Friday 10 July 2020
Last evening as the light faded and with doors and windows closed, I was at my desk working when I heard the sound of a blackbird singing in the dusk. It was so loud I went outside to sit by the back door on Brian’s bench and listen to the song. I think the blackbird was sitting in our neighbour’s oak tree, though it was getting dark and I couldn’t see it, but I could certainly hear it. I don’t know if it was the same blackbird I had mentioned to you before; and by the way that one’s leg was much improved when I saw it the other week.
Although it was getting dark, the distant sky itself was far brighter than overhead. A case of ‘red sky at night angel delight’. (I wonder if that is still made?) In fact the luminescent sky was phenomenal. It had a wonderful pink and orange cloud formation low towards the horizon, whilst above and beyond this fluffy layer a background of bright, well, sky-blue I suppose you would call it. Really not surprising this last point, as it was the sky I was looking at! I don’t know what the meteorological term is but the clouds had the appearance of clotted cream being formed on the top of a pan of gently warming milk.
As I sat there admiring the glorious sky before me, I wondered if the blackbird was giving thanks for the day that had passed or welcoming the night that was to come. Was it an exuberant call of farewell or a delighted call of greeting? I couldn’t tell, but the entire performance was simply captivating.
As well as hearing this virtuoso solo performance in the garden last night, I could see at my feet on the wet grass the gastropods (both residential and itinerant) were once more in profusion. No doubt they were delighting in the cool of the evening, as the combined dangers of desiccating summer sun and devouring feathered predators had passed sufficiently to allow them a night’s safe grazing and gorging on the delicacies of cellulose and sucrose.
I’ve heard on radio and TV that of late there’s been an increase in the beats per minute in some pieces of music. This apparently makes it a more upbeat tempo which lifts the spirits of those who listen. I think I heard one or two artists’ names mentioned, but as it wasn’t Dawn Upshaw or Renée Fleming, nor was it Andrea Bocelli or Bryn Terfel, well I couldn’t say for sure. This may be a contentious point to make, but in some cases if it went quicker then it would be over quicker too, assuming the same length of lyrics were being sung! Another positive perhaps?
I’ve been having some more conversations this week on when and how our church buildings may reopen. There are a wide range of views on this. The government and church guidelines are coming in thick and fast. Even with the speed of electronic mail, there have been two occasions it seems in as many weeks that by the time I pressed ‘send’ to circulate the latest version to the churches, it was out of date. We are in a rapidly changing situation. For our acts of worship, online materials whether live-streamed, recorded or published, offer the opportunity for more to meet together virtually. With social distancing measures and other mitigations, as they are termed, the numbers that could actually meet physically in one place for worship is far less. But having enough broadband width to broadcast to hundreds or thousands is not really the issue here. My main concern at present is how we can respond to, accommodate and celebrate those significant ‘life cycle events’, as a government guidelines so delicately puts it. How do we respond to the deep need for each of us to want to share happiness or to find comfort together in sorrow? For us, like any circuit of churches, some of these have been in the planning for years. Others are a necessary and instant response to a change that the final stage of our life cycles must all one day take, unless we are in that number when Jesus returns in glory. To quote Paul’s letter to the Corinthians again, like last week, ‘Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed’.
I must admit I do have deep reservations on the speed society is opening up again. I don’t want to appear to be reluctant in wanting to return to worship face to face, yet I am aware that for many people the thought of going out or mingling in groups you do not know or have been separated from for nearly four months is quite terrifying. For Methodist worship services not to have live music and singing would be a step too far into any ‘new normal’ for lots of devoted Christians. Other Christian denominations would find that this ‘new normal’ is actually just normal spread out a bit. Actually as we are discovering 2 metres is spread out a lot!
One of our church members in her local church Sunday reflections quoted the hymn by Norwegian writer and composer Hans-Olav Moerk, ‘We will meet’. This was also featured on the Sunday worship led by John Bell on Radio 4 that we both heard the other week. There are powerful words and sentiments such as the opening line, ‘we will meet when the danger is over’; ‘the peace that we pass to each other will be more than a casual sign’; and ‘we will share what we missed’. What will this look like for us I wonder? There was talk today about handshaking being consigned to the history books and at best it will be fist bumps, elbow taps or knocking knees. I made up that last one, but who knows? It’s a strange new world as was said by one church member, that for those of us of a Methodist persuasion used to non-alcoholic Holy Communion wine, will now have our churches overflowing with 70% alcohol-based hand wash gels. However we choose to proceed, it is clear we can only reopen our places of worship at a far slower rate than when they were closed in March. As you put it in your letter, much will depend on individual responsibility and sound judgement. I trust these will not be as scarce as your dear friend’s cranial follicles or for that matter hen’s molars!
The poem you referred to by Jane Hirshfield and the agility of the deer it depicted, brought back to my memory an experience we had a few years ago on holiday of a not-so-agile sheep. We were driving along a low-lying country road and amid beautiful rural scenery when I noticed, a ewe lying strangely by the fence. So much so I actually stopped the car and turned back to see. You will know how sheep can get on their backs and then have real problems righting themselves, particularly if they are sodden wet with saturated fleeces or heavy with lamb. As it turned out on further investigation this poor sheep must have considered herself to be a steeplechase sheep-horse and in her efforts had tied herself up in the wire fence. Thankfully it wasn’t barbed wire, and she must have cleared it all in fine fashion except for a trailing rear leg which had pushed down between the two strands of wire. As she went over she had twisted and so her back leg was then caught in a vice. With a lot of care (and I imagine to the bewilderment of the few passing drivers), we managed to get a stone in between the strands of wire to ease the pressure and release the leg as we lifted her back over the fence the way she had come. As I said, she was lying by the side of the fence when we found her and we didn’t know whether this had just happened or if she had been there for a long time. However, once freed she got up quickly and ran off at remarkable speed to join her very vocal lamb nearby. Though unlike the poem, hers was not a porous walk between the fence but a much more visible trail of fleece and imprint on her surroundings.
Whether she would reflect on her individual responsibility and sound judgement or ability at estimating heights and forward momentum I cannot say. It may be purely a sheep joke to add ‘Ewe should look before you leap!’
Thanks for what you shared on music this week. When I mentioned some singers earlier, I also had in mind Dame Janet Baker. In part it may have been because recently I have been listening again to another of Elgar’s works, the Dream of Gerontius. The version I have is with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with soloists Janet Baker, John Mitchinson and John Shirley-Quick. I’ve also got a recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, with Jacqueline du Pré and the disk includes Janet Baker singing Elgar’s Sea Pictures. In says on this recording, with Sir John Barbirolli, that they were greatly admired by him as artists and held with much affection as people and so he had chosen them as up and coming stars in the classical music world at that time. I was recently given a CD of CPE Bach organ works played by Thomas Trotter. I too appreciate those pieces in the minor key.
I know we are rather tired of ‘normal’ in all its ‘old’, ‘new’ and many changing manifestations. Yet I thought this week how some aspects of life had all too readily returned, shall I say, ‘back to normal’. I’ll qualify this by saying it is not always a good thing. On Monday I was back in my first traffic jam, for no other reason that I could see but the volume of vehicles. It was along that stretch of the A30 that sounds like a frozen form of precipitation to avoid (answers next week, if you’re interested!). Then on Tuesday during my constitutional into town, as I walked along the now busy road I was made aware of the stark contrast to previous weeks near to the hedgehog roundabout. You’ll know the one I mean. I was met, sadly not in equal measure, by the intoxicating, intense aroma of raspberries from the buddleia bushes that was all too soon overwhelmed with a cocktail of car exhausts and lorry emissions. It will be a shame if lockdown legacies are only fond remembrances of looking back to quieter days and cleaner air. Surely after all we’ve gone through there will be more we want to protect and cherish, not least to be able to look and consider the lilies of the field and to hear the birds of the air. I think there is confidence and assurance in this, as Psalm 121 continues: ‘From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.’
Last thing tonight the blackbird was back again, but now he just sounded cross, scolding something or other in his alarmed chatter. Possibly Mr Tufty was out on the prowl and, from what the blackbird was saying, I don’t think he was hunting slugs.
With love in Christ,