Ministry from June to December in the Coronavirus year

When I read back to the last blog I wrote in June 2020, I seemed to be doing okay. Our church building was closed along with every other one, and we were managing to worship together at home ‘in communion’ with one another. Some churches were streaming live services, some were recording at home and then in empty church buildings and some were Zooming together. My tech skills weren’t up to much and with nobody allowed to come and show me how, and an elderly congregation not all of whom had computers or tablets, I carried on emailing and posting services out each week.

I was taking part in more Zoom meetings and it seemed so easy really. I thought that perhaps I could do something online after all and with the help of some friends remotely, I put together a midweek service to practice. Folk were invited to come along and 12 said yes, they’d like to have a go. I was up half the night worrying about it, and up early to get dressed as a priest once more, balance the pile of books on which the altar would be laid, and adjusted the camera many, many times to allow folk to see the holy elements. Finally I was ready with minutes to spare. I opened Zoom. This was the first time I’d hosted anything but it seemed so easy before when I’d talked it through with folk. But I did something wrong. I don’t know what. But there were two of me in that meeting, one as host, one as participant. And where was this elusive Waiting Room? There were no buttons for Waiting Room. I pressed buttons, I swiped back and forth, I started to get hot under the collar, and the minutes ticked by. To cut a long story short, I lost my mind, as the song goes. The phone began to ring as people said they were waiting to get in and why didn’t it work? Was it them? They were so looking forward to it. I felt as if I’d really let them down. The service was cancelled.

How To Get Out Of The Black Hole Depression - A Pictures Of Hole 2018

And that is the day I became ill. Not physically ill. Mentally ill. The failed Zoom service was the catalyst. I started to cry about letting those folk down. And I couldn’t stop. Every time I thought about it, and yes it did come back to haunt me many times, the burning tears would fill in my eyes and overflow. I had let them down. Some of them lived alone and had been so looking forward to seeing their friends again, and I had let them down. I was too old for learning these new skills and so frustrated that nobody could come round to my house and just show me. The isolation became a black hole and I stood on the edge of it looking down into crippling anxiety. For a happy, optimistic extrovert this was a very new experience. I know about anxiety because some close to me suffer from it, but I never knew it was like this. The fear was overwhelming. Kind words were of no consolation whatsoever.

On top of the Zoom anxiety came the Coronavirus anxiety. I’d been shielding since March and was kind of getting used to it. Statistics were improving, the sun was shining, and we were told to go outside for exercise. Everyone I knew was on social media showing photos of their daily hike, boasting of how many steps they’d taken, getting more tanned in the summer sun and I was bitter. Exercise is hard for me because I have lung disease, and a host of other illnesses which make me overweight and in pain but I made the effort. I drove to a lovely, quiet place and got out to walk. Withing minutes joggers had elbowed past me with no masks, puffing with effort, cyclists sped past with no masks breathing heavily within a few feet. I jumped back in the car and came home. If I get this virus I don’t stand much of a chance. I’m one of the ones they talk about who died ‘with underlying health conditions’. I added that worry to the pile in my head and it was a bit of a squeeze.

Where was God in this? I’m sure s/he was there somewhere. At least I’ve told others that. Praying with others made me cry so I stopped doing that. I had a few clergy support groups going on Zoom and I couldn’t face them either. I withdrew. How could I tell them I was ill? I mean, I’m usually the life and soul of the party. That’s a role I used to play well. So instead of God I turned to my GP who knows me quite well. She told me it was anxiety and not depression and offered me medication which I grasped with both hands. Then for over a month I sat in my chair in the kitchen and did nothing. If I wasn’t in that chair, I moved to my granny chair in the lounge and slept. And slept. I slept all night and had to force myself to get up in the morning. The only reason I got dressed was in case someone came to the door. But really I didn’t care and all I wanted to do was sleep and hide. I managed to do the service sheets and the sermons and the newsletters full of fun stories to go out each week, but that was all I managed. The other things I had to do or plan lay in my in-tray. It was such an effort to phone my little flock and see how they were and it felt as if I was putting on a mask to be someone else, someone they used to know, just to get through it.

My GP changed my medication and I stopped sleeping. This was good, I thought. But it was just more hours to sit and ponder. I was able to return to my prayer group and support groups, but I didn’t want to say anything other than hint that things were difficult. You don’t want to bring it up in case it makes you cry again and what if you can’t stop? For once I didn’t want the attention.

In August the church buildings were allowed to open again but there was a lot of work involved in doing that. Things would be very different. I worked hard in preparing Risk Assessments and I realised that I was frightened to go back into the church building. I was worried that, despite all the new safety restrictions, I would be at risk. I knew that a few of my little flock were not quite as careful as they might be when out and about. I was worried that I was going to have to hand over control to other people to ensure our safety and I’ve never liked handing over control. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you. Would our Sidespeople make sure everyone was wearing a mask properly? Would people always fill up church from the front or would they want to sit where they usually sat? Would they get up and go and chat to friends because they couldn’t hear through the masks? Would I have to tell them off if I saw a mask pulled down from their noses because their specs were steaming up? Why was I doing it? Why open when some others weren’t? But those who decided to play it safe had good established online communities by that time. I didn’t. It turns out my GP was right… I did have anxiety. My pills were put up.

Being back in the church building was actually okay. Yes, there were a few hiccups and as weeks went by the strict rules seemed to relax a bit. We reduced the length of the service, and sermon, and our lovely organists pulled out all the stops to make us feel in the mood, even if we couldn’t sing along. It looked as if the ‘new normal’ was working okay. Nobody was complaining about no biscuits with coffee now. That was the least of our worries. No coffee after and a quick exit was the new way of leaving church. We were full to our capacity of 22 folk spaced out 2 metres apart most weeks. And gradually more folk who had been worried about coming back, gradually came and joined us. My new increase of anti-anxiety meds had started to make me shake and feel worse so the doc suggested another kind which involved slowly coming off the current ones and having a break of a few days before starting the new ones. But when I did come off them I felt so much better. The trembling hands stopped, my diabetes sugar levels sorted themselves out, and I felt more like myself. And I had energy once more. I got my Income Tax Return done with minutes to spare, I cleared out the in-trays, I was up and down off that wretched kitchen chair tidying and cooking and feeling normal again. It was such a relief that I didn’t bother starting the new tablets.

It was only then that I felt able to tell some people what had been going on. I don’t know why I couldn’t do it before but that’s how it was with me. I told the Vestry and some friends and of course they were all lovely. My GP was fine about me not taking the pills any more but is there if I need to talk again. Yes, I’m still anxious when I see people breaking the rules but not any more than anyone else. Well, perhaps just a little. I haven’t been out for months now and would dearly love to go into a shop once more but I daren’t. Not when we are so close to getting a vaccine. My only outings for months and months have been for medical reasons and I so miss seeing people but that’s how it is.

Then last week it all flooded back when mention was made of a new strain of the virus. This strain was 80% more virulent. Yes, it was mostly down south but it wouldn’t take long for it to reach Scotland. Not while people were gadding about the country because the Government are unable to make difficult and decisive decisions. We’d been promised a few days at Christmas for limited numbers to gather indoors and all of a sudden that was withdrawn. Now only 3 households can gather on Christmas Day. And even then, said our First Minister, it would be better if we didn’t. She went on to say that if she had her life to live again one of the things she would change was not locking down sooner. So, on Boxing Day the Scottish mainland would enter Level 4 which is pretty much lockdown again. I thought about my little flock, the vast majority of whom are over 80 and many live alone. If the First Minister was saying we could only meet a limited number of family on Christmas Day, how could I open my church for two services and encourage them all to come and sit indoors with others? I phoned some clergy friends for advice. There was not a universal opinion, of course. Some had spoken to medical experts in their congregations and had been advised to close immediately. Some felt they were going to be okay and would be open on Christmas Day and then wait to see what the Advisory Committee said about it. We looked for advice from our Church experts but it took some time and the answer was to make the decision ourselves and they would support us. I felt quite shaky again. A text message came from the Scottish Government because I’m on the shielding list which told me from 26 December I should be extra careful. But what’s the difference between 25th or 26th December? Why is it okay one day but not the next? I decided that it was too risky for St Fillan’s to meet in the building on Christmas Day. But how to tell them, knowing how much people were looking forward to it, especially when I knew for some it would be the only contact with other people?

I didn’t sleep much on Saturday night. Then at the end of the service on Sunday I told them that we would close from now. I could see the disappointment in some of their eyes, but I also saw one person nodding in agreement. That gave me hope to carry on. I explained how this new strain made things completely different and much riskier. If we couldn’t spend time with our beloved families why could we come to sit in a church building? Then a voice from the back shouted out, “Ruth, you’ve made the right decision. Don’t worry. We know you’re doing it out of love for us.” And then they clapped. Nearly everyone clapped. My anxiety levels dropped once more. That’s where God was!

Then the next day someone on Social Media started bleating about how ridiculous it was to close churches at Christmas. A responder said clergy who did that shouldn’t call themselves priests. And so it went on. And still goes on. Social media is definitely not good for your mental health. I worry that a wee knock like that will set me back again, and I really don’t want that to happen. So it seems that I’m still fragile underneath the bravado. If only we could all love one another, and respect others for making decisions that are right for them and their context.

So there you have it. It took longer than I planned to share my thoughts with you. As someone wise used to say to me often, “It’s difficult loving Jesus.” He was and is right. And let me share one last piece of good news… we had a practice Zoom yesterday and it worked so we may gather virtually on Christmas day! Of course it may all go wrong again and Zoom may collapse because everyone in the world will be using it, but I shall give it a try.

What happened to Sundays?

My earliest memories of Sundays were when dad came to pick us up and took us out for the day. Sometimes a picnic, sometimes back to his house to play with my half-sisters. It was always a treat day for me, which involved sweeties and pocket-money (perhaps the real reason I enjoyed them so much.)

Some childhood Sundays were long lie-ins, late brunch (but we never called it that back then) and lying on the floor watching black and white movies. Mum would do the ironing for back to school the next day and we would have a bath, wash our hair, and dry it by lying next to the electric fire. This explains the bad hair days I had in all those photographs of my childhood.

As I got older Sundays were mostly hungover days and were days of rest, reading and watching bad TV, except for those old movies. Sometimes I don’t think I even got dressed.

When I was first married and had the boys, long lies were out of the question and some shops started to trade on a Sunday. Often we would walk down to John Menzies on Princes Street which was a big book store and browse for hours before buying a paperback or more.

But I was always a night person – an owl rather than a lark. Sunday mornings were meant for sleep and dozing and breakfast in bed if at all possible.

Then I found Church and it all changed. Overnight I became a lark. Up and dressed and raring to go across the road to church as the bell tolled and people from miles around gathered together. I never missed a Sunday except for one occasion when I was very ill. And what I did on Sundays at church spread out into my life and happened on other days too, and in evenings and in groups and in pubs. I loved the structure of Sunday and over time it changed – sometimes pub after for lunch, sometimes going on to someone’s house to laugh and talk theology and drink, sometimes back for Evensnog and Benediction, sometimes going out with church friends.

When I was ordained Sundays changed again. There were early services to attend or take, main services and clearing up to do after, coffee to share and home communions to take out to the housebound. It always began with Radio 4 and sometimes a bit of The Archers as I drove between one church and another. Sundays then became quite tiring days as I’d slump in the afternoon when I got home. Tiring in the afternoon because there was such a buzz in the morning. Sometimes a wee nana-nap had to be taken if there was an evening service to do. At this church the routine was church at 10am then coffee and a blether which could go on for some considerable time, and then the Lunch Bunch (single folk who live alone) would head off to The Steading for lunch which could go on till almost 4pm by the time we have sorted the world’s problems out. It was great. Social and pastoral and theology and mission all rolled in to one.

And then there is now. One week coffee after church was stopped because of the risk, and the next the church was closed.  And that was a couple of months ago. Oh how I miss it all. I miss the Eucharist most of all. But I also miss the people so much. I miss the conversations about nothing in particular. Yes, I do have conversations by phone now but they mostly consist of coronavirus talk and health. I miss the visuals we created in church to mark the liturgical year. I miss the laughter. I miss preaching to people I can see. I miss the music – oh how I miss that! I am missing my 50 days of unremitting joy. Holy Week was just agony but for all the wrong reasons. Easter Sunday was painful because we were to have an adult baptism as well as all the rest of the razzamatazz.  Yes, every week I sit down at 10am and I go through our spirit communion service. I read the readings and I try to contemplate them as best I can. I pray for those who are sick and I pray for all the others who are affected in different ways. I don’t do anything online as so few of my congregation could access it easily, and I feel it would be excluding them if I did it for some. Of course, there is plenty of religion to be found. I could join Zoom churches aplenty, there are Provincial services, friends’ services from cathedrals to small churches like mine. At the beginning I watched them all: the good and the not-so-good. But I’m afraid they are just not doing it for me. I just don’t feel part of it without my own little flock.

When will it go back to how it was before? Should it go back to how it was before? What will the ‘new normal’ be like? I don’t know and I can’t even imagine. With the age profile of my congregation I know they would mostly like it to be exactly as it was before. They want Sundays back just like its aye been. And you know, I want that too. Just now I really, really want my Sundays to be just like they were before all this happened. Yes, its made me more aware of my housebound folk and how we can do more for them and that will continue. But right now I am mourning the loss of my Sundays and all they contained.

Why Sunday Is one of the most Essential Day of the Week for Your ...

A day for thinking about death

Today is Good Friday and the year is 2020. There will never be another Good Friday like this. I hope. Our churches are closed because of the Coronavirus and we are all trying to find ways of keeping the Triduum at home. Some have created prayer spaces with symbols that mean something, some have watched a hundred videos on Facebook and YouTube and some clergy have felt inadequate at the expertise of others. Why didn’t I learn all this IT stuff before the lockdown began? Why didn’t I prepare better? And if someone said that to me I would tell them that doing your best is just fine. But today I’m not hearing it. Today I’m grumpy, and in a bad mood, and I’m missing my Good Friday.

From the first year that I became a Christian Holy Week has been so very special for me. The sights, the sounds, the smells all take me to that place far, far away and long, long ago. Since being ordained I have tried faithfully to share some of that life-changing week with my little flocks. Through Stations of the Cross, art, fasting, meditations, candlelit Compline, preaching the Passion, the Veneration of the Cross, foot-washing, shared meals, prostrating at the Garden of Repose, and the joy of Holy Saturday and cleaning the church and preparing it for Easter Day. I love Holy Week. Yes, it makes me cry. But after the tears come Hot Cross Buns. And you know you have to go through the agony to appreciate the joy of Easter.

Today I’ve been thinking about death. My own death. I am ‘shielding’ at the moment which is the strictest kind of self-isolation for those who have an illness that puts them at high risk of catching the virus. Some people have one illness which puts them at risk. I have a few! I have COPD (lung disease) and Asthma, Diabetes, Liver disease, and I’m on steroids which lower my immune system. So I am being very careful indeed about staying indoors and washing everything over and over again. But there is still a chance I could catch it – when I’m at the doctor’s for blood tests, or at the hospital as I was on Monday. And I know that if I do get Coronavirus I might not survive it. For once I’m not being dramatic, for this is my reality. Usually I am a glass half-full kind of person but today I’m not. Because today, Good Friday, is a day for thinking about death and I can’t help but think of my own.

Many years ago, at the beginning of my ministry, I led an evening on Preparing Your Own Funeral and I’ve repeated them time and time again. It is a subject I am passionate about. I’ve met families who have not even considered that their parent or loved one might die and are totally unprepared for thinking about hymns or burial or cremation or what readings or any of the questions a priest might ask the next of kin. Prepare your own before you go! I’d shout. And people did. And I did. And I told my son where to find it. And I showed him where all my papers are. I could relax. All was in hand.

But things have changed. My hope for a full Requiem with clergy in black vestments and twelve favourite hymns just won’t happen if I should die while restrictions are in place. It may be my boys and a priest at the Crem. It may be short and, I’m sure, sweet but nothing as I’d planned and hoped. And that’s okay. To be honest, I think my boys might prefer it that way.

Speaking to a friend this week who is also ‘shielding’ she told me her GP had phoned to check that she was taking all the instructions seriously to the letter, and did anyone have Power of Attorney, and did she want a DNR put in place. She was shocked and upset. She hadn’t thought about that. And I haven’t either. I know I hope for a good death, a happy death but I also know that not everyone gets that. My mother didn’t. My father didn’t. I don’t want to be resuscitated if there’s no hope. But I haven’t done anything about that yet. I don’t want to die alone or with a stranger holding my hand in their gloved one. I’m not frightened of dying but I am frightened of the physical aspects of it and the emotional ones. Then I listen to the Passion story again and again and wonder why I’m afraid and feel rather silly.

So that’s where I am this Good Friday. I know it will pass. But this is where I am today. Thinking, probably over-thinking, about death. It has been a struggle this Holy Week. I pray that Easter will make it better.

The Prisoner of Buckstone

It seems that it might be time to revive the old blog. However,  don’t go expecting nice pictures and thoughtful prose. The reason?  My study where the computer is is freezing,  my new laptop doesn’t work,  so I’m doing this on my trusty tablet using Swype so there will be spelling mistakes and nothing fancy.

Now,  why the blog revival?  The world is in the midst of a pandemic called Coronavirus. We are about 6 weeks into it here in Scotland and I have been housebound since 3 March 2020 as I had a chest infection at the beginning and was told to self isolate. No warning that it might go on for a while.  No time to stock up on stuff. I had to get cover for church services and turn my ministry into the phone kind once I was feeling a bit better. My son lives with me so he became full time carer,  shopper, messenger, along with all the rest he does for me at home. I started online supermarket shopping and with reasonably good grace we got used to being home all day.

Things got worse. The College of Bishops started issuing guidance to keep us safe during the crisis. First it was no intinction at communion (yay!) then nobody to receive the chalice except the priest,  no shaking hands at the Peace, no biscuits after the service, and finally our churches had to close for who knows how long?  That was when clergy up and down the land had to rethink ‘church’. And quickly. If church isn’t the building,  what is it?  And soon there were priests popping up on Facebook saying Morning Prayer in immaculate studies while I wondered how long it would take to find a tidy yet erudite bookcase to sit in front of and look holy and thoughtful. That’s when I discovered my laptop wasn’t working so ditched that idea.

The doc told me i had to begin 12 weeks of self isolation which would take me to June as i have a few health issues which make me high risk. I had 1 wedding in June and 2 in July so contingency plans had to be made. One of my little flock was seriously ill in hospital and I couldn’t visit. I enjoyed phoning my congregation,  when I could get them in… these lovely elderly people were not going to stop going out until the day came when the government put us into lockdown. That’s where we are now, only allowed out to shop for necessities or short exercise.

On Sundays we gather for  a Spiritual Communion, me in the rectory with a candle, a cross, and my home communion set. During the week I email or post the service sheet out,  along with a weekly newsletter,  and on Sunday we all say the service ‘in communion’ with one another. The same folk are late. We all miss the hymns. It’s all over rather quickly. But feedback has been good.  For the past 2 Sundays Bishop Mark and Bishop John have done an online eucharist which we can watch on Facebook or YouTube. So few of my congregation are on social media so they are missing out on that,  and it’s also why I haven’t done any services myself that way. I feel that I should. I don’t know how but I could learn. I’m living with that guilt at the moment.

Social media is my lifeline at the moment. I can’t get out.  Nobody can visit me. I’ve not been well. I’m an extrovert who needs people around me for energy, for stimulation. But i have a good circle of friends who will chat online when i need it. I have low days,  very low days,  and good days.  Like everyone.  And we’re told this is normal. I’ve stopped watching the Prime Minister’s daily bulletins because they are bad for my mental health. I can’t shop online any more because the whole world is doing it and supermarkets are doing the best but just can’t cope with how to prioritise the most vulnerable. That can take up a few hours each day just phoning or searching online and it does nothing for my mood. But heh, we’re not starving as many are. I need to keep remembering that.

Oh that’s enough for first isolation diary. Let’s see if I can upload this… more to follow on plans for Holy Week…