Walk on By

Many have said we live in strange times.

Not least perhaps are some familiar phrases we can no longer use: ‘Is this seat taken?’, ‘May I join you?’

The ‘elbow bump’ has usurped the handshake. The ‘distance hug’ an inadequate replacement for the security and warmth of being held.

Two’s company, six is a crowd…

Even the great principle of the Parable of the Good Samaritan has been turned over – we are now actively encouraged to walk by on the other side… and many have been left lying by the road, trapped by the restrictions, local lockdowns and the fear of leaving their home.

Many good Samaritans have paid a price today too. Not just in the rightly applauded NHS – although the pressure of being ‘heroes’ is taking its toll on many. But also the oft-forgotten care homes and overlooked domiciliary workers. And then there are the hidden helpers, quietly applying bandages to local communities and neighbourhoods and many a  university campus and workplace too.

We also see the equivalents of the priest and the Levite (a priest’s assistant). Both these passers-by saw the wounded traveller but did not reach out. No doubt on their way to something important – torn between many competing needs. Who are they today? Some might say government but could any of us really do better? Or maybe Covid-conspiracy theorists protesting against loss of freedom while others suffer because of it or the ones who simply flout the advice and requests to socially distance? But aren’t they also expressions of fear…

And what about the robbers, the people who attacked the unfortunate traveller. Is there a parallel for them? What led to them to committing the crime? Who will meet their needs?

And finally, we have the innkeeper. The one to whom the Samaritan took the man who’d been attacked. Who are they today? The ones who are in it for the long haul, sticking by, regardless of cost – financial, physical or emotional?

But of course there is also the donkey – the ones who carry the whole load.

Jesus’ parables were often based around real events – and no doubt incidents such as people being robbed while travelling actually happened. As we considered in the previous post, the parables were not always meant to be taken literally but this one has found its way into many aspects of our attitudes towards others today.

In Jesus’ time, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notorious.  Jesus’ audience (Jewish lawyers and his own disciples) would have known this and thought the traveller a fool. Add to that, the Samaritans were outcasts and the enemies of the Jews so for a man from Samaria to help a Jewish traveller would have shocked his listeners – let alone that the priest and the Levite, for whom another Jew was indeed their neighbour, walked by on the other side.

So Jesus turns everything on its head (not the first or last time). He turns the message from judgement of others to compassion for others.

Martin Luther King once said, ‘The first question the priest and Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But… the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

 

 

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From Being Comes Doing

The retreat was long overdue. The pandemic had put paid not once but twice to Alton Abbey, my spiritual home, and Boris had wrecked two weeks’ annual leave in June. The best part of a year had passed since I last had ‘a period of solitary refinement’ as someone once put it.

I’d been to Sheldon many times for Quiet Days and meetings. But this was different. Four days, three nights. No conversation, no e-mail, no internet.  No church or family demands. Tangible ‘things to do’ complemented the intangible expectation that God may have ‘things to do’ also.

The ‘Welcome Pack’ speaks: ‘May this be a place where you… draw rest, silence, healing and vision.’

Umm… Rest. It had been a busy, far too busy, few months. As punishing as it was rewarding.

There had been little silence – in part, because I hadn’t made enough of it.

Healing? Yes, the hurts of ‘church chunterings’ required soothing balm.

Vision? Something to be seen when not looking for it, maybe?

So God showed his hand straight away.

I am to do nothing.

It is strange (and at times uncomfortable) to be in a place of not doing anything but simply to be. I don’t want to ‘waste the time’ here but don’t want the pressure of thinking ‘What shall I do now?’

Yet, ‘What shall I be now?’ is somewhat more tricky.

AA Milne wrote: “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits…”

I sit on a bench.

The ground is rough and stony. Dead plants being strangled by living weeds is a good metaphor.

But so is the view from the bench. The vibrant trees and the rolling hills. The silence.

Silence is not the absence of noise but the feeling of it. Being still within it. Surrounded and embraced by it.

‘Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still small voice of calm’

From being comes doing – not the other way around.

On God alone, my soul in stillness waits; 
from him comes my salvation.

He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold
so that I shall never shaken.

(Psalm 62:1-2)

 

 

Uncertain certainty

‘The virus has robbed us of many things. It continues to rob us of any certainty.’

In many ways, those words by BBC correspondent, Chris Mason sum up these last few months.

Our local churches have begun opening for public worship for the first time since March. Many might have hoped to go back to a place of certainty… but with its hand sanitisers, the wearing of face coverings, social distancing, and no hymns or coffee it too has changed. It’s different.

The Gospel reading for today (9 Aug) is very appropriate for the current time (Matthew 14:22-33). It’s an account of when the disciples were in their boat crossing Lake Galilee in the middle of the night. Not unusually, a storm blows up. The boat is blown around. And then out of the tumult, Jesus walks on the water towards them. Given their exhaustion and the darkness, it’s not surprising they think it’s a ghost.

But Peter knows it’s Jesus. Responding to Christ’s call, Peter steps out in faith on to the water… and then he noticed the wind.

Peter sinks down and is grasped by Jesus’ hand. Jesus then climbs back in the boat and calms the storm allowing the disciples to continue their journey.

Stepping out in faith is no guarantee that we will not hit troubled or stormy waters. You’ve probably had your own encounters of stepping out in faith and things being difficult. You will have stepped out… and then noticed the wind.

Jesus said to Peter: ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’

A cruel put-down or words of empathic reassurance?

Did Peter really have little faith? After all, nobody else got out of the boat.

So here we are. We of little faith. A little faith that enables us to step out in the storm. A faith which grasps the hand of Jesus as he reaches out to us.

Jesus places us safely in the boat. He climbs in with us. He calms the storm and takes us on our journey. A journey yes, in to uncharted waters. A journey of continuing change. But also a journey of certainty. A journey in which we will never be abandoned.

Whatever the change. Whatever the loss of certainty.

Do not be afraid.

 

 

(This post is a shortened version of a spoken reflection at St Michael’s, Teignmouth in Devon as it reopened for worship on 9 Aug and that included in the online service for that day.)

Back to normal?

“What’s the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian?” asked the young enquirer. “About ten years,” replied the vicar with characteristically dry wit.

Despite often being at the forefront of social change and community action, the church is often seen as being behind the times and, sadly, it doesn’t take much interaction with some congregations to see the truth of the vicar’s wry observation.

Churches are also perceived as places where change is resisted: “The previous vicar did it that way.” “We’ve always had our service at 9.30.” “At the PCC meeting on 23 March 1973 we voted against that.” There are plenty of people with toys poised, ready to throw them out of the pram (yes, including me). The desire to be ‘doing church’ sometimes appears greater than to be ‘doing God’ – being witnesses to God’s love through the way we live our lives and in encouraging each other in faith. Of course, ‘doing church’ is easier and safer…

So, these recent months have seen a breath of fresh air wafting through the sometimes stale surroundings that conceal the full extent of that love. From phone networks to help people keep in touch, to loving our neighbour by shopping for them and, more radically, coming together as the church online.

In the Church of England alone, there are now over 5,500 online services taking place each week as live streams through Facebook, Zoom etc or pre-recorded and available online at YouTube, Vimeo or elsewhere.

‘The revolution in online worship has meant many people who have been excluded from the life of their local church – (due to) infirmity, disability, phobia, mental fragility – feel included,’ tweeted Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich. ‘I’m ashamed we did not realise this before.’ (my italics)

There’s a danger that those who are not on the internet remain excluded so it’s important to address that and online services are not the same as gathering with others for worship – but they have opened up a tremendous opportunity for creativity when it comes to bringing people closer to God.

Alongside other lockdown easings, this weekend sees the gradual reopening of places for worship. While cathedrals and some churches will be ready to do so, many will not – and that’s good: it’ll be better to be safe than sorry.

Now, I, for one, have been dreading hearing the phrase, “It’ll be good to be back to normal”.

Of course, there are good things in the familiar trappings of church as we know it. They provide the security of social contact with others and the rhythms of prayer and worship. A steady port in the storm providing stability in times of change which is so crucial to our faith as well as our wellbeing. But, as with a lot of things, church will not, and maybe will never be the same, and that will be difficult for many. There will be a new normal.

But that phrase also causes me to reflect on what else comprised the ‘old’ normal. It was Tertullian, a 1st/2nd Century Roman pagan who wrote, ‘See how these Christians love each other.’ As I look at the church generally, I find myself deeply saddened by how these Christians talk about each other. Clergy and laity alike criticising others seemingly for the sake of it. Grudges are grown and forgiveness is forgotten. Is that the normal we want to go back to?

‘After the pandemic, some parishes and Fresh Expressions will go to the wall, never to be seen again,’ writes Philip North, Bishop of Burnley. ‘Churches that have gone to sleep will stay asleep. Those who have risen to the task will be ready for service and proclamation.’

Unimaginably tragic as the circumstances are, the current time opens up possibly the greatest opportunity in generations for God’s message of life-giving, unconditional love to become known by all, churchgoer or not. If you are one who prays for revival, could this be the time?  Do we take that opportunity, or do we lose all that we have gained in these last few months by simply going back to normal?

 

 

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Anxious Times Again

In the beginning was the word, and the word was… anxiety.

My wife, Jane and I had just returned from some lovely winter sun in southern Spain when just a week or so later, the first impact of Coronavirus was being felt. Suddenly, things changed and things changed suddenly. It all seemed very unreal – rather like those feelings which accompany bereavement when we think we’re going to see the loved one we’ve lost only to remember that we have indeed lost them.

Indeed, there has been so much loss for so many. Loss of loved ones. Loss of liberty. Loss of the familiar. Loss of the activities and social contact that gave life to life. Loss of sleep. Loss of hugs. Loss of certainty.

It’s felt like life has had to begin again. Walking has become like driving along a country lane and finding ‘passing places’ to maintain social distancing. We’ve washed our hands til they’re sore. Some have been shielding while others clap. Every cough is significant and there’s a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘Is it me or is it hot in here?’

I thank God I live where I live: far away from socially-crowded cities. I thank God the ten o’clock news is covering other stories again. I thank God I am a natural isolate. I thank God for God.

Yet now several weeks on, maybe the word is still anxiety. These are anxious times again. Anxiety about the easing of lockdown. Anxiety about going out. Anxiety about wearing a face covering. Anxiety about returning to school, the workplace, the shops, to church. Anxiety about becoming closer to others.

There is a difference between having anxious thoughts and having clinical anxiety (and if those feelings are affecting the ability to function then help may be needed [sooner rather than later]). But feeling anxious about the current times is perfectly natural and having anxious feelings does not make any of us a lesser person nor does it mean we are one of little faith.

God knows our anxieties. They are not hidden from God because God’s light is always there to overcome the shadow of their darkness.

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In him (in that Word, that Jesus) was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not (and does not, and will not) overcome it’ (John 1:1, 4-5)

 

This post is an extended version of some thoughts for the Diocese of Exeter’s Pause & Pray initiative.

Faith Seeking Understanding

One of my all-time favourite radio programmes is The Goon Show.

While not old enough to have heard the original broadcasts in the 1950s, I listened to countless episodes in my 20s and 30s in particular. Their surreal storylines, absurd logic, puns, catchphrases and groundbreaking sound effects influenced my own, at times rather weird, sense of humour. The Goons wouldn’t have been The Goons without all three of Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellars – and yet they were also each brilliant as individuals in their own right.

Similarly, in a weird sort of way, one can’t think of the travellers from the East without thinking of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – three separate gifts but all part of their singular worship of the young Christ.

June 7th is Trinity Sunday – the beginning of a lengthy season when we reflect on how God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, individually and together, play an important part in our life and faith as Christians. (Here’s a short film you may like watch as well.)

Many have tried to explain the Holy Trinity and many more have been confused by it. There are some Christians and even clergy who don’t even accept the concept of the Trinity. Others think Christians believe in three Gods and yes we perhaps don’t help ourselves by using phrases such as ‘Three in One God’.

Many have suggested ways of how we might understand the structure of the Trinity. Some have drawn a parallel with H2O – we find it in water, ice and steam – all different but still all H2O. You may like to think of the Trinity as a 3-stranded cord – each cord, each person of the Trinity is distinct but together are indivisible and mighty.

But none of those give us the whole picture because none show us the relationship between the three and that is an important aspect of understanding the nature of the Trinity.

As human beings, we have a natural disposition towards wanting and needing to understand things. We like to know the whys, the whats, the whens, the wheres, the hows. Indeed, one of the most difficult aspects of our lives is when things happen or don’t happen and we don’t understand why it was or what was going on. Many of us perhaps have those feelings right now in this time of Covid 19 and all that has happened in these last few months. There are probably other things which have taken place in your life about which you still don’t understand.  There certainly are in mine.

Paula Gooder is a theologian who specialises in the New Testament. She has the ability to convey tremendous academic knowledge in very plain, easy to understand language. Last September I heard her speak about the parables and how we are constantly looking to understand and to explain what Jesus was meaning through the telling of them. Paula Gooder pointed out that even the disciples didn’t always get what Jesus was talking about – and they were with him all the time.

‘Most parables are meant to make us go “What?”’, she said. ‘The problem is that we put an interpretation and meaning on them – we struggle with parables because we think we know what they mean.’

For me, that’s the same with understanding the Trinity.

In other words, we do not have to understand absolutely everything about the Trinity, or any other aspect of our faith.

I have often reflected on and quoted to others the serenity prayer

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

And I wonder if in our ability, inability and perhaps lack of necessity to fully understand things we can substitute the word change with the word understand:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot
understand;
the courage to
understand the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Our belief is, as St Anselm put it, about ‘faith seeking understanding’ – whatever that looks like for each one of us

 

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Come, Holy Spirit

Pentecost is the time when, a few days after Jesus ascended in to Heaven, we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles. But what of us, moving through all the post-Easter weeks & finding ourselves at Pentecost once again? What place does the Holy Spirit have in our own lives?

The Holy Spirit is often referred to as the third person of the Trinity. Indeed, we often speak of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus) and God the Holy Spirit. Many churches will say a creed or a statement of faith using words such as ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit’ and services often end with a blessing in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

In a communion service, the spirit is invited to come down upon the people and the bread and the wine but in many churches there is often very little teaching or discussion about the Holy Spirit. Whereas in others, such as in the Pentecostal movement, Protestant and Roman Catholic charismatic churches, and some evangelical churches, the Holy Spirit takes centre stage and is manifested in many different and often dramatic ways.

Recorded by the Gospel-writer, Luke in Acts Chapter 2, coming 10 days after the Ascension and 50 after Easter (Pentecost is the Greek for ‘fiftieth’), this appearance of the Holy Spirit as promised by Jesus must have been a dramatic event.

This same Holy Spirit comes upon us today, enabling us to be a community of believers, a community of faith, which joins us in belonging to each other and belonging to God – even in these times where are unable to gather together in the building we call church, we remain the church of God.

So what is the purpose of the Holy Spirit in our lives?

  • The Spirit is sometimes called a comforter: we often experience comfort through a person (or perhaps an item or a place) that reassures us or makes us comfortable. The spirit is also with us to give comfort through such people or directly through prayer and presence.
  • The Spirit is an advocate: someone to stand alongside us; someone who might speak for us, or speak up for us – that’s what the Holy Spirit does; the word also suggests a lawyer who defends us. The Spirit is sometimes considered as a liberator – offering us freedom.
  • The Spirit is also thought of a guide: guiding us to pray for someone or contact someone. These might be thought of as ‘holy nudges’ – those little prompts that show us how God is at work through the Holy Spirit.

There is a lot more to the Holy Spirit than that too – so maybe take a look at this film offering a further reflection.

In his book, Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Henri Nouwen writes:

‘Let us go back in time. In the story of the Exodus, God is revealed as God for us, father-like – guiding the people out of slavery with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Later, in the story of Jesus, we have Immanuel – God with us – the Son of God accompanying the people in solidarity and compassion. Now in the story of Pentecost, God is revealed as God within us – we are enabled to breathe the divine life ourselves. Thus, Pentecost completes the mystery of God’s revelation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. By becoming not only a God for us and a God with us, but also God within us, God offers the full knowledge of the divine life.’

God is for us. God is with us. God is within us.

God is for you. God is with you. God is within you.

Come, Holy Spirit

 

 

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On Earth as it is in Heaven

In comparison to Christmas and Holy Week and Easter, Ascension Day (21 May) often just passes us by.

Even if we were able to meet in our churches, because it’s a Thursday, the congregation may be very small and rather like some of the other events in the church year, such as Ash Wednesday or some saints’ days, we may not fully understand what it is we are actually marking.

We are of course keen to commemorate the first day of Jesus’ life on earth at Christmas and yet we can totally overlook this, the last day of his earthly ministry.

Simply put, 40 days have passed between Easter Day, the day of resurrection, and the day of ascension, when Jesus went up from a mountain on the outskirts of Bethany, watched by his followers, in to heaven to be with God (see Acts 1:6-11). The Bible tells us about many unusual, perhaps unbelievable events which took place and the Ascension is one of them. To our 21st century rational minds, to speak of someone going up in a cloud is beyond our comprehension. It simply couldn’t happen. It’s impossible.

Well, do take a look at this short film to explore the importance and meaning of the Ascension in more detail but in essence, the Ascension of Jesus represents a significant truth… the physical presence of Christ departs from earth to be replaced by the spiritual presence in the form of the Holy Spirit whose coming we will celebrate in a few days’ time at Pentecost.

The Ascension and other similar events stretch our minds and our imaginations because we live in an earthly sense and not yet in a heavenly one. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 13:12, ‘Now, we see through a glass, darkly.’ We do not yet see face to face.

We do not yet see the heavenly aspects – we get glimpses of heaven but we are human beings and not yet divine beings.

As Ronald Cole-Turner put it: ‘Just as the incarnation – God becoming human in the form of Jesus – reveals to us the outreach of the love of God, so the ascension reveals to us the transfiguration and the gathering up that is to come at the end. What happens to Jesus Christ – death, resurrection, and being raised in exultation to glory – will happen to us all. The Ascension… is a reminder that our lives are caught up in something far more grand than we can imagine.’

So if we see the Ascension of Jesus as an assurance for the present here on earth and a promise of what is to come in heaven, in other words, on Earth as it is in Heaven

  • What does the Ascension mean for you in your life here on earth?
  • And what glimpses of heaven do you see?

 

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Will we remember them?

On 8th May 1945, with the end of war in Europe, the country celebrated (or at least this country did – others did not).

The previous years had seen horrendous loss of professional and civilian lives. Medical services overwhelmed. Businesses disrupted and closed. The economy shattered. Public movement limited. Many were unemployed, homeless, injured and seeking limited food supplies. Politicians were ridiculed and praised. There were heroes and villains. Many gave their lives for the common good. The country, the world, was never the same again.

‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.’

On 8th May 2020, 75 years on, we are called to commemorate (sadly, some say celebrate). While all around us… well, just read the second paragraph again.

75 years on from now, I doubt any will remember those who gave their lives for the common good in these current times. Indeed, apart from family, friends and colleagues, will any remember them in 25, 10, 5 or even 2 years time…?

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, will we remember them?

The last post reflected on a renewal of respect for those who serve the public in often unappreciated and oft-criticised ways. Public applause on Thursday evenings acknowledges the work of NHS and care staff together with others who are designated as key workers. As a society, we are, finally, recognising the essential role of refuse collectors, postal workers, telecom engineers, road repairers, supermarket assistants, domiciliary carers and care home staff, bus drivers and all whose work is often disregarded. Blessed are the meek.

Over 100 of those have died due to their work and many others have been attacked undertaking it. They probably knew the risks and took precautions but they didn’t set out to give so much.

Even in wartime, when many set out knowing they may not return, they and all around hoped they would. ‘My father had been killed in an air raid so for us the end of the war didn’t mean he’d be coming home,’ wrote one person recalling VE Day. ‘For many of us, the end of the war didn’t mean life would go back to what it was before 1939.’ (Radio Times 2-8 May 2020)

And so it is for many today, life will never be the same again.

In contrast, another contributor recalled the unexpected: ‘Before VE Day I had never been out after dark. The lights were on in all the windows, and, magically, I could see people inside… it was the beginning of something much more exciting – lights.’

And now candles burn in our windows from 7pm on Sunday. A light for those who work, who suffer, who grieve. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ (John 1:5)

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we may or we may not remember them but the light of Christ shines on all for eternity.

 

 

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Life begins again

Well, you don’t need me to tell you what strange times we are living in. And how much life has changed since the last full blog post on Ash Wednesday. Little did we know what we would be giving up for Lent.

Along with ‘Coronavirus’ and ‘Covid-19’, terms such as ‘self-isolating’ and ‘social distancing’ have entered our vocabulary as if they have always been present. We’re told to ‘stay at home’. Many are being ‘shielded’. Others are called ‘key workers’ – and doing far, far more than ‘just their job’.

There is death. And plenty of it. Death on a scale not seen in this country (and many others) since the Second World War. Death has not lost its sting. Families are unable to be with their loved one. People dying, sometimes alone, sometimes with the strangers who cared for them. Mourned in public by few or none.

And yet, within it all. Within all the tragedy, the grief and the fear. There is, remarkably, hope.

  • A reduction in air pollution (civilisation being given one more chance to address the causes of climate change perhaps…).
  • In some places (but not in all), people are slowing down (a helping hand to deal with increasingly poor mental wellbeing maybe…).
  • A resurgence of communities caring for one another (an antidote to modern society’s self-isolating behaviour…)
  • A renewal of respect for those who serve the public in often unappreciated and oft-criticised ways (blessed are the meek…)
  • The Church, the community of believers, rediscovering and discovering other ways of being one in Christ. As Luke Coppen put it, ‘Christianity began amid defeat and despair… this won’t be the end, rather a new beginning.’ (The Spectator 11.4.20)

And yet, within it all. Life for most people has been turned upside down. Many are finding aspects of the current times difficult. Gone are all the normal activities and usual freedoms. Many are struggling with unprecedented change. Many find it frightening. Many are anxious and worried.

All those are normal feelings and having them doesn’t mean your faith is lacking – nor does it mean that God is absent (even if it may feel that way at times).

In some respects, life is beginning again…

Finding stability in times of such change is key to living in these current times and beyond. Many are writing about the relevance of St Benedict’s teaching to our modern day lives and experiences – so much so, there’s been at least four books published in the last year. Laurentia Johns OSB writes about the ‘blessings of beginnings’ and former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has written about how ‘Benedictine stability is the context in which we learn to sit still with whatever company arrives, in the confidence that God in Christ sits still with us.’

In helpful contrast, award-winning, American journalist Judith Valente reflects on the Rule of St Benedict in How to Live: a book which is ‘about living—not just surviving… a book about how to live a balanced, meaningful, and conscious life rooted in the ancient and time-tested wisdom of the Rule.’

The Rule of St Benedict provides a rhythm for prayer and reflection through its four-monthly pattern of daily readings. That pattern is also about to begin again – on 2 May – and you may like to use my book of everyday reflections,  Life with St Benedict as a way of building such a rhythm of stability: one that  relates this ancient Bible-based wisdom to the ordinary and not so ordinary aspects of life. (There are some films to help you find stability in these times of change and uncertainty also).

There is nothing good about this pandemic but there is good that is coming out of it. And it’s to be hoped that when this is all over, we don’t completely revert to how things used to be as we learn how to begin life again.

 

 

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