I came to faith as a teenager and was baptised soon afterwards. All this happened in addition to me being christened as a baby, an event that I knew little about apart from being told I was adorably cute - I know some things are harder to believe than others!
For those of us who embark on the road of baptism we do well both to know and explain why. Why bother with the fuss of wet clothes and damp hair on cold days when staying dry and keeping warm is important. Why go through the challenge of standing in front of people to explain our faith and actions. What does it matter? After all, isn't faith a private matter?
Seriously not. Faith is far from private. However, this is not the point. Baptism matters because of where it leads. Followed through and worked out, baptism is an important step in the journey of faith and in the Bible is likened to the Israelites crossing the Red Sea or Noah and his family being saved from the flood by climbing into the ark. Baptism is both symbolic and spiritual.
It’s symbolic in so much as it is associated with events of deliverance in the scriptures like those just mentioned. In the same way that God delivers his people from their enemies so God though baptism delivers us from our sins and sets us on the pathway to a new life. Baptism isn’t simply about looking back, but more importantly going forward; of taking the next step of a new life with Jesus.
Baptism is spiritual in so much as it points strongly to the work of Jesus and his death on the cross. In this act of dying we see that Jesus is raised to new life. Equally through baptism we identify with Jesus’s death in going into the waters and with his resurrection life in being raised up out of them.
This coming Sunday is a wonderful occasion at Hope when four people who have made a decision for themselves will get baptised. It is for each of them a step of obedience and personal choice. We recognise in them an acknowledgement of God’s work through Christ and their desire to continue to walk with him.
In our spiritually curious world which offers a plethora of religious alternatives I am ever grateful for the clarity that baptism brings to our faith. It is a truly important step, one not to be taken lightly or without proper thought, but when entered into with sincerity and faith combines to be a defining moment in a spiritual journey that has hope, freedom and forgiveness at its heart.
There will not be another day like this in my lifetime. I don't speak as a husband, father or son but as a citizen.
This is a day we knew would come, yet thought would never arrive. How could it? For most of us alive we've never known a time when Queen Elizabeth was not our Monarch - she has abided as that one constant through every changing season of our nation. I was but a young boy of 12 when we celebrated the Queens Silver Jubilee and hidden somewhere away in the archives I still have my commemorative book mark from Selectus Ribbon Makers of Biddulph, a company long since past into history whilst only this year we went onto celebrate her Platinum Jubilee. And that's the point.
Today brings with it a profound sense of loss - yet more than this, of disorientation. In trying to come to terms with my own feelings, I struggle to reconcile how one can be moved so deeply by the loss of someone I didn't know personally. My closest encounter with Her Majesty was a view of her on the balcony of the Council House on Nottingham's Market Square during her Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and to be honest I've never presented as an ardent Monarchist - but this is different.
Moments of this magnitude remind us of something we ought never to forget - and that's our collective consciousness. 'No man is an Island,' wrote John Donne, and for all our individualism today reminds us that we are, at heart, creatures of community. Nations are forged and fall on leaders and communities are held together by the invisible qualities of good ones and subtly corrupted by the toxic actions of poor ones. Oft times we fail to realize this - we think we can tamper with values of decency and faithfulness with no ill effects caused to the collective whole. Like pouring sewage into the seas or carbons into the atmosphere we believe our toxicity will have little impact only to realize when its too late of the deep peril of our state.
Our loss today is not only of our Monarch - but also of what she quietly stood for. These qualities are not given to short termism, quick fixes or sound bites. We celebrate her life in part for who she was - but equally for how she held herself. The complexities of life are not dealt with through simplicity as much as they are longevity. Of consistently turning up, serving, offering oneself - of seeing past me to the other - to understand the community and how our consistency plays a vital role in its ongoing cohesion and flourishing.
The reality is we can't monetize these things - so therefore we don't always value them. Yet at the same time we do know when we are loosing them and that's part of our grief. We are desperately looking for such qualities: longevity, grace and service and we struggle to find them. No wonder we mourn what we have lost and that the heart of a nation is torn - we are witnessing the passing of an era and in that passing the qualities we only know are important when they are no longer with us. Where will we look for these things? Politics, education, the free market, religion? No these things are not borne of institutions but rather are embedded in the hearts of people - persons, who are prepared to live to a higher calling than simply self interest and Queen Elizabeth modelled this and did so through good times and bad. And so our feeling of loss is not only for who she was - but what she represented. And what she represented are qualities that hold peoples and communities together. There is something to longevity, consistency, to service delivered over a lifetime that is not easily replaced and part of understanding something of the disorientation of this day, as well as our grief, is in seeing this.
Of one thing we can be sure we will never witness another Monarch like this one in our lifetime. What we'd better pray is that the qualities she embodied live on in her people she has left behind.
Today was the day when grown adults reach discreetly into their pockets in search of handkerchiefs and tissues to wipe away a slowly forming tear from the corner of one’s eyes in the hope that no notices. It's that joyous, yet sobering occasion which mixes smiles and sadness in equal measure whilst watching a selection of photos past and present played to music to remind you that nothing stays the same. Yes, you've guessed it today was Leaver's assembly for our wonderful son, Noah. His seven years at Middleton Primary have come to an end.
When he first entered the school (not a foregone conclusion at the time, and it took a well fought battle with Jo at the helm to secure his place) in reception the thought of him leaving for Secondary felt like a lifetime away. Seven Christmas times would need to pass. Seven summer breaks would need to come and go. Seven Easters. Seven Sports days (save for those ruined by Covid) - it all felt like a long time away. But now it’s here. They have passed. Those years have gone. And I feel upset; and happy; and sad; and proud. I feel like I want to press pause - but life, as we know does not come with a pause - only a process, only the opportunity to be present in each moment.
I might have thought that a man of my age and experience that these 'rites of passage' moments would become easier - but they don't. Or at least in my experience they don't. Perhaps it’s my melancholic tendencies; my pensive mood to think too much and at times, too deeply. Whatever. One thing is for sure - for Noah Primary is over - and the adventure of Secondary awaits. But for today we must hold the moment. Tomorrow's adventure will come soon enough. For now, I should treasure the memories and remind myself that each day is precious, every experience is valued: that each of us are made by the days we live and the way we live them.
It's not easy being a parent. The emotional roller coaster of highs and lows is part of the deal as you measure off your failures against your successes in the hope that the latter outweighs the former. But the years never return. There is no reverse, no pause - just today. The moment we are given to love and linger and that's what Leaver's Assemblies do - they create that moment to linger. A time to ask how are we doing? Where can we do better? What have we done well?
I know I'm not alone in thinking this way - and probably not alone in shedding a private tear. The question is what should we do with those tears? Let them be a reminder of what really matters - that's a good place to start. Allow them to tweak those areas of change that make us better parents - those small incremental adjustments that over the years make us wiser and braver in our watching over those entrusted to us. Allow us to mark off the years knowing we have sought to live in the present rather than pine after the past or look too impatiently for the future.
As parents we all love our children deeply and passionately. That today causes us to pause, reflect and remember is not a bad thing. Noah has an amazing mum, wonderful siblings and a great family. Today was the closing of a chapter for all year six kids – a day for parents to shed a tear as we see the years pass by.
Tomorrow is the start of a new day. The mood today? Pensive, yes, and grateful – for sure.
The empty tomb is not a metaphor as much as it is an event recorded in history within the sacred text of the Bible; that the Spectator should feature the image on the front cover of its Easter edition is testament to its enduring message in the midst of secular society. The cover presides over the article ‘On the Rise of Spiritual Consumerism’ written by James Mumford brother of Marcus who is lead singer of the band Mumford and Sons. The brother’s parents John and Ellie Mumford are founders of the UK Vineyard Church Movement and it is from this up bringing that James draws on his Easter piece.
Mumford writes about his early days in the Vineyard and how they drew on the distinction between spirituality - the vogue term around which his church experience appealed, and religion - a word assigned to be forgotten and lost to history. Latterly he has changed his position to establish the place of religion in life by pointing to the fact that transformation is an arduous rather than glitzy affair. 'There is a beautiful banality about belonging to a particular community.' he writes, 'Nothing could be less sexy than the Bible study I ran with my wife Holly for our local Anglican church. But because the people who came were committed to it - turning up week after week - what started out as an awkward and disparate group of strangers of all different ages and backgrounds morphed over time into a diverse community where people slowly started to feel they belonged. What happened there was not dramatic, but it was profound.' In truth I think at its best this is what religion does - it creates community out of disparity - a coming together around a creed, a confession - and the Christ. What happens in that setting of ordinariness is the formation for which each soul searches - community and connection.
I used to see this all the time pre-Covid, how a small group here and a gathering there become life lines of community and hope - and oh, how its needed. Recent statistics for the UK saw 8% of adults who were "always or often lonely" - representing 4.2 million people. That phone call you make, card you send or meal you cook become the real life lines - it is here in the nitty gritty of every day life when in the midst of your own busyness you extend a hand to another that the work of true religion takes place. As the apostle James wrote: ' Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)'
In my earlier years I would have been amongst those happy to lose my religion and wear its ousting as a badge of honour - those fine young radicals who would have burned the hymn books and consigned liturgy to history as we forged ahead with the spirituality of the modern age. Now I am not so sure. Turning up week after week - saying my prayers, offering juice to my lips and entering conversations in a community of diverse people feels quite other worldly. When we gathered in person for the first time for a long time over the Easter weekend the whole encounter felt an emotional affair. As if it were meant to be that way - forgiving those who offend me, extending grace to those who pass by, taking time to endorse the stories of people I otherwise would never meet. This is religion - not the latest trend to capture the market but a collision at the old rugged cross where, if I stay long enough - and come back time and again, my life will be slowly and irreversibly changed. It's an odd thing is religion - but one is left to ponder whether it might still present itself as being the foundation to inner contentment and community flourishing and losing it is, perhaps, best avoided.
Stepping From Under the Cloud Of Self Consciousness to the Light Of Self Awareness - A Few Thoughts.
One of the abiding memories of childhood was the day I was made to stand in front of my class at Woodhouse Middle School and talk for five minutes about a favourite hobby. Mine was building model airplanes out of balsa wood, and many a spare hour was given to building, flying - repairing and flying them again. But the thought of standing in front of the class to tell my tale of model building terrified me.
It literally left me filled with dread. In fact, it was so bad that although our turn was taken alphabetically I was the final child to take the step having tried frantically to avoid my ordeal. So when the dreaded moment was finally forced upon me I simply froze in embarrassment, blushing profusely and stuttering painfully whilst praying desperately for the ground to swallow me up. As you might imagine its an abiding memory of school - as are many other occasions when my own conscious self left me paralyzed.
Since then I've discovered that living self consciously is an onerous ordeal which impacts every aspect of our development and often crushes us with shame. Over the years I developed mechanisms and structures to disguise my own feelings of deep inferiority and fear. Some would become hidden in plain sight - like public speaking for example, which I learned, painfully at times, to master and later to hide behind. My ability to master oratory gave me a platform that I couldn't easily maintain in other areas of life. My self conscious persona coupled with a compliant nature left me, for example, pleasing people when it came to holding an opinion in one on one dialogue rather than standing my ground. People assumed that because I could hold a microphone and project my voice the public persona portrayed the private individual. It did help, of course - but it was a far cry from the havoc of being crippled by self consciousness.
For those surprised by my predicament, may it serve as a reminder of Plato's exhortation to: 'Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.' The hardest battles we fight are often the unseen ones - those which cripple us through in action and leave us captured by fear; and whilst ever we remain self conscious of our inadequacies we won't find the courage to defeat them. It's into this arena that much unlearning and relearning must take place.
Living self consciously seriously hinders the unlearning necessary to move on. We assume a nature on ourselves that is often inflicted by past trauma - events that hinder our development. What I’ve discovered - and am discovering is the shift that happens when we move from living with the feeling of being self conscious to becoming self aware. Being self conscious burdens us with sight of our inadequacies without any level of equipping in knowing how we might handle them. The step into self awareness may well raise the same issues but in a way that helps us deal with them.
In listening to the broadcaster James O'Brien tell the story of his own journey into self awareness I was fascinated how through personal challenge and then supportive therapy he was able to both identify and then act on behaviors which previously were blind spots in his life. The steps he took were not easy but were ultimately redemptive since he was able to see the shadows of his own life and then begin the often slow and challenging journey to change them. This I see as one of the key differences between the cloud of self consciousness and the light of self awareness. When I live self consciously I am enslaved by my own fears, driven by others opinions, bound by my own inadequacies, often unaware of why I feel a certain way - oblivious to any triggers and traumas that lurk beneath the surface and shackle me. The journey towards self awareness provides insight and language to begin to address those fears - to step out from the shadows and start to tackle them.
In his book, How Not To Be Wrong, O'Brien speaks of how his time at Boarding School caused him to develop a 'survival mentality' and how this mode of living had grown with him into adulthood and was now the dominant factor in causing him to act so poorly in the crisis he faced. His capacity for resilience - the stiff upper lip, and his mantra to 'toughen up and get through' caused him to survive his severe beatings at school but left him poorly equipped for walking tenderly through the pain now faced by his own family.
Whilst reflecting on his journey I see how I was positioned at the opposite end of his experience. I was compliant by nature and as such timid around authority figures and unlikely to get into serious trouble at school. James O'Brien may have been a name remembered at his Kidderminster school; but Stephen Hackney would have been long forgotten at Biddulph High School since my own journey was not so much about how to survive the harsh environment of which he speaks as it was to discover myself through the plethora of fear, timidity and doubt that left me plagued by my own self consciousness.
Age teaches we are formed by our childhoods more than we realize. With a little effort, a deep breath (!) and a good mirror we can start to trace back our current fears to earlier experiences in life that forms how we now behave. It is both a terrifying and liberating gaze with the cycle sub consciously repeating itself until we become sufficiently self aware to the pattern and step into and introduce change.
Sight is what we most need. To step from the shadows; to have our blind spots revealed - to move forward with a sense of knowing is key to personal progress. It's not that sight resolves the issues we face but to switch from being self conscious and living with the intimidation this creates, to becoming self aware is, I've discovered, at the heart of personal change. To then live courageously in light of that revelation is the next step on the journey of personal freedom and maturity.
If ever there was a date to freak out a nation with the message of a further lock down you'd struggle to beat Halloween. Whoever leaked the conversations of 10 Downing Street last Friday played an act of comedic timing and if the news weren't so tragic, could have lined up as script from a new horror movie with Christmas truly spooked and any chance of celebrations more stuffed than the festive turkey.
As someone not easily given to conspiracy theory I've sat with a degree of bewilderment as what to make of the sorry saga of COVID-19. In the early days I related to the concept of herd immunity camp, the idea that if enough of us get the virus then we could step into a level of normality and just get on with it - Sweden here we come. It sounded like a plan and one that had my attention.
Enter Time magazine.
'The Swedish COVID-19 experiment of not implementing early and strong measures to safeguard the population has been hotly debated around the world, but at this point we can predict it is almost certain to result in a net failure in terms of death and suffering. As of Oct. 13, Sweden’s per capita death rate is 58.4 per 100,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins University data, 12th highest in the world (not including tiny Andorra and San Marino). But perhaps more striking are the findings of a study published Oct. 12 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which pointed out that, of the countries the researchers investigated, Sweden and the U.S. essentially make up a category of two: they are the only countries with high overall mortality rates that failed to rapidly reduce those numbers as the pandemic progressed.'
I mean you still may conclude that herd immunity is the best natural form of infection control we have - but it's not pain free and more recently antibody testing has shown that we don't retain antibodies for very long at all, which has resulted in people being re-infected with Covid which throws the herd immunity theory out of the water!
So, in the light of low immunity we are back to management and the 3, soon to be 4 tier system and the play off between wrecking the economy and stopping the rising R rate. Politics aside - the whole saga's a bloody nightmare as the rest of Europe (remember the days when all we debated was Brexit) highlights.
Anyhow, at some point last week the PM got spooked and it has nothing to do with any pumpkins carved in the Johnson household. Rather it was in the form of the latest presentation by SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) and the fact that behind closed doors, (as I understand the report is not in the public domain) the RWC (reasonable worst case) scenario of COVID-19 deaths for winter 2020 is way off the expected trajectory and needs a dramatic and significant alteration. When Conservative MP, and lock down skeptic Steve Baker appeared in Downing Street on Saturday afternoon his message to Sky News was stark, 'Boris Johnson has "very difficult choices to make", and urges members of the public and other MPs to "listen carefully" to what the prime minister has to say.' You can be reasonably confident that the news shared in Number 10 had stirred the pot as to what could certainly / possibly happen - and there's a fine balance when trying to manage the risk between certainty and possibility - especially when it involves the non-negotiable reality of death. Neither pause nor reverse are options in the world of COVID-19.
So when Peter Hitchens columnist for the Mail tweets, 'The oddest thing about the Panicdemic is that nobody would know it existed if the Government and its mouthpiece the BBC did not constantly seek to terrify us into a state of servile fear.' and Palliative Care Doctor, Rachel Clarke replies: 'Hospital palliative care doctor here. Believe me, it could not be more real, Peter.' There's a reality on the ground that needs to act as a wake up call.
Earlier that week the Spectator had published the leaked July 30 SAGE RWC analysis and I read it with interest understanding that the Cabinet is using this data to inform its decision making. Fraser Nelson, editor of Spectator wrote, '... we ran the whole document with every assumption in it. Some of them are quite important: for example, that the infection fatality ratio is 0.7 per cent. That is pretty important because it’s a death rate more than twice as high as the current consensus (0.3 per cent). SAGE seemed to be pushing the ‘worst case’ parameters to the max, yet its daily death projections are now dwarfed by the new 'scenarios'.
Nelson continues, 'It's understandable that Boris Johnson should change his mind when presented with startling new evidence. But if he now seeks to persuade others, it would help him - and everyone - if he published that evidence.' Too damned right it would. It would help in numerous regards like: giving a perspective that neutralises some of the conspiracy theories doing their rounds; helping see clearly why we have to give up our liberties whilst wrecking the economy as the lesser of two evils; and seeking to unite a divided country based on leadership offered from a place of transparency, vulnerability, humility - but also hope.
SAGE Leader and senior advisor, Sir Jeremy Farrar tweeted: 'No easy answers, no easy solutions. This is the worst crisis (outside war) any country has faced in 100yrs. There is light for the end of this pandemic, but we have 3-6 months to get through until we can change the fundamentals.’ It was in response to the new data from SAGE - kept hidden from the general public that led to the dramatic change from the PM this weekend. Again, Farrar tweeted: 'The best time to act was a month ago but these are very tough decisions which we would all like to avoid. The second-best time is now. The sooner we get on top of the disease, reduce transmission, r<1, the sooner we can get our society back to normal and the economy back on track.'
It may be sometime before we get to see the full details of the latest modelling from the SAGE report - albeit the headlines were on display for all to see in the Press Conference on Saturday evening. But when figures of multiple thousands of deaths are being presented surely anyone around the table has to conclude: we can repair an economy - you can't resurrect a life.
As our minds migrate towards Christmas a weary world awaits good news. Will we get back to the old normal? Will we sit around the Christmas dinner table with our loved ones? And then we pause to wonder where three years from now we will be? Queuing up for our bi-annual vaccine whilst browsing the internet booking our latest vacation grumbling at the extra surcharge for the COVID-19 test and pondering whether we can afford it when we've paid the new COVID-19 tax introduced to save the country from bankruptcy. But then if we do that in light of the fact that we and our loved ones scrapped through the two years of hell that was the COVID-19 era we'll be grateful to still be around to be spooked by the next challenge life throws our way.
When COVID 19 first put the nation into lockdown there was a palpable fear on the streets of the UK. Images beamed from China and then Italy sent shivers down the spine. And then we watched as temporary hospitals and morgues were constructed in some of our most famous entertainment landmarks and parklands in preparation.
It was a fearful time. Weeks locked inside our homes, distanced from those we love tested the mettle of a country who prides in a freedom offered to us through the sacrifice of those who gave their life during the major wars of the previous century.
There was talk of revival in the church, a great awakening as numbers of online viewers soared and those of us pastors trying to navigate the season positioned our sermons around the love and peace that Christ can bring. And now, some months later and as lockdown eases whilst conversations around second waves abound, one is left with an unshakable truth - fear has never won anyone to Christ.
Across the Western world viewing figures for online services are falling. Leaders are anxious to reopen their buildings; we long for a new sense of normal. But the great awakening that the fear of COVID threatened didn’t quite arrive. Now don’t get me wrong, many people have been helped, faith has been rekindled, hearts have been changed. For some faith seekers the online experience has opened a previously closed door. But now a deeper question is at work - will the reformed habits of lockdown have a negative effect on those who might return to our congregations? Can we navigate the world without our need for church? It is a question that pastors are forced to ask.
Fear has always been a poor motivator for action. Rather like the idea of preaching hell is at the heart of the gospel. As David Bentley Hart noted, ‘If St Paul really believed that the alternative to life is Christ is eternal torment, it seems fairly careless of him to have omitted any mention of the fact.’ If the church is to move forward from COIVD then it must move from fear as a motivator and cast vision instead. The glorious passages of scripture are those that draw us to Jesus for who he is - and for what he commissions us to do.
I belong to church not to alleviate my fears but to deal with my selfishness. I come not to be blessed but to be a blessing. The call of Christ is not to my comfort (that is on offer, you understand) but to my humanity - that in serving Christ I lay down my life as He lay down his. If we come to Christ out of fear, then once our fears are dealt we can simply walk away. But if I follow Christ out of a magnificent vision for the divine inhabiting humanity then I am drawn to worship and service and this has always been at the heart of the gospel. The good news is this - that as Jesus lay down his life for others then we who seek to follow would lay down ours in his service.
The Church is at it’s best not when it’s speaking but when its serving. The Jesus who soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds, and drives away our fears; is the Jesus who asks us to look beyond ourselves, and catch a fresh vision of Him. We follow the risen Jesus because in him we see the hope or new creation - a world re-imaged on the foundations of death and resurrection. If we can’t get past our own selfishness and see a life of service and dedication, then we have missed the purpose of the Church - and we have lost sight of the biblical Christ.
Perhaps there is a new message that needs to be spoken on the dawn of a new normal which is not to do with fear but rather with courage, faith, and sacrifice. The call is not self-interest but self-denial - is it not in the laying down of our own lives, agendas and needs that we most fully embody the Jesus we follow?
The intersection between faith and science has been strained by many a conflicting divide over the years, as was my own journey born out of the 'take it literally' camp of Bible teaching which lead me as a naive, hair permed youth pastor, getting evicted from lessons teaching creationism along with my good friend - and former student at the school, Jonathan.
But a lot has changed over the past (I hesitate to write this next bit) three decades!
Today's world is very different to what it was when I was doing theology in the lecture room all those years ago and the gap between faith and science has narrowed by quite some margin. So when today, the 2020 Templeton Prize Laureate (The Templeton Prize honors individuals who harness the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s purpose within it.) was handed to Francis Collins the reality of just how far things have progressed is clear.
Collins work is best known for his ground breaking achievement on the human genome and today, with scientists from around the world he is helping to drive the race behind a vaccine and the therapies for the treatment of Covid 19. In his prepared statement of the Templeton Prize he writes:
Why is there something instead of nothing? Is there a God? Does she or he care about me? What is the basis of morality? What is love? What is the meaning of life? Why is there so much suffering in this world? What happens after we die?
Those are profound questions. Yet I paid little attention to them during my first quarter-century on this planet. I was a committed materialist who found little use for anything that could not be addressed by scientific experimentation. But when I transitioned from quantum mechanics to medical school, I found these questions hard to ignore while sitting next to the beds of the sick and dying, and science wasn’t much use in tackling them. People of faith seemed to claim wisdom in that domain, but I assumed those insights were based on superstition and fundamental misunderstanding of nature. Seeking to dismiss the faith perspective, I was stunned to discover a rich vein of philosophical and theological thinking. Atheism, the denial of the possibility of anything that science couldn’t measure, emerged as the most irrational and impoverished worldview. And to my amazement, pointers to a Creator began to appear in all sorts of places, even including scientific observations about the universe. Most importantly, the person of Jesus emerged as the most profound truth-teller I had ever encountered, and called on me to make a decision about my own belief.
Collins decision about his own belief has been the constant driver of his life over many decades leading him to write 'The Language of God' in 2007 in which he puts forward his case for theistic evolution. He went onto to set up the organisation BioLogos which is the go to site for many of the world's top theologians and pastors such as John Ortberg, Tim Keller and N.T. Wright. The fact that Alpha international have now drawn the work of Collins into their course is testament to how much has changed in such a short time.
If you've not challenged your own ideas around origins in sometime; if you've dismissed faith because of science, or if you've got kids who are drifting away from faith because they can't reconcile it with the modern world, you deserve it to both yourself and them to check out the work of Collins - this sharp minded, humble hearted man with the Rolls Royce brain has caused quite a stir which is far from over yet.
You find further information about the Templeton Prize here - https://www.templetonprize.org/
Francis Collins work and collaboration at Bio Logos can be viewed here - https://biologos.org/
What is it about songs that at certain times the words pop into your head and you start singing them? Which is exactly what happened last week when I found myself humming the line from Elton John's song - Sorry, seems to be the hardest word. 'It's sad, so sad. It's a sad, sad situation and it's getting more and more absurd.' I wasn't sure whether to change the word 'sad' to 'mad' but in truth they both feel fitting in equal measure.
I first noticed an article about Covid-19 in mid-December last year - it was about the sixth article as I glanced down and subconsciously wondered if it would grow as a story or fall away. Never would I have thought we would get to where we are today. Now the Coronavirus has crashed on our shores like an unwelcome tsunami and we are left in lock down to ponder on this unprecedented moment in our history with the simple question: What on earth is happening?
I'm not easily given to conspiracy theories - I mean I am old enough to have lived through the millennium bug. I'm a Pastor and so my default position is to start from the simple and build up. Trust people, unless you are shown the reason not to; Work from the premise that original goodness precedes original sin; Understand that human nature is the nature of what it means to be human and so what you find in your own heart is what will be revealed in the hearts of others - save for the extent to which life has been shaped by our childhood. It's a general rule of thumb - but one that's stood me in good stead over the years. Oh, and of course in crisis we all revert to type - which can be worrying.
So, when the internet started to churn out its theories around the pandemic I treated them with a 'healthy' degree a caution. Prophecy suddenly pops out of nowhere. People ask whether these are the End Times. Presumptions are made around the judgement of God. Theories surface that all of this is a master plan on part of China in its steps to world domination. I mean - what else are we to do with our time? Stay at home - and help save lives is the answer.
Bill Gates was speaking about a global pandemic some years back with the overarching message - its' just a matter of time. So, I guess you could slip in a prophecy about it with a good chance of accuracy. Anyhow, that's not the point of my writing. Not many of us can change the global situation - well - we can stay home and help save lives - and that matters. But otherwise our level of influence is more restricted - and when you look at the decisions which need to me made, we are perhaps grateful for the fact that such weight doesn't rest on our shoulders. And let's pray for those on whom it does rest.
For Christians we are journeying through lent, a time of inner reflection, of letting go and stripping away. One might conclude that the world is currently on the same journey. What are we left with when we deny ourselves - or indeed, find ourselves denied? It can be a scary road to take since the whole of society is built around our need to consume.
In an article for Time Magazine this week, Professor N.T. Wright was asked to address this exact issue. In the piece, titled, Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It's Not Supposed To, I discovered he returned to a familiar theme - that of lament, suffering and the mystery of redemption. He writes, 'Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centred worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world.' He goes on, 'It’s bad enough facing a pandemic in New York City or London. What about a crowded refugee camp on a Greek island? What about Gaza? Or South Sudan?' It is rare in the West that we live though a time that is outside our control or face a challenge that money cannot fix. We may have faced this personally of course - divorce, bankruptcy, death, abuse - all of these bring a sense of utter terror and loss - but it doesn't impact the collective psyche of the nation. That's what war does - it's what this pandemic has the potential to do. So, lament at a time of national emergency is not an unusual response even when we don't know why. In fact, the deeper traditions of the Christian faith and indeed the Hebrew scriptures teach us that lament is gift we receive in response to letting go. It takes us deeper to the heart of things - our sense of loss becomes the gateway to a different type of comfort.
Wright continues, 'The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments. Some Christians like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.' Lament in fact, as taught through the tradition of lent is not about loss as much as it is about re calibration- of building life around what matters.
I mean what if the virus took God by surprise too? Or what if he doesn't control things in the way we think of control? And what if God's actions in the world are not born out of power but out of love? Perhaps these thoughts are difficult to grasp but is it a more biblical approach? What if God does not use a wand to realign the pain of the world - but instead uses a cross? And if so, what does that type of redemption look like and how does it flow through the world? Of Jesus himself, the Bible says: 'Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers. We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help. (Hebrews 4:14-16 from the Message)'
I fear that looking for answers in a time of crisis is something of a meaningless pursuit. It's difficult because we can see ambiguity as a lack of faith and a disruption to hope. We like to think in a linear way and see faith more like a train journey than a wandering. The problem is what happens when we get derailed and we have to navigate our way back home? I have discovered God to be more a travelling companion and guide than I have train driver. During a season of lament, I suggest we allow our actions to forge in us who are becoming rather than what we are achieving. All of a sudden people seem to have time to talk; acts of heroism are borne of unsung heroes rather than trite celebrity; a bag of shopping thoughtfully delivered is a demonstration of real love. And perhaps we can get to the place where speculation around what is happening and why is not as important as who I am becoming and for whom. In closing the words of Eric Liddell come to mind, 'Circumstances may appear to wreck our lives and God's plans. But God is not helpless among the ruins.' And maybe that is the journey of lament - the one of which lent speaks and maybe this is the greatest sense of hope each of us can take from the current madness all around us.
If you didn't get chance to listen in full to the latest press briefing from the government on Thursday 12 March 2020 and you wonder what is happening - or not - especially when we look at other countries across Europe - then you probably ought to if only to be saved from sound bites which don't show the full picture (You can listen to it here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UdqF_R1ziE&t=1511s). I've been trying to make sense of this in my own limited way and then came across a series to tweets by Professor Ian Donald (@iandonald_psych) which I found very helpful.
I'm not saying you should agree with it - but we owe it to ourselves to at least understand the strategic rationale behind it and his tweets are extremely informative in this regard and for that reason I wanted to share them.
15 Tweets by Professor Ian Donald. Psychologist: Social, & Environmental research, & behavioural factors in Anti-Microbial Resistance. Emeritus Professor, University of Liverpool.
1. The govt strategy on #Coronavirus is more refined than those used in other countries and potentially very effective. But it is also riskier and based on a number of assumptions. They need to be correct, and the measures they introduce need to work when they are supposed to.
2. This all assumes I'm correct in what I think the govt are doing and why. I could be wrong - and wouldn't be surprised. But it looks to me like. . .
3. A UK starting assumption is that a high number of the population will inevitably get infected whatever is done – up to 80%. As you can’t stop it, so it is best to manage it.
There are limited health resources so the aim is to manage the flow of the seriously ill to these.
4. The Italian model the aims to stop infection. The UKs wants infection BUT of particular categories of people. The aim of the UK is to have as many lower risk people infected as possible. Immune people cannot infect others; the more there are the lower the risk of infection
5. That's herd immunity.
Based on this idea, at the moment the govt wants people to get infected, up until hospitals begin to reach capacity. At that they want to reduce, but not stop infection rate. Ideally they balance it so the numbers entering hospital = the number leaving.
6. That balance is the big risk.
All the time people are being treated, other mildly ill people are recovering and the population grows a higher percent of immune people who can’t infect. They can also return to work and keep things going normally - and go to the pubs.
7.The risk is being able to accurately manage infection flow relative to health case resources. Data on infection rates needs to be accurate, the measures they introduce need to work and at the time they want them to and to the degree they want, or the system is overwhelmed.
8. Schools: Kids generally won’t get very ill, so the govt can use them as a tool to infect others when you want to increase infection. When you need to slow infection, that tap can be turned off – at that point they close the schools. Politically risky for them to say this.
9. The same for large scale events - stop them when you want to slow infection rates; turn another tap off. This means schools etc are closed for a shorter period and disruption generally is therefore for a shorter period, AND with a growing immune population. This is sustainable
10. After a while most of the population is immune, the seriously ill have all received treatment and the country is resistant. The more vulnerable are then less at risk. This is the end state the govt is aiming for and could achieve.
11. BUT a key issue during this process is protection of those for whom the virus is fatal. It's not clear the full measures there are to protect those people. It assumes they can measure infection, that their behavioural expectations are met - people do what they think they will
12. The Italian (and others) strategy is to stop as much infection as possible - or all infection. This is appealing, but then what? The restrictions are not sustainable for months. So the will need to be relaxed. But that will lead to reemergence of infections.
13. Then rates will then start to climb again. So they will have to reintroduce the restrictions each time infection rates rise. That is not a sustainable model and takes much longer to achieve the goal of a largely immune population with low risk of infection of the vulnerable
14. As the government tries to achieve equilibrium between hospitalisations and infections, more interventions will appear. It's perhaps why there are at the moment few public information films on staying at home. They are treading a tight path, but possibly a sensible one.
15. This is probably the best strategy, but they should explain it more clearly. It relies on a lot of assumptions, so it would be good to know what they are - especially behavioural. Most encouraging, it's way too clever for #BorisJohnson to have had any role in developing.