Beyond Bizarre

We are going to need some new words. Bizarre is no longer strong enough and insanity and madness barely get to the mark. Once we have heard the craziest pronouncement from a government official another one comes along to top even that, when we hardly thought it possible. The theatrical antics on display daily in these strange scenes at the tri-podium draped with a surreal strapline, the minister flanked by their advisors, the chiefs of staff from the twin pillars of science and medicine, with the meek media dutifully waiting their turn to pose an innocuous question, have a strange comic element to them. It is really hard to take seriously. These people must be having a laugh. But it doesn’t seem they are.  Yet you wonder why they would put them themselves through this trial each day. In the age of twitter, it seems hardly necessary. I particularly feel for Scotland’s First minister who seldom seems to be able to trust a depute for the task. Perhaps it gives extra kudos and gravitas to the words being said. Perhaps it carries a level of sobriety to the situation in the hope that the public get the message. But the trouble is with all these things the effect quickly wears off and people can get pretty bored with the figures, the predictable pattern and the school teachery scolding.

One of the weirdest things is the way that Ministers are so suddenly involved in the detail and minutia of our lives. If someone told you this would happen a year ago, you would not believe them. So many activities are now being micro managed, whether its to do with care homes or protective gear of what we can do and where and when and how. So much is now about our personal lives and behaviour. We have, for example, the repeated mantra about handwashing. Goodness me, we have been reminded so often, since we were little, that we should always wash our hands. It was on every sign in a public toilet “Now wash your hands”. We have been told that our hands are the dirtiest part for our bodies and that it is the most important thing in food hygiene. We’ve known that for years, still, it now needs the government, of all people, to tell us, dirty beggars that we are.

And then we have the quite bizarre advice at a recent briefing that our trips should factor in when we might need to stop for the toilet and the even more bizarre advice for couples living separately, when they could meet up for intimate relations. It makes you realise ‘Gosh, they think we are children’ and they say that they want to treat us like adults! Well I suppose that figures. It’s what we say to children – “Now I want to treat like adults”.

The quite unnecessary and over the top intrusion into personal behaviour follows the intrusion into other aspects of public life and work. Two specific areas where I have involvement, the building industry and the church, demonstrate this so well.

THE BUILDING INDUSTRY

The closure of all building sites by the Scottish Government will, I am sure, turn out to be a monumental disaster for an industry that has never really been all that well organised. Yet I wonder if those who advised on the decision have any clue about what goes on in a building site. Most work is out of doors where the possibility of contacting a virus is almost non-existent. Even when the work is indoors the area is seldom sealed. It is most often open to the elements, with air constantly moving and not the environment favoured by viruses. The real dangers are dust and fumes, falling from heights, electrocution and machinery, the later three which account for the majority of accidents on site. In addition, building contractors have strict controls on health and safety and this is one of the reasons why accidents and deaths have been drastically reduced in the past decades. And, there are trade unions who keep a keen watch on the health conditions of workers. Managers of building sites are then perfectly able to act responsibly and deal sensibly with a crisis of this kind. But no, it needs big government to step in and tell them to close and what they have to do when they re-open.

THE CHURCH

It’s the same with churches. Many congregations had already put in place sensible precautions and some had cancelled services well before the lock-down was announced.  But instead of allowing responsible church administrators to make their own judgements about what action to take, the government had to come in, close the churches and will only allow them to re-opened if certain conditions are met and when “it is safe to do so”.  In this crazy new world, it is the government, apparently, who are the arbiters of what is and what isn’t safe. The guidelines themselves, make a mockery of what a church is and what it means to come together to worship God. As with building sites, I suspect that those who have made these decisions have no idea what goes on in a church building. 

Thinking through and trying to picture what a phase three “Covid compliant” opening would look like, makes us realise that it will be almost farcical. Some measures are, of course, quite sensible and actions that any responsible organisations would take: such as a high level of regular cleaning of surfaces and hand sanitisers at entrances, but others would be quite disproportionate.  Take “Social distancing”, as an example, that creepy Orwellian phrase designed to make quarantine sound palatable.  If we hold strictly to this policy, it will cut into just about everything we do and almost every aspect of how we function as a local congregation. It does violence to the whole idea of coming together. There has been suggestion that singing, which increase aerosol range, should be banned and musical instruments too, especially brass and woodwind.  Hymnbooks, bibles, psalteries and all books and leaflets would be removed and tea, coffee and mingling quite out of the question. Have we really grasped what this would mean? How can you welcome a visitor across a strict two metre divide? How can you carry out any meaningful pastoral conversation with that invisible chasm between you and the person? How can you really relate, show sympathy, concern, support or effectively listen from behind a mask? How can you build trust when the overriding message is one of fear and mistrust?  It just doesn’t work. All the important things we intuitively learn from body language, all the small movements that tell us so much, the posture, the movement of the hands and  eye as well as our own attempts to comfort and encourage with the holding of a hand or touching of a shoulder, all of this will be lost.

If it is still our intention to maintain a liberal democracy and cherish freedom then it really is time that  government be told, politely but firmly, to stay out of our lives. How we manage our own affairs, how we conduct our lives is none of their business. It is surely also time for business and organisations, churches, schools, clubs and societies to to step up to the plate and remind the government that they have been doing this for some time now, that they do care and that they do know what they are doing. It is time to say “Gives us a break – stick to your job and we will stick to ours.”

Crawford Mackenzie

Pride is their necklace

(Psalm 73:6)

Pride is the real killer that’s for sure/While Lust, Greed, Envy, Malice, Rage and Bitterness all play their part/And just as surely drag us all the way to hell/Pride does it with far greater efficiency/In time/Lust’s fire will burn out/Greed will sicken itself/Envy will poison its own soul/Malice and Rage and Bitterness will flap their wings/But in the end they will exhaust themselves/Pride stays

Pride won’t let go/Like encrusted food on the fork/defying the scorching spray of the dishwasher/Like greasy film on the cooker hood/that no Fairy can remove/Like body fat scum on the shower tiles/that laughs and laughs at Domestos/Like the chameleon virus/deftly dancing on the edge of our antibiotic shield/Pride sticks

Pride conceals itself/It lies for years undetected/It changes shape and style with every new revelation/It hides in the cloak of religious zeal/It slinks behind a mask of goodness and good intentions/It has no colour, sound or smell

But pride stinks/Like a bloated fish on the foreshore/Like undiscovered rubbish in the bag where maggots gather/Like boiling bones when the pot burns dry/Like putrefying flesh after the massacre

Pride is only defined in the negative/It is what humility is not/Humility is/The sweet fragrance that rises from a life at peace with God/It fills the room and touches all around/It softens the hard heart and brakes the spells of years/It makes the ugly beautiful/It joins the broken bits together once again/It surprises with joy and healing and beauty

It is the loveliness we have only seen/In just one person/The only One/Who though he was God/Didn’t hold on/But let go/Came down/Became a slave like one of us/And made himself humble/Humble to death

And….Pride’s days are numbered

THE NEW NIGHTMARE

Yesterday the Scottish Government produced its route map out of the Coronavirus “Lock-down”.  The message was clear. There is light at the end of the tunnel, we will meet again, but we don’t know when. You will get your freedom back, the freedom we have taken from you,  the freedom to associate, to work, to trade, to congregate, to socialise, to worship, to play, to travel, to welcome strangers, to visit and embrace your family and your loved ones. You will get that back, but only when we decide the time is right. Only when “The Science” tells us it safe to do so. And just in case you become too relaxed about it, if things change, we can reverse things at any point. So be warned.

From the beginning I felt that the prison term “lock-down” had more than a little resonance to the situation we were in. I think I have been right about that. Now we know that before being fully released we will be effectively be in an open prison, allowed out in stages, on day release, where we will be given some freedoms to demonstrate that we can use these responsibly. Once we have proved we can, we will be given more until we have full freedom, but even then, we will still be out on licence and liable to be brought back in at any moment. Too many Portobello incidents, and we will all be back in “lock-down”. That has been clear.

It is really hard to believe that all this is happening. But it is. It is really hard to believe that almost all good people have accepted it with barely a whimper of protest or question. But they have. It is hard to believe that the shaky models, the selected statistics, the loaded graphs, the unequal comparisons as well as that mysterious “R” number have been given such an uncritically free ride. The merest scratch would have shown that the case for the “lock-down” was and is based on the shakiest of foundations and would not withstand any serous intellectual challenge by people who know. Do you think that the government and all their advisers together could hold their case in an open debate with the likes of Jonathan Sumption, David Starkey, Lionel Shriver or Peter Hitchens? No neither do I.

It is unlikely that the politicians and their advisers will have the courage to admit that they made a mistake, an error of judgement, and even in a future enquiry they are likely to shield behind a Nike defence that it was “Right at that time” It is also unlikely that the general population, we who have invested so much in this sacrifice, will want to believe they have been fooled. But I think we have.

What truly scares me is the legacy of the “lock-down” which may survive for a long time after the whole thing has passed by and forgotten like any other seven-day wonder. We can see that legacy already being introduced into the “New Normal” with the continuation of that cruel and inhumane policy of “Social distancing”. Nicole Sturgeon said that Scotland should “take care not to slip back into old and bad ways of doing things”. She didn’t say what the bad ways were. Maybe it was just the filthy habit of not washing hands, or careless sneezing or spitting but I suspect she was hinting at a new normal where social distancing becomes the norm, where the fear of infection eclipses everything else, where we see every stranger as a possible carrier of a deadly disease, and we withdraw into our own bubbles, avoid embracing, touching, reaching out, offering handshakes or any form of physical expression of welcome or concern or comfort to others.

Welcome to the New Nightmare.    

DON’T STAY HOME

Our 80+ year old friend dropped a bag of compost round at our door this morning. We were able to catch her before she was off on her brisk daily walk. She is one of those exceptional octogenarians who has such an enormous energy for life and spends most of her days caring for others, people much younger than herself. She also spends her days in prayer. She wouldn’t stay at home. She told me of a couple she cares for whose family forbad them to go out. “But there is no one to forbid me “ she said with a smile.

From the start “Stay Home” really irritated me. I think it now makes me feel angry. I hated it at first because I hate being told what to do and I groaned each time I saw it. But it was much more than a personal annoyance. It seemed wrong. It seemed a bad idea all together. The more we learn and the more that is revealed, the more I am convinced that it was a thoroughly bad idea.

Reading a report this morning of studies done on the progress of the virus by The University of Maryland, Anglia Ruskin University, the University of Oxford amongst others, made it obvious. Sarah Knapton brought together a few strands of science which, in many ways turn out to be little more than common sense. It was what doctors knew long ago, that the sun was a healer, that getting out into the fresh air and wind, sleeping with the window open and exercise all supported your immune system and helped you to recover from illness. Viruses on the other hand fester in crowded spaces, in air conditioned rooms and ducts, behind closed doors, shut windows and pulled blinds.   

“Stay Home” was balmy.

But I now fear it was worse that that. It was created without any thought of what it would mean. “Stay Home” is fine depending on what home is. It is fine if your home has room and you are not crowded, you live in harmony with your house mates, you have a garden and easy access to open space and can enjoy the new stillness, watch the plants grow and listen to the birds singing. It’s not, if your home is a flat on the thirteenth floor, crammed with difficult house mates who don’t get on, not to mention those partial to abuse, with little light or fresh air and no access to any outdoor space far less one with grass or trees or birds or wild life.  And when the bold did venture out there was the police to send them back in. Compelling people, without thought, to lock themselves in for weeks on end like this is a shocking and cruel thing to do and no one should be surprised when it turns out that Coronavirus has had its worst impact in poorer urban areas.

It was the worst possible advice.

The Feeling of Doom

Before we were grounded, I used to meet up with a couple of other guys every Monday morning early, to spend an hour praying together. We could have continued that digitally but it was not something I wanted to do and for me it came to a natural end. But, while it lasted, it was special and the perfect start to the working week. Before we prayed, we would chat about things that were on our mind, things across the world, events in the news, local situations as well as our own personal concerns and worries. It takes time to build up a level of trust but when that trust is won it is astonishing how easy it is to share often quite intimate things. Sometime last year, when asked what was on my mind, I spoke about a deep unease I had, a sense of foreboding and premonition that something big was coming that would shake us to the core, that would undermine all the things we relied on, the things we felt secure about and we were just not prepared for it. When it came to Coronavirus, one of the guys reminded me of that morning and said “Remember what you said? …Well this is it”.  The trouble is I am not convinced that “This is it” nor do I think that when the virus has past, that the crisis will be over. It has probably just begun and I find I “can’t shake this feeling of doom”.The line is from Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Age of miracles”

“We can fly through space with the greatest of ease
  We can land in the dust of the moon
  We can transform our lives with the tap of a key
  Still we can’t shake this feeling of doom”

It is not of course, about me. In many ways this period suits me to the ground. I like staying at home and have no particular desire strange places to see. I like my own space and my own time to plan out my day. I like pluttering about doing small jobs, tidying up, cleaning, the odd sketch, working away on tunes on the guitar, learning Arabic, trying to make something creative with the left over vegetables in the cooler tray, sitting on the bench reading till the sun slips over the roofs and writing the odd letter. I can hardly complain. My depravations: not being able to work, to see my family, to play football, to go for a swim, to join in worship or share with my church family, except in two-dimensional, pixelated boxes, are nothing. Compared to what others have to suffer it doesn’t register on the scale.

No, it is not about me. And it is not about the worry over my children, my grandchildren or my family and those I Iove and care for. It is not worry over what they may have to face in a future unlike the one I have known. They will have the resources to survive and prosper, of that I am sure. They will know better than me. I have entrusted them into God’s care and know they are secure in his hands. I have complete peace about it.

No, it is the sense that you can see a terrible disaster unfolding before your eyes and you watch helpless and unable to do anything about it. And that terrible disaster is not the dreaded virus itself but what will come from the fear and suspicion that has been sown and the panicked suspension of the very lubrication that makes our society function. When an engine has ceased up for lack of oil it is no easy matter to get it to turn again, as our leaders are finding out. Once you sow fears in the population they grow and become extraordinarily difficult to root out. Once you tell people to stay at home to save lives it’s hard to turn round and tell them to get back to work, this time to save them from starving.

Now, I know that this extraordinary measure is only meant to be a temporary one, but temporary has a nasty habit of lasting a long time. It has already been extended twice beyond the original timescale and this gives me the jitters. It is likely to be extended again. Now it is over the anxiety of a second peak, but it could be for a third or a fourth. My confidence in those running the show, which was already pretty shaky, has taken a severe battering, especially when we discover that some clearly didn’t even believe in the anti-social policy, they were promoting, themselves. I think we are in danger of killing something it might be impossible to resuscitate. In Joni Mitchell’s words, “We won’t know what we’ve lost till it’s gone”. Without realising it, it could be gone with the wind.

That is what brings me the feeling of doom, that I cannot shake. But it is a feeling and it is not what I know. What I know is hope. A hope not in politicians, nor national institutions, nor in the church, nor in people nor in humanity itself, but in God.   And that’s what keeps me sane.

1968

1968 was a momentous year. I was a student and, in the summer break, working in a cheese factory close to our home on a west coast island. There were milk deliveries each day so the factory worked a seven-day week. After seven full days working, you had a day off. So on the morning of August 21st, my long lie was abruptly disturbed by my father at the bottom of the stairs shouting up to all those still in bed  “Russia has invaded Czechoslovakia”.  The news sent shock waves through my body. There is something about hearing the news of some dramatic event by word of mouth that carries a dramatic tension missing from news you hear over the wires.  When you get around to reading it in the paper or watching it on TV, When Kate Adie or John Simpson get to the scene, you know it’s under control and you can relax. It probably won’t affect me. Normal transmission can be resumed.

1968 was historic, at least in my memory, and not just because it was the year when I first asked a girl out. There was Martin Luther King’s assassination in April and Robert Kennedy’s in November. There was Vietnam, which was on the screen every night, the Tet offensive and the protests in Grosvenor square. There was the massacre at My Lai, though we didn’t hear about that till much later.  There was Apollo 8 and the Beatles white album played over and over in our studio at college. There was Enoch Powell referencing the Tigris and the black panther athletes with their black gloved salutes and then there was the Prague spring which gave its name to every spring after and brutally turned into winter with guns and tanks.

One of the major events during that year, which moved into the next, was Hong Kong Flu pandemic, which accounted for over a million deaths worldwide. In the UK 80,000 people are reported to have died from it yet, strangely, interested in all the other world events, as I was at the time, I have no memory of it. I don’t remember it being talked about or on the news. There was no shut downs or masks or mass testing or tracing as far as I was aware. It must have been just one of these things that a nation and its people live with. I do wonder if there was a lock-down, a policy of inverted quarantine adopted then, if it would have made any difference, in the same way that I wonder if this lock-down has or will.  I really doubt it has. True the spread of infection will have been slowed down. That makes sense. But like the dams we tried to build on the burn, when we were little, they only slowed the water for a little while. It was fun but it didn’t work. You can’t stop the waves with sheer will power that’s for sure. King Canute knew that.

Being an Adult

It was encouraging to hear our First Minister say that she wanted to treat the people in Scotland like adults and start a conversation. It makes sense, though how you have a conversation with 5 million people I am not sure. But the invitation is there and if we have any interest, any ideas, any vision of how things should turn out, we should certainly take it.

I remember several years ago being involved with a youth advisory group that was based in our local Secondary School. It included teaching staff, social workers, the police and community Councillors. I was there representing the chaplaincy team. It took me a while to get a hang of what was going on but eventually I got it.The problem was that the youth lacked information and were therefore unable to make informed choices. So the solution was straight forward. We would carry out a consultation among all the pupils to establish what they needed and on that basis set up an information centre with others in the town centre that would be open and exclusive to young people. I remember one meeting particularly. I had the opportunity to speak and raised the question that maybe the best help we could give young people was to help them to become adults. I remember it, because it was met with stony silence and after a pause the discussion went on where it left off as if I was invisible. My heart just wasn’t in the project and I didn’t last long. I was humoured, however, and given the opportunity to lead a small group of senior pupils to talk about what it meant to be an adult. It was great but it didn’t last long. 

It occurred to me afterwards that the maybe the advisory group didn’t want to think about the children becoming adults. Maybe they wanted them to stay as youths the way some parents don’t want their offspring to grow up and no longer become dependant on them. I can see that when you are a parent or a teacher or a youth leader or a counsellor or a pastor or even a politician, the seduction of keeping people dependant upon you, can be quite intoxicating.  But it is deadly for you and them. Whoever they are: children, or pupils, or patients, or clients, they are not yours and the prime motivation must always be to lead them to the place where they don’t need you anymore. But it is hard, when your instincts are to sort things out, to engineer relationships, to fix things and you think you are the one to do it.

So it is right that our First Minister treats the people of Scotland as adults, for that is what we are. And I think it is time to abandon the mandatory top down regulated “lock-down” with its prison connotations and allow people to take responsibility for how they organise their own lives.  People understand the issues. These have been made very clear. All the news networks and media have been saturated with it for weeks. Everywhere you go there are signs and reminders. People are fully coignisant with the danger to themselves and others and people are able and adult enough to make their own decisions. People generally have common sense and the resources to navigate a way through these times.  Headteachers have the wisdom and expertise to decide how to reopen schools and the same would apply to other institutions, colleges, churches, libraries, parks etc etc. Supermarkets have proved that they have been able to do this now, so every organisation can and should be allowed to, without mandate from above. 

There will always be those who will act recklessly and who endanger themselves and others. This minority is always with us. Any amount of enforced clampdown will never completely stop them and only serve to alienate those who act with common sense and respect.  That is why I do think this is the time to change the tone, respect the dignity of the people of Scotland, allow them to take responsibility for the organising of their own lives and declare this unprecedented period of restriction over.

I have feeling it is not going to happen, still it helps me get it off my chest and that’s maybe what being an adult is about.

The Two Macmillans

In strange disorientating times when fear and social suspicions take root, when we are trapped, grounded and demobilised with no clear idea of where the end will be or what it will lead to, there are many strategies for coping.  A friend reminded me that those incarcerated in prisoner face a level of deprivation that puts our restricted life into the shade and we could learn from them. It has also been pointed out to me that these times of unusual privation often produce great creativity. This includes scientific advancement, special illumination and works of strategic significance. This should not surprise us, after all so much of what we know as the New Testament was written from prison and some of the most valued works of Christian literature too. I have just finished reading Franz Jagerstater’s “letters and writings from Prison” and it is full of astonishing light and inspirational hope.

So it is perhaps a time when artists, poets and musicians have a special role to play.

 Artists do have many roles. One is to shine a light into falsehood and hypocrisy and challenge evil where it is found. One may be to explore and see things beyond the visible and another may simply be to entertain and charm.  One of the roles I look for in in an artist is the challenge to look up. To see beyond our own self-absorbed existence to a greater reality. It is essentially a spiritual issue. Finding artists who fulfil that role in contemporary society is not always easy. I have written in the past of my experience at college degree shows and my dismay at so much of contemporary art. https://crawfordmackenzie.net/a-death-affirming-experience/, But there are two figures, which stand out for me. They are the two Macmillans. Sir James Macmillan the composer and Robert Macmillan the painter.  

James Macmillan is well known in Scotland and throughout the world. You get a lovely personal introduction to the man in his interview with Giles Fraser on Confessions https://soundcloud.com/unherd-confessions/confessions-with-sir-james-macmillan. I have yet to truly explore his work. It will take time. He has said that listening to music requires a sacrifice and that is true. But it is one that brings great rewards. The piece that I have focused on, have listened to many times, and never tire of, is his choral work “Miserere” It takes David’s penitential Psalm 51 in Latin and draws us in  an astonishing journey through a range of choral languages from classical motifs, plain song to a very distinct Scottish feel in the final section when, as if finally reaching the summit, the piece breaks into the major key. It is when you get to that part, you realise you have tasted something great.  It is recorded by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen  (Coro: COR16096) but you can also hear it on youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=st2E_uhy5Mo,with a car-back firing in the earlier section.

Robert Macmillan is a relatively young artist who survived the art school experience with his faith in his work intact and continues to paint in oils. His doggedness and commitment moved me when I visited him in his studio some years ago. So much of his work reminds me of Rembrandt and Turner in their continual struggling and searching after light. His figures have a wonderful mysterious quality, caught in space and time but looking somewhere else and his landscapes are exphansive and deep, nudging and drawing you in and saying “there is more than this ”.  I am privileged to have one of his works in our home. It hangs on a wall at the foot of the stairs and brings me enormous joy every time I see it.

With these two, I can just about cope with house arrest.

“You don’t need to die alone”

It’s another stunningly beautiful day, a clear blue sky and the river widening and lazily heading seaward. It is a day to cheer the spirits, but it is clouded with a heavy weight of sadness hearing this morning of the passing of Dominic Smart, one of the most significant and principled theologians in Scotland this century. I couldn’t say that I knew him well, we corresponded from time to time, but I often devoured what he wrote in books and especially in letters to his own congregation in Aberdeen. I was always often deeply, moved, challenged and lifted when I had the opportunity of hearing him preach. He had a special gift of bringing the timeless message of the Bible into the here and now and he, more than any other, saw the significance of Post Modernism and the loss of the meta narrative.

The special memory that I have and the one that I will hold on to, was when he took the funeral service of his brother in law after his tragic death some seven years ago. I had never heard the gospel message explained/proclaimed/commended so clearly, so tenderly, so passionately, so winsomely before. It was, of course, a tribute but it seemed like a sermon and I thought, as I mentioned to him afterwards, if he was only to preach one sermon, that would be it. It could only be the most indifferent, the most stubborn, and the most icy heart that would not be melted by the grace and love and beauty of Jesus present throughout the whole service.

The fact that this message came out of a very dark and bitterly sad situation, with no attempt to sweeten the pill or cover over the pain but bluntly and courageously facing the un-adulterated truth  straight on, with a steady eye, was, in itself, remarkable, and demonstrated amazing and, no doubt, costly courage. 

The words meant so much and I recall them as clear as day: in the Good News contrasting with the bad news and its hopeless message –“try harder….to a bird with broken wings – flap harder” , the throwaway line “This Jesus, who forgives sinners rather than feebly turning a blind eye” the laying bare of the shallowness of our understanding of what goes on in someone’s mind, when the family were encouraging him to believe it was getting better and he knew it wasn’t –  “he was right all along – and we were wrong”,  and the tender love and comfort in the lines..” and when there was no hope, still underneath him were the everlasting arms”.  At the end of the sermon was the final gentle but firm appeal “It took them some time to find the body but he didn’t die alone and you don’t need to die alone”.

I was moved afterwards to take the words from Deuteronomy and write a song. You can hear it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4FXdR6-D98&feature=youtube_gdata

Let us go

Walking through the park in the beautiful yet eerie stillness of the morning, the words to Psalm 122 come to mind. I know them off by heart and recite them to myself. I also know them in the 1620  metrical form. We sang it as children to the 18c tune St Paul  with the almost clumsy double note at the end of the line in the second verse, to cope with the extra syllable. I remember singing it on one summer Sunday morning  on the Isle of Muck. We had travelled earlier in a launch from our home in the nearby island of Eigg and scrambled over the slippy rocks to be treated to tea and fresh scones before making our way up to the school building. Through the tall windows behind the make shift pulpit, some sheep had left off their grazing to stare at the strange creatures standing inside singing. Somehow the relevance of the psalm, with the tribes gathering in Jerusalem and the houses packed together, so far away in space and time was quite lost on me. But today they have a special resonance.

The Psalm moves beautifully and quickly from the first person to the second to the third and then to the destination the home of the King. “I was glad when they said to me let us go to the house of the Lord”. It is full of movement in a single direction, a going up, a coming together, a closeness, a sense of belonging, and a sense of security, prosperity and of peace. You know that the Psalm writer is not describing something ephemeral, virtual or abstract. He is not talking about an idea, but an actual physical event and the joy that the invitation gives him.

Deprived of that special blessing, meeting each week together in church, I feel the loss so keenly today. This absence makes the heart go much more than a little bit fonder and the virtual replacements only make the longing for the reality that bit more intense.  We have a weekly digital service and a sermon from one of the finest young preachers I know and afterwards we have digital coffee in cyberspace with our online home group. It is astonishing what technology has achieved and the blessings that can come from it, but it just doesn’t compare.   

And I wonder why the church has, without, it seems any protest or question, followed the government instructions, cancelled services and closed buildings and so easily surrendered this most precious thing.   It is not, of course, surprising that a secular government would view these gatherings as an unnecessary luxury in a crisis, while bicycle shops, pet shops, DIY  centres, and off-licences on the other hand, are seen as essential to life. It is surprising, that the churches themselves think so too.

Still, in the vacuum, with social distancing, in the new normal, I will pray for the peace and security of Jerusalem. “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God I will seek your good”