This time last week I was multitasking; simultaneously preaching in Cornwall, Canada and Ireland whilst walking along the banks of the River Wear at Chester-le- Street – such are the wonders of modern technology and pre-recorded sermons and talks!
I feel bereft not being able to be with any of our family, including our two youngest granddaughters, who like everyone else in the north-east are in lockdown. We were with them for the first five weeks of Annabelle’s life and have missed the following weeks and can only observe her and her lovely sister Lyra growing up on WhatsApp and video calls.
Start the Week was not with Andrew Marr on Radio 4 but with my Prayer Accompaniers, valued friends and supporters. I cannot underestimate the encouragement of such a group who I meet with online every first Monday in the month. There followed a lovely mentoring session with Chris Friend, someone who I was privileged to be involved in training at Cranmer and now mentor. I look forward to him and Caroline his wife becoming our pastors when we move back to Northumberland, hopefully before Christmas.
Yes, you heard it right, the rumours are true; we are going ‘home’ to the North East! Within the last three weeks we’ve sold our house here in Northallerton and have bought a house in Alnwick. With so many changes because of COVID-19 and my extensive travelling now being done by Zoom and Microsoft teams on my laptop, we decided, whilst away in Ireland in the summer, to return ‘home’ earlier than we had anticipated.
Northallerton has been a really good location with its transport links, lovely house, great neighbours and the church that we have been pleased to belong to. A church that has been very affirming of my wider ministry and one where we have been blessed to be under some brilliant Bible teaching and good leadership. New Life will remain one of our seven Partner Churches, who in return for my doing some work with them, are supportive of my work with emerging pioneers and missional
The prospect of going home to Northumberland is one that has both delighted and excited us. Back to where I was born, where I was called to the ministry, where Shirley and I trained and where we have lived, founding and leading the Northumbria Community for nearly 30 years, a community where our vocation lies. No longer a leader but still very much a part of as Companions.
I hoped on Monday to have gone for a walk with Dave Tubby, team leader at Heaton Baptist Church in Newcastle, whose parents now live in Northallerton, but it had to be cancelled because Tyneside is in lockdown so we resorted to an online coffee and conversation. We talked about faith, football and dreaming what a missional, relational association of leaders and pioneers, working in partnership might look like here in the north-east. As it says in Acts 2, “your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”!
The afternoon saw the second of our Baptist Union Pioneer Roundtables; a gathering of key pioneers throughout the regions looking at issues and what we might bring to the denomination. A remarkable group of very gifted, out-of-the-box, imaginative, radical thinkers and practitioners whose prophetic and apostolic giftings are a great blessing.
A bike ride taking in the beauty of the autumn colours on the trees and hedgerows and the chill air on hands and face as I cycled, a reminder of the changing seasons, shorter days and the prospect of a long and what could be very difficult winter.
Monday concluded with another session with some of our other Prayer Accompaniers and Compline. Closing the day picturing my children and grandchildren as we pray the words “my dear ones are God bless them and keep them in every place where they are”.
Tuesday morning saw me writing and in the afternoon I spent two hours on zoom with my delightful Pioneer Ambassador colleagues, Ali Boulton and Simon Goddard, meeting with our line manager, Diane Watts, the acting Head of Faith and Society for the Baptist Union. Colleagues who have become good friends, colleagues with whom there is a mutual respect, a deepening friendship and care for one another, and an understanding of the dynamics of our pioneering calling that is often difficult to convey to those whose definitions of ministry and mission are different.
A walk and some time reading followed. I am thoroughly enjoying being part of the Renovare Book club and we are currently reading Pete Greig‘s excellent book, ‘How to Pray, a simple guide for normal people’ and Tim Soerens excellent ‘Everywhere You Look – discovering the church right where you are’. I met Tim a number of years ago at a conference and we’ve been in touch again this week. He is a pastor, social entrepreneur and the founder of the Parish Collective. His book helps us to see how the present and unsettled state of affairs and shaking in the world and the emerging generations who have opted and are opting out of the church in large numbers, provides an opportunity to reimagine or discover what it means to be church without walls, to discover a grassroots movement of ordinary people living life and faith in everyday lives. The book is like a manifesto, one that is simple and profound and speaks of hope to human life in society. Well worth a read.
I dropped a line to our MP, Rushi Sunak, (bless him, he has a lot on his plate at present!). I assured him of my prayers but raised a matter of concern that I trust one of his aides might at least read. I was reading about the Government’s defeat in the House of Lords as peers voted in support of an amendment to Priti Patel’s flagship Immigration Bill designed to protect family reunion rules for asylum-seekers beyond Brexit. The clause, was tabled by four peers including Alf Dubs, who was himself a former child refugee, and aims to ensure that rights under UK law to family reunion, at present covered by EU legislation known as the Dublin III treaty, will continue after the transition period.
Wednesday morning saw me join with a whole host of Eastern European theologians and church leaders to mark a book published in honour of Sergei. I had met or come across many of those on the screen during my European travels and it was a ‘proud father’ moment to see our younger son Joshua, hosting the session. He is a very bright academic theologian, writer (he had co-edited the book) and gifted linguist who welcomed people and facilitated the conversations in Russian, Ukrainian and the language that I still struggle with on occasions, English! He possesses his mothers linguistic genes.
Every Wednesday, I seek to take time intentionally to pray and reflect, read and write and the day begins, ends and is interspersed by my hosting of our Northumbria Community Daily Offices. It’s lovely to begin the day with Companions and Friends of the Community to share Morning Prayer. Later in the day with another group, gathering online from many places around the world for Evening Prayer and then ending the day with Compline with yet another group of Companions.
An intentional day of prayer, one that punctuates the business and activity of other days, a day of focus and a reminder of those things that are really important in life; relationship with God, self and others.
It was a day on this occasion that caused me to think through some of my abhorrence of happenings in the United States. The disturbing actions of an autocratic, demagogue of a president whose sociopathic tendencies are ruinous and so divisive and damaging to the country and its relations with the wider world. That he should be endorsed by right-wing fundamentalist Christians is something that angers and bewilders me. Someone who professes faith in a God I simply do not recognise. A leader in whom I see no evidence of Christlikeness in his attitudes, words, actions or policies. Someone who is virtually assured of the Pro-Life movement’s vote whilst he hypocritical he takes a vaccine that has been formulated using the fetus of aborted babies. He will play the Pro-Life card at the same time as decreeing policies that lead to abject poverty for many, incarcerate, lock up children in cages by the Mexican border, sanction military actions that lead to the loss of innocent lives, many of them children. His abhorrent disrespect, bullying and abusive behaviour to anyone who stands in his way reveals his love of power in contrast to the power of love that Christ reveals. I do pray ‘God Bless America’ but not in the way that statement is used on political platforms.
Most of Thursday was spent writing and preparing for a ‘Bonfire Gathering’ webinar with The Missional Network in North America. I reminded them as I was introduced as the guest speaker that living near York where Guy Fawkes was born had certain unhelpful connotations! I was interviewed and the conversation that flowed looked at the present challenges and their impact upon leaders and how in the midst of these turbulent times, we ask ‘How we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?, What kind of leadership is required? and how we care for our souls and others? in this emerging new world era.
A very stimulating couple of hours that will feed into some work I am doing with the Canadian missiologist and writer Alan Roxburgh.
A lovely day off on Friday with Shirley and her sister and partner, meeting up in Helmsley on the North Yorkshire Moors. We spent several hours in the delightful walled garden adjacent to the ruined castle. A place of beauty and serenity. We returned home via Rievaulx Abbey and some glorious countryside. Once home, I avoided looking at emails. Instead, we unpacked the vivarium that we bought from the local aquatic centre for our tortoises over the winter. There is nothing more distracting from my usual work than wrestling with a flatpack vivarium, wood glue, mounting the brackets and installing the electric cabling to keep these prehistoric pets comfortable. We’ve had them for years; one since we were first married and at Bible College. On the first weekend with other students we travelled up to Edinburgh, when nearly everybody spent their time purchasing books for the academic studies at the Banner of Truth bookshop, whereas Shirley and I, went next door to the pet shop and came home with a tortoise! Thug, yes that’s his name, (renamed after observation of his behaviour through the years) and Sally, whom we inherited from a retired missionary to China, (again renamed in honour of Sally Gunnel the Olympic athlete!) have remained with us as our children have all left home. We hope Thug and Sally will live for years and will have to be named in our will!
Saturday also marked Mental Health Day / Week and I give thanks to God for Renew Well-being, founded by a remarkably gifted pioneer and friend, Ruth Rice. Ruth is someone whom I had the privilege of meeting many years ago, when her undoubted gifts were evident and which have since blossomed and grown, impacting and blessing so many people within and mostly beyond the walls of the Church in naming and responding with compassion to the mental health issues that effect so many of us in society today. Blessings on the initiative that is growing and touching the lives of so many people for good.
Saturday was one of those days I love every now and then; doing nothing but pottering; faffing about, tinkering, reading the paper, a book, surfing the net, watching a bit of tv and listening to an evening on Radio 4 dedicated to the memory of Nicholas Parsons whilst drinking a glass of red wine, (something I haven’t done for months).
And now it’s Sunday and I awoke early and thinking over the past week started to pen in my mind these reflections which have been offered in this blog.
I’m mindful of the conversations this week with those who are struggling; dear, close friends who are battling with cancer and other life threatening or limiting illnesses. I am aware of some who have died of coronavirus and several others who have contracted the virus and who are left with varying health issues. Some of them very serious for months and most of them are younger than I am. I’m mindful of three friends, whose close family members are dying and I shall be at a funeral this week of another friend, someone who I baptised many years ago at Portrack. Someone who was a rough diamond but who became a gem to many.
We watched Gardeners World the other night which featured a conversation with the ITV morning breakfast presenter Kate Garroway whose husband Derek contracted the virus and has been in an induced coma now for several months. She spoke about how her garden was a place of healing and hope for her and her two children as they live with the uncertainty, contemplating a future with or without their husband and father.
I am often awake early in the morning and occasionally listen to Farming Today on the radio. This weeks programmes alerted me to the ongoing Brexit debacle. I guess most people will be unaware of what is trying to be passed quickly through Parliament this coming week; desperate attempts to sign a trade agreement with the United States whilst Trump remains in office; a deal that will flout EU regulations and allow our country to import cheaper food, including chlorinated chicken, dosed with antibiotics and a disregard for animal welfare. These are the so-called benefits of ‘taking back control’ and not having to comply to EU food safety standards and animal welfare issues. The farmers in their tractor driving procession through the streets of Northallerton and Stokesley this past week have been protesting not only about their futures but for the welfare of all of us as consumers.
It is quite extraordinary how so much gets passed through parliament, with the Government’s majority of 80, measures that would normally find some checks and balances, policies that are rarely picked up by any of the media and brought to the publics attention. Anyone, particularly in the Civil Service who questions or stands in the way is moved, dismissed or forced to resign.
The General Election handed the government an overwhelming mandate to effectively do whatever it wanted to do. Call it democracy but the fruits of such autocratic, chaotic government, which has handled many aspects of the crisis abysmally. Handing out contracts to private companies, showing a flagrant disregard of other wise voices that could be worked with collaboratively and thereby building trust, an essential commodity during a time of crisis, has led to some terrible consequences.
Ridiculous claims about being world leaders, belligerent attitudes, dogmatism and the peddling of half-truths and boasting of achievements speaks more of arrogance and a blindness to the realities. Some humility, some willingness to listen across the political divides, to varying economic perspectives and critically to local authorities, those who know their communities far better than those who occupy the corridors of power in Whitehall, might see more progress than what feels like regress in these very challenging times.
I do pray for the Prime Minister and our government. I do! The challenges they face are complex and incredibly demanding, (there are no easy answers or measures that can be taken) but so many of my prayers for them are shaped by bewilderment, frustration, anger and fear for the society of which I am a part. Perhaps I should simply resort to, ‘Lord have mercy’.
I listened as I often do to the Sunday Service on Radio 4. How delightful, having prayed our Community’s Morning Prayer, to hear its words used again from the Priory and Pottery in Ewenny, Wales. A wonderful reminder of a key characteristic of our Northumbria Community’s commitment to generosity, ‘to give away that which is not ours to possess’ Love it! Would that we might all love God, think deeply and live generously. Sounds like the subtitle of a book – watch this space!
And now to another walk, a venture out to Masham, a river walk and prep for tonight’s England v Belgium game and thoughts turning to a new week ahead.
Bless you and take care.
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