(Scroll down for latest addition: August 2016)
Saturday 17th September In a diocesan forum on how people learn effectively, I was introduced to a description of characteristic "mindsets" that I hadn't met before. The "structural" one is motivated by success and likes factual clarity; the "experial" by personal relationships; the "ethereal" by curiosity...and the "oceanic" by originality. That's me. Hence the picture above.
Variation...beauty...creativity..life is a whole with subtle connections that are subconsciously recognised.
"I like to be quiet with my thoughts in the morning: it puts me right for the day"
When somebody said this to me, somebody who I don't expect to see in church, I wondered how different "being quiet with my thoughts" is from my saying Morning Prayer.
3rd September 2011
8th September 2011 Language and Landscape
"Grateful shade" was the phrase that came into my head as I headed into the trees after a clearing in the forest had been hotly sunny. In the 16th century grateful might equally mean "pleasing" or "thankful". Now we mostly use the word when we're thankful (grateful for the welcome shade). The words may change but the old experience is still familiar.
In the 1662 Communion service we were using the same words as our ancestors 350 years ago. We're not analysing it as the service goes along. There's a timelessness about sharing worship with the people of the past, a connection that is also there when I'm out on the fells riding between hills that enclose us so that we can't see over the high horizon and into the next valley.
We wind our way with the contours of the land a mile or more from the last farm building and then we follow a subtle track that leads to a great stone slab providing a bridge for the horse to cross a burn. There may or may not be another living creature in sight, perhaps a bird or possibly a hare, and suddenly I'm aware that I'm following in the tracks of people who rode these hills hundreds of years ago.
12th September 2011 Continuity
It was interesting talking to the American visitors in the twelfth century church when they commented that at home there was very little that was older than 150 years. It meant that people were always starting new things from scratch. The present-day residents of Bellingham (Northumberland) include people with the same surnames as the Border Reivers of centuries ago (Armstrong, Charlton, Elliott, Milburn, for instance) and there's a remarkable sense of continuity. This can lead to stability and strong, gradual organic development. Perhaps the danger might be stagnation; but I suspect that the strength is like that of a yew tree which grows in spurts when conditions are favourable and then goes into a kind of prolonged hibernation. Don't rush a community like this into action: that's the way to meet resistance. When the time is right, there will be action. I'll re-read this when I retire and see if I'm wrong.
28th October 2011 Hints of things unseen
There was a little girl at Messy Church who is a very careful artist. She will paint a detail in a particular colour. On top of that she will add a different colour. Then another specially chosen colour. And so on repeatedly until her thoughtfully designed abstract painting is entirely black. This doesn't worry her because she knows what is present underneath the surface -- which seems to me to show a profound grasp of reality and an awareness of what is hidden.
From the shadow in today's photograph it's not difficult to detect the presence of horse and rider.
We had stopped to focus on the horizon where any local viewer would easily identify the small clump of trees with the distinctive conifer poking up at the top, reminiscent of the spire of a church or cathedral.
Actually there are no church spires in this wind-battered corner of Northumberland; but any church architecture that points upwards encourages us to raise our sights, to look beyond ourselves, to contemplate the transcendent. God isn't really up in the sky but the symbolism can be helpful.
I'm reminded of the lines in H.F. Lyte's hymn "Abide with me":
"Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes;
shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me."
Not to be taken literally, of course. But perhaps we need a picture to help us to make sense of the abstract and of what is real but unseen.
We're likely to sing this hymn in the season of Remembrance on All Souls' Day (2nd November) when we remember people whom we love but see no longer. So the little girl's painting technique turns out to be highly topical.
Epiphany (6th January)
The Magi (Wise Men) brought gifts fit for a king -- or at least the gold was.
Here is the carpenter's wife and her baby....... Do they really want the equivalent of a Meissen dinner service, some million-pound jewel, and a rare portion of bird's nest soup or black truffle or vintage wine?
But that's the kind of extravagant luxury that the visitors/the guests/the worshippers have brought. So that's what they present.
So Jesus receives whatever we have to offer.
Is it possible that God finds our offerings amusing? Perhaps. But only as loving parents smile at the gift of a buttercup picked for them from their own lawn.
1st February 2012
Every funeral is "tailor-made", unique because every individual is unique, an infinitely precious child of God. So every funeral address has to be appropriate for the individual and the particular mourners.
You have so many positive thoughts and feelings! What are you going to do with them? Gratitude. It has to go somewhere. So send your thanks in the direction of the source of all love and goodness. It doesn't matter what you call it. (I call it "God") but this will lead you on beyond the loss.
Sunday 19th February 2012
When I came into church around 8 o'clock the east window was dazzling in morning sun which concealed the scene depicted there:
For a moment the suffering of crucifixion was bathed in the dazzling light of perfect love.
6th June 2012 The Queen's Diamond Jubilee weekend provided an excellent example of how my life cannot be separated into "work" and "pleasure". It is said that the role of a parish priest is recognised by "being" not "doing". If I am to be able to support and pray for my parishioners then I need to be out and about among them, aware of what is going on in their lives, commiserating in hard times and at times like the Jubilee joining in the fun -- which led to my four day's of peripatetic partying!
14th January 2013
The readings at Morning Prayer focussed my mind in a way that was rather like a manifesto for the New Year:
Psalm 71, verse 16
"Forsake me not, O God, in mine old age, when I am gray-headed until I have showed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power unto all them that are yet for to come."
Paul's first Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 1, verse 17
"Christ did not send me to baptize, but to proclaim the gospel; and to do it without recourse to the skills of rhetoric, lest the cross of Christ be robbed of its effect."
One of the troubles with the Church is trying to make an impression by doing things for effect. Perhaps we don't use much "rhetoric" now, but we do dream up slogans and gimmicks and publicity and entertaining activities -- when perhaps all we really need to do is to tell the Christian story straight so that people receive the essential message that God loves them, as Jesus showed.
16th February 2013
There is more to life than we see on the surface; though whilst we are limited to this life, we cannot imagine what is beyond it unconfined by space and time.
Sometimes, perhaps out in the spaciousness of these surroundings, we might catch an ecstatic glimpse of "beyond".
People whose sights are raised over hill and valley can have a momentary vision of life with unlimited perspective. People who view the divine majesty of the landscape, who plant trees and join in the work of creation, who care for livestock and nurture life, who understand that death is just part of life, they are living out the human vocation to be co-creators with the loving source of all life -- whom we call God.
14th March 2013
At the bottom of the middle window is a depiction of Jesus healing a blind man. Perhaps the stained glass artist meant it metaphorically as a reference to our insight when we perceive the meaning of Christ's giving his life for us. Today it's reminder for me of the repeated miracles in life -- from the miracle of birth itself to the remarkable experience of being operated on by an eye surgeon who removes my diseased (clouded and short-sighted) lens and inserts an artificial lens that gives me perfect distance vision.
Under local anaesthetic, I hear the surgeon say "Are you holding your breath? Keep breathing. Don't forget to breathe. You're doing well, really well." "Are you doing well?" I mumbled. "Yes, I'm doing well" he reassured me. And he did do really well.
The waiting area of the ophthalmology day-surgery is a place of subdued camaraderie where the post-operative patients reassure the next in the queue. It's a restrained mixture of fear, courage and exhilaration. This is a routine and normally successful procedure. So we undergo an unpleasant experience for the sake of the worthwhile outcome.
We are just coming up to the annual remembrance in the Church of Jesus' agony in the garden of Gethsemane where he prayed that if possible he might be spared what he had to go through before willingly accepting arrest and execution (by horrific crucifixion). But he didn't suffer this for his own benefit: it was his last demonstration of the divine love that is willing to give everything for others. He did really well! And we look forward to renewed vision and hope in life.
18th July 2013
Imagine a day in a Northumberland valley in early June when the cloud lowered and the breeze got up and there was a constant suggestion of drizzle. News reached the local people awaiting a traveller that he was delayed, waiting for his horse to recover from an ailment.The days went by, a week or two passed, word came that he was setting out and on a hot day towards mid July the parson went out from Bellingham taking fruit and water in the hope of encountering the traveller this side of Wark Forest........... I met William leading Strider in these circumstances in 2013, but it could have been 1013 or somebody expecting Aidan or Cuthbert travelling from Melrose in the seventh century. On his “Ride round England” William is living at the pace that came naturally to most people until about a century ago.
It makes one realise how simply one can live, how much we rely on each other, how it's possible to manage without instantaneous communications or precise timetables. It helps one to value solitude and the opportunity to reflect unhurriedly, to appreciate the kindness of strangers, to see how much we all have in common deep down.It gives one a real awareness of scale, of one's own place in the landscape, a recognition (with a good sense of humility) that there is something far greater than us.
Unable to be in control in rugged surroundings that can be so beautiful but so hostile, we delight in the company of our fellow travellers, the welcome and hospitality along our journey – and perhaps we have a growing sense of reverence as we develop into pilgrims, ready to thank God for the richness of a properly paced life.
19th October 2013
As you get nearer to what looked like a tree with a hole in the middle, you realised that they are two trees leaning towards each other over a gap. I'm fascinated by that space. I focus on the nothing. There must once have been a tree there which affected the shape of the others. There's a whole story to be told about the life of that missing tree and how it disappeared -- almost as though it had never been. But it's left its mark on the others; its influence lives on.
28th February 2015
A reflection for Lent
[photograph by Sally Napier]
You reflect first. My comments will follow later.I would never have guessed that the grey-brown shingle was full of so many colours. The longer I looked, the more I saw. And, I suppose, the longer the tides ebb and flow, the smaller the grains become.
6th April 2015
6th April 2015
A reminder of how much we miss in life unless we pay close attention -- and how much there is that we never notice.
24th June 2016
A prayer issued by the Church of England following the referendum
“Eternal God, light of the nations, in Christ you make all things new.
Guide our nation through the coming days by the inspiration of your Spirit, that understanding may put an end to all discord and bitterness. Give us grace to rebuild bonds of trust that together we may work for the dignity and flourishing of all.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
For the August parish magazine:
As I put on a church noticeboard on 24th June,
After the referendum the Church is still here for everybody.
The present time may feel uncertain, insecure, perhaps bewildering. But there's also great opportunity for re-assessing our situation and for developing new relationships – relationships that are not limited to any particular group of nations.
Other nations, both inside the European Union and outside it, can renew or alter the way they relate to the United Kingdom. We can all consider what our priorities are and what really matters. Most importantly, we all need to be generous and hospitable in our attitudes towards each other. That will open up all sorts of good possibilities; and it applies as much to individuals as to countries.
As I write this, my younger niece is on her way to work for eighteen months in Australia. As she moves from this island to that rather larger island, I have just received an e-mail from an Australian friend who writes “Your father told me forty years ago that Britain was a 'tiny, overcrowded but welcoming island', something that I have never forgotten and I hope it isn't going to change.”
It's a good reminder to the Church in this area that we are called to be Generous, Engaged (with other people) and Open to the needs of others and the love of God.Let us all (not only churchgoers) spread that kindness and and continue in the welcoming tradition of Northumbrian hospitality.
Remember that the Church is still here for the benefit of everyone (because all people are God's “children”) and please ask for help, support and encouragement from us whenever you wish.