A note from the Vicarage...

From the Vicarge 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

 


February 2021

From the Vicarage

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

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