At the time of writing it is
approaching the fiftieth anniversary of the first humans to set foot on a
natural surface anywhere other than the earth, which took place on 20th July
1969, as I'm sure you are aware. One of
my earliest childhood memories is of watching that landing, with my parents,
grandparents and great grandmother, who had been born during the reign of Queen
Victoria and who, surely, must belong to one of the generations to have seen
most obvious change during their lifetimes.
It was very late, Neil Armstrong stepping onto
the Moon's surface, in the Sea of Tranquility, at 0256 GMT, nearly 20 minutes after first
opening the hatch, so I was very excited to be up. But, if I'm honest, it was all rather a bit
dull for me, small grainy pictures not being as remotely interesting to my
preschool self as such much more exciting programmes as Thunderbirds, Supercar
and Fireball XL5.
Learning more about Apollo 11 though now, of
which I'm sure that you have your own memories, I am surprised to learn how
much a close run thing it really was. That the landing nearly didn't take place
at all, with only 25 seconds' fuel left out of a 13 minute descent, before the
abort button would have to be pressed to ensure enough fuel to get back to the
Command Module. That it was less than
two and a half years since the first Apollo mission ended in disaster, with the
fire and loss of all crew before the rocket had even blasted off, on February
21st, 1967 and less than six months since the first manned journey to the moon
in Apollo 8, the first time humans had left earth orbit. That the technology used, famously less than
that in the iPhone in my pocket, stretched the available science and manufacturing
processes of the time to their very limits and was all being used for the first
time; indeed the giant Saturn V Rocket remains to this day by some way the
largest and most powerful structure to have ever flown.
Yet, by a huge amount of effort, belief and
courage, it happened and through it, though many doubted that it could happen
at all, let alone before the end of the 1960's, the challenge accepted by NASA
from President Kennedy, the limits of what is possible, seemed to have
expanded. Through that enlargement we
have a bigger picture, of our world, our place in it and our world's place in
the universe; the 'Earth Rising' picture of the earth, taken by Apollo 8, was
the first glimpse humans had of everything which both existed or had ever existed
in human history, and all, as astronaut Jim Lovell said, from the spacecraft,
could be blocked out by his thumb.
the limits of what seems possible and a resultantly bigger picture are, it
seems to me, what faith in God gifts us.
It's not that the picture the astronauts brought to us was something
new, it had been there all along, or at least for the last few billion years;
its just that it was suddenly made visible - like a beam of sunlight piercing a
through into a darkened room makes visible the little motes of dust, which had
been there all along, but which suddenly shimmer and glisten. So faith in God
unlocks for us a view of things which had actually always existed, at least as
possibilities, but which we hadn't realised were there. Often not without cost, certainly not without
doubt and never without our own willing cooperation and, sometimes, great
effort - and often also not without some backsliding - but gradually, life enhancingly
and increasingly visibly - faith in God transforms lives; ours if we let
should this be? Well one answer is that
is always ready for us, even if we sometimes feel as if we are waiting to
glimpse him. Our view of life is crowded
and cluttered by so many things that our horizons are as much obscured as
limited. But God always has a clear view
of us, holding his hand out to us, knocking on the door of our lives and
waiting for us to trust in that hand, that open door, that departure on what
might seem a long, difficult and frightening journey. Yet I believe that the journey is unfailingly
worth it and that actually, we can come to know that for ourselves, as, in
time, our journey reveals to us, lets us see, what we had never seen before,
but which was always there.
friend and vicar
To the best of my knowledge,
the word "shallow" cannot be said in one word in French ("peu
profond"); another difficult word to translate is "cogent" (how
different is it from "coherent"?); other delightful English words:
flabbergasted; mind-boggling; the countless nouns and verbs describing sight,
light, and sounds (glisten, glare, gleam , rustle, etc...) are similarly
without a parallel word. Another English
word with no one-word French equivalent is "Peck", which translated
into French is "Donner de coupe de la bec" or "Attack with the
front of the beak."
It seems that in fact every
language has words and concepts with no single equivalent in other languages.
For example, there is no "logic" nor "romance" in Chinese
(ok, there are modern day phonetic translations). Try translating/explaining
the Danish "hygge" to English.
A friend of mine says that there is no foreign equivalent for the word
"stuff" in its "collection of things" sense. According to former US President George W
Bush "...the problem with the French is that they don't have a word for
entrepreneur." Although, with this in mind we might reflect that neither
does Portuguese have the words
"bully" or "impeach”.
This aspect of translating
words popped into my mind this week when I read that Bristol University said that
its Dr Gerard Cheshire had “succeeded where countless cryptographers, (including
Alan Turing!) linguistics scholars and computer programs have failed” by
identifying the language and purpose of a mysterious and apparently coded
15th-century text, the ‘Voynich Manuscript.
Although the meaning of the
volume, held at Yale University, had eluded experts for more than a century,
the university said Cheshire had solved the puzzle in just two weeks “using a
combination of lateral thinking and ingenuity”.
Cheshire argued Voynich was a therapeutic reference book composed by
nuns for Maria of Castile, queen of Aragon, and the sole surviving text written
in a lost language called “proto-Romance”. He described his findings as “one of
the most important developments to date in Romance linguistics”. Although in the last few days the University
has backtracked a little, claiming that this still remains an unproven theory,
Dr Cheshire has not, heralding his breakthrough as being even more important
that the discovery of the meaning of the manuscript, because, through it, we
might have knowledge not just about the language itself, but of the whole
‘Proto Romance’ culture, society and civilisation, of which it is the only
How we know about a society,
an event or a person from the past is necessarily only communicated to us through
what it leaves behind and points to; in the case of history this would be
things like written documents, art and archaeology. As we look in June towards the great
Christian feast of Pentecost however, it seems to me that it is of crucial
importance to us in understanding, finding out about and indeed experiencing
Easter –in fact I’d go so far as to say that if it weren’t for Pentecost, we
wouldn’t even know about Easter!
Consider the backstory. Jesus spent forty days with his disciples, (before
they were to transformed into ‘apostles’ at Pentecost), they were no doubt a
bit bereft when he ascended back to his father, but he had to do this if he was
not to be limited to their time and place but to be what he was meant to be – feeling
perhaps a bit like parents watching their children go off to university!
More than that, seven days
after the ascension, the disciples, as they still were, joined thousands of
others in Jerusalem at ‘the feast of weeks’, the end of the Passover festival
in which the first sheaf of the barley harvest would be offered before God in
the temple, anticipating the greater harvest that was to come in the
summer. Well on the fiftieth day after
Passover (Pentecost comes from the greek word for fifty, ie pent – five), that
harvest was begun for the disciples, who were then turned into apostles, by the
result of Jesus becoming for all ages; the holy spirit came and as the memory
of all Isreal celebrated the deliverance from Egyptian bondage, so the apostles
could show that muliti ethnic jewish population that deliverance from all that
enslaves and holds us in bondage is available, and that what God uttered
through the prophet Joel had come true,
“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that
I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall
prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream
dreams” Acts 2: 16-18
This is why the story of
Pentecost is the lens through which we both know about and see the meaning of
Easter. It promises that whatever
happens to us in life, Jesus is there with us through his holy spirit. It shows that, just as the three thousand
souls who were added to the Church on that first Pentecost Sunday were from all
corners of the Roman world – just as in fact the population of Rome itself was
– so the narrative arc of Acts shows the Easter story being carried out of
Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (as they understood it at the time!). It shows that people knew about Easter
because of and through Pentecost. It
finally points beyond even that, to a promise of fulfilment of which we can
catch wonderful glimpses in the fulfilments that the work of the holy spirit is
able to work in us, if only we let it.
If the Voynich manuscript is the only lens through which we may see the
whole proto Romance culture, then our understanding of Easter is in the
same way shown to us through the lens of
Pentecost; it might not be able to be understood logically, but there’s no end,
in the true meaning of the word, to the romance.
Your friend and vicar
Maybe because they are
traditionally times of family gatherings, Christian festivals, especially
Easter and Christmas, sometimes draw up and carry with them some of our deepest
family memories. If we are going to remember and miss someone we have loved and
lost, we will do it now. As we contemplate the Bible readings of the women
bearing spices and wishing they could at least anoint the one they miss, we
might also think about the many people who will visit graves and memorial
plaques over the eater weekend, ‘Renewing flowers, tending the bare earth’. All
those ‘beautiful useless gestures’, all that ‘love poured out in silence’ is, I
believe, somehow gathered together in these three days and sown deep in the
ground of God’s love, ready for the day when he will make all things new again.
“The love that's poured in
silence at old graves
Renewing flowers, tending
the bare earth,
Is never lost. In him all
love is found
And sown with him, a seed in
the rich ground.”
To quote a wonderful poem
It’s the same motif I think
which moves us to decorate the inside of Churches with the signs of renewed
life in springtime which flowers represent, the Church being transformed from
the bare austerity of plainness in Lent to a wonderfully renewed vibrancy
celebrated at easter.
As I was thinking about this
transformation, I was reminded of a novel written by the Anglican Author, Susan
Hill called ‘In the Springtime of Year’. It was written 40 years ago when she
was mourning the death of her talented fiancé David Lepine. David was the first
organist of the newly built Coventry Cathedral and he died suddenly, of a
coronary heart attack, at the age of 43. Susan Hill wrote this novel to express
her pain, and it is a moving and intimate tale of the process of grieving.
Ruth, the central character mourns the sudden death of her husband Ben who was
killed by a falling tree in a freak accident. A year after his death she has
started to come to terms with her loss. She goes with Jo, Ben’s younger
brother, to the village churchyard on Easter morning. Susan Hill writes:
‘They had reached the Lych gate. Jo was pointing. She
The churchyard was brilliant as a garden with the
patterned flowers, almost every grave was decked out in growing white and blue,
pink and butter-yellow, and underneath it all, the watery moss and the vivid
grass; it was as though all the people had indeed truly risen and were dancing
in the sunshine, there was nothing but rejoicing and release. She walked slowly
across the turf to the side of the church and stood, looking towards Ben’s
grave. It was like a sunburst. She did not need, or want, to go nearer.
Jo touched her arm. ‘You see,’ he said, his voice
full of wonder, ‘it did happen. It does. It’s true.’
‘Did you ever doubt it?’
‘Once,’ he said carefully, ‘one time.’
Susan Hill offers another
powerful image of how we can experience this resurrection joy, and it is an
image that tells us that such joy is always linked to faith. Resurrection can
be doubted, seen only as an imagined happy ending to the pain of grief. Real
life, the life of science and economics and hard fact is not like that. People
are born, people die, some are happy and successful, for some life is a series
of repeated tragedies.
Think of how the liberating
power of resurrection is pictured in the Easter stories: Matthew speaks of an earthquake, of an angel
descending from heaven and rolling back the stone from the tomb and sitting on
it. The guards, the representatives of the governing forces of oppression and
violence and death shook, and their power was no more. We are asked through
these dramatic pictures to imagine that reality has changed. The order of the
world is shaken, heaven and earth are linked, angels come with the dawning of a
But the centre of the story
is not the dramatic effects that signal the action of God but rather the fear
and joy of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary as they run to tell the disciples
what they have seen. The centre is in their sudden meeting with Jesus; Jesus
who stands in the path, and greets them. ‘And they came to him, took hold of
his feet, and worshipped him’.
Perhaps, and it is has to be
a perhaps, because to see it requires trust and perception, the world has been
changed. Faith, trust, will always be accompanied by its darker sister doubt,
but it needs sister doubt so that it loses its naivete and doesn’t become
arrogant, triumphalist or intolerant of other voices.
The centre of the easter
story is joy, but it isn’t I think the kind of unqualified exclusive inward
looking joy which we might feel if we say received a present of something we
quite liked or if our favourite football team won a trophy. The centre of the easter joy is a joy which
is born out of the experience of pain, loss and sorrow and has somehow found a
way through; which acknowledges that joy is not all that there is to life, but
that we can find joy in life anyway
“He blesses every love that
weeps and grieves
And makes our grief the
pangs of a new birth.”
Your friend and vicar
On 18 March
2107 Frenchman Eric Barone (also known as Le Baron Rouge, or Red Devil), beat
his own downhill speed record by topping 141mph on a ski slope in the French
resort of Vars. The record tops Barone’s
previous effort from 2015, which saw him reach 223,3 Km/h (138.75 mph) on the
same ski track.
Once a stunt double for
actors such as Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme, Barone has always
held a fascination with speed and has been setting bicycle speed records since
the early nineties.
56 Year old Barone also
holds the record for the fastest speed achieved travelling downhill on a
volcano with a prototype bicycle. Set
back in 2002, Barone was clocked at a mere 172 kilometres per hour (107 mph)
while descending the Cerro Negro volcano in Nicaragua. Moments later, Barone’s
fork broke away from the frame of his bike causing a shocking crash that you
really, really shouldn’t watch if you’re at all squeamish (but you can if you
want to on You Tube!)
“The only thing propelling
Eric was gravity”, explained his engineer, “so Eric’s bike, helmet and latex
suit were all designed to minimise air resistance. We made a 3D scan of the bike with Eric
sitting on it and then added external ‘fairings’ to the frame to get an optimal
airflow to make him as aerodynamic as possible.
The picture of Le Baron
Rouge hurtling by the sheer force of gravity down a snowy mountainside is in
marked contrast with another picture which sprang at once to my mind when I
first heard about Mssr Barone and his 141.5mph.
The story which I thought of, and which might perhaps be one way of
thinking about the Easter story as well is one with which you might already be
familiar. It’s the story of Alfred
Wainwright, the Blackburn lad who, in 1930 took the train to Windermere from
Blackburn and walked up Orrest Head, the path to which, you might know, begins
just across the road from Windermere railway station. If you do know that path which Waimwright
took, you will know that it is almost entirely covered with thick woodland,
through which only brief glimpses of the sky, whatever it might be like that
day, and even briefer glimpses of the growing panorama of the lakes and
mountains around the walk, may be glimpsed.
But, on reaching the top, and emerging from the woods, a glorious vista
of the whole southern Lake District, springs into view, ‘like drawing back a curtain’ was how Wainwright described it, and
it was to be an experience which transformed his life…..but let Alfred tell it
in his own words:
‘These few hours on Orrest Head cast a spell that
changed my life.
I was totally transfixed, unable to believe my eyes.
I had never seen anything like this. I saw mountain ranges, one after another,
the nearer starkly etched, those beyond fading into the blue distance. Rich
woodlands, emerald pastures and the shimmering water of the lake below added to
a pageant of loveliness, a glorious panorama that held me enthralled. I had
seen landscapes of rural beauty pictured in the local art gallery, but here was
no painted canvas; this was real. This was truth. God was in his heaven that
day and I a humble worshipper.’
Alfred Wainwright left
Blackburn and moved to Kendal, where, as Borough Treasurer from 1948 to 1967,
he mapped out walks and both wrote and illustrated the books of walks which
were to open up his beloved vistas and panoramas for many others over the
years, and still do.
So how does this relate to
Easter, you might ask, and to Mssr Le Baron?
Well, imagine walking through those woods, and knowing that there was a
marvellous view somewhere to be seen but only catching brief glimpses. Imagine, eventually, emerging and having your
world view transformed. Imagine then
being able, with the brave baron, to hurtle through that mountain landscape at
a speed that no-one has ever been able to achieve before. That, I suggest, is one way in which we might
experience for ourselves the exhilarating, transforming, sometimes frightening
picture which is the rolling away of the stone in the Easter story: to allow ourselves to emerge out of whatever
tomb we might find ourselves in and see and experience a life so much in
contrast with anything we had known before that it changes and transforms our
life – just as it did Wainwright’s all those years ago. It has been put so marvellously in a poem I
know, and much better than I can say that I’ll end on this wonderful picture;
Lost in your own dark wood, alone, astray,
You pause, as though some secret were disclosed,
As though some heavy stone were rolled away.
You glimpse the sky above you, wan and grey,
Wide through these shadowed branches interposed,
Wide as an empty tomb on Easter Day.
And then Love calls your name, you hear Him say:
The way is open, death has been deposed,
As though some heavy stone were rolled away,
And you are free at last on Easter Day.
Your friend and vicar
I know of a lady who lives
in a gentrified flat in London who has one large wallspace in her living room
which is completely devoid of decoration, indeed, crying out it would seem, for
a centrepiece. She doesn’t want it
filled by a ready framed picture a daffodils, she explains, and she is
successful enough to be able to afford to purchase interesting and unique art
works. She has been to art fairs and
consulted with experts and is aware of “a whole world of beauty and interest
arrayed before her”. And that, she says,
is the problem, and the reason that the wall stays, two years after she moved
in, stubbornly blank. She is, she says,
“paralysed by choice”; its not that she has no idea what to put on her wall,
its that there’s too much to choose from!
This seems to be a currently
trending phenomena, at least as a First World Problem, and psychologists have
dubbed it ‘Choice Paralysis’; being overwhelmed by the range of choices
available. The lady’s blank wall may
show us that the internet has not created this paralysis, but it has meant that
more and more of us are experiencing it.
I remember queuing outside for what seemed like hours around the walls
of the main cinema in the town near to where I grew up to see the Steven
Speilberg blockbuster film ‘Jaws’, along with what seemed like every other
child my age in the area. Quite whether
the wait was worth it is another matter, what I remember most is that no one
thought anything of having to queue, it was taken for granted - there was one big screen showing one film
which everyone wanted to see (because if you didn’t, how could you join in the
conversation in the school playground the next day?). Now it is quite different. I have spent many wasted hours of my life
scrolling through the Netflix Homepage (many more than I must have queued up to
see ‘Jaws’) dutifully noting the endless options, many or all of which I could happily
watch, and managing, in the end, to watch none!
The problem is not, as Bruce Springsteen said “57 channels, and nothin’
on”, but rather that there are endless channels with way too much on.
Another memory from near the
time of my queue to see Jaws is of watching the 1978 Morecambe and Wise
Christmas special on BBC1 on Christmas Day 1978. Now I know that this is a memory shared with
at least half of you who are reading this letter who were alive and sentient at
the time. How do I know this? Because it is estimated that that show was watched
by at least 28 million viewers, or roughly half the population of the UK at the
time, the greatest number ever for a UK non royal or sporting programme. Again, quite apart from the merits of the
show or the act it contained (and opinion is, to my eyes at any rate,
surprisingly divided on how well the duo have aged with time), it was the
common shared experience that society was much more united by then than it is now, partly because of the plethora of
streamed services providing us with such overwhelming choice. Its possible to sit in front of your internet
connected TV aware that nearly everything that you might ever want to watch is
available to you, (including the 1978 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special –
definitely worth it in my view!). Its
possible to be paralysed by that realisation, or at least become aware that the
Cultural Blockbuster, the show everyone is watching, the album or song everyone
is listening to, belongs in the rather more innocent days of three channels on
the TV and one screen at the cinema.
It’s not only TV which has
this individualising effect. I have
access to more music than I could possibly have dreamed of even 20 years ago;
whether through Spotify, Napster or one word to Alexa I can summon up in an
instant songs which I would have gone on an odyssey (say about 20 years), of
searching through record shops, market stalls and record fairs, to find. If I hear, now, a song which I like and don’t
know what it is, one tap on my mobile brings up not only the name of the song
and artist, but the song itself, many videos and a wealth of detail about it,
and instantly. I wonder sometimes
whether when something becomes easily available or abundant, an ancient part of
our brains tells us to value it less. We
have perhaps evolved to value what is scarce, say, mammoth meat, and to be
rather blasé about what is all around us, say the views of the valley. So precious was the finding of the second
hand single record that I had long sought and had now found, that listening to
it became a religious experience; now I can summon up every different version
ever put out, and twenty different videos of it at the click of a switch, and instantly.
So where does that leave
Jesus’ claim the he is ‘The Way’, ‘The Truth’ and ‘The Life’ in the face of
such choice? How does the Church look,
to most non Church going people (which is almost everyone), when it claims to
have, alone, the path to the kind of life that God wants for us, ie
eternal? Not only in relation to other
religions, but, I suspect, to any thought system, philosophy of life or self
help manual readily available (online, of course), this claim looks
increasingly out of step with what society has become, and is still
becoming. The Church and its teaching
risks, in my eyes, looking to most people, at best rather presumptuous in the
face of such readily available choice or at worst increasingly irrelevant in
the face of so much relativism.
Perhaps one way out of this
seeming clash of cultures, and one not appearing to be going into reverse any
time soon, is to realise that sometimes a break from having to choose might be
exactly what people might want, or at least need without knowing it. It’s said that the reason why President Obama
only ever wore grey or blue suits when he was President was that he had so many
important decisions to make each day that choosing his clothes was one which he
did not want to have in addition. Making
choices can become wearying and burdensome.
I was driving back from taking one of my children to university recently
and, faced with choosing which of all the world’s music which was all instantly
available to me to put on in the car, I did something I haven’t done for many
years; to avoid the burden of choice, I put the radio on!
Churches, like radios, may
be past the time where they provided that ‘Cultural Blockbuster’ which was shared
by everyone – but they are both still here.
Just as radio still has a place so too might the local Church be a place
of welcome refuge from the morass of choice descending on us as we leave the
church door. Rather than try to compete
or to ape that cultural relativism which provides such opportunity but also
such weariness outside its doors, I believe that we might become not just a
refuge, but a place of peace where, once we leave it and step out of the door
once more, we might be refreshed and better equipped to make the best choices
we can. In this way going into a Church
can help us to make the most of the opportunities our world brings and be able
to decide for ourselves what we do and where we go in the world around us; to
be able to decide and say for ourselves, and with great joy, “Yes, tonight, it’s
going to be Morecambe and Wise”!
Your Friend and vicar
I recently saw a painting
done in simple black ink on paper in a style which is immediately recognisable
as classic Chinese; simple lines, stylised figures and empty spaces suggesting
a rich landscape to the mind. I
obviously thought that the valley, trees and people walking in the rain the
picture depicts was in some glorious corner of China unknown to me. How wrong I was. On looking at the title to the painting I saw
immediately that it was of a place I know very well, and, once I had seen the
title, immediately recognised. Its title
is “Going to Church in the rain, Wasdale Head, 1937”. Wasdale Head, in the Lake District, was
painted by the Chinese artist Chiang Yee in the style he had been trained in,
and was indeed a master of, in 1937 as part of a tour of the Lake district
which produced many other Lake District scenes, but portrayed in the Chinese
style of painting and were published in a book entitled 'The Silent Traveller:
A Chinese Artist in Lakeland' (1937) and which proved very popular. In fact so popular was the book that Chiang
produced many other pictures of Britain, including The Tower of London, The Houses
of Parliament and many other well known British landmarks, all done in the
Chinese style, which were lapped up by the British public at the time, in fact
from 1933 to 1955 while he continued to tour the country. An exhibition of Chiang’s work entitled ‘A
Chinese Artist in the Lake District’ was recently held at Low Wood Bay,
Anyone looking at Chaing’s
Chinese style pictures of mid Century Britain sees the scene they are looking at
through a particular lens. We might in
fact see all art functioning in this way; if someone had taken a photograph,
for example, of Van Gough’s windmills, or of L.S. Lowry’s scenes of industrial
towns, painted in the large part at the same time as Chiang was working, they
would not see exactly what was painted on the canvas. Rather the art work represents the reality of
the scene depicted and helps us to see it in ways we might not otherwise have
Seeing something through a
particular lens, or maybe experiencing it too, is perhaps one way that we might
consider how we experience God in our lives.
Just as Moses experienced God in a burning bush, because the true sight
of God would be so overpowering, like looking at the sun through a telescope
(not to be recommended!) so we can experience something of God only through the
medium of something else; the Bible, Church, prayer, whatever works for
you. In fact we can sometimes find
ourselves looking at something and realise, like looking at one of Chiang’s
works, that we are in fact looking at something else, and that something else
may actually be God.
Consider for a moment Jesus’
answer when he was asked for a picture of God to act as a sign for his work
As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a
wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the
sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign
to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise at the
judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from
the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater
than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh
will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they
repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is
Now this rather at first
sight puzzling response to a perfectly understandable request for some picture
or guidance is often skirted over by many for whom the only thing that might
stand out might be some memory of the Scottish Football results being read out
on Saturday tea times (I still don’t really know who ‘The Queen of the South’
is meant to be!). What on earth did Jesus
mean, that the whole of Isreal was going to be swallowed up by a great
whale?!! Well, in one sense they were,
when not long after Jesus in AD 70 a national rebellion against the Romans
resulted in the destruction of the Temple and the end of the Jewish state which
the Romans had until then tolerated.
But I don’t think that this is the only meaning of the phrase ‘The Sign
of Jonah’, or in fact the deepest and most effective. I think instead that the sign Jesus talks of
points to something deeply profound in both how God showed himself in the Old
Testament, which Jesus was pointing to the truth of, and he himself was to
embody, and which in turn we ourselves can know.
Jonah finds himself in
darkness (inside a whale of course, but maybe in his own life, for a long time
before that), because he runs away from God and from God’s will for him. The point of the story is that this darkness
–or at least our own location of it - is exactly where we will also find
ourselves if we too run away from God and from what God wants us to do and from
what our lives could become if we followed his will for us.
The picture that the Old
Testament gives us of God is that this darkness is not where he wants us to
be. Indeed not only is it not where he
wants us to be but that he’ll never leave us there and will come to find us in
our own particular darknesses and bring us out, if necessary kicking and screaming! In this way the Old Testament figure of God
rescuing us from darkness prefigures the New Testament rescue mission by God
which finds its fullest expression in Jesus (just as the Old Testament picture
of Jonah in his darkness prefigures our own experience sometimes).
So in this way the darkness
in which Jonah finds himself, and in which we sometimes find ourselves too, might
in fact end up being creative, redemptive and healing if we can use it, like
Jonah did, to re-align ourselves to God’s will for us and stop running away
from him. Just as Jonah was in quite
dramatic fashion spat out of the whale, so we might find ourselves being
suddenly brought out of our darkness as soon as we have found God’s way too.
The Old Testament shows God
as never being content to leave people in the darkness into which their lives
have led them through their unwillingness to follow his way and path which, if
we do follow it, will lead to fullness of life.
On the contrary, he’ll cajole, hassle and drag people out if
necessary. So God in our own time also
will never be content to leave us either in our darkness, but will come and
find us, through his son, to find and exit the places which our lives have
sometimes inadvertently, sometimes deliberately, led us to – our God is still
Jonah’s God and he’ll never leave us there.
So we can experience the
reality of what Jesus is saying, how we come to know God, through not only the
lens, as it were of Jesus speaking to people 2,000 years ago, but through the
further lens of the story of Jonah, which all of those people would have known,
but which was written in fact many hundreds of years before that.
Looking at God through the
lens of picture, parable, story, is how the Bible presents God precisely
because, like looking at a painting, we can experience the reality it depicts
in a much richer, deeper sense than if we were to be handed a boring and
restricting set of rules or long paragraphs of description. Sometimes, often because of the lens through
which we are looking, we might not at first realise what we are looking at, and
that in fact we are often looking at God without realising it. In the same way, you don’t have to be an
expert in ancient Chinese art to see, in a simple ink and paper sketch done in
the Chinese style in 1937, the glories of the Lake District.
Your friend and vicar
'Going to church in the rain, Wasdale Head', 1937,
ink on paper, reproduced in 'The Silent Traveller: A Chinese Artist in
Certainly one contender for the title of the
‘World’s Most Dangerous Bridge’ must go to the Russian Siberia Vitim River
crossing. The bridge is 15 meters above the icy water. It is in fact an old railway bridge and not
only are its planks not attached to sleepers anymore, or indeed held in place
by anything at all, it has no sides and is wide enough for only one vehicle to
cross at a time, wide enough just about that is. It’s readily viewable on google and on you tube,
which has a video of a Landrover crossing it, a hair-raising experience even to
watch in the comfort of your own home!
Watching the video you are bound to ask yourself why on earth anyone
would put their vehicle, not to mention their life in such peril – especially
as you can see a perfectly good and safe looking road bridge to the bridge’s
I once had the good fortune to see a
spectacular and enormous bridge being built, the Queen Elizabeth Dartford
Crossing Bridge on the M25, which now takes southbound traffic, relieving the
old Dartford tunnel which until the bridge was opened took all M25 traffic in
both directions, now only taking northbound vehicles. I watched, living close by the area at the
time in 1990 as the two arms of the bridge became close and nearer to each
other the higher they went. I remember
the first time driving over the bridge and the exhilarating sense of height and
perspective it gives, as a passenger you can make out central London on a clear
day to the right – this in marked contrast to the gloomy drabness of the
northbound return journey, where the best
thing you can do is to remember to pay the Dart
Charge online when you get home within 24 hours, or be hit with the
consequential fine, like I have been, often.
Well to my knowledge (and if anyone can prove me
wrong I’d be interested to learn) the word ‘Bridge’ is never mentioned in the
Bible. But although the actual word is
not mentioned there certainly were bridges as we would understand them, and
some quite magnificent ones, in the ancient world. What is more the IDEA of a bridge as
something connecting two sides, something reaching out and growing closer, like
I saw the Queen Elizabeth Bridge become, is certainly not only mentioned many
times in the Bible, but is the absolute central truth in it. Consider just as mall collection of Bible
verses for a moment;
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him
who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed
from death to life.
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not
believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the
only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world,
and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in
the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts! Praise him,
sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest
heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the
Lord! For he commanded and they were created. ...
If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its
burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with
Even if we might not expect to rescue too many
stranded donkeys these days it not hard to think of modern day equivalents of
those who are overburdened, weighed down and as a result are at odds with
others. Its even easier to see many
situations where a huge gulf is there to be bridged; think of Syria, Palestine
itself or indeed our own divided society and you won’t go far without seeing
many situations where a bridge of one nature or another might come in useful.
Within individual people, indeed within
ourselves if we are honest, we can find many examples of divisions which need
to be healed, to be bridged. I might be
tempted by the new John Lewis Christmas Advert to buy that new skillet which is
made of cast iron and can be transferred directly from the hob to the oven and
try out that delicious recipe in Nigella which calls for such an item – indeed
I confess that I am!- but its price is literally more than I earned in a week
at the time I was living in Kent in 1990, and so the necessity of providing a
Christmas Dinner for the family means that Nigella will have to remain
unopened, again, alas.
Some divisions within people may be so great,
however that at some time it might be felt that no bridge, however magnificent,
high or wide will ever be able to reconcile the different warring factions
within us. Well the good news, and in
case you’re thinking that this letter has not been very Christmassy so far (at
the time of writing we are only just halfway through November!), the best news
in fact is that the central message of Christmas, of the incarnation, is that
we have such a bridge offered to us in God’s son who, coming to us as one of us
as he does in the incarnation literally bridges the divide not just within
ourselves but, as it were, between heaven and earth, of which our human
divisions are just a pale reflection.
The picture of the bridging of earth and heaven is behind many scenes
and ideas in the Bible, from Jacob’s Ladder to the Ascension. What is meant in such pictures finds its
fullness in Jesus, God, incarnate, here on earth, sharing our earthly nature so
that we might be able to find ways of sharing, and finding in ourselves, our
The Cross itself might be seen, in one sense as
a bridge, or rather two bridges, intersecting.
The one, vertically, reaching down from earth to heaven and providing
the access to heavenly things that we could never hope to find or provide
ourselves. The other, the horizontal, connecting those events in Palestine
2,000 years ago with our own present day experience of life. The events of the incarnation, the first
Christmas, are central to us not only because they occurred once in real time,
on earth, 2,000 years ago, but also because they are happening now, again in
real time, but in the living reality of our present lives. One way of thinking about where those two
arms of the cross intersect is just this living, immediate, present reality of
that one central event, and it intersects because its where we meet God, that
bridge between heaven and earth.
I often find myself, when confronted by some
seemingly insurmountable problem, challenge or difficulty a bit like someone on
that dodgy, rickety, shaky old railway bridge, but, wheels inches from the
edge, finding another car coming the other way.
And then looking up and realising that I don’t need to be on it at all,
that God has done the hard work for me, that there is a perfectly safe and
strong bridge already there just to my side – and that I’d have saved myself
the consequential trouble of needing to then reverse to get to it If I’d have
just recognised that it was there, and always there, in the first place
Your friend and vicar
According to the NHS
Website, taping a tennis ball to your pyjamas will stop you from snoring. ‘Try taping a tennis ball to the back of your
sleepwear,” is one of the simple lifestyle changes you can make to prevent
snoring, offered by the NHS website. It stops you from sleeping on your back,
when snoring is most likely to occur. I like it: it’s simple, cheap and
non-surgical. I notice though that
there have been several problems noted in the comments section;
What, specifically holds the
tennis ball in place? “try surgical
tape’, offers the wise website, which it assures us sticks perfectly to M&S cotton PJ’s, “Hmm, how about those
from less exalted retail institutions?”, I wonder, whose cotton ratio may not
be quite as beneficent.
Or how about those who might
sleep, shall we say, without a pyjama top? ‘No problem’, lays down the website,
as the tape is designed to stick to human flesh. Removing it, in the morning or any other
time, may be more problematical, especially for the males of the species, or
maybe for all – like Jacob (2 Kgs 1:8; 2:23 and Gen 25:25, 27) I am not ‘an
hairy man’, but I can’t help thinking that I would be even less so with a daily
removal of tape resulting in a totally bare raw strip, 50mm wide, around my
I decided then, to see what
the Bible might offer by way of ‘complimentary medicine’ to that given by the
NHS website. According to the esteemed
website ‘Jews for Jesus’, snoring is “an illustration of the end times”. Two nostrils are like ‘Aram Naharain’ (two
words) the town Eliezer getting Reveca from, otherwise known as Nahor which, it
is claimed, sounds like the word ‘snoring’ (???!) and which was promised to be destroyed; so
obviously, the website lays down, the nose is like the fountain of life which
wakes people up in the end times…er, I decided to leave it there!
I was reminded of a story I
once heard of a man who went to see his doctor for advice about being cured of
snoring. The doctor asked, “Does your snoring disturb your wife?” The patient replied, “Does it disturb my
wife? Why it disturbs the entire congregation.”
Not mine, I hope!!
One thing we can say with
certainty about sharing a room or a dorm’, or a thin hotel wall, with someone
who snores is that at least it proves they are alive – and depending on who
they are or perhaps our enforced sleeplessness because of it, we may thank the
Lord for that and bless them in their sleep!
Interestingly the Bible has
rather a lot more to say about sleep than it does about snoring. In Ephesians, for example, we find that light
(religious truth) is described as very powerful as it is able to make dead
things living just by shining on them.
“But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for
anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
(Ephesians 5:13-14, ESV).
The interesting thing is
that this is no direct quote of any biblical passage, so what scripture is St
Paul actually referring to?
Well, when I sleep I am told
that I sometimes snore, but there may be those blessed souls whose peaceful
slumber is so silent and still that it may have a resemblance of the souls
slinking off to a better place – specifically heaven! A sleeping form may resemble that of a
In Ephesians Paul is telling
us that there may be those Christians who, although believing and baptised,
live as though they still lived in darkness. It is as if they are walking
around fully alive but in spiritual terms are asleep – in their sleep they are
no different to those whose life is in darkness, death as opposed to life.
So it is with lots of
stories of those being raised to life physically; from Elisha raising the
widow’s son to Jesus doing the same, right up to the raising of the young girl
(‘she is not dead but sleeping’) and, ultimately, Lazarus. All may be in one sense a physical raising,
or resuscitation if you prefer, but in that they point to the raising of Jesus
from the dead, they point to a ‘spiritual’ awakening which is called
‘resurrection’, and is a renewal and affirmation of life – totally different to
a resuscitation of someone who will later die.
In contrast the waking life, which Jesus brings, and offers to us to
share in, will never come to an end.
I hope that by now you have
not nodded off and are contributing to the snoring which the NHS tries
valiantly to rid us of. I just pray that
as we approach Advent and Christmas our physical life may not be that of
sleepers, yawning and snoring, but, like Handel exhorts in the Messiah, we may
as sleepers ‘Awake’, to the tremendous life to which Jesus offers to lead us
where, without the benefit of tennis balls, there will at least be no more
Your friend and vicar
The famous trapeze artist
and tight rope walking genius, Blondin, would, in the 1850’s and 60’s,
regularly walk across a tightrope over the Niagra Falls, 180 feet below him! Once, about to push a wheelbarrow on the
tightrope over the falls, he asked the journalists standing by if they believed
he could do it, and they all assured him with one voice that they believed that
he would. However, when he then invited
one of them to volunteer to climb into the wheelbarrow to provide a passenger
for his latest exploit, they, not surprisingly, all declined. Not that they need have doubted their
original faith in Blondin. Without any
semblance of todays health and safety equipment, Blondin managed to find
volunteers from elsewhere on more than one occasion; not only that, he
traversed the falls in other novel ways; in turns blindfolded, in a sack,
trundling a wheelbarrow, on stilts, carrying a man (his manager, Harry Colcord)
on his back, sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelette, or standing
on a chair with only one of its legs balanced on the rope. In 1861, Blondin first appeared in London, at
the Crystal Palace, turning somersaults on stilts on a rope stretched across
the central transept 70 feet (21 m) from the ground. On one occasion in London the rope on which
he was walking snapped, causing the death of two men, one on each scaffold
tower at either end, which both were pulled to the ground; Blondin however,
survived! Rather more prosaically on 6
September 1873, Blondin crossed Edgbaston Reservoir in Birmingham. A statue
built in 1992 on the nearby Ladywood Middleway marks his feat. His last performance was in Belfast in 1896
and he died, peacefully at his home in Ealing, London the following year aged
The journalists who at first
professed such faith in Blondin believed that he would reach the other side
with his wheelbarrow; they believed, but they didn’t have enough confidence in
him to put their lives, literally, on the line.
In John 6:27, Jesus answered a question with the words “The work of God
is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
To believe not just with words, or even intellectual assent, but to
climb, as it were, into the wheelbarrow pushed by Jesus, wherever it is suspended!
‘Believe’ is a strange
word. It is used in John’s gospel 92
times, often on the lips of Jesus. He
calls people to believe in him in the sense of putting their trust in him,
having confidence in him, putting their lives in his hands; not so much what
they believe about him as much as being prepared to commit themselves to him.
In English ‘believe’ can
mean in one sense a balance of probability ( I believe that my car will start
when I get into it because it usually does – but there is room for doubt,
especially if like our family this summer, you try to start it in France,
outside the Guite you need to leave so that the next guests can come in, and
with a carful of two weeks’ worth of dirty clothes shoved into shopping
‘Belief’ can also be a
pronouncement of blind hope, often in the face of overwhelming evidence to the
contrary – rather like my son’s opinion that the football team that he, (I was
about to say ‘follows’, but that would be putting it too lightly), ‘supports’,
are going to win the premier league this year.
They might, but it’s only him who thinks so.
‘Belief’ can also mean that
we trust a scientific or historical fact to be true; I believe that, for
instance Tokyo is the capital of Japan, that the moon is more or less
spherical, that Julius Caesar once landed in Britain – even though I’ve never
been to Japan, the moon or 1 C BC Britain. Sometimes established beliefs are challenged;
for many years for instance King Richard III was thought to have had a stoop and
a deformity of the spine; this was challenged when no evidence other than
Shakespeare’s fancilful portrayal of him as a ‘hunchback’ could be found, then
opinion was that he had been maligned by Tudor propaganda; and then a few yeas
ago his body was identified beyond doubt, underneath a car park in Leicester,
and, you’ve guessed it, King Richard III’s skeleton showed that he had a stoop
and a back deformity!
The belief that Jesus speaks
of is not that of balancing probabilities, blind irrational faith or acceptance
of established facts. The word used in
the New Testament for ‘belief’ could better be understood as ‘trust’, ‘place
our confidence in’, ‘rely upon’. That is
all that God requires of us, the ‘works’ he wants from us. Perhaps our responsible role in society
conditions us to feel more comfortable earning something or paying a price for
something –it’s harder perhaps sometimes to have the grace to receive something
with thanks and gratitude. But that is
what God offers us. There’s no price for
us to pay or way for us to earn our way to a perfect life – we all know that
this is never going to happen anyway.
What can happen though, if we have the humility to accept it, and
perhaps the courage and trust to step out into it, is to climb into Jesus’
wheelbarrow, let ourselves be pushed across the tightrope of life by him and
‘believe’; that’s all that God wants from us – oh, that and the knowledge that
he might occasionally flip summersaults on stilts on the tightrope, and that if
he does, it will still be alright.
Your friend and vicar
Once, a man went to market
with a sum of money which he intended to spend and, having enjoyed a drink or
two, returned home with just a basket of eggs.
On his way home he had to cross three toll bridges, a bit of a problem
as he hadn’t any money. When he
explained his predicament to the keeper of the first toll bridge, the bridge
keeper proposed a solution; he would take in lieu of money, half the man’s eggs
plus half an egg. This was agreed and
duly handed over. At the second toll
bridge the same thing happened; the toll bridge keeper took half the remaining
eggs plus half an egg. Again the same
thing at the third, half of what was left plus half an egg. When the man returned home, his basket was
empty, all the eggs had been used up in toll payments. What is the least number of eggs the man
could have started with to end up with none is the puzzle, as I’m sure by now
you will have realised this to be? The
answer comes at the end.
If, like me, you can’t work
out the answer for yourself and have to be told, doesn’t mean that the puzzle
doesn’t have a solution, its just that you may not be blessed, as sadly neither
am I, will logical, mathematical and deductive skills in superabundance. What it doesn’t mean, and, I may venture to
suggest, can never mean, is that there isn’t in fact a solution – its just that
I wasn’t clever enough to work it out.
Matthew 5:37 tells us that
Jesus had some interesting things to say about truth, “But let your yes be
yes”, he tells his disciples, “all else is from the evil one”. In other words, you don’t need to emphasise
some things with oaths for them to be ‘more’ true than others; something is
either true or not, real or unreal, gradations of truth are deceiving and
unbecoming in Christians. So if
something is true it is always true. If
it was true in Jesus’ time it is just as true in ours; truth, like facts, like
solutions to puzzles, are not relative – and if we sometimes have difficulty in
seeing that; if we in other words, have doubts, as we all do from time to time,
its not that the truth is not here, or real, or in some way relative, its that
we don’t have, yet, the eyes to see.
This I think is true in our
own personal relationships just as it is in our relationship with God. We all, from time to time cause anger, or
fear, or sadness, or exasperation in other people – I know I certainly do. Sometimes other people, perhaps
unintentionally, cause these and worse, perhaps, in us. We only need to look around the world to see
where the results of confrontation, or alienation, or hostility in such
occasions will lead. If, on the other
hand, we have the strength, and the optimism, to see that the truth about other
people – even those we maybe on less than happy terms with – is not that much
different to ourselves, then I believe that literally, that truth will set us
free; that such pain as we may cause others, or others may cause us, is less
than the truth that essentially we are all the same; flawed, often despite our
best intentions making a mess of things, sometimes acting out of fear rather
than love. That is sometimes a very hard
thing to see, but true, I believe nevertheless.
My son who is doing his A
Level RS course argued the case with me recently that what is true in one situation
may not, in fact be true in others; light goes in straight lines, for example,
until it is put through water, when it bends.
Someone, say Kennedy, he said (he’s also doing A level history – Cold
War at the moment, so you can see how he’s thinking) is dead, sadly, but dead
nevertheless. Yet in, let’s say for
example, the year 1960 people would have said, “Kennedy is alive” – so are both
true? Is truth, whether factual, moral,
ethical or spiritual relative to the situation, situation ethics for example. Is the ‘right’ thing to do always right in
any and all situations? I would hold
that all theft is wrong, but is robbing a bank
really the same as a homeless man snatching a £5 note from the hand of a
drunken rich student, deliberately taunting him by burning £5 note in front of
him (as actually has happened this year – the student was formally reprimanded
by his college). I don’t think so.
Yet we could say that the
truth about Kennedy, as expressed was not so much different in two situations
as, well, incomplete. A fuller picture
of the truth is that Kennedy lived between 1917 and, tragically, 1963, as I’m
sure some reading this will remember only too well – that is a bigger picture
of thr truth than , person X is alive, or, person X is dead: and I told my son
What is true, I believe, is
always true – whether we can see it or not.
That God loves us, cherishes us, wants us to have good, long, happy and
fulfilled lives is I believe always true, whether we are in a time or stage in
our lives that we can see this clearly or, as so often happens, and will happen
to all of us, it may be much harder to see.
So the solution – you’ll
have to look further in the magazine to see it!
Have a great summer
Your friend and vicar
The number of eggs the man
starts off with is seven
The first toll bridge keeper
takes half the eggs, ie three and a half, plus half an egg, which makes four;
The second bridge keeper
takes half of the three eggs remaining, ie one and a half, plus another half an
egg, which makes two, leaving one
The third bridge keeper
takes half of the one egg remaining, plus half an egg, ie the other half,
making one whole egg, the one egg left, leaving none
We have at home a photograph
on display which is so much a part of our family and so familiar in its place
that, like many objects we get used to seeing every day, we hardly notice that
they are there. In the photograph there
is one figure, a smart, handsome, intelligent looking young chap – at least in
his own mind at the time – on the day of his wedding. Next to him is his beautiful bride, his
mother and father in law. Of course the
beautiful young bride is my wife, Sue, and the handsome young chap, well, how
times take their toll, is of course me, or at least my younger self.
Looking at myself in a smart
new suit and with some dimensions of the body somewhat different to their ratio
to others now, I point out to anyone who comments on it that I can remember
exactly the moment that the photo was taken, I can see it now, the
photographer, the gardens behind him, the family friends and well wishers from
the Church where I was curate at the time who all turned up to throw confetti
and give a hearty cheer as we emerged from Church. Like many other in a similar position I have
also had the withering question asked, especially by my adoring children, “Dad,
is that YOU?!!!”
Is that me? Well that is a question which it is
interesting to unpack. Because of
course, the ‘that’ in the question is a picture, an image next to some other
images. Technically speaking it is only
our minds which make the various chemically tinted dots and coloured patched on
the, rather good quality, photograph paper, come together to produce anything
meaningful at all. The ‘that’ in the
question is in fact only a collection of chemicals put together *** years ago,
and are there to be viewed today.
And yet, these same
chemically produced bits of colour speak very deeply to me. Not because it reminds me of a certain amount
of lost vigour and bodily shape. Like
any other very happy day, the memory of part of it produces in me, like in anyone
else, a rush of pictures, sounds, smells and impressions of other people – many
of whom are no longer with us – and triggers so many happy emotions. Anyone can share this experience, we just
need a certain picture, or reminder of some part of it to remember happy times,
or dad times, or any other kind of times come to that.
Of course the photograph is
both a collection of chemicals and an arrangement of them in a certain way, a
picture of my younger self in this case, at the same time. If we looked at the photo under a microscope
all we would see is dots and blobs. If I
look at the photo of myself it is, at the same time, myself, and myself on a
particularly memorable day. Both are
real, an outwrd sign of what is for me, a deeply important inward reality.
The Church of course has a
word for this, it is called ‘sacrament’ – the outward and visible sign of an
inward and spiritual reality. We all
know that, just a s in my photograph, the chemical elements in the bread and
wine are still those of bread and wine after the prayer of consecration. But that still doesn’t stop them being
something else at the same time, the memory, experience and, for some of us,
the actual realty of Christ himself. By
that reality we literally take into ourselves the living presence of Jesus – at
the same time as them being fermented grape juice and a rather cardboard
tasting bit of gluten.
And that’s just Holy Communion.
The Church has other sacraments; baptism, confirmation, marriage,
reconciliation – which are all similarly outward and visible signs of an inward
and spiritual reality. But there is
more; what for you is the equivalent of my wedding photograph? What signs are there in your home, workplace
or even neighbourhood, or perhaps in far flung places, of time, places and
people who have been an important part of your life and experience of what it
is to be a human being? These, I would
argue, are just as valid sacraments as any we find in Church, just as my
wedding photo is for me – because by the, we glimpse something of the perfect
love that we can share in when we meet Jesus sacramentally in our lives.
What’s more sometimes,
whether at home or in Church, the familiarity of these sacraments risks
becoming so much a part of our regular routine that we take them for granted,
and maybe even sometimes stop noticing that
they are there at all. Whether or not we do , the reality they point
to, whether divine or experience of it in times and places in our lives, never
goes away, it is always still there. It
just sometimes takes a question from a maybe less that admiring observer to
make us notice them, “Dad, is that YOU?!!!”
Your Friend and vicar
Some readers may be old enough to remember the ‘Silurians’,
an advanced race of reptilian humanoids who lived long before humanity and kept
tyrannosaurs as pets! That no slight is
intended in this opening remark can be shown by the fact that the ‘Silurians’
existed, as a few may in fact remember, only within the confines of the TV
Series, ‘Doctor Who’. But proving that
ancient and indeed industrial societies did not in fact exist prior to modern
humans is, according to a new book by two eminent scientists, extremely hard to
disprove. Or. To put it another way, if
there had existed, before modern humanity, advanced and industrial societies,
would we ever know?
From Raquel Welsh battling dinosaurs in a bikini, to David
Ike’s theories about an ancient race of lizard-people, we are used to tales of
long gone societies inhabiting the earth.
Dismissing them as the fanciful nonsense they almost certainly are is,
according to Nasa Climate scientist Gavin Schmidt and New York university
astrobiologist Adam Frank, surprisingly hard.
They have published a paper; ‘The Silurian hypothesis: Would it be
Possible to Detect an Industrial Civilisation in the Geological Record?’. They conclude that we probably could but that
finding it would be incredibly hard.
Of course, the sub-text to their paper is the effect on
geology of climate change, not really about whether such fanciful notions of
the Silurians, or Miss Welch’s bikini for that matter, had any basis in
fact. Its about how we can know and, in
terms of climate change, how much danger we don’t.
But consider for a moment.
According to the evidence of pollution in the atmosphere gleaned from
bore holes in the arctic, carbon emissions from the time of the industrial
revolution were matched by those around 100BC to about 400AD, the time of the Roman
Empire. So, we might conclude, detecting
previous civilisations would be easy?
Not so fast, warn the professors.
The Romans fall well within the confines of our own world civilisation,
roughly 10,000 years since the end of the last ice age. What about evidence from much earlier than
that? The professors have, to put it
mildly, a point. Fossil evidence would
be one way of looking – but fossils are unfortunately incredibly rare;
dinosaurs existed for hundreds of millions of years and yet the number of
dinosaur fossils number only a few hundred thousand, about one every 10,000
years – which would be just one fossil for our entire post ice age
civilisation, making the chance of a future civilisation finding a car driving
fossil vanishingly small. All right
then, we may ask, what about changes in carbon or oxygen levels in the stone
record, like the carbon found in the arctic bore holes. A civilisation massively harvesting energy
would surely leave some rock record? The
problem here would be that any change could be attributed to any number of
other things including natural and massive known climatic events such as
changes from a completely ice bound earth to a completely ice free greenhouse
earth which, as I understand it, happened many many times.
The scientists’ point is not that we might not know about
some advanced civilisation which preceded us, but although despite how
incredibly hard it is to both disprove and to prove things in prehistory there
are basic things which we can know for sure.
Things that we can know for sure. What a problem that has been for so many, and
no doubt at some times in our lives, if we are honest, for ourselves.
How can we prove that God is real?
This is perhaps what it comes down to at its most pure? And the answer of course is that we can’t,
which is a stumbling block on the road to faith for everyone.
Well, some may, and do, argue, that we have the gospels;
surely they are evidence and in the historical sense that they are documents
dating back to almost the time of Jesus himself. Which is true; but they are just that,
documents, pieces of writing pointing to a great truth, not in themselves the
truth itself. I have known, and have
been fortunate enough to receive, the expert teaching of many people who know
every word of the gospels, who can read them in their original Greek, have
visited all the sites they describe, understand, in a nutshell, the gospels in
far more depth than I do, and yet have no faith, indeed in some cases are avowed
atheists. To be an expert in the
gospels, and from that the whole Bible, does not necessarily bring faith in
So what about the teaching of the Church, surely the most
brilliant minds over the last two thousand years have managed to communicate
something of the reality of God in such theological concepts as the trinity,
salvation through faith and redemption.
Sadly the stumbling block there is just that word ‘communication’; I
have read countless books by famous (to some) theologians, read even more
marvellous poems, some by non religious writers, heard songs and seen paintings
which communicate God to me – but its an experience which can’t be always
guaranteed to be experienced by others, let alone forced on them; it has surely
truly been said that you can’t argue or reason someone into faith.
So how can we know God?
Well, if he is God, he must surely by definition be completely beyond
our understanding, so much so that we can never know him by going looking or
searching in the record – be it fossil, rock, archaeological, documentary or
philosophical. If he is God we can
surely only really know him by what he shows us of himself, by what he reveals
to us. And how can we see what God reveals
to us? I don’t think we can. The key for me is not to ‘see’ God at all,
but to come to ‘know’ him. And I don’t
mean knowing in the sense of knowing that the dinosaurs were wiped out 65
million years ago by an asteroid, or knowing that the battle of Hastings took
place in 1066. I mean knowing in the
sense that you know someone who you love, and knowing them better and more
deeply the longer you spend with them.
To come to know God we have to look at the gift of the Holy Spirit at
Pentecost, the experience of God in the present by which we can come to know
Jesus. And know him not in the sense of
reciting what records or documents tell us about him, but the person to whom those
historical records and evidence point.
is a truth about Pentecost which those who came before us in the Church understood
well. That it’s not by reading the
stories of Easter, or in fact by reading or learning about anything which
happened in the past that we come to know God for ourselves. Its about moving on from all that we learn
and know in our minds to be true, and letting us experience and know the truth
to which they point for ourselves in our heart.
You don’t need to be an expert in biblical studies for this to happen,
you don’t need evidence from the past at all, just an open mind and an open
heart to realise that there will be some things which we may never know but one
person who we can always come to know for ourselves, and that is God.
Your Friend and vicar
One day, one David Blair forgot to hand over a
key to a ship’s crow's nest locker containing binoculars. The ship was the Titanic and he was taken off
at the last minute. The consequences have
been seen to be catastrophic.
As the officer responsible for all the
navigation equipment Blair was involved in all sea trials to test the Titanic's
seaworthiness and was set to be second officer for the maiden voyage to New
York, but White Star Line, the ship's owners, drafted in a Henry Wilde from
sister ship The Olympic because of Wilde’s experience of large liners. Blair had sailed from Belfast to Southampton on
the Titanic but was surprised and upset to be taken off there and replaced by
Henry Wilde. In Blair’s surprise however
the crow’s nest locker key was not handed over, and the binoculars it contained
could not therefore be used by the ship's crew to look out for hazards.
Mr Wilde was one of more than 1,500 people who
died when the Titanic struck the iceberg in the early hours of 15 April.
Mr Blair, who died aged 80 in 1955, was later
awarded the King's Gallantry medal for jumping into the Atlantic on another
occasion to rescue a crewman.
The key to the locker was itself sold at an
auction for £90,000 in 2007.
Is it right though to pin the blame, as Blair
did himself for the rest of his life, for the Titanic disaster entirely at his door,
or for that matter at the door of the decision to suddenly replace him which
probably caused him to forget to hand over the key, until it was too late? A surprising number of things actually had to
come together and go wrong for the disaster to have happened, no binoculars being
only one of them: for example the
ignoring of repeated ice warnings in an area notorious for icebergs, the
decision to carry on sailing at all rather than waiting for the sea fog which
obscured the iceberg to lift, the even more cavalier decision to increase the
ship’s speed to full steam in an effort to get to New York early, the decision
of the captain, as the most experienced officer, to retire to bed in the midst
of sea fog and ice warnings – these all must surely bear an equal portion of
blame. Even had the liner rammed the
iceberg it would almost certainly have remained afloat, instead it swerved at
the last minute attempting to avoid the iceberg which then ripped through
several of the water tight bulk heads in the hull, causing the hull to flood,
rather than puncturing just the front one.
Even when the disaster had happened, had there been enough lifeboats,
even had there been a lifeboat drill – which there hadn’t – loss of life might
have been minimal, or even avoided altogether.
These, together, are the factors which had to
come together for the Titanic disaster to have happened. We most of the time like to look for one
cause of something but, as my old history teacher used to tell me, most things
have multiple causes; look for at least three.
Not only are causes often diverse and
unexpected, so are consequences and subsequent events. One of the strangest and most surprising
stories I have heard abut the Titanic, or rather about those who sailed on her
concerns one John Priest, born in Southampton in 1887 and one of the few
firemen (stokers) to survive the sinking on 14/15 April 1912. The firemen had a
long way to go to get from the boiler rooms to the deck. As most of the
lifeboats had left by the time that Priest made it out on deck he had to dive
into the sea and swim for his life in very cold water before eventually being
picked up by lifeboat 15.
Nautical emergencies however were not unknown
to Priest, who had previously been on board a ship called the Asturias when it
was involved in a collision on her maiden voyage in 1907. He was also on board
the Titanic’s sister ship Olympic on 20 September 1911 when she collided with
the cruiser HMS Hawke.
Nor was disaster at sea to remain a memory, let
alone put him off his (relatively well paid) trade. Indeed these were only the start. When war came Priest found himself in
February 1916 a member of the crew of the armed merchant cruiser HMS Alcantara,
a sister ship of the Asturias and was helping to enforce the Allied blockade of
the Central Powers. On 28 February the
Admiralty warned the Grand Fleet that a German raider was attempting to break
out into the Atlantic. Just after 8am on 29 February Alcantara spotted smoke
and soon afterwards received a signal stating ‘Enemy in sight.’ Alcantara
closed on the smoke, which belonged to a one funnelled steamer flying Norwegian
colours and bearing the name Rena on her stern but was actually the German
raider SMS Greif. Greif dropped her
Norwegian colours, revealed her guns and opened fire when Alcantara was about
1,000 yards away. A close range battle then took place and Grief’s crew began
to abandon ship after about 15 minutes and Alcantara, which had been hit by a
torpedo, had sank by 10:45 am. The British picked up 220 out of about 360 men
on board Greif, with 69 of Alcantara’s crew being lost, Priest was amongst the
John Priest then joined the crew of the
Britannic, the Olympic and Titanic’s sister ship, which was serving as a
hospital ship. On 21 November 1916 she struck a mine and sank near the Greek
island of Kea. Thirty died, but the survivors included Priest and two other
Titanic survivors: Violet Jessop, a stewardess who had become a nurse, and
Archie Jewell, a Titanic crow’s nest lookout.
Priest’s fourth sinking occurred on 17 April
1917 when he was a fireman on board the hospital ship Donegal, which was
torpedoed and sunk in the English Channel. He received a head injury but
survived, although 40 others either drowned or were killed in the explosion.
John Priest died on land decades later, in bed,
There are lots of strange and surprising
stories too at Easter time; insurrection in the temple, betrayal, fear of the
mob, a death in three hours when days would have been the norm, huge stones
being rolled away, angels, weird gardeners, sudden appearances on roads and in rooms
and disappearances at a meal, huge trawls of fish and sudden elevation into the
sky. The consequences are even more
fantastic and varied, if not infinite – the books of the New Testament only
scratch the surface of what happened. We
will never know all the facts, we probably have only a fraction of the
stories. But what can come together are
these stories’ interaction with our own lives.
Our reading of the Easter stories is not like watching a film of the
Titanic, entertaining as the fictitious characters played by actors like
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet may be.
Unlike watching them, who waited for a redemption which never came,
according to the film, we are not passive spectators. Our faith is based not a set of teachings,
parables or even stories. It is not actually
based on writings at all. Our faith is
in a person, Jesus, who invites us to share our lives with him and, through our
interaction with him, of which the bible stories are only a way in, find
opportunities, consequences and surprises so unexpected and diverse that, like
the true reality of Easter itself, can never be fully be written down, let
alone predicted or explained. Letting go
of trying to do so may indeed be the key to unlocking our ability to see that.
Your Friend and vicar
The last photograph of the Titanic as it left
Cobh, Southern Ireland
eminent Physicist has recently published a ground breaking study of a question
which has long puzzled scientists, namely the study of how cycling works, “Everybody
knows how to ride a bike, but nobody knows how we ride bikes,” says Mont
Hubbard, an engineer who studies sports mechanics at the University of
California: What unseen forces allow a rider to balance while pedalling? Why
must one initially steer right in order to lean and turn left? And how does a
bike stabilize itself when propelled without a rider? Answering this question with terms such as
‘force’, ‘spin’, ‘trail’ and ‘turn’, is even more impressive for this noted
scientist for the simple reason that he himself is unable to ride a bike! In other words it is possible to describe the
physics of how cycling works without knowing how it feels to actually ride a
the advent of self driving cars and even self navigating drones, might it soon be
possible for a machine to do something which up until now it has taken the
necessity of a human presence to achieve – to ride a bike? This raises all sorts of questions about what
machines can achieve and where that achievement may lead – ultimately, can
machines think? It was a question posed by the mathematician and Bletchley Park
code breaker Alan Turing and it is a question still being asked today. What is
the difference between men and machines and what does it mean to be human? And
if we can answer that question, is it possible to build a computer that can
imitate the human mind?
are those who have always had robust answers to the questions that those who
seek to create artificial intelligence have posed. In 1949 the eminent
neurosurgeon, Professor Geoffrey Jefferson argued that the mechanical mind
could never rival a human intelligence because it could never be conscious of
what it did: "Not until a machine can write a sonnet or compose a concerto
because of thoughts and emotions felt", he declared "and not by the
chance fall of symbols, could we agree that machine equals brain - that is, not
only write it but know that it had written it." Yet the quest rolled on
for machines that were bigger and better at processing symbols and calculating
infinite permutations, but what drove them to imitate the operations of the
human mind? It ultimately leads to the question of whether intelligence is the
defining characteristic of humanity and if it is, how is that different to
the early 1700’s there developed the phenomena of ‘automatas’, machines which
ran on clockwork but were so complicated that they could imitate certain
aspects of human or animal behaviour, and pretty convincingly. There was the famous flute playing automata,
shaped like a human, which could actually play tunes on a flute! There was the famous mechanical duck, which
waggled, quacked, ate and even left ‘duck mess’ behind. At the time people, (or at least the tiny
minority of aristocratic rich people who actually saw them) found the automata
extremely disturbing – subconsciously asking the question of what exactly it is
which makes ‘us’ different from ‘them’.
Its basically the same question behind the famous ‘Turing Test’ (the
same Alan Turing from earlier): If you put a computer in one room and a human
in another and got someone to ask the same questions to each of them, and that
someone was unable to tell, from their answers, which was the human and which
was the computer, then we could say that we had there an ‘intelligent machine’,
in other words, artificial intelligence.
He needn’t have waited so long – from the 1960’s computers have been
able to beat Grand masters at chess! And
yet this still poses more questions about what it is that makes us human – you
could find a computer which may be better than me at chess (not a particularly
difficult task in my case!), but could it stretch out its hand to catch a
tennis ball thrown nearby, or a cricket ball passing through the air? Could it run up and down steps and know to
take care when they are slippy? Could it
even manage to get our ten year old to go to bed on time on a school
night?!! Surely these are also all forms
of ‘intelligence’, just a different kind to that which is needed to play chess
– the last one being more a combination of intelligence, trickery and downright
‘Blade Runner’ films starring Harrison Ford ask the same question. They are set in a future dystopia not very
far ahead when artificial intelligence has developed to the extent that it is
virtually impossible to tell the difference between ‘replicants’ (intelligent
robots) and humans, with the consequence that replicants, originally created to
serve humans, are threatening to supplant humans, and do so more effectively
because its difficult to know who is human and who is replicant (spoiler alert
there!!). The same is true of the recent
TV hit ‘Westworld’. If machines did
develop to the extent that they could not only programme themselves – another
defining characteristic of what would be ‘artificial intelligence’, and one which
has already arrived with the advent of the IBM ‘Quantum computers’ – but not
even realise that they were ‘machines’ at all, what is the answer to the
question of why a human mind is more sacred, special and different to any other
form of ‘mind’?
one answer may be found in Jeremiah 1: 5
I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated
you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Luke 12: 7
even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are
of more value than many sparrows.”
Jeremiah, we are of infinite value to God who gives us, like the prophet, a
purpose and a meaning to our lives, rather than either purposelessness on the
one hand or a single, unalterable task on the other. We are not automata, created to do a given job
or perform some endless task, and with no possibility of ever doing anything
else. We are not even highly developed
versions of that. We are, I believe,
qualitatively different to any machine in that, for religious people, the
purpose God created us for is there to be discovered on a lifetime of
adventure. That adventure is about
discovering how wonderful life can be, and how much more there is of it to be
discovered. In other words, although it
may be possible to describe how a bike works, and even one day maybe even to
programme a machine to ride one, I don’t think it will ever be possible to
create an artificial entity capable of knowing how it feels to ride and so
which, like me, would want to – and for no other reason than enjoyment!
friend and vicar
If I had to think of a visual aid to help us think about
Epiphany, the major feast which falls in January I think I know what it would
be. It’s only small, and you may find it
rather surprising, but it’s particularly apt for the twelfth and final day of
Christmas and the Eve of Epiphany. Epiphany, remember, is when we remember the
Three Wise Men and their gifts, and when we celebrate the truth that Jesus is
God in human form.
I'll reveal my secret object in a minute or two, but first
let me run through three things that you may wrongly be expecting me to bring
Firstly, I wouldn’t be holding up a lump of gold. Of course,
that would have been a great visual aid. Gold was and still is the gift of
kings. And when the Wise Men held out their gift of gold to Baby Jesus, they
were saying something very special: “However tiny you are, and however wrong a
place this filthy stable is for you to be, you are a true king, and you are
worthy to receive this gift of kings.”
Second, I would not be carrying any myrrh. That too would
have been a brilliant visual aid and a fragrant one as well. Myrrh is an
aromatic potion that was used to prevent the spread of infection and mask the
smell of death and decay. And by presenting Jesus with myrrh they were
symbolically anointing him for death and burial.
And finally, it’s not frankincense either. That would have
been another great visual aid, because for thousands of years and in many
different cultures across the globe, incense has been the traditional offering
to a deity. And in presenting the infant king with such a gift, the Wise Men
were saying, “You are are not just a king; you are God himself come to earth in
So, if it’s not gold, myrrh or frankincense, what would I
produce and hold up for all to see?
Well, we do celebrate the visit of the Wise Men and the Epiphany, and when we
do we are actually celebrating the central truth of Christmas – the truth to
which their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh bear witness: the truth that
Jesus is God come to earth to live and die as one of us. But the real message
comes down to this: The party’s over. It’s time to take down the decorations,
vacuum up the pine needles, consign the turkey leftovers to the freezer or
better still the dustbin, and let the Baby Jesus grow up into a man. And here
at last is the little epiphany – the word means revelation – that I promised
A Cream Egg – on sale in January from every supermarket,
usually 3 for £1!
There are some Christians who moan on that Easter eggs are
already in some of the shops in January.
I hope I’m never one of them.
Actually, I think that’s quite helpful symbolism. Of course, there’s
nothing exclusively Christian about chocolate eggs, but they do symbolise new
life. And they do help us remember that once Christmas is over, Easter is
(theologically as well as on the calendar) just around the corner. And as
Christmas makes way for Epiphany, this is the point where we have to leave our
mental pictures of Baby Jesus behind and focus afresh on the grown-up God-Man
who died to bring us new life.
As you eat your choccy eggs in January, please remember the
truth they represent: that the Christmas story ends not with Epiphany, but with
Your friend and vicar
As this is my Christmas
letter (written, though it is, in the middle of November, still, the Trafford
Centre decorations are up!), I thought I’d give a template of how to write a
Christmas family letter, of the sort which we regularly receive and you might
also. If not, count yourselves lucky! (I
should add that this is not the only kind of ‘family’ Christmas letters we
receive - we get some really nice ones too – so view this as a sort of ‘how not
to write a Christmas letter’!)
Every Christmas Letter Ever
Start with a sentence about how the year is almost
over, in case you don’t know how the Gregorian calendar operates. Then a trite
phrase about how quickly time passes, probably stolen from a friend’s Facebook
wall. Follow with an attempted joke that doesn’t work.
The first paragraph is about the hubby (as it is
compulsory that the wife writes it). The dad in this family probably got
promoted and now has additional responsibilities that the letter writer
sincerely hopes will make you question your choice of a life partner. The rest
of this paragraph will highlight regular stuff that every parent does; like
coaching a children’s football team (who obviously win their league) or
building a shed in the back garden. After briefly mentioning some award received
at a convention in London, or, even better, York, or wherever, it’s time to
make this Superman appear more human, so... Snarky comment about how the dad
didn’t beat his marathon time from last year’s London Marathon because he did
something stupid like hurt his toe during training, (but still took part,
Let’s move on to the kids, who are better than your
kids in every way. These ways will be listed and categorized by child’s name,
age, and some personality trait that nobody but the parents of the child
actually sees. If a child had a minor health scare or got banged up while
biking or something, it will be milked here for maximum sympathy, perhaps
focusing on how hard it was for the letter writer to make it through this tough
time. If applicable, the letter will now veer off into a diatribe about how the
town should make things safer for young bicyclists. The point will be made at
the end of this paragraph that the letter writer is no different than any other
concerned parent or citizen, thus clearly implying the exact opposite.
Now let’s blow some kind of minor family problem
into a full-blown tragedy. The death of a pet, perhaps. Some kind of costly
household repair due to a storm would work nicely. If nothing else, this
paragraph should focus on how the family has struggled coping with world
events, such as a tsunami: Obstacle stated here. Explanation of how the family
overcame said obstacle here (in the case of Japanese tsunami, the solution will
be prayer and the family moving on to some other issue). Now, here’s the
poignant end to this section of the letter. While these events would have
ripped a normal family like yours apart, the letter writer’s family came
together and is now stronger than ever before
Now’s the time to mention a friend of the family or
a distant relative who did something remarkable, like climb a mountain or meet
Michelle Obama at a fundraiser, in order to make the entire family look
Self-deprecating apology here about how this letter
is so long, cleverly implying that your family could probably just summarize
your year on a notecard.
Oh, well! Or another mindless statement meant to
abruptly end a letter! Mandatory holiday greetings, almost as an aside.
(Family name in script font)
Does this ring a bell – if
not, count yourself lucky! But – here is
the best part – we are all lucky and never more so than at Christmas. The New Testament is full of letters, called
‘epistles’, but these letters are not like the barely concealed self
congratulatory boasting on display in the letter above. No, these letters tell the opposite story;
the story of how, at Christmas, God himself became empty of all his glory –
which is better than anything we can imagine or achieve in this world – and entered
that world powerless, in the most helpless way possible, as a baby of homeless
refugees, of the sort we see sadly too much of today.
What a contrast to the self
satisfaction given forth in the template above.
What a much better example to copy, not just at Christmas, but as a
pattern to follow though life. And what
a gift to the world; the story which shows us that, however inadequate we might
feel – at Christmas, New Year or any other time, maybe because of what the last
year, or few years, have brought – God’s gift to the world given at that first
Christmas was a humility we can barely imagine, and is there for us for a
lifetime of true ‘Good News’
Your friend and vicar
keen members of the National Trust our household was pleased to receive this
week our new National Trust members’ handbook, and with it the car windscreen
sticker which provides free parking! The
handbook contains essential information on all National Trust properties, their
history, opening times, admission prices etc.
As members of course we don’t need to bother with admission prices as
the excellent value membership scheme provides free admission to all
properties, meaning that wherever we travel in the country there is always
somewhere special to explore – always with a wonderful tea room (and restaurant
for those who can afford it!), it really is good value.
Trust properties range from ancient stone circles to Roman villas to the Squirrel
Sanctuary and beach at Formby and even Lake District shorelines, as well as all
the Stately Homes and their gardens and parks you might imagine, like Dunham
Massey and Lyme Park (of Colin Firth as Mr Darcy fame). One property in particular which we enjoy
visiting is indeed a Stately Home, Calke Abbey in Derbyshire near where my
Father in Law lives, visited many times and his good hospitality in the tea
shop many times greatly appreciated!
However Calke Abbey is a stately home with a difference. My father in law remembers as a child being
unable to even see through the estate wall, let alone visit the house and
grounds, until the whole grand country estate was given to the National Trust
by the Harpur-Crewe family in 1985.
house and estate were given with good reason, the family were bankrupt and the
estate and particularly the house was in an advanced state of disrepair and dilapidation. However, unlike other properties given in
similar circumstance, the National Trust chose in this case not to renovate and
restore the estate and house to its former glory, which had long since
passed. Instead, the Trust had the
boldly imaginative idea to preserve the house, stables and gardens as they
found them; so beyond securing the structure of the house, to quote the
handbook, Calke Abbey tells the sad story of the dramatic decline of the
Harpur-Crewe’s grand country estate, and in that story the fate of many other
similar country houses in the mid 20thC,
“The un-stately home and country estate
With peeling paintwork and
overgrown courtyards, Calke Abbey tells the story of the dramatic decline of a
country house estate. The house and stables have been preserved as we found
them, with many abandoned areas vividly portraying a period in the 20th century
when numerous country houses did not survive to tell their story.
Discover the tales of an
eccentric family who amassed a vast collection of hidden treasures, with grand
rooms crammed full of collections and abandoned rooms and objects no longer
used. Visit the beautiful, yet faded walled gardens and explore the orangery,
auricula theatre and the kitchen gardens. Escape into the ancient and fragile
habitats of Calke Park and its National Nature Reserve.
• See the stunning state silk bed, erected
for the first time in 1985 after lying undiscovered since the 18th century”
have the imagination to preserve things as we find them, and for a reason, an
example. I believe there are lessons in
life we can take from this, and especially a Christian life.
other country houses or stately homes were abandoned by their owners because
they had been run into the ground, many different fates awaited them. Not a few were demolished completely like the
house at Fell Foot near Newby Bridge in the Lake District where only the
grounds and gardens and the footprint of the house remain, the structure being
deemed past the state of no return to repair.
Others became schools, hospitals, training facilities for the military
or commercial firms, some became offices or company headquarters – some, like
Wray Castle on lake Windermere became at one point all of those things in its
life, before being recently given to the National Trust and opened to the
public (well worth a visit!). Some,
like Tatton Park or Beningbourough Hall near York were restored to their former
glory and today anyone can walk round sumptuous rooms, imagining the opulence and
glamour of life there (above stairs of course) in their heyday, imagining that they
have always been like that. Well they
haven’t, most were given to the trust in a similar state of decay as Calke
Abbey and what we see isn’t what they had become, but a restoration of what
they once were.
the Trust are also very good at recreating life below stairs, often with
volunteer actors barking orders at startled visitors as to the state of their
fitness, or otherwise, for the gruelling life that was service below
Bible is full of stories of people caught at a dilapidated low ebb in their
lives and, as a result of an experience of God or a meeting with Jesus (which
is more or less the same thing), move on.
Zachaeus up in his tree knowing that the path his life was currently on
was leading him to self destruction; the prodigal son, humiliated beyond
endurance for a Jew, to look after pigs and realising that this is what he had
been really doing all the time he had been buying friendship; the woman caught
in adultery whose message from Jesus, “go on your way and sin no more” may
apply to all of us; and ultimately I suppose, Lazarus himself: all are led in
some way from death to life.
there are also others whose fate is to be a Biblical equivalent of Calke Abbey;
ossified, rooted to the spot of their own anger, sadness, hatred or loneliness,
lack of a sense of self worth. We think
of the jealous brother of the prodigal son; the sad rich young man unable to
see beyond the limits of his worldly wealth when Jesus calls him to follow; the
unrepentant thief at the crucifixion; the brothers of Joseph first selling
their brother into slavery and then grovelling to him for food without
realising who they were bowing down before.
Many people are met by God in the Bible and he meets people wherever
they are in life, but here’s the important part, he doesn’t leave them
It’s not characters in the Bible I really want to talk about, its us, as
individuals, as a Church. Just like
those people in the Bible, God meets us wherever we are in our lives, whether
that is individually or corporately, and he doesn’t leave us there but helps us
to move on. I’m sure that God doesn’t
want us to be like Calke Abbey, a salutary relic, frozen in time, a warning of
what happens if, like the Harpur-Crewe family, we just sit in the decrepit
shell of dilapidated former glory, some rooms full of junk from previous lives
and others empty, (electricity was only installed in 1962!), of no further use,
and waiting for the roof to fall in; at least the Harur-Crewes had in the end the
sense to realise that it couldn’t go on and let go.
when I look at Calke Abbey, unrestored, stuck at the end of the road, out of
time and place, I also ask what rooms in our lives are stuffed full of useless
junk from times gone by, but of no further use, just cluttering up the place,
and what rooms are empty, serving no purpose, but full of potential. Answering these questions means not I think a
restoration to former splendour, a museum piece of restored glory, like most
National Trust Stately Homes are, something artificially preserved from another
time. Rather it must be something
different, a question only each individual can answer of what to do with their
lives, where to go, what to move on to.
my Father in Law never did get to run around as a child in the lovely gardens
and estate of Calke Abbey, (his running around days are long since gone), at
least he does get to walk around it now and appreciate how lovely it is and,
through the imagination of the National trust, he did get to see his
grandchildren run around there.
friend and vicar
not particularly an original thought but, it strikes me that its one of the
best lessons we can learn in life, and certainly one which experience will
teach us anyway; that things sometimes do not go to plan. Whether for better or worse if we go through
life thinking that we know how things are going to turn out, we will pretty
soon learn that knowing the future is a gift not given to humankind!
prompted this not particularly original train of thought was not how the dinner
I cooked for my family last night was appreciated by them, their expectations
of my cooking are sadly for me rarely challenged, but rather a musing over
recent national and international events which, no matter where you stand on
the political spectrum, from Brexit to the American Presidential election to
the General Election here this year, give the lie to those who would claim to
know the future! The unexpected, the
element of surprise, the thought, “who would have thought THAT could happen”,
well, at least that is one lesson for us all to learn! Another might be a call to re-assess our
attitudes and expectations towards those things that we usually regard as too remote
to be important. Not only asking
ourselves how do we feel about our relationships with neighbouring countries
and cultures, but closer to home, about how we relate to and what should be our
real responsibilities towards the communities and neighbourhoods which we
ourselves belong to? Am I my sister’s
the story of Jacob’s wondering in the desert (Genesis 28: 10-22) he has an
unexpected experience of God acting in everyday events; to say that Jacob finds
himself challenged to rethink his life choices
after seeing a ladder connecting heaven and earth is a bit of an
understatement. Jacob’s response is to
see God in the world, where he hadn’t before recognised him
the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it” (Gen 28: 16)
see God where we did not expect him may be the first lesson that expecting the
unexpected can teach us. Famously rude
and haughty in conversation, General De Gaulle had invited Britain’s ambassador
to Paris for dinner in the autumn of 1945, just after the war ended. Being driven back to the ambassador’s
residence after the meal the ambassador’s wife, the glamorous lady Diana Cooper
turned to her husband, the urbane and equally dashing Duff Cooper, 1
Viscount Norwich, and is reported to have said, “Well, duties that we dread often
turn out not as bad as we expect them to, but that turned out worse!”. Be that as it may the phrase ‘God Forsaken’
is, as Archbishop Robert Runcie pointed out when introducing the 1987 Church
Urban Fund, not one that Christians should ever use.
the consequence of recognising that God is there at work in every day places
and events, whether we recognise him or not is that, as God says to Jacob in
the Genesis story, that he is also always with us, each one of us, whatever
happens in our life and wherever we may go,
that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (Gen 28: 15)
Jacob we might also be assured, that whatever happens in our world or in our
lives, that there is a power greater than ours – which is perhaps one reason
why we find it so difficult to trust – who will always be there alongside
us. Unexpected and difficult it might
often be, but God teaches us, as he showed to Jacob that wherever we might look
there is nowhere where, with Jacob, we might not be able to say
is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven
friend and vicar
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Oh Constantinople
Now it's Turkish delight on a moonlit night
gal in Constantinople
Lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople
So if you've a date in Constantinople
She'll be waiting in Istanbul
old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it I can't say
People just liked it better that way
I can actually say why
the name of the town of New Amsterdam was changed to New York (on September 8,
1664 in honour of the Duke of York) but that’s not what I want to talk about in
this letter. I could also spend a long
time explaining (did someone, as my children do, say ‘droning on’?!) the
timeline by which the Thracian city state of Byzantion (Βυζάντιον), Latinized
as Byzantium, was settled by Greek colonists from Megara in 667 BC; of how the
name is believed to be of Thracian origin and thus predates even the Greek
settlement; how it was changed to ‘Constantinople’ in 315 AD when it became the new capital of the newly
Christianised Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine; of how it fell, in 1483,
to the Ottoman Turks, thus finally ending the Byzantine Empire and with it the
last part of the Eastern Roman Empire; and finally of how the new secular
Turkish state in 1930 politely requested the rest of the world to refrain from
referring to the city by any or all of the above titles and refer to it instead
by its Ottoman Turkish name of ‘Istanbul’; this being rather like the Germans
asking the French to start using the term ‘Deutschland’ instead of their
accustomed ‘Allemagne”! Hence the
fanciful song above, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)",a 1953 novelty song,
with lyrics by Jimmy Kennedy and music by Nat Simon, written on the 500th
anniversary of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.
So you will see that
the history of the name of one city, admittedly a pretty remarkable one, gives
a lot of scope for explanation, (or ‘droning on’, whichever you prefer),
carrying with it as it does so much of the history of Europe; the change of
name reflecting the wider changes going on around it.
A postcard, c. 1905, refers to the city as
Constantinople, and the inner city as Stamboul.
How we refer to something is
often determined by what is going on in the wider world, whether that something
is a place, person or idea. Re-watching
the stunning Netfix drama ‘The Crown’ which depicts the early part of the
Queen’s reign, there are at one point in 1952 three women who bear the title
‘Queen’, all living in the same building, Sandringham Palace, with two of them
also confusingly being called Elizabeth.
To avoid this confusion the servants come up with the idea of referring
to them as, in order of age: ‘Queen Mary’, ‘Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’
and, of course, ‘The Queen’, who still reigns and bears the title to this
day. The names stuck, even though all of
them had been referred to at one point in their lives simply as ‘The
The Bible too is full of
people whose names change; Simon is changed to Peter, Levi to Matthew and Saul
to Paul. Not the least of these changes
is how God himself is referred to, from firstly ‘Yahweh’ (meaning simply ‘I am
who I am’), to ‘Jehovah’ and, revolutionary as it must have been, by Jesus
as ‘Father’ and using a form ‘abba’,
which a young child might use to their dad, specifically, ‘daddy’. These changes of name go along with, in
people, a great change in their lives by which they express their new
relationship with God – they are still the same person but the focus of their
life has changed – their way of referring to themselves changing to reflect the
better self they have become, or are in the process of becoming. The change of name by which God himself is
referred to isn’t because He has changed, rather its something in the way in
which He is perceived, or related to, that has changed, something more of who
God is is discovered and the old name becomes simply inadequate.
So it is and so it must be,
and so it always has been with what happens in a church when God is worshipped,
when we experience his presence with and through the shared community, which is
‘church’ itself. If I were to be
transported back in time and enter a medieval church anywhere in Europe I
would, as a priest, be allowed into the chancel and enter the sanctuary where I
would consume both parts of the sacrament.
That this would be denied to anyone else in the church, who would also
hear me read the entire service in Latin, which they could not understand, we
would think of as being an inadequate use of the beautiful church building and
certainly an inadequate expression of the worship of God. Skip forward seven centuries to around the
year 1900 and the chances are that in the same church, while reading the
service in English (although a version of English far removed from the
familiarity and perhaps understanding of many of those present) it would still
not allow its congregation up into the chancel, let alone the sanctuary, and
still not usually give them both parts of the sacrament – for the simple reason
that the sacrament would at that time be hardly celebrated in most Anglican
churches at all! Perhaps the church is
facing another such a call to change in the way we worship God. Certainly churches which are growing, and
certainly the best attended of our own services are those which do not focus on
the sacrament – if the mountain won’t come to Mohamed, then, as it were,
Mohamed must go to the mountain.
All this is simply to say
that I hope we would all agree that its not how we worship that matters but
who. I am sure that God wants us to
experience Him in Church as anywhere else in ways which speak to us now, not to
cling on to ways of doing things which are of no more use to us, still less to
the many, in fact the large majority, who live around us and for whom what
happens in church is strange and off putting.
What happens in a church has always changed and evolved along with the
society around it – how many would find a service held entirely in Latin a life
enhancing deepening of our relationship with God, as our worship should
In the modern city of
Byzantium, sorry Constantinople, sorry Istanbul, stands the beautiful Hagia
Sophia, perhaps the greatest surviving example of Byzantine architecture. Its
interior is decorated with mosaics and marble pillars and coverings of great
artistic value. The temple itself was so richly and artistically decorated that
the Emperor Justinian proclaimed, "Solomon, I have outdone thee!"
(Νενίκηκά σε Σολομών). Justinian himself had thus overseen the completion of
the greatest cathedral ever built up to that time, and it was to remain the
largest cathedral and indeed the largest building in the world for the next 1,000
years, up until the completion of the cathedral in Seville in Spain.
When in 1483 Constantinople
fell to the Ottomans the Hagia Sophia became and remained until the Turkish secular
revolution of 1930, a mosque. Since then
it has been and remains a museum, despite recent pressure from on the one side Islamists
to turn it back into a mosque and on the other the American evangelical
Christian right to turn it back into an orthodox basilica. It remains the most visited destination in
Turkey to this day. In order to maintain its religious neutrality the secular
Turkish state made sure that worship, of any sort, was for many years forbidden
in the Hagia Sophia; carpets were taken up to reveal the magnificent Byzantine
mosaics, plaster was stripped off to show the stupendous Byzantine murals. There was though provided within this most
magnificent of buildings, and only for the use of the museum’s Christian, Jewish
and Muslim employees, a plain and bare shared small room for prayers; with prayers
from the different religions often taking place at the same time. This room has no official name; to some it is
a worship place or space, to others a prayer room, its name doesn’t matter
really, church, mosque or synagogue, it is just there as a place for people to
worship God, call it what you will!
The Hagia Sophia
Your friend and vicar
I have a photograph,
printed, as it is from the days before digital photography, of myself with the
great Pyramids of Giza standing majestically in the background. The pyramids look exactly as you would
expect: three imposing stone structures standing in the desert sands with a
vast vista of emptiness stretching seemingly limitless behind them. This fine scene, of the pyramids I mean, is
taken from the vantage point of the camera, obviously, because it is looking out
towards the pyramids and the sandy desert and so fits our preconceived notion
of how the scene looks in our mind’s eye.
Quite a different picture would meet the vision of anyone looking in the
opposite direction, the direction that I was facing, namely away from the
pyramids. As anyone who has ever visited
the site will know, the pyramids do not stand amid miles and miles of empty
desert but instead are at the edge of the vast sprawling urban metropolis that
is modern day Cairo. Far from seeing the
desert view of the camera, my eyes beheld, behind my friend who was taking the
photo, a bustling riot of shanty dwellings with all the comings and goings that
might be found at the outer edge of any large middle eastern city. The pyramids and the sphinx which stands
beside them are not in the desert at all, but, I suspect have halted the
encroachment of a city of nine and a half million people, whose outer edge they
The picture we have of
things in our mind’s eye is not always matched by the reality. The picture I had of the pyramids was true
when looking one way, but shattered mercilessly when looking the other. The picture I had was in fact a myth –
factually untrue but helping to convey a deeper truth. And that deeper truth, in this case the
majesty and mystery of the ancient Egyptian monuments, was not in the slightest
part for me dimmed by the experience of visiting them. The huge stone relics of a culture so utterly
alien to us now are just as exciting to visit, and must really be visited to be
really experienced, whatever their location.
Indeed, the fact that they are to be found not, as I imagined, in the
middle of a sandy desert, but at the bustling and teeming edge of a modern
middle eastern city only reinforced the power of their utter strangeness and
otherness from our modern experience of life.
The impression which my mythical picture conveyed was not dimmed by the
reality I found, if anything is was enhanced, its just that the mythical
picture was factually wrong.
Much that we take for
granted in what has come down to us from the past might also be viewed in the
same way. Consider for instance the
story of King Alfred burning the cakes.
The fact is that in 878AD, despite being paid the previous year the
Danegeld ‘protection money’ tribute to keep them at bay, the Viking army, led
by the Danish King Guthrum, drove Alfred and the west Saxons westwards into the
marshes of Somerset where, at Easter, with a small band of followers, Alfred
survived by dodging from islet to islet foraging on whatever they could be
given by the local population. But from
this desperate plight comes one of the best known tales in English
history. Taking shelter in the home of a
poor swineherd whose wife was busy baking some bread, the story goes that the
refugee king, sitting by the fire, was so preoccupied by his problems that he
didn’t notice that the loaves were burning.
“Look here, man”, exclaimed the woman, who did not know that her
bedraggled guest was the king, “you hesitate to turn the loaves which you see
burning, yet you’re quite happy to eat them when they come warm from the
oven!”, and in some versions of the story, then beats him with her sweeping
brush! This endearing story ends with
the apologetic king meekly submitting to the woman’s scolding and setting to
work tuning the bread.
The story however does not
come, unfortunately, from Alfred’s lifetime.
The earliest manuscript that recounts the burning of the loaves (which
have been turned into ‘cakes’ over numerous retellings) was written over a
hundred years after Alfred’s death and is not mentioned in the contemporary
Anglo Saxon Chronicle. Much was written
about Alfred both during his own lifetime and in the years immediately after
his death so it seems unlikely that such a good story, if it were true,
wouldn’t have been written down on parchment like much that was actually true
was. It is most likely a folk tale
handed down by word of mouth, a myth by the strictest laws of historical
evidence but conveying the deeper truth of lots of other episodes of Alfred’s
life, which were documented in his own lifetime. These build up a picture of a great warrior
and nation builder, who was to go on and beat the Vikings in May 878 at
Athelney and so establish the kingdom of Wessex, saving the emerging English
language and, through its later expansion into the rest of what was to become
England, establish the country we know as England today. Alfred is the only English King to have the
prefix ‘great’. This comes not only from
his mighty conquests but also from his well-documented modesty, learning,
passion for education (he put together a panel of scholars to translate all the
known major Latin works into English) and spirituality. “”The saddest thing about any man,” he wrote,
“is that he be ignorant, and the most exciting thing is that he knows.” Comparing his life to a house built out of
whatever timber he could forage from the forest of experience Alfred describes
how “In each tree I see something that I require,” advising others to “go to
the same woods where I have cut these timbers” where each may construct “a fair
enclosure and may dwell therein pleasantly and at their ease, winter and
Reading Alfred’s actual
words it might reasonable be assumed that such a spiritual and modest man might
have accepted a deserved reproof from whomever it came regardless of their
station in life. The myth of the story
of Alfred and the ‘cakes’ conveys this inner truth whether or not it ever
really existed in fact. The picture we
have of Alfred from the cakes story is perhaps true as a picture of the man
himself which is for me more important than whether this or that episode ever
took place in this or that particular way.
Looked at this way the difference between what is myth and what is
realty is far less important than the much more interesting and infinitely more
rewarding understanding of the truth that the myth conveys. Children are not interested in whether their
Easter Eggs come from Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s or courtesy of the Easter Bunny;
they just can’t wait to rip off the foil wrapper and taste the delicious milk
(usually) chocolate inside – our own children are about as much interested in
the fact that I prefer dark chocolate to milk chocolate as they are in the
proportions of cocoa, sugar, milk and preservatives which make up the delicious,
addictive and increasingly expensive hardened goo which they, like millions of
other children, eat rather too much of on Easter Day.
So what of all the
incomplete, contradictory and far-fetched stories we read of at the ends of the
gospels in the Sundays after Easter?
What about the even more incredible stories in Acts, to say nothing
about the strange festivals which the Church keeps between Easter and Pentecost
(which include the Ascension, St George’s Day, Philip and James – about whom
virtually nothing is known, the visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to
Elizabeth and Pentecost itself)? What about other seemingly and often
non-Biblical festivals such as the Assumption, the Annunciation – Lady Day and
Christ the King? What are we to say
about these things if, at this distance, we can say anything meaningful at
all? Are these just myths, do they have
any basis in actual history, are they true?
I suspect the answer depends on how they are seen, how we view them and
that their basis in historical fact is of far less importance than the deeper
truths they convey. The truths that
these myths, if they are myths, tell us is to be found in the rich depths of
their utter strangeness, mystery and unknowableness. Things can be true in many different ways; it
just depends, like my picture of the pyramids, which way you look at them.
Your friend and vicar
On a recent family trip to
Edinburgh, like many fans of the Harry Potter series of films and books, we
made our way to creepy Greyfiars Kirkyard and the grave of 19th century
gentleman Thomas Riddell, who died in 1806 aged 72, whose name may have
inspired that of JK Rowling’s famous villain Tom Riddell, aka the nasally
challenged Lord Voldemort. Although little
is known about the original Thomas Riddell’s life. ‘J. K. Rowling, the author
of the Harry Potter books has previously said that the tombstone of Thomas
Riddell Esquire in the famous Kirkyard may have subconsciously been the
inspiration for anguine Voldemort’s true name, since she often took strolls
through the spot, which is overlooked by the Elephant House cafe, where she
wrote several of the books. The nearby gravestone of poet William McGonagall is
also said to have offered inspiration for the name of Professor McGonagall, the
head of Gryffindor, while nearby George Heriot’s school is claimed to be a
template for Hogwarts.
Some Edinburgh University
students, who now run The Potter Trail – a trip through city spots connected to
the texts – say people may be getting in a ‘muggle’ between fact and fiction. One
said: “The recent trend to leave notes and such has been building up over the
past month. The fact and the fiction have become a little blurred – on the tour
we do state that ‘This is Voldemort’s grave’ but most people understand he is
just an inspiration.” The notes appear to have been left by people from all
over the world. One says, “RIP Tom, thank
you for making us all believe in magic. You are an inspiration.” But not
all visitors believe the magic, with one mean-spirited note saying: “Dear idiots, you know there’s a difference
between fiction and reality, right?”
The difference between fact
and fiction, fiction and reality. That
difference is a stumbling block to many people who I have talked to about
Easter, and specifically the resurrection of Christ, without which, St Paul
reminds us, our faith is null and void.
In another old cemetery I once visited, In the old cemetery of Christ
Church, at Fifth and Arch streets, Philadelphia, USA, the passerby can see
through the iron railing the grave of one of America's greatest men and one of
the world's most versatile geniuses. Walled
off from the city's roar and traffic, as if to comment upon the vanity of it
all, you can just observe the flat stone over the grave of Benjamin Franklin which
bears the epitaph which he composed:
Like the cover of an old book,
Its contents torn out,
And stripped of its lettering and gilding,
Lies here food for worms;
But the work shall not be lost,
For it will (as he believes) appear once more
In a new and more elegant edition,
Revised and corrected by the Author.
That the work shall not be
lost but will re appear, elegant, new and exactly how the author intended may
be one way of beginning to approach the mystery of how the resurrection, or any
resurrection, can contain both joy and sorrow, happiness and sadness, like two
sides of a coin, at the same time. The
difference between fiction and reality, or at least how it has come down to us,
may in this way be seen as, at best, missing the point. My children greatly appreciate the CBBC series
‘Horrible Histories’, in which a certain licence is taken with historical
scenes and characters, but the essence of the person or period are brilliantly
conveyed. In one memorable scene a group
of visitors to Oliver Cromwell is shown suggesting things that they may do that
day, which happens to be Christmas Day. At each suggestion, each one of which forms
part of our modern Christmas, from eating mincepies, via singing Carols, to
giving presents, the Lord Protector of England shouts “Guards”, as each one was
actually banned under the Cromwellian regime.
The scene ends with one of the visitors suggesting “I know what we can do,
we’ll go to Church!” which brings forth the predictable response “Guards!”, as
going to Church at Christmas was actually also banned by Cromwell’s puritan
regime. Now I’m not suggesting that the
series’ creators are saying that the actual scene depicted ever took place, and
I’m not pretending that the message provides a fair or balanced understanding
of the complexities English 17thC religious and political issues – but it does
cut straight to the essence of it and conveys it brilliantly - to any age
So it is I believe with our
understanding of the resurrection of Jesus and what has come down to us as a
picture of it, the details are to miss the point, it is the essence, the
message which is life giving. Whilst
visiting that graveyard in Philadelphia I came across another story from the
American War of Independence, or ‘Revolution’ as the Americans have it. During the War a young officer in the British
army, before embarking with his regiment, became engaged to a young lady in
England. In one of the battles the officer was badly wounded and lost a leg. He
accordingly wrote to his affianced bride, telling her how he was disfigured and
maimed, and so changed from what he had been when she had last seen him and
they had plighted their troth that he felt it his duty to release her from all
obligation to become his wife. The young lady wrote an answer not less noble
than that which she had received from the young man. In this letter she disavowed
all thought of refusing to carry out the engagement because of what had
happened to her fiancé in battle, and said that she was willing to marry him if
there was enough of his body left to hold his soul!
Well he week of Christ’s
death, burial and resurrection was a week that began with tremendous excitement
and great expectations for these early followers of Christ. The followers of
Jesus were ready to crown Him as their King, only to have all of their hopes
and expectations crushed because of His death. They were unable to grasp the
significance of what was taking place. Their belief in Christ was so shattered
that even after His resurrection they were slow to believe. All of Jesus' disciples and other followers
forsook Him, one betrayed Him and one denied Him. Matthew 26:56 says they all
They had lost hope, Peter
was mired in self-pity and despair. Matthew 26:75 says he went out and wept
They had given up all to
follow Christ and now they were filled
with bitterness and total disillusionment. They no longer had the direction or
meaning to life that they had experienced during the 3 and a half years they
had been with Jesus. They were lost and without hope. But all of this was about
to change because of the resurrection of Christ – if only they would dare to believe once
Like the first disciples,
there are many people today, and perhaps for all of us at sometimes too, who
with them are searching for a glimpse into the path God has purposed for our life
and to discover our destiny and purpose. In doing so, we will be able to live
the role created for us. Whether we are just starting out on that journey,
anywhere in the middle, or have become detoured and lost our way, we sometimes
need help to shine the light on the invisible path that leads to God’s goodness
and to experience His kingdom within. The
great Easter truth is not just that we are to live newly after death – that is
not the only great thing – but that we are to live here and now by the power of
the resurrection; not so much that we are to live forever as that we are to,
and may, live better now because we are to live forever.
The truth of what the
resurrection means is not to be found in any graveyard, whether in Edinburgh,
Philadelphia or 1stC AD Palestine.
That’s why the writer of the Greyfriars note had it spot on in
describing an inability to separate reality from fiction as ‘idiocy’. Just as the angels said to those who first
experienced the resurrection that the reality was not to be found in the tomb
but out among the living, so we too miss the point if we dwell too much on the
details. Resurrection may never be
contained to a graveyard just as that English soldier was no less himself after
he lost a limb than he was before – it’s the essence that’s important, not a
list of facts.
One interest of mine, as a
great lover of history (you’ll notice I avoided the word ‘scholar’) is how
little we know about the period in English history from when the Romans left in
415AD until about the time of King Alfred, around 890AD. We know so little both because so little was
written down (and what little there was is often contradictory) and very little
of that has survived and come down to us.
As if that’s not bad enough, buildings were mainly of wood rather than
stone and so very few archaeological clues remain other than stains and
discolorations in the ground. This vast
period of time of warrior chieftains, of the real person on whom King Arthur
was based maybe, in which the foundations of what became England were laid, is
largely unknown; the lives of those who lived in it lost to us. It has been famously described by an eminent
real scholar of the period as being like ‘a vast, unknown continent about
which, from time to time we may find a clue; but that clue is only like glimpsing
a distant headland of that vast continent from a passing ship’. The glimpsing of a distant headland of a
vast, unknown continent – the resurrection in a nutshell!
Your friend and vicar
Reading recently in the excellent new book on
evangelism by our Archdeacon Mark Ireland, I was fascinated by his description
of the Jesus Boat and the lessons he draws from it:
the sea of Galilee recently, I saw the so-called ‘Jesus Boat’, a wooden vessel
discovered embedded in the mud of the lake floor a few years ago, when drought
had made the water level exceptionally low.
The boat is of a size suitable for fishing, and dates from the first
century, hence the nickname. One
remarkable feature of the boat, archaeologists discovered, was that 12
different types of wood were used in its construction, a number of them clearly
reused from other vessels or objects.
Pondering the skills needed to build and repair boats like that made me
realise that carpenters and fishermen in a place like Capernaum would naturally
have known each other and worked together, which suggests that the encounter on
the shore would not have been their first meeting, and may explain Peter’s
apparent willingness to let Jesus commandeer his boat as a pulpit in Luke 5:3”
Researching the boat does indeed confirm that the
boat's construction conforms to other boats constructed in that part of the
Mediterranean during the period between 100 BC and AD 200. Constructed
primarily of cedar planks joined together by pegged mortise and tenon joints
and nails, the boat is shallow drafted with a flat bottom, allowing it to get
very close to the shore while fishing. The boat was row-able, with four
staggered rowers, and also had a mast allowing the fisherman to sail the boat. The boat has been dated to 40 BC (plus or
minus 80 years) based on radiocarbon dating, and 50 BC to AD 50 based on
pottery (including a cooking pot and lamp) and nails found in the boat, as well
as hull construction techniques. The evidence of repeated repairs shows the
boat was used for several decades, perhaps nearly a century. When its fishermen
owners thought it was beyond repair, they removed all useful wooden parts and
the hull eventually sank to the bottom of the lake. There it was covered with
mud which prevented bacterial decomposition.
Fascinating as this is in its own right to me,
I was equally intrigued by the Archdeacon’s conclusion – that “The call of the first disciples happened
(not in a religious setting but) at their place of work, when Simon and Andrew
were casting their nets into the sea, and James and John were mending their
nets. Matthew’s encounter with Jesus
also happened at his place of work”.
He points out that, of the 168 hours in a week we are usually awake for
around 120, and how many even regular Church attenders spend more that at best
10 of those hours either at Church or involved in Church activities. So at least 110 hours of even most Church
members’ lives will be spent away from a specifically religious environment –
“at home, work or in the neighbourhood – this, then is their primary context of
their discipleship”. So it might be that
efforts to get people to come into our Churches are less about following the
pattern set by Jesus than those which involve going out to meet people as and
where they are. Indeed I was heartened
to see the suggestion that ‘making disciples’ is truly focussed when it is
about deepening faith rather than concocting novel ways of getting people to
come to our traditional services.
Consider the example of Jesus himself. Jesus wasn’t content to remain in an isolated
hill village where everyone know everyone else.
Instead he moved to Capernaum to begin his ministry, a busting centre of
trade and commerce on the Via Apia trade route where a cosmopolitan and diverse
section of cultures met and passed through.
Just as fishing boats in Jesus’ time were not the work of one single
boat builder but required a range of skilled craftsmen working together to
produce, so Jesus goes to where people live, work and find nurture to meet
others and bring about a community.
Making new disciples, Mark Ireland suggests, is above all else something
that finds its fulfilment in the places outside Church where people live, work
and look for happiness and fulfilment:
‘”drawing more people into running the church system can stifle the
primary mission to which they are called…the discipleship of all God’s people,
lived out among neighbours, in the workplace, in the community”
Where church life is about getting people to do
things in a church in ways that they have always be done is therefore contrary
to both the example and calling of Jesus.
We can follow Jesus’ example more nearly when we focus on not our own
preferred ways but are prepared to leave them behind and go to where people
are, as Jesus himself did. If we don’t
we may be condemned to be like the
author who wrote:
“I am out of humanity’s reach,
I must finish my journey alone”
The writer is none other than Alexander
Selkirk, ‘during his solitary abode on the island of Juan Fernandez’, the model
on whom Daniel Defoe based Robinson Crusoe.
Selkirk went on to write:
“I am monarch of all I survey;
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea
I am lord of the fowl and the brute
O Solitude! where are the charms
That sages have seen in thy face?
Better dwell in the midst of alarms,
Than reign in this horrible place.
If a fisherman followed a carpenter because
they were already used to working together the challenge for us, if we are not
to let our church become a horrible deserted island disconnected with the
society around it, must be to look outside it for new ways of working with
modern day fishermen and carpenters, and with each other.
Your Friend and vicar
On 30 June in 1860, Samuel
Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, known as ‘soapy Sam’ because of Benjamin
Disraeli’s description of his slippery or evasive words, spoke at a famous
meeting of the British Association in Oxford about the nature of human
ancestry. Legend has it that he attempted to pour scorn on Darwin’s Origin of
Species, but that his scepticism about evolutionary theory was roundly defeated
by a certain scientist, and inventor of the word ‘agnostic’ T. H. Huxley. In
this memorable encounter Huxley’s simple scientific sincerity apparently
humbled the clerical superiority and religious certainty of Soapy Sam; the idea
that the Church could dictate to scientists the conclusions they were allowed
to reach was decisively defeated.
There is no accurate account
of the event, but according to some sources, Wilberforce turned to Huxley and
asked: `Is it on your grandfather’s or grandmother’s side that you claim
descent from the apes?’ whereupon Huxley retorted: ‘If the question is put to
me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly
endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence (meaning
Wilberforce himself of course) and yet who employs those faculties and that
influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific
discussion – I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.` In other
versions it is more simply quoted as ‘I would rather have an ape for an
ancestor than a bishop’
Either way, the statement
was so shocking that, apparently, a certain Lady Brewster fainted on the spot
and had to be carried out. If only such emotional sensitivity towards the
public sensibilities of bishops were evident these days.
So how times have changed,
or have they?
I was watching, on You Tube,
a staged re-run of the debate in the Oxford history museum, between Richard
Dawkins, the famous scientist, atheist and campaigner against religion, and
John Lennox, a mathematician and philosopher of science, but also a Christian.
At one point, when they discuss the possibility that the universe has an
intelligent design, John Lennox says this:
‘The fact that we have the language of DNA points …
to the existence of a logos, a divine logos who started it, rather than the
notion that it’s going to be exhaustively explained in purely naturalistic
terms … I’m not just terribly tempted to believe it’s all been designed. I
believe it’s all been designed.’
Dawkins’ reply reflects
Huxley’s sentiments, 150 years before, in accusing the Christian of abandoning
reason in favour of myth and magic: ‘when
you feel like it’, he said ‘you smuggle in magic, you smuggle in magic for
miracles, in the bible, and you smuggle in magic to explain the origins of
the accusation is the same in both debates: whenever Christians cannot explain
the workings of nature and the universe, we fill in the gaps with a divine
explanation: the God of the gaps. In this context I find Lennox’s use of the
term logos is very intriguing, as he is tapping into a very strong theological
tradition which finds its origins in John’s gospel, where the meaning of the
Greek ‘logos’ is the eternal and uncreated ‘Word’, ‘In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word
The logos is a way of trying
to describe the indescribable. But I am more than a little uneasy with using
this theology as a rebuttal of scientific atheism. For one thing, a ‘God of the
gaps’ must keep shrinking as the gaps get smaller, and I for one find the idea
of a shrinking God deeply heretical!
Secondly, the notion of a logos does not work as a decisive argument
against a purely naturalistic explanation of the origins of the universe and is
easily dismissed in such a context, as Dawkins has well demonstrated. However,
far from being a meaningless concept, it is, in fact, about something much more
important. It is about a deeper truth and reality, not really concerned with
intelligent design, or explanations, or indeed science at all, but to do with
very personal questions of purpose and meaning and the spiritual life.
For St. John and St. Paul,
the fact of creation is one thing, with all the questions it raises, but it
cannot be separated from another fact. The fact of Jesus Christ, the historical
figure who lived, taught, died, and rose again. Once Jesus’ life and death are
taken seriously, St. Paul would say, then the question of how the universe came
into being, and how it exists, are seen in proportion to a profound question of
why life exists, and for John and Paul, (if not for George and Ringo!) their
personal experience of Jesus Christ, his life, teaching and resurrection, not
as an ancient myth or magic, but as a recent and fresh reality in their lives,
gave them a strong conviction of the significance of Christ for their own lives
and for the whole of humanity. Clearly their first hand experience of Christ,
the logos, made such an impact upon them as to cause them to reconsider their
preconceptions about literally everything.
If, as Christians, we are to
get anywhere near that kind of passionate belief, without switching off our
rational minds, we must also experience something of the reality of God, albeit
two thousand years later. I want to suggest that we can do this, for there are
more ways of knowing something than simply absorbing facts. One analogy might
be that of music; the beautiful singing of the choir, a Bach Cello suite, a
Beethoven string quartet, can be explained scientifically in terms of sound
waves and frequencies interacting in an organized pattern, but the meaning of
music which is clearly a personal encounter that can move us to tears and
transform our lives, goes well beyond such a set of facts. The philosopher
Roger Scruton calls it ‘aboutness’. A Mozart Sonata is about something. We may
not be able to articulate it, indeed we cannot and may not want to, otherwise
why have the music? But it is about something that touches us deeply. It
transcends the mathematics and physics of the sound and transports us to
another reality, more about spirit than about sound.
One person who understood
this clearly was the French Reformer of Geneva, John Calvin. For him knowledge
of reality was not simply merely a matter of cognition in the narrow sense of
the term, as though such knowledge were merely a matter of patterning the mind.
Knowledge involved love, trust, fear, obedience, and worship. It embraced mind
and heart, affections and will and work. It rested on God’s free grace towards
us, and focussed on the duties of love toward God and toward one’s neighbours.
I’m not sure that anyone
would have left the Dawkins/Lennox debate with any of their fundamental ideas
challenged, on either side. But there have been billions of lives utterly
transformed to the depths of their souls by the presence of the indescribable
gift of the eternal Christ. Like Huxley,
I would rather acknowledge the fact that we all share a common ancestor with all
living things than use a God given faculty to wilfully deny what is
demonstrably true. Like Dawkins, I also
think that using God to plug the gaps is lazy and, is also, in some ways,
blasphemous! God is a living presence
which, like music is an experience.
Faith in that living presence, tat experience, may be a gift, and it is
a gift which is there waiting for all of us and as we respond to it, from
wherever we might have come, whatever we might have seen or been through, or
perhaps for those too who even only who want to believe, invites us, like a
good song, to sing along.
Your friend and vicar
A while back I was browsing,
by the magic of catchup tv, various comedy series which I remember from many
years ago and which I never thought I would see again; but which now,
miraculously, can be seen again, and in our living room. Those of a certain age may remember a
strikingly idiosyncratic, and at the time I remember very popular, BBC
‘sitcom’, if that’s the right word for it, from the 1970’s called ‘The Fall and
Rise of Reginald Perrin’.
Reginald Perrin, played brilliantly
by the great Leonard Rossiter was a typical, for the time “middle class, middle
aged, umbrella swinging salesman” for ‘Sunshine Desserts’, a jam making 1970’s
company of the sort which would have long since gone out of business. Reggie Perrin, as played by Rossiter is the
superb embodiment of a hapless middle aged pedlar, bored with his job whose
life is an endless round of tedious dinner party following soul-sapping meeting
following nightmarish in-law visitation with exhausting relentlessness, and who
realises that he’s been sleep walking his life away. Perrin supposes that his path to happiness is
blocked by what one reviewer called ‘the greatest concentration of loveable
Berks ever gathered together’. These
include two ‘yes-men’ whose function in Sunshine Desserts is to agree with everything
that the boss, CJ, says; one following the other with a sycophantic, ‘great”,
“super”. CJ himself is a corporate
tyrant, whose initials are of course a reversal of JC, and constantly reminds
his cowed staff that “I didn’t get where I am today by…..” whatever the latest
inadequacy he perceives in them is.
Perrin begins to see that
all the asinine trappings of mid 1970’s middle class life, which are brilliantly
parodied in the show, from a colour supplement feature on jam making to cosy Building
Society ads, are the totality of his world,; all the things which nobody ever
asked for but which are presented as indispensible. To bust out of this stultifying, life
limiting world, Perrin fakes his own suicide on a beach at night (which, soon
after the novel by David Nobbs on which the TV series is based came out, the MP
John Stonehouse did the very same thing!).
In the wrong hands this plot could be seen as very dark, but with a
combination of brilliant acting, script and direction, ‘The Fall and Rise of
Reginald Perrin’ shows comedy to be a sharper tool than drama for conveying the
depths of someone cracking up.
I realise that, for a
December magazine vicar’s letter this has not been very Christmassy so
far. But let me assure you that it
is. Think for a moment of the greatest
Christmas parable of them all, ‘A Christmas Carol’. There, in the figure of Ebenezer Scrooge, we
see the embodiment of the redemption that the Christ child brings. Here is a man whose life has become so
limited by disappointment and struggles, all of which we see courtesy of the
ghosts of Christmases past, present and future, that he has become a selfish
reclusive miser: the opposite of what Christmas is truly about.
By a process of letting him
see himself and how he became the wretched, lonely monster that others see,
Scrooge, as you know, realises that it doesn’t have to be like that and, in the
words of George Eliot, ‘Its never too late to become what you might have
been’. The redeemed scrooge who gives
away so generously at the end of the Carol discovers that joy and fulfilment
come with giving and fellowship, not with accumulation and possession. The ads for the all those middle class
trappings of Reginald Perrin’s world (which at best would today be considered
‘retro’) were the very things, Reggie realises, that limit and circumscribe his
world and his life. To find true life he
must free himself from them. In the same
way does the redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge not think twice about giving away all
that he once clung onto but which was in fact destroying him. That the Carol was written by Charles Dickens
as a response to the life limiting squalor he saw in the Manchester of the
1840’s shows it to be a reaction to and a parable about how to escape all that
would limit our lives and make them less than they might have been, and still
Without giving away too much
of a spoiler, Reggie Perrin, like Ebenezer Scrooge, also finds a redemption, of
sorts. Although Reggie comes to realise that the fake suicide was not necessary
to have left his old world behind, he nevertheless knows that he had to leave
it. This is the invitation given to us
by God which we celebrate each Christmas: that through the gift of God coming
directly into our world, we are invited to live in it with him, that we might
not be limited to the things which the world values, whether colour supplements
on jam making or whatever, but are, like Ebenezer Scrooge, invited to see how
we might really have life, and have it in all its fullness.
Your friend and vicar
I was recently listening to
a radio programme (The ‘In Our Time’ Podcast actually) about how in 1831 a
relatively uneducated and largely self taught chemical assistant at the
National Institution in London, named Michael Faraday discovered
electromagnetic induction. This is the
principle behind the electric transformer and generator, the discovery which
was crucial in allowing electricity to be transformed from a curiosity into a
powerful new technology and which basically changed the world from being steam
powered to being electrically powered.
What Faraday discovered can
be shown in a simple experiment. Take a
metal screwdriver and a piece of plastic coated wire. Wrap the middle section of the wire round the
metal shaft of the screwdriver in coils until two ends of wire come off the
screwdriver at each end. Now attach each
end of the wire to a battery. If you
place a pile of paper clips at the flat end of the screwdriver they will be
immediately magnetically attracted to the point at the very end of the
screwdriver and become attached to it. If you take away one end of the wire
from the battery they will start to drop off as the electromagnetic field
established by the electricity going round the coils of the wire wears off. Further, the more coils are placed around the
screwdriver the more powerful the electromagnetic filed becomes and the more
paper clips the flat end of the screwdriver can pick up. In the same way less coils will produce a lesser
field and less paper clips can be picked up.
The importance of this discovery cannot be overstated to our
society. Electromagnetic induction
powers every electric thing in the world including the computer I’m currently
typing on – its not stretching the point to say that it has created the modern
Now not many people
understand what exactly is happening when the electromagnetic field is created,
still less are able to explain it to the uninitiated in terms that someone who
is not an expert in sub atomic physics can grasp. Its enough for me to know that there are at
least some people who at least think they know, as I understand it, and many
more who can make use of it.
It reminds me a little of a
Church. Not many people have more than a
rudimentary understanding of the relation between to various persons of the
Holy Trinity – and that despite great tomes of theology being written about it
over the centuries. Having had to plough
through more than a few of them I can honestly say that I am still none the
wiser! However, although I can’t
adequately understand how the Holy Trinity works (still less explain it in a
way that can keep people awake) I am sure of the power it can give through the
gift of the Holy Spirit and I’m much more interested in what this power can do
in people’s lives. What’s more, rather
like the numerous coils being wound around the screwdriver, I’ve seen and had
my observations confirmed by others, that the numerous people coming together
in groups, trying each of us in our less than perfect way to follow Jesus, can
generate a power and an attraction which can touch people’s lives in
transformative and powerfully deep ways.
I’m sure that this was far from the thoughts of Michael Farady when he
saw how the more times he coiled the wire the more powerful the force became
but there it is, in a sense the Holy Spirit works in the same way!
As a young sixth former I
used to enjoy the music of a musical trio the name of which I will tell you if
you ask me. Although their music was
enthusiastically received by those of us who were devotees, not to say
fervourous disciples, often to the point of obsession, I am sad to say that it
was not perhaps appreciated as much by the population at large, not as much as
I thought it should be (and still do!) anyway.
Despite this limitation, and the outright hostility on the part of some youth
sub-cultures at the time, the trio in question went on to enjoy not
inconsiderable chart success. Indeed at
the time of their disbanding, sadly too soon in my opinion, they were the
single biggest selling group in the country.
This was down to the fact, I have no doubt, that anything they released
on single or album (yes it was vinyl in those days) was immediately purchased
by almost every single one of their large, but alas not worldwide, following, I
nearly said ‘worshippers’.
Being a true disciple myself
I had listened every day for at least two years to one or more of their songs
and could virtually recite the lyrics world for word of each and every song. I had
thought I had reached the pinnacle of adulation in the satisfaction that
listening to their music brought me. But
it was not so. I discovered that there
was yet another level of musical appreciation I had not even knew existed. This I discovered at Deeside Leisure Centre
on November 3 1980 when, along with 5,000 other (oops, I nearly
said their name), devotees I enjoyed what, to me, was a revelation in musical
appreciation, if not mass crowd hysteria, beyond anything I had imagined. Yes,
not only was this my first glimpse of my heroes in the flesh, it was also my
first proper ‘gig’, which is to say it wasn’t a ‘rock’ concert as the music
was, in the ears of the devotees, most definitely not described as ‘rock’
(wrong sub-culture) – but it was a huge exciting, buzzing and truly
electrifying experience, at least for me, nonetheless. It was a revelation. It wasn’t so much the music (although that to
me is timeless), rather the atmosphere: the energy, electricity, excitement and
sheer joy which comes with 5,000 people who all appreciate the same thing
appreciating it together.
I went on to see this trio
another two times, including on their farewell tour in December 1982 (that
should give at least some of you a clue as to who they were) and on one other
occasion, 33 years later when, last year, I took (or rather bribed to come with
me) my daughter to the Clitheroe Grand to see one of the members of this trio re-enact
the glory days with another two musicians; call it a tribute act to himself if
you must but it didn’t feel like that to the, much less than 5,000,
worshippers, the magic was still there.
Now I’m not suggesting that
you need a congregation of 5,000 to feel the electric presence of the Holy
Spirit, or that only large congregations can have the resources to provide an
attraction to others to join them. By no
means; the spirit can fill each one of us in times of solitude, out on a walk
in the country or wherever two or three are gathered and its true that you
don’t have to go to Church to be a Christian.
It’s just that without that shared experience we risk being a bit like
me before I went to the Deeside concert: I thought I had the ultimate
experience in my favourite group’s music, only to find that there was a whole
new experience which was bigger, better and beyond anything I could imagine, it
stays with me to this day.
It’s just also that it might
be better to have more coils around a bigger screwdriver if we want to attract
more paperclips than having several little ones which are not very powerful and
which dissipate their potential. I
enjoyed the small concert at Clitheroe Grand, I enjoy still the sound of my favourite
trio, (although these days via itunes rather than on vinyl) – but none of this
compares to the 5,000 worshippers at Deeside roaring out, to a person, their
call for an encore.
Your friend and vicar
In our garden stand three
apple trees. The trees are, I know, some
very many years old, as I can see from old photographs taken in the garden,
some pre war. Looking at the trees you
might be forgiven for thinking that they have seen better days; bits of them
with no apples on, no leaves or any sign of life at all. Similarly the apples that the trees produce (and
which are currently ripening, falling from the trees and lying, waiting to be
collected on the vicarage garden), are not, perhaps, the ones you might choose
from the fresh produce department at Tesco.
Small, mis-shapen and blotchy, the taste their appearance suggests is
only confirmed when you bite into them, not something I would advise doing,
although they are nice stewed, with crumble, sugar and custard – or whatever
your favourite accompaniment to apple crumble might be. The apples lack the sweetness of Pink Lady,
the glossy crispness of Granny Smith’s and the, well, whatever they have that
some people somewhat inexplicably see in French Golden Delicious.
Yet my apples share one
thing in common with their more famous cousins; they have the ‘secret star of
the apple’ within them. If you have
never come across the secret before, take a sharp knife and put the apple on
its side, ie the core horizontal to the cutting surface. Cut the apple in half sideways, ie across the
core not through it. Inside you will see
what no one else could have possibly seen, the star in the centre of the
apple. Yes, thanks to how the pips are
arranged, at the centre of each apple, even my humble, mis-shapen ones, lies a
star. Try it and see.
Now I’m not going to
advocate the chopping of humans in half and I’m sure that there might be better
ways to prove my point, but I believe the same to be true about humans: that
is, every human that is living, regardless of class, race, religion or
education, and every human who has ever lived too. No matter who he or she is, young or old,
rich or poor, handsome, beautiful or otherwise, they have a star within them, a
star given them by God. Sometimes that
star is easy to see, for example like in people known throughout the world for
their good works (St Mother Teresa of Calcutta is one, in the house of whose
good works I was privileged once to sit, the only time to my knowledge that I
have been under the same roof as a saint, or at least one recognised as such by
the Church). Or it might be someone known to only a very few and who, like most
people who have ever lived, will be completely forgotten within a few
generations of their passing. But what,
I am certain of, is that all these people share a star within them.
Sometimes, because of how
the world has treated individual people and the bad choices they have made as a
result, that star is hidden; behind appearances, behaviour or personalities,
which, on the surface, may appear less than attractive, even to themselves. Sometimes its hard to see, and yet we would do
well to follow the example of Jesus who saw God’s star in the lives of those
who were also on the margins of their society; what, I wonder, are today’s
equivalents of tax-collectors, prostitutes and Samaritans? Yet they too have a star within them.
And just as we need food,
water, fresh air and sunshine if we, like my apple trees, are going to flourish
physically, so do we need a spiritual and inward nourishment if the star within
us is going to shine out and grow and be seen, even if only by ourselves or
those around us. This might be Bible
reading, attendance at Church services to receive the sacrament, or a discussion
and reflection on some Church teaching.
Just as good is a walk in the countryside, doing someone a good turn or taking
a decision to make a positive change in our lifestyle (although sticking to it
is not always as easy, but the Lord loves a tryer!), listening to a good piece
of music, reading a good book, learning something that you didn’t know you
didn’t know or a hundred and one other ways in which the star, or soul, call it
what you will, is nurtured.
This autumn, as fruit falls
from the trees and the rhythms of Church, school and work get back to normal
after the holidays we can see nature changing, sometime spectacularly so, all
round us. If we can find a way of
nurturing that star we each have within us, given to us as a precious, loved,
individual and infinitely precious child of God, then the spiritual nurturing
of our souls can also have an opportunity to change us too. In the eyes of the world we might not all be
a Pink Lady, but surely we can do better than be a French Golden Delicious!
Your friend and vicar
our summer family holiday this year to Devon, some of our children, including
the youngest, pleaded with me to let them go ‘coasteering’. Coasteering, in case you hadn’t heard of it
is advertised as being
“all the things you wanted
to do as a child at the coast but your parents wouldn’t let you.”
consists basically of putting on a strong wetsuit and crash helmet, being taken
by mini bus to a particularly rocky part of the coast with waves crashing in
and then jumping off the same rocks, which in other circumstances might
accurately be described as ‘cliffs’, into the same crashing waves. Despite the assurances from the group
‘leader’, (who appeared to be not much older than our eldest child) that the
activity was perfectly safe, the location tried and tested by ‘professionals’,
(whatever they might be in those circumstances), and that the water was deep
enough for even the largest person to plunge into safely, it did take all the
considerable powers of persuasion our youngest child has, which are many, to
make us agree. Needless to say, that despite
our misgivings and my wife’s inability to look at any of our children as they
plummeted off the precipice, hurtling towards those same crashing waves, they
all emerged safely from the experience and, far from, in my view being lucky to
have had a narrow escape, all seemed enthusiastically keen to repeat the
experience again, and as soon as possible!
a family member leaping off a cliff can be a pretty disconcerting experience
for anyone. For me it was doubly so as
it brings home the lack of depth of understanding I have had in one of my
favourite and, no doubt, oft repeated, analogies of having faith in God. “Believing in God”, wrote CS Lewis, “is not so much something you can try to do
as something you finally stop yourself from not doing, like diving into water,
its about letting yourself go”.
Well, as someone who, no doubt erroneously, has always considered
himself a competent swimmer and has never, from memory, had any difficulty or
fear of diving into the nice, safe, warm water of a swimming pool, I have
always quite liked this analogy, because, I now realise, it is about something I have never been
fortunate enough to have had much difficulty in doing. When we lived in Wigan I used to take our
young children to swimming lessons in what was then the old Olympic sized
swimming pool, sadly now no longer there (replaced, as with much else, with
something identical to that which could be found anywhere and everywhere). That pool had at one end a three tiered
diving platform, with the top one at 10 meters high. Luckily for me the council had long before
took the decision to close the platform to public use so I had no reason to
have to find an excuse to my children as to why I didn’t go up and dive, or
even jump, off the highest platform. I
wonder if, either by having to think up an excuse or even having to face the
terrifying possibility of actually ascending the towering structure, I would
have since been so fond of the analogy about faith from CS Lewis?
my children disappear off the edge of a rocky precipice into broiling waters
suddenly made me aware of the depth of wisdom in the diving analogy. It wasn’t meant to be about something you found
easy at all, it was really about stopping stopping yourself from doing
something you found terrifying! In other
words to make yourself powerless as you force yourself to do that which you
most fear. No wonder faith is sometimes
difficult and no wonder I have been so slow sometimes to see it. What was even worse for me as a parent than
even the prospect of doing the coasteering myself was the powerlessness you
feel when watching your closest family doing it – it certainly brings you down
I should add, that any of my children showed even the slightest sign of my
anxiety as they hurtled enthusiastically towards the cliff edge. It wasn’t I think that they possess the bravery I
lack and the strength of character to overcome the fear that I could not. I told myself, I hope its true, that at their
age I would have had the same lack of awareness of danger and heedless abandon
in the face of what, to any normal person would seem a hugely hazardous
activity. No, they, in their turn will
like me, I am sure, have to come to face their own versions of what I now
perceive in myself as a previously unknown fear, or at least dislike, of
heights. The lesson learned for me that
day was not about admiration for bravery in others, as I am convinced there was
nothing brave about what the children were doing at all, more like fools
rushing in where angels fear to tread really.
No, the lesson was about how I had thought I had understood something,
only to realise how little did I appreciate the depth of a picture I am pleased
to so regularly use. It is about just
how big is God’s care for us that he will support and uphold us no matter how
big and terrible that dive he calls for is and how little, or at least how
seldom do we all perhaps appreciate it.
More than anything it is a lesson learned, as all lessons truly
understood must be, from personal experience – the experience of having to
trust not for personal safety, but for something even more important.
Friend and vicar
I recently came upon a
Parish Magazine which is unwise enough to invite the opinions of its readers to
be published in letters sent in. I am
all for listening to the concerns of parishioners and yet perhaps its as well
that God gave us powers of following our own conscience and not being led by
any and every view one encounters. For
your summer entertainment I include a small selection of some of the milder
letters which were obviously sent in in a spirit of jest and contain no kernel
of truth within them whatsoever, or do they…………………….?
Candles are expensive. We use two candles on the
altar, two around the altar, and two for the acolytes. That’s six candles lit
every week. It soon adds up.
I have invented viable solar-powered candles by
embedding LED lights into the tops of wax candles, and solar panels and
batteries into the candlesticks. Their use would save an average of £14.22 per
annum. Services would have to be shorter in the winter, but nobody would mind.
In the course of my experiments I have run up some
expenses. I therefore include an invoice for £74.22.
My seventeen-greats grandfather built Woodby Chapel
so he could have a church conveniently placed next to his house. He then
knocked down all the copyholders’ cottages so he did not have to put up with
the site and smell of the peasants, except on Sundays and at Christmas.
And yet, when I asked the vicar if we could hold our
Sunday service on Mondays, when he is less busy, he said he was afraid not.
If one cannot get one’s own clergy to do what they
are told, I no longer know what the Church of England stands for.
So many people telling us how great it was to
celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday with a special church service.
A special united benefice-and-ecumenical church
service. If it had not been that the people from all the other churches refused
to turn up, St Mary’s could have been full.
On balance, I am glad we marked her Majesty’s 90th.
But I hope we do not do it every year.
I would like to apologise for the Children’s Church
presentation of “Our Glorious Queen” at the 90th Birthday service.
In our rehearsals they had pretended to be corgies,
they waved Union Jacks and sang “Happy Birthday Dear Ma’am.” I suspect they got
their ideas from Mr Corbyn, the “trendy” teacher at our Primary. But calling
for “class war” and a republic. and demanding that the “Hanoverian leeches
cease feeding on the blood of the working class” was definitely not in the
script the previous Sunday.
I heard that the wardens were having trouble with
Bats can be seen as a nuisance – their droppings mean
that all items of value have to be covered, and they make an awful mess on the
church floor. But they are rare animals, and protected by law.
That is why I nipped in when the church was unlocked
and shot the lot with an air gun. Figured that would save the vicar and church
wardens a lot of trouble.
Ask no questions etc….
An apology and a plea, after last month’s celebration
of Her Majesty’s 90th Birthday.
I now know that by “Joint Service”, what was meant
was a service with our ecumenical friends, and the other parishes in the
I realised my mistake when, handing out a few
spliffs, people pointed out to me that the Health Act 2006 made the tobacco
element illegal in church. Also, the Baptists complained, thinking it was
incense. Although when I handed out the “turbo chocolate brownies” instead, I did get an invitation to
contribute to the next fete cake stall.
As a result of my mistake, and the subsequent raid by
Her Majesty’s Constabulary (ironic considering whom we were celebrating) I am
£100 worse off. Also I now have quite a lot of space in my greenhouse. So if
anyone has a few tomato plants they can let me have, I will be grateful.
I hear that the Vicar has banned the jumble stall
from this month’s fete on the grounds that all the jumble has spent the last
seventy years in the jumble cupboard in the church hall, only coming out for
fetes where nobody buys it.
I am outraged. The jumble stall, selling the same
mouldy clothes every summer, has been woven into the fabric of this parish. If
we lose the jumble stall, we may as well let the tower fall and sell the nave
off to the Scientologists.
This means we will have only the crockery stall, the
coconut shy and the tombola. Truly a fete worse than death.
I dropped into the Bell Ringer’s meeting last week
again. I am rather confused.
A load of people I have never seen in church, all
wearing sweaters and ringing bells. Where do they go when the service starts?
Do the wardens lock them in the bell tower until the next practice?
Once again we have been unfortunate enough to have
“modern worship” foisted on us, in the Vicar’s constant attempt to be “trendy”.
Honestly, what he thought he was doing last week,
introducing a radical hymn by Charles Wesley was beyond me. My family have
worshipped in this parish for 1,000 years. And I do not see how this kind of
innovation has been allowed to slip in, unnoticed.
According to the diocesan training programme, there
are certificates for lay worship leading, preaching, children’s work,
evangelism, church administration and leading small groups in Bible study. I
think these courses are an utter waste of time.
If the vicar didn’t learn all this in three years at
theological college, why are we expecting him to go on all these courses now,
when he should be ministering to people?
“In a time of universal
deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
Have a great summer
the Vision 2026 Evening at Preston Guildhall last Tuesday we heard a wonderful story,
which I hope you won’t mind if I share with you. It was told by the Diocesan Missioner, Revd
David Banbury and was indeed, for him, a very recent experience. On entering, slightly later than intended,
the walkway connecting the large multi story carpark to the Guildhall building
itself, which was suddenly descended on en mass and at the same time by
representatives from all 250 parishes in the Diocese, he was suddenly stopped
in his, rather rushed, tracks. A lady
who had recognised him from when he had been a vicar in Preston 25 years
previously refused to let him proceed any further until she had showed him, on
her phone, every last picture she had there of her new baby granddaughter, such
was her great joy at becoming a grandmother.
It didn’t matter that, as one of the organisers of the event Revd
Banbury’s presence was required, with increasing urgency, in the meeting room
organising the meticulously planned and, I have to say, extremely well
organised and executed, event. No, what
could be more important than sharing the great joy that went along with
becoming a grandmother for the good lady, and shared it would be, and was!
tell this story to show, as Revd Banbury did himself, that, whatever is
planned, organised or intended about our faith in Jesus, be it a great rally in
Preston Guildhall attended by thousands of uplifted Christians from around
Lancashire, as happened last Tuesday, or our own week by week meeting together
to worship in our Church – at the root of it all, and without which everything
that we do would be utterly meaningless, is the joy that living our lives as
followers of Jesus brings. That point
was made very clearly at the Preston event by the Bishop of Burnley, Bishop
Philip. That what we intend to share in
implementing Vision 2026 is not about structures, orders of service or
buildings, but living and inviting others to share in the joy that comes from
faith in Jesus. The lady who had known
the Diocesan Missioner 25 years ago couldn’t stop herself from sharing the joy
she felt in her new Grandchild. What we
do in implementing Vision 2026 must be from the same sense of joy we feel in
knowing Jesus, no matter how convenient or inconvenient it might be for the
best laid plans, structures, buildings or whatever.
me be clear. I am not saying that along
with belief in Jesus, whether sudden, rediscovered or grown into over a
lifetime, comes only happy times with nothing much to bother us in life. No, rather that along with belief in Jesus,
whether sudden, rediscovered or grown into over a lifetime, comes a deep peace
and security in life which can enable us to meet with and transform all the
experiences that life may bring. Real
joy is not like some transient and soon gone ‘legal high’, here one minute and
gone the next. Real joy is a result of a
deep security and peace, never better illustrated than by Jesus himself in telling
the story of the wise man building his house upon the rock; real joy from
having firm foundations.
a word, ‘foundation’. The Oxford Concise Dictionary defines a
foundation as; ‘a body or ground on which other parts are overlaid, a basis or
underlying principle’. My point, and I
think Revd Banbury’s point, in telling the story is just this; that unless the
foundation of our Christian life together, which is to say our sense of being a
‘church’, (as opposed to a church building), unless this foundation is the joy
which faith in Jesus brings, then whatever is built on it will itself be
joyless, dead and doomed. Further, if we
are prepared to build on joy, then what we do build will naturally have to be
appropriate to the new foundations and will perhaps look different from what
was built in the past, or maybe only what has been left over, what remains from
the past. It will, however be a
foundation built not on sand but on rock and will stand. Let joy be the foundation of what we build in
our Vision 2026 programmes, and let it be so infectious and overflowing that it
makes us stand in the way of people who are in a rush, who have somewhere to
get to or someone to meet, and by standing in the way and sharing our joy, help
them, and us, to realise what life’s priorities really are, or could be.
friend and vicar
Report to the Immanuel Annual General Meeting
17th April 2016
context of this AGM is the Diocesan Mission initiative Vision 2026, which we as
a part of the Diocese are invited to be part of, which the PCC will be exploring
by doing the Vision study course and which we will begin to put into effect
starting with a PCC away day at a date and venue to be decided. As we move towards the Vision Visitation
commissioning event in Preston Guildhall on May 10th we also are thankful of
the commitment of Jason Brewer who has taken on the role of Vision Champion, to
keep the Mission vision at the forefront of our thinking.
I would like to use this vicar’s report to outline to the AGM some of the
thinking behind the Vision initiative, how it could give us what I believe are
tremendous opportunities at Immanuel and how this fits in with a wider picture
of change within both the Diocese and the wider national church. Furthermore it can be shown how that change,
unavoidable though it is, need not be a management of decline but an
opportunity to transform our Church to be fit for purpose in bringing God’s
transforming love to work in this community.
changes which the Diocese are proposing are challenging. This has been taken by some to imply that
previous activity has not been as fruitful as we would have hoped, that the
priorities might not have been the right ones.
It is important to stress that much good work has taken place in the
past and continues to take place now. The vision priorities are those which are best
for the future, not a reflection on what worked or didn’t work in the
past. Its important to recognise too
that we, like many Churches share a priest and live in an increasingly secular
and mulit-faith culture.
What is taking place in
Lancashire is not out of step with other Diocese around the country, most face
similar problems and challenges as the recent document Anecdote to Evidence by
the national church spells out clearly.
Vision setting is about using our resources more effectively in this
setting in order to reverse a tide of decline and marginalisation which our
Diocese shares with all
others. The broader context is one in which a
Diocesan Bishop (not ours) has remarked
that, on the present trends, the Church of England in his diocese will slide
off the radar in about 10 years if something isn’t done to reverse the decline.
The Burning Platform metaphor
facts on the ground in our diocese show that we are in a serious situation, one
that is well described by the image of being on a burning platform. Doing nothing is not an option, neither is
soldiering on and keeping things going as they are. We must resist the twin dangers of
complacency on the one hand and of pretending that things are better than they
are on the other. We at Immanuel share
issues which have been highlighted by the Diocesan Synod as affecting the
Diocese as a whole including but not limited to
• A continued decrease in Electoral
• A high average age profile of the
• A struggle with finance to maintain
• The continued decrease in the
availability of stipendiary clergy
• A change in demographics resulting in increasing numbers from other faith communities
• A sharing in the effects of the rate
of decline in church attendance being greater in this diocese than elsewhere in
the UK because of previously higher church attendance than was the average in
the UK – a sort of ‘catching up’
is fair to say that the situation is serious and requires radical change. The picture of being on a burning platform
might create the right sense of urgency for change. We know that God is the God of the
unpredictable, not the God of statistics but I firmly believe that without his
intervention the bishop’s statistics tell us that there won’t be a Church of
England in this diocese by the year 2050.
The Social context
are important lessons from our social history in Lancashire. The cotton industry in this town was thriving
100 years ago; this Church was itself built on its profits. However the social and economic challenges of
a changing world economy and pattern of trade meant that without change and a
reinvention of itself, the industry faced pressures which could only lead to
its decline. Change and reinvention did
not come and so, as a result, did decline.
apart from a few niche craft islands, the cotton industry has ceased to exist
respected academic book about the decline of the Lancashire cotton industry,
John Walton’s ‘A Social History of Lancashire’ highlights the reasons for
root of the trouble lay in the way the industry was organised and the near
impossibility of changing it to meet new needs and problems. An industrial structure that had served
Lancashire well during its years of prosperity proved quite unable to adjust to
the new stark realities of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Much of cotton Lancashire became custom
bound, aging, inward looking and defeatist, as the rising generation failed to
respond to the new stresses and new needs.
The vast majority of the people on the industry were firmly rooted in
their culture, sceptical of innovations and slow to rouse.”
was the unwillingness to change and adapt that did for the industry, according
to the latest research by social and economic historians, not the
inevitability, which has been the assumption for its demise in much of past
recent thinking. I would say that the
same is true for each parish in the Church of England, there is nothing
inevitable about decline if change and adaption is chosen; but unless we change
and adapt we are done for.
image that Bishop Julian as wisely given us is that of the parable of the sower
from Mark 4. Bishop Julian talks of how,
in order for the seed of faith to take root it must fall in good soil and so,
the preparation of that soil is crucial.
The seed must be nurtured by confronting spiritual opposition,
addressing spiritual superficiality and by encouraging spiritual loyalty. Part of the Vision 2026 process must then be
to heed what the spirit is saying to us about how we sow and nurture the seed
in this parish. This must involve
planning; to know where we are heading, what it is we are seeking to achieve
and how we measure where we are on or journey to get there: What do we want to
look like in 2026 and how will we know if we are meeting our targets to get
there in, say, 3, 5, 7 years time?
uncomfortable truth that Bishop Julian is telling us is that this will require
radical change, which many will find difficult, not just a few tweaks and minor
adjustments. Our priority must be to
turning the tide of faith in Jesus Christ in our Diocese and for us
specifically here in our parish, in order to transform lives in our
community. For this to happen other
priorities must be laid down and let go of, if we cling to the past it will
drag us down, and we don’t have much time.
How might we reinvent ourselves?
1. Making Disciples of Jesus Christ
words of the liturgy speak of hearts being set on fire with love for
Jesus. This kind of spiritual passion
needs to be reawakened across not just this parish but also the whole Diocese. We see this kind of passion each week on the
terraces of football clubs, although not, perhaps at the moment at Villa Park
where, from how I understand it, a singular lesson may be learned from the
relegation of a previously great football club; Aston Villa failed to learn
that in football, as I believe in the Church, doing nothing will not lead to
standing still, it will lead to decline, to stand still you need to keep
running, to move forward you need to run increasingly hard.
what God needs is not better strategies, ideas, programmes buildings or even
visions; he needs a more Godly people who are committed to him and to spreading
the gospel among those with whom they come into contact, which is where all
effective evangelism begins, not in stadiums or rallies. This calls for a
wholehearted discipleship, not just attenders for whom the church is little
more than a social club.
How can this happen?
Julian has highlighted three key markers
a. Knowing the Scriptures better: Many
people have a willingness to explore their questions and, often doubts, about
the scriptures about how they may become an anchor in the pressures of modern
life. The Church teaches that without
that anchor there will not be a renewal in discipleship. So a renewal of discipleship involves the
ministry of preaching and teaching as a key component.
b. Learning to use the gift of
intercession: The letter of James rebukes its readers with the word ‘you do not
have because you do not ask. When you
ask you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend
what you get on pleasures.’
corporate and personal is about waiting on God and seeking how we may
participate in building his kingdom on earth.
A renewing of discipleship means that prayer should be the first thing
we do, not something we turn to as a last resort.
c. Giving generously to the cause of
Christ: Banging the drum for money only in order to keep the shop open will
Corinthians speaks of ‘generous giving follows on as a response to the generous
grace of God towards us.’ Stewardship of
time, talents and money as well are successful when they help people to learn
for themselves 2 Corinthians 29 ‘All things come from you and of your own do we
2. Being Witnesses to Jesus Christ
happens in all our daily interactions with all with whom we come into contact
in both spoken and unspoken ways. If our
priorities in life reflect our understanding that the Gospel is not about what
we do for God but a responding to what he has already done for us, the gospel
will flow out of us like it did with those first Christians in Acts 1:8 who
were emboldened by the spirit to be witnesses to the transforming love and
power of Jesus. It is important that the
message is give that each disciple is a witness. Mission is not just a task for the clergy or
even leadership of the church but for ‘the whole people of God’. One way in which this may be done is the
invitation by the Vision 2026 initiative to each parish to consider a project
that identifies and then seeks to meet a local need, which is not being met by
others. The motive of this will be to
share the compassion of Jesus in order to sow a seed planted in good soil,
which may, in time, bear fruit.
3. Growing leaders for Jesus Christ
of ministry and leadership which may have been effective and appropriate in the
past need to be adapted for the very different context of 2016 and beyond. This challenges us to find a new flexibility
in Church leadership; a re-equipping of the people of God for a more strongly
evangelistic use of all pastoral contacts including baptism, wedding and
funeral, to bring those who may be seeking to a commitment to Christ.
Julian believes that for each local Christian community to grow there must be a
pivotal, central figure who provides a stability and continuity of presence
when that community meets for worship, prayer and planning. That person must be visible normally each
week if the drive for every member of the community to develop their ministry
and discern and develop the gifts of the spirit within them. When I was a young boy I went to the
Blackpool Tower Ballroom to hear the Great Wurlitzer Organ played by Reginald
Dixon. I remember the great Organ coming
up out of the floor with Reginald Dixon on the stool. I doubt very much if I would have such a
vivid memory of the day if Reginald Dixon himself were not present. This may pose a question for us at Immanuel as
it seems to be a reversal of previous thinking!
of reducing the number of leaders and merging parishes in pastoral
reorganisation, increasing pressure and workload on an already hard-pressed
leadership we should aim to develop a missional leader in each different sector
of the Church’s mission, under the umbrella, as it were, of that key central
‘sector’ leaders could include but are not limited to, for example:
a. A youth and children’s leader – it is
uncomfortable to realise that 48% of Churches within the Diocese have less than
five under 16’s attending weekly. The
job of a youth and children’s ministry leader may include making Church life
and worship so good for young people and their families that it is he kind of
place they would want to come to. It may
also involve carefully planning with the overall leader all age worship, which
engages with and relates to young people.
b. A missional leader to encourage how we
welcome people into Church, with implications for how worship is structured and
organised. In the past century most
church of England services were changed to become Eucharists; we need to move
away from a situation where most services are geared to minister to the
faithful and in a new, missional environment,
think about how we introduce a new emphasis on the ministry of the word and the
c. Baptism, wedding and funeral follow up
We need to take more of the
opportunity we have in explaining what it means to turn to Christ in the
contacts we have through baptisms, weddings and funerals – something is drawing
these families to us. This is not an
appeal to change the way we do occasional offices, although there is always
room for improvement, more of a chance for the whole
to be involved in follow up and for someone to co-ordinate this.
of the above raises many questions and gives many opportunities and it is not
possible to do everything at once. This
is why a special PCC away Day will take place to enable the PCC to look into
each of these areas more deeply and to discern some priorities. My role in this is to guide and to lead, also
to put into effect decisions which are made by the PCC. It is for the whole Church however to engage
with and, to the extent that this happens, to make the necessary changes and to
move to the next chapter in the life of Immanuel. What I said in my vicar’s report last year
still stands; we have fantastic opportunities at Immanuel and some wonderful
people. I believe that using the tool of
Vision 2026 to change what we do and how we do it can unlock even more of this
potential and to make this Church stronger, more vibrant and a flourishing
place where people will want to come to be part of what God is doing.
is the challenge.
friend and vicar
I came across recently
somewhere a snapshot, admittedly arbitrary and particular but nevertheless
revealing, of Christian knowledge, not even belief, in this country. Here it
IS THIS A CHRISTIAN COUNTRY?
Portsmouth, not so long ago announced that of the young conscripts entering the
Only 23 per cent. can say
the Lord’s Prayer correctly.
Only 72 per cent. know who
Only 39 per cent. know where
Christ was born.
Only 83 per cent. know what
Christmas Day celebrates.
Only 62 per cent, know what
Good Friday commemorates.
Only 45 per cent. know about
Only 2.5 per cent. know
The snapshot becomes even
more revealing when I let you know that I found this in an old parish magazine,
not of this church, or even this year; in fact it was taken from a parish
magazine from Easter 1951! I wonder what
the percentages would be today?
The redoubtable Revd Davies,
the vicar who wrote the article, and whom I am sure has long since gone to his
rest, gives the following observation to further underline his survey of faith
– remember that it comes from a time some of you might remember, a time before
television when cinema going was far more widespread than it is today:
FIVE GOOD REASONS
Dr. Hugh Elmer Brown gave
five reasons why he does not go to the cinema. We seem to have heard them
before in another connection!
1 I was made to go too often
when I was young.
2 Nobody ever spoke to me
when I went.
3 When I have gone, I’ve
always been asked for money.
4 The manager never calls at
5 The people who go don’t
live up to the fine things they see in the pictures
Now bearing in mind that
these observations were taken from over 65 years ago, they have a peculiar
resonance with today, and the context in which Bishop Julian is rightly calling
us to engage in the Diocesan Mission programme Vision 2016. The context may have changed, become even
more difficult perhaps, but the fundamental human condition in which it takes
place has perhaps not changed that much, if at all.
But the good news is that
the message that the Church brings has also not altered. Easter, which I hope we have enjoyed
celebrating, means hope, and that hope is exactly the same today as it was in
Revd Davies’ day, or indeed any day. It
is in the context of this, the eternal truth of the hope that can transform our
life and set us free, that the mission will succeed. The truth is that if the Easter hope of our
faith doesn’t underpin everything that we do in the Vision 2016 initiative,
then no matter how professional, slick or well organised we make it, it will
lack the one ingredient which will give it life. What is more, that great hope must make the
things that we do as a church look and sound different, even though they remain
essentially the same things that Christians have been doing for two thousand
years. The riches of the past can still
speak powerfully today, but only if we fill them with the life of faith. But let the good Revd Davies tell it in his
own words, and with an illustration, which, though expressed in the style of
the day, makes the point, more clearly than I can:
My dear Parishioners,
This time of the year makes us all feel better. The
winter has been long and hard, but the beauty of the spring flowers, the
splendour of the trees, and the green lusciousness of the meadows, bring new
hope and joy, and make us feel better.
But the change which the coming of Spring makes in us
is small compared with the change produced by the message of Easter. The
knowledge that Christ rose from the dead should make an indescribable
difference. As an illustration of this influence, let us recall the following
true story. Reichel, the great conductor, was rehearsing his choir for a
production of the Messiah. The chorus had sung through to the point where the
soprano solo takes up the refrain I know that my Redeemer liveth. The technique
of the soloist was perfect faultless breathing, accurate notes, splendid
enunciation. When the final note died away all eyes turned on Reichel for his
look of approval. Instead he silenced the orchestra, walked up to the singer
with sorrowful eyes, and said quietly, Do you know that your Redeemer lives, do
you? Why, yes, I think, I do, she replied. Then, sing it, the conductor
replied, Tell it to me, so that I will know, and all who hear will know that
you know the joy and power of it.Then he motioned to the orchestra to play again.
This time the soloist sang the truth as she knew it, and had experienced it,
and all who heard, wept under the spell of it. The old master approached her
with tear-dimmed eyes and said, you do know, for you have told me.
The knowledge of Christ crucified, but risen from the
dead, left its mark on her song. We may not be professional singers, but the
Resurrection of Jesus Christ should influence our daily task, if we really
believe it. We need that influence in our industrial, economic and social life
now as never before, if we are to resurrect the greatness of our national life.
We have had a long winter, but Easter is with us, and Easter means hope.
Your friend and vicar
promote the 2014 New York Air Show five members of the US Red Bull Air Force
flew, superman style, over the New Yok skyline using wingsuits, after having
jumped from at plane at 7,500 feet!
Falling at speeds of up to 120mph, the intrepid five flew for about 2
miles before landing on a narrow barge in the Hudson River, having used
parachutes to slow them down. All five
landed safely on the barge without ending up in the river. The high tech suits worn by the wingsuited
flyers may be seen on You Tube or on page 150ff of this year’s ‘Ripley’s
Believe It Or Not’ annual, which is where I found out about them. As I understand it the wingsuits add surface
to the body giving enough lift when descending to allow forward movement rather
than plummeting like a stone – gliding like flying squirrels rather than
powered flight would be a good way to imagine it.
seems as amazing to me as the feat of gliding above the streets of New York
unpowered is the apparent simplicity of the design of the suits the skyriders
were wearing. Indeed, when I think about
it, all the gliding equipment that I can think of, from hangliders to fixed
wing paragliders, to an actual glider itself, it all looks so simple that I can’t
imagine why it’s never been thought of before.
Watching all the old silent black and white films of intrepid birdmen
with incredibly complicated contraptions usually plummeting to their doom it’s
hard not to wander why the simple designs worn by today’s gliding enthusiasts
were never thought of before. Well one
answer is of course that they had been; from the well documented Elmer the
Anglo Saxon flying monk of Malmesbury Abbey in 1010 AD to Leonardo Davinci’s
design for a parachute, like many things in the history of science, the
technology and ideas had been around for a long time, it just takes a reason
for someone, or more usually a number of someones, each developing the ideas
and achievements of those who came before, for those ideas and technology to be
put into practice.
we look at the emergence of any new so called invention it very rarely, if at
all, appears out of nowhere dreamed up by one person, it almost always has a
the case of unpowered flight and gliding, the revolutionary changes which have
allowed men to soar unaided like superman over New York appear to have come in
the last few years due to a convergence of advances in the understanding of the
physics of flight (lift, thrust, drag etc) and the chemical development of
superlightweight materials – both of which were previously unavailable to past
generations, although that doesn’t seem to have stopped the Elmer, the
hangliding anglo saxon monk!
if most advances in science and technology are, like Isaac Newton said of his
ability to see further than anyone previously, the result of being able to
“stand on the shoulders of giants”, the one huge advance in our relationship
with God is not a result of anything which came before, or since for that matter. When we celebrate Easter we are celebrating
something unique which happened once, in one time and place in his tory,
which, if we had the ability to travel back in time we could witness for
ourselves, done for us, unexpectedly, unsought, undeserved and, at least in the
manner of its happening, unpredicted.
resurrection of Jesus is for Christians the bolt out of the blue when
everything changed. It was not the result of the efforts of any predecessors
and was not refined or improved on by anything which came after it. For Christians the resurrection is the single
most important event in human history.
This is because Easter changes how we exist in relation to God – through
the resurrection we can approach God directly, not by having to stand on anyone’s
shoulders, giants or otherwise. Through
that direct experience of God in our lives we can then let God work his will
through us, and by his work, transform who we are into who we were meant to be.
That God doesn’t work like
human scientific research and development should come as no surprise to us
really; whereas humans need to stand on the achievements of previous
generations in order to advance should lead us to the conclusion that God
doesn’t need to be limited in this way because he is, well, God! Neither should this startlingly unique
transformation in our approach to God blind us to our need to hear the
experience of others and learn from the riches that previous generations of
Christians can bring to help us in our understanding of what God can do through
us – we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, many
others have grown in their relationship with God before us and we, as mere
humans will see further from their shoulders.
it does mean though is that others can’t do the work for us of growing in our
relationship with God and letting his love transform us, we have to do it
ourselves. Those brave skydivers who
stood at the door of that plane above New York had the benefit of generations
of research and testing on their equipment so that they could be assured that
it would work. But they were like
Christians in one respect, they had to do what I’m sure I could never have done
in their situation; no matter how much trust and faith they had that what they
were about to do would work, they had, like Christians, to put it into practice
for themselves if they were going to experience it personally, in other words
they had to jump!
friend and vicar
have a friend who was telling me recently of how much he had been looking
forward to watching, with his young daughter, a film on at Christmas which he
had found uproariously funny and entertaining when he had first seen it at her
age. He went on to tell me also of his
disappointment, not only at his daughter’s utter indifference, not to say
boredom when she was forced to sit through the said film – but of his own
reaction to the film which, whether through maturity of years or the worldliness
experience has brought, made it look to him not so much dated as corny to begin
with. I’ll tell you the name of the film
if you ask me!
own experience of coming across something from years ago happened last
summer and was entirely the opposite.
Coming across a beach on holiday in Scotland I realised it was the very
beach of which I had golden memories from my own younger days. Far from finding it smaller than I remembered
or noticing tacky surroundings of which I was oblivious to in youth, the beach
seemed to me both bigger and more beautiful than ever, surrounded if anything
by countryside more stunning than I had been mature enough to appreciate when
last I saw it and, the best bit of all, seeing how my own daughter (who is
incidentally the same age as my friend’s child) was enjoying tearing round the
beach and crashing into the water in an even more enthusiastic way than I had.
this means that my friend was somewhat naïve in his younger days whereas I
didn’t fully appreciate the wonder surrounding me I don’t know. What is certain to me though is that details
of an experience of time and place in our memory are perhaps more connected to
our memory than to the time and place itself.
It’s not just that your old school hall will look smaller to you if you
see it now than you remember it, it was always that size – it hasn’t changed,
reminds me of a piece of poetry….
‘Because I know that time is always
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only
for one time
And only for one place………..’
think Eliot means here something similar to what King Saladin meant in the
movie Kingdom of Heaven when he was asked what Jerusalem means. He says,
"nothing, everything". As in it's really just a patch of worthless
dirt, but since so many abstract connotations have been associated with it over
time, it now means everything to enough people for it to act as a necessary
Wednesday is the first long poem written by T. S. Eliot after his 1927
conversion to Anglicanism. Published in 1930, this poem deals with the struggle
that ensues when one who has lacked faith in the past strives to move towards
Western Christianity, Ash Wednesday marks the first day, or the start of the
season of Lent, which begins 40 days prior to Easter (Sundays are not included
in the count). Lent is a time when many
Christians prepare for Easter by observing a period of fasting, repentance,
moderation and spiritual discipline. During some Ash Wednesday services, the
minister will lightly rub the sign of the cross with ashes onto the foreheads
all Christian churches observe Ash Wednesday or Lent. They are mostly observed
by the Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican denominations, and also
by Roman Catholics. Eastern Orthodox churches observe Lent or Great Lent,
during the 6 weeks or 40 days preceding Palm Sunday with fasting continuing
during the Holy Week of Orthodox Easter. Lent for Eastern Orthodox churches
begins on Monday (called Clean Monday) and Ash Wednesday is not observed.
Bible does not mention Ash Wednesday or the custom of Lent, however, the
practice of repentance and mourning in ashes is found in 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther
4:1; Job 2:8; Daniel 9:3; and Matthew 11:21.
is a time for changing, and that means that having gone through a time of
change, things we had become accustomed to being part of our lives, or places
we remember will look different to us as we see them with new eyes. This might mean that some things, which used
to satisfy, like my friend’s film will, to some extent at least, lose their
allure. If we are lucky it might also
mean that some things we didn’t fully appreciate the first time around will
give us a second chance to take in how wonderful they truly are. Like the experience of TS Eliot however, that
change may come gradually, and not as fast as we might like. True change is not here today and gone
tomorrow and might take time. Yet,
journeying, gradually but surely towards God we might sometimes find ourselves
surprised by how different things might have become without us noticing. This Lent, I hope that you find a Lenten
discipline which leads to true change; and I will remember the prayer I often
have to challenge myself with;
‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the
things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I
And the wisdom to know the difference.’
friend and vicar
Can you solve it? Are you smarter
than a German 10-year-old?
A festive question about German
concern for the Christmas wishes of the nomadic tribes of north Africa
year the German Mathematical Society runs an online puzzle advent calendar for
schoolchildren in which a new puzzle appears every day from 1 to 24 December. This fantastic initiative has been going
since 2010 and about 150,000 schoolchildren aged 10-16 now take part. On
average about 80% get each question correct. Sehr gut, ja?
like the following question – from the 2010 calendar – and not just because the
word “elf” in German means 11.
Waldemar the Elf has a job to do: he
must collect all the Christmas wish lists from children who live in the Sahara
Desert. Starting in Timbuktu, he is able to complete the round trip and return
to Timbuktu in six days. But he is an elf, which means he is very small. An elf
can only carry a maximum of four days’ worth of elf food. What is the minimum
number of elves Waldemar needs to bring with him to complete the trip?
Clarifications: Waldemar can only
travel with other elves. Every elf on the trip must eat a day’s worth of elf
food every day. Elf food is not available to buy during the trip, but elves can
give each other food that they have brought with them. No elf is allowed to
leave Timbuktu twice, nor be left stranded in the desert with no food.
solution follows. At the
time of writing, still early December due to printing deadlines, some of us
are, like Waldemar the elf, very much concerned with Christmas wish lists. At the time of writing, however, due to the
devastating effects of Storm Desmond (you may recall), you might be forgiven
for thinking that some people’s wish lists may be very different from those of
the children of the Sarah Desert – Pooley Bridge, for example, at the north end
of Ulswater in the Lake District, which dates from the 18th Century and which
I have crossed many times, being completely collapsed. In another sense though, those wish lists
which comprise just life’s basic necessities may have much more in common than
those with which I am currently daily being bombarded – in this way the children
of the Sahara Desert and those whose homes have been destroyed through no fault
of their own, may have more in common than would at first appear.
New Year, when most people will be reading this, is of course a time to look
both forwards an backwards – a bridge in some sense, connecting one set of
memories or events, with another. I hope
that for you 2015 was a time when your wish list could be like those I am given
to send off to Santa and not like those stricken by flood or some other
disaster, meaning that life’s basic necessities are all that can be wished
for. New Year also reminds us that,
whether we consciously make a new resolution or not, we can always make a fresh
start – which is a fundamental truth about our faith in Jesus, whenever and wherever
we may find ourselves. We can always
cross a bridge to something better!
all the violence, poverty, talk about climate change and refugees with which
2105 may come to be remembered (Oh, and an election, in case you have
forgotten!), I was heartened to find some news that cheered me up no end! It seems that some characters you might have
thought, and which I certainly did, think, were and for some time had been no
longer with us, are still very much still alive, if not perhaps kicking in quite
the way they were in their, long past, heyday.
If I started this letter with a puzzle, let me end it with a quiz. One feature of the Review of a Year usually
includes a list of those who have left us for a better place in the previous
twelve months but, how many, would you say, of the following celebrities from
yesteryear are still with us at the end of 2105 (at least, at the time of
Olivia de Havilland (b.1916), Doris
Day (b. 1925), Sidney Poitier, Kirk Douglas (b. 1916), Zsa Zsa Gabor (b. 1916), Alan Young (b. 1916,
the owner of talking horse Mr Ed), Maureen O’Hara (b. 1920), Dick
Van Dyke (b. 1925), Martin Landau and
Evie Marie Saint (co-stars of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest) and Jerry
Lewis? Answers also to follow
Friend and vicar
The answer is two elves.
The solution, explained:
Waldemar cannot complete the trip on his own, because
he will run out of food after four days. So he needs to take at least one
companion to carry the extra food.
Let’s say he takes his best friend, Edeltraud. Both
elves start off with four days of food supplies. At the end of the first day,
the elves have three days of supplies left each.
Now let Edeltraud give Waldemar a day’s supply of
food, so Waldemar has four days worth, the maximum he can carry. This means
that Edeltraud only has two days worth left.
At the end of the second day, Waldemar will have
three days of food left, and Edeltraud has a single day of food. ELF DISASTER
ALERT! Waldemar does not have enough food to complete the six day trip, and
Edeltraud only has a single day of food left so she must return home or remain
stranded in the desert with no food.
So, Waldemar must take at least two companions. Let’s
say he takes Edeltraud and Johannes. They all leave Timbuktu with four days of
At the end of the first day, they all have three days
of food left. At this point Johannes gives one day of food to Waldemar and one
to Edeltraud, leaving Johannes with only one day of food left and his companions
with four each. Johannes then returns home.
At the end of the second day, Waldemar and Edeltraud
are down to three days of food each. Edeltraud gives one day of food to
Waldemar, meaning he has four days worth of food, enough to finish the trip
since he has only four days left to go. Edeltraud, down to two days of food,
also has enough food to return home and not be stranded.
So, the trip is possible with Waldemar plus two
The question was originally set in 2010 in a puzzle
advent calendar organised by the German Mathematical Society, 80 per cent of
the schoolchildren (aged 10-16) who entered got the right answer!
In fact there is an alternative solution: Waldemar
starts off with only Edeltraud, who gives him one day of food as above, leaving
him with three days of food left at the end of day two. Waldemar has enough
food for five days - but on
Answers to Celebrities you thought were dead quiz;
Answer – All of them are happily still with us,
except Maureen O’Hara, who sadly passed away on 24 October this
One of my better attempts at
baking this year was a homemade, indeed home designed, lamb and vegetable pie
(pictured above). Finding a fridge full
of soon to be out of date vegetables and chancing upon an unfeasibly reduced priced
premium pack of lamb pieces in Tesco Express, I resolved to blend them together
with an inspired choice of herbs and a few spices! So pleased with myself was I by the result
that I took the above picture – not I hope out of vanity, more surprise, not
least the surprise of my family at how well it had turned out. Looking at the outside of the pie no one
would have guessed the mixture of what was inside, nor how well the combination
worked, hence the photograph above, or so I told myself.
Chancing upon an iron age
stable in Roman occupied 1 Century Palestine and finding there not
only the expected animals but also; an unmarried mother, a man who had
abandoned all hope of respectability by choosing to stand by her despite his
not being the father of the baby lying in an animals’ feeding tray in front of
them; a group of bewildered shepherds who didn’t really know why they were
there; three (at least) exotic foreigners with odd gifts, two welcome and one
rather peculiar; a weird star which kept on shifting and stopping in the night
sky; oh, not to mention an unpleasant gang of armed militia, sent from a brutal
dictator on their way to see the demise of probably the lot of them. What an odd collection of characters. Chancing upon this scene anyone at the time
could be forgiven for wandering how the strange collection fitted together, and
certainly wouldn’t have expected what was on the inside of the stable from its
seemingly prosaic outside!
Yet that is the surprising
scene with which God arrives on earth! That is the scene which we look at at and
celebrate with a million cribs and Christmas cards once again this year. That the scene should be surprising should
itself perhaps come as not much of a surprise to us since surprise itself, it would
appear, is how God works. One of the
books which has had one of the biggest formative impacts on me is entitled “God
of Surprises” by Fr Gerard Hughes who, in wonderful and often funny pictures
and stories teaches us that, where God is concerned, we’d better expect the
unexpected, but even more importantly, God will never be confined to what we
expect and, if we let him work through us, neither will our lives.
One of the ways in which
this can transform us is to find within ourselves, and within other people,
unexpected gift and talents, often hidden from the surface, but just waiting to
be discovered and have a transforming effect on us and all those around
us. I read this week the obituary of a
faithful and imaginative Jesuit Priest, like Fr Gerard Hughes, called Fr Joseph
Fahey, although he died in 2002. In his
obituary Fr Fahey is described as a player of blackjack ‘For the greater glory
of God’, donating all his winnings to the Jesuit Order:
“(Possessing a doctorate in economics from the
Massachusetts Institute of technology) Fahey was considered a mathematical
prodigy and played the blackjack tables from Atlantic City to La Vegas. Among the sequins, gilt and glitz, he struck
an incongruous figure in his blue suit, but he always managed to beat the
odds. Blackjack – his chosen game –
offers the best odds of any in a casino, but is nonetheless one of the highest
earners for casino owners. Fahey, unlike
most customers, exploited the possibilities to the full. Ever true to his vow of poverty, Fahey donated
tens of thousands of dollars to Jesuit missions and schools, boosting for
instance the income of Boston College High School by 500% from 1988 to 1998 and
financing an athletics centre, library and computer lab. Fahey’s view that God and Mammon were
perfectly compatible was not one shared by the casinos however, which
eventually blacklisted him. Not to be beaten,
Fahey would as Dean of Studies at Holy Cross College, Mass., give at the end of
each term, a lesson for his students on card counting and how to beat the odds
at blackjack. The class was always well
attended. At the time of his death,
Fahey was provincial assistant for finance of the New England province for the
Whilst I am not suggesting
that we all take our Christmas Shopping money and see what we can get with it
at a supercasino (although if you do, the Church always welcomes donations!!),
and have never myself had the remotest interest in gambling, it is interesting
to learn what gifts lie within us and how they may be used for God. The thing about using our gifts for God is
that in doing so we let God work through us, and we become much more marvellous
versions of the people God created us to be as a result – and help others to do
Judging by the way our
children unfailingly bankrupt me at monopoly I am sure I would be a complete
disaster at blackjack – yet I like to think I may have a hidden talent for
baking (although this is sometimes disputed in our household). Whatever talent might lie beneath each one of
us it is no use unless it is brought out and nurtured, and this means having
the freedom to make mistakes and get things wrong lots of times – only by so
doing do we learn to eventually get things right. What we do get right may often come as a
surprise, as may its results both for us and for those around us – just as the
Christmas scene we celebrate is such a surprise, and contains within itself the
biggest surprise there has ever been!
What the nativity tableau
can encourage us all to do is to look beyond the surface of our superficial selves
and see what surprises we might have within us and learn how to use them. Just like my lamb and vegetable pie, we won’t
know what’s there inside unless we crack it open and see, oh and not forget to
bake it properly by coming to Church this Christmas!
Your friend and vicar
Fr Joseph Fahey SJ, RIP
October / November 2015
I was interested to learn
recently that tourists are now able to traverse a glass walkway on Yuntai
mountain in central China’s Henan province. The bridge hugs a cliff side 120m
(394ft) above a canyon. Officials however closed the walkway, which opened on
20 September, after cracks appeared in the structure on Monday. State
broadcaster CCTV reported that a single pane of the 68m-long section shattered
into coin-sized segments.
The reason for my interest
in the walkway, , along with a natural interest in a fantastic structure (se it at
is that I recently
had an experience of a glass walkway which, in its way was also unnerving. This
was on a recent family holiday to London where, on the ‘Tower Bridge
Experience’ my family and I had the pleasure of walking along the upper walkway
which connects the two towers. This
memorable experience was made all the more memorable by discovering that,
previously unknown to me, the floor of the each walkway (there are two, you
walk north-south along one and then south north along the other) has been
completely replaced by a glass floor, toughened, we were assured, but glass
nevertheless! This means that each visitor walks along a floor while looking down (although
its best not to), onto the Roadbridge traffic and River Thames below. Tower Bridge (built 1886–1894)is a combined bascule and suspension bridge and as such is extremely unusual if not unique
in being still fully working. Originally
intended as a solution to London’s mounting volumes of traffic in the 1880’s
(nothing changes does it?!) it had to allow tall ships access to docks which
were further along the Thames than The Tower – its rising cantilevers did just
that. So whether you cross up on the
glass floor peering to the certain death which would await should one of the
panes of glass give way, or else cross lower down knowing that the ‘road’ you
are walking along can be raised in five minutes’ notice, the surface you walk
on feels less than rock solid!
"The name of
infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of our being is God. That depth is
what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you,
translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your
being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any
reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional
that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. For if you know
that God means depth, you know much about Him. You cannot then call yourself an
atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life
itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in
complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not."
--Paul Tillich, The Shaking of The Foundations
These are some challenging words from one of my favourite Christian
thinkers (which is all theologians really are) from the 20thC. It’s really just a distillation of the much
more accessible picture that Jesus gives in a wise man building his house on
the rock whilst a foolish one builds his house on sand, with no foundations (Matthew 7:24-27)
How many people build lives on sand?
How many think they have built their lives on rock only to find, sometimes
with a shock akin to mine to see myself walking 65 meters above the River
Thames, that what they had thought of as solid ground has, in fact, an enormous
and precipitous chasm yawning ominously beneath it? Of course, the lack of solid ground was there
all the time, only we get very used to covering it up and pretending it wasn’t
there – which I must admit was exactly what I was feeling walking along an
unexpected and worrisome glass floor, in a structure over 120 year old, wishing
someone would put a carpet down.
Let me be clear: I’m not talking about the times in our lives when, for
one reason or another, the bottom falls out of our world – those are indeed
terrible times and ones in which many have not realised until much later that
Our Lord was there with them, only that it was too dark to see him. I’m talking about those times when we realise
that what we thought of as the solid basis of our lives is not all that solid
after all. Not the times when we might
feel as though we are falling down a great hole, but the times when we realise
that we could.
Jesus’ message to us is clear at those times: whatever it is that we use to carpet over the
glass floor that we walk upon needs to come up if we are to have true peace and
security; that the gap beneath us will not go away just because we use the temporary
distractions of life to cover it up or blindfold ourselves with; that to walk
on solid ground we need to base our lives on things that last, that are solid
and will give us a true foundation in life.
As I walked over the road under tower Bridge and saw the unforgiving
brown waters of the Thames beneath me I said a quiet prayer : not the one you
might expect that the bridge would hold (although that would be
understandable), but to give thanks that Jesus is always there to provide a
true ground and solid foundation in life – or at least, if we mess it up, a
Your friend and vicar
of the most enduring hoaxes you might hear in a backpacker hostel is that of
the drug-soaked business card: someone hands you their card, and the drug is
instantly absorbed by your skin. You fall into a zombie-like state, where you
will do anything for your attacker, from empty out your bank account to pull a
trigger on someone.
drug is burandanga, or scopolamine, derived from nightshade plants, and there
are countless stories about how criminals in Colombia and Ecuador use the drug,
which is said to remove a person’s free will, to assault victims or rob them.
It is also known as “devil’s breath” and has been described as “the most
dangerous drug in the world”. It’s hard to know which are urban myths and which
are genuine. The US’s Overseas Security Advisory Council warns travellers in
Quito about the dangers of falling victim to a scopolamine attack, and refers
to “unofficial estimates” – it doesn’t say where this figure is from – of
50,000 scopolamine incidents there every year.
according to reports, the drug has been used on “dozens” of victims in Paris,
and three people have been arrested. The Daily Telegraph suggests that two
women had encouraged their victims to breathe in the drug, then got the victims
to take them home where they stole money and jewellery.
idea that someone could become zombified after someone blows powder into their
face is one thing, but does it remove free will? “It would completely zonk you
out,” says Val Curran, Chief pharmacologist at University College London, “ but
I don’t know about removing free will. It incapacitates you because you’d feel
so drowsy, you wouldn’t remember what was going on. But you would do after huge
doses of alcohol, or lots of other drugs like Valium or other benzodiazepine
is one of those drugs with a rich backstory. It is said to be one of the first
“truth serums”. In the early 20th century, it was administered by some doctors
as a pain-relief drug – or rather a drug that led to the forgetting of pain –
in childbirth until one obstetrician noticed how women who had been given it
answered candidly to questions; he later wondered if it could be used when
questioning people charged with crimes. It was used as evidence in some trials,
drug which removes free will, a drug which ‘zombifies’ to the point where the
previous personality is eliminated and a person exists perfectly at the command
of another. Some people, listening to
some versions of Christian proclamation may conclude that if only we could find
the effects of such a drug in our imperfect discipleship following Jesus, we
would become perfect Christians and always conform to Jesus’ will. Personally I think that following Jesus is
the opposite; the removal of not just this but of all ‘drugs’, in the sense of
things, habits, patterns of behaviour which we use to shield us from who we
really are. Following Jesus is actually
rather more about giving drugs up, which is why so many find it so difficult
and, in our society at least, why the number of committed Christians is
former Archbishop of Canterbury, Professor Rowan Williams describes a Church as
“first of all a kind of space,
cleared by God through Jesus, in which people may become what God mad them to
be (God’s Sons and Daughters)”
can think of no better definition of being a Church, and as part of it a
Christian, than this. Becoming what God
made us to be is not to be controlled by someone else, still less is it about using
things to shield us from ourselves or abandoning who we really are, but rather finding,
through growing self control, that we are happiest when we are most fully
ourselves. As we grow in our faith in
Christ, so we grow in our knowledge of ourselves, and we are better people with
happier lives as a result
friend and vicar
Showing mountain ranges
taller than the Pyrenees and gorges three times deeper than the Grand Canyon,
this week’s images from New Horizons, the flyby space probe currently passing
Pluto have re-ignited the debate among astronomers about whether the ninth
heavenly body discovered to be orbiting our sun deserves the title ‘planet’. Pluto was discovered in 1930 and was
originally considered to be the ninth planet from the Sun. After 1992 however,
its status as a planet fell into question following the discovery of several
objects of similar size in the Kuiper belt beyond Pluto but still orbiting the
sun. In 2005, Eris, which is 27% more massive and further away from the sun than
Pluto, was discovered, which led the International Astronomical Union to define
the term "planet" formally for the first time the following year.
This definition excluded Pluto and reclassified it as a member of the new "dwarf
The discoveries made this
week however make the debate about Pluto’s status as a planet redundant. It no
longer matters what we call it, because Pluto is now shown to be the gateway to
a hitherto poorly appreciated third zone of our solar system. This third zone was first put forward as an
idea by the Irish astronomer Kenneth Edgeworth.
As early as 1938, Edgeworth plainly stated that newly discovered Pluto
was too small to be a planet, but was probably the largest member of a family
of objects that formed out of the rubble left over from the formation of the
solar system. These ideas were developed in the 1950s by a Dutch-American
astronomer, Gerald Kuiper, and this third zone became known as the
Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt, now frequently shortened to the Kuiper Belt.
The first high-resolution
images of Pluto this week overturned decades-old theories about these icy
worlds beyond Neptune. Scientists were
thrilled and somewhat startled to see a mountainous landscape devoid of craters. For years it was widely assumed that the
worlds of the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt were cold and lifeless places. This week we
know that is not true. Pluto and its moon, Charon, must have some source of
internal heat driving geological processes on the surface. What is more, Pluto is only one of many
thousands of objects on which liquid water might exist beneath the surfaces in
the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt, possibly in vast quantities, and where there is
water, there will probably be life.
So whether or not Pluto
remains a ‘dwarf’ or a fully-fledged genuine ‘planet’ is really not the most
exciting thing about it. Yet names, or
what something is called does, to some extent at least, matter. A child’s name
can tell us something about his parents — their race, social standing, even
their politics. This is not to say that a name is always someone’s destiny, or,
like Mr Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’, suggests something of their
character, (still less as in Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men and Little Miss series,
suggests parents who have the prescience to name their child after its defining
characteristic; Mr Messy, Mr Silly, Little Miss Helpful and so on). However there
is some evidence to show that a name can influence how a child performs in
school and even her career opportunities.
Perhaps its only one factor among many, but the act of naming something
is certainly to do with influence, power and even ownership.
This is certainly true in
the Bible where names are full of meaning.
Sometimes a person’s name is changed to reflect their changed nature,
for example Jacob’s name being changed to ‘Israel’ after his successful all
night wrestling match with an unnamed divine creature, or Cephas being called
‘Peter’ to reflect the rock on which the Church will be built.
Genesis 2; 20 tells how:
“Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of
the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man (Adam) to see
what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that
was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the
sky, and to every beast of the field”
This is not to say that over
50 million of the known species were somehow classified by one individual (and
in 24 hours at that), but I think something rather deeper. Adam and Eve are presented not as historical
figures in the way we would understand history but as ‘every woman’ and ‘every
man’ since human life began. That just
as they show how ultimate standards of good and evil are not theirs to settle,
so their status as custodians of the beauty of God’s created world is part of
their developing relationship with and awareness of God. The naming of the created world speaks less
of ownership and mastery than of a duty of stewardship and responsibility to
look after what has been given to us.
Surely then Pope Francis is
right to draw attention to how climate change is the modern day equivalent of
not looking after the Garden of Eden.
Surely it is right to play our part in looking after God’s wonderful
creation even as we find out more of the wonders of his universe. And surely it matters less what we call the
ninth identified object currently known to be orbiting our sun than what it
teaches us about how our solar system was formed, what might lie beyond it, and
how we look after our own bit of God’s glory, sorry, ‘planet’.
Your friend and vicar,
Bless the Lord all you works of the Lord: •
sing his praise and exalt him for ever.
Bless the Lord you heavens: •
sing his praise and exalt him for ever
(From the Benedicite)
A strange experience occurred to me yesterday as I heard not
one but two of our children quietly singing a song which goes like this:
“Ch, Ch, Ch, Changes….Turn and face the strange, Changes….”
which, to those of a certain generation like me was
immediately recognisable as ‘Changes’ from David Bowie’s 1971 album ‘Hunky
Dory’. This is an album of which, back
in the day, I could not only list the playing order backwards but would very
probably have been able to recite with 100% accuracy every word of every lyric.
What was strange to me was that these same two children,
whilst merrily singing the song had not the slightest idea not only which album
it came from but, unthinkable to those of us from that certain generation, had
not the faintest idea who David Bowie was, or indeed still is! On enquiry it seems to have appeared in an
episode of ‘The Simpsons’, a favourite TV show of theirs from which they appear
to have gained most of their knowledge of the outside world!
Well, the song struck a chord with me for a different reason;
that the life of a vicar, at least in the measure of that I have enjoyed to
date, is characterised by the whole issue of change, and how strange
introducing that change can sometimes be.
There are, it seems, different ways that things are changed. First,
there are those things that need changing in a hurry (in the spirit of person
and parish preservation) and that have to be made immediately. Then there are
those things that need changing in the course of the movement of time and as
seasons change. Those are changes that take more time, require consultation and
deliberation with a wider gathering. Then there are the Grand Changes that
concern whole-parish direction, its mission and vision. Those sorts of changes
are brought about with wide consultation and over a longer period of time.
The common characteristic in all matters regarding change is
that people seem not to like it. The whole idea of change is not, of course,
about the matter at hand. That the Hall WC is that colour or this is of no
significance per se, but in parish life nothing (and I mean nothing) is that
wasn't put there for a reason (and often by someone long dead).
To move a chair from a place of hazard to a place where it
may be sat upon seems like a process of the obvious, until you discover that
Mrs Miggins RIP 1942 used to sit in that spot and on the chair she donated. To
change locks because seven million copies of the door key exist and are in the
hands of nameless masses seems like a sensible thing to do until you discover
that someone was given a key by the vicar back in the 20s to let in the reddleman
once and therefore has rights to new keys.
People acquire things. People take on little jobs around the
place. People, with a good heart, dedicate themselves to things. We ask them to
do it. We enable with one hand and disable with another because we have to.
What we are not taught in Vicar School is how much people attach significance
to things that exceed the original significance. A key to one person is to open
a door and an onerous duty, but to another it represents affirmation, authority
and even a sense of power. Often, we change things (even through specific need)
that people regard as 'theirs', even when they are not.
The lesson I am learning is simple. I must make the changes
that are required as it is my role to lead a community from one place to
another in all senses. The end result is almost always peaceful, but the
liminal space - the moment of transition - is hard for most if not all of us.
It is the case that we identify ourselves as who we are in many external things
- and in church life at least, those things are the ones oft changed by those
whose heavy responsibility it is to bring that change about, and the experience
can sometimes be very strange!
Your friend and vicar
On the wall in my study is a
print of Rembrandt’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’. It’s a marvellous painting, completed only
two years before the artist’s death in 1669 and to me it has almost iconic
qualities. It speaks, in other words, of
the welcome we will always find when we return to the Lord in humility and
repentance. For the prodigal son, you
may remember, his partying lifestyle was well and truly over, but it was only
then that his real life could begin.
At Pentecost, another party
is finally over. The fifty days of the Easter festival come to an end. The word
“Pentecost” in Greek means “fifty days” to mark the seven weeks since the
The feast of Pentecost has
deep roots that take us way back into the agricultural world of Canaan before
the Chosen People entered the Promised Land. Passover itself marked the
beginning of the harvest season with the first cutting of the barley crop. The
harvest came to an end fifty days later when the wheat harvest was finished;
and both the Canaanites and Israelites celebrated this as the Feast of Weeks,
After their entry into the
Promised Land, the Israelites took the harvest festivals of Canaan and made
them their own. The spring-time fertility festival became Passover and was tied
to the exodus from Egypt. The Feast of Weeks fifty days later was tied to God’s
giving of the Law to Moses on Sinai. And the autumn festival – called the Feast
of Tabernacles or Tents – was tied to the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness
when they lived in tents. The rhythms of nature were linked to the great events
of salvation history. What had begun as Canaanite became Israelite.
But the story of Pentecost
does not stop there. Because the early Church took what had become Israelite
and made it Christian in another act of re-interpretation, but this time what
was being celebrated was the giving of the Holy Spirit; the harvest was not
barley and wheat but what the Apostle Paul calls “the fruits of the Spirit” –
“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and
self-control”, Galatians (5:22-23).
The Feast of Weeks was a
time of joyful celebration, since God had once again given what was needed for
life. In the ancient world, famine was a constant threat, and a good harvest
was cause for celebration because it meant the difference between life and
death. So too the Christians saw the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as
making the difference between eternal life and eternal death.
The Feast of Weeks was also
a moment of sharing with the needy the good things of the land, so that no-one
went without. And the Christians saw Pentecost as the beginning of a great
God-inspired sharing of the fruits of the Spirit with a very needy world. They
saw it as the beginning of the Church’s mission, as we still do.
That mission continues to
this day because God has not ceased to breathe the Holy Spirit into the Church.
Without that Spirit, the Church would be a corpse, but with the breath of God
within us, the Church becomes the Body of Christ – wounded it is true, but
still radiant with the life that is bigger than death, the life of Easter.
At a time when we need to
become more missionary, God is breathing the Holy Spirit into us in new ways.
It may be that for some of us we may have too much to eat, but famine of a
different kind still looms, more than ever in our great abundance. To become
more missionary in a culture like this, we may need to turn away from abundance
of one kind to find and share with others a different kind of abundance. We may
need to say no to material abundance in order to find and share with others a
genuinely spiritual abundance. That was certainly the inspiration of someone
like St Francis of Assisi and the example of the current Pope Francis, who took
his name. God will always be there,
waiting with what we really need for life.
The party may be over, but the real work must now begin.
Your friend and vicar
I have been reading a book
lately by Richard McGuire called ‘Here’.
Actually, ‘reading’ isn’t quite the right word, for reasons which will
become apparent in a moment. ‘Here’ is
the story of a corner of a room. It
starts out with a picture, drawn by the author of that corner of the room, with
nothing in it but an empty fireplace.
The following pages are simply hundreds of similar drawings of that same
room, but showing the events which have happened in that space over the course
of hundreds of thousands of years. Its
not just that ‘reading’ is not quite the right word for looking at pictures, but
that by looking at the pictures the ‘reader’ is working out for themselves the
stories, often interlinked, of the people who stood in that same space over all
these years. ‘Reading’ is one word, ‘becoming
aware’ would do just as well, as would ‘recognition’
This month, May, sees the
Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord, on 14 May, to be precise. This event, whatever it was, is often seen as
the way in which we express the sense of Christ Universal, that is to say, of
Jesus as not being limited to a particular time or place, but being found and
seen in all places and all time. Yes, he
did live on earth at a particular time and in a particular place, but our faith
is bigger than we will ever understand and contains mysteries beyond our
comprehension – or at least, beyond mine – and this is one of them. That Jesus did live in a particular time and
place, (the incarnation), and he is at the same time lord of all time and all
places (The Ascension). To those who
would limit our faith to narrow dogma I would throw that challenge, the mystery
of the truth of both the incarnation and the ascension.
I wonder if the ‘ascending’
part of the Ascension wouldn’t more helpfully be understood by thinking in
terms of ‘becoming aware’, or another word might be ‘recognising’. ‘The Recognition’ might be a more clumsy and
less elegant phrase than ‘The Ascension’, but I believe that, at least in part,
is what it might be. The recognition
that Jesus is present in all places and at all times, if only we had the eyes
to recognise him. The recognition
therefore that there is nothing which is beyond or more powerful than the love
of God and therefore that there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. The recognition also then that it is now,
here, in this world, in this room, at this time that we can meet Jesus and experience
something of the power of the new life that he brings, the life for which we
On the memorial stone in
Ross-on-Wye of Margaret Potter are the following words: ‘All the way to heaven is heaven.’
Next to it, on the memorial stone of her husband, the brilliant
playwright, Dennis Potter, is written this: ‘And all of it a kiss.’ All the way to heaven is heaven. And all of it a kiss. The present is the only opportunity for union
with God which we have. This place, this
corner of the room is where it will be found, as it might have been found in
this same place by countless unremembered others before us.
The Incarnation and The
Ascension are for me then both of the same truth, however dimly I perceive
it: that both are a recognition that the
divine moment is now, the divine place is here, or ‘Here’ as my book would have
it. So our prayers must then always be
from our present, however painful, blissful, hilarious, dull that might be at
the moment. We have to be here to
recognise the kiss.
“The fact is that if you see the present tense, boy
do you see it, and boy can you celebrate it” – Dennis Potter, in his last interview by Melvyn Bragg on March 15
1994. It was broadcast by Channel 4 on April 5 1994. Potter died on June 7 1994
Your Friend and Vicar
This month saw the sad passing
of Sir Terry Pratchett, author of over 40 ‘Diskworld’ Fantasy novels, selling more than 85 million books worldwide in 37
languages, who was the UK's best-selling author of the 1990s, and one of my favourite authors. His first Diskworld novel, ‘The Colour of
Magic’ was published in 1983, which was when I first read it. With his trademark leather hat, brown leather
jacket and white beard, Sir Terry was instantly recognisable. When he was diagnosed with early onset
Alzheimer’s disease in 2007 he made a large donation to the Alzheimer’s Society
and allowed many documentary films to be made of how he coped with this awful
disease, which have been an inspiration to many whose lives have been affected
For those of you who aren’t
familiar with the fantasy ‘Diskworld’, it involves a fictionary huge disk
floating through space, supported by four enormous elephants, who themselves
stand on the back of a giant turtle, Great A’ Tuin. If this sounds implausible to us then its
worth considering that Sir Terry didn’t make it up, but took the picture from
beliefs held by many ancient societies and religions before the discoveries of
Galileo had spread worldwide. Until the
time of Columbus many thought that to sail west across the Atlantic would mean
falling off the edge of the world. The
Romans though, it seems, knew otherwise.
However the action of the stories taking place on the Diskworld could
take place anywhere in our own world, and that’s the point of the novels; each one
is an unbelievable fantastic parody of an aspect of some all too recognisable facet
of our own ordinary world.
To make a point, Jesus often
made up stories as an illustration – the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Persistent
Widow, the Lost Coin and the Prodigal Son are all not memories of real people
and events, but stories made up to make the listener think. That this can further be enhanced by fantasy
has a long tradition in English Literature, both written and dramatic; consider
‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘1984’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Shrek’, the whole gamut of Walt
Disney Studios and the fine tradition going back to Shakespeare’s fantasy plays
like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘The Tempest’. To teach a truth a fable doesn’t have to be
historically real, but its realty comes from the truth of its experience.
It’s the same with how we
look at people and history. We can meet someone and find out what percentage of
their lives they have been employed, married or retired etc. We can measure their height, weight, eye
colour and find out a whole range of facts about them. But this tells us nothing of the person they truly
are. To truly know someone doesn’t only
involve statistics or percentages but rather learning of their life in terms of
story, relationship, pictures and memories.
There are different levels of truth and, like anything worth finding out
about, people have many different layers of truth to discover.
So the work of Sir Terry
Pratchett, for me, is not diminished by the fact that it is not real. Consider for example these lines from some of
“Stories of Imagination tend
to upset those without one.”
“The presence of those
seeking truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think
they’ve found it.”, Monstrous Regiment
“It’s still magic even if
you know how it’s done.”, A Hat Full of
“Goodness is about what you
do, not who you pray to.”, Snuff
“So much Universe, and so
“I’d rather be a rising ape
than a falling angel.”
“I have no use for people
who have learned the limits of the possible.”
what about our own world? What happens
in our own world is, by definition, real and not fantasy. Well, for me just because something is not
‘fantasy’ doesn’t mean that it can’t be fantastic. Just because something is familiar doesn’t
mean that it can’t yet contain many levels of truth and meaning. As we tell this coming week the familiar
story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are telling a story not about
something made up or fantasy but something which really happened on our own
earth, in a particular place and at a particular time. What’s more it’s the most fantastic thing
ever to have happened; something that has the power to transform lives, to free
minds from everything that would limit them and empower all who come to it to
see themselves and the world as a place of previously unimagined opportunity
Pratchett’s fantasy Diskworld is not real but it can teach truths that are real
in our own world. Our world is real and
the story of Easter can help us see within it, and within ourselves, things that
we might never otherwise have thought possible.
Easter is a time when we
celebrate the triumph of life over death, the triumph of God over sin, and the
reality of Christ's risen life in us. We can prepare for Easter by taking stock
of where we are spiritually, emotionally and mentally.
I recently discovered a helpful
meditation about the cross, which might help us see within it things which are,
well, just ‘true’
The horizontal — a reminder
that like Christ I am on a pilgrim journey...
that like Christ I cannot always choose the way...
that like Christ I carry with me a burden I cannot
The vertical — a reminder
that God is always there...
that all I do is in the end to give him glory...
that my journey to heaven must be rooted in the
If my life is really a pilgrimage to God, carrying
the weight of myself, it is sensible to abandon unnecessary trifles so as not
to be encumbered
for I cannot serve God and material things...
to be willing to lay the axe to the root of the tree
and be converted,
for to be perfect is to have changed often...
to accept the company of others, their consolation
and their help,
for on my own I am powerless...
The road is rough and the falls are many.
God draws me towards himself,
For his love is patient...
my baptism has marked me out for him...
my heart knows no rest until it rests in him.
May you all have a very Holy
Easter, following not the wrong path, but being lead in the path of life
eternal. Wherever that path may lead you,
even if it is to the ends of the earth, remember that you’re never going to
Your friend and vicar
Sir Terry Pratchett RIP
180 years ago newspaper readers were thrilled by a story about plants, animals and flying men on the Moon. The Great Moon Hoax, as it has become known, was published in the New York Sun over several days in the summer of 1835. It claimed to describe what the astronomer John Herschel had seen through his telescope from the Cape of Good Hope. It was read and, apparently, believed by tens of thousands of people across the US and Europe. It began by admitting that this was “an unusual addition to our journal” but promised it was worth reading, for there had been recent discoveries in Astronomy which will build an “imperishable monument to the age in which we live, and confer upon the present generation of the human race a proud distinction through all future time.”
The first article gave little more away, simply describing Herschel’s telescope. Over the following days, however, the articles included increasingly lavish descriptions of planets, the lunar landscape, “several new specimens of animals” and, ultimately, in the last paragraph of the 6th and final part, the bat-like “Vespertilio-homo”, which appeared “scarcely less lovely than the general representations of angels by the more imaginative schools of painters.”
Those who knew something of scientific matters would be aware that not only was there a Sir John Herschel FRS but also that he was then at the Cape of Good Hope, observing with a large telescope. There was an Edinburgh Journal of Science too, although it had recently folded. Names of real instrument makers, opticians and astronomers were dropped, the optics of the telescope were described with convincing technical language, and what could be more likely than that the inventor consulted the Board of Longitude? (Except that it, too, had shut down.)
What was the purpose of this elaborate fiction? It has been seen as prefiguring newspaper circulation wars, as demonstrating the gullibility of the public, as early science fiction (along with Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote not dissimilar newspaper pieces), and as a critique of popular science writing. What seems certain is that many did, at least initially, believe these were genuine observations. All becomes clear when we learn that the story was intended as satire rather than hoax. Richard Adams Locke, an apparently well-educated recent British immigrant who wrote for the Sun, eventually came clean in a letter to another newspaper. It was, he said, “an abortive satire”; he was “self-hoaxed” because his mimicry was too accurate to be spotted as parody.
Locke’s target was the widespread and uncritical belief in extra-terrestrial life among men of science. In particular, he took aim at Thomas Dick, a Scottish minister, teacher and author, whose faith in the existence of other worlds appeared throughout his writings and whose books were achieving enormous popularity.
It was this popularity that undid Locke’s satire. People were well prepared to hear that men had been found on the Moon. Some see the Hoax as a case of science versus religion, but this is too simple. It was I think rather a satire on the gullibility with which Locke saw his contemporaries blindly accepting anything they were told, either in the name of science or religion or, in this case, by a popular newspaper.
I wonder have we moved on much since that time? I don’t mean in a philosophical sense of how we perceive the world around us, how we make sense of things that we see or experience. Rather, by what do we measure the truth claims made either in the name of science or religion? I’m not at all qualified to comment on scientific matters, other than to make a general observation that one generation of scientists generally show the previous generation’s understanding of reality as, if not mistaken, then at least incomplete (Einstein showing how Newtonian science is, well, not really how it is, for example; Quantum physics showing how previous physics was, well, not really how it is either). I feel even less qualified to comment on religious definitions of ‘truth’, mainly because I know a bit more about them, and so am more aware of how much more there is about it that I don’t know!
This isn’t meant to imply anything about the torrent of truth claims shortly to be made in the coming weeks by those who want us to vote for them, or their veracity! It’s more to echo what Jesus said to Pilate when Pilate asked if it was true that he was a King, “What is truth?”, in the sense of ‘we all have truths, are mine the same as yours?’ Yes, Jesus is a king, but in a very different way than Pilate understood it. So for me there is no conflict whatsoever in the discoveries made by science and the truths claimed by our faith, they are both true, but in different ways, or different ‘magisterium’s’ to use a term. Its just like enjoying Christmas day in different ways; eating buttered sprouts and then watching the re-run of the Morecambe and Wise 1977 Christmas Special – or whatever takes your fancy. Enjoying eating and enjoying watching, both are good, especially when its Morecambe and Wise!
Lots of dreadful things are happening in our world today because some people think that their religious ‘truth’ is so true that any other claim cannot be tolerated. For my part I have always been suspicious of anyone from any faith who claims to have an absolute certainty. If someone says something is true because ‘God says it is’ that doesn’t allow any room for argument. The trouble is that someone else can come along and say something completely different in the name of God too and an implacable impasse is reached which all too frequently leads to some of those dreadful things we have seen in the name of religion recently. I rather think of religious truth as being something to be explored, discovered and learned about in dialogue, listening and learning as we go along. One of my favourite quotes, I have it on my study wall facing my desk, is from someone who was writing about history, but it could equally apply to religion, Christopher Hitchens;
“Those of us who write and study history are accustomed to its approximations and ambiguities. This is why we will never submit to dictation from those who display a fanatical belief in certainty and revelation.”
I have been sure to order a ‘Je Suis Charlie’ badge in support of the murdered Charlie Hebdo journalists’ families’ appeal.
Incidentally, Scientists are discovering hundreds of earth like planets all the time at the moment, thanks to advances in astronomical technology. Perhaps until proof is eventually found its anyone’s guess if life in some form is on one of them, and if it is, what it is like. There may not be Vespertilio-homo on any of them, but whatever is there, God is God there just as much as here. But how would we know if there were Vespertilio-homo, or any other life form on these distant worlds? Well, it would be in the newspaper of course!
Your friend and vicar
I am always pleased when we reach February. It is not that winter is over but as the month progresses the long dark days recede and the promise of spring approaches. There is the hint of better things ahead. February marks a transition from the deadness of winter into and towards the newness of spring. Although variable as to when Easter falls, nevertheless Lent regularly begins in February. This year as Easter is relatively early about half of this month will be taken up into Lent.
Lent is what is traditionally understood as a penitential season, a
time to reflect and amend our lives. In many peoples’ minds this has become associated with the giving up of some pleasure. While for some this may be a worthwhile exercise I would suggest that in order to get the most out of lent this will generally not best be achieved by simply giving up something in that way. Instead, what seems to be far better is choosing to do something positive. Here is a chance to take action that will enrich and transform our lives and the lives of others. It may be endeavouring to do a new thing or it may be something familiar that needs rekindling.
Amending our lives doesn’t have to be miserable.
Paradoxically part of acting positively may include giving up but not in the way I have so far described. What I mean is the positive
creating of space and time in our busy lives to read, reflect and do something new with others. The giving up then is the laying aside of something to make space for something better.
Among the creative things positively on offer this lent we might make time to read and yes, enjoy the Bible and to think afresh about its core message.
Not everyone finds Bible reading easy. There are many Bible reading notes and booklets which can help in this available either online or from any decent bookshop. If anyone would like any recommendations (or indeed for me to arrange to have one delivered direct to your door) please contact me – I would be only too delighted to help. The Bible is the written Word of God and vital in our knowing Jesus the living Word of God. To grow in our love for Jesus, we need to know him with our hearts as well as with our heads. Enjoy Lent.
Your Friend and Vicar
Lose Weight, Volunteer to Help Others,
Quit Smoking, Get a Better Education, Get a Better Job, Save Money, Get Fit,
Eat Healthy Food, Manage Stress, Manage Debt, Take a Trip, Reduce, Reuse, and
Recycle, Drink Less Alcohol. Yes, these
are the (‘apparently official’) top UK New Year’s Resolutions from last
year. Well, as they say, if the cap
You will be reading this letter
afterwards but, as I write we have yet to experience Christmas; the printer
needs my copy before mid December so at home the lights are not up, the
Christmas cards unwritten, the presents still on a list that is studded with
question marks, while at church we have yet to decorate, put up the crib,
prepare the flowers or complete the lists of people helping at the Christmas
services. So, I trust that we have all
had a happy Christmas.
There are, it seems, always lots of
lists and some of you may by now have a new one with New Year’s resolutions;
that list of things we plan to do differently in 2015 than in 2014. Some of the items will be new; some will be
about doing more of the right things; some will be about doing less of the
things that are not so good for us. My
friend, who attends a Weight Watchers class, tells me that numbers swell after
Boxing Day and that January is the busiest time of year. There is no shortage of helpful advice about
what to do next; the advertisers on television have turned their attention from
toys, special festive food and drink and brands of exotic perfumes to holiday
destinations, January sales and a plethora of health products.
Advertising is a strange thing; one of
the ways it works is paradoxically to make us unhappy. A frequent subtext is that our hair is
insufficiently glossy (not one of my priorities I have to say) our front rooms
not comfortable enough and our feet definitely malodorous, but luckily the
solution to our new found misery about ourselves is at hand, we need only to
buy the sparkling shampoo, the sumptuous sofa, the sweet smelling sole and all
will be well and our lives improved.
If you had to write down five verses
from the Bible which encapsulated the Christian message one of the references
could be Paul’s letter to the Philippians, its message is “Learn to be content”
- here it is in its context:
rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for
me; indeed, you were concerned for me but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for
I have learned to be content with whatever I have.”
Of course there are many who have
little, sometimes less than little, and we should and must continue to give
fully of our time and our gifts to help those in real need but many of us are
much more fortunate. So, I wonder if we
might be counter cultural, do away with the lists and teach ourselves to be
content? This is a good first step to a
deeper more spiritual way of living, a way of taking the joy, humility and
comfort of that first Christmas, to take it from the newness of the Christ
child into the newness of the Year.
With blessings and a happy new year to
Do you recognise any of these people: Maurice Micklewhite, Norma Jean Mortenson,
Reginald Dwight? If you don’t the
chances are that you will still recognise them by their ‘adopted’ name:
respectively Michael Caine, Marilyn Monroe and Elton John – you can see why
they changed their name! Some people
might have even more cause to take an adopted name, what about ‘do Namscimento
Edson Arantes’ (Pele) or ‘Dzhugashvili Iosif Vissarionovich’ (Stalin)
Jesus had many
names given to him both during his life and when he came to be more deeply
understood by the early Church. Some of
the titles that were gradually used in the early Church and then appeared in
the New Testament were adopted from the Jewish context of the age, while others
were selected to refer to, and underscore his message, mission and teachings.
Here are just a
Advocate, Almighty, Almighty God,
Alpha and Omega, Amen, The Ancient of Days, Anointed, Anointed One, Author,
Author of Eternal Salvation, Beginning,, Beginning and the Ending, Begotten,
Beloved, Beloved Son, Beloved Son of God,, Blessed of God, Bread of Life,
Bridegroom, Bright and Morning Star, Captain of Man's Salvation, Captain of Our
Salvation, Carpenter, Carpenter's Son, Chief, Cornerstone, Chosen, Chosen of
God, Christ, Christ Child, Christ of God, Christ the, Lamb, Jesus God or Son of
God, Jesus Saves, Jesus Facts, Jesus Bible, Jesus Church, Comforter,
Consolation of Israel, Cornerstone, Counsellor, Creator, Creator of All,
Things, Deliverer, Divine Son, Door of the Sheep, Emmanuel, End of the Law,
Endless, Eternal, Eternal Father, Eternal God, Eternal Head, Eternal Judge,
Eternal Judge of Quick and Dead, Everlasting Father, Example, Exemplar,
Faithful and True, Father, Father of Heaven and Earth, Finisher, Finisher of
faith, First and the Last, Firstborn, First fruits, Forerunner, God, God of
Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Israel, God of Jacob, God of Thy Father, God of
Whole Earth, God's, Anointed, God's Holy Child Jesus, Good Shepherd, Governor,
Great I AM, Great, God, Great Shepherd, Head of Every Man, Head of the Body,
Head of the Church, Healer, Heir of All Things, Holy, Holy Child, Holy Messiah,
Holy One, Holy One of Israel, Holy One of Jacob, I AM, Image of God, Immanuel,
Jehovah, Jesus, Jesus,, Christ, Jesus of Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph's
Son, Judge, Judge of Quick and Dead, Just One, Just, The, King, King of Israel,
King of Kings, King of Zion/Sion, King of the Jews, Lamb, Lamb of God, Life,
the Light of the World, Light, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Living Bread,
Living Stone, Living Water, Lord, Lord from Heaven, Lord God, Lord God
Almighty, Lord God of Hosts, Lord Jehovah, Lord Jesus, Lord of All, Lord of
Dead, Lord of Glory, Lord of Hosts, Lord of Living, Lord of Lords, Lord of the
Sabbath, Lord Omnipotent, Lord our Righteousness, Lord's Christ, Maker, Man of
Counsel, Man of Holiness, Master ,Mediator, Meek and, Lowly, Messenger of the
Covenant, Messiah, Messias, Mighty God, Mighty One,, Mighty One of Israel,
Mighty One of Jacob, Minister, Most High God, Nazarene,, Offspring of David,
One Body, Only Begotten, Only Begotten of the Father, Only Begotten Son, Our
Passover, Physician, Power of God, Prince, Prince of Life, Prince of Peace,
Prophet, Prophet of Nazareth, Propitiation for Sins of Whole,, World, Rabbi,
Redeemer, Redeemer of Israel, Redeemer of the World,, Resurrection and the
Life, Revealer, Righteous Judge, Righteous Man, Rock, the Rock of Heaven, Root
of Jesse, Sacrifice, the, Saviour, Saviour of Israel, Saviour of the World,
Second Comforter, Seed of Abraham, Seed of David, Seed of the Woman, Servant of
Jehovah, Servant of the Lord, Shepherd, Son, Son of Abraham, Son of David, Son
of God, Son of Man, Son of Mary, Son of Righteousness, Son of the Blessed, Son
of the Eternal Father, Son of the Everlasting God, Son of the Highest, Son of
the Living God, Son of the Most High God, Spiritual Rock, Stem of Jesse,,
Teacher Come from God, True Vine, Truth, the, Unchangeable One, Way, the, Well,
Beloved, Wisdom of God, Wonderful, Word of Life, Word, the, Worthy.
I wonder if
anyone can come up with any more! Each
of the titles or ‘adopted names’ expresses or emphasises something about who
Jesus is. In Advent we think of those
words about Jesus, which help us to understand what it means to wait for, or to
look for his coming among us and to prepare ourselves for that. We usually think of this in two different ways;
firstly Jesus coming as a little baby at Christmas and also at the same time
remembering that secondly, we wait for Jesus to come at the end of time to
judge the world – the first rather unsurprisingly being our preferred option! In biblical language both of these senses of
waiting for, or looking for Jesus coming to us are accompanied by great signs
and cataclysmic events which point out Jesus’ arrival in no uncertain terms;
think angelic choirs appearing in the sky, a new star, not to mention fires, earthquakes
and the odd war to usher in the end times.
There is a
long-standing belief among humans that important events are connected with
happenings in the natural world. Such events are often referred to as omens and
the Bible happily shares in this.
Comets, especially Halley's Comet, have often been assumed to portend
some momentous event. The birth or death of someone of importance is often
linked with such phenomena. However, as
“When beggars die
there are no comets seen; The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of
princes.” Julius Caesar Act 2, Scene 2.
So it might be
more difficult to look for signs of Jesus’ coming among us NOW, or presence
among us might be a better way of putting it, which is I believe at the heart of
the biblical message of Advent. Far from
being accompanied by all kinds of fanfare, we might find Jesus, if we pause to
look, in the most unlikely of places, or people, just think of this…
‘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; naked, and you
clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to
Me’. Matthew 25: 36;
A similar point
is made by the poems of one of my heroes, G.A. Studdert Kennedy, an Army
Chaplain in the First World War, more commonly known as ‘Woodbine Willie’ who
earned the huge respect of ordinary soldiers through his empathy and devotion
to them (and the woodbines he gave out to injured and dying soldiers which
earned him his ‘adopted name’, and which were perhaps not the greatest danger
those men faced). In the poems he wrote,
his theology and teachings simply and powerfully express the ‘incarnation’
message; that God, in Jesus, not only came among us and will come again one
day, but is here NOW, if only we would see.
This one is
Indifference, by GA Studdert Kennedy
When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged Him on a
They drove great nails through hands and feet, and
made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His
wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh
When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed Him
They would not hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him
For men had grown more tender, and they would not
give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him
in the rain.
Still Jesus cried, ‘Forgive them, for they know not
what they do,’
And still it rained the winter rain that drenched Him
through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a
soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall, and cried for Calvary.
As we prepare to
celebrate that incarnation throughout Advent again this year, lets keep our
eyes open to the people, places and situations where Jesus may be present in
our own time. There may not be any
comets but we might still be surprised!
Your friend and
Arabic: الأرض، الكُرة الأرضيّه , Czech: Země ,
Danish: Jorden; jordkloden; verden , Dutch: aarde , Estonian: maa , Finnish:
maa , French: terre , German: die Erde , Greek: γη , Hungarian: a Föld ,
Icelandic: jörðin , Indonesian: bumi , Italian: terra, Latin: tellus. These are all how to say ‘Earth’ in other
languages. Ok so I looked it up on yahoo
answers and you might have guessed it from the French or Italian but all of
these translations share one aspect of our English sense of the word
‘Earth’. In each language the word means
both the planet we live on AND the ground we walk on. Each language has its own name for our planet
but they all have one thing in common.
Each is derived from a word meaning ‘ground’ or ‘soil’ or sometimes
‘creation’. The modern English word
‘Earth’, for example, is derived from the Germanic ‘erde’, meaning
‘ground’. The roots of all such words
date from a time when humankind was unaware that the earth is actually a
planet. They signified at that time only
the ground beneath our feet.
It fascinates me that the same word can mean both
what is below us and something which belongs in the heavens. As we look up we can now see other planets
very like our own – actually now quite a lot of Earth – like ‘exo-planets’
(literally planets beyond our own solar system) thanks to huge advances in
astronomical technology in the last twenty years. This is not the place for a consideration of
what form life might take on any of these other worlds, as life in some form
beyond our own world there must surely be, and where life is, so is God. That can wait for another letter. What I have been thinking about is how we
look, as humans, both up and down, to see what is beyond us and also
what is within us. I don’t just mean
this in an astronomical or biological sense.
What I mean is how we find God in both the beyond and within.
In the library inside the Vatican there is a
painting adorning the ceiling of the quarter given to Philosophy (the other
three are; Theology, Literature and Law).
The painting is called The School of Athens and depicts a scene, which
can never have taken place- a scene in which all the Philosophers of the
classical world are gathered together.
At their centre, and larger than all the rest, are possibly the two most
influential philosophers; Aristotle and Plato, representing two different ways
of thinking. One, Plato, is depicted as
pointing up while the other, Aristotle is pointing down.
One way of thinking about reality is to look
beyond, another is to look within, at our own experiences. I believe God is to be found in both.
Quite often we look for God in the wrong
places. We can search and struggle when
all the time he is there staring us in the face, if only we had eyes to see,
and this quite often comes from within our own everyday, ordinary lives. The great Christian thinker Paul Tillich
called God ‘The ground of our being’ which for me has been a constant source of
growing awareness of God, often looking back at times, people and places I have
known and not being aware of God speaking to me through them at the time.
This is how Tillich put it;
not a supernatural entity among other entities. Instead, God is the ground upon
which all beings exist. We cannot perceive God as an object which is related to
a subject because God precedes (all subjects and objects)”
Another way of putting this is that both Aristotle
and Plato show different ways in which God can speak to us. The Earth is both what we walk upon and a
celestial sphere floating through space.
God is found in both within our own life experience (as we reflect upon
them in prayer), and without (which can take many forms; the Bible, Church
History, the advice of others, Christian and I believe non Christian, even, in
some Churches, a sermon).
For me there can be no doubt that we meet God both
beyond ourselves and within ourselves, Jesus showed us so, by coming down from
heaven to earth.
Your friend and vicar
you a fan or riddles, or puzzles or mysteries?
I sometimes start a talk by posing three ‘riddles’, with the answer
being three ‘objects’ in my bag, which I dutifully produce when the correct
answer is given. See if you can work
them out - the answers appear later in
1. What is full of holes but holds
2. What gets wetter the more it dries?
3. When I’m full I work and play, when
I’m empty I rest all day, what am I?
on, you should be able to get the first one at least! Jesus certainly liked riddles and puzzles,
often answering a question with another question, and turning what was often a
trap not only to wrong foot his opponents, but to teach those who have ears to
hear. Think for instance of Matthew
21:23ff; Jesus is being asked by those who are trying to trap him, where his
authority comes from, ‘humans or God’.
If Jesus says ‘humans’, the Pharisees, who are asking, will say that he
is a charlatan, if from God, that he is a blasphemer. Jesus however asks them a question in return;
where did they say that the authority of John the Baptist came from, ‘humans or
God’? If the Pharisees said God, then
they would be guilty of putting one of God’s prophets to death (which they
did), if from humans then they risked the people, who still held John in high
regard, turning against them. In fact
Jesus is making a powerful point that his authority is indeed from God, and
that he is also the answer to any riddle, or indeed puzzle, challenge, problem
or seemingly insurmountable obstacle that anyone could ever come across in the
whole of life – with Jesus there is always a way through, always an answer.
what may seem at the time like an insurmountable obstacle, or indeed a defeat,
can with hindsight, seem not only a stage on the way through, but indeed a
blessing! Think for instance of the
evacuation of the British army at Dunkirk between 27 May and 4 June 1940. At the time Churchill said that, “a colossal
military disaster “had occurred, saying "the whole root and core and brain
of the British Army" had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to
perish or be captured. On 4 June however, in his inspirational ‘We
shall Fight on the beaches” speech Churchill proclaimed it as a "miracle
of deliverance". What at first had
seemed, and was, a catastrophic defeat was later seen to be an inspiration to
the whole nation, as people pooled their resources and came together in the
One of my favourite stories of defeat being turned to
triumph is the story of the battle of Thermopylae. In the year 480BC the disunited Greek city
states, before the time of Athens and the great philosophers, playwrights and
political traditions of democracy, (which eventually passed on into our culture
through the Romans and the enlightenment, making us who we are), faced
extinction, before its civilization even got going, by the threat of a huge
Persian army led
King Xerxes. Modern classics scholars
put the number of Persians at between 100,000 – 150,000 to about 7,000 Greeks,
led by King Leonidas of Sparta; the first time that the Greeks had ever
combined in such numbers. In the 19thC
the great English scholar JS Mill said that the battle of Thermopylae was more
important in ENGLISH history than the Battle of Hastings! The battle was a complete massacre of the
Greeks but, and this is the crucial thing, after having faced overwhelming
odds, the brave Greeks realised that, after three days that the game was up and
King Leonidas, realized that the battle could not be won, but by combining in
the future that the war could be, and sent away all the soldiers except his own
300 Spartans. These 300 then fought the
Persians until Leonidas and the 300 were all killed. The example of bravery however then led to
the very combining of the Greek states that Leonidas knew would defeat the
Persians and the Persians were duly defeated at Sea at Salamis later the
following year, so sending Xerxes home and saving not only Greek civilization
but with it, the whole of western democratic and free civilization which was
passed down to us. The model of our
democracy and the freedoms we now enjoy come directly from the thoughts later
developed at Athens and which were made possible by Thermopylae, and not the
despotic monolithic state represented by Xerxes and the Persian Empire. As the
author William Golding said in his famous essay ‘The Hot Gates’, “way back, and
at the hundredth remove, that company (the 300) stood in the right line of
history. A little of Leonidas lies in
the fact that I can go where I like and write what I like. He contributed to set us free.”
year ago, when we first changed our Church Service times and I was honoured to
take responsibility for St Francis as well as having the privilege of being
vicar at Immanuel I wrote that we might not get it right first time. We didn’t, and we are changing our service times
back. When you read this the next Sunday Immanuel Service times will be 9:15am
and 10:30am, and I will alternate between the two Churches on consecutive
Sundays. I also wrote that the first
Sunday the new arrangements came into effect was a bit like D-Day in the Second
World War, because it was, in theological terms, the ‘Kairos’ moment of
action. Well, victories take many
forms. Thank God that the real D-Day was
a success, though not without enormous sacrifice. Things, which at the time don’t appear to be
a success, like Thermopylae, like Dunkirk, can often lead to quite wholly
unexpected, and better outcomes. No one
chooses to be in position where two Churches share one vicar. Maybe the last year hasn’t been the D-Day we
might have hoped for, but it could be our Dunkirk, or even our Thermopylae.
Your Friend and vicar David
Answers to the ‘riddles’ set in the vicar’s letter
1. What is full of holes but
holds water? A Sponge
2. What gets wetter the more
it dries? A Towel
When I’m full I work and play, when I’m empty I rest all day, what am I? A Glove
evacuating Dunkirk's beaches
August and September 2014
special vicar’s letter will set out why, after consultation with the wardens
and the PCC, we have decided to go back to the previous Sunday morning service
times of 9:15am for the BCP Communion Service and 10:30am for the Parish
Eucharist, Sunday School and Parade Services.
This pattern will replace the existing times of 8:30am and 9:30am and
will come in into operation on Sunday 5 October. I hope you will read it, as I believe that
the changes will be beneficial to the congregation, the worshiping life of the
Church and the wider parish.
From Sunday 5
October the services every Sunday morning at Immanuel will be at 9:15am and
10:30am. This replaces the existing times of 8:30am and 9:30am and will revert
to the times which had existed before September 2013.
From Sunday 5
October I will alternate between Immanuel and St Francis, ie I will be at one
Church one week for both services and the other Church the next week. This means that I will be present to take
both services at Immanuel every other Sunday.
When I am not present another person will take the services. This will initially be Revd Peter Hallett but
may in time include others and could be lay led. To this end a worship team will be set up
with a view to helping lead worship at Immanuel (if you would like to join
please contact me!)
are a number of reasons why this decision has been taken and why I think it
will prove beneficial to both Churches:
the present arrangement came into operation twelve months ago I thought it
important for both Churches that I take all the services as the vicar of the
Church. This was the overwhelming view
of the consultation that we undertook and I think that it was the right
decision at the time. However, twelve
months on enough time has passed both for Immanuel to be used to me having
other responsibilities and for St Francis to get used to me (I nearly said ‘to
have learned to put up with me!’). You
should know that although the way the service times at both Churches are
arranged at the moment allow me to be present at all services at both Churches,
there is a sense of rush about it.
it affects St Francis, for which I also have responsibility, I am not at the
moment arriving after the Service starts or leaving before the end, but I am
almost doing so. With the current
arrangement I can’t arrive any earlier at St Francis or, on most Sundays, stay
the new arrangement I can not only be present at two services at each Church
but fully focus on them, and those who come to them. I know that it’s important to have sense of
‘go’ in what we do but I don’t think that’s the same thing as ‘rush’, or being
on the last minute!
regards Immanuel directly, whatever time of service a Church chooses it’s going
to please some and be inconvenient to others.
Having said that, more than a lot of people have said that they find
8:30am and 9:30am too early for them, particularly if they are working families
whose working days are full of early (some very – I know!) starts. I hope that a later start will mean that a
not too early start may mean that it’s easier for everyone to come to Church,
no matter what stage of life we find ourselves at. There were certainly more people attending
services before September 2013 than since.
The new times also mean a proper interval can be had between services to
properly finish one service and prepare for another.
drawback to this of course (which it might not be to some!) is that I will only
be at Immanuel every other Sunday, as will also be the case at St Francis. That I will be absent every other week is
because my time is shared between two Churches, as it is already, but I think
that this new way will be a more effective use of that time for both
Churches. I know of some very good
vicars (“Why can’t we have one then?” I hear you shout!) who work this way with two or more Churches
and I have seen it work well. Another
side of this coin though is that it will enable a worship team to grow and develop
at Immanuel, which, in an age of increased sharing of clergy resources is the
only way to grow worship and so nurture the Church. Collaborating with a team is, I am convinced,
the way forward in these days of ever decreasing clergy numbers and Immanuel
can only become stronger as a result. By
the way these are not my own original thoughts (I have very few of those) but
those who are both much cleverer and more experienced than me, and with a much
wider vision, Bishop Steven Cottrell being one of them
commend these new arrangements to you and ask for your support in making them
work. It may be that some ways of doing
things might have to change, while others will remain exactly as they are.
all of this and in all our life together I think that it’s important to
remember three things:
is that a Church is, first and foremost, a group of people; ‘ecclesia’ in Greek
meaning just that, and anything else, from the Church building to service times
to who serves the coffee is secondary to that basic tenet. Our worship is an expression of our life
together and we should never be afraid of allowing that life together to change
and to grow.
that the ministry of the church at Immanuel is not the vicar’s alone; I have a
part, and a distinctive part, to play, but so does everyone else, and we will
be most effective when we each play our part as a team. Anyone in secular employment knows this is
the case; those who think they are indispensable to any organisation quickly learn otherwise!
one thing is essential in any organisation, that each play their part fully in
pursuit of a common goal. In our case
that goal is the third thing we must remember; that the ministry we share
together is in fact Christ’s ministry, not ours. God calls us as Christians to join in with
the work he is already doing, and it’s through us that it is advanced. We would do well to remember that in all our
supposed successes or indeed failures, that the work we do at Immanuel demands
that we play our part, and give of our best, because it is the Lord’s work that
we are about;
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
St. Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)
Your friend and vicar
In my Brass Banding days and especially at Brass Band
contests, I found myself quite often the ‘guest’ of another Band, sometimes
slipping one band’s blazer off and another’s straight on. Let me say now that this had less to do with
some outstanding musical ability in me being sought out by many other bands, rather
than a shortage of players on the instrument I finished up on, the B flat
bass. Nevertheless, despite the fierce
competition on the stage between bands at contests, there remained a common
sense of being a banding fraternity in which help was always given when
Slipping off one uniform and putting on another is one way
of showing a sense of identity with those wearing the same uniform. In a different way I was honoured once in my
visit to Guyana, South America, to be given a ceremonial cloak by the Akawaio
people, which I wore during one of the meetings of the village I was staying in
as a guest. I’ll never forget the honour
I felt, and humility, at being made an honourary member of a people whose lives
were so very different, and much materially poorer, than my own. What we wear says something about who we are
and what we do; there’s nothing like wearing the clergy collar to bring you up
against the reality of your own inadequacies.
At our Confirmation Service on 18 June, Bishop
John told a powerful and deeply moving story about clothing, and being
vested. The Bishop told us of how he
recently attended a meeting in a Mosque of a multi ethnic community group he
set up in Burnley years ago, and how this would be his last meeting with them
due to his forthcoming retirement. The
area the Mosque serves is one of the poorest in the country, the community
being composed of Bangladeshi descended families, living in poor housing, and one
of the most deprived wards in the whole country. At the end of the meeting the Imam asked
Bishop John to take off his jacket, which he did, to be then clothed, vested in
the black ceremonial robe of an Imam – an extremely high quality Robe only
made in Syria, which would have been very expensive and which that deprived
community has raised the money for themselves.
They clothed the Bishop in the vestments of the highest office of their
faith because, they said, he is a man of God.
Which Bishop John certainly is.
This moving and powerful gesture reminds me of a passage in
Colossians; “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with
compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience…Above all clothe
yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony”
Colossians 3: 12. Perhaps none of us can
properly claim to display all of those virtues all the time, I certainly can’t! It is in some sense though helpful to see our
faith as something we wear, both in its sense of showing something about what
we believe, and also because, even though we are all to one extent or another
incapable of living up to the ideals of our faith, the idea of being clothed in
it frees us from the fear and reality of failure, and gives us permission to
When my lack of say, patience, is exposed by my less than
charitable reaction to a tenth request in the last ten minutes to bring
something or other to a child’s dinner table, I know that despite my lack of
it, patience is something I can aspire to, and aspire once more when I don’t
succeed. The high musical standards, the
commitment to practice and to do the best one can for other members of a brass
band, or any other musical group, are expressed by the pride taken in wearing
the uniform – even if, despite my best efforts, I can’t say I always played
every note correctly (and probably hadn’t practiced enough to make sure that I
did!). Wearing any uniform says
something about what we are and what we are trying to do, the wearing of our
faith is no different; it’s the trying that’s important. I can’t say that our Band won every Brass
Band contest we ever entered, we won very few in fact, but we enjoyed trying.
Your friend and vicar
June is one of those months
in the Church year that, like November and December, sees a lot of thing s
happening one after the other. It is
important that everyone who is part of the Church tries to support these as
best we can.
On 14 June I
will from 10am to 4pm be sat outside Church, (if wet in the porch), underneath
a gazebo which will hopefully be providing shelter from the sun, with a
selection of homemade cakes and tea and coffee.
The vicar’s Gift Day has been a big success in the past in raising much
needed funds for our Church and, I hope, will be just as successful this
year. If we remember that when we make
an annual special donation to Church on the gift day, we are only giving back to
God a tiny fraction of the abundance he has blessed us with in our lives, then
I think that once again we will see a handsome amount raised for the upkeep of
our beautiful Church. The Church
reflects God’s presence in our community and if we remember God’s presence in
our lives when we make our Gift then we can all advance the work of the Church
here in Feniscowles and Pleasington.
On Wednesday 18
June at 7:30pm we have our Confirmation Service at St Francis Church, with the
newly Confirmed making their first communions the following Sunday. Once again we have a good number of
candidates from Immanuel and it would be good to see families and friends come
along to either the Confirmation Service itself or to Church the following
Sunday to support them. This year our
Confirming Bishop will be Bishop John Goddard, the Bishop of Burnley who is to
retire later this year. We all wish
Bishop John and his wife Vivienne a long and happy well-earned retirement.
On Saturday 28
June at 2pm we have our Garden Party and Summer Fayre, beginning with the
crowning of the new Rose Queen, Millie Ellement at 2pm. Please do make every effort to come along and
join in this happy occasion in the life of our Church. It is a very important source of income for
us and so important that we make it a financial success. Even more importantly though, the Fayre is
one of those occasions when we can come together as a Church family and enjoy
time together showing a welcoming and happy face to the community which our
Please do put this date in
your diaries/wallplanners/fridge doors etc and bring family and friends along
to support it.
Liturgically the Church also
celebrates the feasts of Pentecost (8 June), Trinity (15
June) and Corpus Christi (19 June) this month. What these feasts together point to, as the
natural end to the Eastertide season, is an outward looking direction in the
future life of the Church family.
Just as our June activities
at Immanuel are inclusive and outward looking, so those feasts of the Church
which run alongside them show a bias towards mission and inclusivity in the
future life of the Church after Jesus returns to the Father at the
Ascension. The giving of the Holy Spirit
at Pentecost enables and encourages the small group of previously timid and
uncertain disciples to become the apostles whose preaching and ministry took
the good news of the Kingdom out into all the world. On Trinity Sunday we remember how God is not
just found in heaven or in the past but is a living relationship of love in our
present lives and world. Corpus Chisti,
the foundation of the Holy Communion, reminds us of how we meet this living
reality as we meet together in worship and celebration.
Taken together the Church
feasts in June point to the outward looking nature of our faith; celebratory,
communal and inclusive. Lets all work
together to make sure that our own Church events at Immanuel, the Gift Day, the
Confirmation and the Garden Party show the same priorities in our life together
as God’s Church.
Your friend and vicar
people, even those who have never been to Sunday School know what Noah’s Ark
looked like. And now a new Hollywood
film starring Russell Crowe is showing it as perhaps it has never been seen
before! It was a long pointy wooden ship
with a large house built on top – obviously as that’s how it was described in
the Bible. Except that according to a
new book, ‘The Ark Before Noah’ by Irving Finkel, an archaeologist at the
British Museum, the truth which might lie at the root of the Noah myth is that
the original Ark might have been round – indeed there may have been many more
than one of them!
have known that the ancient Babylonians had a version of the flood story as it
was found preserved on one of their cuneiform (clay) tablets, which was brought
to the British Museum in 1872. At the
time it caused a great furore among Christian and Jewish scholars as,
disturbingly for those at the time who dismissed all other religions out of
hand, the Babylonian and Hebrew versions of the Noah story were so closely
related, often word for word, that it is impossible that they are not related
in a literary sense. Since then other
cuneiform (clay) tablets have been found in the Iraqi area, which tell the same
story including, recently, one written in 1750 BC, which far predates the
writings of either the ancient Babylonians and their parallels in Genesis.
ancient times and right up to the 19 Century AD the typical way to
get around on the rivers of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) was by Coracle, a
round, light, buoyant and thoroughly waterproof basket made small boat which
could transport family members and their animals from one side of the Euphrates
to the other. There are photographs of
coracles being made and standing by the banks of the Mesopotamian rivers from
the 1920’s. It was this, coracle like
craft that the tablet from 1750BC describes.
It was almost certainly in crafts like these that the ancient Persians
rescued their families and animals in the many times the rivers flooded, as
they are still prone to do and which there is lots of historical evidence
for. Perhaps one great tsunami like
flood, or floods once swept away whole villages and it was this deep seated
factor in the history and psychology of the peoples of Mesopotamia which
underwent mythological development into how one man can avert not only the
forces of nature, but, behind them, the power of God.
course Christians believe that one man has also delivered us, and offers the
means to ride on top of, if not entirely avoid, the many destructive forces
that we face if we are to live in the world.
The world that God created contains many powerful forces, which, like
the environment, if not used in the right way, have the power to sweep us
away. That God did not just create the
world but also entered into it himself in the form of his Son, provides us with
the means to ride out anything which might harm, threaten or destroy us. The only catch is this; Noah spent twenty
years building his ark and was no doubt mocked and ridiculed by those who
doubted missed the point of his faithfulness.
Accepting the rescue, which Jesus provides us with, and the fullness of
life which goes with it, might also lead to some counter cultural decisions we
might have to make in our lives.
might not always have to be seen as leading to misery, sacrifice and po-faced
seriousness. It was the philosopher
Neietzsche (himself perhaps not quite
the most cheerful soul there has ever been), the son of a minister who,
expressing concern about how the strict 19thC village German Protestants he
found himself among lived out the Easter message said of them: “His disciples
should look more redeemed!”
visit to many Churches, although I hope not ours, may give ground to this
criticism. Many Christians often seem
surrounded by an air of heaviness, of a lack of humour and irony about
themselves. Not many of us might, like
Noah be course, vulgar and drunken (well, maybe a few!), called by God to spend
20 years on a seemingly outrageous project.
But however it is that we do live out our faith I hope it might be with
an awareness of the power of love and joy that rescues our lives from all that
would drag us under and sweep us away and embrace it; and if that sometimes
makes us look ridiculous in the eyes of the world, whatever the ark is that God
calls each one of us to build, to embrace that as well.
friend and vicar David
As someone whose household is affected more
than most by the date of Easter I was certainly interested when I found out how
late it falls this year. By this I’m not
just alluding to the terms of my employment.
Our fridge door has the dates of school holidays from three different
schools (one primary school, one secondary and the school my wife teaches at)
and the list has been pretty interesting this year. Easter this year is almost as late as it can
get, 20 April being only four days before the last permissible
date, the earliest being 22 March.
This seriously messes up the school holidays and from families I know, childcare
arrangements for many other working parents as well. Although more than thirty local education
authorities have now fixed a spring holiday for schools in March or April many
schools are free to set their own holiday patterns which mark Easter by more
than having the two Bank holiday dates off.
Should we succumb at all, I wonder, to secular pressure to fix Easter to
a particular date merely to make all school terms the same length, or for that
matter, to allow industry to co-ordinate the bank holiday calendar to the
In fact legislation already stands which allows
Easter to be a non-moveable feast in the UK!
The Easter Act of 1928 fixed the date of Easter so that it always would
fall on the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. The problem is that a caveat was added to the
effect that before the Act could come into effect “regard shall be had to any
opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body.” That, you might imagine, gave a lot of scope
to a lot of people and agreement has never been forthcoming.
It might be pointed out that were the UK to fix
our own date of Easter then we would be out of synch not only with other
countries but with many other Churches within those countries. Well, the fact is that Easter already is
celebrated on different days in different countries and Churches. In the west the formula is that Easter should
fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or after the
spring equinox, even though we have that equinox fixed as 21
March, which is not, I am led to believe, quite as astronomically precise as we
might think. Easter is however is celebrated on different days by Latin
Catholics of the East and a different day again by Orthodox Christians – of
whom there are many more than there are Anglicans in the UK! Its not just a matter either of trying to
reconcile two different calendars (Julian and Gregorian), some Christians see
differences over Easter as part of what constitutes their distinctiveness and
But quite apart from the practical difficulties
of trying to agree a common date for Easter I believe there is something more
profound at stake. Should Christianity,
especially in the west and especially in this country so much on the wane,
further distance itself from the rest of society, allow itself to become a
sub-culture for like-minded believers?
Should it instead look at how it might more engage with that society and
not be afraid to change how it does things in an effort to remain relevant and
meaningful to modern society? Should it,
in other words, move with the times in relation to the date of Easter or
anything else? Or rather should the
Churches, as I myself am more incline to think, not be afraid to stand against
the tide, not water down what we offer to a needy and often desperate world and
offer, as far as we are able to, not stones but bread, and living bread at
The problem with trying to accommodate the
veneer of modern materialism is that it keeps changing. How many times, and in how many different
ways would the church have to change its ways of ‘being church’ if it were to
try and accommodate every passing fad and fancy? The fact that Easter is fixed with reference
to both the solar and lunar calendars keeps us in touch with something more
rooted than what is here today and gone tomorrow.
Part of the richness of human existence comes
from interaction with rhythmic cycles, over which we have no control. There is the cycle of the seasons with its
subtle variations (we had no snow this year but next year, who knows?). There is the cycle of our body clock, which regulates
our metabolism and different kinds of sleep in line with the pattern of our
days. There is the cycle of the moon
itself, which controls tides, and a gravitational force, which affects much
else. There is the liturgical Church
calendar, which combines the mystery of eternity with a linear process of
history. Easter is part of that
rhythmical cycle and to fix it according to the whims of schools, industry or
parliament would seem to me to diminish part of the richness of that cycle
which provides structure and rootedness in a world of uncertainty, disorder and
So let the school holidays fall where it suits
the bureaucrats best – whatever chaos it might cause on our fridge door, just
don’t let them attempt to regulate the mysteries of eternity. Some things, even moveable feasts, are better
Your friend and vicar
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
So go the familiar lyrics of Simon and Garfunkle’s timeless classic song, ‘The Sounds of Silence’. Silence is one thing that many stressful people long for and many lonely people fear. As we approach the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday I hope that far from fearing silence we actually make some time for it on our daily lives, and in the silence, listen to God speaking to us.
In a Church we often struggle to reconcile two basic human longings. One is for community, with all its energy and messiness, the need for fellowship, affirmation and recognition by others whom we value. The other, equally fundamental, human need is for stillness in an ever more noisy and distracted world. Its often hard to bring both these things together but I don’t believe the way to do it is to have some services to appeal to the quieter ‘contemplative’ personality types and others to appeal to the noisier sort. Rather I think that we all have both these needs within us and that our church life, just as in our daily needs, leaves us impoverished if we don’t have a healthy balance between the two.
We can see this in the example of Jesus who, in his constant need to go away on his own to pray and in his fellowship with those regarded as outcasts by the more ‘respectable’ type, shows that life may contain both feasting and fasting. At one point Jesus is praying alone away from everyone while at another he is accused of being a “glutton and a drunkard”! While there may be for some of us a natural affinity to one way or the other (work out for yourself which one is yours!!) Jesus challenges us to regard silence, and especially silence before God, to be treated not at all as the preserve of a certain personality type, still less an evasion of the world around us but to recognise that any activity we do on behalf of God, ie ‘mission’ it must be recognised first and foremost as GOD’S activity. So, for any activity to be done in God’s name we must see this as something we are participating in WITH God, that it is something in which he is already at work. Before we act for God we must first discern how and where God is at work – and then we can join in.
At the centre of our lives together as God’s Church for me is the Eucharist. It is in the Eucharist that the worship we offer is moved beyond words (which is why the first part of our service is called ‘the ministry of the word’ and the second, held in balance, is ‘the ministry of the sacrament’ – both are as necessary as the other), it is where the walls between our world and God’s perspective are, for me, paper thin. It is also there to remind us that any discipleship begins with God’s activity, not our own. What other response can there be to such a mystery other than the silence of awe and wonder, to be still and silent in the presence of God and see our lives in a new perspective?
Anyone who has seen the awe and wonder on children’s faces when they are gripped by something which speaks meaningfully to them will know that silent wonder is just as important in the nurture of spirituality in children and young people as it is in adults. Jesus challenges us all to include children and young people just as he welcomed children to come to him when the disciples began to stop them. The silent wonder of the Eucharist is not just for adults; unplug them from their video games for a moment and we know what capacity for wonder and silent awe children have too.
In one moving episode of the popular TV series, ‘Call the Midwife’ (popular with my wife at least), set in the 1950’s in the east End of London, the midwives join with the nuns who run the midwife services in that area of London. The women are together because one of the midwives has herself been taken to hospital with complications arising from her own labour and there is great fear for both the mother and child. After some words have been spoken there is a silence as, together, midwives and nuns knit and sew together the quilt they have all been making for the new family – not knowing if it will ever be used. The narrator, one of the midwives speaking years later reflects that the silence was all the prayer that was needed, the silence and the making of the quilt were together the prayer. I’ll let you watch the episode yourselves to see how the prayer was answered.
As we begin Lent we have an opportunity to make our prayers more than acts of penitence and self-denial, important though these are. We have an opportunity to place ourselves in silence before God, not to retreat from the world that God has placed us in but to see more honestly and clearly how we can move on in our lives to more effectively participate in God’s mission of generous, transforming love.
Your friend and Vicar
If I were to put one of my twins on a rocket and blast him
into space on a long journey and at great speed it is a fact that he would
return to earth younger than his twin sister.
This idea was first put forward by Albert Einstein in his Special Theory
of Relativity and is called ‘gravitational time dilation’. It is based on the discovery by Einstein that
time, gravity and acceleration are all interrelated and has been proved true by
particle accelerators such as the CERN in Switzerland. Why this is true and how it works is, alas,
beyond me but, like many things in creation, it just is; space and time are
related whether we understand it or not. To give a specific example, if the
travelling twin were to journey to the nearest neighbouring star system to our
solar system (approximately 4 light years away) at a rate of 80% of the speed
of light the round trip would take 10 years (because it 80% not 100% the speed
of light) from the perspective of the twin remaining on Earth. However from the perspective of the
travelling twin the trip would take him only six years (look on Wikipedia the
‘twins paradox’); so if the twins are born on the day the spaceship leaves, and
one goes on the journey while the other stays on Earth, they will meet again
when the traveller is 6 years old and the stay-at-home twin is
10 years old.
This fact of the universe in which we live would have been
totally incomprehensible to any scientist before Einstein (as I must say it
still is to me!) whose model of the universe was essentially that of a machine,
as proposed by Sir Isaac Newton. In
Newton’s idea of the universe there were unbreakable laws which remained the
same wherever you were and however you travelled. Newton would have expected the travelling
twin to have been ten years old from a space journey which took ten years,
since Einstein we now know that this is not so.
Tempted though I am at times, if I had the means, to put
Einstein’s theory to the test, there is a great deal else that we might know
and have yet to discover about the creation in which we live. The fact that I
can’t understand it or lack the imagination to grasp it doesn’t make it any
less real. What we can actually ‘know’
comes in many different forms: In one
sense, knowledge is simply an encounter with something or someone. We can say we ‘know’ our friend or neighbour,
partner or (sometimes) child. What we
mean is that we have a ‘feel’ for who he or she is. But when we come to describe them to someone
else we might say that they are ‘quiet’ or ‘loud’, ‘lively’ (hopefully, or it’s
opposite maybe) or friendly. We would
however soon become frustrated that these general terms don’t quite adequately
sum up the person we ‘know’ and if continually questioned say something like
“Look, you’ll just have to meet her”, words failing to describe the sense of
uniqueness our knowledge of that other person provides.
Yet ‘knowing’ someone personally still doesn’t give us the
complete picture of that person. There
is another kind of knowledge that comes from putting things together from
bits. This is the knowledge of what we
call ‘facts’. So we could begin to build
up a pen portrait of the person we are trying to describe; ‘she was born on 16
September 1964’, say, or ‘she lived for the first three and a half years of her
life at 66 Gas Street’, ‘she worked at Boots for ten years’ etc. But this kind of knowledge is also incomplete;
it can never really convey a sense of what the person is really ‘like’.
These two kinds of knowledge are referred to by different
words in different languages; Latin - Cognosere and Sapire, French – Connaitre
and Savoir. One is about trying to
understand, the other about amassing knowledge.
Both sorts of knowledge are needed I would maintain, to try to
comprehend the wonder of the universe.
You wouldn’t, for example want to describe the colour blue as ‘the point
where electromagnetic waves scatter at 0.46um degrees’. You wouldn’t reduce music to its component
notes and mathematical structure. Rather
we would try to imagine a magnificent sky or sing, in my case less than
perfectly, a catchy tune. When the poet
William Blake was asked once when he saw a sunset, did he not see merely a ball
of fire about the size of a golden guinea, he replied, “Oh no, I see a
multitude of the heavenly host crying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God
That is the point where I part company with the work of such
‘new atheist’ scientists as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking. I am absolutely fascinated by their ability
to describe to those like me with a less than adequate understanding, how the
universe works, but I don’t remain in thrall to the factual mechanistic way of
understanding what it is, true though that may be. For me the universe is so much more
wonderful. If we limit our understanding
of knowledge to just what facts we may amass we will not perceive the reality
and the presence of God. If reality is
only viewed in mechanistic factual terms then it will be literally
insignificant, ie it won’t point beyond itself, it won’t signify anything, and
if it doesn’t point beyond itself it will be literally pointless and therefore
always only disappoint.
The discovery of the twins paradox and other wonders of the
universe way beyond my understanding is never for me either pointless or
disappointing (even if at times the lack of opportunity to put it to the test
may be!), but full of wonder, a thirst to discover more and ultimately, like
Your friend and Vicar
When someone does a full day’s work, and receives a fair
day’s pay for their time, that is a WAGE.
When someone competes with one opponent or many, and
receives a trophy for their performance, that is a PRIZE.
When someone receives appropriate recognition for long
service, or for major achievements, then that’s an AWARD.
But when someone is not capable of earning a wage, can win
no prize, and deserves no award, yet receives one anyway - that is unmerited
favour. It's how a loving parent
encourages and affirms a child who is more often in trouble than top of the
And above all this is how - Christians believe - God treats
all of us, though we often fall very far short of how he would like us to
live. It's what we mean when we talk
about the GRACE of God. Most people know
the opening words of John Newton's famous song.. "Amazing grace, how sweet
the sound, that saved a wretch like me!"
We can never earn his grace and favour, and yet we are loved and
forgiven, we are granted acceptance and peace, and hope and purpose, because he
loves us anyway.
And Christmas is when we see this truth brought to life. The
Bible tells us that God loves us so much that he GAVE his own Son. This is THE WHOLE POINT of Christmas. We
celebrate the birth of Jesus, for here is "the one who came from God, full
of grace and truth, to live among us" (John 1.14).
But there's also a major challenge to be faced. The latest research tells us that most people
say, "The birth of Jesus is irrelevant to my Christmas." It is suggested by among others former
Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, that we have reached a critical tipping
point. The leader of one major mission agency has suggested, "Our society
is trying to airbrush Christ out of Christmas." Apparently only 10% of
adults say the most important thing about Christmas is ‘religious meaning’, and
36% of children aged 5-7 don’t know whose birthday we celebrate on 25
December. No wonder Lord Carey says he
thinks the Church is just one generation away from extinction.
However, we have a chance to buck the trend
One of my favourite stories about a school nativity service
is of the little boy who wanted to play the part of Joseph. He was very
disappointed to be given instead the part of the innkeeper, but he appeared to
accept his teacher’s decision and got on with his part in the play. However, on
the day of the performance, in front of a school hall packed with parents, the
boy took his revenge. When Joseph and Mary asked him if there was any room in
his inn, he abandoned the script, stood back so that the door to the inn was
wide open and said, “yes, there’s plenty of room: come on in!”
That might not be the way the familiar story goes but I
think the little boy’s actions have some things to say to us at this time of
year. We all are invited to ‘come in’ to greet the holy child, born into such
very humble surroundings. All are welcomed! God welcomes each and every one of
us. He does not want anyone to be turned away, because He loves each of us so
much. God has shown the depth of that love in His unique gift to us; the gift
of His Son, born as one of us, part of a loving human family; the One who was
willing ultimately to give his life for us, so that we might share in his life,
At this time of year there is always a great sense of
anticipation and of hope. We have anticipated the celebration of Jesus’ birth
at Christmas, not only because it was a great excuse for a bit of a party, but
also because his birth gives us hope. Hope for the future. Hope in the midst of
much that seems to be changing all around us. Our Christmas celebrations lead
into celebrations of the New Year, with a heightened sense of anticipation for
all that 2014 might bring. Many will be praying that the next year will be
better than the last; others will be going into the New Year with a deep sense
of anxiety and uncertainty. However we approach 2014, we should remember the
wonderful promise, which Jesus made to us: ‘remember that I am with you always;
yes, to the end of time’ (Matthew 28, verse 20). Jesus promises to be there
with us in whatever it is that life brings; in the happy times and in the
sadnesses; in the pain and also in the joy.
St John’s Gospel tells us, ‘God so loved the world that he
gave his only son’. We make a fuss of celebrating Jesus’ birth because we are
celebrating the truth of God’s love for each and every one of us, God himself
living as one of us, experiencing life, with all its joys and pains, and
ultimately giving his life for us on the cross.
When we begin to reflect on all of that, then we will
understand something of why it is so important to make some space in our own
lives to celebrate ‘The Birth’. God invites us to come in because He has made
sure that there is room for us all. Lets
make sure that we make room for God in our lives in 2014, because I’m convinced
that the more room we manage to make for him in our lives, the more we realise
just how much room he has made, and makes, for us
Your friend and vicar
I know that Christmas is
approaching when I catch the sound of Dean Martin singing “It’s beginning to
look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go…”
and then noticing that he’s right!
Once again we find ourselves in the Holiday Season, that very special
time of year when we join with our loved ones in sharing centuries old
traditions, a particular favourite of mine being trying to find a parking space
at the Trafford Centre. We traditionally
do this in my family by driving in circles near to an entrance until we see a
shopper emerge and then follow her, very much in the same spirit as the Three
Wise Men who, 2000 years ago, also followed something for week after week
until, eventually, it led them to a parking space!
In fact I absolutely love
Christmas and can’t get enough of the traditions it brings, from decorating the
house with more lights than the Blackpool Illuminations to eating chocolate at
5am after being woken up by someone jumping on the bed shouting ‘He’s
Been!’ (I love chocolate even though I
have a son who hates it!!)
I remember as a boy sitting at
the Christmas dinner table pulling Christmas crackers and taking turns reading
out the jokes – some people might say that’s where a lot of my jokes come
from. I remember going round shops
asking for first this, then that and after the other as well – and making lists
of presents I hoped to get. Although
I’ll never forget my first Scalextric, the funny ting is that I can’t seem to
remember the details of many of the other presents, just the weeks of
anticipation and the writing of lists.
When we get older we might remember the odd present we were given, but
more often than not our memories come from the people we spent Christmas with,
and the laughter, games and traditions we shared with them. My clearest memories are of us all packed
around the Christmas dinner table – all loved ones together. Perhaps the greatest gifts are not the ones
most appreciated at the time, and that certainly is true of the greatest gift
there has ever been, the reason we celebrate Christmas at all, the gift of the
What I also remember on the
Christmas Dinner plate, and certainly a tradition in our family is…..brussels
sprouts. Yes, lovely round, green soft sprouts, coated with butter and in a big
pile, along with turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce, yumm!!! But sprouts are a funny vegetable, something
you either love or hate, like marmite, for every person who loves them there’s
probably another nine who think, Ughhh.
So at Christmas everyone had to have at least one sprout on their dinner
plate, even if it was always the last thing rolling round in a sea of gravy on
my brothers plate – after he’d unsuccessfully attempted to hide it under his
mashed potato (people have different tastes, think of chocolate in our
family). ‘Eat your greens’, my mum used
to say, ‘and you’ll grow up tall, strong and they’ll keep you regular!’ I’d like to think that sprouts for me are
responsible for two of these at least!
However we celebrate Christmas,
I hope we remember that Jesus came into the world, which is what we are really
celebrating, not to be an afterthought, like a brussels sprout which might only
get a look in after the turkey and potatoes on our Christmas dinner plate have
all gone. Jesus came to give hope to a
hopeless world, and to sooth the wounded in a world with too much hurt. The Bible says “Taste and see that the Lord
is good” and that’s not just for those with a taste for Brussels Sprouts
May God bless you anew this
Christmas and, however you spend it, spare a thought for those who will not be
enjoying the traditions you love.
Perhaps one way of expressing this care might be to make an extra
donation (perhaps just two instead of one item) in the Blackburn Food Bank
collecting box – only probably best not make it brussels sprouts!
With every blessing for a joyful
Christmas and a happy and prosperous new year
Your friend and vicar
I was fascinated
to learn recently of a discovery in Georgia of five human skulls dating back
over 1.8 million years ago; they are the earliest examples of the homo species
(a species of which we homo-sapiens are part of) to be found outside Africa. The skulls, along with stone tools and
artefacts found with them suggest striking differences in appearance within the
same species, just like we found today, and suggests that what have up till now
been held to be several varieties of the species homo were actually all part of
the same sub-species, homo erectus. As a
keen student of human origins I will follow this story with interest.
The finds also
confirm the growing awareness among scientists and especially
evolution, far from being an even and gradual process works rather in sudden
jumps and, in the context of the long periods of time involved, rather abrupt
changes. As conditions on the earth
changed often relatively quickly, so also life adapted quickly to the changed
conditions around it, or at least the life that survived. The 99.9% of all species which have ever
lived on this earth and are now extinct show what happens when life doesn’t, or
So also it seems
that we have had a lot of changes rather quickly in the last few weeks in our
Churches. Saturday 19th October saw the
inauguration of Rt Revd Julian Henderson as our new Bishop of Blackburn in
Blackburn Cathedral. I hope that we will
all pray for Bishop Julian as he begins his new Ministry in the Diocese which,
we must remember includes not only the town of Blackburn but almost all of
Lancashire, with many varied and many challenging parishes and
communities. Bishop Julian will I am
sure bring vision and energy to addressing the many challenges facing Churches
not only in this Diocese but across the country. Bishop Julian didn’t waste any time before
visiting our cluster of parishes as, on Monday 21st October he Licensed Revd
Cath Brooks as the new priest for St Luke’s and St Aidan’s. As with Bishop Julian we send Cath our very
best wishes as she begins her ministry and assure her of our prayers. Despite the formalities of titles Cath and I
have been given, Cath’s ministry is for St Luke’s and St Aidan’s and mine is at
Immanuel and St Francis (anything linking me with St Aidan’s is a formal title
only while the old United Benefice of St Aidan and St Francis is dissolved –
although I have many friends at St Aidan’s I think I have quite enough to
do!!). Which brings me to the third
change, which is still relatively new, the new ministry I have begun at St
Francis, and the changes in patterns of worship which have taken place to allow
this to happen. Although it is still
very early in the new relationship, I feel that things are working well and are
heading in the right direction. With
continued good will on all sides there is no reason why this may not continue
to be so.
Its easy to look
back, from our human perspective and see not only changes in human history but
the whole of evolution as leading to us sitting watching Downton Abbey with a
glass of wine in front of a nice fire or in a centrally heated room. The
Neanderthals or the 99.9% of all other species which have died out, may not
share our perspective! But as Christians
I do believe that we should try to understand the words of St Paul in Romans 8:
28, “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have
been called according to his purpose.”
It’s not always easy, let alone possible to see this in every situation
we might find ourselves in, but somehow, and in some way we can perhaps only
ever catch glimpses of, I believe that it’s true.
Your Friend and
In my diary the page
for Sunday 8th September this year is headed ‘D-Day’! By this I certainly don’t intend any
disrespect for the bravery of those who took part in the Normandy Landings of
6th June 1944 (of which two of my great uncles, one still alive(!) were
participants.) The term D-Day is not
actually exclusively used for that momentous event, but
is the day (along with H-Hour) on which
a combat attack or operation is to be
initiated. Combat attacks
notwithstanding the date of 8th September 2013 is certainly important for
Immanuel - although seen in proper proportion to the Battle of Normandy we see
it in it’s true lesser perspective.
Sunday 8th September 2013 though was the date when Immanuel changed its
service times to 8:30am and 9:30am and, for the first time in its history,
shared its vicar with another Church.
I must say that I feel
extremely grateful to everyone at Immanuel for the helpful and supportive way
in which you have approached this very big change, and particularly for the
support given in it to me. What is more
I am very grateful to all the members of the congregation who have changed
Sunday morning routines and adopted the new pattern. At the time of writing there has been no one
at all who has turned up at Church at the old service times - at which I am
totally amazed (when we changed service times in my
old parishes in Wigan someone turned up at the wrong time at least every Sunday
for the first month - and one occasion six months after the changes were first
We are still at the
very beginning of the new arrangement, called a ‘Plurality’ with St Francis but
so far, I have to say, so good. I pray
that the excellent spirit in which we have begin this sharing arrangement may
continue and bear fruit guided by God, and pray for discernment of the path he
continues to guide us on.
These changes are not
the only changes we will see at Immanuel in the near future, hopefully before
the next magazine comes out. When we
received the very generous legacy of £20,000 last year from the late Glenys
Jones, the PCC rightly decided to use it for mission in doing work we would not
be otherwise able to do. Accordingly on
Tuesday 1st October work will begin in the Church Porch not only on long needed
redecoration of walls and ceiling, but renovating the notice board and putting
in a new lighting system. This will give
to all who enter our lovely Church the rightful first impressions of a building
that is loved, valued and cared for, reflecting the value we give to our
faith. In this way the work in the porch
will be a deeply mission - orientated endeavour and a fine use of the gift we
were blessed with. Along with this work
the Buildings Committee designed and the Diocese have approved a new Church
sign to replace the existing one with updated information and a better notice
cabinet that won’t leak and serve to advertise the good work done here. Not only that but the Car park signs, both
long overdue for replacement are to be replaced, giving visitors and
parishioners alike the sense that we cherish and value the property we have
been given stewardship of, and of what that property stands for. Finally, as if that wasn’t enough, lots of
work has been taking place renovating and repairing the Cottage in readiness
for new tenants who bring much needed revenue to our Church in rent. I have been given some old photo’s of the
cottage in former years and although space prevents me from publishing them in
this edition, I hope to share these with you in the next.
On D-Day plus 21 I am
sure we are heading in the right direction!
Your friend and Vicar David
I read recently (Church Times 16.8.13) that a judge in Tennessee has ordered that a baby’s first name be changed from ‘Messiah’ to ‘Martin’ on the grounds that the name could put the baby ‘at odds with a lot of people and at this point he has no choice what his name is..The Messiah is a title, and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person, and that person is Jesus Christ.’ The baby’s mother is appealing the ruling!
Quite apart from observing that, following the time honoured Monty Python formula when the child gets told off (‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!’) the name could indeed cause the child problems, and that I would have thought the name Martin should not be without resonance in Tennessee (Dr King), the story raises many interesting issues for me. These are not to do with strange baptismal names I have known (although I have known a few!). They are not either to do with the rights of parents versus the rights of children (although that is also something which raises many questions in our society). Rather it spoke to me of how we make assumptions based on superficial information and of where the limits of freedom lie.
Whenever we come to a time of change and decision, as societies, as individuals, the choices we make say something about our values. It’s alright to say we believe in something but its when we are called to put that belief into action that it will really be tested. When none of the choices we face are ideal but instead are between least worse options our way forward may seem clouded and uncertain. The freedom we give ourselves at such times and the willingness to look beneath what is on the
surface show what we really hold to be central in our lives. We don’t for example know the motives behind the parents’ decision to name their son in the way they did, I suspect the judge is on dodgy Biblical and theological ground if he maintains that Jesus had to earn his titles and the last time I looked the gospels show Jesus being called Messiah when he too was a baby!
Sometimes in other words we don’t have the whole picture and, like the judge, we have to decide between competing rights (both in the sense of what people are due and the opposite of that which is wrong) and make a decision based on what we think is best. The mother has the right to appeal the judge’s decision and the judge, as the one with authority is the one who has to decide - and bear the responsibility for the decision. As a Church, Immanuel is to have new Services times form Sunday 8th September because I am also now vicar (sic) of St Francis Feniscliffe. The times of our new services are 8:30am and 9:30am which I will always be at when I am not on holiday. I will also take the one service at St Francis on Sundays at 11am. I think that this arrangement is the fairest outcome in a situation where our two Churches have to share one priest, and that it is both manageable in terms of time and sustainable.
I commend it to you and ask you to support it and make it work (I have recently been given a copy of the Church Magazine from June 1953 on the front of which I note that the early Service then, Holy Communion, started at 8am - which gives me an extra half hour in bed than Revd Porteus had, and I’ll bet he had no central heating or lovely shower!). All of us are constrained to some degree or another by the rights of others, it’s what makes our society civilised. I would rather live in a country where the strong did not have absolute freedom than one where the weak have no rights.
I also believe that Jesus said something similar.
Your friend and Vicar David
Do you ever feel a slight sense of misgiving whenever an ‘expert’ is brought on to the TV or radio to pronounce about something? I have a wonderful book to which I constantly repair whenever I feel that some expert or other is pushing me in a certain direction; its called ‘The Experts Speak And Get it Wrong!’ It’s a collection of actual words said by those in the know that perhaps they wish, well, that they had never said. Here are just a few of them;
‘The Phonograph..is not of any commercial value’ - Thomas Edison, 1880
‘That’s an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one? - Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the USA after participating in a trial telephone conversation between Washington and Philadelphia 1876
‘Radio has no future’ - Lord Kelvin, British mathematician and physicist, President of the Royal Society 1897
‘Video won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night’ - Darryl F. Zanuck (head of 20th Century Fox Studios) 1946
‘There is not the slightest indication that atomic energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will’ - Albert Einstein 1932
It heartens me that such disastrously inaccurate predictions were made by those with what would be assumed to have been the greatest foresight. It confirms my view of history that nothing is ever inevitable, fixed or unquestionable. In a wise view of history Karl Marx said that ‘men do make their own choices in history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.’ It shows that whatever or whoever we are there can always be hope, that people are not doomed to follow one path in life or another and that as our faith teaches us, nothing and no-one is ever beyond redemption. Another way of putting this is as one of my favourite authors, George Eliot said, ‘Its’ never too late to become what we might have been’ - that for me is a deeply Christian truth, even though it came from a deeply agnostic writer.
We all know that our Church is going through a time of change, and as you read this the precise shape of that change will become clearer. I’m not going to write here again of how change is inevitable as I have already done that. I’m not either going to pretend to be one of those so called experts who stand up and say with certainty exactly what the right course of action is - if Einstein can get it wrong about Nuclear Fusion what hope have I got? All I will promise is that whatever changes are implemented they will be after prayer, reflection and a will to produce the fairest and best outcome in the circumstances we find ourselves. I don’t pretend to be an expert and I certainly don’t have a crystal ball (and if I did I wouldn’t trust it!). We may not even get things right first time and, if we don’t, we should not be afraid to say so and change them.
In his seminal song ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ Bob Dylan sings, “Come
Mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don’t criticise what you can’t
understand”, which perhaps applies to all of us faced with the uncertainty and the unpredictable and unknowable nature of change and the future. Instead we would do well to commit to God the future he holds out for us and work together and with him to build the great future that remains unwritten
Your friend and Vicar,
In this issue of the magazine on page 7 appears the following notice;
Revd David Roscoe, Priest in Charge of Immanuel Feniscowles, has also been
appointed to the post of Associate Priest in the Benefice of St Aidan’s, Mill Hill and St Francis Feniscliffe but with responsibility for St Francis. David will remain Priest in Charge of Immanuel Feniscowles. Within the current benefice of St Francis and St Aidan, he will take pastoral responsibility for St Francis. David's Licensing will take place at St Francis on Wednesday 7th August at 10:30am by Rt Revd John Goddard, Bishop of Burnley. All are warmly invited to attend.
What this means is that from 7th August I will once again be running two Churches, as I did in Wigan for over eight and a half years. While I have hugely enjoyed having one Church to concentrate all my efforts on I, like all of us, must accept the facts of the world we live in, not how we would like it to be. Whatever image we choose, fighting against the tide coming in, making water run uphill and the like, we must accept that change has to come and the best outcomes will be achieved by working with that change.
I will still remain Priest In Charge of Immanuel but as well I will be ‘Associate Priest’ at St Francis, (actually I’ll go on calling myself Vicar because everyone knows what one of those is, and the standards people rightly expect from one). My title will be Associate Priest in the current United Benefice of St Aidan Mill Hill and St Francis Feniscliffe but, that is only because it still is a United Benefice and my role will be limited to St Francis alone within that Benefice, I will have no responsibility for St Aidan, that should be understood very clearly. The current United Benefice of St Aidan and St Mark is being dissolved; St Aidan’s are going to form a new United Benefice with St Luke’s, for which the new Vicar’s job is currently being advertised, that new Vicar will live in St Aidan’s Vicarage in Mill Hill. When the St Aidan / St Francis United Benefice is dissolved I will then become ‘Priest In Charge’ of St Francis, in plurality with my current job as Priest in Charge of Immanuel. It is hoped that we can then set up a new United Benefice of Immanuel and St Francis and when that happens my title will change again to become Vicar of the new United Benefice.
All of these title changes are for the future, what we face in the present is the need to find a way of working with me running two Churches, Immanuel and St Francis, so that both may grow in discipleship and reflect the love of God in their respective parishes. This will obviously entail some changes at Immanuel and these will be made clear when they are going to happen. Evolution teaches us that only creatures which have the ability to adapt to their environments survive, the dinosaurs could not adapt so they, like 99% of all the species of life that have ever existed on Earth, died out. Being a Church in this day and age is not easy, but I truly believe that its not impossible either. It will involve making changes but those changes will mean our survival. The only thing which doesn’t change is something which isn’t alive. Ask the dinosaurs!
So I ask your prayers, not only for me as I take up my new responsibilities and do what I think necessary for the health of both Churches, but for all the people who are involved and affected, that it may be for all of us a time of renewal, opportunity and growth into the future God has waiting for us
Once when I was at University I set out to our local branch of Sainsbury's with the sole intention of buying a jar of coffee, as my current jar had ran out. Entering Sainsbury's (it could have been any supermarket, I used that particular emporium as it was the closest) I was enticed to buy some apples (which I had forgotten that I also needed), some chocolate hob nobs (how else could you get through an essay on St Augustine of Hippo), some milk, which I knew would be a heavy weight but again, absolutely necessary and I believe from memory enough other items to fill three of Sainsbury's best plastic bags - which, to give them their due, did their job and lasted al the way back to my rooms. It was only when I was back in my rooms and began making that longed for cup of coffee that I realised that, you’ve guessed it, the one thing I had not bought which I needed was, yes, a jar of coffee!
Well, apart form my forgetfulness and distractedness this story has always for me highlighted the way that we can allow ourselves to become too easily sidetracked, take our eye off the ball, go off at a tangent - call it what you will. This is I believe as much true in life in general as it is in Sainsbury's! We all know how the world can be both an exciting and wonderful place and at other times in our lives an uncomfortable place to live. From the earliest times humankind has set out on a religious quest or spiritual search, so that life and death may take on some significance or meaning. Out of this the world’s religions have emerged. One thing I remember form my chocolate hob nob accompanied reading of St Augustine is that he said this;
“Lord you have made us for Yourself,
and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”
Perhaps its that we do all get easily distracted from where our true home is, and where our true needs are met, that we find restlessness as well as rest in life. Perhaps that jar of coffee that we set off to find is forgotten too easily and our journey through life changes from the destination we aimed at when we set off. Broadly speaking there are two main traditions within the world’s religions - both of which I can see represented in Christianity (and for all I know in other religions as well, although I am not qualified to speak of them). One accepts the essential goodness of the physical world but tries to change the parts of it that are wrong or broken. The other sees reality at its truest as essentially spiritual and seeks to free us from bondage to pale imitations of what is most real. Both of these elements I can see in both Catholic and Protestant traditions - and from what I know of Orthodox too.
I personally see myself as somewhere in the middle (in true Anglican style) and would go further by affirming the truth of something Mahatma Gandhi said;
“Religion is not alien to us. it is always within us: with some consciously;
with others, unconsciously. But it is always there.”
It’s not a unredeemable catastrophe when we lose our way in life and take our eyes off what would bring us truest fulfilment and happiness because, like the prodigal Son we can always return. Religion is not about vainly trying to keep ourselves undefiled and somehow ‘clean’ of the world. Rather I see it as enabling us to remember that the jar of coffee we set out for is still there on the supermarket shelves waiting for us to go back and pick it up - only we would have saved ourselves a lot of hassle if we had just remembered what we set out for in the first place. I think I can remember that it started to rain just after I set out back to Sainsbury's for the second time, the sun had been shining the first !
When Europeans and North Americans first began to catalogue the ruined Mayan cities of Central America in the early 19th Century, they were astonished to discover that they were not the first white men to have set eyes upon them. The soldiers and priests of the Spanish Conquest, pre-eminently among them Bishop Diego de Landa, had stumbled upon many sites over 250 years earlier and had compiled exhaustive records of Mayan religion and culture which, on the assumption that these astonishing buildings could not possibly owe their creation to the indigenous population, who were seen as incapable savages, were then neatly filed away in European libraries and forgotten about. In the intervening years all sorts of rumours and myths arose as to the origin of wonders such as the Palace of the Mayan Governors at Uxal,
Yucatan . Among these it was held that, the indigenous tribes, being savages and so could not possibly be responsible, the mysterious temples and pyramids of Central America were the work of, in turn, Egyptians,, Phoenicians, Canaanites, Carthaginians, Greeks, Scythians, Swedes, Welsh - or the lost tribe of the house of Israel, take your pick!
Gradually it became clear that, far from being the work of any of this disparate group, the wonderful Mayan monuments and cities were indeed produced by none other than the Mayans themselves, whose society, religion and culture, to say nothing of their science and engineering, were far more sophisticated than anyone had ever realised. The Mayans were different to the Europeans but they had intelligence, heritage, structured society and religion - it was just expressed in a different way. Yes, they practiced human sacrifice - but this was at the same time as the Spanish Inquisition was burning people at the stake, just before the burning of the English Martyrs, 75 years before the execution of the Pendle ‘witches’, and many Centuries before the time when many more millions of people than there ever were were Mayans were led to their systematic deaths at Auschwitz, Belsen and Treblinka. When one culture sees only barbarity in another because of differences it is usually blind to the barbarity within itself.
These thoughts sprung to mind for me this week reading of the revulsion felt by all faiths at the dreadful bombings in Boston, coming as they do after many such acts of bigoted terrorism. I have been fortunate to experience the cultures of not only southern Central America but also India, China (for a short time) oh, and Lancashire too! What these experiences have taught is that people are more alike than you might think. We all, and in our increasingly pluralistic society its becoming ever more diverse at home, express our beliefs and values differently, but scratch below the surface and we find that we’re not that different after all.
Above all it has taught me that we should always be open to the possibility of change and achievement, in others and in ourselves. To write off a culture as incapable and savage clearly says more about the almost comical assumptions of those dismissing an entire civilisation. Equally to write off any possibility in others or ourselves before we give it a chance is to my mind equally as blinkered and surely quite the opposite of what the lesson of Pentecost demonstrates; that change, transformation and wonderful things are always possible to those who put their assumptions and prejudices aside, and look at what is in front of them. It might be different but its no less valuable for that
Recently, a man well into his 90’s eagerly accepted Richard Branson’s gift of a trip into space on the Virgin Atlantic Shuttle when it makes its inaugural flight. The intrepid Nonagenarian is James Lovelock, a renowned scientist who thought up the theory of ‘Gaia’ when he first saw the earth from space courtesy of the Apollo astronauts. Lovelock described this moment as a revelation as he saw the earth as a single living organism, a ‘living planet’. Lovelock first formulated the Gaia hypothesis during the 1960s as a result of work for NASA concerned with detecting life on Mars. The Gaia hypothesis proposes that living and non-living parts of the Earth form a complex interacting system that can be thought of as a single organism.
Last week, we enjoyed hosting the National farmers’ Union Ladies Choral Evensong at Immanuel (pictures on the website at immanuelfeniscowles.org). I said at the service how, although not coming from a farming background myself, quite the opposite in fact, I have greatly come to value and respect the work of the farming community in its role of managing the countryside. This means harnessing the natural power of creation and husbanding it in particular ways as directed by the farmer. As we look around our landscape most, if not all, of what we see has been crafted by human endeavor. This is achieved not by working against the forces of nature but harnessing their natural power and channeling it in a particular direction.
The concept of working with a power greater than our comprehension or ability to control is, of course, nothing new to Christians. The power of God, just as the power of nature, is there, I believe, whether people choose to accept it or not. Ignore both and life becomes extremely perilous. Work against either and you're doomed from the start. God gives us power to choose our path in life, he did not create us to be puppets, neither did he create us to be automata, meekly submitting to his will, as if the purpose of life was nothing other than to seek his will and obey - he’s not some kind of celestial Jabba the Hut (Star Wars reference). Instead I see God as being like the force of nature, giving power to our plans and making them germinate, but working in a particular direction over which we have no control - that direction being our wellbeing. At Easter time we see just how powerful the lifegiving force of God is. As Hamlet said in Act 5 Scene 2 ‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough hew them how we will’
This April sees the retirement from their current roles at Immanuel of two people who have, I can see, given exemplary service to the Church as they have walked the path that God has asked of them and have made that path their own. Ken Winterburn and Peter Hodkinson will shortly step down from their current roles and I want to say a huge thank you to them both for all they have given to this Church and, particularly, for their untiring help to me! I know that Ken and Peter will continue to find new ways of putting that life giving force of God into practice and ask God to bless them in all their work in his name. I hope that this Easter we all too can find new ways of rough hewing the great gift of creation that God holds out and offers to us.
Happy Easter - David
Like many families we have recently enjoyed watching the twenty fifth James Bond film ‘Skyfall’, possibly, and you are welcome to disagree with me, the most action packed of the lot! Born two years after the first James Bond film was released I can’t remember a time when James was not jumping out of planes, driving cars underwater or escaping from impossible situations usually contrived by super cool villains, embodied for me by Donald Pleasance. Did you know that there have been six actors who played James Bond in the second highest grocing franchise of all time after Harry Potter - and highest when inflation adjusted? They are Sean Connery, David Niven, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig (alright I know that’s officially seven, but you can’t really count David Niven, can you?)
Usually James winds up in front of the Donald Pleasance character saying something like," And I suppose you expect me to talk, you villainous scum?” To which comes the reply, “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!” and “Take him away and see that some harm comes to him!” Of course, even if we haven’t seen the ending we know that, while harm may indeed come to Mr Bond, he will certainly not die. In fact he will overcome all obstacles, however unlikely and spectacular, and not only escape, but defeat his evil enemy and destroy the fiendish empire which threatens the world!
As we approach the Easter Story in our Lenten readings in Church and through the drama of Holy Week, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, we of course know the outcome of our drama. Although everyone thinks that Jesus’ life has been futile and ending in defeat, actually, for those with eyes to see, it ends in complete victory over all evil. But whereas James Bond will go on to face yet another, (the twenty sixth) malicious threat to world safety, Jesus has won the final, ultimate victory. The resurrection of Christ means that no sinister looking Russian sounding dandy stroking a cat, no difficulty we might face in our own life, however bleak that might appear at the time, no abyss so dark we might find ourselves staring into at some time - none of these things are more powerful than Jesus. He has, in the words of St Paul, ‘put all things under him’, and all we need to do is to have faith, or rather, try to have faith, in him and that power to overcome all obstacles can be ours too.
That doesn’t mean that we should go around triumphantly pretending that pain, sadness, defeat or anger are not part of our life, because we know only too well that they are, or if they are not yet, they will be. Neither does it mean that we only offer the medicine of faith to those we know who are in dark times, rather than get alongside them and share their pain. But what it does mean that this Easter, just as all Easters, assure us that our hope is, well, ‘not in vain’. The truth of this story is our inspiration and the fundamental core of our faith. This Easter let’s open ourselves up anew to be stirred by this story, and not shaken by life!
Your friend and vicar
If someone asked you what has been the most important event in your life, what would you say? It might be something good or it might be something bad. It could involve things beyond your control or it might be a conscious decision you have made. Whatever it might be, the most important thing in your life would have been something which gave direction, purpose and drove other elements in your life.
Historians sometimes see turning points in history. Sometimes these are great battles like Trafalgar or Waterloo (and I love the ‘counterfactual’ history books which imagine what might have happened if events had turned out differently at, say, D Day or Hastings, and which are held in such disdain in fashionable historical circles). Sometimes turning points happen over many years but change the world utterly like the Industrial Revolution or the change from pre-history to modern, recorded history during the Iron Age. These great social movements involve not single individuals but shifts in patterns of work, trade and innovation which affects the lives of everyone.
For Christians the greatest event in history is the life on Earth of Jesus. In Jesus we see the one and only time that God has appeared on Earth. We see not God in human form, but God, pure and simple. We see what God does, which is to give utterly that we might have life. This happened once in history, at a specific place and time. It had never happened before and it will never happen again until the end of time. It happened once and once only and, if we have the faith to see it, it changes everything.
For those with faith the fact of Jesus can change life at an individual level too, by making us more the people that God created us to be. We should never then be afraid of change, because if we are in control of it, it can mean changing things for the better. To ignore change, or to try to pretend that change does not come is like King Canute ordering the waves to turn back - they won’t, and if he continued to sit there on his throne all that would happen is that he would get wet, no matter how many proclamations he made.
Of course you will have realised by now that I am talking about change and about turning points because that is what we face at Immanuel in the coming months as we face the changes of how Churches in this area are going to be linked together. This will happen whether we like it or not. The worst we can do is to stick our heads in the sand and pretend it won’t happen, because it will and it would be remiss of me not to point this out to you. The best we can do is to embrace this change and in it discern something of God’s work, to let it change not just us but how we live as a Christian Community. We see this all the time in history, that although the past can be looked back on with nostalgia and even celebrated, those who have eyes to see know that the best is yet to come.
Your Friend and Vicar, David
No doubt by now, as you read this, there might have been one or two more paracetamols or alcha-selza’s taken by some of you than would normally be the case. I don’t mean to suggest that anyone might have over-done it, but
Christmas has been known to lead to an increase in the taking of pain-killers or things to soothe that which has been unsettled. This seems more than a little ironic to me, as Christmas, the incarnation, is about the coming into the world of the very thing which has the biggest power ever to unsettle! It’s about the thing which will not only end in the pain of rejection and execution but opens up all those who follow to a life if not of guaranteed pain then at least an openness to the possibility of it. At the beginning of the journey of Bilbo Baggins in Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’, brilliantly (in my view) adapted to the screen, Gandalph the Wizard, in answer to Bilbo’s request for the certainty of a safe return from the journey, says to Bilbo that he can guarantee no such thing and, furthermore, says that should Bilbo return, he will not be the same as he was when he set out.
Perhaps its not just at Christmas time that we in the west seek to dose ourselves up and try to avoid the possibility of pain. C.S.Lewis once described pain as ‘God’s Megaphone’, shouting out above the noise with which we try to surround ourselves to avoid his uncomfortable, unsettling maybe, challenges. Once upon a time I used to play rugby, League and Union (actually I played one to a higher standard than the other, but I’ll leave you to guess which that was). I was told that if there’s one thing certain in playing rugby, as opposed to shouting advice from the touchline, its that you’re going to get hurt. The thing is that I found that while that was certainly true, it was worth it. I once scored a try of which I was very proud, I’ll not bore you with the details other than to say it was not half as important as I thought of it at the time, but I wouldn’t be without the experience (or at least it would take a lot for me to be without it). It was, as I’m sure you’ve guessed I’m going to say, worth the pain. The thing is, I can’t remember feeling the pain now, but I can certainly remember putting the ball down over the line.
Actually someone who goes through life trying to avoid painful experiences at all costs is not only a coward, but in their cowardice is missing out on the richness of life’s experiences. God does not, I am certain, want us to be like The Happy Prince in Oscar Wilde’s marvellous fable, he wants us to experience the life he has given us in all its fullness.
If anyone seriously believes that we at Immanuel can go through the next twelve months without feeling any pain at all then I suggest that they misunderstand what a Church is. A Church is a place which helps us to grow in our relationship with God in and through our relationships with other members of God’s family. That family will be widened in the coming months to include a closer relationship with our friends in the neighbouring Churches. I have never met a family yet which agrees all the time on everything, certainly not my own and I’d bet not yours either - but we are a family just the same. We might need a few more paracetamols from time to time in the coming months, but let’s not take too many!
Your friend and Vicar, David
I have on my shelves in the Vicarage study a jar of coins. Now this jar is not there because of any theological significance or as a souvenir of an important time or experience in my life. Its simply where I tip all the loose change in my pocket at the end of each day and so is a useful place to turn when change is quickly needed - as it always seems to be in our home.
The jar does remind me of one of my stock in trade school assemblies or all age talks. It goes like this. First I explain what the jar is, as I have just done. Then I ask about four or five volunteers to come out and to try to guess the exact amount of money in the jar. Of course none of them ever gets it right (this relies of course on my having counted, or saying that I’ve counted, the money in the jar previously!). Next I invite all the children to shout out their guess of how much the coins come to. When the cacophony has died down I explain that its almost impossible to guess the right answer and that its quite a waste of time counting them out anyway as that’s not what the purpose of the jar is. Incidentally I always ask if anyone did get the right answer and, wouldn’t you know it, there Is always some Smart Alec who did, or says he did, or she did.
Some things in life we are bound to get wrong, and its usually frustrating when we do. Some times this might be in an exam or a relationship or maybe a choice, even a life changing one. We might remember some striking examples of people who have been wrong, like the several publishers who turned down the first Harry Potter Book when JK Rowling was initially seeking to have it published, or Albert Einstein’s teachers who asked him to leave school because, as they now infamously said, he would ‘never amount to anything’!!!
The important thing to remember is that we are all human, and that means that we are going to make mistakes. If we set ourselves the unattainable target of always being right, or perfect, then we are eventually going to be very disappointed. The key to life is to use our mistakes to learn from because, as the American poet Maya Angelou put it, unless we learn form the past, we are condemned to repeat it forever. What’s more, I could waste time counting up all the coins in my jar and arrive at an exactly right answer, but that would be just one thing, and how much more of life would I miss by such pedantry, life is just too short for it to be always perfect.
God gave his Son to us not that because of him we could become perfect, but precisely because he knows that we are not, and never can be. The more we try to make Christ the foundation of our lives the better our lives will be, but we all fall short of what is perfect, and the Good News is that we don’t have to be. At Christmas time we remember that just as the Jewish people of God were waiting for a Messiah to come and rescue them from their own imperfections which had led them into a dead end, so Christ will come to each one of us to rescue us from our dead ends. What’s more he’ll turn us round and show us the way to go to a better, happier and more fulfilled life, (a ‘Wonderful Life’ perhaps, well it is Christmas). This Christmas lets take the chance to marvel at the miracle of God coming into his own world and invite him afresh into ours. We might not get everything we want, we might not get everything right, but we will be much nearer both of them - and who cares if we are a few pence out of the precisely correct total.
With every Blessing for a Joyous Christmas and a Peaceful New Year.......David
I wonder if you have ever heard the fable of the Powerful Prince and the Peasant Girl? Basically it goes like this: There was once a very beautiful but very poor peasant girl who, though she enjoyed nothing more than dancing and singing, had to work hard in the fields all day. Far away there was a very powerful prince who, passing by the peasant girl’s field one day, saw the beauty of the girl and fell instantly in love with her. Back in his powerful castle the rich prince decided that he would go to ask the peasant girl to marry him. Just to make sure he made a good impression, he donned his finest regalia, jewellery and armour and was about to set off. Suddenly a though struck him; how would he know if the peasant girl really loved him in return, she might just be impressed or even frightened into saying she loved him by his fine robes. Yet, if he didn't wear the finery he possessed he might risk losing the girl he loved. He decided to take a risk. He took off all his fine robes, armour and jewels and dressed as a peasant himself for, if he was going to know if the girl truly loved him for who he was and not what he was, he must take the risk or being rejected. He approached the girl dressed as a peasant and the girl saw him, he held her hands and told her of his love and she......, well the rest is up to you. Did she return his love or was he rejected?
When God showed himself on earth he did not come with all the heavenly hosts and with great triumph. Quite the contrary, he was born, as ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ has it “in such a backward time and such a strange land” and, although we can glimpse something of God’s power now and again in the miracles in the gospels, in the end, God’s true nature was shown in utter rejection and loneliness, although this was only one side of the coin which was revealed two days later. God did not come in order to impress, frighten or order us into loving him, he came ‘emptied’ of all his glory (the theological word is ‘kenotic’) in order that we might truly respond to him. God wants our love but he will not force it because true love can never be forced.
At either end of November we see two different aspects of that love. At All Saints Tide we see examples of people who loved God in particular times, places or circumstances which, though it certainly doesn’t make them perfect, shows a remarkable response to God’s love which we might learn from. At the other end of the month we have the feast of Christ the King, just before Advent. This is when we think of the true glory of Christ (Pantokrator - universal ruler is the term) which exists even when, like the peasant girl, we are not allowed to see it.
St Augustine wrote of a much misunderstood term called ‘original sin’ which has been taken to paint a bleak picture of Christians as people who believe that fundamentally we are all as humans bad. This is not what Augustine meant at all. Rather, like the peasant girl, however much we might like dancing and singing, the fact is that we have to work in the fields. However much we might try, we are never going to approach the glory of God by our own efforts. Rather, along with all the things which make us human, if we grow in our relationship with God, we might learn to be drawn to him, to let go of all the things which are less than glorious and to recognise, like a prince found in peasants clothing, where things that are better than we ever yet imagined were possible are to be found. That life can be better than we ever thought. Being a saint (or a Christian which is what saint means) is not about being perfect, its just about realising that we don’t have to remain a peasant
Your Friend and Vicar, David
In the 1983 Film adaptation of the Willy Russell Play ‘Educating Rita’, Rita, played by Julie Walters (In her first film) is a working class girl wanting to study literature because, in her view, the middle class people who read it all have happy lives. What she discovers is that they don’t. Her tutor, played by Michael Caine, is an alcoholic whose family life is collapsing, describing himself as “'appalling but good enough for my appalling students”, and her room mate at university attempts suicide.
Rita then discovers that if she is to carry on her ‘education’, then it must be as much personal as it is academic. She is forced to abandon her working class family’s lifestyle, which means her husband chooses to leave her (not her choosing to leave her husband, it is worth noting). Furthermore, when her tutor (Caine) recovers from his malaise and sets off to a new life in Australia, inviting her to go with him, Rita realises that to be truly ‘educated’, she must give herself the freedom to make that choice, ie, to let go of even the security which she has found in her ‘educated’ life, that is to say, her tutor, Michael Caine.
Reading recently the writings of the great Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart (as you do, I can hear you say!), I was instantly reminded of this film. Why, you might legitimately ask? Well, on one level it is because Eckhart’s theme finds echoes in the theme of letting go, which Julie Walters plays out so painfully and with such humour and grace in ‘Educating Rita’. Eckhart noticed that it is a characteristic of creatures to make something out of nothing. A bird, for instance makes a nest out of all sorts. So also does God make something out of nothing, both in creation and, if we will but let him, with us, if we would just let go of those things we cling to which give us, we think, security; for example, possessions, doctrines, ambitions, attitudes, even, dare we say it, buildings. They may provide a security but it is the security of a security blanket. It is a peace of sorts but it is the peace of the desert. Eckhart rather describes how true peace means becoming nothing and letting God create us into something.
You might wonder what is the other level that I was reminded of in ‘Educating Rita’ when reading of these themes of letting go of security. Well, I’ll tell you. I first saw the film on board an aeroplane. It was the plane taking me, aged 18, in the February of 1984 to Calcutta, India. I was travelling alone and, although I was to be met, I didn’t know it then, by some of the kindest and caring people whom I have ever had the privilege of knowing, and who recognised immediately my vulnerability, I was at that moment, how shall I put it, terrified! Set in places I knew well, Liverpool, and reflecting some of my own family background, the film I saw on that aeroplane perfectly reflected my own terrified predicament, yet I knew that this was a journey I had to take - and one which I now see leading, many years later, to my ordination, by some divine irony, in Liverpool Cathedral!
Your Friend and Vicar, David
First there was the cost, could we as a nation in a time of austerity afford it? Then there were the border issues, what would the staff do in the end? Then there were the security issues, they only had seven years to prepare! There was comment from a gaff prone American visitor and finally the empty seats where the already privileged should have been sat. Yes, if you’ve not guessed already, I’m talking about the 2012 Olympic games, or, more specifically, how anxieties over their preparation was perceived.
And then the games began, with a huge spectacular to match any seen anywhere in the world. The medals started pouring in (with some North West athletes taking the lead!) and everything went swimmingly (well not perhaps in the swimming!). We have had our best games ever (yes, I know that 1908 provided more medals but the 2012 games were infinitely more competitive - 10,490 athletes from 204 countries in 2012 compared to 2,008 athletes, of whom nearly 700 were British(!) from only 22 countries in 1908, when China didn’t even send a team!!). The games and almost everything in them went off without any major incident, and in Mo Farah and Usain Bolt, not to mention their celebrations, there came the ‘magic’ moments so hoped for by Lord Coe.
Well, we have to ask, was there any need for any of that worrying, not to say curmudgeonly prophesying of disaster which preceded the games. In my view there probably was, and the questions about the cost still have relevance, but only in that they helped to focus attention and ensure the careful planning which ultimately led to a lovely Olympic Games. Where there is any major action or change there will always be, probably rightly, those who tread carefully and ask searching questions. There will also be a need for a far reaching vision which the questions can help to succeed.
We all know what challenges and changes face us at Immanuel in the coming Pastoral Reorganisation, and those which face our Brothers and Sisters in all the other local Churches. Over the coming months there will be many difficult questions to be asked and many challenging choices to be faced. The important principle to be followed must be to face these issues head on and not to duck them. In this way we can, I believe, ensure the success of the vision we must share for the long term well being of our Church and all who this Parish Serves. That’s not being negative or curmudgeonly but being realistic and practical, because the vision needs to be forged by the reality if it is to succeed, as I believe that it can.
Let us ‘Run the Straight Race’ that is set before us, as the writer to the Hebrews tells us, and we will thereby commit our best efforts to the Lord. We might not set a new world record, but, like I think the 2012 Olympic Games probably were, it will be worth it
Your Friend and Vicar, David
There’s an old joke which I hope you’ll forgive me if I tell again. It concerns a certain man who, faced with rising floodwater takes to the roof of his house. As a God fearing man he faithfully waits to be rescued by God. Along comes a lifeboat, which he refuses to get in as he knows that God will come. As the waters rise further, along comes the Marines, whom he likewise turns away.
As the rising waters drive him to his chimney he lastly sees an RAF helicopter lowering a winch to airlift him to safety, but this too is refused, so sure is he of God’s faithfulness to him. The water rises further and he drowns. Standing before God in heaven he asks God why he was left to drown. God answers, as I’m sure you know, “But I sent you a lifeboat, the Royal Marines and an RAF helicopter, what else did you want?”
It might feel, on reading my report on pages 6-7 of this magazine, of
discussions about proposed pastoral reorganisation that, especially when viewed in the wider Diocesan context, the flood waters are now all around us and rising. Despite the very real flood waters which have been seen in this and other areas lately, and which you can see on page 17 of this magazine and on the website, the flood waters of secularism, rising costs and the declining numbers of clergy may seem very threatening.
I recently saw in a book of photographs from old Blackburn and Darwen some people being rescued from houses in Darwen which were completely flooded out in, I think, 1964, A policeman carrying a small child while an anxious
father looks on with an expression I don’t think would be any different no
matter how far back in time you went. With the recent floods in this area I wonder if any lessons were learned.
If we don’t learn any lessons and remain holed up waiting to be rescued by some almighty divine intervention from the challenges faced by reorganisation then we might find ourselves one day being asked by God why we refused the help he sent, indeed is sending to us at the present time. Perhaps our prayer should be to have the eyes to see where our faithful God is acting, I’m sure that Darwen father in 1964 didn’t need telling.
The Ancient Isrealites were terrified of the sea, they were not a sea going people, which might be why the storm which Jesus calmed was doubly
frightening, they hated the water. But surely the challenge of a storm or a flood is to build better boats, to work with what you have no power over or can’t control. I’m sure that in the months ahead that is exactly what we at
Immanuel will do; to build lasting structures, boats and watercourses and to recognise and work with what God sends us.
Your Friend and Vicar, David