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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April letter

Shredded Pancakes

 

I trust that you all enjoyed your pancakes back on Shrove Tuesday. A few years ago, whilst in Austria, I enjoyed the shredded pancake, which is known as Kaiserschmarren.  Kaiser means emperor and Schmarren means something like a shredded dish.

 

The Austrian pancake is thought to have been named after the Emperor Franz Joseph (1830-1916), who was very fond of it. There are quite a few stories about its origins.  One says that the Empress was hopeless at flipping pancakes, so decided to play to her strengths by shredding it and then topping it with jam.  Another version recounts how a poor peasant woman was flustered by having to entertain the emperor; in her panic she also made a mess of tossing the pancake.  She covered up her mistake, however, by pouring jam all over the shredded pieces and the emperor was delighted by the sweet concoction.

 

Whichever version you like both make the point that an apparent pancake disaster was turned into a triumph. Pancake Day, Shrove Tuesday, was the day before Lent; the forty days of preparation for Easter.  We are now in the last stage of it, which is a period of time usually known as Passiontide.  The English word passion has its roots in a Latin word for suffering. For centuries it referred pretty much exclusively to the suffering of Christ on the cross, the Passion of Christ, long before we started using the word passion to refer to anything else.

 

There are many things that could be said about the Passion of Christ. It certainly shows that in a world full of innocent suffering the Christian faith has innocent suffering right at its heart. But we should also remember that the cross is a victory; what appears to be a total disaster is actually a triumphant victory.

 

When Jesus died on the cross He called out ‘It is finished’; the work is completed (John19:30). It is only through the cross that Christ can enter into the realm of death and rescue those trapped there.  It is a bit like a successful raid on enemy territory to free hostages and to bring them home.

 

The mess we might make with our pancakes is trivial stuff compared to the current mess of the world. But when confronted with our world’s challenges the cross, which speaks of a God who knows all about innocent suffering and is triumphant against death, should give us hope.

 

Father Michael

 

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February letter

Finding God in the Darkness

 

Winter has been described as the midnight season because it is both the last season and it tends to be dark. The darkness can be frightening, but it need not always be so.

 

As some of you know I collect old Scout novels; the Cubs and the Scouts are always refreshingly perfect in them. In one book a boy falls down a well and the Scouts discuss which one should rescue him.  Seton, who is a blind boy, volunteers to go, because the dark is already part of his life and it holds no fears for him. He knows how to find things in the dark and all his other senses are operating at maximum.

 

The dark need not always be bad for us either and may help us to tune into other things. Time after time we are told in the Gospels that Our Lord prayed when it was dark. He often spent the whole night in prayer.  When he was teaching us how to pray he told us to go into a room and to shut the door.  That was a way of saying shut out the distractions of both sound and sight.  In the small hours I have struggled with prayer, but have also found a clearness and freshness in a dark world.

 

The first Christians believed the night watch was the best time for prayer. This is why many religious orders still rise to pray in the early hours of the day. I may have mentioned that I am partial to the chocolate produced by the Cistercian monks of Caldey Island, off the Pembrokeshire coast.  The monks who make it rise and pray for the world at half-past three every morning.  Father Daniel, one of the monks, describes how for him the ‘whole body and mind is more perceptive’ in the dark and that the day seems both ‘pure’ and untouched.

 

Most famously St Paul found God in the darkness. He believed it was his duty to persecute the followers of Jesus Christ and set off for Damascus to arrest any he found there.  On route he was temporarily blinded by the light of God and he spent three days in darkness, which forced him to reconsider his life and helped him to decide to be baptized.

 

The stars, as you know, show up much better in a really dark sky. In those parts of the world with less light pollution the Milky Way is apparently spectacular.  A bit of darkness can clearly help the light to be more dramatic.  Anyone who goes in for sensitive room lighting and candles also knows that.

 

Sometimes the space and calm offered by darkness can help us to draw closer to God. It also can also show up better the beauty of Jesus Christ, the light of the world.

 

Father Michael

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December letter 2016

The Box of Delights

 

One of my pleasures in anticipation of Christmas is to dip into the children’s story The Box of Delights by John Masefield.  I also like to watch the very fine BBC adaptation from the 1980s.  I just adored that series, as a school boy, and lived for each episode.  It tells the story of the young Kay Harker, home for the Christmas holidays, which turn out to be anything but dull.  He befriends an old Punch and Judy man called Cole Hawlings, who entrusts the magical box of delights to him.  When pressed to the left it can make you go swift, when pressed to the right can make you go small and within it are multiple wonders.

 

Not surprisingly some villains are after Cole Hawlings, because they want the box. This is why he entrusts it to Kay to make sure they don’t abuse its powers.  The master crook’s real name is Abner Brown, but he has a false persona as the Rev’d Dr Boddledale, principal of a theological college.

 

There are plenty of good and genuine clergy in the book (the possible start of a clerical vocation for me!) including the saintly bishop of Tatchester, who is so looking forward to the thousandth Christmas service to be held in Tachester cathedral. Out of sheer spite the wicked Abner Brown ‘scrobbles’ the bishop, the other  clergy and choir boys to stop the Christmas service.

 

To cut a very long story short Kay, with the aid of the box, ensures that good wins through and evil is routed. The book closes with the Christmas service being able to take place. On the very stroke of midnight the organ and a brass band struck up, ‘the Vestry door curtains fell back to each side and out came the great Cathedral crosses and blessed banners with all the Cathedral choir and clergy, voices lifted aloft in ‘O Come, all ye Faithful.’ Every space was packed ‘with faces: all there sang as they had never sung, the singing shook the whole building.’

 

Masefield by ending his book at the Christmas service clearly recognized that Christ should be joyously at the centre of our festivities. I also think that by filling so much wonder into that innocuous, but amazing box, he gave us a way of explaining why the birth of Jesus matters.

 

At Christmas we celebrate that the great God, creator and sustainer of all, steps down from his throne of glory and became a little child. He fitted himself into the box of the manger, as he became a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes.  At the first Christmas the shepherds were lucky enough to grasp something of the glory of God among them, resting in the feeding box for the animals.

 

For those willing to look and listen today we may also ‘Come and adore Him’ too.

 

 

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November 2016 letter

Remembrance Sunday

 

We are so used to seeing the images of the white Portland stone headstones of the Commonwealth Cemeteries, set amongst the lovingly tended flowers of the English country garden and those immaculate lawns, that we don’t realize how revolutionary treating all the fallen, equally in death, was.  It was without precedent, when the decision was made, that all who had died in war were to have identical graves and that none of the bodies were to be repatriated.  They had made an equal sacrifice and were to be treated equally in death.

 

Families clearly often wanted something tangible to remember their loved ones by closer to home.  In Catsfield some of the Communion plate is in memory of a fallen soldier and in Crowhurst there are several private memorials on the church walls, as well as the main war memorial.  Perhaps even more surprisingly there are several family graves, outside, where a family member, who is buried elsewhere, in the continental cemeteries of the Great War, is still commemorated on the stone.  One such case is that of   Edward Tufnell, Captain of the Coldstream Guards, who died on the 15th September 1916, aged twenty-two and rests at Ginchy in France. His inscription is on the grave of his father, Lt Col Edward Tufnell.

 

Back in September I wrote that since the first cub pack meeting of term was on the 15th, one hundred years to the day of his death, we planted a small poppy cross on his grave.  I had not noticed, until another leader pointed it out, that nearby was the grave of the late Majorie Agatha Whitefoord, who paid to have the churchyard extended between the wars. Quite remarkably her stone also remembered her husband, Lieutenant Lionel Cole Whitefoord, who was also killed on 15th September 1915, leaving behind her and a son.  Lt Whitefoord was killed in the Battle of the Somme, has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to all the missing.

 

Both these graves are a little reminder of the cost of war and the pain caused to those left behind. Here the grief of parents, children and spouses was given voice in stone.  The Whitefoord grave has a cross on it and the Tuyfnell grave is a magnificent Celtic style cross.

The cross clearly spoke to both families, as it does to us, of a Saviour who suffered and died for us.  He sacrificed Himself as their family members had.

 

If they were human the Tufnells and the Whitefoords must have pondered the great question of how a God of love allows war.  There are all sorts of answers beginning with the abuse of our own free will, but there are no glib answers which totally satisfy.  The tragic events of the past and today make some doubt whether there is a God and if there is does He care?  For myself I find that thinking about the cross means that I can believe in a God of love.  A God who chose to experience an undeserved death on the cross, for us, is a both a supreme example of innocent suffering and selfless love.

 

The cross remains a victory of love over hatred.  If you read the accounts of the crucifixion no matter the physical pain and the mental suffering Christ refused to let love be beaten.  It is a reminder that it is always better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.  There are many ways to light such a candle, but the more that are lit the

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