Vicar’s Blog

No Doom or Gloom!

St Michael’s Vicarage,
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

Christmas may now seem a distant memory – but I want to share with you some good news.

In less than twenty-four hours between our Christingle service, Midnight Mass and the 8.00am and 9.30am Communion services on Christmas Day, almost 600 people crossed the threshold of St. Michael’s and thus ensured that Christ was part of their Christmas celebrations. Add to this our parish Carol Service and St. Michael’s School Carols and well over 1,000 people joined in recognising the life-changing significance of the child who ‘came down to earth from heaven’.

Looking back over records from previous years shows that Christmas 2016 saw more worshippers in St. Michael’s than for well over a decade.

I share this information with you, not because I want us to feel smug or self-satisfied but, rather, to counter-balance the notion which the media seems determined to convey – that all is doom and gloom in the church and that we now have little or no relevance in today’s secular society.

There is, I would argue, great cause for celebration and so I ask you all to give thanks to God that the people of this town still recognise a need for Christ in their lives. And, as we pilgrimage through 2017, this ‘boost’ should also give those of us who worship week by week confidence in all the things that we do at St. Michael’s to further the Kingdom in terms of worship, study, fellowship and outreach.

Lest you should be one of those people who are inclined to be taken in by the negativity of the press and the television, let me remind you that, on a ‘normal’ Sunday, around 160 people are to be found at worship in St. Michael’s; a recent Advent Study Group found 25 folks happy to give up their Monday mornings and eager to learn more about the scriptures; the course which Julia is currently leading on Bishop John Pritchard’s book ‘Something More’ is giving opportunity to consider the relevance of our faith in the simple day to day business of getting on with our lives; Mini Michaels continues to flourish beyond our wildest expectations and St. Michael’s Messy Church is now well-established and providing a real sense of fellowship for parents with young children.

Let me remind you also that we continue to have, as a priority, the welfare of those who need our prayerful and financial support and who work at the ‘sharp end’ of society not only locally but nationally and internationally. And so we continue to help where we see great need – most recently with our raising of awareness of what happens and our fundraising for the Gallery Youth Project and Alnwick Community Centre near home and, further afield, with our special and long-term relationship with the people of Spitak in Armenia.

I could go on – but won’t! The above is just a ‘flavour’ of the good things – of God’s work – which, as a praying and worshipping community, we are able to do through the power of the Holy Spirit who is daily at work in our midst.

So, my plea is that you will not succumb to doom and gloom but that you will take heart from everything that God enables us to do in his strength, in his name and to his glory.

With every blessing,

Paul

Make Room

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

By the time you read this letter our “Posada” project will have begun again for another year. The figures of Mary and Joseph will have started out on their journey around the homes of our parish, accepting the gracious hospitality of those who will give them shelter for a night and, in so doing, prepare not only their homes but also their hearts for the coming of God’s only Son at Christmas.

There is something so simple, and yet so profound, about this business of “making room” which “Posada” helps us to understand.

In my student days in Sheffield the Organist and his wife at the church I attended kept “open house” for many young folk who, like me, were away from home for the first time. On a Sunday evening, after Evensong, a whole crowd of us would be invited back to their home for supper together with their own large family and their respective spouses or girlfriends/boyfriends. No matter how many turned up – and often it was quite a crowd – the greeting was always the same: “Come in, we can always make room for one or two more!”

Our lives can often become “crowded out” with the many and varied pursuits of 21st century living. At times, even the things we do for pleasure can begin to overwhelm us and we wonder if we can possibly fit anything more into the day or the week that lies ahead.

Sometimes we simply can’t and then the quality of our life begins to deteriorate. That, of course, is the signal for us to take stock, to sort out our priorities and to make some difficult decisions about what is and is not important in our lives.

God the Father saw that the lives of humanity were completely “crowded out” with sin and realised that he needed to send his Son to earth to save us from our own destruction.

Down the years succeeding generations of Christians have been brought to a realisation that making room for Jesus in their lives is the most life-enhancing decision they ever make.

So, as Mary and Joseph make their way around the parish during Advent we need to give some time to thinking about how much room we have in our own lives for the things that really matter. As the busyness of the coming weeks invades every corner of our lives we could all do much worse than pray in the words of that lovely hymn:

“O come to my heart, Lord Jesus
There is room in my heart for thee.”

If we do, how much more meaningful will be the words of Phillips Brookes that will be sung in thousands of places of worship this Christmastide:

“O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell:
O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel”.

With every blessing for a Christmas with room for Christ,

Paul.

A Lesson in Thankfulness

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

Last Thursday afternoon I spent a wonderful time at St Michael’s Primary School.

I’m very used to being there on a regular basis – particularly to lead school worship – but, on this occasion, Mr Johnston had specifically asked if I could come to worship not to lead, but to listen. Naturally, I was intrigued.

When I arrived I was asked to sit in a very comfortable armchair at the front as the whole school assembled in their usual orderly and well-behaved manner. It was then that Mr Johnston informed me it was “Thank you, Vicar” week and that the whole school wanted to celebrate the splendid relationship that exists with St Michael’s Church.

The children seemed to know a huge amount about what a Vicar does. Obviously they knew that I was in school for worship and meetings. The older ones knew that I was a Governor, too. But then I was delighted to hear that they knew I took lots of services in church – including the special monthly School Eucharist when each class in turn joins our regular Wednesday morning congregation. They were aware that vicars christen people, marry people and take funerals. They knew that we do what we can to visit the poorly and the lonely and that we try to share with others God’s love for us all.

The next part of the occasion was really moving. The children said that they realised a vicar does lots to care for and look after others and that they wanted to let me know they felt I should be cared for too. Apart from the lovely comfortable seat I was sitting in they presented me with a lovely cup of tea, a pair of toasty warm slippers and (rather than a bunch of flowers) a large box of ‘Roses’.

I was then presented with a beautiful handmade card which included a page of good wishes from each class in school. And then, as if that were not enough, they sang ‘Thank you, Lord, for this fine day’ with an extra verse ‘Thank you, Lord, for Reverend Paul!’

I am telling you this because, from time to time, we all need to feel ‘special’ – even the Vicar!

We do take so much for granted, don’t we? God treats each of us as ‘special’. After all, Jesus told his followers that his heavenly Father even counts the hairs of our head…Perhaps it’s time you did something to make someone you know feel special. It would be an expression of God’s love too and, in a paradoxical way, that sort of recognition makes the one doing the recognizing feel better as well!

Gratitude is a wonderful characteristic: there really should be more of it in our world – and the good news is that we can make it happen.

So, give thanks for all you have and for all the blessings you have been given – and remember to thank others when you know that they are enhancing your life or making some little part of our world a better place.

At the risk of sharing with you once again one of my favourite quotes from George Herbert:

“Thou that hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, a grateful heart.”

With every blessing,

Paul

Rest in the Lord

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

Recently, Jane and I were hugely privileged to spend a week in the south of France. It’s a part of the world that I had not previously visited and I was overwhelmed by just how beautiful it was.

We had made a conscious decision not to rush to a different place each day but, rather, simply to enjoy our surroundings in a way which normal day-to-day life often does not allow. Strolling at a gentle pace and taking in the Anglican church where, for that rare occasion, we could simply be a part of a congregation with no duties, expectations or responsibilities. It was wonderful!

Our journey by train (all the way from Alnmouth to Nice) was equally rewarding – but most definitely at a different pace. London in just over three hours, Paris by Eurostar in no time at all and then a most amazing journey on the high speed ‘TGV’ sitting ‘upstairs’ and watching fields of sunflowers whizzing by.

But, despite the high speed of our travel, we were still completely relaxed because, apart from making sure we were on the correct train, we had, for a short time, left all responsibilities behind. We were able to enjoy each other’s company, slow down and simply ‘be’.

Coming home was a rather rude awakening for both of us as, within four hours of getting back to the Vicarage, we were both sitting in our respective Parochial Church Council meetings and well and truly ‘back to business’!

We were, however, ‘back to business’ having been refreshed and renewed. We had taken the opportunity to ‘Rest in the Lord’ without the strain and stress of everyday life.

This is something we all need to do – but it takes effort and determination. We don’t need to travel great distances; in fact we don’t need to leave Alnwick! We do, however, need to make time for God and for each other.

Each person’s lifestyle is determined by individual circumstances but if we cease to ‘Rest in the Lord’ on a regular – even daily – basis our lives and our relationships with God and with each other will suffer.

‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden’ said Jesus. That invitation is offered to each and every one of us and is renewed each day. It is up to us to accept or refuse at our peril.

Yes, the south of France was lovely – and we would certainly repeat the experience but, more importantly, finding a regular pattern of renewal in God and resting on him is one of the greatest challenges of our modern age.

I speak as much to myself as to all of you when I make a plea to you to take as your guide this lovely prayer from the ancient office of Compline and make it yours each day:

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the silent hours of this night, so that we, who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, may repose upon thy eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

With every blessing,

Paul.

Running the Race

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

I am writing this letter as the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro draw to a close.

As they began on 5th August I have to admit to having a heavy heart at the prospect of seeing virtually nothing else on our TV screens! But, as the days went by, I became increasingly drawn into the wide range of sports which took place and even stayed up well beyond my normal bedtime to see Andy Murray secure his gold medal in the men’s tennis finals.

Leaving aside the political and economic arguments over the wisdom of the venue and the ethics of spending such vast amounts of money in the midst of great poverty, there is something incredibly uplifting and satisfying to be gained from witnessing such talented people indulging in a wide variety of sports and being in healthy competition with one another.

I suspect I will not be the only clergy person taking this opportunity to write in their parish magazines about St Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the Philippians where we are reminded that we are ‘runners in the race’ and that we should ‘press on towards the goal’ – but that the prize we run for is an imperishable one.

Well, my running days (such as they were) came to an end many years ago – but I hope I still ‘press on’ and have not lost sight of the finishing line…

When the Great North Run takes place on 11th September all sorts and conditions of folk will be participating. They will go at varying paces but their unvarying aim – the prize – is the finishing line.

However ‘sporty’ (or not) you may be, the image of the finishing line can be useful. We do not need to be aiming for a gold medal – or even a silver or a bronze – but we do need to recognize that, along with all our companions in faith, we are, through the love of Christ, assured of a reward which is greater than any earthly prize.

And we do need to keep up our training! For the Christian that comes from the fellowship of ‘running’ alongside other Christians, from keeping regularly in contact with God our ‘trainer’ through prayer and constantly honing our skills by reference to the ‘guidelines’ laid down in the scriptures.

Maybe you have not enjoyed the Olympics; maybe you are looking forward to other competitions – the ‘Great British Bake Off’ or ‘Strictly Come Dancing’…

Do notice, though, that each of these also offers a group of people who are aiming for the prize.

As you (and I) continue to ‘run the race’ may we have always before us the prize which is no less than life in all its fullness through the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

With every blessing,
Paul.

Do As We Can

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

Holidays dictate that I write this monthly letter further away from the deadline date than is usual. I was reminded, however, that for the July edition of ‘Gateway’, writing only a day or two before the European Referendum, my prophetic powers left something to be desired…

So, by the time you actually read this, who knows what might be happening in our town, our country and our world?

As I sit at my desk writing this letter we are just beginning to take on board the enormity of the shocking terrorist attack in Nice and the increased uncertainty around all that is happening in Turkey.

Our world, our lives – and all that goes on in them – feel much less secure and predictable than was once the case; and respect for the preciousness or sanctity of human life considerably reduced.

Through every generation of history, we read of countless ways in which humanity has devised new and increasingly horrific ways of disregarding this sanctity of life – and, as a result, we quite understandably tend to lose sight of the vast number of unrecorded acts of love and mercy and kindness which, day by day, counteract those things which are negative and evil in our world.

And so the temptation to wallow in negative thoughts about the state of the nations must also be balanced – indeed overcome – by Christian hope and by an unceasing commitment to work, wherever we can, justly and peaceably.

Jane regularly reminds me of a little maxim which is full of truth:

“You cannot do everything: but what you can do you must.”

As we continue to journey “through all the changing scenes of life” we realise that none of us can change our world single-handedly but that should never deter us from doing what we can.

Perhaps, like me, you can remember singing in Sunday School:

“Little drops of water, little grains of sand,
make the mighty ocean and the beauteous land.

Little deeds of kindness, little words of love,
make our earth an Eden, like the heaven above.”

They may sound outdated and sentimental in the harsh light of 2016 but they convey a way of being which help us to understand the work God would have us do in his name and to his glory.

With every blessing,
Paul.

Community

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

As I write this letter people are making their way to polling stations to vote in the referendum about Britain’s membership of the European Union.

‘Gateway’ is not the place to take sides on this matter – and people, largely, will have made up their minds some time ago. One thing, however, does interest me greatly. There has been much talk, and a huge amount written down in newspapers and social media about the EU – the European Union.

Perhaps I’ve been asleep but, until fairly recently, we almost invariably spoke about the European Community. What, I wonder, has changed? Has the idea of a European Community become unfashionable – or unacceptable? And, if it has, why?

Where there is a real sense of community life things almost invariably thrive. That can be true not only in international affairs and trading but in every gathering it is possible to think about: family, school, workplace, village, town, church, sports club, office to mention but a few.

In a community, people think not only of themselves but also of those with whom, to quote the Acts of the Apostles, they live and move and have their being. Whilst a community is made up of individuals who have some, but not necessarily all, things in common there is usually an acknowledgement that it is better (and often more effective) to be together than apart.

This is particularly true of the Christian church.

Despite there being several matters over which all Christians find it difficult to agree, it remains Christ’s wish that we should eventually all be one in him.

More locally, in Alnwick, we are incredibly blessed to be able to work together across the denominations of our town in all sorts of positive and helpful ways – recognising our common fellowship as a community of Christians.

Within a large church like St. Michael’s, where we have four effectively distinct congregations on a Sunday, we must be constantly working towards a visible unity which would allow us to flourish as one family united in our common fellowship in Christ.

If you are in any doubt about our need for each other then read, and read again, the 12th chapter of 1 Corinthians. Recognising our interdependence of each other – our need to be a visible unity – not only for our own good but for the good of Christ is critical to what we do, if we want to do it effectively.

Coming together socially is proving to be a splendid way forward in this respect. Our recent lunch in honour of the Queen’s 90th birthday was an excellent example of this and soon (15th July) we will be enjoying a Northumbrian Evening together. Please don’t think of these occasion as just ‘for those that like that sort of thing’! Come along and be ‘built up in Christ’ through a strengthening of community spirit in St. Michael’s.

It is said that those who pray together stay together. We are called to do more than that. We are called to flourish and grow, to enjoy each other’s company and learn more and more of what strong community is all about.

With every blessing,

Paul.

Not-so Ordinary Time

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

Since 29th November last year (the first Sunday of Advent) the Church has had a long round of celebrations and observations. We have prepared ourselves for the birth of Jesus, celebrated that wonderful fact at Christmas, remembered the visit of the Wise Men with their gifts and the fact that God’s only Son was baptised in the River Jordan.

We’ve journeyed with Christ in his forty days and forty nights in the wilderness and walked with him in the last and most holy week of his earthly life recalling his gift of Holy Communion and washing of the disciples’ feet, his death on the cross and his glorious resurrection on Easter Day.

We have thought again about the appearances he made to his followers after his resurrection, celebrated his ascension into heaven and rejoiced in the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Finally, we have acknowledged the mystery of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit on Trinity Sunday.

So, what do we do now?

Well, the Church asks us to enter ‘Ordinary Time’. With all these celebrations and observations over, it could be thought of as an opportunity to ‘coast’ for a while, to simply get on with the day to day business of leading our lives.

I’d like to suggest to you that there is nothing at all ‘ordinary’ about ‘Ordinary Time.’ I’d like to suggest to you that each new day is a special – even extraordinary – gift in itself.

Each new day will bring with it a unique mix of blessings and challenges. Some days there will be more blessings than challenges and on others the balance will be reversed. But, in each and every unique blend, we should remind ourselves that God is with us and that he rejoices with us when things are going well whilst grieving with us in our times of unhappiness and despair.

God never leaves us completely desolate: he walks alongside us each step of the way – and that seems to me to be pretty extraordinary! Irrespective of our acknowledgement of his presence, he is never far from us. Indeed, he is closer to us than our very breath.

So, let us take every opportunity to recognise and celebrate the wonder of ‘Ordinary Time’, let us value the uniqueness of every day and of each of the people with whom we have to do.

In one way the long round of celebrations may be over for another year but, in another, each new day gives us the opportunity to count our blessings and put our hand into the hand of him who loves us so much he sent his Son to show us the way.

New every morning is the love
our wakening and uprising prove;
through sleep and darkness safely brought,
restored to life and power and thought.

New mercies each returning day,
hover around us while we pray;
new perils past, new sins forgiven,
new thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven.
John Keble (1792-1866)

With every blessing,

Paul.

The Queen at 90

Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

As I write this letter our Queen is celebrating her 90th birthday.

I am sure that she is inundated with messages of congratulation and goodwill – and rightly so. Hers has been a lifetime of service and she has been (and continues to be) a fine example of devotion to duty, of faith and of integrity.

She may be handing over a number of her responsibilities to other members of her family but, as the oldest and longest serving of any British monarch, she continues to have a workload far, far greater than most people of her advanced age.

Whether or not you are a royalist I believe we should all be heartened by a statement which was shared recently on social media. Her Majesty has said:

‘For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life.
I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.’

As the happiness continues, and we look forward to the second weekend in June when the time of her official birthday is marked and the nation will celebrate in a variety of ways, we would all do well to consider these words very carefully indeed.

If each of us were to live our lives by the teaching and example of Christ we would find energy to go on and strength in times of trouble and the world would, indeed, be a better place.
But, if making the world a better place sounds a little ambitious then let me remind you that mighty oaks do, indeed, from little acorns grow. Little by little, each of us can play our part with the gifts God has given us to help bring about more of his kingdom here in Alnwick.

Already, of course, many of our church family contribute both to the life of St Michael’s and the wider community by giving of their time and expertise in all sorts of different ways – but, please, don’t let that prevent you from looking for ways in which you can be more active in giving back to God what he has given to you. As our Queen continues to demonstrate, age need not be a barrier!

At St Michael’s we will have our celebrations on Sunday 12th June when the 9.30am and 11.15am congregations will come together at 10.00am for a joint act of worship at which the preacher will be our own Canon Alan Craig – one of the Queen’s Honorary Chaplains. After our usual post-service coffee we will then enjoy a Parish Lunch together at 12.00noon. Tickets will be £10.00 per person and should be on sale by the time you read this letter. Do make a note of the date, purchase a ticket and come along to join in the fun!

We should not forget, either, that our Queen is Head of the Church of England and that we should pray regularly for her that she may continue to be given strength, wisdom and faith to carry out her responsibilities.

Heavenly Father,
as we celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Her Majesty the Queen,
receive our heartfelt thanks
for all that you have given her in these ninety years
and for all that she has given to her people.
continue, we pray, your loving purposes in her,
and as you gather us together in celebration,
unite us also in love and service to one another,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

With every blessing,
Paul.

Recognising Our Blessings

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

All of us take so much for granted. If we wake up in the darkness of the night, we can stretch out an arm and, at the flick of a switch, we have light. If we come home from work or shopping on a cold winter’s day we can be pretty certain that the central heating will provide us with a warm, cosy house. If we suddenly decide it would be nice to have a chat with a friend or relative, we pick up our mobile ’phone and, hey presto, we’re texting or speaking to them within seconds – whether they live in Seahouses or Seattle!

And then there are all the wonderful ways in which our medical professionals and the National Health Service (with all its shortcomings) help life to be free from pain and discomfort – or at least alleviate some of its worst excesses.

But it’s not only technical and medical advances in recent years which, generally speaking, go to make our life a pleasant existence. Just call to mind the sight of a glorious sunset over the Northumberland coast or the joy we derive from witnessing the excitement of a child on Christmas morning.

To our shame, we often give little more than a nodding acknowledgement – if that – to the wonders, the miracles of daily life.

All this comes to mind because of a conversation I had a short while ago with a Roman Catholic nun. She was asking me about my life and background and I expressed to her how fortunate I believed I had been in having a loving, stable family, a happy and contented childhood, the benefits of a good education, a rewarding time in my previous profession as an accountant, a wonderfully fulfilling experience of Christian ministry and priesthood and then, more recently, the joy and companionship of married life. “In short,” I declared, “I’ve had a charmed existence.”

“Surely you mean your life has been richly blessed” she replied.

And, of course, she was exactly right – and incredibly perceptive! Furthermore, she made me realise the need to acknowledge the source of such blessedness. Not only were the opportunities that I have had (and continue to have) God-given, but the motivation and the energy I needed (and need) to respond to them also come from that same God who gives and sustains all life.

Often, at the Eucharist we say: “Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the splendour and the majesty; for everything in heaven and on earth is yours. All things come from you, and of your own do we give you.” (1 Chronicles 29:11)

Perhaps we should consider making this acknowledgement of God’s repeated intervention in our lives part of our daily prayers. Indeed, if thankfulness to God for all his blessings were to be an ongoing part of each Christian life, how different the world might be!

To get back to my old “soapbox” it’s all about seeing glasses as half-full rather than half-empty. Let’s all make an effort to recognise the blessings which are ours each hour and each day – and, having recognised them, let’s give thanks not only in our prayers but in our manner of life and in our dealings with one another.

In the words of George Herbert – which I know I’ve quoted to you before:

“Lord, who has given so much to me;
give one thing more, a grateful heart.”

With every blessing,
Paul

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