Monday, 9 July 2018

Open Garden Day - Sunday 15 July

...running from 1 - 5pm.

Buy a map which admits you to wonderful gardens throughout the Village. You can start at either Shotley Bridge Cricket Club where there's a Craft Fair - or at St. Cuthbert's Church Hall where there'll be refreshments.

Proceeds to be divided between our Church Heating System Appeal and the Cricket Club Junior Division.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Building anew…

I’m not proposing that we build a new church for our parish. But I have to admit that the present one gives us (gives me) quite enough trouble itself. At 168 years of age it’s reached that critical point of lots of bits wearing out at the same time. Keeping the paint on the walls has been a long-standing problem - and we realise that the only solution is to take it all off and start again. But that pales into insignificance when you lose your heating system - and while you may not think you’re hearing much about that, let me assure you that we are working on it!

I’m glad to say that the planned roof works have now been completed - and  the bills have been paid! So there’s less anxiety in that quarter. And for the moment we can enjoy the church and the natural warmth of summer. But it doesn’t stop me fretting about the return of chillier weather and the challenges still outstanding.

So I’m glad to have found a fresh perspective when checking out part of our church’s history. Shotley Bridge Village Trust has a current project of placing plaques on various buildings of significance in our area. Each plaque will give a short description and a special “QR Code” which will link smart phones to a more detailed online account. In checking the dates for the proposed church description I noticed a couple of things. One, relevant to our current problems, is that the heating pipes seem to date back to the extension of the church in the early 1880s - or are these simply “additional pipes”? There’s reference to “the existing arrangement” - so perhaps they were simply added on to an original system dating right back to 1850! And going back to the beginning, there’s the reminder that the church didn’t spring up overnight. It was consecrated in September 1850. But the foundation stone was laid 18 months earlier. And the parish was formed in June 1847. Over three years’ work by priest and people was necessary before they could move into the church we have now. There would have been disruption as they enlarged the church in the 1880s. The task now may seem to lead us uphill. But it’s not the first challenge we have faced. Thanks to all who are working to build our church anew!   
Martin Jackson

From the Double Issue Parish Magazine for July & August 2018 - click here to read it all!

Monday, 11 June 2018

Where are you? - avoidance, sanctity and faithfulness

Trinity 2 (Proper 5) Year B – Eucharist –

(Genesis 3.8-15; 2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1; Mark 3.20-35)

Today’s first reading from the Book of Genesis starts with a compelling image: the sound of the Lord God walking in a garden at the time of the evening breeze. It’s the Garden of Eden, of course, given to Adam and Eve, its only human inhabitants, for their use and pleasure as long as they exercise stewardship over it as asked by God. In its centre there are two trees: the Tree of Life, which nourishes them and symbolises all that is life-giving - all that God wishes for our good; and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil - of which God has asked them to refrain from eating its fruit. It’s a deal: they know the deal, but they’ve broken the deal. Now God comes into the picture in person.

Not that you see him. He’s only heard - but he’s taking pleasure in his Creation, all that he has made to be good, by walking in his garden in “the cool of the day,” as more traditional translations put it. I like it to be warm - give me a warm evening so I can sit out in my garden, but you can appreciate what it’s saying. I can sit at the evening hour and appreciate the subsiding of noise and the day’s busy-ness; if I’m outside or have the window open, I hear the song of birds, feel the peace settling in the summer air - and it’s lovely.

But in this third chapter of Genesis everything is about to change. God calls to Adam, “Where are you?” Does he need to ask? Surely God knows. He knows that Adam has been disobedient. He made Adam and everything in the garden, so he doesn’t need to ask… Except for Adam’s sake. “Where are you?” God asks of the man and the woman. Where have you put yourself? What sort of mess have you got yourself into? Why do you feel the need to hide?

Adam’s answer is: “I heard you… and I was afraid, because I was naked.” Adam had been created naked. It’s naked that we all come into the world. But now something has happened that makes him feel shame. Adam has come to see the human condition which he inhabits as something to be ashamed of. He feels alienation. He’s taken the step away from God - and now he realises that his own strength and his own abilities are insufficient to reach back across the gap.

Where are you?” God asks Adam. You can treat the story of Adam and Eve as a myth, if you wish. But it’s no less true for that. If God were to say to me, “Where are you?” what would I answer? What do I answer? What would you say?

Where are you?” So often, if you put that question to people in the context of speaking about faith, they’ll say “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” There’s a lot that religious bigotry and hatred has to answer for, history does have periods which have been described as “Wars of Religion,” and it’s sad that the veneer of religious respectability or even religious authority has been used as a cloak to cover up abuse of various sorts. Is that why so many people are reluctant to describe themselves as “religious?” But I wonder if you’d get very far if you were to press them on what it means to be “spiritual” as at the same time they reject religion and its precepts?

Fr. George Rutler, a Roman Catholic priest in New York, puts it this way:

The Internal Revenue Service would not be impressed by someone who paid taxes not in the formal way, but in a spiritual sense. Yet the equivalent of that has become an esoteric mantra among many who identify as Catholics but reject Catholicism as their religion. 

It’s what he calls “cultural Catholicism.” I suspect it actually has more identity and coherence to it than much of what passes for spirituality in this country. Nevertheless, he goes on:

That “cultural Catholicism” does not work when challenged by Catholicism’s despisers. There is much to be said for inheriting the faith of ancestors, but ancestors are betrayed when that faith is a patrimony that is squandered by a spendthrift heir. In the Middle East there are Christians who can trace their religious identity back to the apostles, but theirs is not a mere cultural religion. A year after Christian towns of northern Iraq were liberated from the Islamic State, many families still live in refugee camps…

In those areas, the faithful have had to resist attempts to make them renounce the Gospel by force. In decadent Western cultures, such surrender has been voluntary. Much of Europe has long since abandoned Christ through indifference.

Where are you?” God asks Adam - and us. It’s a challenge. Adam does what so many of us do when we’re found out or put on the spot. He blames someone else. It was her… “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit from the tree, and I ate.” At least Eve had some curiosity about her as she took up the challenge to eat a fruit which would give her the knowledge of good and evil.

Where are you?” How would we respond to the challenge which Jesus brought to the communities amongst which he proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God? His hearers at the time said he was mad, but they themselves could talk only about Satan and the work of demons. How much different is it in today’s world where there’s a growing interest in the occult, but little action taken to learn or practise anything of the positive aspects of faith? Even Jesus’ own family can’t take in what he is doing. Flesh and blood are not enough. There needs to be an openness to receive the message of Christ. As Jesus says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

That’s not to say that you should write your own family off. As some of you know, my Mother has been dealing with increasing pain and lack of mobility as doctors have again and again put off surgery to replace her hip. I know I’m by no means unique in wrestling with how best to help when I live at such a distance yet am at the same time the only person she has who can try to get her the help and provision she needs. For months when I’ve asked how she is, she’s responded with the word, “Rubbish.” Her frailty and pain are not the human condition which God wills for his Creation. And then I read St. Paul’s words in today’s Second Reading from his Second Letter to the Corinthians:

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

How can my Mother not lose heart? I know I have. The months and years of pain are rather more than what St. Paul calls a “slight momentary affliction.” Thankfully as the crisis came to a head she has been admitted to hospital and will get her operation later this week. But for the moment there is still uncertainty, anxiety, confusion - and that sense of mortality, the “outer nature which is wasting away.”

Yet there is more that we can affirm. For a start the human condition which lets us down is a glorious condition and a gift. “Behold, I am wonderfully made,” the Psalmist could affirm - even though he spends much of his time complaining and lamenting the state he and the world are in. If sickness, pain and death make us angry with God - well, that’s better than being merely angry. Anger alone at our frailty and wretchedness get us nowhere and give us no hope. Anger where God is in the picture at least gives us hope. Not necessarily an answer - but something and someone beyond our time-limited pain.

Because I needed a day off last Friday, but wanted to see my Mother in North Tees Hospital, I drove down to North Yorkshire for the day so I could visit her on the way back. Too much driving! But I was glad I did it. In Lastingham (once I’d been to the pub!), I re-visited the village church and its ancient crypt. It’s a place where St. Chad had lived in the seventh century. A man of great ability, skilled in preaching and a faithful pastor of his people, Chad found himself deposed from his bishopric. But he didn’t engage in recrimination, he didn’t let despondency overcome him. He continued faithful in prayer and sought new ways in which God was calling him. And the end-result was that he took his Christian faith to people he’d never expected to encounter. God opened new ways.

Carrying on from there I stopped in Egton Bridge - literally because we were going the wrong way and I needed to make a U-turn. It became an opportunity to visit the Roman Catholic Church of St. Hedda. Inside we found the relics of Blessed Nicholas Postgate, a priest born nearby and who had ministered for 50 years at a time in the 17th century when the practice of his faith was forbidden. In a period of national hysteria over the so-called Popish Plot he was caught performing a baptism, judged and condemned for treason, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. At the age of 82 he was the oldest person in this country ever to be executed for his faith - a faith he’d put into practice living quietly but travelling far and wide to be a priest to his people.

It was an ignominious end to a life lived largely in obscurity. It’s said that the man who went out of his way to trap him was rewarded with a payment of 22 shillings, but then committed suicide by drowning himself. Bigotry and hatred played their part. But the faith which Blessed Nicholas practised sustained him through a ministry lived out in the hardest of times with no earthly reward until it ended on the gallows in York. Better that way than to be like those who brought accusations against him as others did against Jesus. Better to know the cost of discipleship than to follow the easy option which avoids grappling with the hard issues of suffering and mortality, of faithful religion and a calling made real in Christ.  

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Into “Ordinary Time”…

That’s when the vestments and hangings in church go green - after Easter-tide, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. But it’s not just a switch from golds and reds to something more mundane. It’s the reminder that it’s in the ordinary times of life that we do our growing - as surely as the grass in your garden will now be growing. So green is the colour of life, growth and hope.

Much of life is about “getting through it.” Fabric takes up much of our time, energy and money in the life of the Church. I’m glad today to have been able to say goodbye to the roofers who have spent the last two and a half weeks at St. Cuthbert’s - but I know we now have to turn to financing and fitting a new heating system. Hopefully there’ll be plenty of fun along the way. But let’s not lose sight of why we are doing it. Keep prayer at the heart of our faith - it will give us energy and growth. Here’s a borrowed reminder of how the simplest of prayers may be effective. References with acknowledgment to Parish Pump

Prayers don’t need to be long to be acceptable to God. 
For instance, consider:

St. Peter (Matthew 14.30):                           Lord, save me.
A Canaanite woman (Matthew 15.25):   Lord, help me.
Samuel (1 Samuel 3:10):                Speak, for your servant is listening.
Psalm 43.3:    O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; 
          let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.

Christians in later years have adopted the same form.

Michelangelo:                    Lord, make me see your glory in every place.
Gladys Aylward:               O God, give me strength.
William Barclay:               O God, keep me from being difficult to live with.
Francois Fenelon:             Teach me to pray.  Pray yourself in me.
John Wesley:                O Lord, let us not live to be useless, for Christ’s sake.

Why not practise saying a simple sentence prayer of your own each day?

Martin Jackson

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Ascension to Pentecost: Thy Kingdom Come…

“Thy Kingdom Come” is a critical phrase in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s how Jesus teaches us to pray: expectantly and trusting that God will hear our prayer. These words, “Thy Kingdom Come,” have in recent years been used as a name for an initiative by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to encourage us in our lives of prayer and to share our faith more widely. It’s an initiative which asks us to do this particularly in the period between Ascension Day and Pentecost. More and more churches have joined in - and it’s no longer something just for the Church of England. This year we have the opportunity to play our part.

There’s a website which tells you more - just search for it or look on the Church of England’s website. It makes suggestions as to some of the things a church might do. You could, it says:

  • Hold a Messy Church – if you’ve not done this before your first one could be themed around Thy Kingdom Come.
  • Introduce prayer stations at your church. For suggestions see our Bright Ideas for Your church booklet.
  • Hold a 24-7 prayer event in your church.
  • Go on a Prayer Safari.
  • Encourage your home group to run a Thy Kingdom Come session.
  • Go into your local school assembly and talk to the children about prayer.
  • Hold a prayer kite festival or a prayer bear picnic.
  • Have a ‘pray for five friends’ session.

That’s not to say what you should do, but what you could. You’ll probably realise that in fact they include some things we already do - from prayer opportunities in church to Messy Church. And we’ll be doing them and more in the period suggested, from Ascension Day, Thursday 10th May to Pentecost, Sunday 20th May.

We have a ready-made opportunity on Ascension Day. That’s the day we’re hosting our Deanery’s special Eucharist to celebrate the Feast. So instead of our usual Thursday morning service, we’ll have a Sung Eucharist at 7pm. Please come then, and please bring other people with you! We want to be able to give a big welcome to people from other churches in our Deanery - and to celebrate in a big way. Ascension Day recognises the place of Jesus at his Father’s right hand, exalted to the heavens - and it tells us of our hope as Jesus carries our humanity into the heart of God.

As to the other suggestions for joining in the initiative… I’ll expect to be in our schools for assemblies - not as a result of a special effort, but because it’s part of our regular ministry. There’ll be Messy Church too - something we’re already doing and on its regular day. And it will be Christian Aid Week, where we can be glad that people will be going out as part of their Christian discipleship to help the poorest of our world’s people. This is a regular thing too - though we can always use more help (see the separate article).

We’ve mentioned in this month’s Messy Church article that we hope to carry on what we begin in the Tuesday meeting onto the following Sunday - that’s Pentecost, 20th May. The Feast celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. And God calls us to be blessed by the Holy Spirit too. “Thy Kingdom Come,” we should pray. It’s the recognition that we are disciples of Jesus. And at Pentecost the first Disciples are transformed by the coming of the Spirit into Apostles - people who are sent out with a mission. It’s a calling for us all: to learn as disciples - to know ourselves changed by God’s work in us and to share that faith by word and deed.

Martin Jackson

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Easter hopes and the promise of the Resurrection

It has been a cold hard Lent - and even as we begin Eastertide the weather forecasters are telling us to expect yet more snow. At St. Cuthbert’s we’ve lamented that the daffodils which can so often set the churchyard’s bankside ablaze with their glory seem as yet to have no real interest in opening. And the church stands cold with its heating system dead and its congregation in exile across the road in the Church Hall. I realise so much more acutely now how a church is more than the stones of which it is made - it’s a place of Christ’s presence made real by the prayers of its people. When we find ourselves forced to move out and away from the church we cannot avoid a feeling that its atmosphere becomes one of abandonment.

Not wholly abandoned… It’s been moving that families have continued to want to come into the church for the funerals of loved ones - despite the harsh cold they would experience. Against the odds we have celebrated two marriages with real joy - and a sense of community ownership when it took a huge team of snow-shovellers just to get the bride and groom into the church. Then last Sunday a Baptism - water poured directly into the font from a kettle - though most of the photos were taken outside, where it was rather warmer than inside the church. And during Holy Week congregations have returned to brave the cold for the Eucharist, to follow the way of Christ’s Passion in the Stations of the Cross, and then to gather again for Good Friday morning.

Those few times we’ve been back to use the church - each time I have been in on my own - it’s brought into my heart a sense of loss for a church we might so easily take for granted, and a longing to return. That’s why for me it has been important to say that we would kindle the Paschal flame and light the Easter Candle in church, that there we would renew our Baptism vows and sing an Easter hymn. It’s a declaration of our faith - faith not in a building but in what the building witnesses to. We’ll be back - and hopefully with a renewed confidence in the faith which led to its being built in the first place.

The church is more than cold stone. And the Easter message is how God overcomes the coldness of the grave in which Jesus was laid on Good Friday. It’s nothing that anyone can do that brings about Resurrection. For the three women who come to the grave on that first Easter Day, all they hope to achieve is carry out the burial rites which they had been unable to undertake on the day of his death. They come expecting to find only a dead body. They come in grief and loss. They come not knowing even how they will be able to get at the body - “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” they ask.

And we never discover the answer - simply, “the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.” There are no explanations. In St. Mark’s Gospel a young man sitting in the tomb simply says, “He has been raised. He is not here.” His words seem merely to compound the women’s sense of alarm. They leave the tomb and flee in terror - and the last words of St. Mark’s account are “they were afraid.”

These are the words which are probably the original ending of St. Mark’s Gospel. What the women witness is a fearful thing. But it isn’t the end of the story.

We’re given two alternatives for our Gospel today. St. Mark’s telling of the story in its baldest form - the story of the three women who go to the tomb, find it empty and then run. But also St. John’s Gospel in which the Evangelist draws out the movement from the coldness of the grave to the first warm perception of what the Resurrection means. In each of the Gospels it’s Mary Magdalene who plays the central part. She’s the first of the three who, St. Mark tells us, went to the tomb. For St. John she’s also the first to visit the grave - and, when she runs from it, it’s to tell Peter and another disciple that the tomb is empty. And when those disciples go home it’s Mary who stays by the tomb. It’s Mary who shares her grief with the men in white to whose presence the other disciples seem to have been oblivious. And it’s Mary who hears their question, “Why are you weeping?” repeated by a stranger she takes to be a gardener.

St. Mark gives no explanations of the empty tomb. Simply “he has been raised.” St. John gives no explanations and even the oddness of angelic beings doesn’t cause him to make any comment as to why they are there. But John gives us detail - the folded grave cloths which is all that Peter finds. And still more he shows how God touches us in our humanity. “Why are you weeping?” is the question put both by the angels and the unrecognized stranger. The question reaches into Mary’s heart. She has no answers when even the body of the Jesus she loves so deeply has been taken away. No answer until Jesus speaks her name, “Mary!” It’s then that she knows he is risen, then that she can turn and address him as “Rabbouni, Teacher.” The Resurrection faith is real not because it can be explained but because it is known, and known personally when Jesus speaks Mary’s name. It’s real for us because Jesus knows us by name. Jesus reaches out to us in our sorrow and need, in faith and doubt, and enters into the deep recesses of our hearts, and speaks our name. We need only turn to him and he is there.

The events of the first Easter morning don’t rely on sacred buildings or a framework of religion. They take place in the opening up of a cold place of death. They acknowledge the fears and failure to comprehend of those who are there. They show the reality of grief, but also of persistence, faith and love. And they show us a risen Lord with a human heart which beats close to ours - one who knows us by name. And in that risen Lord, who has shared our human existence, who has died upon the Cross to show the extent of his love, we see our hope of life with him.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Lessons of Lent and Easter…

I’m conscious that I started Lent by saying that the word “Lent” is in origin another term for “Spring.” It’s the time of the lengthening days - that’s where the word comes from. As I write it’s now British Summer Time. But it’s been a long drawn-out winter - and I’ve felt it’s coldness in more ways than one.

Not least there have been the frustrations of a church without a heating system - and a location where the snow has frustrated much that we had planned (both the Hall and the Parish Annual Meetings have had to be re-scheduled for a start). There have been meetings and meals cancelled - and a sense that somehow we are failing because we can’t offer the warm welcome we would wish to give people. Lent has felt lean rather than spring-like. It’s been a hard slog just to get by.

And yet I hope our hearts will be lifted. As I write, we still have to work out just how we will celebrate Good Friday and Easter Day - what should take place in the church (especially if the temperature drops still further) and what should we do in the Hall? I’ve had a sense of loss and exile in being away from the church. But that has made me recognise still more deeply just why people in these last weeks have been so definite that they wanted funerals for their loved ones and baptisms for their children in church regardless of the cold they may feel and the difficulties we might experience. It really is worth it!

And our faith is worth it! That’s what I want to declare. Jesus has little to say about buildings - except to point to a Temple whose destruction he prophesied. That’s not to say that buildings are without value. But it’s to point us to a Temple which is eternal, not the creation of human hands.

We have been taking stock during these last weeks as to just what we need for the good of our church building. There will be appeals and hard work ahead. But meanwhile I hope we have discovered something of what it means to be the Church - in the sense of “Christ’s people.” The Church is first those who are called by God. Let’s be thankful for that - and affirm again: We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song!    

Martin Jackson

From the April issue of our Parish Magazine - read it all by clicking here