The growth in coronavirus cases and resulting measures to stop the spread are causing me to feel anxious. I don’t want to be locked down again. I want the freedom to be able to see family and friends. But history tells me that I can learn from those whose experience of imprisonment – it puts into perspective the freedoms I still enjoy.
Etty Hillesum was a Jewish woman whose family were not particularly religious. When she went to study law in Amsterdam she experienced a new faith in God, and documented her spiritual journey alongside the growing anti-Jewish measures in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. With all her immediate family, Etty was arrested and died in a concentration camp in 1943.
She wrote, “There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then He must be dug out again… That is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves.”
I choose to safeguard God within myself by limiting the amount of news I read, listen to and watch. And I spend time each day reminding myself of the things for which I am thankful. “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for God who promised is faithful.” Hebrews 10:23
Goodness, I’m tired. The constant negotiation of how we meet one another and at what sort of distance is hard work. I used to know the rules of engagement, what sort of contact it is appropriate for getting people and departing. The coronavirus has changed all the rules. Last week I shook someone’s hand by mistake; this week I forgot to put my mask on in a shop. In both cases I felt like a fool.
I want to make other people feel comfortable around me, but often it is impossible for us to articulate what we want, and we only know what makes us uncomfortable when we are already in that place and it’s hard to extricate ourselves. Goodness, I’m tired.
I know people who are avoiding going out because they hate wearing masks. It steams up glasses, pulls off hearing aids and makes reading facial expressions and lip reading hard. But we need to meet with others despite the issues the virus has created. We are people created to be in relationship with God and with one another. Most of us are learning to put up with the inconvenience despite the difficulties. It may be a dance, to which I have not yet learnt the steps, and I may feel like a toddler who is often falling over my own feet – but it’s better to dance than to sit on the side-lines.
When I unlocked the church last month, I found interesting tracks in the sand tray where we usually light candles. Lighting candles as a symbol of prayer is an ancient tradition, and the space we offer for lighting candles is special to lots of people. I wondered who or what had used the space over lockdown.
It turns out that it was woodlice. I have no idea why there are quite so many woodlice in Blockley, literally millions, in houses, on walls, up trees – they get everywhere. Clearly a few had discovered the sand tray. They are following an ancient tradition. The People of God have travel in their blood – Abram and Sari travelled around the fertile crescent of the middle east encountering God in every place they arrived; the escaping Israelites jouneyed for forty years through the wilderness to the promised land in a circuitous route; and Jesus too spent time in the desert places, praying and drawing close to God.
We may not be on a physical journey, but the pandemic has moved us to a new and unknown territory in lots of ways, and to new emotional and spiritual places. The door is open – we have been let out of the boxes which confined us. Do you want to go back inside, or explore new paths and landscapes with fresh and creative eyes?.
Today the Church of England remembers William Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano and Thomas Clarkson, who successfully campaigned for the abolition of slavery in the later 18th and early 19th century. Olaudah Equiano spoke and wrote of his experiences as a slave working for a variety of masters before he bought his own freedom. His memoirs gave a voice to those without a means to speak of their horrific experiences of working as slaves.
Wilberforce and Clarkson, Christian men of power and influence, worked with many others in the battle for abolition. It was largely economic – those who had most to lose from freeing slaves from the plantations arguing vociferously against the moral stance of the abolitionists. Slavery was finally abolished in the UK in 1833.
Modern slavery is often hidden and complex, but is still thriving. Of the 40 million people estimated to be trapped in modern slavery worldwide, a quarter are children and three quarters are women and girls. HM Government suggest that there may be upwards of 10,000 people held as slaves in the UK (2019 UK Annual Report on Modern Slavery). It is a terrible inditement on our society that slavery remains a blight on the lives of so many people. Wilberforce, Equiano and Clarkson would be scandalised.
When the coronavirus led to lockdown, I thought that a moment would come when we would all un-locked again. I imagined an Easter celebration in church, weddings and christening parties and a return to all the best bits of my life before lockdown. I talked about taking out of my life the things that weight me down – administration especially – and making more space for prayer, reading and walks on a summer afternoon.Above all I hoped.
I have not ceased to hope. Some things will definitely change as lockdown is eased. But as we begin to open church buildings I know that there will be empty seats where people belonged, and now there is a person-shaped hole. That may be because they have died, or because they are rightly anxious about becoming infected with a virus that could kill them due to their age and underlying health conditions.
But although my grand Easter plans post lockdown will end in a damp squib, the God of Easter, the God of homecomings, parties, restoration and above all resurrection is still above all, in all and through all. ‘Give thanks to the Lord our God, for the Lord is good, has steadfast love endures for ever’ (Jeremiah 33:11).
I really like chickens. I like the way they chatter to each other, the way they socialise, the way they enjoy their surroundings and when they aren’t happy, I like the way they let you know. I’m lucky enough to have friends who keep hens and one recorded her chickens making gentle ‘bok bok’s to soothe me when I feel stressed.
Hens are, in fact, remarkably intelligent. They are self aware, have the capacity to learn, and have a great sense of humour. They have strong individual characteristics and experience emotions – joy, loneliness, frustration, fear, and pain – just like dogs and cats. They even purr when they’re stroked.
There is a point to my telling you about the chickens I’m seeing today – I want to remind myself and you that humans were created to be in relationship with one another, to converse face to face, because it’s through communication that we can be truly vulnerable to one another. Make sure you have a proper conversation with someone this week, by phone if not face to face. A good conversation helps us to understand the stories in which we find ourselves.
Mud, I hear you asking? Mud? It hasn’t rained for days. Dana, why are you seeing mud? Well… I have a sweet cocker spaniel called Maisie, who is usually the best dog in the world (along with Ben, our other cocker). She is quite clever, well mannered and fairly obedient. But she has an unerring ability to find mud on our walks.
When Maisie finds mud, or indeed any form of water/earth/noxious smelling liquid, she makes the most of it, ploughing in and covering as much of herself as she can in gloop. It’s a wonderful but necessary thing that every walk I take ends at Blockley Brook, where she can wash herself in the clean water.
As humans, we have a similar and unerring ability to find noxious smelling sin, wading through it and making the most of it, before realising that it is offensive to others and to God. And to our own souls too.
But God gave us a word which is present in every language (I think?) and in every culture. It washes the mud of sin from us. The word is ‘sorry’. It doesn’t always make everything better straight away, but it usually begins to mitigate the harm done by messing up. It doesn’t cost anything to say, except a bit of pride, and it gets easier the more often it is used. Thank God for ‘sorry’.
Today is National Bee Day. A wonderfully timed delivery saw the arrival of my new organic bee suit, so I am all ready to look after the swarm we hope to get for our new hive in the churchyard at Bourton on the Hill.
We have been nurturing the Open Garden area of the graveyard, and have also been planting bee-friendly flowers and aromatic herbs to tempt the bees to stay, once they have been introduced to the new hive. It’s good to keep a distance from them if you haven’t got a bee suit, although they don’t sting unless they are scared or provoked.
Yesterday a swarm visited our front yard. They are not honey bees but masonry bees, although any swarm of bees is not something we need to be afraid of in this country. The bees have simply run out of room in their old home, and are looking for new quarters. They are more interested in setting up somewhere new than in stinging humans or pets.
Every day, people ask me how I am. Sometimes I’m good and sometimes I’m not, but either way it’s a hard question to answer. Underlying every feeling about the day is some anxiety, because I don’t quite feel safe most of the time. And worry, fear, change and anxiety make me feel tired. I am learning to listen to my heart, my mind, my body, and my soul, and to rest and play more.
Being an optimist is tiring too, because I keep expecting things to get better, to go back to normal, to feel safer. As birthdays and seasons pass by, I am learning not to look for easy answers and quick fixes. Life is going to be different for a long time, maybe even for ever, so I am learning to reign back my optimism, and look for a bit more reality.
So how do I answer the question about how I am? I do a quick check – if I haven’t eaten a whole packet of biscuits today, if I haven’t lost my temper and if I haven’t felt sad, it’s a good day. If I have prayed, made a difference to my life or someone else’s, or done something constructive, even something very simple, it’s a good day. There are very few days that are bad days – although the temptation of the biscuit packet is calling me…
Sometimes things just aren’t fair. The coronavirus isn’t fair. For those who have caught it and are struggling, it isn’t fair. For those who are in the most vulnerable group it isn’t fair. And the regional disparity of viral infection and death is vey, very unfair. If you live in the north of England, you are much more likely to get the virus, and then experience a more severe form of the illness, and also more likely to die. That is seriously unfair.
The north east has had more covid 19 related deaths than London, per 100, 000 people, and northern cities make up 9 of the top 10 places for infection. The north east and north west are first and third in the table of confirmed coronavirus cases in England. Low income, unemployment, poor health and lack of educational aspiration have all contributed over the last 50 years to the deprivation which is the cause of this horrific disparity.
Until I was 5 years old I moved around a lot, but from then until I was 48 I lived in the north of England, first in north Lancashire and then in Durham. I love the north, and assumed I would live there all my life. God called me away, but I know I will be returning. The deprivational load in the north means that the virus has caused much much more harm. Might the statistics on this be enough to make politicians sit up and make a difference?