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.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in the wake of the UK’s political situation.

The Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan once wrote “the times they are a-changing”. I think he was probably thinking of the particular times in which he was living. But, it now sounds like a statement of the obvious. Time is always changing. That’s the point of it.

But, an equally famous hymn, often sung at Cup Finals and funerals, contains the miserable line: “Change and decay in all around I see,” implying that the two go together – that change is inevitably sad.

Well, events of the last few years should really put this into perspective. A week or two ago I was in Germany, taking part in events in what – not so long ago – was the Communist East. The bipolar post-war world I and my German friends grew up with seemed “just the way the world is”. Yet, now, Germany is united, the Soviet Union has gone, Donald Trump is in the White House, we are leaving the European Union, migration has changed everything, stability has become a fantasy for most people, and the future looks fragile and uncertain.
Which just shows that reality trumps certainty every time. And the promise of certainty often proves to be a fantasy.

I can never escape this. The starting point of Christian faith is a coming to terms with mortality. From dust we have come, and to dust we shall return. All life is like the grass that grows and gets blown away by the wind. Everything has its season, so don’t get caught up in the vain pursuit of … er … vanity. Faith is not an escapist holding on to a way of seeing the world that defies reality; rather, it can be described as a lens through which reality is recognised and faced – without fear.

In other words, we need to live with humility in the face of what might be possible – as what might be possible does not always coincide with what we might find desirable or convenient. Change is a constant, and an achievable vision has to be able to respond to it.

So, the hard question has to do with what roots us while we and everything around us changes? If my life is the relentless chasing after security or perpetuity – what someone called “gaining the world but losing one’s soul” – I might well be very disappointed. Jesus never seduced anyone into following him, but invited them to go with him on a journey that could lead anywhere – even to a cross.

One theologian wrote: “God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.” We don’t know what the future holds. It is uncertainty that is normal. We have to learn to embrace it.

Chris Evans spotted that I had written this morning’s Pause for Thought for his show while on a train to Bradford yesterday. I was up there for meetings and hadn’t had time the day before to do the script. So, it was fitted in on the train journey between reading a book manuscript for which I am to write a foreword and reading papers for the meetings ahead.

It’s not always straightforward knowing what theme to pick for these thought pieces. I didn’t know who the special guest on the show was going to be and the heavy themes had already been addressed by other contributors. So, having received a text from my anxious daughter last week asking me when the clocks change (and is it backwards or forwards?), I thought I’d say something brief about ‘time’. I also managed to quote three people: anon, Albert Einstein and African friends:

Someone once said that you can’t change the past, but you can waste the present by worrying about the future. The great Albert Einstein teasingly (but not very illuminatingly) stated that ‘the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once’. My African friends laughingly say that in the West we have watches and clocks, but in Africa they have time.

My point was that time is all we have – it’s precious. As I put it succinctly (we only have 330 words):

I have no idea how much longer I have to live: I might still be going strong at 90… or I might not. I have no idea. But, whenever it happens I want to know that I did my best to use time to the full. Which isn’t a miserable thought about packing life with serious stuff; it’s also about living and laughing and working and playing.

Now, that could be misunderstood. For most of the world’s population life is not very funny, but is a struggle to stay alive. So, am I just being frivolous, over-comfortable and inappropriately hedonistic? Well, this is how I concluded the piece:

We’re heading towards Easter and we will be reminded that Jesus only had around three years of public ministry. But in that time he got a following by people who loved and laughed and partied and wept and suffered and lived life to the full. As a follower of that same Jesus, I don’t think anything has changed.

That is a serious point. One of the questions we are meant to ask when we read the Gospels is who were the people who responded positively to Jesus and who were those who were threatened by him and (ultimately) nailed him? And why? Read the texts and we find that the sort of people who were rejected by the religious establishment welcomed Jesus – maybe they had nothing to lose. But, given the reputation they helped Jesus get (“a glutton and a drunkard” who mixed with all the ‘wrong’ people), it is not surprising that these were the people who knew how to party.

One of the questions I frequently asked of clergy and PCCs was: When do you party? When do you celebrate God, his world and each other? One of the shocking things about visiting some of the poorest people in the world is that they know how to celebrate and laugh and share what they have – which is often time, themselves and the food they manage to get. No anxiety about protecting all their ‘stuff’. (Or queuing for two days to be the first to get the new iPad 2 from London’s Apple Store – when you could probably just walk in tomorrow and pick one up without any detrimental effect on life or limb…)

So, the ‘time’ thing is really just a way of suggesting that we get our lives and busyness into perspective. We aren’t here for long – better make the most of it. I don’t want to reach my death bed and state proudly that (a) I managed never to get tired or (b) at least the house and car were always clean.

PS. A friend once helpfully suggested that the way to remember which way the clocks go is this: they ‘spring’ forward and they ‘fall’ back (as in ‘autumn’). And that was fine until I realized that it is perfectly possible to spring backwards and fall forwards. So, I’m still confused. I think it’s forward and we lose an hour’s sleep tomorrow night.

If that sounds like an odd question, that’s because it is. Or it isn’t.

Looking out of the hotel window in Berlin back in August I caught sight of a building with black letters on a white background. Despite the lack of a question mark, the question it posed has bugged me for the last five weeks. Here it is:

This week, ‘now’ is not long enough. Too many demands, too much preparation to do, too many decisions to make and too much to think about. I just wish ‘now’ could be longer.

But, I have also met an elderly couple today who have been giving their savings away in order to help the next generation. No sentimentality here. No easy life that has led to the freedom of costless generosity. This couple have known tragedies and loss, dislocation and regret. Yet, they told me that it is more important to live and give now than to keep saving it all up – for what? For a future that might not be there? For plans that will not be fulfilled? For an old age they are already in?

There is something to be said for living in the ‘now’ and not thinking you can take it all with you when you go. And there is something to be said for giving in the ‘now’ – not for any reward or benefit, but for the mere grace of being generous to those whose ‘now’ is proving tough.

How long is now? Answers on a postcard.

A quick flash through the last eighteen months of this blog makes me realise that some themes keep coming up. One of them is our perception of time. And on a hot, sunny day off in Croydon, it has crept back into my thoughts again.

This might be because I had two brilliant and apposite experiences in the last week in parishes in my Episcopal Area (comprising 102 parishes).

Last Sunday I spent most of the day in Thornton Heath celebrating the third anniversary of a Lugandan congregation that is part of (yet separate from) St Jude with St Aidan. The service lasted two and a half hours and involved choirs from a South Indian congregation, a West Indian Pentecostal church, the Lugandan lot and others. It was vibrant and time flew by. This was the best example of different congregations serving God and their comunities differently, but together. None of the headline-grabbing antagonism that dominates media perceptions of Christian churches – just wonderfully celebratory and serious-minded service. It all ended after lunch with dancing… (But they are not good at telling their good stories and don’t have a website!)

Then, yesterday I visited the suburban parish of St John, Old Coulsdon. This year they are celebrating their 750th anniversary and they are doing great stuff, using the gifts of the loads of people who belong to the church, and keeping their outreach simple. One of the best things is this: they are taking a card round to every house in the parish and inviting people to write on it something that is ‘good news for me’. They aim to pull together 750 of these and tell something of a good news story for that community and the whole community is getting involved.

This starts where people are, invites people to tell their story and doesn’t simply dump on them a message they aren’t either ready or willing to hear. It assumes that there is good news to be told and good news to be heard. Even the local newspaper has picked it up and given it space. And some of the cards I read yesterday were moving, some were banal, some indecipherable and some instructive. They all form the context in which the Good News of God in Jesus Christ can be seen and heard – the local church seeking to reflect the Jesus we read about in the Gospels.

But, what struck me in both these parishes is the fact that the church has been there through generations of a changing world. In the 750 years of St John’s, Old Coulsdon, England has seen plagues, wars, the Reformation (and Counter-Reformation), world wars, the Cold War, the Civil War, the birth and death of the British Empire, the Elizabethan Settlement, etc. It has even seen Manchester United equal Liverpool’s record of domestic football dominance (which just goes to show that there’s a down-side to everything).

Yet, we are still here, still worshipping, still praying, still serving the local communities. Every generation thinks it is the ultimate point in history and that the ‘now’ is all that matters. Every generation thinks its problems are the greatest and that the whole of their existence is threatened by whatever the latest fear might happen to be. And, of course this is nonsense. Today is simply tomorrow’s yesterday – and we need to recover a sense of perspective on time, history and the importance of ‘now’. There is little that is original in life – we have usually been here before. Which brings me to John Donne…

I was reading a sermon by John Donne (for pleasure, not punishment) and then an hour later saw it referred to in Third Way by the always-interesting Lucy Winkett. On page 10 of his sermon, preached at St Paul’s Cathedral on Whit Sunday 1629 (two years before his death), and speaking of those in the Church who find their raison-d’etre in arguing the toss regardless of how this looks and sounds to the outside world, he says:

They dispute, and they wrangle, and they scratch, and wound one anothers reputations, and they assist the common enemy of Christianity by their uncharitable differences…

Nearly 400 years gone and still we think we are original, that current circumstances are ultimate, and we still don’t listen to that simple admonition.

All the machinations in the Anglican Communion might be entertaining to the outside world (although the outside world seems now to be totally indifferent or bored by it all), but they are consistent with behaviour throughout the ages and this will probably never change while human beings are involved. However, Donne’s frustration was real and it still resonates today.

I managed to miss the opening session of the Communications Conference in Rome by missing a bus. How embarrassing is that? Anyway, I will simply say that I decided to stay back at the conference hotel in order that somebody would be here to welcome everyone when they arrive en masse. They’ll never believe me.

While looking at some notes I made at the Colisseum the other day, my mind (or what passes for a mind, at least) rambled back towards pedantry. I keep reading in guide books and other literature in this wonderful city phrases such as ‘the Middle Ages’ or ‘the early Middle Ages’ and I wondered what they were the middle of? Presumably, whoever first thought of them as the ‘middle’ must have thought of some ‘beginning’ and considered his ‘now’ to be the ‘end’.

I guess every generation thinks of itself as the ultimate – the end of history, as it were – because we never know what will come next. But, just as every generation has among it those who think it will be the last – just look at Christian groups who always think the world is about to end … but it doesn’t – every generation sees itself as the only one from which to measure the past.

Rome 3 001But, what if (for example) the 16th to the 21st centuries prove to be the ‘middle ages’ when seen from further down the line? Will future generations have to invent new language to describe which generation falls into which ‘age’? And how confusing will that be for the poor kids who have to learn history? It’ll be almost as bad as having to learn French politics … where all the parties seem to have the same names but in different orders and change them after every election they either win or lose.

I saw a plaque today that pointed to the ‘old’ something-or-other church and one that pointed to the ‘new’ church. The ‘new’ church was five hundred years old.

Funny old world.

Croydon is often thought of as a modern (i.e. post-war) town. The plethora of new building in the post-war years has served to hide some of the glories of the place and obscure a fascinating history.

Addington PalaceCroydon used to be the home of Archbishops of Canterbury. What is now the Old Palace School was where Cranmer had his library while writing the Book of Common Prayer. In those days you could sail from the Old Palace down the River Wandle to the Thames and along to Lambeth Palace. A couple of miles away Addington Palace (built in the 1770s) was the country home of the Archbishops from 1807 – bought by an Act of Parliament and financed by the sale of the Old Palace, it being “in so low and unwholesome a situation”.  Six archbishops lived at Addington Palace; five of them are buried in St Mary’s churchyard. The Palace was sold in 1898.

I was at St Mary’s, Addington, this morning. I always find it a little unnerving to be presiding at Communion while standing next to the tomb of a dead Archbishop of Canterbury. Facing the congregation, I looked to the right and read the inscription on the tomb of Archbishop William Howley (1766–1848) – I’d never heard of him before and I know nothing about him. What I noticed was that he died on 11 February 1848 – and that got me thinking about ‘time’ again, especially in the light of today’s great crises (tomorrow will bring something else to preoccupy us).

Communist-manifestoHowley died ten days before the publication by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels of the Manifest der Kommunistische Partei – the Communist Manifesto. It was the year of revolutions in Europe, with the earthquake of the French Revolution reverberating across national boundaries. There were epidemics (cholera in New York, for example) and ferments among groups that were eager for political and economic change. The Enlightenment project was working its way through the psyche of European societies, challenging the status quo and received ways of understanding the world.

So, just as Howley was dying – and probably thinking the whole world order was collapsing in front of his eyes anyway – the world was moving on. Howley never saw (and probably could not have imagined) the world that would develop after his demise: the Communist revolution in Russia, two World Wars, the beginning and end of European colonialism, the explosion of technology, etc. Locked into the possibilities of his own world and his own experience, he would have needed a good eschatology to keep his faith going in the wake of the threats to the world order going on around him.

I wonder if this sense of perspective is needed now? We always think that what happens in the world now is the most important and the ultimate reality. But, the truth is that whatever happens now, life will continue and will develop in the light of what has gone before. Leaving aside for a moment the ecological crisis and the nuclear threat (!) – which do have the potential to bring an ultimate end to things – the banking crises and political crises of today will be the topics of historical discussion and curiosity of our great-grandchildren’s generation. The seriousness with which we take some matters now will probably look rather curious in 100 years time. How we ever allowed the fantasies of the late 20th/early 21st century banking and debt cultures to develop will be a source of incredulity – especislly while half the world starved. Capitalism might one day look like a blip in the world’s economic history – as transient as the USSR and the Marxism-Leninism that seemed so powerful for so many decades.

This makes me look back to the Old Testament prophets. While things were looking good (politically, economically, militarily and religiously), no one would listen to the warnings of the prophets that God would not be taken for granted and security would be shaken if change did not come soon. The prophets had the insight to spot the medium to long-term consequences of political alliances and social injustices, but their warnings (rooted in a long-term view and a long-term perspective) were not heeded by people who could not see beyond the ‘today’ and their own immediate interests.

William-HowleyWe cannot predict what the world will look like for a our great-grandchildren. But we can be sure that they will read our story and our choices with more than simple curiosity – because the challenges they will face will derive from the decisions we have made and the challenges we have ducked.

I almost wish I hadn’t noticed the tomb of Archbishop William Howley.