Monthly Message from the Rector
Here are some of the recent letters that the Rector has written for the magazine Amber News.
It will be a few more months before the evenings start to get longer and for the darkness of winter to be pushed back once more. I for one can’t wait for the return of better weather and for the signs of new life to appear with the onset of Spring. We know this will happen but until it does we must accept the present pattern and rhythm of nature and wait patiently for its mood to change.
But there are other types of darkness. For example, the sense of loss when someone close to us dies, the loneliness of mental depression which afflicts so many and the feelings of isolation and rejection which most people experience from time to time. But there is a darkness more basic than any of these – which comes from believing life is futile, ugly and evil, that there is no God, that men and women are simply clever animals with a flimsy covering of civilisation and that when this is torn off we quickly fall below the level of beasts.
This is a very sombre view and one I suggest that most of us most of the time do not entertain. Instead we probably stand somewhere in the middle between these two extremes, opting to protect ourselves from the darkness by not looking too deeply or too long at ourselves or others, preferring instead to gather around ourselves a blanket of comfortable half truths.
At the beginning of each year the Church proclaims the season of Epiphany. It is associated with the Wise Men’s discovery of the infant Jesus and the revelation that he is the light of the world; that God is with us and can bring us out of darkness into his own marvellous light.
From time to time life can seem bleak and futile. But there is a purpose behind it. This purpose is not remote, cold or inhumane, but for us – on our side, helping us to win through. This purpose has become one with a human personality, and revealed himself through a human life. Christ, who reveals God to be with us, is a light shining in the darkness. And what is more the darkness has not overcome it.
Yours sincerely, Ralph
Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, as the word suggests is about preparing, patience and anticipation. Schools up and down the land will be using some of the time preparing with care and patience nativity tableaux and Christmas shows, while perhaps nervously anticipating a successful outcome, to the delight of parents and extended family members.
In Advent civil authorities and communities will adorn our cities, towns and villages with festive decorations in preparation for the time to be jolly and not just to encourage us to spend our money, but to remind us that Christmas is a unique time of year, the season to ponder that nothing that is human is alien to God.
In Advent shops and internet sites will entice us with a harvest of good things from gizmos to geese and hopefully we will enjoy a veritable feast of delights. However, in the celebration let us remember the economic migrant and the refugee who also want to enjoy a share of this world’s bounty.
In Advent, hidden almost from view, is one of the season’s more sobering themes – judgement. In many churches the famous story in Matthew chapter twenty-five will be read. The parable of the sheep and goats which many people know tells how humankind will be divided into two groups. The first are told; ‘Come, O blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink’. The members of this group are very surprised and wondered when they did such things, and the king replies; ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ The same criteria of judgement is used with the other group - in so far as they failed to help someone in need, they failed to help Christ. The story is a powerful one, and has inspired people in every generation.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta was one such person who was inspired by this parable. She wrote, ‘In holy communion we have Christ under the appearance of bread. In our work we find him under the appearance of flesh and blood. It is the same Christ. “I was hungry, I was naked, I was sick, I was homeless”.’ It isn’t always easy to see Christ in people we don’t like, even if they are in need as Mother Teresa found out. But her fervent prayer was to be able to recognise Christ ‘behind the unattractive disguise of the irritable, the exacting and the unreasonable’ and for such people to be prepared to serve Christ, by serving them. Christmas might be all the more rewarding for having done so.
Yours sincerely, Ralph
A few weeks ago I turned into Narrowleys Lane, nothing exceptional about that since I was making my way home. It was a bright sunny afternoon and the leaves on the tree at the top of the road were turning all shades of yellow and brown. Suddenly, the contrast between the colours of dying foliage, back lit by the sun, set against a cloudless blue sky gave me a strange feeling which seemed out of the reach of ordinary words. Beautiful came to mind but I knew that didn’t do justice to what I was feeling. It was as if something had moved me inside, distracting me from the thoughts that until that moment had occupied me. Then I realised that what I was experiencing was a sense of wonder, even joy and awe combined with a sense of glory. This experience is by no means unique. Many people will testify to being moved inside by the sight of a glorious sunset or the sight of a beautiful view. By this I mean those moments when we sense that what has moved us inside seems to come from beyond what it is that meets us in a moment of gladness and joy.
So bearing in mind how inexpressible such experiences are, I will simply say that glory seems to touch us – and when it does it seems to have two aspects to it. First, it evokes a sense of wonder, amazement and marvel. Something sublime opens up before us that evokes a mixture of delight and awe bordering on worship. Second, it also brings a tinge of sadness, almost a sense of pity or loss. What takes hold of us and takes us out of ourselves is somehow elusive, out of reach, yet something we want to pursue but almost feel paralysed to follow. This has resonance with John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost during which Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden with the result that they have a more distant relationship with God, who is omnipresent but invisible, unlike their tangible Father in the Garden.
But before I get carried away by all of this I need to remind myself of the mix of good and bad that form the tapestry of ordinary life. Today some of you will be seeing people in hospitals; others will be visiting people whose physical state may reflect in some way an inner defeat. This can be very depressing. Some of you after a recent tragedy may be asking why after millions of years of evolution is the world on occasions so badly botched and confused. There is of course no answer. We don’t know God’s reasons for this or why he thought it worthwhile to create in the first place. We only know that we live with the tension and faith as our only guide. But this faith is based on something real – amongst other things on those hints of glory, those rare, often fleeting experiences that seem to come from beyond and move us inside to realise that there is more to this world than meets the eye.
Yours sincerely, Ralph
As I glance out of the window there are signs that the season is changing. The leaves are turning from green to gold while others lie withered and brown on the ground. The natural cycle of the seasons reminds me that life is transient and despite our show of superiority to the rest of nature, we too are subject to its laws. From the moment of our first breath to our last we are earthly creatures with only the very young unaware of our mortality. For those of us who take funerals the transience of life is summed up very adequately by the words of Psalm 103. "For he knows of what we are made: he remembers that we are but dust. The days of man are but as grass: he flourishes like a flower of the field; when the wind goes over it, it is gone: and its place will know it no more".
In the first instance those words seem like a solemn reminder of the fleeting nature of life. But on closer inspection they offer comfort with the recognition that we are part of the natural order. Those who live closer to the land and who are nearer to the natural rhythms of life treat life and death in a much more accepting way. The seasons bring the wonder of new life, the blossoms, the harvest and the quiet comfort of the leaves returning to the earth. If this is the pattern of nature then the question must be: Why should we be so fearful to share in the natural cycle of creation? There is comfort in being part of nature and accepting it.
The Christian faith has invested a great deal of time and teaching in the belief of a resurrection. But for the person who does not believe in God there remains the threat that 'nothing' lies beyond the grave. By itself death offers no threat, because if there is no brain activity to register the void then there is nothing to encounter. But the real threat if there is no resurrection is from the loss of all that we have cherished, loved and come to value. The fear of death, and the ultimate nothing for which we are heading if there is no resurrection, is the menace of the loss of our lives.
We may be persuaded of our immortality when we are young, but in midlife there are stronger hints that we are turning towards the end of our lives and that the pace is quickening. For the person who believes in God, and especially the Christian, death is viewed in a different way because of the faith in the dimension of God. Of course faith is not an insurance policy to remove the anxiety caused by the fear of death, but it is a revelation that can put our journey through life into perspective. I for one have found it an enormous encouragement to meet people with such faith as they near the end of their pilgrimage with hope, humour and trust about the world to come.
Yours sincerely, Ralph
As I stood in the bathroom cleaning my teeth I heard the sound of another heavy vehicle making its way up the road. I assumed the driver was making his way to the Ashover Show Ground. It had rained all day and it was forecast to rain throughout the night and well into the next day. The forecast proved to be accurate. While I was preparing to go to bed an army of farmers and volunteers were putting the finishing touches together for Ashover Show. Rain didn’t stop play. And if it is not too presumptuous of me, I would like to thank the farmers and the core of willing volunteers and helpers who ensured that we have a show to enjoy.
As well as having enormous helpings of good will and generosity the village show is usually blessed with fine weather and when it isn't, the rain as was nearly the case this year, didn’t dampened people’s spirits or our determination to celebrate it.
Celebration is at the heart of our human experience. Part of the fun of Ashover Show is that people can come together as a community to renew acquaintances and celebrate our diversity. People are gregarious by nature and enjoy being part of a happy event, and because we feel included we experience a sense of joy.
Nowhere in the Gospels does it say that Jesus laughed. But he certainly knew how to enjoy himself. The Gospels record a time when he was invited to a wedding where he turned water into wine to keep the party going. But never one to miss an opportunity he also taught that a real celebration was not just about feeling good but flowed from faith in God.
'Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen'. It is the unceasing celebration that underneath all the ups and downs of life there flows a solid current of joy. And real joy is independent of circumstances, even the weather!
Yours sincerely, Ralph