Monday, 30 March 2020


I don't really know where the weekend went! It was a mixture of things: prayer, preparing for worship, struggling with technology, various online conversations, pastoral phone conversations, a bit of baking,a bit of reading and the daily walk. It's strange how, with an empty diary, time still seems to go by, but you can't remember much about what you did with it.

There is continuing concern about our friend in hospital. He is still very ill, but it is good he has made it through the weekend, and today they hope to begin a new course of treatment. We continue to pray constantly for him - and for his wife, that she does not also succumb to infection.

One of the things that is recommended during these weeks of isolation is to learn anew to appreciate nature. It is constant in its annual sleep, renewal, flourishing and decaying, and this of course is replicated in our human cycle of life. We need to take heart from nature, her capacity for regeneration and her gift of joy and delight. This gives us hope, as we look forward to a new future beyond our present distress.

If ever I were marooned on the proverbial desert island, as in the long-running Radio 4 series, one of the recordings I would take with me, I'm sure, would be the song of a blackbird. My earliest memory of it is from when I was studying for A levels, many years ago. Often, that hot summer, I would be working in my bedroom, the window open, and high in a chestnut tree a blackbird would sing. It was a huge blessing to me, and even now, whenever I hear one in full throat, it connects me with my past as well as cheering me on. 

I awake very early these mornings, and I've noticed that a blackbird begins his (it's only the male!) dawn chorus at almost precisely the same time each day. Sometimes I hear him at dusk too. He has an incredible range and variety of song. So, dear readers, I invite you to take time out and enjoy a space of just 3 minutes, while this blackbird sings for you. If you listen carefully, I think you can hear another blackbird in the distance, answering him:

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Coronavirus Close to Home

It's strange how, when you expect something bad to happen, it still comes as a shock. On Thursday, I learned that a good friend in our town had been admitted to hospital with Coronavirus (Cv). He is still very unwell. I must confess, it rather shook me. In my head, I knew Cv was likely to strike, but when it's someone you know well...So much of the past two days has been spent thinking about and praying for him and his wife. It is scary.

At the same time, I have been preparing and recording a talk for tomorrow morning's broadcast from our Cockermouth churches. As it happens, the Gospel reading is about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and - for me - the interesting subtext of how Lazarus's sisters, Mary and Martha deal with their grief, and respond to Jesus. It is a 'Tale of Two Sisters'. What can we learn from them?

The technology has been challenging for me! Both learning how to record a video well (the easy bit!), and then how to upload to where it needs to be, in order to become part of the whole. That's my struggle: but I will learn!

I did manage to take a break yesterday, though. Mowed the lawn, at last. And read some poetry: a selection of children's poetry, put together by Liverpool poet, Roger McGough. Very diverting and enjoyable.

On Thursday, I had one of my regular Skype conversations with a long-standing friend in Liverpool. She put me onto a website about communal experience of trauma, which of course this is all becoming. Rather than me write any more today, you may like to read this letter from a priest to her congregation, which is deeply reassuring and wise:

Thursday, 26 March 2020

I Protest!

It's another fine day: thank God for the sunshine, and we can get out -  even if not very far.

Yesterday's funeral was a beautiful, intimate service, full of love. And no crowds turned up: the bush telegraph had done its work. There were tears, there was laughter, there were prayers, there was Shirley Bassey! Afterwards, George's widow said: 'It's just what he would have wanted. He didn't like fuss. He would just have wanted his family.' How ironic.

Otherwise, it was a day to Skype and Zoom. I had an hour on Skype with a friend, who is 'on mission' in Peru. Anna lives in Lima, where there is a far more serious lock-down, including an 8pm to 5am total curfew and complete closure of borders. I pray for her in her solitude: her English flatmate is stranded abroad; and of course her church can't meet. For an extrovert like Anna, this is tough.

Then Les and I 'Zoom'd' with family, on our Pete's birthday. Fascinating to see all the family in one go on a screen. A moment to treasure, and yet another gift of today's technology. Afterwards, a Zoom staff meeting with Adrian and Deborah. During Evening Prayer, we realised one disadvantage of Zoom: it's difficult to say (for example) the Lord's Prayer together as the system only allows for one person to speak at a time. At least it encourages the discipline of listening during a meeting!

During Lent (easy to forget about this season!), I decided to follow some material from the Church Mission Society, 'Lament for Lent'. It turns out to have been just the right choice, in the circumstances. The theologian Walter Brueggemann reckons lament is largely absent from our way of thinking in our Western culture, because we are reluctant to face suffering or to embrace negativity. This is at complete variance with the majority of the world where suffering - terrible suffering - is an everyday experience, be it war, famine, extreme poverty, natural disasters unjust regimes and so on. So we in the West have much to learn from the experience of others: think for example of the songs of protest of African-American slaves, or people like Mother Teresa, or Nelson Mandela or Archbishop Desmond Tutu during the apartheid era.

Far from saying 'There can't be a God, to allow this', God is addressed directly: 'Why God, why?' And in the indignation, even the anger, that goes with it, one finds oneself on God's side, doing something about it. As someone has written, 'To lament is to recognise something isn't right and to refuse to be okay with it.' Interestingly, it is reckoned that 40% of the Psalms in the Bible are actually protest songs or laments, directly confronting God, calling upon God to act.

So we shouldn't be taking this Cv business lying down! This is not a holiday! This is a time to rise up and address the problem, as part of the warfare against all that is evil in God's beautiful world. The trouble is, as a culture, we have been spoiled. We expect everything to be ok, we expect to be healthy and strong, and if something goes wrong, we expect 'someone' to sort it, so we can 'move on'. It's the attitude that lies behind President Trump's ridiculous 'All over by Easter' promise!

There are many expressions of goodness and warm humanity at this time: witness the tens of thousands who have responded to the call for volunteers nationally, to help with the work of caring. Can we learn to see that every act of kindness or compassion, every word of encouragement, every stand against negativity or injustice, every prayer, every Eucharist,  - all these things and more - are actually ways in which we are protesting against what is wrong in our world? It is 'recognising that something isn't right and refusing to be okay with it.' In short, we all have to take some responsibility for this Cv crisis and each in our own way, protest against it. We don't have to be a Government minister, a doctor or nurse, to play our part.

Right - time to prepare a talk to record for Sunday. Then some 'gardening' - otherwise known as 'mowing the lawn'. This is the limit of my horticultural effort, I'm afraid. But, to all you keen gardeners, with plenty of time for your passion: God bless the land, and make it fruitful.

Here's a brand new hymn, written for this time. It goes to a number of different tunes, which unless you're a hymn expert like Les (my wife) you probably won't know. Bizarrely, perhaps, it goes to 'O Little Town of Bethlehem.' Try it. Sing it loud! (Les has pointed out that this tune is a bit jaunty for the seriousness of the content, so Sing it Loud - but Sing it Slow.)

This sudden Sabbath gives us pause
to rest and to reflect.
What is the focus of our lives
and what is its effect?
We live within a common world,
whatever race or creed;
for things maintaining life and health,
we share a common need.
For some a love of God becomes the
centre of their prayer,
but such a love’s a hollow boast
when neighbours have no care.
The early Christians took the lead
of Jesus as their style,
to hold in common all they had,
to go the second mile.
When people safe-guard all they have,
while others queue in fear,
when those who have are given more,
while hunger’s drawing near;
where is our faith, our common love,
as cries become more stark,
when poverty crowds round our door,
the future clouded, dark?
Now is the moment for us all
to live what we confess,
to live within community
the faith that we profess.
Then let us stand as one with all
we share a common birth,
that on until eternity
love holds each life on earth.
Andrew Pratt 18/3/2020 – In response to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

A Long Good Friday

Yesterday was the first day of the new regime. So I was at home all day, apart from a walk in the evening to prepare the church for today's funeral. All very quiet. My colleague Adrian and I got to grips with 'Zoom' - a platform for group conversations on line. We hope to have a staff meeting this evening with this medium. There was also a lot of thinking and planning about an online service on Sunday, with Gareth continuing to develop new video techniques. It will be a 'service' filmed from different people's homes and gardens: it will be 'A Tale of Two Sisters', to get you thinking!

Today's funeral has been problematic. The man who has died was a much loved and respected, elderly gentleman with a close family. He and his wife have lived in the village for their entire married life, running a slaughterhouse and butchers here for many years, and being much involved in village life, including (formerly) church. He was also a committed Rotarian, well known in both farming and business communities. Normally, we would expect 200-300 people at his funeral. But not today. Although funerals can still go ahead, they should only be brief graveside ceremonies, with minimum number of people, standing well apart. So we have had to do a lot of last-minute negotiation, effectively banning people from coming, apart from family. It is all so sad, and the very opposite of what we would normally encourage. However, we have agreed there will be a memorial service later in the year - and a bit of a party!

When World War 2 was declared in September 1939, for 8 months there was what came to be called a 'phoney war'. War was real enough, but it didn't impact much on British life as the action was happening more on the Continent. It feels like there has been a 'phoney war' for some weeks now. We have all known about Cv, but somehow the reality hasn't kicked in. This may explain why so many people just don't seem to get it, acting as if this is some kind of holiday. Well, it's real enough now!

Last night's news was incredibly sober: statistics predicting a sharp rise in infections and deaths; a very sick woman, through her oxygen mask, telling us all to 'be careful'; and three junior doctors, exhaustedly telling us what it's like on the frontline of medical care for virus sufferers. This is serious. People I know could die. I could die.

I'm trying to think ahead to Good Friday and Easter. How on earth will we keep this most important weekend in the Christian calendar, when we can't go to church? It seems to me that Good Friday has already begun, in a sense. A long journey to a cross of much suffering. The cry of Jesus, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' seems very apposite today. An experience of God-forsakeness will become common place, and we need to enter that experience together - not rushing on to speak glibly about Easter: 'It will be all right in the end.' Nevertheless, holding on to hope, of love triumphant, of death defeated, of endless Sabbath will be a vital Christian contribution in our day.

Dear God,
Being alone is hard. We were created for community, not confinement.
But we’re grateful that no matter how alone we may feel, You never leave or forsake us. And, we’re grateful for technology that helps us stay in touch with each other.
Today, please remind us that this time of social distancing and isolation will not last forever.
Give us the strength to endure this difficult season, and deepen our connection with You and Your people.
Empower us with an extra dose of Your love, peace, hope and joy, because we need it. Remind us of Your promises, and please heal our land.

In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

© Life.Church / YouVersion

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

What's Going On?

Even with the sombre announcement last night, there is still a lot of humour around. Next weekend, the clocks go forward at the start of British Summer Time. Someone has suggested they go forward six months. Yep - that should do it!

Yesterday, for me, was largely taken up with the preparation and conduct of two funerals. Both were for elderly ladies, neither of whom had died through Cv. Attendance at both was very small. Naturally, the friends of the deceased, being largely elderly themselves, stayed away. Others would have had to travel long distances, so they also stayed away. The small numbers added to the sadness of the occasion, and I felt for the family members present. It was particularly sad as there was something distinguished about both ladies, and I'm sure there would have been quite a crowd in normal circumstances.

The second funeral was held in one of our town churches, but the burial was out in the country, in a family grave. (Camerton, for those who know it.) I have been there before, on a walk but not for a burial. It is a breathtakingly beautiful place. You arrive on high ground, and look down on the cemetery, which is by the river: it floods in stormy weather. There are wonderful views all around. It was a fine day, and all day there was a sense of unreality: the scenery being in stark contrast to what we know is going on.

So what is going on? The Unintended Sabbath has begun. Yesterday, I opened up a discussion about warfare as a metaphor to frame our present catastrophe. We are 'at war' against Cv, against germs and microbes. According to this view, it follows that when this is 'defeated' -  through a combination of social distancing, rigorous hygiene, medical care and scientific advance - no more cases are diagnosed, then we can go 'back to normal.' But of course, that is not true. At best, there will be a new normal.

The Christian understanding of the world goes something like this. God created a beautiful world for all to enjoy; with human beings, made in God's image, sharing God's responsibility for treasuring, tending and enjoying what God had made. But humans - we - have used creation as a playground, or a source of limitless pleasure for ourselves and in consequence have spoiled the world and fallen short of what God intended us to be. We have forgotten Sabbath - the practice of rest and appreciation.

And why? It's what the Bible calls 'sin' - what Martin Luther described as 'turned in on ourselves' - basically falling out with God, doing our own thing rather than God's.

Fortunately, God hasn't given up on us. Jesus Christ, God's Son, entered our world (or rather, God's world) in order to reclaim it, to show us the way back to God. By his death on the cross, he took upon himself all the 'bad stuff' in life, and killed it. By his rising to life, he proved the war is won. But the war is not over! Indeed, when we turn round, face God-wards, by faith choose the Jesus Way, we join the battle against all that is anti-God - including viruses, famine, earthquakes, floods, greed, violence, abuse, cruelty, and war itself. And death is, according to the Bible,  'the last enemy to be destroyed'.

But here's the thing. We can't fight these things ourselves. We fight with spiritual weapons such as prayer and worship, love and compassion, purity of lives. And God gives us the Holy Spirit to help us.

I like the way C.S Lewis describes this in 'Mere Christianity':

Enemy-occupied territory - that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, landed you might say in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.

So when we engage with others in fighting this present battle, we are 'sabotaging' just one of many acts of aggression by 'the Enemy', in the Name of Jesus. But the war is won: in the Bible, Isaiah 65 and Revelation 21 both speak of the 'new heaven and new earth', when all wrongs will be righted and the world's settings will be re-set, according to the Maker's instructions.

That's a rather rough, unpolished view of things from a Christian perspective. I find it helpful to put our present struggle into a wider frame of reference.

To end on a lighter note. We're told that christenings, among other things, are cancelled. With this 'stay at home' strategy, I suspect we might be doing rather more of them around the turn of the year!!

Monday, 23 March 2020

'Microbes not Missiles'

Two funerals today: one at the crematorium, the other at Christ Church in town, followed by burial in a remote country churchyard, where I have never been before! It will be interesting to see how 'social distancing' works on the these occasions - how much it is observed. Fortunately, both funerals are likely to be fairly small occasions. Wednesday's will be a very different story!...

It was so encouraging yesterday to see and hear so many inventive ways churches managed still to church. We are learning a whole new skill-set, and people are clearly appreciating it. Our 35 minute recording from Christ Church alone had over 70 'hits', and we know several of those were watched by couples and family members. (If you want to watch/listen - including my reflection about my own mother, and a short exposition of Colossians 3, you can find it here: We haven't yet mastered the skill of live streaming, but we're getting there.)  Although there are many challenges to learning new technical skills, this season will improve our communications for the longer term. I really applaud the 'have a go' attitude of so many people, not being afraid to make mistakes, realising the importance of keeping in touch and (for Christians) sharing the message of God's love and encouraging each other.

There has been much said about being on a 'war footing', and the WW2 spirit being invoked. Certainly, we are being drawn together in a common cause to resist the 'attack' of the virus and to protect and help one another, especially the most vulnerable. The difficulty is that this enemy is not external but internal, and unknowingly, unless we do as we are told (i.e. social distancing, cleansing etc), we risk becoming 'enemy agents' ourselves and carrying the microbes with us. For this reason, we have agreed to desist from meeting physically as a Hub Team, following our meeting last night, but to learn the technology of video conferencing. This week's challenge!

With amazing prescience, Microsoft entrepreneur Bill Gates predicted what we are now facing 5 years ago: this TED talk is well worth watching. It's only just over 8 minutes long: In 2015, he said that the next global challenge would not be military warfare but a pandemic: 'not missiles but microbes.'  Sad to think we could have prepared so much better, if we had learned the lessons of ebola.

I'll continue tomorrow, I think, on this theme of fighting the enemy. Meanwhile, here is yesterday's Mothers' Day prayer:

God of love, passionate and strong, tender and careful,   
watch over us and hold us all the days of our life;         

 through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

The Unintended Sabbath

I awake this morning to the wonderful aroma of fresh bread! I have unearthed our bread maker, and set it to bake during the night. Can't wait till breakfast! Maybe just one new habit to get into?

Apparently the reason there was no 'Casualty' last night is that all the staff have been seconded to help with the Cv crisis! (Thanks to my sister-in-law Di for that one.)

It feels very odd today: a Sunday with no services. And I'm not on holiday. I've decided to make it as normal a Sunday as I can. I would have had 3 services this morning, though one of them only to listen to an ordinand's sermon in order to assess it. (So Gill escapes for the time being!) I will go to Cockermouth first, where there would have been an early Communion service; then on to Dean - one of our more distant villages, where I will meet one of the churchwardens for a short service of Morning Prayer, or even Communion. It seems very important to continue the pattern of prayer, and for our church buildings still to be used for that purpose. As our Archbishops have said, we may not be able to pray with people, but we can still pray for them. Our world needs prayer!

As I've suggested before, we are now in a time of Unintended Sabbath. During this season of Lent - which is also a kind of Sabbath time - we use some different words in the Communion prayer. From the beginning of the season, they have struck me as very significant - even more so now: these forty days you lead us into the desert of repentance that through a pilgrimage of prayer and discipline we may grow in grace and learn to be your people once again.

'Learning to be God's people' takes us back to the Scriptures. The origin of Sabbath lies in the book of Genesis and the story of creation. God saw; God rested; God blessed. 
  • It seems to be that, in 'seeing', God was appreciating the wonder of creation. Appreciating it. There's a good word for us to re-learn: 'appreciation'! 
  • In resting, God simply ceased activity. Many would say that the relaxing of the Sunday trading laws in 1994 hastened our downfall as a society. Not only did it open us to the disease of affluenza  (affluence + influenza), it also gave us permission to work without ceasing.
  • By God's blessing of the Sabbath Day, God blessed the human race with the gift of rest. And, generations later, the gift of resurrection.
You can listen to a half-hour service from Cockermouth after 10am this morning here: Staying Connected. It was going to be video'd but we haven't quite mastered the technique! If you're up in time, you can also listen to a service on Radio Cumbria at 8am.

On Mothers' Day, here is a very appropriate prayer of Archbishop Anselm:

Jesus, like a mother you gather your people to you;  
you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.
  Often you weep over our sins and our pride,  
tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgement.
   You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds,  
in sickness you nurse us, and with pure milk you feed us.
    Jesus, by your dying we are born to new life;  
by your anguish and labour we come forth in joy.
    Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness;  
through your gentleness we find comfort in fear.
   Your warmth gives life to the dead,  
your touch makes sinners righteous.
    Lord Jesus, in your mercy heal us; 
in your love and tenderness remake us.
   In your compassion bring grace and forgiveness,  
for the beauty of heaven may your love prepare us.
from Anselm of Canterbury 1033-1109

Saturday, 21 March 2020

'It's a Marathon not a Sprint'

Usually, Saturdays for a vicar - well, for me anyway - are a bit of a mixture of work and leisure. When the children were young, I tried to make time for play and family activity. Swimming in particular, I remember - and watching Everton! Now, there may be opportunity for a walk or an evening meal with friends. Sometimes, there is a conference, training event or workshop which takes up most of the day. This afternoon would have been 'Messy Church' in one of our villages. Inevitably, there is also preparation for Sunday, including writing that sermon which has been in the heart and mind during the week. And - a highlight, sad as I am - 'Casualty' in the evening!

Guess which of the above remains in this new order of things! But - oh no! - even 'Casualty' has gone today!

Although all our Sunday services are cancelled indefinitely, a small group of us are planning later today, to put together a short act of worship to video, and stream tomorrow. It will be an interesting experience. Many of us are on a steep learning curve, seeking to use technology so we can continue to 'church' (which should be a verb as well as a noun!) I've noticed several clergy friends and colleagues have been posting videos of themselves, offering a Christian message and wise counsel.

As the Cv situation continues to worsen, the prediction at the start that this will be a marathon rather than a sprint becomes increasingly apparent. We need to think ahead, to what we might be dealing with in, say, a month's time - or even 12 months. That said, there is no other way at the moment than to live day to day. Most of us in church leadership have spent the last 5 days thinking about what needs to be put in place, answering lots of questions, considering who needs to be provided for, how we can hold things together - how to 'church' indeed. But all the time, I'm thinking, where are we going? What is this uncharted territory we are entering?

I've noticed the following piece has appeared a few times on Facebook. It paints a picture of how life could change if we use this time well, with hope in our hearts.

And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal. And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.  Kitty O'Meara.

Today, Sabbath. Tomorrow Resurrection.

From today's Psalm:

Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait in hope for the Lord. Psalm 31.24.

Friday, 20 March 2020

'Care not Fear'

Cumbria is probably a better place to be right now, in the midst of this Coronavirus crisis. It is less crowded up here, with plenty of open space, so maybe the risk of infection is lower? Several people have commented, when they have become isolated, that they are grateful they can still go for a walk - even an uphill one! Cumbria is also used to crisis of one kind or another: for example, the foot-and-mouth epidemic in 2001, the floods in 2009 and 2015, and the shootings in 2010. In each case, for different reasons, there was a lock-down and many examples of community organizing for mutual support. These experiences have produced a resilience, even a doggedness in the Cumbrian character, and a concern for one another.

But, of course, this is of a different order. Human life is being threatened on a large scale, and the fear is almost palpable. Ultimately, it is fear of death. One way in which we combat this is by turning outwards, in the care of others. It is noticeable how people are often asking each other 'how are you?' - and meaning it. And following up with, 'Take care.'

We are preparing for a 'virtual' service on Sunday from Christ Church. And this morning I meet with Paul, who convenes Churches Together in Cockermouth, to talk about coordinated responses, including the town's Emergency Response Group, formed after the 2015 flood.

Today is St Cuthbert's Day - Bishop of Lindisfarne in the 7th century. He was instrumental in spreading the Christian faith not only in Northumbria, but all over the north of England. His shrine is at Durham Cathedral. Interestingly, he caught the plague as a young man (nothing new about viruses!), from which he recovered. But he walked with a limp for the rest of his life. Maybe we will walk with a collective limp after this crisis is over: more humbly, knowing that we are not as much in control of our lives as we sometimes like to think. This whole experience will be a test of character for us all.

Holy God of Cuthbert and the saints, go before us now.
God of the fells and God of the fields, go before us now.
God of the streets and God of the people, go before us now.
Grace and mercy, peace and protection, be ours for ever. Amen.