An ancient hymn book, full of messages celebrating privilege. Celebrating a relationship with God who is on OUR side. The one who will kick ass on our behalf.
Of course, there is so much more than that in this wonderful ancient poetry – lament, hope, beauty, thankfulness, stillnes – but on one level, they were written as Israel-first propganda.
The danger is that we adopt them as a personal me-first version of the same.
Consider the most famous of them all, psalm 22. We wheel it out when we need it, like some kind of holy comfort blanket. It is beautiful, full of hope and assurance, offering us the hope of God on our side. I read it over and over this week because I am preparing to lead the funeral of a dear friend of ours.
We will desperately need psalm 22.
Beyond this, I found myself wondering what else this psalm had to say to me right now, and wrote this poem.
If God is my shepherd, why worry?
Why let anxiety crack the night?
Why let fear of failure pin me
Like a blunt spear?
If I lie down in green pastures
Why must I mortgage?
Why chase a wage?
Why scratch upwards for success?
If I am led beside still waters
Why must I stare into inky depth
And wonder when my ship
Will come in?
If I walk through darkest valleys
And still fear evil
Must I arm myself with
My very own rod and staff?
If God would load a table for me
In front of hungry enemies, could I eat?
For surely I’d be sick to my stomach
If I failed to share?
If anointed, what am I anointed for?
What makes me so special?
Is it because I am white, male, British?
What if I fall from favour?
If goodness and mercy follow after me
Is that like holy magic, or must I make it?
Is it a get-out-of-jail card or an invocation
To become a conduit for love?
If I am to dwell in the house of the Lord
Will my room have a view and good wifi?
Or will it be like a shelter, for the homeless where
It featured Samuel L Jackson, an underwater archaelogy team, and some historians shining light on the international slave trade, both here in the UK and in the wider world.
They visited forts on the coast of Africa where slaves were gathered ready for export, and marvelled at the fact that in the centre of the courtyard was a large church.
One story stuck with me, of how the purpose-designed slave ships, carrying men women and children that had been forcibly torn from their homelands, were brought up on deck to excercise. This was not done for humanitarian reasons, but to reduce the numbers who died en route and to make sure that the price they would fetch in the markets they were heading towards was high because they would be in better condition. It was about stock management.
However, it then takes another dark turn. When they were brought on to deck, they were made to dance.
Once upon a time, people were bought and sold like lawnmowers,
Or second-hand Hondas. Enterprising Christian young men sought their
Fortunes in foreign fields, chasing white ivory or black bodies, both of
Which were worth the trouble because (back then) acquisition
Was a moral imperative. After all, elephants and black people were
Dumb beasts, whose misfortune was to have economic value elsewhere.
It was dirty business, sawing tusks and chaining black children
So small wonder our heroes took carnal comfort between the unwilling
Legs of black women. They were men of science, designing fine ships that ensured
Their valuable assets were always transported efficiently
Every inch stacked and shackled but because our men were not monsters
They knew good management of stock meant value must be preserved and wastage
Minimised so each day the enslaved were pulled out on deck and made to
Apart from the fact that Trump is us. An extreme version of us, perhaps. The Hyper-us. He makes a virtue out of anger and malevolence. In Trump world, forgiveness is weakness and weakness is for losers.
Non of us are immune from this thinking, both in relation to others and even towards ourselves. It is so much easier to feel outrage and anger when faced with opposition and percieved injustice.
Or we could choose to forgive, no matter how hard this may be, and see where this takes us.
Back in March, when we were all coming to terms with the first lock down, I wrote some pieces trying to describe some mental health survival techniques that might help us navigate what we termed ‘The Great Silence’. It seemed right to revisit some of these themes and ideas, because in many ways, the world seems different now.
Perhaps for some, it feels even bleaker at present. What started out back in March as a hill we had to climb tgether, or a period we had to survive before we rediscovered normal, has now become something else.
Technology, in the form of healthcare and vaccines, has not yet saved us.
Scientists seem uncertain, or perhaps are just ignored.
Politicians seem unable to break out of the old paradigm into the new, (at least here and in the US.) Populism has failed and is thrashing around for someone else to blame.
Meanwhile, there are enough signs around to suggest that much of what we used to accept as unchanging normality is at a pivot point like a slowing spinning plate. We have no idea which ones will fall, but when they do, almost certainly those who will suffer most will be those who always suffer- those already poor and vulnerable.
Some have even started to talk about the first lockdown with a kind of nostalgia, a bit like the phoney war in 1939, when the sun shone and the looming distaster seemed distant and mostly theoretical. Now, the winter is coming and things seem all the harsher for it…
As I look around, responses to the ongoing virus seem to be fracturing into different camps.
Those who deny and minimise. I don’t mean the conspiracy theorists – those who cry ‘Plandemic’ – rather I mean the large section of the population who are not really following any kind of strict social distancing rules, at least not totally. Perhaps they feel invulnerable due to their youth and disconnection from people who are vulnerable.
Those who live in fear. Many people have very good reason to fear, either for themselves or for others they love. People are worried too for their livelihoods and their jobs/homes. But fear is rarely a healthy place to stay. It has consequences for our mental health and physical health.
Those who are getting on with it. The key workers. Many are working harder than ever. Some feel fortunate to be in work at all, and this too imposes a pressure.
Those fortunate enough to live lives insulated from the press of people and problems.
The rest of us. Wearied by all the mixed messages, and wondering how this all ends. Distracting ourselves and looking for signs of hope.
At the same time, political leadership is also bringing confusion. Our Prime Minister has squandered the trust he had over the Cummins affair, and has been ideologically incapable of building partnerships with either the opposition, or more crucially, local authority politicians and local public health structures. It is hard to escape the feeling that our government is making it up as they go along, lurching from one failed plan to another, pulled apart by its own competing priorities, which have always been skewed towards the protection of economics over people. As a result, there is no political consensus, no coming together over political divides for the sake of the nation. There is no Churchill, just a collection of Chamberlains.
So, how might we navigate this uncertain landscape we are forced to still travel through?
Like I know. Like any of us do.
And that is the point we have to start, right? We have to accept that we can not know. The illusion of certainty and control has been revaled for what it always was- an illusion. That may sound fatalistic, but stay with me for a moment. If this was never really true, then what might this mean? Perhaps we were always more reactive and adaptable than we ever thought we were. Perhaps change, even when enforced, is something we are more than capable of seeing through.
Some of it might be hard.
Some of it might bring good things in to our lives – things we could never expect. I’m really sorry if this lands on you like a trite platitude, but it is one that I think is true, even though I don’t know what you are going through right now.
Perhaps though, your circumstance has become an oppressive dictator. You can’t wish this kind of monster away with platitudes – not on your own, certainly.
There might be something you can do, with the help of people who you trust. to change your posture towards that circumstance though, which is what I am trying to describe here.
Posture is everything, when faced with fear and uncertainty. You know this. Sometimes it is not possible to do anything than just let it overwhelm you for a while, but opportunities will come to reframe, and remember that at the end of everything, goodness counts. Love counts, beauty and truth matter.
In my post back in March, I made a list of things that I thought might be helpful. Most of them still seem to apply, but I would add a few more.
1, Immerse yourselve in wild things when you can. Stand in the autumn trees and remember that the noble oaks and sycamores will remember all this long after we are gone. Stand on beaches and remember that the water molecules before you have been passing through the water cycle since the dawn of time. So this not to feel insignificant but in order to remember your own connection. You are made of the same stuff.
2. Stay connected, but limit social media time. Write letters, make phone calls. When you can, wrap up warm and sit around fires, blinking back smoke with your friends. In contrast, you social media feeds will probably be full of fear and scandal.
3. Focus your day on small, but important things. Find a rhythm to your day around some tasks that are creative and constructive, then once these are progressed, forgive yourself for the periods when you are not productive and seek distraction- we are all the same. Netflix and the iplayer are essential opium for all of us.
6. Winter. Perhaps, like me, this season is always hard, and if so, you will fear this one all the more. Michaela suggests the following; look for beauty in the winter. The loss of light means the visibility of the candle flame. The cold means the lighting of fires. The falling leaves means winter tracery and the rain flurries make us appreciate the window panes.
7. Thankfulness. The Psalmist calls us to enter the presence of God with thanksgiving on our hearts. I think this is not because God needs our gratitude, but because it creates joy in us. Joy is fleeting, but it lights up the love inside us like a firework lights the night sky.
8. Journal. Write something each day, even if just one word. Some of you might prefer to draw or paint. For me, it is poetry. In particular, remember thankfulness.
9. Kindness. Nothing restores the soul like kindness, and that is even more true when we are the giver, not the recipient.
I am not expert in your life, nor do I have my own problems all defeated, but this too will pass.
It bothers me, but I am neverthess still complicit.
Our political/economic/religious lives are filtered, shaped and dictated by our tribe. Perhaps this was always true, but now our social media algorithms place us in a self perpetuating feed-back loop in which we consume an ever more extreme version of what we already believe to be true.
Our psychology and biology is unwittingly ideally equipped to take in this material like a sponge, allowing it to shore up our fragile egos and fire up the old endorphins in delicious tantalising outrage.
The most recent Nomad podcast features Elizabeth Oldfield talking about this stuff in great detail, and has an interesting theological twist, as she argues that the same religion that has become so polarised in the form of politicised Western (particularly American) religion should in fact be the very thing that brings us to the point of seeking peace and reconcilliation. Of course, for some that may be true, but…
Perhaps you are like me, and love a good Youtube video featuring Trump at his most despotic, or Boris looking like the bufoon he once tried to hide behind. If so, perhaps it is time to step back, let the old fight or flight stuff settle down and then reconsider what this vacarious war mongering is actually doing to us all.
That is not to say that we should not protest and resist, but let us not pretend for one moment that social media arguments ever shift people one inch. That comes through engagement and connections between people who respect one another, not from calling out from distance.
These strange times, full of enforced separation, have split us into smaller units. We connect only at distance, or digitally. It goes against something profoundly human.
Having said that, I am an introvert. For me, lockdown has often seemed like permission to retreat into a place of comfort. I have been blessed by garden and hillside and someone I love to share my head and my bed with. My grown up kids have been with me through most of lockdown. So many others, including friends and family, have had more difficulty.
Still, the capacity I have for retreating into my own small space has led my family to tease me as being one step away from becoming a grumpy hermit at times, who would never see anyone from week to week if left to my own devices. They will tease me about my hatred of the telephone and how I can become very awkward when having to indulge in small talk. I often feel guilty about this, and worry about neglecting my friends…
But I think my friends will also know that what I love more than almost anything is to talk.