Psalms in times of trouble

On day one of a hospice chaplaincy placement I found myself reading psalm 121 to an elderly gentleman. Words that I had only sung in choirs took on a whole new meaning as we all knew that this man was at the end of his life.

This psalm isn’t about God taking all the bad things away but about God being with us in the mess of life. As the situation with Covid 19 gets more serious and we face the reality of grief perhaps the raw emotion of the psalms and their hope is something to turn to in times of trouble.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.

 He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.


Reflection on the Valley of Dried Bones

We are living in unusual times. This is the first Sunday of almost total “lock down”. We have been told to leave our homes only for important shopping, medical needs or if our work is important to the economy and cannot be done from home.

People’s reactions have been mixed including fear, apprehension, “panic” bulk buying, and generosity (over 1/2 million volunteers to help the NHS and social services

This Sunday’s Church of England readings for Holy Communion all have one theme: hope in time of trouble.  On first reading  Ezekiel 37: 1-14 doesn’t look hopeful at all. It is sometimes known as “The Valley of Dry Bones”

Ezekiel lived around 2,600 years ago at a time of tragedy for his people. Their nation had been invaded by an enemy and the people were in exile in the enemy’s land. They felt not just fear and apprehension but also despair. Into this situation God brings hope. God takes Ezekiel in a vision to, “…the middle of a valley; it was full of bones…there were many in the valley and they were very dry.” This was an image of fear, apprehension and despair. Ezekiel’s people were saying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”. In that situation God brought hope. He ordered Ezekiel to “prophesy” to the bones saying, “Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones…I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you and will cover you with skin.” The bones came together and sinews, flesh and skin came on to them, “…but there was no breath in them.” God gives another order to Ezekiel, “’Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath…Come from the four winds, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

The message of the vision was clear. God was bringing hope to people who thought that, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost…”.

Our situation with Covid 19 is very different from that of the people of Ezekiel’s time. But the message of the passage is timeless. Christians believe that God is always the God of hope, as much now as then. We have seen it this week in the work of our key workers and in the clapping on the streets in appreciation of our NHS workers. Perhaps this week when you are feeling as if you are in a valley of bones remember that there is hope. If Ezekiel saw in desperate and unsettling times; perhaps we can also.

God of hope, in these times of change and uncertainty, unite our nation and guide our leaders with your wisdom. Give us courage and generosity as we overcome our fears. Help us to look to a future in which all may prosper and share, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Gareth Lawrence – Reader St Mark’s Church


Prayers for a weekday and Sunday

Some resources for prayer during the day. There are lots of services out there to stream including Radio 4 Morning Worship and Songs of Praise on BBC1 but if you want to try something at home here are some possibilities and I’ll add more as I create or source them.

Daytime Prayer Sunday 29th March 2020

Worship at Home 2020 ST Mark’s trad Lords Prayer

Daily Readings 23rd March to 30 April

Prayer is at the heart of what we do

Tips from an aid worker

This is long but there is a lot of wisdom from Imogen Wall here.

So… my goodness. A couple of days ago, I threw out an off-the-cuff post on aid worker tips for surviving lockdown and quarantine. Today I’ve woken up to find it’s been reshared thousands of times. I’m getting comments from strangers around the world, messages of thanks, even requests to translate it. If you’ll forgive the expression, it appears to have… gone viral. The overwhelming reason it seems to have a struck a chord is that it talked about how we’re all feeling a bit wobbly. It sounds like there are an awful lot of people having reactions they don’t really understand. So today I thought I’d write a short follow up with my mental health first aider/therapist hat on. Ladies and Gents, this is Pandemic Anxiety 101. (NB for those asked for more lockdown tales, I’ll get to those in coming days).

IN CRISES, WE START DOING WEIRD STUFF: Over the last week I have struggled to sleep, stayed up late into the night reading endless news articles, bought pasta I don’t even like very much, got angry with my mum for not staying home. My spelling is a disaster and I’m definitely drinking more. I’ve been a bit teary, and all I really want to eat is cake, cake and more cake. From what I got back from my post yesterday, I’m not alone.

If you’re having a wobble, you may also have noticed all sorts of weird stuff going on. Are you arguing more, talking faster, struggling to sleep, restless, desperate for information? Or are you teary and overwhelmed, perhaps feeling a bit sick? Struggling to make decisions? Just want to stay in bed? Tummy upsets? Having palpitations, butterflies, headaches? Ranting, picking fights or getting into arguments? Laughing unexpectedly or saying random, inappropriate things? Developing Very Strong Opinions on epidemiology overnight? Or have you just completely gone to ground?

If you are feeling any of these things: good news! You are not going mad. And you are 100% not alone. You are, in fact completely normal: a fully emotionally functional human being. Congratulations! Why? I’ll explain: take a seat and put the kettle on.

WE ARE LIVING IN TURBO-ANXIOUS TIMES. Well, no kidding. We’re in the middle of an unprecedented crisis that has showed up unexpectedly (they do that) and which presents a mortal threat to ourselves, our loved ones and our way of life. It’s terrifying and it’s getting worse and it makes us feel totally out of control. And this is on top of anything else we have going on.

HERE’S THE SCIENCE BIT. When we are exposed to threats and need to deal with them, our brain springs into action. Specifically a tiny, innocent-looking thing buried behind your ear called the amygdala (fun fact: it’s the size and shape of an almond). It’s the bit in charge when we are frightened and right now, it’s in full tin-hat klaxon mode. Unfortunately, it’s also very ancient bit of kit. It came into being when threats basically consisted of being eaten by large scary animals like bears. You know that thing about when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail? Well, to the amygdala, everything looks like a bear. It’s also pretty basic, so it really only has two settings. They are no bear  and BEAR!!!.

SETTING: BEAR!!!. Because all threats look like a bear to the amygdala, it preps you accordingly. There are really only two reactions to a bear about to eat you: fight it, or run away really fast. So this is what the body gets you ready to do. It’s called the Fight or Flight response (there’s also freeze, meaning you just get paralysed). It does this by flooding your body with chemicals like cortisol, and adrenaline. Your heart rate goes up, you feel super alert, your breathing goes shallow, your muscles are ready for action. These chemicals are also largely responsible for the huge range of other cognitive/physical/emotional reactions in my intro. In group fear situation like a pandemic, this tends to happen whether you think you’re scared or not – anxiety is even more infectious than COVID. Your body reacts even if your conscious mind doesn’t.

BEAR V VIRUS: Obviously this is all great if you really are running away from a bear. But we’re now in a situation where we’re being asked to do the EXACT OPPOSITE of running away. We are being told to sit tight. Literally stay still. Process large amounts of information, make complicated and life changing decisions, and stay calm. All while a bit of your brain is running around yelling BEAR!!! BEAR!!! BEAR!!! This isn’t easy. The result is an awful lot of stress and anxiety. And if you’re anything like me, you end up feeling really overwhelmed and having all sorts of reactions.

SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS: Anxiety isn’t just mental – it’s also physical, cognitive and behavioural. You will notice all kinds of things: stomach upsets, headaches, insomnia, changes to eating, changes to the way you talk. It’s also cognitive: it’s very difficult to think straight when you’ve got the BEAR!!! BEAR!!! BEAR!!! thing going on – so we also become very bad at making decisions, absorbing information and generally thinking rationally. Which is EXACTLY what we need to do.

SO WHAT TO DO: well, the good news is it is possible to calm down. We can turn the amygdala from BEAR!!! to NO BEAR 😊, and not just by distracting it with cake and tea. Her are some solid, scientifically proven things you can do.

BREATHE. It’s so basic, but breathing exercises are basically magic. They work in minutes and you can do them anywhere. They work because of all the physical reactions the amygdala triggers, rapid breathing is the only one over which we have conscious control. Control your breathing and you are basically telling your body: it’s OK. There is no bear. Your body will then start to dial down the adrenaline and cortisol and all the other reactions will slow to a halt. How to control your breathing? It’s easy – and if you want help just put “two minute breathe bubble” in into Youtube. The golden rules are these:

• In through the nose, out through the mouth. SLOWLY
• Make the outbreath longer than the inbreath – imagine there’s a candle in front of you and it mustn’t go out
• Breathe from the tummy not chest – really make your tummy go out when breathing in.
• Do it for two minutes – time yourself – and see how you feel

Seriously, try it – this technique is used by everyone from top athletes to the US military to help stay in control while under stress. There are all sorts of versions – from yogic breathing to box breathing to 4-7-8. Google them, mess around, figure out what works for you.

CALL A FRIEND: Don’t suffer alone. Call a mate – someone who’ll listen while you have a bit of a rant, or a cry, or a general wobble. Someone you can trust not to judge you and who’ll just sympathise. And if you get one of those calls, just be nice to them. You only need to be kind. You can’t fix what’s going on so just give them a bit of space to rant and tell them they’re normal and doing great. And if you’re OK, call your friends and check in on them. Especially if they’ve gone silent.

LAUGH: it doesn’t matter what is funny – laughter is a huge releaser of endorphins. Silly memes, silly jokes, stand-up, rolling around with your kids – videos on youtube. The sillier the better. Also v good for bonding with friends, which will also help you feel less alone.

DO SOMETHING WITH YOUR HANDS. Yes you can meditate if this is your bag, it’s amazing. But if it’s not, and personally I’m rubbish, then trying to start when you’re already anxious is really hard. So do something instead with your hands, that you have to focus on to get right. Cook. Tidy. Knit. Draw. Bake. Garden. Mend things. This is what nice middle class therapists like me call Mindfulness.

TREAT YOUR BODY: We hold stress in our bodies at least as much as our minds. Take a bath or a shower. Put on things that feel good on your skin. Use nice smelling body creams. Stretch. Skip. Do yoga. Dance. Eat healthy but delicious things – fresh if you can get it. All of these will help calm you down.

SUNSHINE. It’s SPRINGTIME amid this horror – enjoy it. If you can’t go outside, open the windows and feel it on your face and breath it in. If it’s safe for you to go outside (maybe you live in the country) do it, while of course observing social distance. Go for a walk. Being outdoors, connecting to nature, is hugely calming.

STEP AWAY FROM SOCIAL MEDIA/THE NEWS: All it will do will scare you more and make things worse. Turn off the telly and for gods sake avoid the psychopathic digital wild west that is Twitter. Stick to sensible sources like the BBC and the NHS, and limit yourself to short need-to-know bits a day. You’ll feel better immediately. Talk to friends instead – this is physical, not social distancing

STEP AWAY FROM TERRIBLE COPING MECHANISMS: They will all translate as BEAR!! to your poor brain. Especially don’t get drunk, especially if you’re alone (BEAR!!!), take drugs (BEAR!!!), stay up all night reading (BEAR!!!), get sucked into conspiracy theories (BEAR!!!), pay attention to ANYTHING Donald Trump says (BEAR!!!). See? Stress levels going up already. Breathe.

BE KIND: to yourself and others. Now is not the time to go on a diet. Nor is this the time to start on Proust or makeover your life. You’ll probably struggle to concentrate, fail and make yourself feel worse (hat tip Laura Gordon for this bit). Don’t make this more stressful than it already is. Think comfort books, comfort telly, comfort everything. Personally I re-read children’s books. Everyone is wobbly, everyone is going to have a meltdown at some point. Understand that if someone is angry or aggressive, then they are also just scared. And eat more cake. Cake makes everything better.

So, there we go. Hopefully a bit less BEAR!!. Now, that kettle should have boiled by now. Go make a nice cup of tea, sit by a window and drink it in this lovely morning sunshine. We are British after all. And save me some cake .

Sentinels in Time of Trouble

Three years ago St Mark’s launched a group of grandparents.  We came together and saw that in 21st century circumstances, our experience of our own grandparents did not offer effective role-models.  We saw ourselves as the elder generation of our families.  Though sponsored by St Mark’s, we wanted to understand our experience of our relationships with our grandchildren and their parents.  We could not assume that our grandchildren would be receiving a ‘Christian’ upbringing, so we set out to understand our human experiences first.

While we clearly had influence as figures in the patterns of our grandchildren’s family life, the form that took was not under our control.  We did not have formal authority in how parents brought up our grandchildren.  As children grow in today’s IT-savvy world, they acquire knowledge and skills which are beyond the capability of most of us.  Our grandchildren can make us feel impotent.  At times we realised that some of our own less praiseworthy parental practices got thrown back at us:  we have seen ourselves in an unflattering mirror image.  Our own offspring can also make us feel powerless.

St Mark’s Grandparents’ Group has provided a setting in which we share and compare our real experiences.  Learning to be open and frank has helped us understand seemingly overwhelming events in the wider context of whole family lives.   What appeared at first to be dark and irredeemable felt different as we learned to discover the presence of qualities of love, courage, compassion and forgiveness, both in ourselves and offered by other family members.  A major learning has been to banish the need for ‘immediate solutions’ the very idea of which creates powerlessness, masking our life-time’s experience which tells us that while some wounds take time to heal, others lead to a life lived differently.

One key learning, the importance of which we now recognise is ‘the fruits of the Spirit’:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Even apparently threatening experiences can be searched through 360 degrees to discern the presence of these fruits.  Learning to be sentinels scanning the whole field for resources and threats, our group equips us with the boldness to search for those fruits even in the worst scenarios.  We know that there is no need to allow anyone to render us powerless – least of all by inflicting it on ourselves.

As we develop our sentinel skills we become those who can raise the early awareness which enables approaching troubles to be dealt with by finding untapped resources to overcome them.

In today’s covid-19 crisis, we who are labelled the ‘vulnerable’ may actually possess a rich store from darker times when we drew on the fruits of the Spirit but we knew it not.  By supporting one another in reflecting honestly about ourselves, we can come through storms, though the shore we land on may not be one with which we are familiar.

John Bazalgette

Not the normal Mother’s Day

Today isn’t the Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday many of us were expecting. My family were planning a big tea party but now we are in our different homes in different parts of the country and unable to meet. We will get together online and on the phone but getting used to the new normal is hard because it is all so new.

In not too distant past children living in service would see their mothers just a few times a year and Mothering Sunday was one of those days when they would go back home, pick some flowers along the way and maybe take a cake that the cook had baked for them. It was their normal.

The reading from Luke’s gospel (Luke 2.33-35) that was set for today reminds us that in caring for family and by extension, caring for anyone has the possibility of pain. Simeon the old man in the temple says to Mary that Jesus will do great things but ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ Simeon is being prophetic and these words may have come back to Mary as she saw her beloved son leave the family business and gradually come to the attention of the religious authorities as he preached and healed people in their home town and beyond. Mary was there when her son was put to death on the cross.

Mary’s story is one of sadness and loss but it is also a story of hope. In these days leading up to Easter we are reminded that life is not always easy. This year with the growing fear and anxiety about the corona virus and the challenges of staying indoors for the next few months we do know that life is going to have challenges.

But there is hope.

In the Christian story Easter is a time of despair and loss as Jesus is killed and all hope is lost. But that is not the end of the story. On Easter day comes the resurrection and all is made new.

We are living through difficult times. It is not Easter Day yet. But we know it is coming. It is always darkest before dawn and sometimes the dawn seems to be long time coming but it will come.

Normal is only temporary.

In the meantime, practice kindness. This poem ‘Lockdown’ has gone viral. It was written by a Franciscan Monk in Ireland earlier in the week.. So let’s practice kindness and notice the birds singing. Maybe try singing ourselves.

Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
You can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
The sky is no longer thick with fumes
But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know
is busy spreading fliers with her number
through the neighbourhood
So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
To Love.
So we pray and we remember that
Yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul
Yes there is even death.
But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Today, breathe.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic
The birds are singing again
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
to touch across the empty square,
Richard Hendrick March 13th 2020

C-19 13th March 2020

Our church service will happen as normal on Sunday at 10am. We will have hand gel so that everyone can clean their hands as they come in the building. We are following advice from the government and the Church of England and during the current C19 phase we will not share the peace with a handshake. We used a namaste greeting last week and it worked well. Communion is in one form only. Our midweek Wednesday morning service is suspended for the moment and Deer Park View Care home have asked us not to go in at this time. It is a very fluid situation and we need to keep reviewing the situation and keep talking.