The first Christmas after I married Adrian my new father-in-law gave me a present. He always bought his wife and daughter Roger and Gallet soap, and for me he chose Rose. I’ve always found soap to be a bit problematic. It dries out my skin causing it to crack or itch. But this soap was a revelation to me – I can use it (in small amounts) without any problem. In fact, since he died, I have continued to treat myself to a box ofRoger and Gallet Rose soap every Christmas in James’ memory.
Today soap has become a life-saver. Covid 19 doesn’t just dislike soap – it is exterminated by it. Soap is made of molecules; one end of each molecule attracts water and the other end attracts fats and proteins. The attraction of the fat-loving end to the molecule surrounds the fat around the virus. Then the virus is pulled apart by the water loving end which is repelled by the fat. Amazing science and the extraordinary ability of nature to heal itself.
But it takes time for the soap to pull apart the virus – 20 seconds of Amazing Grace, the Lord’s Prayer or God save the Queen should do it. No matter what sort of soap we use, be it ever so posh or very simple, when we wash our hands we are enabling a nano-battle which will ultimately save the human race from Covid 19.
I’m looking up at the Blockley church tower. It is photographed by thousands of tourists and Father Brown fans each year, and symbolises the permanence of the church building for me. But then I remember that it was rebuilt in the 1730s after the Norman tower fell down in 1725. It looks like it will stand here forever; but nothing is on earth is forever.
In Jerusalem, archaeologists exploring under the Western Wall came across a huge block of stone weighing 600 tons. It turned out to be one of four vast blocks, a master course of stone designed to stabilise the building when the Temple was extended by Herod. The builders thought they were creating a building that would stand for thousands of years. Yet only 70 years later the whole temple was torn down by the Romans as punishment for Israeli rebellion.
As Christians we believe that God’s ‘temple’ was in the person of Jesus, God with us. A building is temporary, even one that stands for aeons. God reminds Job in an Old Testament parable that God was present at the beginning of time, and will be there beyond human existence. Where is the church now that the church building is closed? It is present in the person who has faith in that God/man, Jesus Christ.
The village communities of which I am part are pulling together for the common good. They are offering deliveries of shopping and medicine as well as keeping an eye out for vulnerable neighbours and friends. People who didn’t know their neighbours a week ago are suddenly either serving or being served.
The Russell Spring in Blockley is testament that altruism is not unique to this time, but runs back through history. Lucy Russell, a local farmer, brought 5 springs together in a free-flowing stream which never stops, no matter how dry the summer. The water is clean and fresh, abundant and plentiful, and free to anyone who needs it.
And on the edge of the shelf above the spring is a Blockley Rock, painted by one of our children for other children to find, treasure and maybe re-hide. Altruism doesn’t have to be utilitarian: it can be an act of joy for its own sake. Love in action.
I was thinking this morning about Easter, and reflecting on how much has changed since Christmas. Back in December we didn’t know about CV-19 and it would have been inconceivable to imagine people stock piling toilet rolls.
At the Christmas carol service at Bourton on the Hill, our youngest church member brought one of her soft toys, an octopus who I seem to remember was called Ollie. Ollie joined the shepherds in the crib to worship the new-born Christ-child. It’s a bit odd to see a cephalopod worshipping baby Jesus, but one of the things I have learnt as a vicar is to expect the unexpected.
God comes to us as a baby, as a breath of wind, in the face of a stranger., in the beauty of love. God comes to us, even when we don’t expect it, especially when we don’t expect it. Jesus walks out of the dark mouth of a hungry tomb; Jesus breaks free of death in the most extraordinary, unexpected way. Easter is coming!
Blossom – a sign of spring, a sign of hope. The brilliance of the cherry against the blue sky reminds me that spring follows winter, and summer comes on its heels. New life, resurrection of that that a month ago looked dead. There is nothing I can do to speed its arrival. In that lack of control, there is sometimes comfort.
But I am also aware of how vulnerable the blossom is. A cold wind or a sudden frost and the cherry flowers will turn brown or fall. That too is out of my control. I am vulnerable as well, subject to fear, anger and worry. These emotions I accept, knowing that they will pass, in time and with prayer.
We are an Easter people, a community of relationships held across eternity and through time, linked by faith, love, forgiveness and hope. We are an Easter people who await resurrection. Even in winter, even in Lent, we are an Easter people.
I’m looking down over Blockley, the village in the North Cotswolds where I live, and where I have the privilege of being the priest. You can’t see the village or the church because they are hidden deep in the valley, beside the fast flowing brook which has shaped the village over the last 1300 years.
We know that a Christian monk had a cell here in the 750s. The monks who came after him sold the farm to the Bishop of Worcester in 855AD. It belonged to the bishops through plague and famine, and the village expanded around the church, milling corn, then wool and then silk. The church is in the centre of Blockley, the first church in the north Cotswolds and the first church to have hydroelectric power in the world.
Despite our social distancing, there is a steady stream of people, keeping appropriately physically isolate, but enjoying the sense that even at a time like this, the church is in the middle of everything. God is in the middle of everything. Love is at the core of every wave, bow and smile across the distance between us.
According to the Church of England, marriage “enriches society and strengthens community”. This is true in large part because marriage, sociologically at least, is an economic construct. Yes, I know… Marriage is ordained by God, and is a sacrament. Whilst I agree that God blesses the union of a man and a woman, I also know that marriage creates economic bonds which in the past have protected both women and children, and provided for them. So marriage is expedient as well as Godly.
My theology of blessing, the prayer for and divine approval of thriving, has always been to encourage life in all its fulness. Parents bless their children, owners bless their pets, I have in my time blessed my dishwasher and the resulting ease with which I can offer hospitality. Blessing that which we love and appreciate is profoundly human as well as a profoundly Godly.
Why then, given that the church has a deeply-loved place in the wedding of heterosexual couples, and the ability to bless not only life but also inanimate objects (I’m thinking toilets here!), do our bishops feel the need to comment on blessing or otherwise loving relationships which are not part of liturgy, and therefore not part of our theology. Why not keep quiet and allow pastoral requests to take precedence over ridiculous and pretentious statements about sex. What on earth does God make of it!
What does it mean to be fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139) in the image of God, and yet have more or less chromosomes than average? Is there only one blueprint for humanity? Are our differences due to our fall from grace through sin ? Or is God’s image more diverse that we can ever imagine?
It reminds me of the question that the disciples asked Jesus. “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?” (John 9). Jesus replies, ““You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.”
We need to see anyone who is ‘different’ with the eyes of the God who created humanity fearfully, wonderfully and vulnerably. Within each one of us is a selfie of God, a spark of divinity. Because we know that God loves diversity and variety, we should not be surprised that God has made each of us different from one another. Through every person, no matter how differently abled, God is present to others.
We might be heterosexual or prefer same sex partners; like to run or prefer to make pots; have skin colour that is brown, yellow, or just a weird shade of pale; or have 46 or more or less chromosomes. Each one of us are unique and wonderful. We see a glimpse of God in the eyes and hearts of everyone we meet.
Last night, 60 or so children and their parents came to the vicarage in search of sweets given in reward for a new stock of terrible jokes! They were dressed in violence and blood, and how I wish we had adopted the American custom of simply bedecking children in fancy dress. But that said, 60 children and their parents came to my door last night.
As a Christian, should I have turned them away? A few years ago I would have. The celebration of witches, magic and evil turns my stomach. But is a celebration of evil what is actually going on? I think not.
The children come to my door because supermarkets tell them they will get free sweets. The parents let them because pester power and peer pressure is immense. This is no celebration of evil, darkness in opposition to light. This is commercial opportunism.
I lit candles, carved love-heart pumpkins, gave a generous welcome and prayed a blessing on the families who came to my door. My prayer for their homes is for sweet love to light their homes with love, that they might in turn offer hospitality to the weakest in our community. This is probably the most useful way I can communicate our Gospel of love and peace in our secular society.
When the terrorist attack around Borough Market in London was reported, much was made of the people who chose to run TOWARDS the ensuing chaos, rather than away from it. But these fearless ones said that they were acting on instinct or by training. They denied being heroes but felt they were just supporting people in need.
I saw a very small example of the this week, when the BBC were filming in Blockley this week. Someone who house was being used as a location became stressed and angry as the BBC swept way work on a table which was in the way, without noticing that they were causing damage. There was shouting. Then the BBC location manager moved forward, de-escalating the situation by stepping towards the tension.
He reacted by instinct, showing empathy and talking without pause, while invading personal space and gently touching the person on the shoulder. It was a master-class in how to dissipate anxiety, anger and conflict.
Archbishop Tutu and the Dali Lama’s Book of Joy reminds me that to step towards a difficult situation, even an emotional one like a terrible diagnosis or a bereavement, robs it of its power to terrorize us. By acknowledging our fear and stepping towards a tragic situation, it loses some of its power.
I recommend the Book of Joy. We need to celebrate, delight and radiate joy, more and more, in order to live better, freer, more complete lives.