Vicar’s Blog

A New World is Coming

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

As I write this letter the run up to the general election is really beginning to take off.

No one knows what result we will wake up to on 13th December; it might be ‘more of the same’ or it might be a completely new regime.

Whatever the outcome, the lives of many could be changed dramatically – if and when all the promises that have been made come into effect.

As December dawns and, through Advent, we approach all that celebrating Christmas means, we find ourselves in a similar situation; will it be ‘more of the same’ – or is there a chance that we might have a new start?

On one hand we may gain great comfort by placing on our Christmas tree fragile glass toys that belonged to our parents or even our grandparents whilst, on the other, modern day technology might mean that we can see and talk with loved ones living many miles away – even on the other side of the world.

If we ponder carefully the essence of the Christmas story we will see that we are fortunate to have the benefit of ‘more of the same’ and the thrill of something new and exciting.

At the heart of it all is God’s great love for humankind in sending his Son to be our Saviour. The fulfilment of the Old Testament promise that ‘a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel’ (Isaiah 7: 14) is unchanging, eternal and a source of deep-seated assurance.

At the same time, we can, indeed must, allow ourselves to engage with what the kernel of the story might mean for us in our own day and age; here, in Alnwick, in 2019 and 2020. What is that might be if, in the words of the well-loved carol, we open up our hearts and really let ‘the dear Christ enter in’?

I want to suggest to you that the careful balance of taking hope and comfort from the age-old Christmas story – and the risky excitement of allowing the love which came down at Christmas to dwell in our hearts and minds so that our actions reflect the love, joy and peace of the Christ-child will result in us having a perfect mixture of ‘more of the same’ and an energising new start.

So, whatever the outcome of the general election – whether it be ‘more of the same’ or a new regime, perhaps we should take our cue from the cowboy’s carol:

“There’ll be a new world beginning from tonight” it says.
A new world informed by and inspired from the message of the angels who, on that night, sang of peace on earth and goodwill to all.

With every blessing for Christmas and all that 2020 has in store,

Paul.

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An Unceasing Chain of Worshippers

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

It is now well over thirty years since I qualified as an accountant.

After several years of studying for exams, at the same time as going to work, I was solemnly elected to membership of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. My “reward” was that I could place “CPFA” after my name – and pay a large sum of money in subscriptions each year for the privilege of doing so.

When I left secular employment to train for the priesthood I wondered if it was really worth continuing to pay my subscription but was persuaded by a friend to do so. It was, he said, ‘part of who you are.’

But in those years I have made no use whatsoever of my membership. I have been to none of its seminars or any of the regional meetings – I haven’t even taken the cover off the weekly magazine. In effect, all I have done is stump up my membership fee: I am a nominal member – no more than a name on a piece of paper.

Such membership, of course, is meaningless. Belonging to any organisation should mean being involved and playing a part – and this is worth bearing in mind when it comes to being part of the Church.

We may carry the label “Christian” but that by itself is insufficient. We need to meet together, to worship, to pray, to learn and to work together, united in the common cause of Christ. We need to offer our time and our effort as well as our money, looking for ways in which what God has given each of us, in the way of gifts and resources, may be used for the good of all.

Above all, we need to make time for one another, so that we are not simply members on paper but a family in practice. To be Christian means to be part of the body of Christ.

We know that generations of Alnwick folk have worshipped on the site of St. Michael’s at least since the 12th century – perhaps even since the 8th – and so we give thanks that we, in our day, are part of an unceasing chain of worshippers and celebrate the wonderful fact that we belong to Christ and are part of his body in this place.

And as we do so, let us ensure that we make time for that precious fellowship which arises from being part of the Church here in Alnwick. By doing so we will know even better the strength that comes through sharing together in the joys and sorrows of life.

All praise to our redeeming Lord,
who joins us by his grace,
and bids us each to each restored,
together seek his face.

He bids us build each other up;
and, gathered into one,
to our high calling’s glorious hope
we hand in hand go on.
(Charles Wesley)

With every blessing,
Paul.

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Worrying

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

I know that some of you, like me, enjoy watching the television programme ‘The Repair Shop’.  If you haven’t seen it, do watch out for an episode.  In the programme a team of skilled and caring craftspeople rescue and restore all manner of items which are precious to people for varying reasons – but which appear beyond repair.

The resident carpenter on the programme is a young man called William Kirk and his skills are phenomenal.  In a recent episode he brought back to life a broken piece of fretwork for a lady whose late father had painstakingly carved the original many years earlier.  It had been made to hang on a wall and read: “Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday and all is well”.

It struck a chord with me and so I looked up quotes about ‘worry’ on Google and discovered it had been written by Dale Carnegie, an American self-help expert who wrote the well-known book ‘How to win friends and influence people’.

The article gave several other quotes on the topic of worrying including these:

“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength” and “worry is interest paid on trouble before it falls due”.

What wisdom there is in those words – yet how hard we find it to act upon them.  We know, deep down, that worry is futile: it not only fails to achieve anything but can actually undermine our ability to face life’s problems – yet, sometimes, we just can’t seem to help ourselves.

Up to a point, that is natural – however sure our trust in God.  When our welfare is threatened, or our loved ones are in any kind of danger, we would be less than human not to worry about it.  Yet to worry about what might happen when there are no grounds to fear it, to fret about possibilities rather than certainties, is foolhardy.  There is time enough to deal with these if and when they arrive without facing them several times over beforehand.

Few things have the power to crush the human spirit like worry, yet the irony is that most of the things we worry about never materialise and those that do are often less awful than we imagined.  And, for the Christian, there is the added confidence that, even when our worst fears are realised, God will be there to support us.

So, if you are worrying about things you cannot change, just stop for a moment and ask yourself what effect this is having on your life.  Remember that God promises to all who love him a peace that passes understanding and then focus on the present moment and living each day in the light of God’s love.

The experience of people of faith shows us, time and time again, that God holds everything in his hands and that, even when our worries prove justified, he give us the strength to get through.  Whatever clouds may appear on the horizon and whatever storms life may throw at us, we should strive to trust God and to be at peace.  As we read in the sixth chapter of Matthew’s gospel:

“Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? So do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.  Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

With this in mind, we can praise God for what has been, thank him for what is and ask him to sanctify what will be.

With every blessing,

Paul.

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Jesus is not Safe

St. Michael’s Vicarage
Alnwick

Dear People of Alnwick,

If you were in church at either 8.00 am or 9.30 am on 18th August you would have heard Gerard preach a most inspiring sermon. In it he brought us face to face with the important, though challenging, concept that Jesus is not ‘safe’.

Now this is quite an uncomfortable truth…for the simple fact is that we all like to feel safe, don’t we? One of the things we hope and pray for, particularly for our loved ones, is that they may be kept safe. A sense of safety and protection is a basic human need. From it flows an ability to face all kinds of difficulties and challenges. For the Christian, such a sense provides us with a quiet but empowering assurance that God, in the form of his only Son, is on our side.

Earlier generations used to sing ‘Safe in the arms of Jesus’ and old Sunday school pictures of ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ help to reinforce this concept.

My dictionary defines ‘safe’ as: protected from or not exposed to danger or risk. And so, in that respect, a follower of Jesus, getting on with the day to day business of life, risks the same chance of danger and risk as anyone else in their street, village or town. However ‘paid up’ a Christian you (or I) may be, we have no special rights of protection.

But, when Gerard spoke of Jesus not being ‘safe’, I was reminded of Christ’s words to his disciples in John 16:33 – “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

This is such an important truth to grasp as we continue to journey through life, trying our best to be the people Jesus would have us be; keeping alive the rumour of his love in this place.

Our Diocese of Newcastle markets itself under the strapline “Growing Church Bringing Hope” but that growth and that hope can only, and must only, be considered in the reality of everyday life now, in Alnwick, in 2019.

In so doing, there is no protection from danger or risk; indeed, there is likely to be constant exposure to it. Every glimpse or experience of safety we have is, without doubt, a bonus a particular God-given gift. But, please, let us ‘be of good cheer’. Lack of safety in this concept is nothing to worry about. Some may even consider it a cause for rejoicing – for in all we do we know that Christ goes with us every step of the way.

With every blessing,

Paul.

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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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