Over the last weeks and months I have sought to draw together and share prayers, poems and other reflections relating to these ‘difficult days’ in which the Covid-19 virus has so dominated and changed our personal – and church – lives. As we seem now to be moving into a new stage, what some people are calling a ‘new normal’ it is perhaps appropriate to draw this use for my ongoing http://faithineurope.net blog towards a conclusion.
So this ‘issue’ of the blog is, I think, the last that will go out under the title ‘Discipleship in Difficult Days’, and the blog will eventually revert to its original focus – offering reflections on the lectionary readings for the forthcoming Sunday, with a ‘Europe’ focus in mind. I am going to give myself a couple of weeks ‘holiday’ (at home!) and then hopefully turn to exploring the lectionary. I would be very grateful for contributors, whether familiar or new, who would be willing to offer a reflection on the lectionary readings – I am trying to draw together a list now to take us up till the end of October, so please be in touch if you can offer. I enjoy writing and theological thinking myself, but am very conscious that there are other voices around our diocese whose insights can and should be shared.
This ultimate ‘edition’ of ‘Discipleship in Difficult Days’, offers more of the splendid Haiku poems composed by Jean Mayer of the Anglican chaplaincy of La Cote with our current experience in mind. It draws attention to a lovely song written for these days by John Bell of the Wild Goose Worship Group, which some of you may wish to use in your churches. My husband Alan has contributed a couple of the poems he has been writing in ‘lockdown’ – which resonate with the overall theme for this edition. My own latest thinking was stimulated by a reflection by an ordinand of Westcott House Cambridge which I refer to below – and which I think raises a question that will not go away. I link this exploration to some passages from the Book of Genesis, which are appearing as one of the Old Testament alternatives in the lectionary during recent and forthcoming weeks.
One final point: in the United Kingdom, where I have been living since late February, the term that has been drawn on to describe the government instructions to the population to stay at home is ‘lockdown’. But in continental Europe, especially in French-speaking countries, the normal term used is ‘confinement’.
As one of my colleagues in the Ministry Experience Scheme programme of the diocese has commented, ‘confinement’ does not have the simply negative resonances that the word ‘lockdown’ does. For ‘confinement’ is a term also used to describe a woman’s experience during the late stages of pregnancy and during the period of giving birth. As many around the world continue to suffer from this death-dealing pandemic, human beings – especially people of faith – need to explore what are the ‘new’ things – ways of life, priorities? – that need to come to birth after these difficult days.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship
A witty display of book titles, chosen with ‘difficult days’ in mind, found in the window of our local bookshop.
A couple of months ago I included in the blog (Discipleship in Difficult Days 10) a collection of seven Haiku poems written by Jean Mayer, of La Cote chaplaincy, reflecting on her then experience. Several of them were linked to Holy Week and Easter. The following poems, written more recently, portray her ongoing experience, in Switzerland, during recent weeks. The last Haiku offers a very fitting conclusion, to which indeed we could all say ‘Amen’.
two metres a world apart
yearn for warm embrace
Care homes ban visits
fearful and lonely they sit
nurses’ hands console
tai chi, skip, dance or just stretch
keep fit while locked in
Trump wants rapid cure
inject or drink bleach says he
experts shriek ‘no way’!
Thousands queue for food
jobs lost – ends no longer meet
shock to Swiss system
To mask or not mask
that is the question – unsolved!
virus mocks our plight
Scarecrow hair needs care
cut, colour, brushing and more
Figaro sings hope
Waiting for vaccine
striving to live with constraints
pray lessons were learnt!
Rev John Bell, of the Wild Goose Worship Group and the Iona Community, well known for many years for his creative contribution to the life of the churches (I first had the pleasure of meeting John more than 30 years ago!) has written a powerful new hymn/song for these days,’ We will meet when the danger is over, we will meet when the sad days are done…’. The words and music score, and a video recording, are available here:
With characteristic generosity John is allowing his composition to be freely available, provided proper crediting of authorship is acknowledged. Churches and others in the diocese may want to make use of this song.
I am grateful to my husband Canon Alan Amos for allowing me to draw on for this blog the poems he has written over the last weeks and months. Here are two more: the first in particular links well with the theme of the reflection below, the second feels appropriate to use as this current form of the blog draws to a close:
Declaration of war, the virus responds
All across the world
your leaders have declared war
against poor little me!
Enough to give me a big head
as I jump like a flea
from one resting place
to the next.
Pity your leaders
to declare war
on my ugly sister poverty –
well they did actually,
We stand at the threshold of a brave new world
or will it be one of bravado
Can we muster the courage
to enter a world where we share resources
give space for others
so the voice of their needs
may be heard?
A few weeks ago I was asked to write a prayer that could be used by people of different faiths who wished to come together to pray about the Covid-19 situation. With the help of my husband I rose to the challenge. One of Alan’s proposed amendments to my first draft text was to suggest that the virus should explicitly be labelled as ‘enemy’. I accepted that suggestion and the final published version of the prayer included the phrase ‘this enemy, the virus’. But I have wondered ever since about the words. The idea that we need to ‘love our enemy’ is embedded pretty deep within my Christian psyche! Is it ‘nice’ to refer to the virus in such a hostile form? I genuinely am still wrestling with this question, and what I offer below is intended to be a basis to encourage discussion rather than offer a definitive answer.
So this concluding blog of the series looks at the question of ‘enmity’. I was prompted to take it forward at this time partly because I came across an interesting reflection written a few weeks ago by Pippa White, an ordinand at Westcott House, Cambridge, on ‘Covid-19 and the language of war’. https://westcottblog.com/2020/06/11/covid-19-the-language-of-war/ Do take a look at it. Pippa makes clear her hesitation about such language.
And then, since this blog also seeks to pay some attention to the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday – I have been struck by how frequently the current lectionary readings, especially from the Gospel of Matthew, the Letter to the Romans and the Old Testament ‘continuous’ sequence from Genesis 21.8-21 are very ‘binary’ in their focuses, in which a sense of ‘enemy’ is not far away, even if the word itself is not necessarily used.
A couple of weeks ago the selected lectionary Gospel spoke of Jesus apparently proclaiming ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword’ (Matthew 10.34) and then goes on to speak about setting family members against each other.
Next Sunday’s Gospel reading draws attention to the ‘contrary’ nature of those who listened to Jesus’ message (Matthew 11.16-19, 25-end). The coming Sunday also offers us that passage from Romans in which Paul describes the turmoil going on inside himself using the idiom of ‘war’ (Romans 7.15-25a).
As regards Genesis, the coming Sunday’s reading is the beautiful story of the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca – but this is a brief interlude of light relief in between several weeks that have and will offer tales of fraternal strife and competition. Two weeks ago Genesis recounted the horrific story of the expulsion of Ishmael and his mother Hagar into the wilderness by Abraham, to apparent death. It is a story on which I have reflected long, not least because a number of years ago I wrote a commentary on Genesis, in which I tried to take account of modern Middle Eastern and interreligious concerns. It is horrendous – a father deliberately sending his son out to die.
It is no accident that it is placed immediately in Genesis before the near sacrifice of Isaac which was last Sunday’s lectionary passage, and that the two stories are probably intended to be read alongside each other. Tellingly, we tend to be much more conscious of the horror of Isaac’s near death in Genesis 22 than we are of Ishmael’s in Genesis 21. Does Ishmael’s life matter to us as much? I believe the saving grace of the story as it is recounted in Genesis is that the writer of the Book of Genesis actually intends us to find both stories and their interplay deeply disturbing and ask ourselves some pertinent questions. After our ‘interlude’ with Isaac and Rebecca, in which the word ‘love’ is used for the second time in Genesis (the first time it appears is in Genesis 22, to refer to Abraham’s love for Isaac), we will return again for several weeks to the theme of fraternal strife with tales from the story of Jacob and Esau.
It is an overarching theme of Genesis that human beings are placed in a ‘binary’ world, tasked by God with eventually drawing it into a sense of unity. This is somehow played out through these stories of family relationships. I hope to return to this theme when I return to the blog in a couple of weeks’ time. But what might that mean for our relationship with the virus? Perhaps, as one of my husband’s poems suggests it is our ‘enemy’ which we want to distance from ourselves partly because it dares to make more apparent than we like to acknowledge those things about ourselves or our world that we are uncomfortable with – the glaring realities of poverty and injustice in much of our world, and the acknowledgement of our own mortality.
Yet the fundamental Christian rite of initiation, baptism, speaks deeply, as indeed does the reading from Romans 6.1-11, used as the lectionary Epistle the Sunday before last, of how in baptism, we are united with Christ in his death, so that ultimately we can also be united with him in his resurrection. The one is not possible without the other. I leave you with the following thoughtful comment:
‘Sometimes I wonder, in most of our celebrations of baptism, if we reduce the waters of baptism to a mere sprinkle, and cover it up with rosebuds and lace and talk about cute babies and “God loves you” because we dare not speak about the strange and wonderful work which is beginning in this child on this day. You know how we always try to avoid death. Baptism is death which leads to life.’ (William H Willimon, Remember who you are: Baptism, a model for Christian life, Nashville: 1980)