Vicar's Blog

Walking your daughter down the aisle – that magic moment.

December 8th, 2017

middleton wedding

I’ve done it no less than four times – and each time I walk even more slowly to relish the moment.

Mr Markle has all this to look forward to according to the Royal Wedding Exclusive in this morning’s Daily Mirror.  There we have the vivid headline “I’d love to walk Meghan down the aisle.”

It seems that this reclusive dad has broken his silence to “Mirrorman Chris” who flew over specially to Mexico to give us this long-awaited news.

Strangely while the story dominates the press edition there is not even a hint of the story on the Mirror website.  To know more you need to buy the paper.

Short pause as I scurry to the Post Office to buy my copy.

An even shorter pause as I realise it’s cold outside and change my mind..

There is something very special about walking your daughter down the aisle.  There is that sense of something incredibly special, epoch-making even.  To quote one dad,  “a beautiful mix of joy, love, and even a little wistful sadness.”

Mind you, walking in a straight line isn’t as easy as it looks, especially if the whole world is watching.

I remember being very impressed by the bearing of Michael Middleton as he walked Catherine down the aisle at Westminster Abbey. Clearly he has set the bar very high for Mr Markle.

Talking about bars, there’s always the risk for some fathers of not being that sober.  Or the danger of of tripping over your daughter’s veil. Or just walking oddly.

As vicar only once I have personally witnessed a dad getting it wrong.

The procession started okay but when I arrived at the chancel steps I turned round to see that somehow during the walk father and bride had swapped sides.  Goodness knows how.

So standing in front of me, from left to right, were the groom, the father and the bride.  To begin with it looked as if I was going to marry all three.

Of course the father walking his daughter down the aisle is simply a tradition from the days when daughters were in some way owned by their fathers.  Nevertheless it is one which modern brides tend to hold onto.

I’m not sure whether in Bible times fathers actually walked their daughters into the wedding ceremony.  I guess not, going from the parables that Jesus gave on weddings.

However, the arrival of the bride provides a powerful image for God’s purposes for us his people, his church.

So the apostle Paul writes how Christ loves his church and gave himself up for her.  His purpose?  “To present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”  (Ephesians 5:27)

Or as we find in the Message translation.  “Everything (Christ) does and says is designed to bring the best out of her, dressing her in dazzling white silk, radiant with holiness.”

To be honest that particular metaphor doesn’t really work for me.  I guess because I’m a bloke and being thought of as radiant without stain or wrinkle doesn’t push my buttons.

But I know what Paul is getting at, how through the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit we are transformed to be like Jesus.  There is always something beautiful when God is at work.

However, the one book in scripture which uses this image of the church as the bride of Christ in a big way is the final book in the New Testament, the book of Revelation.

“Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.” (Revelation 19:7)

God’s purpose is going to be fulfilled – that as we are reading in Tom Wright’s Advent book,  “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:10).  That’s where we are heading – despite everything that life may throw at us.

Of course, this is beyond our imagination.  We simply do not have the resource to grasp what God has prepared for his creation.  So the writer of Revelation grabs every metaphor on offer to give us a foretaste of what is in store.

“And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”  (Revelation 21:2)

It’s where we are going and it’s worth waiting for.  And you can just glimpse this glorious future as a father proudly walks his daughter down the aisle.

An awesome moment, a true celebration.

This year’s worst civic Christmas tree competition won by Derby.

December 1st, 2017

Christmas tree

“It looks awful. Why bother? It does not look festive at all. Take it down along with all the railings. Embarrassing to be from Derby.”

So as we enter December, we have our first awful Christmas tree story.

In fact, just a few moments ago (life has since moved on) it was the lead piece on the BBC news website with the startling heading “Derby cordoned-off Christmas tree ‘an embarrassment.’”

Such stories are now part of the annual ritual of the Festive Season.

No doubt you will remember “the cold blue lights and scrappy tree” from Buxton in 2015 while the white 20ft tree in Stockton was branded the “worst in Britain” some two years earlier.  This particular sapling was compared to a dunce’s hat and upside down ice cream cone by the locals.

Just google “embarrassment town Christmas lights” and you’re in for a treat!

However, my favourite was located in the small Pennine town of Whitworth, not far from where we used to live in Rochdale.  There the worthy councillors erected just one solitary illuminated reindeer atop a lamppost.

At least I think it was a reindeer.  It might have been a snowman. He was called Barney and took pride of place not just on BBC North West Tonight but in the hearts of the people of Lancashire.  People travelled far and wide to gaze upon Barney.

In fact, only last Friday we gathered at the entrance to Ormskirk parish church to witness the turning on of the lights of Ormskirk’s Christmas tree, erected by public demand after last year’s demise.  I think the £980 for the tree was raised by public subscription following a determined campaign by Our West Lancashire.

Clearly town Christmas trees occupy a very special place in our culture, a public statement to which people identify very strongly.  Hence the annual coverage of the scandal of tatty trees.

However, the obvious question is Why?

So today with the world in turmoil – Yemen, the difficulties for the Irish border from Brexit, RBS decimating their branch network, the sufferings of the Rohingya people  – remarkably the BBC national website leads with a poorly displayed Christmas tree in the East Midlands.

Something is happening here which I’m not sure I understand.

It may be because in this complex and turbulent world we need an easy moan.  “Just look at our Christmas tree!”  You don’t need a degree in economics or a working knowledge of Asian politics. It’s local, it’s there and above all, it’s ours.

For as human beings we need something visual to focus our attention, even our beliefs.

This was the tension right through the Hebrew scriptures as God reveals himself. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”  (Deuteronomy 6:1).
Notice ‘Hear” and not ‘See.’

But the people of Israel wanted to be able to see this God who had entered into a covenant relation with them.  God of course knew this and so, for example he demonstrates his presence with them in the wilderness with “the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.” (Exodus 13:22).

But at its basic this is the God we cannot see for the simple reason is that he is God.

The ongoing temptation for the people of Israel, and now for us, is to construct our own graven image – to see God (or our version of him). Hence the second commandment against idols.

But as the New Testament writer to the Hebrews realises, this God we cannot see gives our faith in him a special quality: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1).

So what do we look at?  Where is our focus?

John begins his Gospel:  “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in the closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”  (John 1:18)

Astonishingly Jesus himself tells his disciple Philip:  “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)  Quite a statement to say the least.

So when we celebrate Christmas, we decide to focus not on our Christmas tree (and all that it represents) but on Christ on the tree, crucified for us.
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”  (1 Peter 2:24)

There is our true celebration.

How the meeting which should have been cancelled changed my life

November 24th, 2017


Fascinating phone conversation with John last night.  The last time we spoke it changed my life.

It was way back in February 1963 when Roger from my Covenanter Group invited me to the 6.30 pm Gospel Service at the sponsoring church, Oxford Hall, a small Brethren assembly.

By then I had been attending Covies for a few months, having been rescued from the sheer boredom of Prayer Book Matins at St Nicholas’, my childhood church.

I could sense somehow that God was at work in Roger, and so I said “Yes.”

However, on that particular evening a thick smog from the Mersey estuary drifted over Waterloo. Even so I headed out, not far to go, to find that Roger had not turned up as promised.

So I walked in anyway.

To discover just a very small congregation, of what appeared to be very elderly women.  They were probably in their late 50’s/early 60’s.  I guess nowadays the service would have been cancelled, not least because you could phone round.

So the service proceeded.  It was taken by a young man who had come specially over from Over the Water.  And it was totally unlike any church service I had ever experienced. When it came to the sermon, I was transfixed.

For the first time in my life the Gospel message came together.  I had already had all the material in my mind, thanks to St Nick’s school and Sunday school.  I knew my Bible stories. Of course, I knew that Jesus was crucified, that he was raised to life on Easter Day.

But the one thing I had not realised – because no one had ever told me – is that Jesus died for me and that I needed to make a response to his act of love.  A hugely important decision not to be side-stepped.  So I decided to follow Christ.

A key moment in my life.  And yesterday was the first time I had spoken to this young man from Rock Ferry – except that John is now an old man living in Prenton.

Jacqui’s nursing friend, Joyce, knew my story and knew that the speaker in the story was her friend, John Pope.  And so the other day she gave me his contact details and suggested I phoned him. Which I did yesterday afternoon; for John, right out of the blue.

It was great to talk to John and to thank him somewhat belatedly for his ministry some 54 years ago.

It was fascinating to hear the story from his perspective.

He can remember the evening and the difficult journey by train to get to Oxford Hall on time.  He recalls walking in the smog past the bleakness of the railway coal yard.  And then discovering just a very small congregation – which hardly made his journey worthwhile. A few old ladies and a young lad – that’s all. .

What I did not remember was that after the service it seemed I approached him with several “very intelligent” questions.  The quote is his, I hasten to add.

Apparently I then said “Thank you” and walked out.  And that was it.  He never had any idea of my response until Ted Morrell some years ago related my story to him.

But that experience has been formative in my life and ministry – not least the strategic importance of small, poorly attended meetings.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  (Isaiah 55:8).

As a rule of thumb God works in the way contrary to our common sense.  We see this, above all, in the cross of Jesus.  Here is this man, betrayed, humiliated and in considerable pain,  we may know the love and power of God himself.

The apostle Paul writes “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. . .  so that no one may boast before him.”  (1 Corinthians 1:27f).

So in my ministry I am not fazed by failure or disappointment. For more often than not the Holy Spirit works most powerfully in the small and the weak.  For – as Paul has just explained – no one can be in any doubt who is at work.

It’s great when the church is packed, when we have powerful worship or a celebrity speaker.  But by no means does that mean that a more bountiful harvest than in the much smaller and simpler service later that evening.

Of course, you don’t turn this on its head and not do your best, whatever the context.  There is no reason to delight in mediocrity or relish failure.  But when it comes to spiritual fruit, even a hundred-fold return, Jesus can so easily use our few loaves and a handful of fish when surrendered to him.

This understanding makes all the difference as we do God’s work. The apostle Paul knew this only too well:  “And don’t hold back. Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort.”  (1 Corinthians 15: 58)

The battle of Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care.

November 17th, 2017


The battle of Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care. As you would expect, I lost.

I did explain to Jacqui:  “But you haven’t even held it, let alone read it, for at least 25 years!”

However, she patiently explained that the book represented too many memories just to be taken to the charity shop. So it stays (for now).

But I persevere as we downsize in preparation for our move next spring.

For downsizing can be a challenge, especially to those of you who hoard.  “You’ll never know when I may need it!”

In reality most of us live our lives following the Pareto 80:20 Principle.  This means, for example, that we wear just 20% of our clothes for 80% of the time.  There’s ample room for getting rid of stuff, even giving it to someone who may actually need it.

Myself, I am in the minimalist category.  I have already got rid of nearly all my books.  Most to family, others to friends;  the balance to Book Aid and charity shops.  And other paraphernalia.  Even my faithful Adidas Tokyo spikes which I last wore in 1975 had to go, sold via eBay to a collector in London for £39.

The strategy is straight-forward.  You begin in the rooms farthest from the heart of your home.  That’s where there are more items that are simply being stored rather than used.

So I have already tackled my daughters on all the memorabilia they have dumped over the years on our top floor.  I quote to them Anne Valley Fox:  “You can’t have enough of what you didn’t want in the first place.”

But people do find getting rid of things extraordinary difficult.  They need professional help.

In fact, only last year I bumped into an old friend to discover his wife has a new job.  She is a professional declutterer.  In fact, you may not even know that there is a professional body, the APDO. That is, the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers.  I wonder if there is a HELP line.

Jesus, of course, didn’t have much time for clutter.  He calls us as we follow him to travel light.

So he sends the twelve out on their mission:   “Do not get any gold, silver or copper to take with you in your belts. Do not take a bag for the journey. Do not take extra clothes or sandals or walking sticks.”  (Matthew 10:9)

After all, as his disciples Jesus teaches us to sit light to things to ensure that our possessions do not possess us.  He reserves the right to say to us at any time as he said to the rich young ruler: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

But there’s more to clutter than jumble in the attic.  As novelist Eleanor Brown observes: “Clutter is not just physical stuff, it’s old ideas, toxic relationships and bad habits.”

And here again we may well need a professional declutterer – the Holy Spirit himself.

First, our time.  We can so easily fill our time with all kinds of junk.  Not necessarily wrong in itself:  it just means we do not have enough time to do what God wants us to do.   What the apostle Paul calls ‘redeeming the time.’ He write:  “Don’t waste your time on useless work, mere busywork, the barren pursuits of darkness.” (Ephesians 5:16)

That does not necessarily mean, of course, that we do not watch MOTD – which would be a blessing the way Everton are playing this season.  But it does mean a certain introspection as we submit our lives afresh to Christ each morning.

Sometimes it may mean a determination to do nothing rather than to fill our time with meaningless activity.  Being still gives the Holy Spirit the space to direct us.

And then the way we think.

The Victorian designer and social activist William Morris once said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”   He could have been talking about our minds.

Again the apostle Paul challenges us:  “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Very simply if it’s good, it’s beautiful.  And we hold onto it.

But such decluttering is difficult.  And it needs the same level of discipline, ruthlessness even, as when we downsize.  All that junk – old ways of thinking we know to be wrong and yet strangely persist.  All of it, we give to the Lord as we open our minds to his scripture.    Again, each morning.  .

No wonder the New Testament repeatedly emphasises the renewal of our minds, an alternative mindset, as we encourage each other to think Christianly.

Here I dare to quote Dr Spock himself:  “The main source of good discipline is growing up in a loving family, being loved and learning to love in return.”  (Baby and Child Care page 679)  The family of God, of course.