June letter

Otters and the Vestry

 

A member of the East Sussex Record Office recently telephoned last month to say that they were about to acquire some parish papers relating to Catsfield.  Up until the creation of parish councils at the end of the nineteenth century local government, at least in the countryside and small towns, was in the hands of the church wardens and an elected group known as the vestry.  As well as having to maintain the church building they were responsible for things such as road repairs and poor relief.  Regrettably the advent of parish councils led to the destruction of many of the old records, but a selection of Catsfield ones relating to the eighteenth century were discovered in a recent house clearance.  At some point there will be a published publicity picture of the papers being handed over whilst I gaze on in admiration!

 

Crowhurst also cropped up in a surprising way.  I was reading The Sword in the Stone, by T,H.White, which is basically the story of the young King Arthur being educated to be a good king by the wizard Merlin.  The young Arthur first meets Merlin when he is lost in the local forest and stumbles upon his home.  There is a delightful description of the upstairs room of the cottage, which among other things houses hundreds of thousands brown books in leather bindings, stuffed birds, the claws of a tiger, live grass snakes in ‘a king of aquarium’ and a couple of skulls.  Remarkably there is also a notice in Roman print reading CROWHURST OTTER HOUNDS.

 

In their heyday the Crowhurst Otter Hounds were quite famous. They were founded in 1902 and continued up until 1959 when they were disbanded, due to the decline in otter numbers caused by polluted water in the area.

 

Otters are protected and cared for now, but most of our ancestors would have felt very differently towards them.  In the middle ages they were hunted, due to a desire to protect the inland freshwater fisheries.  In an era when it was expected that you abstained from meat on Fridays, the day of the cross, and only ate fish it was vital to ensure a local supply if you were any distance from the sea.

 

Speaking personally I developed a soft spot for otters on reading the delightful tales of the riverbank folk in Wind in the Willows.  I also loved the story of Gavin Maxwell and Edal the otter up in Scotland.  Sadly I have never seen one in the wild, but have enjoyed seeing them at the Norfolk Otter Trust Head Quarters.

 

Otters don’t sadly feature in the Bible, but they do make an appearance in the historical writings of the Venerable Bede (670-735AD).  Bede, one of the most brilliant men ever to live was a gifted historian among other things and it is thanks to him that we know anything of the Saxon church in England.  Among the attractive stories he preserves are those about St Cuthbert (640-687), Bishop of Lindisfarne, off the Northumberland coast.  Cuthbert poured out his love on others, but fuelled it all by fearsome disciplines of prayer and fasting.

 

Bede describes how whenever possible he would stay up all night praying.  He would walk into the cold sea, around Lindisfarne, so it kept him awake. Once another monk spied on him and witnessed the shivering Cuthbert emerging from the sea at dawn.  A pair of sea otters then came up out of the water and wrapped themselves around Cuthbert’s feet to warm them.

 

Otters may not appear in the Bible, but the prophet Isaiah (65:21-25) looked forward to a time when all might become friends and that the wolf and the lamb might lie down together.  Those who are in harmony with God and with their neighbour do seem to have special affinity to nature; somehow the natural world is not threatened by them.  Harmony and peace are great things and the fruits of a deep experience of the beauty of God.

 

Fr Michael

 

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March letter

All Creatures Great and Small

 

One of the more extraordinary stories of the British Isles is the account of the sea voyage of the sixth century monk Brendan.  After hearing rumours of an earthly paradise, across the sea, he set off with seventeen brother monk in a boat made out of cowhide on a wooden frame.  From the account of his journey it remains highly likely that he did cross the Atlantic Ocean, sailed through the fog of the Newfoundland banks, and made it to North America.

 

In a direct line from England, Newfoundland is the closest point to us. From Penzance (haunt of the famous pirates!) it is a mere 2116 miles!  Even in these days of frequent air travel I still thought it showed a degree of dedication when I recently met a Canadian priest, who had travelled from his Newfoundland parish, to join a group of us on retreat in Norfolk.

 

Newfoundland may be the tenth province of Canada, today, but up until 1949 it was a separate British Dominion.  One of the most moving war memorials I have seen from the Great War is that at the Newfoundland Memorial Park, on the Somme. It shows a caribou calling into the sky, as it sounds its tribute to all the Newfoundlanders who laid down their lives on behalf of Britain.

 

Another haunting call you may well hear in Canada is that of the loon bird.  The Canadian Church actually refers to it in its own verse of that popular hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful.

 

The rocky mountain splendour

The loon bird’s haunting call,

The great lakes and the prairies

The forest in the fall.

 

The original hymn was written by Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander, wife to the Archbishop of Armagh, in the mid nineteenth century.  Her hymn was part of a much wider attempt to explain the opening part of the Apostles’ Creed where we stress our belief in ‘God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.’  Mrs Alexander was remarkably successful to judge by the enthusiasm with which the children of Catsfield and Crowhurst School still sing it.

 

Newfoundland is certainly rich in wildlife with its mouse, caribou and black bears on land and the whales and dolphin in its waters. Whilst a Dominion it actually had its own version of the Red Ensign, the flag of the Merchant Navy, which included a  representation of a fisherman offering the rich harvest of the sea to Britannia.

 

It was Charles II who officially endorsed the Red Ensign in 1674 and there lies the second connection with the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful.  The tune to which we normally sing it is called Royal Oak.  We have our own Royal Oak Lane in Crowhurst, which was probably named because it led past an inn of that name.  The term Royal Oak became a popular term for hostelries after the restoration of the monarchy on the 29th May 1660; it commemorated the fact that the young Charles II had once had to hide up an oak tree to escape his pursuers.

 

Every 29th of May top show your loyalty to the newly restored monarchy you were expected to wear oak leaves.  You would probably also have enjoyed dancing to the tune named Royal Oak.  Royal Oak was the tune to a patriotic ballad, in praise of the returning House of Stuart, called The Twenty-Ninth of May.  Martin Shaw (1875-1958) the English composer was so enchanted with the tune that he adapted it to fit All Things Bright and Beautiful.

 

So next time we sing All Things Bright and Beautiful you can firstly ponder the wonders of God’s creation in our own land and beyond.  You can also remember that beauty is a quality of God. Wherever we find beauty, be it in art or music, it is always a good thing to deploy it, as Martin Shaw did, for the worship of our Heavenly Father.

 

Father Michael

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February letter

Fill-dyke February

 

February doesn’t receive the best of presses from our English poets and authors. Shakespeare speaks of a ‘February face, so full of frost, of storm and cloudliness.’  Then there is the poet William Barton:

February fills dikes, overflowing fields

And streams, turns paths to slippery ooze.’

February does, of course, boast St Valentine’s Day on the 14th, but this year it also clashes with Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.  On the face of it this doesn’t seem to be a very happy coincidence, since it is hard to tell your beloved that you won’t be receiving chocolates this year, because you ought to give them up for Lent.

 

On the other hand St Valentine’s Day does link in with Lent through its celebration of life. As well as celebrating romantic love St Valentine’s Day is the day that birds traditionally start to mate.  It is a celebration of the start of new life after winter.  William Barton in the second stanza of his poem rejoiced in all the green shoots, buds and stems that February brings.

 

The term Lent literally means spring, which is why Eastern Orthodox Christians sing enthusiastically how, ‘The spring-time of the Fast has dawned, the flower of repentance begun to open.’ Spring is my favourite time of the year, because everything seems to be growing again and there is hope; the snowdrops, Candlemas bells give me especial pleasure

 

These days I also feel enthusiasm about Lent as a special time in which to grow in my love of God and neighbour.  Jesus believed fasting was a good thing, which is why it has been linked into Lent.  Sometimes we don’t take that as seriously as we should; one thinks of the parishioner who proudly announced that not only was he giving up lemon in his gin and tonic, but the tonic too! Neither should we avoid any suggestion of fasting by announcing that we have taken something extra on.

 

A good keeping of Lent, for most of us, involves putting something down and taking something up.  Some moderation in food or drink remains a good thing, but there may be many other things we can put down for a while.  I can’t help feeling that a bit of time off social media might encourage people to talk to those who are in the room with them.

 

The keeping of the forty days of Lent is based on the forty days Christ spent in the wilderness.  He made time to be open to growing in God’s will.  When He came out of the wilderness He was ready to preach the good news.  Lent gives us the opportunity to confront what may be wrong in our lives and to start the springtime growth that will help us flourish.

 

Father Michael

 

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January letter 2018

Some London Stations

 

I enjoyed seeing the evocation of gracious train travel on the recent film version of Murder on the Orient Express.  It is all based on Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective, and his efforts to solve a murder, which takes place on the train.  Just in case you don’t know the story I won’t spoil it for you, but all the incidental details showing the dining car and the assiduous attendants shows what a pleasurable and glamorous experience (murder apart!) a train journey can be.

 

It is not quite the same on our local train line; we don’t even have the trolley service we used to enjoy. The reduced train service, which accompanies bank holidays and festivals, can also be frustrating. ‘Woe betide’ those who thought they might travel by train on the first day of January 2018.

 

Nevertheless large numbers of the English still have a romantic affection for the railways and the buildings which go with them. Some of the stations really are very splendid. Norwich (Thorpe Station to the pedantic cognoscenti) looks like a French chateau and York like a many aisled cathedral with metal vaults.

 

Indeed a visit around the stations of London is a bit like a religious history of England. Charing Cross is named after the memorial cross erected by Edward I to his beloved wife Eleanor of Castile.  Outside in the taxi ranks you can see a Victorian recreation of the original.  Then there are the stations named after saints.  There is St Paul’s, near Wren’s famous cathedral or Marylebone, which is an abbreviation of St Mary on the banks of the bourne (bourne being an old word for a river).  Some of the references are more subtle such as Blackfriars, which remembers the long departed priory of black habited Dominican friars at the bottom of Ludgate Hill, or Temple, which commemorates the Mediaeval order of fighting monks known as the Knights Templar.

 

St Pancras looks like a Gothic cathedral and is named after an early Roman boy saint. Pancras was only fourteen when his refusal to abandon his Christian faith led to his death at the hands of the Roman Empire in 304AD..  His death moved many because of his youth and many churches are dedicated to him.  St Pancras, Old Church, London, which is not far away is probably one of the earliest sites of Christian worship in this country.

 

Just as the railways are everywhere in Britain, so the Christian faith, as a cursory look at a few stations shows, has moulded and shaped a nation. In 2017 we would do well to recover those roots and to nurture them so that so many of the declining humane values such as service to others may begin to flourish more vigorously. So in the power of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, it is full steam ahead into 2018.

 

Fr Michael

 

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December letter 2017

Travel on a Train

 

On the way to a preaching engagement in Oxford I had to travel by underground to Paddington Station, the home of the famous bear. On the underground people seem to have perfected the art of blanking the world out.  A group of very enthusiastic buskers entered the carriage with their brass instruments and drum.  They clearly noted my clerical collar and gave us a good blast of ‘When the saints go marching in’.  I felt obliged to look enthusiastic and put some money in the cap being passed round. Everybody else in the carriage pretended nothing was going on.

 

At the next stop the cheerful buskers left and a beggar entered the carriage. He announced that he was cold and had nothing to eat and would be grateful for any spare money.  I didn’t give him any, because I could see he had a bag with food in it.  I was the exception, however, since nearly everybody else came to life and gave him something. I felt the carriage’s disapproval of my meanness.

 

I do believe in helping those in need, so I find it difficult ignoring those begging for money. Sometimes I do give money although I prefer to give time to listen to someone, buy food, or to contribute directly to a charity. In the story of Paddington Bear he is simply left at the station with a label saying ‘Please look after this bear’ and the Brown family do exactly that. For most of us life isn’t quite that simple.

Nevertheless the coming of Christmas should challenge us to reach out to others. It is a time when we celebrate God reaching out to us by becoming one of us in the manger at Bethlehem.  We are called to love others as God loves us, so that does mean reaching out to others.

It can be a minefield navigating how to help others. If you suspect somebody may do something unhelpful with the money you give are you right to give it?  On the other hand what if you ignore someone who is genuinely cold and hungry and has no one else?  It is a difficult one to sort out.  All I can say is that the principle of active love to others is right, but how we do it is for us to decide; sometimes we may need to show tough love.

At many of our Christmas services we do give the collection away; sometimes to charities in this country and sometimes to those overseas. It is a gentle reminder that at Christmas God reached out to all the peoples of the world and we are called to do so today.

 

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November letter

As dim as a Toc H lamp’

 

Anyone who served in the Armed Forces up until the late 1960s is likely to have heard someone lambasted for being ‘as dim as a Toc H lamp.’  Toc H is an international charity dedicated to serving others whose roots are in the First World War.  In 1915 an army padre, the Rev’d Philip Clayton, set up a rest home for the troops in the town of Poperinge.  It was named Talbot House after Lieutenant Gilbert Talbot, who had been killed earlier that year. Whatever the formal name it soon became abbreviated to Toc Aitch, which were the predecessors of today’s phonetic letters T – Tango and H- Hotel.

 

Tubby Clayton created what he referred to as an ‘oasis in a world gone crazy’, which could be a place of rest for all.  Famously everyone was treated exactly the same once they were inside: ‘All rank abandon ye who enter here’ was the motto.

 

There was a popular reading room, a pleasant garden, tea on the constant go, singalongs around the piano, concert parties and treats for the local children.  Right up in the loft was a chapel known as the Upper Room.  The attendance was always voluntary, but the services were packed and there were usually men standing all the way down the stairs and on the landing too.

 

After the war had ended Tubby Clayton wanted to do something to keep alive the keen sense of fellowship that they had felt at Talbot House and to promote service to others.  Toc H was born.  At the start of a Toc H meeting an ancient world lamp (think Aladdin’s lamp) is always lit to symbolize the light of service to others, which can break down all barriers.

 

The Toc H lamp isn’t actually very bright so it is not difficult to see how the expression likening someone’s intelligence to its dimness developed.  But a little light can still achieve a great deal and make all the difference.

 

On Remembrance Sunday we will remember the dark tragedy of war along with showing our gratitude to those who fought for freedom.  We also commit ourselves to working for that better world where the light is never extinguished and the darkness might be totally driven away.

 

At the opposite end to the actual flame a Toc H lamp has a cross.  The design is based on the Cross of Ypres, which is an historical reminder that Talbot House served those who fought on the Ypres Salient.  But the cross is also a reminder that the cross is the ultimate sign of God’s service to us and that out of that dark tragedy came the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

 

We are committed to making this world the best we possibly can, but we also have the hope that our ultimate home is with the risen Lord.

 

Fr Michael

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October 17 letter

Cannibals

 

Robinson Crusoe is the story of an Englishman shipwrecked on a tropical island for twenty-eight years.  Crusoe escaped from the ship with just the captain’s dog and two cats.

 

But Crusoe learned to survive on the island.  He went foraging and eventually learnt how to grow barley and rice and to turn grapes into raisins.  His harvest was really important for him and his gratitude to God for His goodness grew and grew.  October is also the month we will be celebrating our own Harvest Festivals (Crowhurst on the 1st at 11am and Catsfield on the 8th also at 11am).

 

Crusoe had plenty of challenges on his tropical island, which included having to share it with occasional visits from cannibals.  He was pretty shocked by this and famously saves one man, whom he christened Man Friday on account of the day he was saved.

 

Christians, of course, have sometimes being accused of being cannibals too.  Our principle service of Holy Communion obeys the instructions of Our Lord Jesus Christ to offer to God the gifts of bread and wine.  The bread symbolizes our daily work and the wine speaks of our social and non-working life.  As these gifts are brought up in church they stand as an offering of our whole life to God.

 

We then believe that God makes them even better, as Jesus uses them to make Himself present to us today.  Following the words of Jesus, Himself, we talk about receiving His body and His blood.  It is perhaps not surprising that this has been misunderstood and people have thought that we might be cannibals.

 

Well we aren’t!  To be a cannibal you have to have a dead body.  Christians believe that Jesus is definitely alive and with us today.  Holy Communion is one way of letting the risen Jesus continue to enter into our lives.

 

Fr Michael

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September letter

Giants

 

Sussex by the Sea is our unofficial county anthem and the unofficial anthem for Yorkshire is On Ilkla Mooar baht’at. For those not familiar with the latter the song is a warning about what will happen to you if you go onto Ilkley Moor, without a hat, and catch your death of cold.

 

During my recent break, up in Yorkshire, I was pretty lucky with the weather and seem to have survived walking on Ilkley Moor without a hat. The Yorkshire Dales are glorious when the sun is shining and even when it rains you can argue that it makes the many waterfalls even better.

 

However I think it would be less desirable to be around when it is blowing a gale. At Troller’s Gill, also in the Dales, the legend of the howling Barghest, a spectral hound, no doubt has its origin in the roaring wind.

 

It is not difficult when you look at some of the other natural wonders, such as the great limestone pavements at Malham Cove, to see how people came up with the legends of supernatural forces. The Malham guidebook will tell you all you need to know about how the rocks really evolved into a paved plateau. Personally I couldn’t help thinking that it looked more like the flooring from a giant’s house. It reminded me of a scene in C.S. Lewis’s novel The Silver Chair where the heroes realize that they have been standing on a pavement made by the ancient giants.

 

There are plenty of references to giants in the Bible. The Israelites are initially scared to enter the Promised Land, because it is filled with giants and they felt like grasshopper next to them (Numbers 13:31-32). The Amorites, one of the Israelite enemies, are described as being as tall as the cedar trees (Amos 2:9-10). Perhaps most famously the young shepherd boy, David, takes on the mighty giant Goliath in single combat (1 Samuel 17).

 

There has been much debate over whether the Bible is referring to ‘real’ giants, or simply using the term to describe giant forces opposed to God’s will and His people. According to the first book of the Bible giants are supposed to have originated when some of the angels went wrong and mated with women on earth. That story suggests to me that whilst there probably were some enormous warriors around the term giant, in the Bible, also stands for anyone who had gone wrong in a ‘big’ way.

 

We have plenty of challenging modern giants. If you have ever tried to deal with a big (giant) company when you have a problem, it is a real triumph if you manage to speak to a human being. The world community, of course, also faces giant problems relating to issues such as energy, food, health, housing and pollution. We can feel overwhelmed by all the giant-sized problems we have to face.

 

The ancient world didn’t really think individuals mattered. It was the Christian faith that brought to the world the notion that people are important and all are worthy of respect. God in Jesus Christ spoke of how each of us is so precious to Him that even the hairs of our head are numbered (Luke 12:7). So when we feel concerned by giant problems we can remember how we are individually precious to God and do what good we can.

 

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June letter

Angels on Candles

 

If you have not looked properly at them do please look at the decorated candles, down by the font, in both churches.  The paschal (Easter) candles are dedicated at Easter and are a sign of the light of the resurrection overcoming the darkness of the world.  You have to include certain things such as the date and a cross, but the artist is allowed a free rein after that.

 

The Crowhurrst candle, painted by Valerie Wellard, has a lamb on it and the Catsfield one, by Anita Heyworth, has two magnificent angels rejoicing in the resurrection.  I noticed that the angels have scarlet robes peeking out at the bottom. Only the Chapel Royal and royal chaplains are allowed to wear scarlet robes in England, but since angels are so close to the throne of God, it seems even more appropriate for them to have a bit of scarlet too.

 

Of course nobody really knows what an angel should look like. We have physical bodies, but angels are purely spiritual beings.  When people say that they have seen or heard angels they have almost certainly had an internal spiritual experience, but are giving it a physical form.  When the Prophet Elisha’s servant complains that he can’t see the angels the prophet prays for him to be able to perceive these spiritual beings. (2 Kings 6:17)

 

The Bible tells us that angels are God’s messengers (that is literally what the term angels means), that they worship Him and that we all have angels watching over us.  In some respects it is a lovely though that we all have a guardian angel.  As King David put it, in the ninety-first psalm: ‘For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.’

 

The thought of a guardian angel, however, is also a pretty challenging thing.  Pope John XXIII reflected in his private diary ‘How can I entertain certain proud thoughts, say certain works, commit certain actions, under the eyes of my Guardian Angel? And yet I have done this.’

 

Of course we all make mistakes and even the angels have gone wrong.  The prophet Isaiah (14:12-14) mourned how the angel Lucifer, that bright ‘morning star’ had fallen from heaven for trying to raise himself above God.

 

However it would probably be fair to say that you are either a good angel close to God, or a fallen one; there is nothing in between.  Men and women, by contrast, are a mixture of good and bad and sometimes walk towards God, but are just as likely to go in the other direction.

 

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews (Chapter 2) thought it was, therefore, amazing that God, in Jesus Christ, should make Himself lower than the angels by becoming human.  Furthermore he did it, so that he might make us His precious children, which is not a term ever used for the angels.

 

Two fallen angels in the C.S Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters discuss why God should want to bother with human beings.  The conclude that ‘all the talk about His love for men… is not (as one would gladly believe) more propaganda, but an appalling truth.’

 

The truth may be appalling to those forces opposed to God, but the wonder that God makes Himself even lower than the angels, so that we too might be part of his family, should be joyous to us. We may not be dressed in scarlet robes, but we are invited, just as much as the Catsfield angels, to stand around the throne of God.

 

Father Michael

 

 

 

 

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May 2017 letter

The Quiet Guide

 

Hopefully as you read this we will be enjoying beautiful May weather. We had some beautiful days in April and the spring flowers of Catsfield and Crowhurst with primroses, anemones and then the bluebells, have been wonderful.

 

Spring is a good moment for getting active. Geoffrey Chaucer, the father of English prose, in his Canterbury Tales spoke of spring as being the moment when people decide they are ready to go travelling, again, ready to go on pilgrimage.  In the middle ages we would have seen members of both parishes setting off to see the shrine of St Richard at Chichester, or St Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Maybe if they were more ambitious they would have headed to a Sussex port to catch a boat to Spain to visit the Shrine of St James the Apostle at Compostela in Spain.

 

If they had serious time on their hands, which I doubt anyone did round here, maybe they would have gone all the way to Rome. The Via Francigena, the route that has linked Canterbury to Rome since the earliest times took around six months on foot. I’m saving it up for when I retire!  I have, however, already enjoyed reading an account by Harry Bucknall, a former Coldstream Guards Officer, entitled Like a Tramp Like a Pilgrim.  I was especially struck by a passage when he senses that he is not alone in a French beech wood.  He describes seeing a silhouette cross his path, as if to make it clear to Harry that he was there. But it then disappeared although ‘its presence was all about. I could feel it….It was as if someone…was watching over me.’

 

That story made me think of another passage in one of my favourite books the Horse and his Boy by C.S. Lewis.  The boy from the title is called Shasta and he is trying to warn the good people of the kingdom of Narnia that they are about to be attacked.  Unfortunately he loses his way in the mist, which is when he senses that someone is near him.  He can’t see who it is, but he knows that someone is there and whilst it is a bit frightening he senses that it is a friendly presence.  Eventually Shasta and the presence have a conversation about Shasta’s life, even though Shasta can’t see to whom he is talking. In the conversation Shasta discovers that he has always been watched over and things that he thought were a disaster are part of a plan for the good.  And then for one glorious moment, as the light begins, Shasta sees a beautiful lion before he vanishes.  Shasta then wonders if it was all a dream, but in the bright sunshine he can see that he has been brought through a dangerous mountain pass.

 

C.S. Lewis tells a good story, but he also uses his stories to prepare us a little for what it might be like to know the guiding presence of God in our lives. The fabulous lion, whose name is Aslan, has all sorts of things in common with Jesus Christ.  Like the risen Christ He appears and disappears at will and He can sometimes seem absent when we need Him most.  He can also take situations, which seems disastrous and turn them to the good and He can be with us when we don’t even know that He is there.

 

Aslan is not a tame lion who does what people want on demand and neither does Jesus Christ give us what we want when we want it. But the risen Christ, our contemporary today, does watch over us. When we look back at things, just as Shasta looked back at the mountain pass, we can sometimes see that we might not have made it without help we didn’t fully recognize at the time.

 

Fr Michael

 

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