegiance, went to his gallows alone, naked and abused. (Although the women seem to have stuck with him all the way.)

So, where is God in all of this? And isn’t this precisely the question many people are asking during these days of viral death and debilitation? It is the question – not always articulated – that always arises when life gets a bit (or a lot) rubbish.

The trouble is that the question assumes that God is somewhere else when things are bad. Yet, the biblical narrative tells a different story. It is a story rooted in the real world of material substance, physical existence, uncontrollable events in a contingent cosmos. Christians who think discipleship is about mere spirituality, somehow divorced from the real world, are simply missing the point. Disembodied spirituality can easily become a sort of self-orientating fantasy.

The biblical story recognises the reality of being human in this contingent world. Suffering, pain, injustice and death. “What did I do to deserve the death of my loved one?” Nothing. It has nothing to do with merit or desert. If we live as mortal beings in the world, then we are subject to all that this world can throw at us. No exemptions. And being Christian means plunging into this world and not trying to escape from it.

The point here is that it is God who keeps opting in. In the Genesis story, when Adam and Eve mess it all up, it is God who comes walking in the garden in the cool of the day, asking that eternal searching question: “Adam (mortal being), where are you?” God doesn’t wait for them to come looking for him. They hide, fearing that they can now be seen through (‘naked’) and finding that to be a threat rather than a liberation. But, God takes the initiative. As he does again in the prophets. And then, Jesus fulfils what was always the calling of his people, by coming among us as one of us. He gives himself for the sake of the world and then calls those who bear his name to live out what was fulfilled in him in the first place.

In other words, God opts into the world – with all its violence, death and destruction – and does not exempt himself from it. So, our response when life is rubbish is to know that we pray – baring our heart and soul and grief and anger and confusion – to one who has no illusions about what we experience. Faithfulness is not an opt out; it is a commitment into. And it is there we find God.

So, our response is to scream and shout and weep and grieve – to complain and lament and stare into the abyss of loss. Not to avoid it, but to know that through this we will find that death does not ultimately have the final word.

Today I will contemplate the cross, entering imaginatively into the aloneness of the hunted Jesus of Nazareth. I will ask myself where I stand in this story: with Jesus as he suffers and dies? with his mother as she watches helplessly? with the friends who have run away and despise themselves for their cowardice and bewilderment? with the onlookers who wonder why someone might not do everything to stay alive rather than walk openly to their death?

I am not sure where I belong in this. but, I do know I have to stay with the emptiness for as long as the darkness persists.

Maundy Thursday. It’s all closing in. Jerusalem welcomed Jesus and his friends when he rode in on Palm Sunday. But, the tension is growing, the drama heightening.

In my diocese we would normally be joining together in one of my cathedrals – Wakefield this year. The clergy would re-affirm their ordination vows and all of us – clergy and lay – would recommit ourselves as disciples of Jesus Christ. We would bless the oils and celebrate Communion, then being sent out to journey through Good Friday, Empty Saturday and Resurrection Day. Not this year. There will be an online ‘service’ from the cathedral, but physically we will be separated, distant, dispersed.

While not welcome, this experience of disorientation and dispersal might just help us enter imaginatively into the experience of Jesus and his friends – particularly his friends. They come together to celebrate the Passover, the foundational story of God’s liberation, but Jesus re-signifies the whole business for them. And it seems they don’t quite comprehend it.

To make it worse, Jesus says some strange things about betrayal and desertion, rejection and death. And, while doing all this, he kneels in front of his friends and washes their feet. In this simple and costly action he overturns their expectations of status, leadership, sacrifice and service. Remember, he kneels at the feet of Peter, Thomas, James & John, and Judas.

Those who claim to follow this Jesus must be people who kneel at the feet of their friends and enemies, their deniers and betrayers and doubters, and serve them. In other words, as in the story of God and his people from the beginning of the biblical narrative, godliness means giving yourself away. Sacrifice. Cost. Really hard.

What strikes me this year is the question: what does it mean for me to love my neighbour – to wash their feet – in a context where I cannot see or touch them in a common act of worship and commitment?

I think the answer is deceptively simple, but very costly. Foot-washing this year means not washing feet, keeping distance, prioritising the needs of vulnerable people by staying at home, not going into church, playing my part in ensuring that no transmission of any virus can happen through me. It is strange, but loving my neighbour means keeping away from him or her. And this takes priority over my yearning for worship, familiar sacred place or spiritual encouragement.

This year I have to ask how those most vulnerable can be served through a church that takes this Jesus seriously. It means that our churches who are doing amazing work with foodbanks, community care, keeping local people connected, are doing some serious foot washing. Not denial of Jesus, but denial of our own comfort for the sake of others.

And the question for me today is this: whose feet do I find it too hard to contemplate washing? And who are the people who, for reasons for which I am responsible, will find it difficult to wash mine?