The world around us has learned to respond to suffering and pain and difficulty. The temptation is to numb negative emotion, to overlay it, to disguise it through shopping or social media or food or alcohol or other addictive behaviours. We numb. In normal times that can set in motion slow but destructive cycles of behaviour in our lives. We keep afloat but only just. But in times of crisis and difficulty, it is not enough to numb. The pain around us overwhelms our defences. Something much deeper is needed…

The quotation from Brene Brown in this episode is taken from her TED talk The Power of Vulnerability. Watch it here.

Photo: Shutterstock

Welcome back to a new series of podcasts for the autumn: comfortable words.

The title is taken from the opening verses of Isaiah 40-55 (and also for a well-known part of the Prayer Book liturgy for Holy Communion). Each episode will begin from a passage of scripture taken from this part of the Book of Isaiah which begins with the unknown prophet’s call:

“Comfort, O comfort my people says your God
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her….”

The focus of the songs in Isaiah 40-55 is helping God’s people to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. I hope and pray the podcasts will be helpful to the Church across the Diocese of Oxford and more widely as we find our voice again in the midst of the pandemic.

I’ve listened to three songs as I’ve prepared the podcast this week.

The first is the opening section of Handel’s Messiah, which sets this passage to music. The second is Prepare ye the way of the Lord from the musical Godspell, and the third is Emilie Sande’s brilliant live performance of Our Version of Events III at the close of the 2012 Olympic games, heard briefly at the beginning and end of this episode.

Image: Shutterstock. The short music clip is taken from a live recording, here on YouTube

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, Rejoice.
Reflections for a Church in Lockdown

Finally my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me and for you it is a safeguard.

‘Don’t you realise, Paul, how tired we are now? How much we’ve faced over the last few months? Has no-one told you about the closure of our churches, about the fear gripping the world, about the recession and the mental health crisis, about the risks of infection? Has no-one told you that we are not even able to sing? This is your message for us in the midst of a pandemic?…’

In this, the final episode of series 4, Bishop Steven explores how to live out this extraordinary command to rejoice.

Questions for discussion from Philippians 4:

  1. Read back through the letter and highlight the many different references to joy and rejoicing. What are the obstacles to joy which Paul confronts?
  2. Look back over the last four to six months of the COVID pandemic. Where have you found joy even in the midst of trials and difficulty.
  3. Write a prayer or a psalm along the lines of Habbakuk 3 describing the call to rejoice despite outward circumstances.
  4. How has the experience of lockdown changed your life and your discipleship? What lessons are you taking into the future?

Image: Shutterstock. The short music clip is taken from an exquisite live recording of ‘Ode to Joy’, here on YouTube

Finding strength from the centre
Reflections for a Church in Lockdown

We come to Chapter 3 of Philippians and Paul takes us deeper still in this lockdown journey: to the very core of his inner strength and resilience, to the convictions and the revelation which have shaped his life. He is helping us to travel back to the centre, to find strength again and to understand what gives him the power to run.

Questions for discussion from Philippians 3:

  1. What does the autumn season look like for you and how will this impact your energy and discipleship?
  2. Where have you found strength over the last few months? Where are you finding space to regroup and recharge?
  3. Paul’s relationship with Christ is at the very centre of his life and values. How can we help each other to draw such strength from the gospel?
  4. What are the spiritual dangers and temptations facing your own church community at the present time? Are there any similarities to Philippi? How can you counter them?

How to face enormous problems
Reflections for a Church in Lockdown

The more I’ve read Philippians over the last few weeks, the more I’m seeing it through the lens of anxiety. The Church in Philippi is a fearful and anxious church: a small community in a hostile and difficult place, worried for their own future, concerned for Paul, who taught them their faith and concerned for their future. Paul does everything he can in his letter to calm this anxiety, but he offers them something much more important than an answer…

Questions for discussion from Philippians 2:

  1. What are the significant choices which face your own parish and benefice around the re-opening of churches for physical worship? How likely is it that there will be conflict?
  2. Read carefully the encouragement to unity and to humility. How best can you take notice of this appeal and this lesson for your local church?
  3. This episode mentions three key questions for humanity in the next decade: the environment; equality and diversity questions and living well with technology. How will an understanding of Christ as God taking human form help to address these issues?
  4. What are the ways in which you have learned humility and seek to live your life after the pattern of Christ?

Living is Christ and dying is gain
Reflections for a Church in Lockdown

Almost two thousand years ago, a man we know as Paul sat down in his prison cell and wrote a short letter to his friends in a place called Philippi. He is writing to say thank you for their love and support. He is writing to encourage them. He is writing most of all because he can’t be there to support them. Paul is in lockdown…

Questions for discussion from Philippians 1:

1. How do you practice the discipline and joy of thanksgiving in your daily life and prayers? How might you grow in this discipline?

2. What have you missed about a regular sharing in the Eucharist during the period of lockdown? What have you learned from this season?

3. How have your values changed and shifted during lockdown? How have you travelled more deeply into Christ?

4. What are the issues facing people in the place where you live? How are the Christians called to be active, engaged citizens for the sake of the kingdom?

 Image: Susanne Jutzeler, suju-foto used under a creative commons licence.

The River of Life
Reflections for a Church in Lockdown

Welcome to Episode 10. If you listened last week you might be expecting me to begin a new series of reflections on Philippians. I’ve allowed myself to linger for one more week in the Old Testament as we look forward and begin to rebuild.

“Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there water was flowing from below the threshold of the east and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. Then he brought me out by way of the north gate and led me round on the outside of the outer gate that faces towards the east; and the water was coming out on the south side”.
– Ezekiel 47

Bishop Steven refers to this episode in a letter to the Diocese, which is available to read here.

Image: Shutterstock 4273713

A more Christ like Church for the sake of God’s world
A Presidential Address to the Diocesan Synod

Welcome to Episode 9 of this podcast series, Reflections for a Church in Lockdown. Over the last 8 weeks I’ve offered a reflection each week for the Church in the pandemic based on Psalms 1-8. Thanks for listening. If you missed them, they are all available online.

Today’s episode is different. We’ve come to a particular place now in our journey through COVID 19. The lockdown is easing. This week we opened many of our churches for private prayer. I hope it will not be long before we can begin to meet again. So this is a good time to look back but also to begin to look forward.

The journey of recovery will be slower than our journey into lockdown. Life is not going to be a quick return to the old normal, but rather a new living with the virus, certainly for the rest of this year and through next year. Lockdown has been difficult but has also brought new insights, opportunities and priorities to the surface. Part of being a contemplative church will be to reflect carefully on lessons learned and next steps.

We are therefore offering a new tool, loosely framed by the Anglican Five Marks of Mission, to aid reflection, to discern prayerfully, and to plan strategically the shape of the mission of the Church in each of our contexts.

The tool invites you to look at each mark of mission and reflect on what has been lost through the pandemic which we need to grieve, what has been reduced that we need to let go of, what has been reduced that we need to build up again, what has emerged that we need to respond to. We recognise that Church will need to change. But that change will emerge in a thousand different ways as locally we pay careful attention to the Spirit and as we hold onto our core values of being contemplative, compassionate and courageous after the pattern of Christ.

You can download and print out the tool here on the Diocesan website: 

What are human beings that you are mindful of them?
Reflections for a Church in Lockdown

“Personally in reflecting on the events of the last several days, a verse from the Psalms comes to mind for me: “When I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained, what is man that thou art mindful of him.”

The person speaking at the start of this episode is the astronaut Buzz Aldrin, part of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 and the second man to walk on the surface of the moon. His words came towards the end of the Apollo mission, as a reflection back on the journey from earth to the moon, the flight down to the moon’s surface and the safe passage back to the command module. According to Aldrin, Psalm 8 helped inspire his colleague Neil Armstrong’s words as he stepped onto the moon’s surface: one small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind. The two astronauts placed a capsule in the lunar dust. Inside the capsule is the text of Psalm 8: ‘O Lord our governor, how glorious is your name in all the world.’

COVID-19 is terrible: the pandemic has taken lives and robbed people of loved ones and has threatened our way of life for a time. We are still in the middle of it. But if Psalm 8 gives us a perspective on human life, it is that this pandemic is not the greatest challenge of our generation…


God is a righteous judge
Reflections for a Church in Lockdown

The coronavirus pandemic has led the news bulletins every single day from mid March. But on 31st May, a different – though related – story at last broke through. Six days earlier an African American man named George Floyd was arrested by police. Tragically, George died in police custody. At the heart of the riots that have followed is a cry – a cry for justice. We need to remember as a society our deep instincts of fairness and goodness and justice. Psalm 7 is a very good place to begin and it is a prayer for help.

The music at the start of this episode is taken from a recording of ‘O Lord My God, In Thee Have I Put My Trust’ available on YouTube and also to stream on Spotify.

Photo: Steven Buckley