Vicar’s Blog

Lenten Activity

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

As I write this letter, having only a few days ago put the Christmas decorations in the loft, I am conscious that Lent will soon be upon us – so three cheers for the Archbishop of Canterbury who is backing a suggestion that the date of Easter should be fixed – presumably allowing us a little lengthier break between singing ‘We three kings’ and ‘Forty days and forty nights’!

Over the years I have attended, contributed to and led numerous Lent Courses. Amongst those that were most memorable was a series led by the late Brother Edward SSF in the early 1970’s on famous Anglicans who had influenced his thought and, more recently, two courses based on splendid little books by Bishop Stephen Cottrell called ‘The Nail’ and ‘The Things He Carried.’

I do, however, have one slight hesitation about traditional Lenten activity. Extremely worthy though our acts of discipline and self-denial may be (and they are) the very kernel of our faith, Christ’s victory over death through his resurrection from the dead, can get side-lined.

With this in mind, the plan is that we spend this coming Lent looking at some implications of the resurrection – and, not least, implications for us here in 21st Century Alnwick.

We hope to have two groups (at least) running: an afternoon session and an evening one – and more details of times and venues will be published soon.

Working with the title: ‘ENCOUNTERS – meeting the risen Jesus!’ we will hold five sessions which will enable us to reflect on people’s encounters with Jesus after his resurrection, and to think through the implications for our own lives.

I hope that, as I do, many will feel excited by this prospect for it seems to me a golden opportunity to grow together in faith and in understanding.

Do consider joining one of these groups and please, don’t think ‘Oh that’s all right for those who enjoy that sort of thing, but it’s not for me …’ It might just be that it is exactly for you!

Even before we begin, I know that we will not end up with lots of perfect answers. Actually, that is not the purpose of the exercise: rather, it will give us an opportunity to reflect together and to consider just why it is that we say (in the words of St. Augustine of Hippo) ‘We are an Easter people and ALLELUIA! is our song!’

Amongst everything else that we do during Lent, including giving things some up and/or taking extra things on, may we come to Easter Day understanding a little more why it is such Good News!

With every blessing,
Paul.

God’s Eyes at Christmas

Dear People of Alnwick,

In his best-selling book ‘Prayers of Life’ the French Roman Catholic priest, Michel Quoist wrote:

I would like to rise very high, Lord,
Above my city
Above the world
Above time,
I would like to purify my glance and borrow your eyes.

What, I wonder, is God thinking at the moment as he looks down on his world and sees the way his children are abusing it and each other?

If the perpetrators of the recent carnage in Paris took a moment to look down on the world, which they are in the process of destroying, I wonder if they would see anything of the amazing beauty of creation or the huge potential there is for men and women everywhere to live in peace, in mutual respect and in harmony?

And if we, as individuals, could borrow God’s eyes and look down on his world for a brief period, what would we see?

All is fragile – very fragile – and respect for human life and dignity is at an incredibly low ebb.

But this world of ours has dealt with fragility before – when the Son of God was born a fragile little baby in a feeding-trough in Bethlehem. And that fragile little baby brought with him HOPE – the theme of Advent which leads us into rejoicing as we celebrate his presence with us at Christmas.

So we should look for signs of hope – however small – here in our church and in our town. Did you know, for instance, that nine full car loads of bedding and warm clothing have been transported down to Newcastle’s West End Refugee Service in the last few weeks? Did you know that in excess of £500 has recently been raised for Cancer Research by the children of Mini Michaels and our Church School – or that, just as this letter goes to press, over £300 has been raised from a Coffee Morning to help purchase Christmas presents for the children of parents who are currently in prison?

In simple but profound acts like these we show compassion and hope in the one who was born in poverty and who knew what it was to be a refugee.

During this Advent and Christmastime we may not be able to prevent massive acts of terrorism and suicide bombings taking place but, by single steps of love and compassion, we can ‘borrow God’s eyes’, recognise the fragility of God’s world and approach all we do with hope.

My prayer during those days – and I hope it may be yours too – is that we may ‘borrow God’s eyes’ and be filled with compassion and hope as we await and then celebrate Emmanuel – ‘God with us.’

I would like to rise very high, Lord,
Above my city
Above the world
Above time.
I would like to purify my glance and borrow your eyes.

With every blessing for Christmas and all that lies ahead in 2016.

Paul.

War – and Peace

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

On Sunday 8th November, from tiny village War Memorials to the great crowds that will gather at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, people will meet together to remember those who gave their lives in the cause of freedom and in the service of our country.

It is now over one hundred years since the outbreak of World War I – the ‘war to end all wars’ – and yet still men and women take up arms against each other.

What is it that we lack? Why cannot men and women live together in harmony and respect?

These questions are almost as old as the world itself – and yet the answers elude us.

When Christ said to his disciples (John 14:27) ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” he went on to say “I do not give to you as the world gives.” Perhaps he was recognising the particular ‘other-worldly’ tasks his followers would constantly have before them.

If, as Christians, we are ‘in the world but not of the world’ then our constant, unending task must be to pray for peace and to work for peace in whatever way we can. Whether it be peace in our homes, peace in our families or peace in our workplace or church, these ‘local’ situations can have an effect on much larger issues.

But, above all, we must have peace in our hearts: for that can lead to so much more.

Perhaps those words of a lovely prayer may help you as much as they have helped me to pray regularly for peace of heart – in the hope that I may join other people of peace and, in some small way, work for the coming of the kingdom.

Lead me from death to life, from falsehood to truth.
Lead me from despair to hope, from fear to trust.
Lead me from hate to love, from war to peace.
Let peace fill our heart, our world, our universe.
Peace, peace, peace.

As we gather to remember this year, let us make it a real opportunity to pledge ourselves afresh to be peacemakers – in the name of Christ.

With every blessing,

Paul

The Refugee Crisis

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

Only those with a heart of stone can fail to have been moved by the terrible plight of the thousands of refugees who have found it necessary to flee from their homeland, leaving everything behind, simply in order to be safe.

Despite the (seeming) trials and tribulations of life, most of us in this part of the world live comfortably – and in safety. We, therefore, have no real conception of how these people feel – other than to know that nothing, absolutely nothing, is certain any more.

As Christians, our call is to do as much as we can. The late Archbishop Oscar Romero, in an often-quoted prayer said the following:

We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realising that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning,
a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace
to enter and do the rest.

Through God’s good grace, we at St. Michael’s have been able to do some little thing. In the space of a week over £1,000 came from the generosity of our congregation. Firstly, in an emergency appeal, £500 was raised in one day and sent to Christian Aid for the immediate relief of refugees and, secondly, our Harvest Supper raised another £500 which has gone to help the work of the West End Refugee Service (WERS) in Newcastle.

I write this, not so that we may give ourselves a ‘pat on the back’ – amazing though the response was – but in order that it may inspire us to do whatever we may be called upon to do next as the situation becomes clearer.

In the meantime, you might like to do two things: Reflect upon the words in chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel – particularly verses 31-40 where we are reminded that, whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters, it is as if we did it for Christ himself.

Pray regularly for the plight of those who have nowhere to lay their heads at night, let alone have a roof over their heads.

Almighty and merciful God,
whose Son became a refugee
and had no place to call his own;

look with mercy on those who today
are fleeing from danger,
homeless and hungry.

Bless those who work to bring them relief;
inspire generosity and compassion in all our hearts;
and guide the nations of the world towards that day when all will rejoice in your Kingdom of justice and of peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

With every blessing,

Paul.

Good News/Bad News

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

I wonder if you are a glass half-full or a glass half-empty person?

One thing is certain, the world needs more of the former.

The reason I begin by asking such a question is because, each time I listen to news bulletins, it appears that those responsible for conducting interviews seem determined to make every piece of bad news into worse news.

Each day we have a constant supply of distressing news items laid before us. Most recently we have heard about the tragic accident at the Shoreham Air Show in West Sussex and, at almost the same time, the attempt by a jihadi gunman to shoot down all the passengers on a train from Amsterdam to Paris.

These are only two incidents that have served to increase my irritation with the unrelenting way in which reporters feel the need to heap burning coals on situations which are already horrible.

I do not wish, in any way to listen the tragic deaths of those who were suddenly and cruelly taken from us in the air show disaster – but all the reporters seem able to concentrate on is the fact that there may still be further bodies to be found.

Whilst acknowledging this terrible situation, no-one, it seems, has thought of the number of lives which were saved because the vintage jet missed the airfield itself where many hundreds of people were gathered.

Similarly, with the terrorist on the Paris train, all we hear of are the gory details of the blood which was shed – rather than the fact that many lives were saved because of the bravery and quick thinking of a small band of holiday travellers.

Why, oh why, I wonder, is the world obsessed with bad news?

Each day, and in every community – including our own – there is so much to celebrate because of the kindness and thoughtfulness of many folk and the heroism of others, and yet none of this is reported.

Sometimes, even in our prayers in church, we concentrate so much on people in need and situations of distress that we lose sight of a great deal of good news. Of course we are called upon, as caring Christians, to hold all need and upset before God – but let us not forget to give thanks for all that is good in our lives and in the world.

The very kernel of our faith is based on the fact that the tragic happenings of Good Friday were surpassed by the victory of Easter Day and so, as Christians, Good News is – or should be – at the heart of our thinking, our speaking and our doing.

Each time I tune into a news bulletin I am determined – however challenging it may be – to look for a positive slant on what I hear. Perhaps you might like to do the same: glasses do not need to be always half empty….

As the writer of Psalm 103 declares:

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits.

With every blessing,
Paul

Genuine Care

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

For those of us who use them regularly, e-mails can be a splendid way of communicating quickly and effectively. On the other hand, there are days when they are more of a nuisance than a help …..

Leaving the nuisance ones behind, I wanted to share with you a really uplifting e-mail which arrived a few days ago from a lady who had paid a recent visit to St. Michael’s.

Here is an extract of what it says:

Dear Rev Scott,
My husband and I have just spent a delightful week in and around Alnwick, walking coastal paths and generally unwinding. On Sunday we came to St. Michael’s having seen earlier in the day that it was open between 1-4pm.
I am really writing to tell you how utterly delightful the lady who met us at the door was. She was the volunteer, meeting people as they entered. In all the many churches I have visited, I have never been made to feel more welcome. Despite the baptism that was taking place, she was keen that we saw the best of the church. She was generous of nature and most sincere.
As I reflect now on my week’s holiday, the brief meeting with this lady made quite an impact on me. She was such an example.
I would like to make a small but regular donation to St Michael’s Church. I want to be reminded, lest I forget, of what genuine, unpretentious care for others looks like.

I have not tried to find out which of our many stewards it was who had such a profound effect on this lady (the person themselves will know) for all our stewards do such a wonderful job.

The real point of sharing this with you is, particularly, because of the last few words. Surely ‘genuine, unpretentious care for others’ is what we are all called to: it is the very essence of Christian hospitality.

We all have so many opportunities to offer – and to graciously accept – hospitality. It may be through a word of welcome or concern, it may be through sharing a cup of coffee or a meal, it may be through simple practical tasks performed without a thought of reward.

All these actions, and many others, (even though we may not recognise it) are Christ-like actions – motivated by Gospel imperatives of love and care and compassion.

As St. Teresa of Avila wrote:

‘Christ has no other hands but your hands to do his work today; no other feet but your feet to guide folk on his way; no other lips but your lips to tell them how he died; no other love but your love to win them to his side.’

Genuine, unpretentious care for others makes the world a better place. Whether you’ve given it or received it in recent days or weeks, give thanks to God for both – and pray that, in St. Michael’s and in the wider community of Alnwick, such things may abound more and more.

With every blessing,

Paul.

Praising God with Singing

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

St. Augustine of Hippo is credited, by some, with the saying, “He who sings, prays twice.” Others dispute this and argue that what he actually said was, “Singing belongs to one who loves.”

Whatever his words actually were, the sentiment is clear and singing has been a vehicle of praise to God down the ages and by many faiths.

Christians found their first praises in the Psalms, the Jewish hymn book, and ‘Christianised’ them by adding ‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit at the end of each one they sung. The early saints also provided us with many texts that have stood the test of time down the ages: ‘The day of resurrection,’ ‘All creatures of our God and King’ and ‘Light’s abode, celestial Salem’ are but a few examples.

The 18th century saw hymn writers like Isaac Watts (‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ and ‘Jesus shall reign where’re the sun) and Charles Wesley (‘O for a thousand tongues to sing’ and ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’) making some outstanding contributions and so it has continued down the years.

In more recent times we have been provided with gems such as ‘In Christ alone’ and ‘How deep the Father’s love for us’ by Stuart Townsend and ‘Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord’ by Timothy Dudley-Smith.
At St. Michael’s hymn singing is a vital part of our offering of praise to God and, increasingly, a vehicle for mission and deepening of faith as we explore some of the new and varied resources which are available.

Regular readers of ‘Gateway’ will recall the article I wrote in the April edition about a hope that we might purchase the newest version of Hymns Ancient & Modern which is highly recommended by experts and practitioners alike – as well as by many who are in the pews week by week.

It is, therefore, good to be able to report that the Trustees of St. Paul’s Educational Trust have awarded us a grant of £1,000 towards our total and an anonymous donor has also promised to finance the organ copy of the book which comes in two volumes. For these generous gifts we are truly grateful – and now the challenge is to raise a further £1,000 to ensure that we will have sufficient copies for all – including some large print versions for those whose sight is not so good.

Our plan is to ask people to sponsor a book (or more than one!) at a cost of £10 per copy. This could, perhaps be in memory of a loved one or to mark a special occasion such as a wedding anniversary or a ‘significant’ birthday. On the other hand, people may just like to purchase a book as a thank-offering to God.

Please look out for an invitation to be part of this project in the next few weeks. Your support will be greatly appreciated – especially as there is currently a 25% discount on offer from the publishers!

When, in our music, God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried ‘Alleluia!’

How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound ‘Alleluia!’

So has the church, in liturgy and song,
in faith and love, through centuries of wrong,
borne witness to the truth in every tongue: ‘Alleluia!’

Fred Pratt-Green
(1903-2000)

With every blessing,
Paul.

Note: Issues of “Gateway”, St Michael’s Church magazine, are available for purchase in church.

New Challenges

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

I am writing this letter as I await the arrival of the removal men bringing Jane’s goods and chattels from Monkseaton. I hope that their arrival will be closely followed by Jane herself – so that, after nine months of marriage, we will eventually begin our life together in earnest by living in the same house!

Then, next Monday, Jane begins her new job as Developing Discipleship Officer for the Diocese.

And all of this hard on the heels of my being recently licensed (in a joyful and memorable service at St Michael’s) as Area Dean of Alnwick – with the added responsibilities which that post brings.

All these events mean that there is much change and upheaval in our lives at the moment – but also many occasions to embrace the opportunities and see new ways of being the people we have been called by God to be.

Calling – vocation – is something that each of us (not just clergy!) is given by God and, at different stages of our lives, we may be called to other – perhaps even extra – things to do in his service.

Interestingly, when Jane and I had a discussion with the Archdeacon of Northumberland a few months ago about how our future ministries might take shape, he reminded us that, at this particular juncture in our lives, we have, primarily, been called by God to be married.

So, there is much excitement – and not a little trepidation – in the Vicarage at the moment. Adjustments will need to be made as Jane and I learn to ‘be’ in new ways and as we settle in to new challenges and opportunities.

But, isn’t it the same for all of us?

Each day brings something different. Things which may be exciting, challenging – or, if we will allow it, both!

And, in all of this, we have that gentle certainty that God is always with us. Indeed, as the children sing every week at Mini Michaels:

“Oh, God is always with us.
That’s why we sing and shout!”

Or, if that sentiment is a little too ‘direct’ for you, remember the lovely words of a hymn we often sing:

Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father,
there is no shadow of turning with thee;
thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not,
as thou hast been thou for ever shalt be!

May you, and all those whom you love, know God’s great faithfulness and compassion in your lives as you pursue, in his name, whatever he has called you to do.

With every blessing,

Paul.

Never-Ending Praises

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

One of the obligations of ordination is the daily recitation of Morning and Evening Prayer but, for me, it is not only a duty but a joy. As the months and years roll on, the psalms, which are an integral part of the daily offices, speak to me more and more.

In one sense, as the psalms are recited over and over again, they become like familiar friends but, on the other hand, they continue to speak afresh each time they are read. Psalm 113, verse 3 “From the rising of the sun to its setting, praised be the name of the Lord” always fills me with a wonderful sense of being caught up in the constant round of worship directed to God in a never-ending hymn of praise.

The famous 17th century “Westminster Confession” stated that the chief end of man is “…to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever” – and this is the implication from this verse of Psalm 113.

Let me share two thoughts with you:

Firstly, something about the unbroken round of praise that is directed to God. The praises of God come not only from the earth but also from within heaven itself and so we can be certain that we are caught up in a ceaseless action that had no beginning and will have no end.

Although the psalm talks of the praise of God “from the rising of the sun to its setting”, this is not a reference to daylight hours only! As we know, the daylight is always present in some part of the world and so the work of prayer and praise continues even when we are safely tucked up in our beds. As John Ellerton’s well-loved evening hymn would have it:

“The sun that bids us rest is waking
our brethren ‘neath the western sky,
and hour by hour fresh lips are making
thy wondrous doings heard on high.”

And so, having made our contribution to the praise of God, we can be reassured that we are also carried along by those who are praying when we are not. And it is worthwhile being completely honest here: there are times when we all find prayer difficult – and both frequency and quality can suffer. The secret is to persevere; knowing that we continue our voices not only with our fellow-believers but also “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven”.

Secondly, praise is not only about prayer. God’s name can be praised from the rising of the sun to its setting in all we do and think and say.

It is, of course, important that we offer to God all that we will do at the beginning of each day and to seek his blessing on it at the end of the day – asking forgiveness in those situations where we have done wrong – but then it is important that we get on and do it!

Being diligent and dedicated in our work, bringing some happiness into another person’s life, enjoying an afternoon’s gardening, helping to establish a contented home and family life… the list could go on: all these activities, and any others that you know would be blessed by God, are ways of contributing to the ceaseless round of praise which is due to him.

At the end of the Eucharist we often pray “send us out in the power of your Spirit, to live and work to your praise and glory”. Once we come to realise that every aspect of our lives can be seen as an instrument of praise then we can begin to assess the magnitude of the glory which we help to offer to God,

So, whatever our circumstances, whether we are full of energy and active, or have reached that stage in our lives when we have to accept that contemplation too is a gift from God, the work of prayer and praise goes on – “from the rising of the sun to its setting”.

With every blessing,

Paul.

Love Triumphs

St Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

 Dear People of Alnwick,

As a little boy I grew up with a girl called Jeanette who was only a fortnight younger than me.

When we played together, we shared our toys and I remember, particularly, Jeanette’s toy clown whose name was ‘Kelly’. The bottom half of Kelly was like half a football and, no matter how hard or how often you knocked it over, it would always bounce back again!

In some ways, I find that quite a helpful way of considering the victory over death which Christ won for us by his resurrection; for there we see an amazing demonstration of the God who will not be kept down.

The various groups of people who had set out to destroy Jesus must have had triumphal smiles on their faces. Having witnessed Jesus being cut down from the cross, his body limp and lifeless, they then witnessed him being sealed in the tomb. Hatred, it would seem, had done its worst but, leaving nothing to chance, a guard was placed outside the tomb.

But, just like ‘Kelly’, the love of God cannot be kept down and, on the first Easter morning, they found the stone rolled away and the tomb completely empty. Christ was risen!

And so it is for us today. In the final analysis there is nothing and no-one that can frustrate the will of God. Though many will try – and sometimes seem to succeed – and, as we all know, there is more than enough evil in the world to make us think that they do succeed – ours is a God who will finally triumph.

Remember St. Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome:

“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

It is that love – the love which burst forth upon the world on the first Easter morning in a new and more powerful way – that cannot be kept down.

And there is still nothing that can stand in the way of him who rose victorious from the dead. So, however things may seem, and even when faith seems to fly in the face of reason, we know that in it all we can say with St. Augustine:

“We are an Easter people and ‘ALLELUIA’ is our song!”

May you know all the blessing of Easter throughout this joyful season,

Paul.

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