Monthly Message from the Rector

The Reverend Ralph Lawrence, Rector of All Saints Church, Ashover

Monthly Message

Here are some of the recent letters that have been written for Amber News.

September

Dear Friends,

A few weeks ago Sue and I were going through some old stuff, what to keep and what to throw away. It wasn’t a job either of us enjoyed but it was necessary, so as not to clutter our new home with bits and pieces that we no longer require. When the job was done we both let out a sigh of relief.

Later and content in the knowledge that a job that needed doing was complete I spied upon a white butterfly, regarded by many a gardener as a nuisance, on account that as a caterpillar it has a penchant for cabbage leaves. But, at that moment, and since I cannot claim to be a gardener, I could only see a creature of beauty perching effortlessly on a plant which swayed in the breeze.

The sight of that delicate creature was quite a contrast to the dreary interior of the rectory loft. There seemed to be nothing in common. But then I thought perhaps there is.

The butterfly hadn’t always been a creature of beauty. It had begun life as a caterpillar, turned into a chrysalis and emerged from that latent state to become a new creature. In a word that insect had metamorphosed. It had undergone an irreversible change.

Change for the butterfly had been a choreographed affair, nature having meticulously orchestrated the event with precision timing. A miracle of the natural world, and one we often take for granted. But it is not only insects that change, people change too.

As you probably already know I shall be retiring at the end of September. “Time flies when you are having fun” and our time in Ashover has certainly flown by. Ministry provides many opportunities and one has been the people we have met. Together we have changed. To put it bluntly we have all grown older, if not wiser. But there is more to change than the obvious signs.

St. Paul also had something to say about change. In his letter to the Christians in Corinth he spoke about people becoming new creatures. He said: “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation, the old has gone; the new has come!” What he meant by this is that as we become creatures with faith a change begins to occur in us. And that change grows the more we trust God for his reconciling love wrought through his Son our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Sue and I will be leaving the benefice in October.

With every good wish,

Ralph

August

Dear Friends,

During the months of lockdown I was sent two pictures of Ashover church. The first is drawn from memory, the second is a hand coloured postcard of All Saints. I intend to keep both of them together with the sepia coloured photograph of a group of men standing outside the Bassett Rooms. Not so long ago men would gather outside the Bassett Rooms in the hope that local entrepreneurs would come and hire them for a day. We are talking about the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Centuries before photography was possible Jesus told a story which resonates with that relatively modern practice. The parable Jesus told was about a landowner who went early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard, having first agreed with them their wages for the day. Jesus said, that throughout the day the landowner continued to hire men well into the afternoon. By early evening he told his foreman to pay the men their wages beginning with those he had hired last. The twist in the story comes when the landowner decided to pay every man the same amount, irrespective of how long they had worked; much to the annoyance of those people who had worked from dawn to dusk. It turns out that the parable is about God’s generosity, which humanly speaking is reckless and undeserved. It seems that God does not calculate how much he will give us based on our performance. Instead he gives out of the goodness of his heart. We cannot earn what God gives us. What God gives is not pay, but a gift; not a reward, but a grace. Grace is undeserved favour which with our perennial obsession with fairness is hard to grasp. Because it subverts any puny ideas we may have about entitlement, rights and merit.

This rather long preamble serves only to introduce the real purpose of this letter which is about the role of the Bassett Rooms and how they will serve the community in the future.

During our enforced incarceration the work to refurbish the Bassett Rooms has not stopped. Thanks to the generosity and vision of folk the redevelopment is now complete. The WI has recently replanted the beds at the front of the building and the garden at the back is patiently waiting for people to enjoy it. It all looks glorious without people, but it will be a delight to see people sitting eating, talking and laughing together again.

I cannot express my thanks enough for those who caught the vision and turned it into a reality so that others can enjoy their generosity. On behalf of everyone who will enjoy it now and in the future I just want to say, thank you.

Yours sincerely,

Ralph

July

Dear Friends,

It has been said that “the Church is radically provisional”. In essence it is about people and not places, but people have always built places and spaces for particular things and activities, we should not despise them.

Over the last few months our special places and spaces, our churches, cathedrals, mosques and other holy buildings have been different. I cannot remember a time when the doors of the church have been locked in an effort to reduce the spread of infection. Some institutions have challenged this decision, others have ignored it, and sadly there have been some negative consequences as a result of not adhering to the restrictions. But in its way the right thing, locking the doors in this case, was the responsible social action needed. But the churches are beginning to re-open for private prayer and by the time you get to read this letter things may be back to normal, I pray so.

In previous times there have been other actions and reactions needed to address some of the great social issues of the day. To name just a few: nuclear disarmament, peace, justice, apartheid, urban deprivation, unemployment and more recently the debates about the changing landscape of human relationships.

Real religion is about life, not just part of it. The psalmist affirms that the world belongs to God and all that is in it. God remains committed to it – all of it!

The Christian faith is of course concerned with the spiritual but as is often the case the spiritual is seen and understood through the material. Doing the right thing because it is the right thing is always the best way to demonstrate our faith.

Yours sincerely,

Ralph

June 2020

Dear Friends,

There have been several important themes throughout the period of lockdown forced upon us by coronavirus. Among them is the impact the pandemic is having on people’s mental health. Generally people are gregarious by nature so being confined to our homes has been very challenging. This has been particularly acute for some who live alone.

There have been several high profile public figures advocating the need to talk about one’s wellbeing, fears, anxieties and the stress caused by the separation from friends and family. Then there is the concern about the return to more normal modes of life, especially if the familiar contours of life have changed. Will the job we had before lockdown still be there when it is all over? Let’s hope and pray that life after the pandemic will be brighter for us all and not as some are pessimistically predicting.

I sometimes feel that life is a bit ‘smudged’. It is often messy and a bit ‘grubby’. Yes, goodness abounds and often goes unreported. So too do many untold acts of kindness and generosity. But alongside such commendable behaviour the world almost groans under the weight of pain and suffering. At least St. Paul seemed to think so.

Amid the enigma of life there is also the perennial flame of hope that is never quite extinguished, despite many attempts to snuff it out. Human beings are incredibly resilient and it is hope that gives us the confidence and courage to keep us going when we are tempted to give up.

When the world emerges from the pandemic many questions will be asked as to how this sort of thing can be avoided in the future. There is a belief that although the world may be ‘smudged’, it is necessary to resist those things that threaten to overwhelm us, in the hope that things can be improved, again and again and always.

Yours sincerely, Ralph

May 2020

Dear Friends,

It has been several weeks since the doors of our churches have been open, either for weekly worship, occasional services or for the visitor out for a stroll. At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, Matthew Hancock, I think it was him, said in the House of Commons that it was with a “heavy heart” that the government was asking places of worship to close their doors, until such time that the lockdown can be lifted. By the time you read this letter the lockdown may still be in force or just beginning to show signs of lifting. Until it is, we need to remember to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.

During this unprecedented time people have devised ingenious methods of remaining in contact with each other. Social media platforms are by definition tools whereby people communicate with each other at a distance. Thanks to those who have employed their talents and expertise by utilising the benefits of the internet.

If you have been watching the morning Sunday Service during the pandemic you will have noticed the different styles, personalities and places that have been employed in order to facilitate worship. If you have tuned into the BBC’s Songs of Praise, or been absorbed by the contribution You Tube videos have made to worship, you will be aware of the sheer variety available. If there is a single obvious common denominator in all this activity it is that worship is a gregarious activity, but not solely so. So why do people do it, and to whom is it directed?

I think one of the difficulties is the word worship itself and what we believe it to mean. In the Old Testament worship sometimes translates into prostrating oneself as a servant before ‘almighty’ God – the powerless encountering the powerful. But there is a difficulty with this kind of interpretation because it can be seen as an inappropriate relationship not nearing anything we understand to be love.

Maybe there is another way of thinking about worship. The word worship comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Weorthscipe which means to honour. It recognises inherent worth, it prompts respect not out of duty but out of love, and it fosters admiration and reverence. It is these words that point to the essence of worship.

To worship God is to honour Him. It is to offer praise for his grace and glory. How we honour God for his grace and glory is a matter of tradition, temperament, choice and style. But what is important in all this diversity is that our worship should reflect the best that we can offer – liturgically, musically, intellectually and spiritually.

When Jesus met a Samaritan woman he told her that those who worship God should worship Him in spirit and in truth. Whatever we offer in worship must represent our utmost for the highest.

Yours sincerely, Ralph

April 2020

Dear Friends,

A few weeks ago the Prime Minister Boris Johnson flanked by Professor Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, its chief scientific officer, gave a press conference, the first of many. When you read this letter things may have improved, but it is possible that the worse of the coronavirus pandemic is still not over. After the press conference members of the media remarked that the Prime Minster had acted like a statesman. What was also said was that whatever advice was given by the people on the podium their message wasn’t going to soothe everyone’s concerns. There has been much praise for the government’s strategy in combating the coronavirus and much criticism. This is not entirely unexpected. Sometimes we can feel between a rock and a hard place when faced with differing opinions. John Lydgate a monk and poet described it like this: “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” What do we do when we find ourselves in such places? When burying our head in the sand is not an option. There are many stories in the Bible where leadership demanded decisive action. The leader I have in mind is Moses.

As a baby Moses was put in a basket and hidden in the bulrushes in the hope he would avoid the excesses of Egypt’s Pharaoh; a statesman who used his power to quench his own fear. Moses escaped Pharaoh’s clutches and ironically was brought up in his household. But Moses rebelled against his privileged background and went on the run. Eventually God told Moses to return to Egypt with strict instructions for Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery. A battle of wills ensued with Pharaoh losing everything, even his life. This was to be the start of the Israelites’ “long journey to freedom.” But along the way they grew tired and thirsty and complained that Moses was not acting like a ‘statesman’, because he could not provide for their needs.

Moses found himself between a ‘rock and a hard place’. The fledgling nation of Israel were a very disagreeable people, hard to lead and difficult to please. Yet, into this unenviable trial, God offered a solution. He told Moses to strike a rock with his staff. Moses simply obeyed, and water gushed out of the stone. It is a story best taken on face value. While we are not expected to suspend our critical faculties we can reflect on its ability to say something important, particularly in difficult times.

Moses was literally between a rock and a hard place. As the leader of a restive people it was not obvious how he was going to soothe their mounting anxiety. As their leader he stood between them, the hard place and a rock in the distance. But things got better.

At times of uncertainty we need to hold on. Faith can play its part. It is defined as …”the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.”

By the time you read this letter the coronavirus pandemic may be showing signs of defeat. Let’s hope so. In the meantime we need to hold on with hope and courage, co-operation and compassion. We have seen a lot of these lately. There is no reason to stop now.

Yours sincerely, Ralph

March 2020

Dear Friends,

Visiting the sick is a responsibility laid on every priest, pastor and minister; it can be a trying and testing experience. I still remember the sense of helplessness when I first met someone who was terminally ill. At the time I was a hospital chaplain. Each week I visited the wards of the local community hospital and was often moved by the severity of suffering, and the dedication of the health professionals who sought to heal. The image remains, as does my sense of failure, because of my inexperience of life and an abysmal lack of pastoral training I received at theological college. And yet there was too the blessing that came from contact with people who were acutely ill. It made such ministry, as it was, a privilege and an honour.

There is nothing attractive about illness: it is to be avoided where humanly possible. But there are examples where people have ‘gained’ something from their experience of illness. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung suffered a ‘breakdown’, an illness he admitted he learned so much from.

It is not easy to sense the benefits of pain when each day of life brings a heavy quota of it. One of the benefits of full recovery is the ability to find some blessing in what has been a miserable experience. God does not ‘send’ suffering, but it ‘seems’ that the divine way is to so order affairs that good can come out of evil; a blessing out of the burden of illness. Perhaps it leads to a positive change in lifestyle, a transformation in attitude; a corpus of experience that will enable us to be more compassionate and a deeper empathy with those who are in pain.

Illness too reminds us that we are only human; we don’t have the power to control life, but can be victims of its stresses and strains. And it may lead us to a healthy dependence on others and even a greater dependence on grace.

None of us wants painful experiences, but if and when they come it may help a little to feel there is the possibility of learning something through it. If so, then there is validity in the idea that it may be or could become a ‘creative experience’.

Yours sincerely, Ralph

February 2020

Dear Friends,

While parts of the United Kingdom have experienced significant amounts of winter rain other parts of the world have experienced devastating drought. We live in a world of change, at times even the ground under our feet gives way, and when it does we struggle to keep our balance.

The euphoria felt at the start of the twenty-first century – that everything was going to be better, has been replaced with the sobering truth that the world continues to groan as it waits for new life. Like Humpty Dumpty it seems that all the king’s horses – symbols of enterprise and wealth, and all the king’s men – human ingenuity and political power, will not in themselves be able to put Mother Earth back together again. But there are signs of hope.

A while ago I was enthralled by the BBC’s natural history programme about the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of eastern Australia. Presented by David Attenborough the credentials of the programme were not in question, but some of its conclusions were surprising, uplifting and hopeful; all things the presenter was quick to point out. Apparently the Great Barrier Reef, although a delicate eco-system, has and does rejuvenate and repair itself when damaged or destroyed by the freak behaviour or some might say, the malevolent forces of Mother Nature.

But as the presenter was quick to point out the destructive capacity of the region’s weather is only part of the story. Human ignorance, weakness and wilful destruction are a major hazard for the reef. But there are signs of hope.

The nations of the world having been stirred from their slumber of indifference and apathy are beginning to listen to the voice of science whose battle cry is: we need to combat the negative impact of global warming on the planet by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere. All agree that this will not be easy and all agree that to do nothing is not an option.

Shrinking the global carbon footprint is imperative and not just to protect fragile eco-systems like the Great Barrier Reef. It is in all our interests if we are to avoid the negative excesses of climate change and to go forth into the world, as St. Paul puts it, in peace.

One of the problems is that we all have different ideas about how to make society better, if we didn’t we wouldn’t have the spectrum of ideas we do have. Life would be simpler if we could all agree on what would be best and then act upon it. But it seems unlikely we will achieve this any time soon.

Yours sincerely, Ralph

January 2020

Dear Friends,

The New Year will see many beginnings. For children and young people it will mean a return to school and college, with the opportunity to learn and discover new things. For the business minded it may provide the opportunity to expand into a new area, although nothing is certain in the present economic climate. For some it will bring new life, while for others it will be a time to adjust to life without a loved one. For all of us it will mean change.

Further afield we should hope and pray that this New Year will bring peace and stability to countries like Syria, and economic security to the global economy.

Perhaps one problem we shall all face is unrealistic expectations, sometimes of ourselves, often of others and more especially, from those in high office whose special position gives them greater responsibility and influence.

However, one important thing we can all do is to recognise our own and others' fallibility, our common humanity. We are all fairly frail, we make mistakes. But we can all call upon the grace of God to be at work within us – to begin again.

In this New Year may you know the new beginning that can be God’s gift to you, in your life.

Yours sincerely, Ralph

December 2019

Dear Friends,

Have you ever seen a moon rainbow? No, neither had I but that all changed when I was introduced to Mr. White who fished the Zambezi River for more than sixty years. He had a key role in a film called “Victoria Falls – The Smoke That Thunders” which was televised a while ago. Jamie McPherson, a cameraman for the BBC’s Natural World programme said, “as soon as I met Mr. White the film began to take shape”. Sadly Mr. White has since died, but it will be a long time before I forget his part in that documentary, which charted the life along the Zambezi River set against the spectacular backdrop of the Victoria Falls.

The moon rainbow I mentioned was the creation of the mighty Zambezi as it thundered over the Victoria Falls – the tiny droplets of spray split the light from the moon into its constituent colours. And even though it was only a flickering image on the TV, I was suitably impressed. As I watched the picture another image flickered into my mind. It was a story about Robert Browning, the poet. He was born a little over two hundred years ago. He loved ‘all things bright and beautiful’ but he loathed the Christian church for its drab buildings, silly sermons and the terrible noise that passed for singing. Whenever he thought about the church he remembered its long history of corruption, the wickedness of some of its leaders and doubted the Christian faith which had been part of his childhood. It seemed unbelievable, and so like his hero the romantic poet Percy Shelley he became an atheist.

But that all began to change when in Christmas 1849 while in Florence he saw a moon rainbow. The sight of that glorious thing (I know I’ve seen one!) moved him, and through it the truth of heaven slid into his soul. He came to believe. His mind still doubted, but his faith knelt down, and for the rest of his life he continued to kneel before the Christ. And although it was something of great beauty through which God took hold of his soul, the experience changed his attitude towards all things drab and dingy which until then he found so unattractive. He became an optimist, which his poetry reflects – ‘see the vice, and folly, and the tawdriness, and the transitoriness and the pretence of the world and then have hope.’

We live in serious times. Everyday brings forecasts of gloom. As the old year begins to die away and the new one looms near I imagine you shall be wondering what the future holds. The Christian faith suggests that whatever it brings the proper attitude to have is hope. This doesn’t mean that everything will work out just as we want. It means that whatever happens, life is shot through with possibilities because they are rooted in the promises of the eternal God which nothing can break or thwart.

A while ago the BBC told the story of Mr. White, a local fisherman who worked the waters of the mighty Zambezi River and how over the decades his companions have been the area’s wildlife – elephants, baboons, kingfishers and hippos, set against the spectacular backdrop of the Victoria Falls, and occasionally a beautiful moon rainbow.

At Christmas 1849 Robert Browning saw a moon rainbow and through it the truth of heaven slid into his soul. He became an optimist, a Christian optimist, one that sees the world as it is, often soiled and criminal but where there is always hope. At Christmas 2019 may something of this hope take hold of us, as the message of God’s love once again, comes carolling through the air.

Yours sincerely, Ralph

November 2019

There is little doubt that the 11th September 2001 has gone down in history as one of the darkest days of modern times. Books have been written about it, and several television programmes have been made charting the events that led up to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC.

The third millennium began with panache and optimism. It captured the world’s imagination, and I think there was genuine hope it was going to be different. But if the dawn of the new millennium began with a gilt edge then the opening pages of the twenty first century soon became rather dog eared as the suffering which had been so much part of the last century began to be matched by a new generation.

Today there are fewer and fewer people who have first hand experience of the events at the beginning of the last century. For example, the first successful powered flight was one small step for humankind on the road to air travel. But in its own way it was every bit a giant leap for humankind, as was the first man on the moon.

We live with the consequences of the past far longer than we do with the events that caused them. Two world wars have changed the world and for the last seventy plus years we have grappled to come to terms with their legacy.

Coming to terms with the past can help us understand the present and motivate us to work towards a more stable future. Together with the encouragement that ‘those who have never made a mistake have never made anything’ we can continue to heal the wounds of the past that still hurt.

For this purpose, a service will be held in each of the four parish churches of Ashover, Brackenfield, Handley & Wessington. In an act of remembrance people from the parishes will be remembered, and in the silence that follows the context in which we remember them will be brought to mind.

On the 11th September 2001 we were reminded again that we live in a dismembered, torn and broken world. On the 10th November 2019 we shall once again confess that fact, and in a small way seek to put back together some of those who have been lost and broken in our fragmented world. We shall re-member them.

Yours sincerely, Ralph

October 2019

Dear Friends,

One of the perks of living in the rectory is the wonderful view across the field, and not just the meadow but the trees and the hills and the vast expanse of sky. It is a view that I would miss should it ever become obscured. After a busy day I often look up into the sky and watch the sunset and the arrival of the stars at night and see if there are any constellations that I recognise. Those pinpoints of brightness, although visible in the darkness, don’t light up our pathway. But we have been using them for centuries as guides. Seafarers have depended on them to maintain their course. But maybe the stars have something else to tell us about direction.

Sooner or later most of us go through experiences which we describe as darkness; times when it is difficult to cast light on a problem. We can’t see the way ahead and we begin to ask the question “is there any point in carrying on?” Those standing at the epicentre of bereavement might best know what I mean; the feelings of devastation one has when you lose someone you love. Recently as a nation we have felt the tremors of infectious knife crime - ruthless, pointless murders motivated by fear and hatred. This coupled with a desire for so-called revenge has made us all aware that none of us is out of reach of those who are bent on mindless violence. At times like these there isn’t even a glimmer of moonlight to dispel the shadows of evil and chaos. Darkness reigns. Or so it would appear.

If you want to see the stars you have got to stare: to take time for your eyes to adjust to the low light level, to focus on them at the exclusion of the darkness all around. Only then can you begin to see the stars and how many there really are, signs in their way of a new world order. In the dark days of life it is good to look for the pinpoints of light which are shining.

Before you go to bed tonight look up into the sky and take a good look at the stars. Tiny pinpoints of light in a vast expanse of darkness. Jesus said to his disciples “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”. This is not just a statement to quell the anxieties of a few friends but an invitation to follow, to trust and experience today something of the power of that life which, through the pain of crucifixion and death, overcame the destructive forces of darkness and rose into a new day to aid those, who of themselves are denied health and strength, to become children of God.

Many have and do show us the truth of God’s kingdom. Their example, as ours, is important. It may seem like a star - a tiny pinpoint of light in an ocean of darkness - but many have been guided to a safe place by them, and the fears of many have been dispelled by those of faith.

Yours sincerely, Ralph

September 2019

Dear Friends,

If you are like me you can see, but rarely take the time to look. What an odd start I hear you say. I don’t doubt it, but this thought came to me one morning as I stood in Ashover church. The early morning sunshine was streaming through the East Window which prompted me to look afresh at the figures depicted in the glass. The central pane has a picture of the dying Christ pinned to a cross. To the left is a pictorial presentation of a woman touching the hem of Jesus’ garment, in the hope of being cured her of her uterine haemorrhage, a condition she had suffered from for twelve years.

I stared at the figures in the window which Luke meticulously records in his gospel for some time, grateful to look again at what I had seen many times before. I can’t be sure but maybe I was more receptive to the story recorded in the window because there was a lot of illness around at the time of writing this letter. But as I stood looking at the window this thought occurred to me. The woman clearly believed that any contact with Jesus, be it only the tassel of his cloak, constituted a possible cure.

Luke records that on the day Jesus became aware that someone had touched his clothes. He was hemmed in by a crowd on every side. Yet, despite the claustrophobic conditions he knew ‘in himself’ that power had gone out from him.

The description Luke gives in his gospel is a clear indication that Jesus believed that power was in some way transmitted in an act of healing where faith was present. “Your faith has made you whole” he said, when he discovered the woman in the crowd.

At other times Jesus used different methods to bring about the transmission of power to those that needed it. On occasions people were healed who were not present at all.

I believe there is a place for absent healing. It occurs when someone comes to mind and we feel ‘nudged’ to pray for them. Intercession is the word that describes this particular focus for support, and it is often supported by a group of praying people. At such times what matters is not technique; nor is it essential for the focus of prayer to be present. It is about what God does with our prayers that changes lives.

The gifts of medicine, psychotherapy, music and some complimentary therapies, but probably not all, do contribute to the wellbeing and healing of others, and ourselves. But the transmission of power in response to prayer, pleading and faith can also in my humble opinion contribute to the healing process. Those in need are made whole.

Yours sincerely, Ralph

August 2019

Dear Friends,

I don’t know about you but I frequently feel agitated by the tyranny of time. There are moments when it seems there isn’t enough of it to do the things I want to do, and others when it runs out before I am able to complete what I need to do. It is easy to become frustrated and resentful.

However, I recognise that doing is only part of what it means to be human. Before anything else we are humans being, which is a clue to our real identity. It is true that human beings are movers and shakers. The earth’s motion may be independent of our activity but the quality and direction of life on the planet depends very much on what we do. And here lies a problem. The world loves an activist. People are readily appreciated for what they do but seldom valued for who they are. That is humans being - first and foremost creatures of stillness and inner repose.

Being human and being still is not the same as being inactive. Instead it is about being at one with our fellow human beings, with ourselves, with life itself, and with God too. This enables us to care more for other people, while being free of personal anxieties and preoccupations.

But I suppose the practical question for most people busy at work and caught up with a host of things at home is how do we find time to achieve this stillness; the serenity we call peace of mind?

Most people have a few moments in the day with nothing in particular to do. Not much time but a few moments is all that is necessary. At such times it is helpful to have in mind what I would call an image of stillness. One of the glories of living in this neighbourhood is the trees, which are good examples of serenity and inner repose. Then there is Ogston reservoir when there is hardly a ripple on the water or the nature reserve at Wessington with an array of slender stalked grasses and wild flowers. Then there are the images from the Bible: of Christ on the Lake of Galilee when a storm blew up and how the disciples panicked until he calmed the fierce wind and rough sea by saying “Peace be still”. Even if you don’t believe the story to be literally true it can still be used, for the point is that Jesus was a person before whom everything seemed to become still.

These are just some images of stillness and no doubt you will have your favourite ones. In an odd moment during the day they can be brought to mind and a short line from a prayer or psalm said, such as ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ In this way the mind becomes receptive to God’s stillness which can break through to us, with the result that we can find a deeper level of inward quiet to imbue the next thing we have to get up and do.

Yours sincerely, Ralph

July 2019

Dear Friends,

As the summer holidays begin I’m sure many of you will start to think about the things you will need to take with you – sun cream, tee-shirts, buckets & spades, a surfboard for the more adventurous, and a passport if you are jetting off to some exotic location, and of course, a good book to read.

A few weeks ago I came across an old photograph of my sons when they were small boys. Their faces expressed sheer joy because of the Lego tower they had built. It was so tall they had to stand on chairs to support it. It is a lovely memory of two children who are now young men.

In those days one of the holiday essentials was a kite. The children loved putting it together and became very excited when the string was reeled out in preparation for the flight. Years of experience has taught me to be an optimistic pessimist when it comes to flying kites, and anyway the children never let me give up easily.

With both of them running down the beach I waited for the moment to pull on the string to launch the kite. It flew. It climbed steeply into the sky until all you could see was a small red diamond with a long yellow tail dancing in the wind. It was effortless, and although the air was still on the ground the wind high in the sky was quite strong. Although we could not see the wind above its invisible power was detected by the movement of the kite and the pull on the string.

I am prompted to say that the Spirit of God is like the wind – an invisible power whose influence can be seen. The Spirit of God becomes visible when a person’s faith strengthens their character in the face of adversity. She is detectable when a person’s trust in God delivers them from the crippling effects of cynicism, bitterness and resentment and cures their self pity and eases their pain.

For Christians believe that God cares for the world and knows what it is like to be human – Jesus shared our life and has raised our humanity into heaven. Which means, among many things, that when people face great odds with courage and cheerfulness God can release into the world more and more of his invisible power, and for all who are influenced by it life can begin again.

Yours sincerely, Ralph

June 2019

Dear Friends,

It is to the credit of those responsible for the National Health Service that the need for spiritual care is recognised. Such public acknowledgement of the spiritual dimension of life is an encouragement to all who believe that coping with suffering and pain demands inner resources. It is therefore a part of modern care to nourish the spirit, and so help people to cope with the trauma and tragedy that life brings, especially when terrible things happen to children.

One of the strongest statements Jesus made was on that very theme. “If anyone causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone round his neck.” If only those that load the gun, prime the bomb or contemplate sexual abuse would ‘hear’ these words. Probably then, human lives, human hearts, human hopes and human faith would not be shattered by moments of evil madness.

Has there ever been such evil in the world as there is today? The answer must be ‘No’ in terms of quantity, but ‘Yes’ in terms of degree. Human beings have always harmed and hurt other human beings. So far as children are concerned, nothing more monstrous was ever ordained than that royal decree whereby every infant boy under the age of two should be slain. The massacre of innocent children by King Herod following the birth of Jesus is an enormity too awful to contemplate, yet its taking place makes a crucial point for all who despair over human evil. It was into a world which could perpetrate such an event that Jesus came - to preach, to heal, to love. Moreover, when he went about doing good he became the victim of an outrageous act of wickedness on Calvary, which left his disciples in no doubt as to their duty.

“Go to every part of the world, and proclaim the good news to all creation.” Here is the divine paradox that gives us hope today. It is when the world, in its freedom, does such evil that there is the need to proclaim the way of love. The deeper the divisions, the greater is the need for reconciliation; the more serious the illness, the greater the need for healing.

The ability to survive in the world in which we live and move today depends on personal conviction, inner resources and true serenity. We are all obliged to do all we can to create such strengths in one another.

Yours sincerely, Ralph

May 2019

Dear Friends,

It may come as a surprise to some of you, as it did to some of Jesus’ disciples who witnessed the event, that Jesus commended sheer extravagance.

It began as an act of love, graciously accepted and highly approved. The story is well known because Jesus said that wherever the Gospel was preached it would be told. It is described with differing details in several gospels, but the essence of the occasion is agreed by all. Jesus was dining when suddenly a woman anointed his feet with a very costly and precious ointment and wiped them with her hair. The scene was sensual, but it was the sincerity of the act that moved Jesus to say, in answer to indignant comments from his disciples about waste, that this story of extravagance would not be forgotten.

The word extravagance denotes that normal limits have been exceeded; things have gone beyond what is expected. It implies excess and lavishness, and in the case of this story, why waste the ointment when it would have been better sold and the money given to the poor.

In response to such criticism Jesus did not question the need to minister to the poor; the gospel is concerned with the weak whatever the reasons for their weakness. But poverty he comments is a perennial problem – it will always be necessary to deal with it.

What the woman had done however was so special, so unique that it needed to be appreciated. Jesus understood it as a symbolic reference to his death. But, it was more likely, more human, an offering of affection; an offering of grateful love to someone she admired. There are times for love to be extravagant.

In John’s gospel the evangelist says, God ‘so’ loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. The word ‘so’ is a very small word but it tells us that God went beyond the bounds of expected behaviour to reveal his extravagant divine love, his forgiveness and compassion.

But some of you may feel that you have, in your personal relationships, loved too much and have been met with rejection, betrayal and pain. “Love hurts, love scars, Love wounds and mars, Any heart, not tough, Nor strong enough, To take a lot of pain, Take a lot of pain, Love is like a cloud, Holds a lot of rain Love hurts, Oh, oh, love hurts,…” is how the Everly Brothers sang about it. But can we ever love too much? To love and not to count the cost can be a permissible and proper extravagance. Such love has its roots in the Incarnation. Jesus is God’s expression of divine extravagance.

Yours sincerely, Ralph

April 2019

Dear Friends,

‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’ No, I am not referring to Brexit. Those words were spoken in the first half of the twentieth century by Lord Grey of Falloden with the approach of the First World War. In 2018 we remembered the 100th anniversary of that war to end all wars, but in 1933 the year Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of the Third Reich Lord Grey died. In time the darkness he spoke about came again.

There are times when darkness feels very dense. Such a time is recalled during Passion Week, the week before Palm Sunday which is followed by Holy Week when we remember Jesus’ journey towards Calvary and crucifixion. The Gospel writers Matthew, Mark and Luke record that when Jesus’ life moved to its close there was darkness over all the land for about three hours. It was gross darkness, significantly symbolic and silently overwhelming. Such darkness descends if not literally then, metaphorically, when people become victims of heinous crimes.

The Bible associates darkness with wickedness, sin and suffering. The crucifixion of Christ was all of these – the murder of an innocent man.

Yet the Cross is the focus of a glorious paradox that throbs at the heart of faith. Its genesis reaches back to the creation story: ‘Darkness was on the face of the deep,’ it says, but it goes on to say ‘The Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters. And God said ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. It implies that God punched holes in the darkness. That he shares our pain. That Jesus, as St. John tells us, is the light of the world which the darkness has not overcome.

The corollary to all of this is unavoidable. Disciples, now as then, must follow their master’s example and ‘let their lights so shine before people that they see the good things they do and praise God who is in heaven.’ To be glory givers and not glory seekers.

Yours sincerely, Ralph

March 2019

Dear Friends,

There is an old Jewish proverb which says “God could not be everywhere, therefore he made mothers”. Motherhood, at is best, reflects all that is good, and a good mother is priceless.

The significance of motherhood varies in different branches of the Church. This is most obviously seen in the importance that Mary, Jesus’ mother, plays. But whatever the attributes accorded to her, the Christian family today all agree that Mary is a good role model. The hymn “Tell out my soul” is a rendering of Mary’s utterance on learning of her unique place in God’s purpose to become the mother of Jesus. Her innate humility and sensitivity are wonderfully summed up in her reaction to the events that would involve her in the birth of Jesus, events that she is said to have pondered in her heart.

To remember Mary’s significance and goodness is an appropriate way of marking Mothering Sunday. Goodness is, essentially, the expression of God-ness. If God is love, then at the heart of goodness is love. Goodness is not something which we attain. It evolves within us through the miracle of grace, as does so much of life. Goodness is not an achievement, more a product - a fruit from the harvest of grace. It manifests itself in an individual who has been affected or influenced by the goodness they have experienced from others. Such goodness is more visible to others than to ourselves; we influence the world most when we are unaware of the goodness we have given.

Goodness is not a merit we create. It is that which develops in us through grace. And as such, as Mary made clear, it is a matter for profound humility.

Among the many blessings Jesus brought was his shining goodness. As Mothering Sunday comes again it is right to suggest that some of the Lord’s goodness was surely the result of the good mother he had.

Yours sincerely, Ralph

February 2019

If someone says to us ‘prove that you love me’, our response may be to resent them. We may sniff emotional blackmail in the air and instinctively feel that their request is inappropriate between people who say they care for each other. You have to allow people to express love in their own time. You can’t force someone to love you, you have to trust them. If this is true between friends, then it is especially true in our relationship with God. People are sometimes tempted to make God show his hand. ‘If you are really there prove it.’ Such a request is often the beginning of a bargaining process. A crisis in the family, say with someone falling ill, may present an opportunity for an encounter with God which in more settled times would normally be avoided.

People who imagine that their faith is mature enough not to be tempted by such suggestions may be forgiven for not remembering that such temptations usually only come to those who care desperately enough about God. Christ, for example was tempted in precisely this way.

At his baptism Jesus heard the words ‘Thou are my beloved Son – with thee I am well pleased’. But soon after he heard them he experienced a crisis of confidence in the form of the three temptations. In his mind's eye he saw himself standing on the parapet surrounding the great temple in Jerusalem looking 450 feet below into the Kidron Valley. ‘If you are the Son of God throw yourself down, for God will make sure that you do not come to any harm’. This, the first temptation was designed to cast doubt into the mind of Christ. And on closer inspection it is easy to see why. Who wouldn’t doubt a conviction that he had been called to live as a divine Son? ‘Is it really God calling me or am I just deluding myself?’ So Jesus was tempted to get definitive proof that he was who he thought he was, not so much for others but for himself.

But Jesus recognised this voice for the insidious temptation that it is and remembered the words from Deuteronomy which state we are not to test the Lord our God. Trying to prove that God loves us is utterly inappropriate. We are not to test him but to trust him. And so it was that with much struggle and anguish that Christ pioneered for us the way of trust. Through rejection, betrayal, desertion, pain of body, mocking, humiliation and apparent failure, there was an underlying, absolute trust. And by so doing he opened up a route for us to follow: trust whatever our circumstances.

Yours sincerely, Ralph

January 2019

Dear Friends,

I am not the only one who felt that the year 2018 came and went at such a speed that it appeared more like a blur than a full twelve months – long awaited, eagerly anticipated, but gone in a flash.

I don’t know what you expected from last year, but at the start of a new year there is always a degree of optimism in the air – that things might be different. But it is only people that change things for the better or worse and not the turning of a calendar page.

When I reflect on the events of last year I am saddened by the departure of so many friends and mindful that life is a journey. It has a definite beginning and an apparent end. Although I believe by faith that our earthly lives actually ends with fulfilment – “Eye has not seen nor ear heard nor the heart of man conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”.

We live by faith and not by sight. But faith is not a solution to life but a way of living it. It does not free us from the perplexity of life, rather it affirms the meaning of our lives and through the struggle gives us some assurance that God is with us, in the middle of it all.

When Jesus taught his disciples about himself he gave them a very firm assurance that part of his ministry was to give life its full meaning. But abundant life as he put it does not mean trouble free, painless, anodyne life. It means life lived to the full, sharing its mysteries, its pain and beauty with faith.

At the beginning of a new year our prayer should not be to avoid life, but one that asks for the courage and love necessary to face the future. Confident that we are not alone, but have a companion who not only knows the way but who is also our friend.

Sincerely, Ralph

December

Looking for Adventure?

Dear Friends,

December sees the arrival of the Advent season when we look forward to Christmas by looking back to Bethlehem where God entered our world in human flesh. Advent is not just about preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but also looking forward to his coming again and focussing on getting ready for ‘the day of the Lord’.

We are using ADVENT as the start of a new ADVENTURE as we look forward to the future of the church. Would you like to join us in this fresh ADVENTURE in PRAYER? Maybe you have never thought of prayer as an adventure, but it can be!

Beginning on Sunday 9th December from 6pm – 6.45pm in the Bassett Rooms, we shall meet for prayer with a short reflection. This will happen every 2nd Sunday of the month and will be called SUNDAY AT 6. Somebody once said ‘Prayer is the engine room that drives the church.’ So we need to ensure that this engine is well oiled and maintained to empower the church in the vision of God for us and the vitality of the Holy Spirit in us.

Prayer is communicating with our Creator, so we want to engage with Him on behalf of those in need locally and the wider world and for the way ahead as a community of faith. We want to be ready to face changes that we have no control over, but we also want to be open to change if there are more effective ways that God wants us to do and be church. Through prayer we are investing in the future.

Coming together to pray is important in the life of a church as well as individual prayers. We are grateful that a few have maintained a corporate prayer time over the years. We now sense the time is right to give this fresh impetus in a different place and at a different time and encourage more to join us. Hence – SUNDAY AT 6. If you would like to experience this, but have never prayed in public before, the good news is you don’t have to! Praying quietly is just as important as praying out loud. Coming to pray is what matters. Come for part or all of the time.

Remember ‘more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of’ (Alfred Lord Tennyson). May we enjoy the God of surprises as we pray!

Happy Advent and Christmas, David Russell

November

Dear Friends,

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God”.

The twenty-first century as in the previous one has seen several occasions for the peacemakers to go to work, and I believe that while life on earth continues their services will always be needed. And here lies an important point. Let’s be honest, peace, real peace is not easy. There are many things to be achieved before there can be reconciliation. First, hatred needs to be extinguished because it can be like a fire. It may be trivial to bother with it when it is smouldering but it can be terrifying when it flares out of control. Jesus praised the work of peacemakers who try to put out the fire of hatred before it gets out of control. But how are we to achieve this?

It is often said that the first step towards peace is accepting ourselves – being at peace with who we are. When we hate we often blame and hurt others. When what is often needed is to accept ourselves as we are, as scripture tells us God does – upon our best he will build something better. But that is not as easy as it sounds. Real peace, and that includes peace with ourselves, is often achieved the hard way. We can see this idea in action when troops and aid workers stand in the gap between warring factions risking their lives in order to deliver vital relief supplies. And then by those who patiently negotiate a ceasefire.

This idea is not without precedent. We are taught that when Jesus came to reconcile humankind to God it led him to being crucified – he hung in the gap between people and God. For us standing in the gap may mean refusing to take sides when people have fallen out. But lasting peace cannot be imposed it must be longed for. There must be vision and a desire for a better way.

On the 11th November at 9.15am at Brackenfield & Wessington and 10.45am at Ashover & Handley we shall remember those who have been broken and lost by war and together we will agree to carry forward their vision of a better world. A better world will not be created apart from us, but when we become part of the peace process. Blessed are the peacemakers for they belong to God. Do we have what it takes to build peace - to be recognised as children of God?

Yours sincerely, Ralph

October

Dear Friends,

here has this year gone? The nights are already drawing in and soon the warmth of the summer will be replaced by the cool of autumn. In the country we are more aware of the seasons. Gradually the leaves turn yellow and begin to fall. The damp musty smell of autumn rises, with the morning mists, and there are often beautiful days of mellow sunshine and still blue skies.

It’s a natural time to look back and be thankful for the sense of richness life brings. In nature, and in our inner experience, many things have grown. Life has been fruitful. And it is natural to be grateful and thankful to God.

But autumn comes with a touch of sadness: ‘God sets the time for birth and a time for death, the time for planting and a time for pulling up’. (Ecclesiastes 3:2)

It is a haunting reminder that life is short and we do not live forever in our present bodies on this earth. So it raises questions about our future and how sure we are of the Christian gospel. How real is the hope of heaven in our hearts, and what can we do to cultivate it?

Jesus took the picture of the harvest and used it to teach about the end of the world and meeting with God. Both these things are as certain as the coming of autumn will be this year. For the Christian this is not a pessimistic thought. God has his time for each of us individually, and for this world as a whole. Spring will come again but not necessarily for all in this world.

So let’s take the opportunity of autumn and harvest-time to reflect on our lives, to be thankful for God’s goodness and to prepare for our future whether on earth or in heaven.

Yours sincerely, Ralph

September 2018

Dear Friends,

Why would anyone want to give Jesus a hard time? Why would anyone want to kill him? You may think you know the answer to that question since in the minds of many Jesus was meek and mild. We forget, conveniently, that Jesus had a tough life. He seemed to possess little or none of the things that made life, even then, bearable. Yes, he had his family but frequently they too seemed to misunderstand him, and were at times even embarrassed by him. To use a tired expression, Jesus did not tick all the boxes for people. He wasn’t in the popular imagination an all-round nice guy, a decent bloke. He could be difficult to appreciate, incomprehensible and downright mysterious. Jesus may have been meek and mild in all the right senses of those words, but he wasn’t easy to get along with.

Jesus challenged and was sometimes rude to people. He didn’t mind upsetting people if upset they needed to be. He was always looking for an opportunity to tell people what God is truly like and he demonstrated God’s love for people not by judging them nor condemning them by very narrow standards, but by healing them, by returning their dignity which had been lost or compromised due to the fragility of their nature; by feeding them and by leading them to faith in him; the mark of which does not leave a person unchanged.

If we mean business with Jesus as he wants us to we will inevitably encounter struggles. But one thing is for sure - he will not leave us to struggle alone. We are destined for better things than that. Or to use the language of St. Paul in his letter to the Romans we are destined to become co-heirs with Christ. As God’s children born by faith in Christ we are destined to share everything Christ is and has, because it is within his gift to do so.

Yours sincerely, Ralph