When we planned the Lent Blog many weeks ago, none of us had any idea that the world would be in this state now. This is a global crisis affecting each one of us, even here in the villages of the East Midlands.
The theme this week is Creatures of the Sea and Sky. The #LiveLent booklet leads in this week with Jesus’ words from St Matthew’s Gospel:
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”
In such a time of anxiety and fear, this is something to hang on to, I hope.
One of the bonuses of being locked down in Spring, not only here in the countryside but in our major cities, is the silence that allows us all to hear the dawn chorus, the song of the blackbird, the squabbles of the house-sparrows in the eaves. Bird song is easy to hear now, and one of the most calming and uplifting sounds at this stressful time. The robin in my garden is oblivious to my anxiety about lost income, doesn’t care whether there’s any loo roll in the supermarket or that we’ve watched everything on Netflix.
Meanwhile airplanes are grounded, cars are garaged, ferries and cruise ships in dock, factories shut down. One result is that our economy is in freefall, but another is that the natural world is able to take a breath, enjoy a momentary respite from the choking fumes of pollution that mankind creates.
CO2 emissions have fallen drastically, and scientists suggest that the number of lives saved by the improvement in air quality is 20 times higher than the number of lives that will be lost to Covid-19.
What will happen when we come out of lockdown?
Quite a few people are saying that life will be different. That during this time we will have re-connected with a simpler life; discovered that we don’t need so much ‘stuff’ and will be better neighbours to each other. That instead of flying half-way round the world for a business conference, we’ll take part ‘virtually’ using Zoom or Virtual Reality technology. That instead of flying to Venice for the weekend we’ll take two days to get there by train to see canals run crystal clear and cruise ships banned from the lagoon.
Will we? Or will we return to our old ways?
The Coronavirus emergency is currently pushing the Climate crisis out of the news. It is only a few weeks since Greta Thunberg’s rally in Bristol was on the front pages, but now the news is focused on the pandemic. That is understandable, though I suggest listening to Covid-19 news all day every day is not great for our mental health.
But the climate still matters. This earth still matters. The birds of the air and the fish in the sea still matter. When we come out on the other side of Coronavirus, our fragile planet will still be drowning in micro-plastics, suffocated by CO2 and dying on its feet.
These all began in Genesis ch 1 when God created the world in which we live and whose stewards we are. God created lights in the heavens: the sun, moon, and stars. One of the primary purposes was to mark the passage of time. These lights were for “signs and for seasons and for days and years”
I am always amazed that the moon and sun and stars control the tides and the seasons and although there is part of me which would really like to understand how it all works and continues to work, there is a large part of me which is pleased that I don’t because the wonder is so beautiful. I’m sure those who do understand it all have the wonder of knowing how it happens.
St Paul wrote in his first letter to the church in Corinth, “The sun has its own beauty, the moon another and the stars a different beauty; and even among the stars there are different kinds of beauty.” When we first moved to South Luffenham there were no street lights and we could see the night sky clearly. Now there are lights and although they are down lighters, the night sky is still to some extent unclear.
I was fortunate to spend some Christmases in Chamonix and where there were no lights the sky was stunning and immense; in fact I had trouble finding a words adequate enough to describe the wonder and splendour. Every star seemed to be visible and indeed have its own different beauty.
We talk much about the pollution in our world and there is light pollution too with one third of the population unable to see the Milky Way. It is such a glorious spectacle but I wonder how many people look up at the sky? We seem to spend much of our time looking at the ground and scuttling around instead of taking time to look up.
The Magi were probably astrologers and would need to look up to study the stars. And they saw the star which led them to Jesus in the stable. They had the knowledge to know that this star was something special and the courage to follow it. They were amongst the first to worship Christ and give thanks for him. Do we look up and see the Saviour of our world?
We spend a lot of time talking about the weather often complaining but we are also aware of the changes in the seasons and just now we are in awe of the Spring; the fresh greenery, the flowers so cheerful and colourful. We will move steadily into Summer with the gloriousness of the scent of roses and the sound of bees. Then Autumn with the wonderful colours of the leaves and the drawing in of the nights and the reappearance of the night sky early. Finally we return to Winter which is my favourite season, perhaps because I am a Winter baby. Each season moves seamlessly into the next with its own outstanding beauty.
The world works with all the parts dependent on the others; we cannot have the sun, the moon and the stars without the tides and the seasons and day and night. God made our world for us and it is a great gift to us. Like a child with a toy, we are careless and we are destroying that great gift. What can we do to make sure that life continues as God intended it to be? God created the world and saw that it was good. How can we make sure that His world continues to be good for all of us?
Message from the Priest in Charge – Christopher Armstrong
We are in difficult times as a community and the wardens and I want to share with you the resources of our church for it is at such times of national emergency and challenge that people fall back on old certainties often overlooked.
Following government guidance and instructions from our archbishops, there will be no public worship in our churches until further notice.
However, our churches are open for business…prayer! Please use this special place – set aside for worship and prayer – at your leisure. Prayer resources are already available in the church and specific ‘prayers in hard times’ will be available soon for you to use in church or take away. Please respect others who might be using the church in the same way, giving them ‘social distance’. The Lent Blog on the Benefice Website also offers thoughts and prayers.
At times of crisis The Church and its members are specifically called to witness to the continuing presence and power of God through prayer and action. Awareness of our neighbours’ needs is written into our national DNA but it is primarily a faith activity: “Love God and your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10.27). Please remember in your prayers those in authority who have to make difficult decisions on our behalf and those who sacrifice their own well-being to help others either professionally or domestically.
Many folk will be worried about themselves, their loved ones and the future of our lives both communally and individually. Please use your wardens, PCC members and myself to discuss anything which is on your mind. Small issues usually mask greater issues which affect us all. No concern will be dismissed; there will be a way through. Hope will prevail.
My garden anchors me in the here and now. A tiny piece of the world which is mine to throw myself into body and soul in all weathers.
I opened my eyes to gardening when I turned 28, newly married with a new-build house. A patch of unloved grass, a scrappy hawthorn tree and a fence held the promise of a lush, mature garden in my mind’s eye. But the work involved to make this happen was daunting. So I tuned in to a television series ‘The Victorian Kitchen Garden’ hosted by Harry Dobson, with its cheerful piano and clarinet theme tune. Each week I dutifully took notes. It was a revelation and took me back to the girl who wandered round her Granny’s garden, delighting in the electric yellow of the broom and rainbow borders of pom pom dahlias. Finding that person again has been a very comforting experience of my life.
I’m still a rookie gardener. I make it up as I go along. I’ve killed many undeserving plants; I’ve had to apologise to ones I’ve planted in the wrong place. And I’ve completely failed to nurture plants that I’m told ‘any fool can grow’, like sweet peas. But I can grow hydrangeas, Michaelmas daisies and oleanders. Also lupins and camellias. Roses seem to like me too. I used to mind the weeds but now I keep those that are pretty and which are good for pollinating insects.
Gardening has taught me to ‘grow where I’m planted’ and to make the most of any house I’ve lived in. It has given me much to think about and it has slowed me down. It’s the only activity I can still do when I’m worried, angry or sad. Tending a garden is a meditative and humbling experience. It’s often a triumph of hope over expectation. You can’t force anything; everything has its time and you just have to wait.
Apart from the chill of December and January, when all seems to have stopped, I garden in all weathers, enjoying the company of my friend the robin. I carry on gardening when my whole body aches and I can’t weed another bed; dig another hole or prune another climber. Nothing makes me happier than being in my garden with the sun on my back and a cup of tea in my hand.
My garden connects me with what is outside myself like few other things can and that to my mind is the secret of happiness. Time in my garden is my time with God and the joy of nature, in all her seasons. It’s like being handed endless gifts that delight and awe me daily, which I count as true blessings.
Monday – Here is a drawing of the cosmos of Genesis 1 from Nahum Sarna’s book Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel with the dome of the firmament on top and if you look carefully the pillars of the sky and the earth curve inward to form a dome below. Some say it is almost egg shaped – the cosmos in an egg form representing life, and note the storehouses in the waters above the firmament for snow, hail and wind and the fountains that bring water up from the waters under the earth descending to the waters of the nether earth. A far cry from our modern day understanding of this planet and universe.
How do you relate to this world view? Do we find it naïve? And yet when we think of heaven, do we not automatically look upwards imagining somewhere beyond the rain clouds? What cannot be ignored is the importance of water. Half of the features in this conception are water-related and it shows how water is central to life as the trees and the birds demonstrate. A few fishes might have been nice too! Many other creation stories evolved in old testament times including the Babylonian Enuma Elish, often with dramatic tales of warring gods. In Genesis the whole creation is formed by God alone. No battles or histrionics and on the second day God created the waters – He just did it and it was good.
Tuesday This photo is from my recent trip to Uganda and is of Lake Bunyonyi in south west Uganda. Bunyonyi means “little birds” because so many species of little birds like canaries, weaver birds and sun birds inhabit the shore of the lake. Larger waterfowl are rarely found here as the lake is so deep and has hardly any fish for them to feed on. It is a huge crater lake with many small islands, some of which have been home, hospital and security for people with leprosy while others are used as a safe haven for orphaned children such as little Isaiah who I met on one of the islands. The land is rich and fertile and long canoes made of hollowed tree trunks ferry produce over the lake to shoreside markets. Perhaps not grain here as the psalmist reflects but bananas, matoke (plantain), vegetables, tea and reeds to roof homes and now bring tourists seeking relaxation and peace in this busy landlocked country. And around the lake people quarry rock by hand from the hills that surround this lake but need to be careful and sparing. If ever Lake Bunyonyi was to be breached through over quarrying it would instantly flood and drown the town and inhabitants of Kabale and surrounding villages. God not only waters the earth – He holds it in place and we need to take care of the containers He has provided.
Wednesday Rivers and bodies of water often form boundaries, as between Rutland and Northamptonshire, and even nations. Uganda is separated by the River Gatuna from its smaller neighbour, Rwanda and I crossed there to get into Uganda even though the border remains closed to commercial traffic. While I was in Uganda the two presidents Museveni (Uganda) and Kagame (Rwanda) met on the bridge over the Gatuna (you can just see the bridge barrier in the background where I had crossed a few days before) to discuss terms for the re-opening which involves freedom for political prisoners on both sides.
The border remains closed but a further meeting is imminent and people are praying that the border will re-open soon and free many from the poverty on both sides generated by this closure, which has remained closed as much by personal jealousies between the two political leaders, once good friends than any practical necessity. Do our relationships ever become similarly strained with harmful consequences?
Elsewhere rivers are used for baptismas this picture shows, freeing us from the slavery of sin as our sins are symbolically washed away in the waters of baptism.
Note from today’s reading that straightway after being baptised the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove (Mark 1:10). Both the principal sacraments of the Church of England use water – if you had not seen how water is used in Communion – then watch carefully next time you are at a service. Both have a cleansing act to them and both free the recipient of the water to serve God more fully.
Thursday This plastic bottle from Uganda is both a source of pollution and health. The Rwenzori are the mountains above Kassese in Western Uganda and the source of most mineral water in the country. Millions of bottles are produced and litter lakes, streams, towns and countryside. But …. fill them up with water from dirty water sources that many Ugandans use and leave them out in the sun and most of the harmful organisms in the water are killed off and sometimes passing poor children call out asking for these empty bottles to enable them to do this and make what they drink more potable.
The water is described as “Marah” meaning bitter and has resonance with the Passover or seder meal which we will celebrate in Barrowden in Holy Week (to which all are welcome) and includes marah, bitter herbs reminding the Jewish people of their suffering in exile. It also reminds us of the suffering we too endure for our faith. Pollution can be toxic and is harmful – our taste buds can help us recognise unpleasant or bitter taste, but we have to take care. Suffering is often associated with bitterness but sometimes also sweetness – hence bitter-sweet is a term often used. Our polluted waters are now a hot topic for debate and action. How are we as churches and Christians responding to this hot topic?
Friday OK this is much nearer home. In our Benefice, this is the River Welland at Duddington Bridge and the water is roaring and filling the arches of the bridge with all the rain we have had. In East Africa this is the dry season (these countries have just two seasons: wet and dry) and now is harvest time, and yet torrential rains have fallen in western Uganda and Rwanda, while Kampala and to the north east of Kampala they are experiencing extreme heat and locust invasions. In Rwanda, the rice fields at the bottom of the 80-mile-long gorge from the capital, Kigali have all flooded destroying this year’s crop.
The Psalmist in Psalm 69 uses the imagery of water and flooding as a metaphor of lived experience, being overwhelmed, suffering and feeling unable to cope. The water is rising up to the neck and while the text does not admit it the implication is clear they cannot swim and fear drowning. Uganda has a lot of water for a land-locked country but few have learned to swim, few have learned coping strategies when they feel they are drowning under pressure. Lent is a time of preparation – so what coping strategies are we prepared to learn this Lent when we feel we too are drowning? As our farmers once again have to move livestock to higher land because of floods. What measures are we taking for the spiritual floods that can too easily overcome us?
WeekendThese three Ugandans are standing in front of a large water tank in the picture on the left; built locally with money from Afrinspire, the charity I was with in Uganda. Afrinspire have built 79 water tanks and protected 47 water springs and while I was there 3 new water tanks were blessed at a Roman Catholic primary school, St Augustine’s in Rubaaga in the Isingero District of Western Ankole saving children walking several kilometres up and down steep slopes to find an often dirty water source at the expense of their education. Rubaaga sits at the top of a high veld on the Rift and so any rainfall quickly falls away leaving the land parched. You can see how the guttering on the adjacent building collects any rainwater and feeds it into the tank. It can cost as little as £2 per person, depending on location and population to provide clean water for up to 20 years through projects such as these as well as teach local people a new trade. Without them it is a long and often dangerous trek to find water.
One local farm owner I met admitted he only knew he had a water spring on his land by following local cattle who knew the location of a spring and then he could start to improve the water quality there. Christ’s encounter with the woman at the well reminds us of just how vulnerable some people are when water dries up as does their dignity and hope for living. Christ offers us the living water of the Holy Spirit to drink and with that we will never thirst again spiritually. These projects help provide water to communities so that they never thirst again physically.
Jane Williams says: I am writing this on Sunday morning, 1st March 2020.
I woke unusually early on this bright, crisp day, walked Cora dog around Morcott, putting the church heating on ready for Sunday service and returned to make porridge – all before 8am. I feel fortunate indeed to be tackling the Light & Energy theme of our Lent 2020 blog posts because I feel inspired by the sunshine!
Spring is just around the corner after the darkness of winter. While it’s been a mild one, the wet gloom has made many of us feel sad, even if we don’t suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. But today dawn woke the blackbirds into chorus, sun lit up lime green catkins and the miniature iris in the container by my kitchen door burst from bud to flower before my very eyes.
In the beginning…. Darkness covered the face of the deep… Then God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light. As I write this, it’s very easy to believe that this wonderful world has a Divine Creator.
The daily readings for this week in the #LiveLent booklet highlight the importance of light to God’s world and to us as human beings. I had not realised just how many verses from Genesis to John’s gospel speak of light or use light to reference the Christian life.
Life needs light. From birds in the air to flowers of the earth. From children in the playground to prisoners in the dungeon. And the guidance notes this week remind us that it’s not just natural daylight that we rely on. We need light to illuminate and energy to heat (or cool) our homes.
Solar power is one of the most amazing developments of the 20th century, and there are so many ways in which it can be applied to help mankind without adding to the greenhouse gasses and pollution that is – as Greta Thunberg said in Bristol last week – setting the world ‘on fire’.
Like many, I huffed and puffed about changing to LED bulbs, because they didn’t come on ‘instantly’, yet now I am not only saving energy but hardly ever have to replace a bulb. Like many, I am lazy about changing utility suppliers, but apart from saving money, I could also switch to a 100% renewable energy tariff. I can do more.
We can all do more.
And God saw that the light was good…
THE LENT BLOG 2020 ‘Beginnings’ from The Very Rev Chris Armstrong
On Ash Wednesday – the start of Lent 2020 – thoughts from our Priest-in-Charge
That smudge on the forehead means so much to us now. Jesus was critical of the Jew’s outward show of piety, but we are now in post-resurrection times – and times when the church is under significant pressure.
I remember in my last job going to The Town Hall on Ash Wednesday to talk about a small charity. It was not a big deal, but it was my first official visit and I was nervous. I was greatly encouraged when I saw across the table another dusty smudge on the forehead of someone else in the group.
We are dust ourselves: 40%! And so was Jesus. He identified with us in our humanity and through the cross on our foreheads, we can identify with him in his agony and his glory. We are dust but dust destined for glory thanks to the leadership of Jesus and the encouragement of others inside the church.
A thought for Thursday 27 February: We’re so fortunate to be able to worship in six wonderful churches, when we include Wakerley in the Benefice. The architecture is just stunning and all contained in a small building! Look at the tops of the pillars – the capitals – when you are next inside. Many are decorated with all manner of flowers and fruits. The medieval mind was more adept than our own at seeing the work of nature of creation, as all of a piece with God’s other creations and inside the church we have a duty and a joy to give voice to that beauty. Unfortunately, in modern times we don’t see that unity quite so easily. Our objects of worship are man-made, wordy, earth-bound. Yet we only have to stop and look at the stars from our villages devoid of light pollution to see the grandeur of God’s creation!
This is most striking in Hopkins poem, ‘God’s Grandeur’ and even more so in La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s not-quite-finished cathedral where trees and leaves abound.
A thought for Friday 28 February: Luke chapter 4, verse 20: ‘Jesus sat down, and all eyes were fixed on him’. He had been asked to read the scriptures in the synagogue and then there was a silence. It must have been like the silence at the end of the creation story, when God saw that it was very good and then rested! (Genesis 2.3.). Can you imagine the depth on expectation in that silence? If only we could create that quality of silence after our scripture readings today in church! It is a pregnant silence, full of potential and possibility.
At this, the start of Jesus’s ministry, he gives us a clue about the future and what to expect through his work. The Church which he came to create is here to continue that work. Today it will be contentious too, as powerful vested interests will try hard to obstruct the care of creation. It needs all our intelligence, passion and commitment to make headway. It won’t be easy but carrying a cross is never a walk in the park.
And for the first weekend of Lent: The huge modern church at Taize – so beloved of young pilgrims – is called The Church of the Reconciliation. It reminds us that God brings together all nationalities, all ages, all manner of people but also everything in creation.
What will heaven be like? Will it be like a giant British Harvest Festival with the perfect cauliflowers, carrots and expensive wine on view? I hope so! But if it is to be like that – with everything and everybody at the pinnacle of their perfection – then God has got his work cut out!
However, he has started. As Colossians reminds us, it started on the cross and that is the invisible sign on our foreheads at baptism. So, we too are involved in this striving for perfection; we too have so much to offer, so full of potential. But we don’t have long and some of us have less time than others!
This year during Lent the parishes in our Benefice are all using the Church of England’s excellent #LiveLent – Care for God’s Creation booklet as our focus.
It’s a 40-day challenge to help us think about our responsibilities for the amazing world that God created – its elements, the skies, seas, lands and the great variety of life – animal and human – that makes up our environment.
In the introduction to the #LiveLent booklet, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York write: “God has entrusted us to look after his wonderful creation. We are called to care for and honour God’s creation as a way of delighting in its Creator. We are also called to care for our brothers and sisters all over the world who face having their families uprooted and their livelihoods destroyed by the effects of climate change. As part of our discipleship to Jesus Christ every single one of us has a responsibility to live a life of stewardship.”
Six volunteers will each be taking one of the #LiveLent themes – one for each week of Lent, with the first key theme of LIGHT & ENERGY appearing next week – 2 March – so that each weekly email bulletin will also include a link to the blog post.
Subsequent themes are WATER, LAND & PLANTS, STARS & SEASONS, CREATURES OF SEA & SKY, HUMANS & OTHER ANIMALS. The blog will of course end with a reflection for EASTER itself – REST & RESTORATION.
Christopher thanks the lay volunteers from around our parishes; we all look forward to reading their thoughts!
If you do not already have one, copies of the little booklet are available from your own church ‘bookseller’ at the modest cost of £1.99. There is a topic of reflection for each day in Lent, relevant bible verses to read and suggestions for prayer.