A note from the Vicarage...

From the Vicarage, December 2021

 Everyone likes candles.   Birthday candles, Christmas candles, tea-light candles, Advent candles, votive candles, dinner-party candles, fork ‘andles…

 Sorry about that last one.  It was kind of inevitable…  

 A burning candle can mean many things.   At a basic level, it provides light.   But there’s much more to it than that.  The living flame of a candle is something that’s hard to reproduce, and so candles as decorations create an atmosphere that’s special, and always has a ‘wow’ factor.   Candles take effort to set up, and light, so they’re a mark of a special effort and a particular intention on the part of the person who put them there.   They always draw our attention, so they act as a focus.  They say, ‘This is important.’  ‘Treat this with respect.’

 It’s been reported that candle sales soared during the pandemic, particularly during the lockdowns.  Why was that?  Perhaps because, amongst other things, candles are symbols of hope and love; of life, love and persistence.

 And the overwhelming desire of many people, as they seek to deal with feelings of loss, fear and bewilderment, is to light a candle – preferably in a special place, and in the company of other like-minded people.   There the candles remain, as long as they last, symbols of the triumph of light over darkness and a powerful expression of hope and solidarity with those who are suffering and need hope.

 The triumph of light over darkness.  That’s important.  Light, of course, always triumphs over darkness – darkness is simply the lack of light.  Darkness has no power of its own.  It has to retreat when light comes.

 And what ‘light’ do we need when faced with the ‘darkness’ of human suffering?  The light that we need is the light of love.  The ills of this world – not least those perpetrated by some members of the human race – are powerless against love.  Love, expressed in community, mutual respect and support, forgiveness and all the rest, will always triumph.

 That’s why Christmas remains important.  It’s when we remember that Christ, the Light of the World, entered our hurting world as a vulnerable baby to show us what true love looks like and to restore our relationship to God through his sacrificial life and death, and resurrection.    Evil has been trying to put that Light out for many centuries now, but it remains steady and strong and undefeatable.

 May Love give you all the light, strength and hope you need this Christmas and New Year.

 With every blessing,

 Nick

 P.S. You can always light a candle in St Margaret’s church if you want – it’s open every day until 4 pm.

From the Vicarage, November 2021

I referred to my former career as a musician a few months ago.  Now, being a musician is not all about live performance.  I’ve also spent a lot of my career in recording studios, both with various bands of which I’ve been a member and also as a session musician – someone who comes along and contributes a specific part to a recording, without necessarily meeting any of the other musicians involved.     

Being a session musician can be a great deal of fun, particularly when you’re working with a gifted producer.  It’s also very high pressure.  Usually, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to asked to play before you actually get to the studio.  Sometimes you’re asked to compose a part on the spot.  And the pressure is always on, because studio time is very expensive.  So, if you can create a perfect part and record it in one ‘take’, you’re a very popular musician.   My favourite quote from those days is from a producer who said to me, “That was very good, Nick.  Now can you do it again – better?”

Things are somewhat easier now.  When I started, everything was on multitrack tape.  A good, full performance of the piece in question was needed from every musician.  Editing was difficult; a faulty performance usually meant trying to ‘drop in’ a correction (often challenging), or re-doing the part entirely.  Nowadays, everything is recorded digitally using computers.  Editing is easy.  You can ‘cut and paste’ a bit of audio just like you can a piece of text.  You can even change the key or tempo of a part, or correct the tuning.  It can all be ‘fixed in the mix.’   You can get away with musical murder – and some do.  A full, perfect performance is no longer necessary.  ‘Cheating’ seems normal.  Real musicians are often side-lined.

We can ‘fix’ a lot of things with computers.  Recording software takes care of music and audio.  Photoshop and the like take care of photographs and pictures.  Video software takes care of moving images.  And so on.  The question is, how much have we ourselves been influenced by this?    Are we in danger of ‘dumbing down’ our whole approach to life, with the hope that it can all be ‘fixed in the mix,’ or that our mistakes can be ‘cut and pasted’ out?

I hope not.  The reality, of course, is that life happens in one long ‘take’.  Sadly – or, perhaps, mercifully – we can’t travel back in time.   If our performance isn’t perfect on one particular occasion, well, that’s just the way it is.  Learning to live with our mistakes is one of the hardest lessons that we have to take on board.  Of course, we can always try to do things again – better!  And I happen to believe that there is a gifted Producer available, a real artist, who is happy to work with you on everything so that you, and others, can be proud of what you can achieve.

Without any cutting and pasting at all…

With every blessing,

Nick

From the Vicarage, October 2021

I was amused to be told, many years ago, that somewhere on the North Yorkshire Moors there was a noticeboard that read, ‘It is forbidden to throw stones at this notice.’   I’m not sure if it ever really existed, but it’s achieved almost legendary status – there was a discussion in The Guardian about it back in 2011. 

We’ve all seen or heard about unintentionally funny signs and notices.   I love them – I collect pictures of them.  I’ve got shops proclaiming, ‘Antique Tables Made Daily,’ and  ‘Yes, We’re Open (unless we are closed).’   From America – ‘Touching Wires Causes Instant Death – $200 Dollar Fine,’ and an elementary school advertising a ‘Leteracy Night’.  There’s a road sign pointing to a ‘Historic Life–Saving Station Cemetery’, and a reassuring notice telling us that ‘Extra Ladies are available around the corner’.

I’m particularly attracted to ‘notice bloopers’ associated with church.  My favourite has to be ‘Don’t Let Worries Kill You – Let The Church Help.’

Some notices are very creative.  Seen in a church store room:  ‘A place for everything, and everything in its place. However, its place is not here!’   And ‘Beware of the Dog. The Cat is not trustworthy either’ caught my eye recently.

You see, that’s the thing about signs and notices.  They’re meant to catch your eye.  You’re supposed to notice them.  But, these days, we’re so surrounded by notices, particularly ones about Covid restrictions and requirements, that we tend to tune them out.   The fact is that many of them go un–noticed.   Many are routinely ignored.   Perhaps we all suffer from ‘notice fatigue.’  There are just too many notices everywhere, plastering walls and windows, many of them put up to point out the obvious, or to prevent litigation.  It’s too much.  And it’s all so impersonal.

So much for signs and notices.  Now, some people say to me, “Why can’t God send me a sign?” 

It’s an interesting question, and clearly heartfelt.   Why can’t God make it obvious for us?  Couldn’t He send us notices and signs?  Letters of fire across the sky would be nice.  Something we can’t miss?

Maybe we might notice them, if He did.  Or maybe we wouldn’t; maybe we’d see them as just another part of the ‘background clutter’ that we tune out on a daily basis in this noisy and cluttered world.  And He’s not an impersonal God, anyway.  He doesn’t tend to send us notices.  He’s much more direct and personal than that; he deals with each of us as the unique, and loved, individuals we are.

Perhaps he is speaking to us, and we just haven’t noticed yet.

With every blessing,

Nick

From the Vicarage, July/August 2021

I’ve just watched an amazing video clip of a cat playing a piano concerto.  

Yes.  You read that right.  A cat.  No, not a cartoon cat, like the famous Tom and Jerry Hollywood Bowl concert episode.  A real cat.  She’s called Nora the piano cat, and she’s playing with a talented chamber orchestra.  It’s very moving; the music is beautiful and haunting.   A captivating experience.

Now, before you come to the conclusion that I’ve completely lost my mind, let me explain what actually happens.  The cat and the chamber orchestra are indeed both real ­– you can see them for yourself on YouTube.  Search for ‘Catcerto’ and you’ll find the clip (there’s also a website, at https://piecaitis.com/catcerto.html ).

The orchestra is the Klaipeda Chamber Orchestra, from Lithuania, under the direction of their conductor Mindaugas Piecaitis.  And the cat ‘performs’ on a large video screen behind the orchestra.  But the cat’s ‘performance’ is actually a series of film clips of it sounding notes by pawing and nuzzling at the keys of a piano, skillfully edited together.  And the music that the orchestra plays has been specially composed by the conductor to include these entirely random ‘cat notes’.

Now, Nora, the cat, has no musical talent in any accepted sense of the word.  She’s, er, a cat. She’s simply developed a liking for sitting on the piano stool and interacting with the piano keyboard (her owner is a piano teacher).  The real  talent here belongs to the composer and conductor Piecaitis, whose amazing skill and creativity has produced a memorable and complex piece of music that completely transforms what the cat is doing.

And that is what God can do with us.  We are, of course, capable of achieving far more than any cat.  And, to (mis!) quote Scripture, we are ‘of more value than many cats’ (‘sparrows’ in the original).  But in comparison to God, our efforts are small and very imperfect.  The wonder of it all is that God takes our small and uncoordinated efforts and weaves them into his music, a glorious symphony that spans the ages.  Our own contributions are thereby transformed and made beautiful by God’s own skill and creativity, and the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts.

So don’t be afraid to offer what you have.  God can and will use it.  Nora the piano cat had absolutely no idea of what would be made of her actions; indeed, she is clearly incapable of understanding it.  We, too, cannot see things from God’s perspective while we are on this earth.

But one day we will.

With every blessing,

Nick

From the Vicarage, April 2021

I heard this story from a friend in Ireland:

A man moves into a village in County Kerry, walks into the pub and promptly orders three beers.   The bartender raises his eyebrows, but serves the man three beers, which he drinks quietly at a table, alone.

An hour later, the man has finished the three beers and orders three more.

This happens yet again.

The next evening the man again orders and drinks three beers at a time, several times. Soon the entire town is whispering about the Man Who Orders Three Beers.

Finally, a week later, the bartender broaches the subject on behalf of the town. "I don't mean to pry, but folks around here are wondering why you always order three beers?"

'Tis odd, isn't it?" the man replies, "You see, I have two brothers, and the one went to America, and the other to Australia. We promised each other that we would always order an extra two beers whenever we drank as a way of keeping up the family bond."

The bartender and the whole town was pleased with this answer, and soon the Man Who Orders Three Beers became a local celebrity and source of pride to the village, even to the extent that out-of-towners would come to watch him drink.

Then, one day, the man comes in and orders only two beers. The bartender pours them with a heavy heart. This continues for the rest of the evening – he orders only two beers. The word flies around town. Prayers are offered for the soul of one of the brothers.

The next day, the bartender says to the man, "Folks around here, me first of all, want to offer condolences to you for the death of your brother. You know – the two beers and all..."   

The man ponders this for a moment, then replies, "Well, now, you'll be happy to hear that my two brothers are both alive and well…  It's just that I, myself, have decided to give up the drinking for Lent."

Whatever we ourselves may or may not have given up for Lent, we’ve all certainly been forced to give up many things in the past months – the past year, indeed.  But, as you read this, we’re coming to the end of Lent and into the hope of Easter, together with the always-encouraging start of Spring.  Co-incidentally, perhaps, we’re also coming towards the long-awaited end of lockdown restrictions and into the hope of a gradually more normal existence – more social and family contact, meeting people face-to-face, being able to travel, shop, get our hair cut, and all the rest.  Things seem to be looking up.

Just a thought, though.  We’ve built some important bonds over the last year as we’ve fought adversity together.  Bonds of care and concern.  Bonds of mutual support and encouragement.    Bonds that have emphasised our shared humanity – and vulnerability – across society, and, indeed, much further.   As we all eagerly rush back to doing the things we’ve missed, it would be good to keep those ‘family’ bonds up, wouldn’t it?

In fact, I’ll drink to that…

With every blessing,

Nick

From the Vicarage, March 2021

A number of years ago, near where I used to live, I was able to watch the construction of a new office building from start to finish.  I drove past the site on most days, and there was usually something new or different to see, from initial site clearance right through to completion and occupation.   One of the most interesting things appeared near the beginning of the project.  It was the first thing that arose from the ground after the foundations were laid, and it was very complicated and impressive.   But it wasn’t part of the building itself at all.  It was the scaffolding, which was carefully constructed right up to the full height of the building.  When it was finished, it enclosed, at the start, an entirely empty, but clearly building-shaped, space!    

The scaffolding is of course vital for any building project.  It’s essential in order that the final structure can be built safely and well.  Without it, the building would be very challenging to make and impossible to finish.  But, complicated and costly as it is, the scaffolding isn’t permanent.  If you look at any completed building, you won’t see any trace of it left.  It’s all been removed – because it has finished its job.

Now, just as a building needs an exterior framework in order to be built properly, so do our spiritual lives.  We, too, need frameworks in order that we can grow and develop spiritually and, I would argue, in other ways too.  We need frameworks of regular worship, regular prayer, regular fellowship; regular encounters with God.  And that takes discipline.   It’s an unpopular word; but without it our frameworks – our ‘scaffolding’ – will be wobbly and our inner spiritual life potentially stunted and out of true.  That’s a major reason behind the development of ‘Rules of Life’ in monastic orders.  They provide, as one monastic told me, ‘an exterior framework for an interior journey.’

Few of us are called to the monastic life.  But the idea of being a bit more disciplined in our attention to our spiritual development is worth considering by everyone.  Set times aside for devotion and meditation. Use devotional guides. Give yourself a framework for life and, I promise you, good things will be built. We’re all a ‘work in progress’…

✦✦✦

…which brings me on to this year’s Lent course.  We’re going to be looking at the idea of a simple and personal Rule of Life that will help us to be more in tune with God’s life.  The course is called ‘Sharing God’s Life’, and we’ll run it via Zoom on Thursday evenings starting on Thursday 25th February at 7:30pm (a pack is downloadable or available as hard copy if you’re unable to join the live sessions).   More details are on the church website.   Please contact Natasha, our administrator, if you’d like to join in.

With every blessing

Nick

 

From the Vicarage, February 2021

Two frogs fell in a can of cream

Or so I heard it told
The sides of the can were shiny and steep
The cream was deep and cold.

O what’s the use, croaked frog number one
Too straight; no help’s around
Goodbye my friends, goodbye fair world!
And weeping still, he drowned.

But number two, of sterner stuff,
Dog-paddled in surprise.
And while he wiped his creamy face,
And dried his creamy eyes,

I swim a while, at least, he said,
Or so I’ve heard, he said
It really won’t help the world
If one more frog were dead

An hour or two he kicked and swam
Not once he stopped to mutter.
But he kicked and kicked and swam
and kicked and hopped out – via butter!

T C Hamlet

I was reflecting with some clergy friends recently that there’s a different feel to the current lockdown compared with the first one, back in the Spring of 2020.  Just a month ago we were so eager to see the back of 2020 and welcome in 2021, which had to be so much better.    But, so far, it hasn’t been, although the start of the vaccination programme gives us all much-needed hope.   As I write this, Covid-19 infections, hospitalisations, and deaths are at record levels, and the NHS is at breaking point.  So we’re all feeling pretty numb right now, and all of our personal resources – including spiritual ones – feel like they are running very low.

So, what do we do?  Well, we could all give up and let ourselves be consumed by a sort of self-fulfilling pessimism, a bit like Eeyore – or a certain frog.    

You’ll have gathered from the poem, however, that that’s not what I’m suggesting. 

Whatever your particular ‘can of cream’ looks like – and I know that they can be pretty lonely places – keep paddling!  Keep on going with the things you can do, and don’t worry about the things you can’t change.  Make the effort to keep in touch with people.  Don’t give up on the things that bring life and light to life, including prayer.  Remember that we’re all doing this together, even if we can’t meet.  And when we do meet, keep on caring for others in the important practical ways – face coverings, space, and all the rest.

There will be something solid underfoot soon…

With every blessing,

Nick


December 2020

Ah, babies’ first words.  Mine, apparently, was ‘no’.  One of my brothers’ was ‘bang’.  Other common ones, we’re told, include mama, dada, ball, bye, hi, dog, baby, woof woof, and banana.  These days, however, I reckon that they’re just as likely to be words like ‘unprecedented’, ‘social distancing’, and ‘face covering’.  Because those are the words they’ll hear so frequently in conversation and on TV and social media … 

Words can be powerful. They can inspire us, make us laugh, move us to tears, mock and wound us, enrage us and lead us to hate. They can take root in our souls and shape how we think and behave. And it’s all too easy for people to take to social media to vent their feelings without thought for the impact on those on the receiving end.  In an age of mass media, we can feel overwhelmed by the deluge of words that wash over us on a daily basis. And currently, in the midst of a pandemic, anxiety, fear and despair can spread just as rapidly as the virus.

It’s so easy for good news to get lost among the bad news and the fake news. Christmas is coming, and while we may have to celebrate it differently this year (how I long to sing some carols!), the message is unchanged. Christmas is fundamentally about good news for the world, a message of love from God.

He didn’t send an email, post a tweet, come up with a soundbite or generate a sensational headline. He came in person, Emmanuel – ‘God with us’ – as a vulnerable baby.  As he grew, and throughout his lifetime, he experienced all that it is to be human, including being ‘socially distanced’ by those in power, as he challenged fake messages about God and spoke of God’s heart for all his creation.

I don’t know what Jesus’ first word was, but I do know that he embodied God’s Word to us.  Which is ‘love’.

With every blessing,

Nick

November 2020

In 1866, an experimental steam carriage was built in the United States of America – in New York, to be precise.  It was rather tall and uncomfortable-looking, with solid wheels, and had bench seats high up above the boiler.  It’s now preserved in the Smithsonian collection, and even featured on a 1991 stamp:  

The designer and maker of this magnificent device was one Richard Dudgeon.  

 

And the reason for telling you all this, of course, is so that I can point out that it really was possible, once, to ‘drive off in high Dudgeon.’ 

 

 

So…. now that the groans have subsided, let me reflect that being in a state of ‘high dudgeon’ (‘feeling or exhibiting great resentment or indignation; taking great offence at something’) is all too common in today’s society.  In fact, many people seem to take offence at the proverbial drop of a hat, particularly if they perceive that they are not being ‘respected’.  They’re suspicious of anyone who doesn’t share their values, preferences and prejudices. They’re hypersensitive about having their rights infringed (whether those rights are real or imagined), or their perceived status diminished.   They don’t like anyone telling them what to do, particularly when it comes to Covid restrictions.   People are outspoken about their ‘rights’; but seem not to have the same enthusiasm for their responsibilities.  And you can’t have one without the other. 

But I recently heard someone say that it had been estimated that 90% of the unhappiness in the world was due to people not being treated in the ways that they thought they deserved.   Whatever the truth of that statistic, it makes you think, doesn’t it?  Perhaps we are too demanding.  Perhaps we’ve believed all that advertising stuff about being ‘worth it.’  Perhaps we need to be more realistic and active about what we can contribute to society rather than take from it.  Of course, it’s not ‘one or the other.’  We do need to respect one another properly.  But we also might need to be less ready to take offence if our particular bubble is pricked!

I’ve got one final thought, though.  What a shame that no one by the name of ‘Huff’ went into the car manufacturing business…

With every blessing,

Nick


 October 2020

I’ve got to be honest.  

Engaging with the news at the moment is difficult.   What with the pandemic, and all its threats, restrictions  and difficulties; the worsening global environmental situation; the dreadful injustices faced by millions across the world because of war and oppression; and all the rest – it makes for a stressful daily intake.  The media are very efficient at bringing us news of war, disaster, crises and suffering from anywhere and everywhere in the world.

It all gets a bit much at times.  And rather overwhelming.  Whether spoken or unspoken, the question rumbling away within me is always, “What can I do about it?”

What, indeed?

In a real sense, of course, I can’t personally deal with the enormity of the world’s suffering; no human being has the personal resources to take it all on board.  But I don’t think that I’m alone in feeling guilty that we might not be as passionate as we should be about the troubling issues all around us, or that we don’t personally do much more about them than donate money via a credit card from the comfort of our own homes.

What should our response be, as responsible human beings and as Christians who take our faith seriously?   There’s a quotation from the Talmud that brings a good perspective to this:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief.  Do justly, now.  Love mercy, now.  Walk humbly, now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

As with most things in life, we need to concentrate on what we can do, in the situations in which God has placed us, rather than what we can’t do.  

And, thinking about that, here’s a story that I often reflect upon.

One day a man was walking along a beach after a storm when he noticed a boy ahead of him going to and fro across the beach to the water’s edge, repeatedly picking objects up and gently throwing them into the ocean. 

Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”

The youth replied, “Throwing these starfish that have been washed up back into the sea.   The sun is hot and the tide is going out.  If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”

“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds and hundreds of starfish?  It’s a waste of time; you can’t possibly make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the sea.  Then, smiling at the man, he said, 

“I made a difference for that one.”

With every blessing,

Nick

September 2020

Holiday?  What holiday?

That’s how most of us feel, I should think, about the summer we’ve just had.  Most people’s holiday plans have been wrecked in some way by the pandemic.  So, inevitably, we find ourselves thinking about what we’d like to do next year.  And, perhaps, reflecting on holidays we’ve had in the past…

Once upon a time, Anita, Erin and I were having a wonderful week in north Pembrokeshire, staying in a cottage not far from Strumble Head.   The weather was for the most part sunny, the scenery was spectacular, and we met some really nice people.  Highlights included horse riding on the beach, a visit to St. David’s Cathedral, and seeing some wonderful wildlife, including seals and a dolphin.  One day, we visited Ramsey Island, and saw seals by the hundred.

At one point we were looking down from the cliffs on a beach that was a mixture of sand and rock, and I could see clearly a pup basking in the sun, with its mother in the water close by keeping an eye on it. I was delighted. It was the first pup we’d seen, and I pointed it out to Anita. 

But she couldn’t make it out. 

I was puzzled.  To me it seemed as clear as day, and I said as much to Anita, who still couldn’t see the pup at all, and was getting increasingly exasperated by my insistence that it was really easy to see, it was right there by that big rock, it couldn’t be more obvious; what on earth was the problem?

But then I took off my sunglasses to see what difference it might make, and immediately realised what the problem was.  We were both wearing sunglasses – but they were different kinds of sunglasses.   Mine were polarising – and hers weren’t.   

The great advantage of polarising sunglasses is that they filter out most of the reflections from shiny or wet surfaces, and enable you to see colour and detail without being dazzled.  That’s why I could see the pup.   Without those sunglasses, all I could see were shiny rocks.  The pup vanished, as if by magic.  That was the problem.   Anita needed different sunglasses.

Reflecting on this (if you’ll pardon the pun!) it seems to me that it’s easy to get dazzled or distracted as we look at the world around us.    We’ve got all sorts of things constantly coming at us, to do with the pandemic and what we can and can’t do; confusion over where we can and can’t go; the pressures of daily life and who we can and can’t meet up with; and so on.  In the midst of all this, it’s easy to miss things that are significant.   They get hidden by the ‘reflections’.  Like the seal pup – alone, vulnerable and, well, invisible.

Unless – we make an effort to ‘filter out’ the other stuff.  Then the true pattern of things can emerge and we and might see, perhaps, the small, delicate and vulnerable matters that are important and significant; the reality of things as God sees them. 

With every blessing,

Nick

Video Reflections...