Distraction is a word I hear many times over from those who frequent our Reconciliation spaces. It usually comes in a negative context, bringing to thought aspects of life’s journey, in all its complexity, that the penitent wishes to remove as they converse with the Lord in prayer. My response to those who find distraction an obstacle to the rarefied relationship they seek with God, as one who can easily find distraction something of a fascination, is to encourage them to present the subject of distraction to God in their conversation with Him. Perhaps in these moments there is something calling from the depth of our inner selves seeking an audience with God. Distractions come in all shapes and sizes. If we are unable to deal with them maybe God can. He journeys with us as a friend and the realm of a good friendship is often the very place where we are able to iron-out the creases of life’s knock and bumps.
As some may have noticed over the years that I’ve been privileged to serve you, I have a keen eye for detail often expressed in compliments about a parishioner’s new glasses or even the enhancements given to their hair, through a cut or colour! Although I suspect that by the end of Lockdown many more parishioners will have followed my own example in regard to the latter and gone au naturel. A noticeable change within many of our news and live-aired programmes, is the use of various social platforms that allow correspondents and interviewees to be beamed into studios from the surrounds of environments familiar to them be it a place of work or a sanctuary within their own homes where they are free from interruption. This has now extended to Virtual Sittings of our Parliament. When the initial message has been conveyed, and ears and eyes have adjusted to an often present time-lapse between the movement of lips and what is being heard, elements of distraction begin to creep in. For someone like myself these times are akin to a succession of episodes of Through the Keyhole. A feature of a good number of the backdrops offered by those speaking are bookshelves, the contents of which I strain identify, or at times want to put some order on! That said, having once worked in a library they would have to be in accordance with Dewey’s decimal classification rather than size or even looking attractive on a shelf.
If I were to put any form of rating system on what is presented to us from other people’s places of broadcast, the social historian, David Olusoga would be at the forefront. His visual interventions offer viewers a panoramic view of a spacious and neat room, the walls and shelves of which simply ooze eclectic interests. There is a collection of Guitars, orderly rows of books, object d’art and even a cheeky BAFTA award on a low shelf!
(The following paragraph comes with a health warning for those of sensitive political views!)
There are variations on bookcases, and oftentimes distraction can be a useful tool to uncover an even richer symbolism found lurking just below the surface in the natural habitat and surrounds of those virtual visitors to the comfort of our own homes. This is true of live events too. In the recent press conference held by a certain Dominic Cummings I for one could see a modern slant on an ancient biblical story. The inspired writers of Sacred Scripture called the place when the Almighty walked at ease and in leisure with the work of His hands the Garden of Eden. It was here, when human kind recognised they had erred, that God’s voice called out to the man, Where are you? (Gen3:9) In the rather surprising location of the inner sanctum for private times of relaxation for successive Prime Ministers and those of their equal from the political world-stage, when questions were being raised about another man’s actions, the nation’s top brass of political correspondents, having been kept waiting for half an hour, could justifiably have asked the question: Where are you? When our first parents stepped out of their hiding place, at God’s beckoning, He must have been a little taken aback as they emerged with a new wardrobe, responding with the words: I heard you in the garden and I hid from you. (Gen3:10) When Dominic Cummings finally emerged, he too was wearing new clothing … well, at least a shirt. A tie may have been a step too dangerously close to meet the appropriateness of the occasion! The judgement meted out in the Garden of Eden was just, and expulsion a fair resulting punishment. In the Garden of Boris the awaited words of remorse and apology never came, and the conclusion of the dialogue was heralded by a gentle breeze, the voice of nature beckoning one of its own to a hiding place, with the rustle of leaves, the curtain fell across the stage, as the man slunk back to his place of safety: at least for the time-being.
(Those of political sensitivity may rejoin from this point!)
During the celebration of his Easter Service, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s kitchen table-altar setting was subtly enhanced by deep symbolism. The liturgical furnishings were made of olive wood, so much associated with the Holy Land. Behind him stood a kitchen dresser adorned with a calendar, which, aided by a magnifying glass, I discovered depicted the image of a butterfly, an ancient art form conveying belief in resurrection and new life. And as to the display of Portmeirion table-wear, I can only imagine that they represented table-fellowship, and the ability of being able to draw up an extra chair for the unexpected guest. There is often much more to be seen than what is obvious, if only we take the time to seek it out.
Reassuringly we do not always have to try too hard, or engage the assistance of zoom-lenses, to discover messages being conveyed. Whenever Captain Sir Thomas Moore, as he now is, appears on our screens he is in one of two locations: outside the home he shares with extended family or seated in what looks to be a very comfy, deservedly so, armchair. I have yet to see him without his military apparel, dressed to meet a fan-base which is now global. Behind his walking-frame he continues to do what has brought him admiration and notoriety, simply putting one foot in front of the other. When sat, his backdrop is an array of photographs, seemingly mainly uniformed sitters; his military pedigree displayed for all the world to see. Whether observing his 100th birthday fly-past, receiving a further adulation or talking about catching pond-life in jam jars in the days of his Yorkshire-youth, as he was on Countryfile last weekend, whilst very conscious of the affection that he is held in by a world-wide following, he is not defined by his public persona, but instead radiates a man incredibly comfortable in his own skin.
Devoid of a distracting bookcase, when the Queen spoke to the nation on the 75th anniversary of VE Day, the chosen symbolism was in full view, from the room in which the broadcast was made, to the broach she wore – the gift of her father on her 18th birthday, now nearer to eighty than seventy years ago. The greater symbols spoke of family, service and victory. These were the image of her father, the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATC) cap, and a second photograph depicting herself, her parents, sister, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on Tuesday 8th May 1945. With a simple and profound message this nonagenarian said what needed to be said and the symbols reminded us of what made a particular generation great, and which have the capacity to continue to do so if we are prepared to pick up the mantle; appreciation of those closest to us, a willingness to reach out to others, and a dogged determination to overcome even the greatest obstacle.
Last Monday many children and school communities returned to a new experience of education. One newspaper commented that an estimated 46% of parents would not be sending their children back into their usual learning environments. Reading this I wanted to ask about the 54% they failed to mention! Negativity will not lead us triumphant out of these times. Nor has there been much mention of those schools and their staff, at all levels, who have continued to provide education (and food) and the tools of learning to pupils either in a classroom setting (for the children of Key Workers) or at home. Our own primary school community has been outstanding at this. With the exception of Good Friday, Easter Monday, and the more recent Spring Bank Holiday, Holy Spirit’s doors have been open to welcome our children. No accolade in the media for those who have done this! But they certainly deserve one. When a generation asks: what did you do during the pandemic? There will be many who will answer that they simply carried on with their working lives in new and varied ways. The staff at Holy Spirit School have done this and I for one say: Thank you and well done!
Something that I’ve tried to encourage others to do during recent times is to think outside of the box. Personally it has been a steep learning curve but having climbed a mountain that has brought me to new horizons and vistas I’m now a convert and advocate! This has been particularly true when walking with families in times of loss and bereavement on the shifting sands of varying guidelines and regulations. Respectful of the reasons various Local Authorities have chosen to offer families different scenarios in which to hold Funerals for their loved ones than those which have become the norm in recent times, and hearing many lament what they are unable to do, I’ve adopted the opposite approach, and now say, let us think what we can do! In light of this I have presided at the initial part of a Funeral Liturgy on streets where it seemed as though the entire neighbourhood had come out to mark the passing of one of its own. Whilst I may not personify the stereotypical street-evangelist, it has been a privilege to be able to proclaim the Word and pray alongside many who would not usually cross a church-threshold. Less preaching takes place, than witnessing. And what a witness it is, to take a small piece of what gives us identity as a community of Faith to where people are in a place where they have been told to stay for their own well-being and safety, but in the confines of which they can feel so helpless not least in times when faced by the greatest mystery of life, its ending as we have known it: death.
We are not only living in a time of doing things differently, but we have also been given the opportunity of doing different things. In the midst of sadness with natural emotion at its rawest I’ve been privileged to see the finest components of humanity on display not least in dignity and self-control. With members of families from different households stood together the natural response would be to huddle, to hold on to one another and physically unify. Yet, for the health of both the strongest and most vulnerable, standing united yet apart from each other has made an incredible statement, as have those who have dressed for the occasion, but unable to be counted amongst the limited numbers of attendees, have stood in silent tribute at a roadside, to be, for the most fleeting of moments, included amongst the cortege. Or those who stood at the crematorium gates each displaying a word on a sheet of paper, which when held up together expressed their love and support for those driving in for the final part of a Funeral Service. Alongside this has been the courtesy and kindness of Funeral Directors, and the Local Authority Staff, not least our own Kirklees ladies and gentlemen, who all knowing me and my style, have allowed me a little extra time here and there, not least at graveside Services, where families have chosen not to have a church-based Liturgy at a later date. Here, quiet conversations have been had reassuring me that I could offer to families as much time as I would in pre-pandemic days. Such gestures mean a great deal, and reveal a commonality that can, and does, exist amongst our fellow human beings.
The late Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a leading figure in the realm of inter-faith dialogue in this country, often reflected on the perennial question asked in times of suffering: Where is God? About his own experience in a concentration camp he emphatically stated that, God was there Himself, violated and blasphemed. He would move on and, in true rabbinic style, answer one question by posing a second: The real question is where was man at Auschwitz?
Over the last few weeks via the media we’ve witnessed the rich diversity of humanity’s reaction to an unprecedented time, nationally and globally. The spectrum of response has been incredible from consumers almost waging war on one another over depleting stocks of toilet roll to the willing generosity of those in the care profession who gave up the rhythm and routine of their home lives to move into accommodation that was their normal place of work in order to shield, protect and care for society’s most vulnerable and fragile members; from entrepreneurs benefitting from grossly inflated prices they charge for the likes of sanitizer, to those Front-Line workers living with the realities of a depleted supply chain of necessary, vital and life-saving equipment. Yes, we’ve been witness to it all, and increasingly feel as though we’re living in a surreal world.
This week daily headlines about an illness that on our shores has claimed numerically the lives of the population of a moderately sized town, such as North Shields, were replaced by reports of the death of a man in Minneapolis in the most unimaginable of circumstances. The ripple effect of this has been felt nearer to home as protesters took to open spaces angry and driven to a point which led to the disregard of social distance guidance, in place for the common good. As human beings we are capable of so much, the finest and the best, the most base and raw. On a scale from incredible inventiveness to a point of hovering over a button to bring about total destruction is the reality of the potential of those created in God’s image and likeness. Along with stark headlines and graphic reports have come some photographically magnificent images. One stood out for me from all the others. Amid headlines of a President being led to the security of a bunker deep in the bowels of a White House in Lockdown due to the angry ralling of rioters at his garden fence, a number of newspapers carried the image of a headscarf-wearing woman astride a favourite mount riding alone in the grounds of Windsor Castle, enjoying a brief respite from her own experience of Lockdown and shielding. At twenty-one this individual pledged that her whole life, whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the great imperial family to which we all belong. At ninety-four the Queen still fulfils that promise and personifies the strengths to be found in family, a life of service and a serene optimism that by standing together we shall overcome all things. Royalist or Republican, credit where it is due!
The finest and best are to be found amongst the worst and least desirable, but they’re not the ones shouting or clamouring for attention. They are simply always there, the constant and ever-present, the fixtures and fittings that give stability and offer the fundamentals of education; teaching through example what truly matters and is important. In the words of the title of Captain Tom’s forthcoming autobiography: Tomorrow will be a good day! We continue to seek and pray for better times. And as the Queen said as we began a new phase of living: Better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again. Somehow, because of the integrity of who is saying it, we know it will!
Be assured of prayerful and affectionate remembrances,