Here are some of the recent letters that have been written for Amber News.
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
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
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
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
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
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
‘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
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
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
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.
Looking for Adventure?
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
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
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
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