Vicar’s Blog

Wholeness and Peace

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

Throughout my ministry one of my great interests has been the Church’s ministry of Wholeness and Healing. It is an area which, by prayer and sacrament, the Church has much to offer (not least given all the strains and stresses of modern life) but it is also an area of ministry where I suspect there is still some misunderstanding. Services of Wholeness and Healing are not only for those who are sick but for all who wish to pray for and seek wholeness in their own lives or on behalf of another.

If we are really honest with ourselves we all have need of God’s healing touch in our lives, for none of us is free from brokenness of one kind or another – however much we may like to make those around us believe otherwise.

We may be physically fit but nursing some hurt in our lives; we may be leading so-called full and active lives but, in doing so, we may be placing ourselves under undue pressure and strain. In addition, obeying God’s law of love will almost certainly bring sorrow and upset into our lives at some time or another since pain is the price we pay for love. Whatever our situation, there can be a tendency to shut God out of the picture – but without a clear recognition of his caring presence the darkness will only become darker.

It was, for me, a ‘defining moment’ in my life when I came to realise fully that the Almighty, All-knowing, All-seeing God is also the God who comes alongside us, heals our wounds and binds up the broken-hearted.

And not only that: this self-same God does more than sympathise with us – he is actually right there in the suffering with us. Timothy Rees, in his beautiful hymn “God is Love: let heav’n adore him” puts it like this:

God is love: and he enfoldeth all the world in one embrace;
with unfailing grasp he holdeth every child of every race.
And when human hearts are breaking under sorrow’s iron rod,
then they find that selfsame aching deep within the heart of God.

What a wonderful and comforting fact this is: to know that, whatever obstacles or tragedies may come our way, the God whose very name is love holds out his arms, enfolds us and carries us until we are made whole again.

Recognising this will help us to give God the opportunity to work in us and take away the strains and stresses of life so that we may come to luxuriate in the wholesome peace which was Christ’s parting gift to all who believe.

Our next service of Wholeness and Healing will take place in St. Michael’s at 6.00pm on Sunday 20th October. Many folk have found this opportunity to experience the quiet transforming love of God through the laying-on-of-hands and anointing a memorable encounter and a source of great comfort.

Reading this during August, October might seem a long way off but do consider making a note of this date in your diary and coming along.

With every blessing,

Paul.

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A (Not So) Small World

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

“It’s a small world” so the saying goes – and so it has proved to be in recent weeks.

You will be aware that we receive lots of visitors at St. Michael’s and it is a great joy to me that our church is open each day to welcome them. Some come armed with Simon Jenkins’ famous book, ‘England’s Thousand Best Churches’ in which St. Michael’s features, others come because of family connections going back many generations whilst yet others come simply to visit, to pray and to absorb ‘the beauty of holiness’ which St. Michael’s exudes.

In conversation with visitors it is my practice to enquire where people have travelled from and it is quite astonishing how often it is so easy to make a connection. In the last few weeks I have had, amongst others, conversations with a lady whose father’s funeral I took in North Shields many years ago; a gentleman who was at university with my former English teacher at King Edward VI Grammar School in Morpeth and a couple who worship in Hampshire where Julia, our former Curate, is their Vicar.

It is always good to find a common link with someone as a conversation proceeds and to talk of people or places familiar to both parties.

But, whenever Christians meet together, whether or not we have been introduced before, we have an immediate common bond: our faith in Jesus Christ. This really is something worth celebrating. No matter where we are in the world, we know that somewhere nearby there is likely to be a group of Christians who meet together to worship and to pray. They may not do it in exactly the same way as we do, but our common faith in Christ draws us together in a very special way.

As we meet together around the altar week by week, as we proclaim the love of Christ in our daily lives, we do so as part of the great family of Christ which forms the Church on earth. And, if that were not enough, our prayers and praises are joined “with angels and archangels and with the whole company of heaven.”

That “small world” is actually bigger than we might think.

“Blest be the tie that binds
our hearts in Christian love;
the fellowship of kindred minds
is like to that above.

Before the Father’s throne
we pour our ardent prayers;
our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
our comforts and our cares.”

With every blessing,

Paul.

 

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Praying for Priests

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

I always look forward to this time of the year: the weeks which lead up to Petertide, one of the traditional times, and probably the most popular, for ordinations. This year it is particularly special of course, as Gerard prepares for his ordination to the priesthood.

Each year at this time the clergy of the diocese receive a list of names of those preparing for ordination as deacons and priests in our own cathedral church and, at about the same time, I receive a list of those who have studied at my old Theological College who are similarly preparing to kneel before their bishops to be ordained in the service of God and his Church.

Even though I know very few of those for whom I have been asked to pray, it is great privilege to simply hold them (and the parishes in which they will work) before God, to ask that he will be with them, bless them and bless those to whom they will minister.

In a way, I feel I am paying back for all the prayers I know other people have offered for me in the past and continue to offer now.

It is important – indeed vital – that we pray regularly for vocations to the ordained ministry and also for all who are already ordained.

Most of the time the vast majority of the clergy simply get on with the day to day task of ministry – although what it involves is now much more complex than was once the case. Most of us love it (and I include myself in that category) and would not wish to be doing anything else. But, just as most of us delight in praying for our parishes, street by street, and for our people – by name wherever possible – so too we need your prayers.

On my prayer desk I have a little book entitled “I am Your Servant – A Priest’s companion and encouragement”. This is what it says on the back cover:

“To be a priest is not easy. It is an undefined role in a world where other work has beginnings and ends, and set boundaries. To be a priest is not only to read the gospel on Sundays, but try and live by it for the other six days. It is to bless the bread and wine for everyone else, and sometimes not taste the consolation oneself…”

To those of you who pray for Gerard and me (and all clergy), many thanks: it brings great strength. If you don’t, perhaps you would like to consider doing so. Gerard and I (and all clergy) would appreciate it greatly.

With every blessing,

Paul.

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When the Daffodils are Gone

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

Easter was so late this year that our magnificent display of daffodils in the churchyard was well past its best even before Palm Sunday. So, rather than having a somewhat ‘wilted’ greeting awaiting Easter worshippers and visitors, some very kind-hearted people spent what must have been a considerable length of time removing all the flower heads along the gravel path, and leaving the simple long green leaves as a sign of continuing life.

And this struck me as being particularly symbolic. There is, I think, a lesson for us to learn from this in these early post-Easter days.

Yes, in the days after Easter we will be reminded of the post-resurrection appearances Jesus made to a selected number of his disciples: to Mary Magdalene in the Garden; on the road to Emmaus; in the Upper Room; beside the sea and suchlike – but, for the vast majority of folk, the seeming ‘absence’ of Jesus was something they simply had to live with.

Apart from those few who were fortunate to see Jesus in the days after his resurrection everyone else was in the same position as Christians down the ages have been ever since. All of us have had to try – and must continue trying – to understand the presence of Jesus in his (physical) absence.

Some may see that task as a huge burden – and yet it can be a freedom too. A freedom which gives us the courage to view life in a new way.

That freedom opens our eyes to the new creation and our ears to its resurrection song. It is the answer to the transience of daffodils and to life’s passing shadow: for, even at the grave, we sing ‘alleluia’!

In these days and weeks after Easter we have begun to cross over into a great new Beginning: Easter’s glorious springtime that will never end.

Even with the bright yellow of the daffodils removed, Easter remains the truth by which we live and die – and live again!

In the light of these thoughts perhaps you might like to reflect on these words from the writings of Arthur Tessimond for they are full of Easter hope.

One day people will touch and talk, perhaps easily,
And loving be natural as breathing
and warm as sunlight,
And people will untie themselves,
as string is unknotted,
Unfold and yawn and stretch
and spread their fingers,
Unfurl, uncurl like seaweed
returned to the sea,
And work will be simple and swift
as a seagull flying,
And play will be casual and quiet
as a seagull settling,
And the clocks will stop,
and no one will wonder
or care or notice,
And people will smile without reason,
even in winter, even in the rain.

Even, perhaps, when the daffodils are gone.

With every blessing,

Paul.

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The Spirit of Easter: Trust and Hope

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

This letter will be published on Mothering Sunday – the morning after the clocks go forward one hour. Hopefully the negative aspect of losing an hour’s sleep will be outweighed by the obvious benefits of lighter evenings.

Before we know it we will enter Passiontide and Holy Week with all the attendant concentration on Christ’s suffering and death. But then, at the end of the month, will come the glorious celebration of Easter with the wonderful message that the same suffering Christ has risen and overcome death and the grave.

There is no doubt that life is a balancing act: holding together a whole variety of disappointments and worries alongside reasons for happiness and celebration. At times the disappointments may outweigh the reasons for happiness and, at other times, the balance will be reversed.

In all this, Christians are called upon to live their lives – both as individuals and as a church – with trust and with hope. It always fills me with amazement when I consider how Jesus’ followers must have felt as the events of his last week, culminating in his crucifixion and death unfolded. They had no knowledge that, in a few short days, their darkness would be transformed into the light of resurrection.

We, on the other hand, know, even in darkest days, that, ultimately, the light will overcome the darkness. Many of us also know that the true strength of the light is better appreciated after the experience of acute darkness.

There is much that is dark in our world at the present time. Indiscriminate stabbings seem to put little or no value on human life; natural disasters like that in Zimbabwe and Mozambique devastate whole nations and the mass shootings in Christchurch New Zealand, at the hand of one man, leave us reeling.

Many are asking what can be done. How should seemingly ordinary Christian folk respond to the darkness and suffering which seems to be permeating so many aspects of everyday life?

The answer is not a new one. It is, I would suggest, to continue to trust and hope. To trust that the vast majority of humanity are good, honest and upright citizens – and to continue to faithfully trust in the God who aches with us in our pain and despair just as much as he rejoices with us when we have reason to celebrate. And to hope. When we hope for something we wait for it through patience. Longed-for beneficial outcomes rarely happen without continuing effort and the faithful holding of our hopes before God.

So, as we journey through Passiontide and Holy Week we must brace ourselves for the harrowing experience of hearing again the sufferings of the Son of God. But we do so in the knowledge that, through the Easter story, good did triumph over evil.

That same spirit of Easter is available for all of us – even in Alnwick in 2019. Indeed, it is what will turn darkness into light.

With every blessing,

Paul.

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All are Welcome in this Place

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

Hardly a Sunday goes by at St. Michael’s without finding that we have
some visitors in our congregation. At 8.00am we find people on holiday who
have plans for the rest of the day but still feel it is important to be at worship.
At 9.30am there are frequent visits from folk from all over the world – many
of whom have visited St. Michael’s for a look at the architecture and heritage
of the building and felt drawn to return to experience the church at prayer. At
11.15am we often find ourselves hosting those whose breakfast arrangements
have meant that this timing is better and at 6.00pm there is a fairly regular
trickle who greatly appreciate the fact that we maintain a regular sung
Evensong when this has been abandoned by so many parish churches.

Visitors frequently comment on the welcome they receive and the
friendliness of the congregation and this is something which we should most
certainly celebrate. As people ‘pass through’ Alnwick it is good to know that
one of their lasting memories may be the good experience they had when
visiting our church.

But we should not rest on our laurels! For visitors and, perhaps more
importantly, for those newly moved into the town who are looking to put
down roots in the church, we need to be especially vigilant.

Those of us who have made St. Michael’s our spiritual home and are a
real part of the fellowship there all need to remember that being a friendly
church involves more than being friendly with those we already know!

Occasionally you will see Gerard sitting in the congregation. This mirrors
what my Training Incumbent did with me many years ago. The idea is that,
as you worship, you might just ask yourself that, if you were present for the
first time, what it would be that urged you to return, what it would be that
might make you want to make this place your spiritual home.

As Lent begins we plan to look carefully at the whole concept of
welcome. We want to celebrate all we already do in this respect but, at the
same time, reflect carefully on where we might improve.

This is certainly a part of our ministry in which we can all be involved.
People happily share the Peace with those around them – but do we allow
that to be followed up with a friendly conversation at the end of the service?
If it is people you’ve not met before, do you extend an invitation to stay for
coffee afterwards?

Please commit these thoughts to your prayers and do what you can to
extend the hand of friendship. If all commit to this then we will be able to sing
with real integrity:

‘All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.’

With every blessing,

Paul.

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Faith: More Than a Hobby

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

I never cease to be fascinated when, in conversation, people tell me about their hobbies. In fact, taking the dictionary definition of a hobby as “a favourite pursuit; a personal pastime that interests or amuses one…” I suppose you could say that one of my hobbies is hearing about other people’s hobbies.

Talking with people when visiting them in their homes, I have heard about many varying interests: travelling, photography, local history, music and building computers to name just a few.

Perhaps the reason why I am so interested in the hobbies of those with whom I come into contact is that it can give some indication of “what makes them tick”: what it is that contributes towards fulfilment in their lives; what it is that gives them a “buzz” and upon which they are prepared to spend countless hours of their time.

And sometimes it can be extremely surprising. What, for instance, motivated a friend of mine – a well-respected Parish Councillor and organised at his local church – to take up potholing at the age of 60? (Upon hearing the news, my own assessment was that, after years of working in the National Health Service, he had finally “lost the plot”!)

Of course, the spectrum of hobbies which exists amongst those of us who call ourselves Christians is just as wide ranging – if not more so – than any other group of diverse people. We are, after all, just as much in need of pleasure, enjoyment and being taken out of ourselves as anyone else.

We do, however, need to be extremely careful that we do not treat our faith as a hobby. Our belief in God and in the saving power of his Son, Jesus Christ, is not like a piece of embroidery or a book that we can pick up or lay down as the feeling takes us. Nor can we treat our faith like football supporters who only attend a game when they feel like it. Our faith involves determination and commitment to a cause. It demands a constant programme of prayer, reflection and worship; a constant striving to get the better of our weaknesses and blot out our shortcomings; a hunger to give ourselves more and more in the service of Christ and to show his love in a world that often appears to have lost its loveliness.

Our faith can and should be so much more than the dictionary definition I quoted at the beginning of this letter. Particularly, it needs to be much more than a “pastime that amuses…”

This year, we have the whole of February before Ash Wednesday and Lent is upon us. What a luxury! Yes, it’s a short month, but I urge you to begin to prepare for how you may use Lent to make a real commitment to seek out a spiritually fulfilling six weeks.

Lent does not need to be miserable! It is possible (and definitely preferable) to have positive experiences whilst still growing and deepening in faith. Not everyone feels motivated to get up really early for a quiet service of Holy Communion – but some do. Not everyone finds discussion groups their ‘thing’ – but some do. Look out for what is on offer and resolve to commit wholeheartedly to making progress. You might find it even more rewarding than a game of golf or a trip to the cinema.

With every blessing,

Paul.

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Refurbishing Halls – and Souls

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

I am writing this letter the day after our very successful Winter Market which was, once again, held in our own Parish Hall. And what a splendid occasion it was!

So many people worked happily and willingly together; not only on the day itself but for weeks and months beforehand producing crafts and jams, wrapping up ‘mystery parcels’ and sorting through books and jigsaws as well as persuading family and friends to buy raffle tickets as we prepared for the ‘Great Day’. Lots of people came to hear the children from our own Church School open the occasion with their lovely singing as well as snapping up some bargains for Christmas and enjoying each other’s company.

A photograph of curtains and purple chairs in St Michael's Parish Hall

New curtains in the Parish Hall

Many folk commented on how lovely our Parish Hall is now looking following a protracted period of improvements which have just culminated in beautiful new curtains in the main hall. Together with all the work recently finished in the kitchen, the entrance hall and the ladies’ toilets, we only have to attend to the small hall and all will be finished. Then we can say, after much planning and hard work: “Come, for all is ready!”

As we enter December and all the busy-ness leading up to Christmas, we really do need to have the same approach to our hearts and minds. Advent is the perfect time to ‘refurbish’ – just like we’ve done in the Parish Hall. A time to get in to the dusty corners of our souls, to, metaphorically, apply a coat of new paint and do everything else necessary – from a spiritual point of view – to be able to say, when Christmas arrives: “Come, for all is ready!”

On Tuesday afternoons and Thursday evenings in Advent Gerard will be leading four sessions in church entitled: “Prophets and Prayer”. You might like to consider coming along. Treat it as your own personal ‘refurbishing’. Take time, once a week, to spend some quality time with God as your main focus. Imagine your own soul newly prepared for the coming of the Christ-child at Christmas. Even imagine people commenting on how you have been transformed – for they will be able to tell by your actions, your demeanour, your outlook on life – once the cobwebs have been cleared away.

In a hymn, rarely sung these days, can be found these words:

Happy all who hear the message of Christ’s coming from above;
happier still who hail his coming and with praises greet his love.
Blessed Saviour, Christ most holy, in a manger thou didst rest;
canst thou stoop again, yet lower, and abide within my breast?

Evil things there are before thee; in the heart where they have fed,
wilt thou pitifully enter, Son of Man, and lay thy head?
Enter, then, O Christ most holy; make a Christmas in my heart;
make a heaven of my manger: it is heaven where thou art.

And to those who never listened to the message of thy birth,
who have winter, but no Christmas bringing them thy peace on earth.
Send to these the joyful tidings; by all people in each home,
be there heard the Christmas anthem: ‘Praise to God, the Christ hath come!’

With every blessing, as you ‘refurbish’ this Advent,

Paul.

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Remembrance

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

My father was born in the last week of the First World War – meaning that 4th November would have been his 100th birthday.

Of course very few of us need specific dates to remember loved ones who have gone before us (we do that almost every day) but birthdays, anniversaries and dates of death do make those days particularly poignant.

This year, on 11th November, we will remember with immeasurable gratitude the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month 1918.

So many lives were lost in those four years of carnage that, for many, it is difficult to know what stance to take.

As a schoolboy at King Edward VI Grammar School in Morpeth, I recall the seemingly endless list of names of former pupils who had paid the ‘supreme sacrifice’ being read out in assembly by the headmaster and singing the hymn ‘O valiant hearts’ (now considered very politically incorrect) which included these words:

Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war
as who had heard God’s message from afar;
all you had hoped for, all you had, you gave,
to save mankind – yourselves you scorned to save.

Whether or not one should show any pride (rather than remorse) in the light of conflicts where opposite sides take up arms against one another could be the subject of a very lengthy debate: but one thing is sure – the sacrifice made by millions of bright, energetic young men who had their whole lives before them is worthy of remembrance year after year.

In St. Michael’s we are about to unveil a display of handmade poppies – each one representing a life lost in Alnwick or Denwick. It will serve, we hope, not only as a memorial to the fallen but also to press home the degree of loss which our community experienced.

Nothing can be more moving than seeing the long list of names (even in the smallest of villages) and recalling the effect these sacrifices had on families and communities – often with several brothers from the same household giving up their lives in the cause of freedom.

And yet, wars have continued long beyond the ‘war that would end all wars’. One hundred years later, arms are still being taken up against countries and parties where there is disagreement.

So, as once again we prepare, rightly, to remember all those who lost their lives in the cause of peace and freedom perhaps our most ardent prayer should be about peace and for peace; about a time when God’s kingdom might be established on earth as it is in heaven and for a greater recognition that a lasting peace would enhance the lives of us all.

Let us all, then, take the opportunity this 100th anniversary gives not only to remember lives lost and give thanks for all that has been, but also to pray regularly and meaningfully for the peace which God longs for his people everywhere.

With every blessing,

Paul.

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Increasing faith (and murder mysteries!)

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

 Dear People of Alnwick,

As many of you will know, I usually have a murder-mystery book on the go. Recently, I’ve been enthralled by the writings of L J Ross whose novels are all based in Northumberland and Tyneside. I and many others are patiently waiting for 20th October when her latest offer will be published – based in and around Warkworth.

But (surprisingly, some of you may find) I also like to have something a little more serious to accompany my escapism. Recently I was recommended a book by Adam Nicholson entitled “When God Spoke English”which gives a fascinating account of the history and writing of the King James translation of the Bible often known as the Authorised Version.

One of the central figures in this fascinating account is Lancelot Andrewes (1555 – 1626) at various times Dean of Westminster and Bishop successively of Chichester, Ely and Winchester.

As I read more and more of the account and of the part Andrewes played in it I was reminded that somewhere on my bookshelves I had a copy of his much-loved publication “The Private Prayers of Lancelot Andrewes.” This thin little volume has enhanced the prayer life of generations of Christians and I now find myself using it again on a regular basis.

One of Bishop Andrewes’ prayers (perhaps the best-known) includes these words:

O Lord God, perfect in us that which is lacking of your gifts:
of faith to increase it;
of hope to establish it;
of love to kindle it ….

What a splendid list of requests! And what a different world we might live in if such gifts were seriously and regularly prayed for by all who call themselves Christian.

But, if such a vision seems too ambitious, imagine the transformation that could take place here in Alnwick if all of us who swear allegiance to Christ were to make these words our own.

How our praises would echo in our worship! How our thirst to understand more clearly the essentials of our belief might be satisfied! How our outlook on life and our treatment of each other, and all with whom we come into contact, would improve! How our ability to see, act and think positively would grow!

Coincidentally, I am writing this letter on 25th September – the day on which the Church remembers Lancelot Andrewes! We have indeed much to thank him for: not least his own life of prayer, of which we catch a tiny glimpse in the words above.

Increase faith, establish hope, kindle love. We could ask for no better way forward as we journey through life. Let’s take every opportunity to do all three. It can be done – and there can still be time to indulge in the odd murder-mystery, sci-fi or whatever else you enjoy!

With every blessing,

Paul.

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