Message from Geoff Lanham on 14th January

Dear friends,

I know it’s not the weather for cricket, but please indulge me as I inflict my first cricketing metaphor on you. A few days ago, I clicked on the sporting news and saw that Australia were very likely to win the Second Test against India. So, imagine the surprise when I read the next day that India had mounted a remarkable fightback to save the match. On day 5 they had needed 309 runs to win with eight wickets remaining. Vihari and Ashwin wore down Australia by batting for more than 42 overs. In that heat, believe me that takes some doing against one of the best bowling attacks in the world. India ended up with 334 for five for a heroic draw. Early on in the innings, India’s batsmen faced the challenge by attacking with some thrilling stroke play, but then the game turned as they lost wickets. Reading the account made me think how important it is to know when to turn from attack to defence.

O.K, I’m getting to my point, I really am! With the very solemn recent pronounce- ments from our Chief Medical Officer about the pandemic, it seems crucial that we all hunker down for some gritty defending. Now is not the time to be gung-ho or blasé about risk. The terrible statistics and impact on our hospitals mean that we have to all accept the need to go into full defensive mode against this virus. The responsibility we have as leaders to show a duty of care has meant that we took the decision to go back to pre-recorded services. We urge you all to hear the advice about reducing our individual unnecessary contacts as we wait for the vaccine rollout to save the day. As our Archbishop has pointed out recently, staying at home as much as possible is an act of love for our neighbour. I know it runs counter to the “other directed” nature of our faith to love our neighbour by keeping our distance, but now, more than ever, is a time to show responsibility to our neighbour by doing everything we can to reduce the possibility of sharing the virus.

Recently, I took the decision to block one of my Facebook friends who was sharing material that was casting doubt on the coronavirus crisis in our hospitals. My patience finally snapped with the level of what I felt was misinformation. It jarred horribly with a very poignant post from a Birmingham ICU nurse who writes,
What I experienced yesterday was something I am struggling to find the words to explain. It was something I have never seen in my 28 years in the NHS… The team I worked with were some of the most flexible and resourceful that I have ever seen. They are being stretched beyond anything anyone could have imagined. New patients just kept coming and they just kept making space. They are working at 2-300% above their normal ICU capacity… For those who claim hospitals are not ‘full’ or overwhelmed as the corridors are empty and are going around filming them. Yes, the hospitals are ‘quiet’ in the corridors, because there is no visiting allowed to try and contain spread. If you could see beyond the locked doors of critical care you would see a different picture!

The danger these days is that we are drowning in misinformation. We are all at sea, having no landmarks, no ways of navigating the tides of spin and lies. In a 2007 book, “The Cult of the Amateur”, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Andrew Keen warned that the internet not only had democratised information beyond people’s wildest imaginings, but also was replacing genuine knowledge with “the wisdom of the crowd”, dangerously blurring the lines between fact and opinion, informed argument and wild speculation. Recent events in America have laid bare the scale of the misinformation ecosystem. From the prevalence of climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, white supremacists, anti- maskers, COVID-19-deniers and holocaust deniers, the post-modern claim that all truth is relative has come home to roost. Yet, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously observed, isn’t it right that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts”. The times we’re living through challenge all of us as Christians to search our souls about our commitment to truth.

Proverbs 6 claims,
There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him:
17 haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
18 a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
19 a false witness who pours out lies
and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.

Truth matters to God. As Christians we follow the one who himself is the truth and who taught that integrity of speech matters (Matthew 5: 33-37.) We Christians need to be careful about sharing / re-tweeting stories or articles that may be false, for in doing so we may end up spreading lies and deception. More than ever, it is important to exercise discernment, to check the facts and listen to experts. That’s not the same as being gullible and unthinking. We need to be wise in the way we use social media, so that we’re not simply reinforcing preconceptions from our own narrow silos. We need to listen to a range of credible, responsible opinion. A good fact checking site is one that show their work and provide unambiguous links to the evidence they rely on.

As we’ve seen from the storming of Capitol Hill in Washington, words really do matter. They have consequences. May we be salt and light, witnessing by the measured way in which we use speech. When people claim things, let’s remember to use the fact checking websites. In these days when people attach themselves to ideas and ideologies because of the emotional connection they are given and the way they make them feel, may we have a humble, yet passionate commitment to speak truthfully. As Proverbs 10:9 in the New Revised Standard Version, puts it,
9 Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever follows perverse ways will be found out.

Let us also pray for our own government and health officials, that their messaging may be clear and accurate. The WHO has used the term “infodemic” over recent months. It defines it as an “overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it harder for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance.” We in the church have a role to play in combating the “infodemic”, by encouraging civic duty in others, promoting the good of vaccination, courageously countering lazy thinking, conspiracy theories and misleading theological interpretations, wherever we find them. As the World Council of Churches wrote back in June,
We pray that churches everywhere will be empowered and equipped to be messengers of unity, trust and truth, against the voices promoting division, suspicion and unsubstantiated rumour.

God bless you all as you seek to love your neighbours by distancing.

Geoff Lanham
14th January 2021

Message from Geoff Lanham on 7th January

Dear friends,

I have been on many muddy walks over the last few months, but Sunday’s took the prize for the worst. In terms of bog, sheer slippiness and volume of sludge it was right up there in the pantheon of challenging adventures into the countryside. It started well, but a third of the way through we found ourselves in a sea of wet treacle. You know that feeling when your boots feel twice as heavy with the amount of mud that has attached itself to your feet? Every step feels twice as hard. You slide all over the place because your grip has gone. In vain you look around to avail yourself of a raft to get across the puddle that looks more like a lake. It was exhausting slogging on and you’ve probably guessed that yours truly was doing quite a lot of whingeing. Half way through, I could quite easily have given up and rung for air sea rescue!

As I reflect, that walk has become quite a good metaphor for how I’ve been feeling about this pandemic. It’s been a hard slog, hasn’t it? For us, it’s obviously been made harder by bereavement. One more great sadness that solidifies on your heart; ever-present amidst all the other anxieties of our current time. Maybe you feel a bit like giving up? Perhaps you greeted the news of the third national lockdown with a loud “Oh no not again.” Back in the spring, our restrictions were counter-balanced by the most wonderful weather and sense of nature bursting with life. This time, the restraints are juxtaposed by cold, short days and a sense of nature having shut down. You have to search harder to find the same joys in creation. I reckon we’re all more nervous about how we’ll cope. For many, the current anxieties come on top of months and months of financial pressures, hardship, acute stress and tiredness.  It really is normal to be experiencing feelings of overwhelming, fear and sadness right now.

I’ve been reminded of poor Jeremiah when he was lowered into the pit accused of being a traitor and undermining morale in the face of the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem:  6 So they took Jeremiah and threw him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king’s son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.

We’re sinking into the mud. Who will give us a helping hand? A lot has been written about the word resilience this last year. It’s become something of a buzz word. Commonly, it is used to refer to the ability to absorb shocks and bounce back from adversity. We admire people who achieve victory over adversity and marvel at their resilience as a character trait. I have a love-hate relationship with the word resilience. The factors explaining its occurrence or lack are very complicated. To my mind it’s shaped so much by context and life experience. People’s life chances and experience of society’s resources shape our ability to ride the knocks. It’s also notoriously difficult to measure. Some of the most resilient people I’ve met have been those suffering from depression. And who would we judge more resilient, the paramedic who faces trauma and does not experience post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or the paramedic who experiences PTSD but has to live with it?

Perhaps we would do well to look at the circumstances that allow the resilient behaviour to occur. I read recently that “research suggests that the single most powerful predictor of human resilience is interpersonal support”. If resilience is determined by cultures, then surely, we in the church are well-placed to help everyone thrive that little bit better when adversity comes? As a body of people interconnected by their common love of God, devotion to Jesus and the indwelling of the Spirit, we know a thing or two about looking out for each other. We understand the importance of showing compassion and empathy; of encouraging one another and supporting those who feel weak. In this new time of lockdown, there’s much we can be doing to support one another through the slog of the next few months. Let’s not neglect the phone calls and texts, the cards and waves from the window. Above all, let’s remember the power of prayer to lift one another up. The Psalmist writes in Psalm 40:

I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.  2 He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and 3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.

When life is the pits and we’re sinking in the mud, may the Lord set our feet upon a rock and make our steps secure once again. He remains our hope, our refuge and our strength. He is our source of renewed courage for facing that which we’d rather not have to face.

I know that being able to attend church has been an important factor in maintaining our sense of perspective and spiritual well-being. The decision to close live services has been a hard one to take. Some may feel that we’ve removed one of the factors that helped bolster resilience. Understandably though, people working in overstretched hospital ICUs do not comprehend why the church would still be allowing people to gather indoors for worship. The signs are that this variant virus hangs around longer on surfaces and is so much more easily transmissible. I heard just this week of a church in our city that saw 8 people go down with the virus after their carol service (and that was with the most rigorous biosecurity measures in place.) I’m afraid at the moment that our duty to protect lives outweighs the advantages that church services may bring to our mental health. I know that this is the view of our Bishops and Archdeacons. However, fortunately for us, God is not locked down. He is not constrained by our inability to meet. And so, we look to him to sustain us once more as we wait for the vaccine rollout. Putting one foot in front of the other, we trust that though the terrain is difficult, our God directs our steps in love. You might like to use this piece of liturgy as part of your spiritual practice. It reminds us that God slogs with us through the wilderness of our experience.

[Leader:] Sometimes we feel like we’re walking through wilderness:
[All:] Jesus, we choose to walk with you.

When our spirits feel dry, help us trust in your Spirit:
Jesus, we choose to walk with you.

Fasting seems difficult, prayers seem unanswered:
Jesus, we choose to walk with you.

The world howls like wild animals all around us:
Jesus, we choose to walk with you.

We can choose to worry, or to trust you to provide:
Jesus, we choose to walk with you.

Temptation is everywhere, doubts can overwhelm us:
Jesus, we choose to walk with you.

You know what it’s like to walk through this desert:
Jesus, we choose to walk with you.

You long to transform us though our worship looks different:
Jesus, we choose to walk with you. Amen.

God bless

Geoff Lanham
7th January 2021

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