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During the Covid lockdown period, Deacon John has been sharing his thoughts on a weekly basis.

3 December 2020

This week the media seems to be in a frenzy about the imminent vaccination programme to be rolled out across the country to combat the Covid19 virus. We are told that the UK government has ordered millions of doses from one source, and millions more from another. I am not a pessimist by nature, but just now I remain unconvinced that the vaccine will be the total ‘elixir’ that everyone is expecting it to be. Members of the public who are interviewed for TV and radio news programmes continually talk of ‘when everything returns to normal,’ what is normal?
Over the past weeks I have mentioned on several occasions that the world and society are an ever-changing fact of life. The natural world is in a never ending, continuous process of change, whether it is moving from an ice age to a more temperate climate, or the extinction of various animal species because of the lack of the right habitat. Homo Sapiens are also in a continual process of change, from one generation to the next. So, the changes brought about by the sudden and virulent eruption of the Covid19 virus should not really come as any surprise to mankind. John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States of America said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
Two thousand years ago, the birth of Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem would not at the time have been seen as a world changing event. The birth of Christianity after the death and resurrection of Jesus, got off to a slow beginning, but over time it turned into an event which changed the world for ever. The Apostles and disciples of Jesus struggled against the Jewish and Roman authorities of the time to preach the ‘Good News’, against their inability to accept change, but they persevered. “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” [Joshua 1: 9].
One has only to look back through history to understand that change is inevitable. And when a natural disaster or major event takes place, for example a pandemic or a war, the rate of change that takes place as a result of these events happening can increase dramatically. Look at the immense technological advancement, particularly in computer technology, resulting from the race to put a man on the moon; to appreciate the tremendous rate of change brought about by the desire to take the first tentative step in exploring the universe. Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher summed up change by saying, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow.”

26 November 2020

Yesterday morning, looking out through the window at the new day from the warmth of the house, all appeared still and calm. There were no signs of a breeze, the trees were still and there was a slight reddish tinge to the sky, which in folklore is usually a precursor of stormy weather to come. Although when I stepped out to pick up the milk from the doorstep the air was decidedly chilly, frosty even, what we might expect at this time of year.
This coming Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, the start of the Church’s liturgical calendar, which is when we look forward to commemorating the birthday of Jesus on Christmas day. The Latin word ‘adventus’ is translated from the Greek word ‘Parousia’, which refers to the second coming of Christ. Since the twelfth century, the era of St Bernard of Clairvaux, Christians have talked about the season of Advent in terms of the anticipation of the coming of Christ from three different perspectives. “In the flesh at Bethlehem, in our hearts daily, and in glory at the end of time.” This Advent season offers us again the opportunity to share not only in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, but also to be alert for his Second Coming. “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. … he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah,” [Luke 1:14-17].
There is no doubt that this Advent season and Christmas itself will be different from any other we have experienced in recent years. The virulent progress of the Covid19 virus has put almost everyone on the defensive. The government has given in to pressure, mainly from the media, to relax the rules regarding meeting family members. Either in one’s own home or in their home during a five-day period beginning on the 22nd December. However, in the run-up to that; Christmas shopping has been drastically curtailed because of localised lockdowns, and the usual round of office parties and socialising will essentially be non-existent this year in order to ensure that the rate of infection is kept at an acceptable level.
Nevertheless, although Christmas will be different this year, that should not stop us looking forward to Christmas as we have done in previous years, with a sense of anticipation and hope for the future, which the celebration of the birth of Christ always brings. “Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your value,” is a quote from the Dalai Lama. Change is inevitable in this world but can be difficult for some to adapt to quickly. Mother Teresa says, “At this Christmas season when Christ comes, will He find a warm heart? Mark the season of Advent by loving and serving others with God’s own love and concern.”

19 November 2020

Before Lockdown I always enjoyed travelling by train. But at the moment the nearest I am allowing myself to go on a train journey is by watching some of the many railway journey programs on the TV, which I enjoy. This week, particularly I have been recalling some of the journeys and places I have visited. Although I grew up in the age of the steam train, I much prefer travelling in the modern high speed electric trains, like the Eurostar or the Thalys, which runs across northern Europe, or the German ICE train, an intercity express, the French SNCF and the Spanish Renfe trains. These trains, which can travel in excess of 200 kilometres per hour, are some of the trains I have travelled on over the last few years across Europe.
Reflecting on these journeys and wondering if I will have the opportunity to board any of these trains again, made me realise that in all our experiences we must seize the day. Carpe Diem, a Latin expression, which is an exhortation to live life to the fullest, getting the most out of each day. Making sure we take in all that our senses are seeing, hearing, tasting, and smelling. Experiencing in full the places we visit and the people we meet there. Eleanor Roosevelt, an American political figure, diplomat, human rights activist, and wife of the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, said, “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
In these difficult times, especially here in Scotland, where once again we are being restricted in what we can do, where we can travel; where one day seems to merge into the next, it is surely difficult to seize the day? Yet each day is a new beginning, fresh moments in time, where we can always add to our memory with something, from a book, from going for a walk or cooking up a delicious dinner. Our memories are the real treasure we have, better than any wealth or diamond studded jewellery, which nobody can steal from us. Oscar Wilde commented, “memory is the diary we all carry about with us.”
Wondering whether I will venture out into the ‘wide world’ any time soon brings me back to the sombre reality of life, the words of the book of Proverbs echo a warning, “You can make many plans, but the Lord’s purpose will prevail.” [ Proverbs 19: 21]. However, for all those moments in life when you think you can’t, think again. Looking forward to, and planning for a holiday expedition is a sure way of blowing away the ‘blues’, which have descended upon many of us with the pandemic and the late autumn weather. J.M. Barrie wrote, “someone said that God gave us memories so that we can have roses in December.”

12 November 2020

Over the last week the colours of autumn have been vibrant. The reds, yellows, golds brown and russets of the leaves producing a blaze of colour, before they finally fall to the ground, as we get closer to the beginning of winter. “Nature gives to every time and season unique beauty; from morning to night, as from the cradle to the grave, it’s just a succession of changes so soft and comfortable that we hardly notice the progress,” [Charles Dickens]. The seventeenth century English Poet Shelly said, “There is harmony in autumn, and a lustre in its sky, which through the summer is not heard or seen, as if it could not be, as if it had not been!”
This week has brought news of the reality of a vaccine to combat the Covid19 virus significantly nearer. So much so that it has taken the frontline news away from the fallout surrounding the American election. However, the euphoria generated by the announcement has waned remarkedly quickly, a certain amount of pessimism has set in. Has testing been long enough? Are there any side effects? And the fact that it has to be stored at -80 degrees centigrade inevitably means a raft of logistical problems. Yet, it is a step in the right direction, towards controlling the virus to the extent that it will offer a respite from the disruption to the social and economic life of the nation and the world, which we have experienced since March.
The legacy of destruction in the wake of the virus is staggering, not only in the immediate effects, of the virus itself, but from the effect it has had on the lives of everyone. The loss of employment for many; having to remain in a closed environment for long periods because of one’s vulnerability or underlying health problems. So many have had the virus and recovered, so many have had it and continue to suffer long term debilitating effects on their health because of it, and so many have died from it. Yet to date it has had nowhere near the catastrophic effect of the Spanish flu in the early twentieth century when millions died.
Giving thanks is something we celebrate in many ways. It is a national holiday in many countries of the Americas, usually in the autumn. It has its beginnings in the harvest festival traditions of the early settlers. In the USA it is celebrated during the month of November with the traditional turkey dinner. It is a time when families come together from near and far to celebrate the day. Reflecting on the momentous and historic events of this year we should give thanks to God for all we have, for life, for our family and friends, and our hope for the future. In his first letter to Timothy, St Paul writes, “Everything God has created is good, and no food is to be rejected provided it is received with thanksgiving: the word of God and prayer make it holy.” [ 1 Timothy 4: 4-5].

5 November 2020

From today England will be in lockdown once again. Wales is already locked down and in Scotland we currently have a four-tier system in order to try and control the resurgence of the Covid19 virus more locally, rather than putting the country in a blanket lockdown. One reads and hears about people complaining about their loss of freedom and liberty caused by the rules to combat the virus. If the government let the virus run its course, without taking any action to combat it, there would be uproar across the country. However, F.A. Hayek, an Austrian economist and philosopher said, “Emergencies have always been the pretext on which safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.”
As a society we are enveloped in laws and rules which limit all aspects of our freedom and liberty whether we like it or not. Our freedom of speech, for example, is restricted in many ways. There are laws covering our workplace and working environment. Laws to control business and commerce. Road traffic laws to stop us driving as fast as we want, and so on. So why the outcry over another set of rules to keep us out of danger from infection, and not to overload the NHS? Laws are needed primarily to reign in, those unscrupulous members of the human race who would take any advantage to rob, cheat, and otherwise abuse their fellow humans. The freedoms and liberty of the majority, who act responsibly, are necessarily shackled because of the few with no moral conscience whatsoever.
Equally, there are laws that protect our ‘Human Rights’. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed on 10 December 1948, are fundamentally unassailable rights to which all human beings are entitled. Historically modern human rights are a phenomenon of crisis, arising from the collapse of the medieval order. Yet human rights laws, as with all other laws, continue to be contravened by the minority. Modern slavery, discrimination because of race, religion or gender, and exploitation of human beings thrives in the twenty first century.
The principle religions of the world also have their own legal structures, whose members are expected to accept and comply with the relevant laws. In the gospel of John, Jesus says to his disciples, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” [John 8: 32]. The notion of freedom in this context is that by following the will of God, which is set out in Holy Scripture, we will be set free from the slavery of selfishness, from the fear of what others might think or say about us, and from the power of temptation and sin. Living in any society requires cooperation from each individual, which usually means curbing some of our more selfish desires so as to accommodate other people’s interests. It would be impossible to live in a society which imposed no limits whatsoever on what we can do. “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Nelson Mandela

29 October 2020

The resurgence of the Covid-19 virus is taking centre stage in the media in conjunction with Christmas, which is still two months away. One wonders if the whole of society revolves around alcohol and eating out? These aspects of society come in second place to the grim statistics of the pandemic. Brexit has been relegated to several seconds of reporting time or one or two column inches in the newspapers. There are calls for a ‘truce’ to be proclaimed for Christmas day, so that families can meet without the worry of ‘breaking the rules’. Like the truce during the First World War when soldiers from the opposing sides stopped shooting and played football in no-mans-land on Christmas Day; and we all know from the history books how many died before that conflict ended. In the gospel of Luke Jesus warns his disciples about the coming destruction of Jerusalem, “There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famine and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.” [Luke 21: 11]. These words surely resonate with us, even in the twenty first century.
Today I read that vast frozen deposits of Methane gas, below the seabed, off the East Siberian coast in the Artic Ocean, are starting to find their way to the surface and then releasing into the atmosphere. Apparently, the warming effect of Methane is eighty times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Surely this news is equally as important to the future of the human race as the Covid-19 pandemic? Yet it only warrants a few column inches. Former president of the United States of America, Barack Obama said, “Climate change is no longer some far-off problem; it is happening here, it is happening now.”
The technological advancements brought about by the human race in their quest for a better life, starting with the industrial revolution in the seventeenth century, and continued in the twentieth with ever more sophisticated inventions, primarily aimed at winning World War Two, and then landing a man on the moon, have developed at ‘hyper speed’. Since then further exploration of the solar system and beyond has given us incredible computing power supposedly to make life easier. This speed of development has undoubtedly contributed significantly to the climate crisis. Are we better off as a species for all these advancements? The imbalance of the important things facing mankind on a global level is stark. Even God is relegated to a few column inches if He’s lucky. The controversy about meals for school children highlights the imbalance on the other side of the technological era. Some people are not better off because of it and the imbalance needs to be addressed. An American journalist wrote, “it takes an earthquake to remind us that we walk on the crust of an unfinished planet.” In the present state of the world the earthquake in this context is global warming; but because it is not a sudden natural disaster like an earthquake, we are not so easily reminded about the fragile nature of our planet.

22 October 2020

Week thirty-one since the beginning of lockdown back in March, and this country and other countries around the world are facing the full force of a counterattack by the Covid-19 virus. The curve of positive tests is rising steeply. Yet, the experience of hospitals, and considerable medical research into ways of dealing with the virus through existing drugs and hospital procedures has meant that currently the number of people dying is much lower than in the first wave of the virus in March and April of this year. But sadly, the prospect of a complete lockdown is imminent. A further period of isolation is looming, which for many people may be a terrifying prospect, especially with Christmas on the horizon. Harold S. Kushner, a Rabbi and author wrote, “Other people may complicate our lives, but life without them would be unbearably desolate. None of us can be truly human in isolation. The qualities that make us human emerge only in the ways we relate to other people.” In that sense we must not lose faith; faith in the hope that we will get through this pandemic that is changing the world, and faith in God. God does not cause the misfortunes of the world. Some are caused by bad luck and some are simply an inevitable consequence of being human and being mortal. We live in a world where the laws of nature cannot be manipulated by mankind’s scientific expertise, although many are doing their best to achieve that very thing.
“Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods.” [C.S. Lewis]. It can be difficult to hold onto faith in God when life gets difficult, when we are unable to get to Sunday Mass regularly, or because we are in a vulnerable group and unable to leave our home, and because the Church authorities have issued a dispensation from the obligation because of Covid-19. We all have moments when we have doubts, yet in the Letter to the Hebrews it tells us, “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”
As I write the sun is shining on a bright morning that could just as easily be a day in spring. In the garden roses and geraniums are still flowering and also the Honeysuckle with its sweet fragrant scent, which I’ve never seen at this time of year before. This is almost the end of October! Ten years or so ago we would have seen early ground frosts and freezing fog by now, surely this is an unequivocal indication of the increase in global temperature? Whatever we believe in; there will be elements of our lives which we will have ‘faith in’, belief in the word of our friend, the fidelity of a partner, the honesty of a colleague. Faith is having the confidence to accept the truth of these affirmations and all other truths. “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” [1 Corinthians 13:2].

15 October 2020

One of the most significant changes to global society resulting from the Covid-19 virus has been its effect on worldwide travel. For many of us our horizons have been drastically drawn in and for those of us in our later years we may be contemplating if the opportunity to travel further afield will ever arise again. The uncertainty brought about by the virus remains with us for the foreseeable future.
Just over fifty years ago, I flew for the first time, from Luton Airport to Pula in what was then Yugoslavia, and is now Croatia, in a Dan Air, de Havilland Comet-4. It was an exhilarating experience. Since then I have flown many times on business trips and holiday journeys. My most memorable flight was in a Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft when I was stationed in Malta with the Royal Air Force. Ground crew were able to go on ‘air experience’ flights if there was room in the aircraft, also an exhilarating experience. The commercial use of the jet engine heralded the start of air travel and shrunk the world horizons to hours rather than days and weeks. In fact, the de Havilland Comet was the first commercial passenger jet aircraft coming into service in the 1950’s. Since then travelling by air has ‘taken off’ (pardon the pun!) and become a huge global business transporting millions of people all over the world every year. Yet suddenly, because of the Covid-19 virus, travelling by air has descended into a mere trickle of travellers.
Memories of one’s travels can last a lifetime. The excitement and anticipation of seeing somewhere new, experiencing different cultures, and hearing different languages has been severely curtailed. Yet, travelling was and is one of the best ways to open one’s mind and heart to the world. Anthony Bourdain an American journalist and author said “A journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something behind.” And Seneca the Roman statesman and philosopher said, “Travel and change of place impart vigour to the mind.”
The Old and New Testament give us numerous accounts of people making journeys. The Israelites great journey to the Promised Land from Egypt. The magi, the three wise men from the East seeking the Christ child; the journey of Jesus, Mary and Joseph fleeing from Herod to Egypt; were they essentially asylum seekers? And the Apostles who journeyed across the Middle East and parts of what is now Europe to spread the good news. St Paul undertook a number of journeys to support the fledgling Church. He journeyed through modern day Syria, Turkey, and Greece and during his journey to Rome he was shipwrecked on the island of Malta and spent three years there. Mankind has always had the desire to travel to explore to discover new horizons. “The journey not the arrival matters” T. S. Eliot

8 October 2020

The effects of continually living with the threat of the Covid19 virus continues to take its toll on everyone’s health and wellbeing in some way or another. Routine tests and check-ups, as well as minor medical procedures, are piling up. The last time I had a routine eye test is now well beyond the regular bi-annual examination that I had before. At that last appointment, the optician pointed out that there was a cataract forming in my left eye. Since then the only effect I notice is when I’m out in the sunshine; without sunglasses I see things as if I’m looking through a fog or mist. The bright sunlight is deflected by the cataract which produces the effect of looking through a mist. Other than that, when I’m indoors or it’s a cloudy day I’m not aware of it; and thankfully, at the moment it doesn’t affect my reading.
In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells his followers, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness.” [Matthew 6: 22-23]. Do we only see what is in front of us, or do we see beyond the physical image to the heart and soul of the person we are talking to or have a relationship with? “For beautiful eyes look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness.” The eye is the ‘window’ of our heart and mind. If the ‘window’ is clouded or the light distorted in any way, like the light deflected by a cataract for example, we are unable to see clearly.
In our relationships with other people, our neighbour, the one that we should love as ourselves, do we see before us just the image of someone who attracts us or not, or do we see the person within? The image of God? “You see God with your heart, not your eyes. You hear God with your soul, not your ears. You understand God with your mind, not your intellect. You touch God with your spirit, not your hands. You move God with your love, not your feet.” [Matshona Dhliwayo, Canadian philosopher].
How we ‘see’ affects our inner life, in our heart, and our soul. Mother Teresa said, “The fullness of our heart is expressed in our eyes, in our touch, in what we write, in what we say, in the way we walk, the way we receive, the way we serve.” Seeing beyond the physical image into the heart and soul of the person that we have a relationship with is not always easy, we might think we know someone but if we are unable to see, or are blinded, to the inner person we are missing a vital part of really knowing them? “There is no better way to thank God for your sight than by giving a helping hand to someone in the dark”, [Helen Keller].

1 October 2020

Since the end of August, the sound of pink-footed geese can be heard over Montrose as they make their way to the Montrose Basin, a Wildlife Reserve in Angus on the East coast of Scotland. A staging point on their migration from Iceland to the wetlands of the East coast of England. It is estimated by the Scottish Wildlife Trust that around fifty thousand have arrived on the Basin at this moment. This year the migration has come earlier than expected because of unusually early snow falls in Iceland.
Migration is a characteristic of a large number of species on earth including homo sapiens. Mankind has moved in small and large numbers from one place to the next for numerous reasons since the beginning of time. In the early stages of human development, it was to seek out more fertile and warmer, regions of the earth where survival was relatively easier, that spurred our ancestors on. To find somewhere where vegetation and animals were in abundance. In recent generations migration has been caused by wars and natural disasters, the desire for a better living, and for those seeking asylum from the threat of imprisonment or death in their own country. The migration of the Israelites from Egypt, which is recounted in the Book of Exodus, is surely the blueprint for modern day migration. They left Egypt, where they were essentially slaves and trekked across the Red Sea and through the Sinai Desert for many years on their journey to the ‘promised land’, the land of milk and honey, where they could live in peace from one generation to the next. Many did not make it, as is the case of modern-day migrants, dying or drowning along the way. This perceived unprecedented movement of people in the twenty first century; what some call a "global migration crisis" is, in reality, a natural progression of history, which in its broadest sense is a record of Man’s migration from one environment to another. Ban Ki-moon the former Secretary General of the United Nations said, “Migration is an expression of the human aspiration for dignity, safety and a better future. It is part of the social fabric, part of our very make-up as a human family”. Geese and other migratory birds don’t have to worry about borders or visas or illegal immigration. They are free to return to their winter homes every year without hinderance, but they too face similar perils as all other migrants, losing their way and dying before reaching the safety of their ‘Promised land’. Our Christian ethos teaches that we should love our neighbour as ourselves, so we shouldn’t deter people fleeing for their lives or a better future. They will come whatever. The choice we have is how well we manage their arrival, and how humanely? “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” [Matthew 25:m 35].