Rydal Reflections

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I wander’d lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host of golden daffodils,

Beside the lake, beneath the trees

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

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Lines from William Wordsworth’s most famous poem, inspired by his sister Dorothy coming across a ‘long belt’ of daffodils as they walked by the water’s edge in the Lake District one April day in 1804.

Britain was very different then from what it is now but so much of the landscape here in the Lake District remains the same. I am back for the annual Northern Baptist College retreat at Rydal Hall. In probably my favourite Lake District location, Rydal Water, the Hall’s setting in the naturally beautiful landscape is couched with mountains and beside the lake is enhanced by the wonderfully designed gardens and grounds of the landscape architect Thomas Mawson. His creation of terraces and viewpoints, balustrades, lawns, topiary and paths, together with the planting of ornamental, exotic and native trees, orchards and ponds highlight the breathtaking views of the lakes and the surrounding fells which make this a very special place. Not just a beautiful place but a ‘thin place’ a sacred space. Through the estate run woodlands interspersed by streams and a series of waterfalls which have through the years drawn and inspired artists such as John Constable.

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In the 18th century the Reverend William Gilpin, one of the originators of the idea of picturesque which he defined as ‘”that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture” and began to expound his “principles of picturesque beauty”, based largely on his knowledge of landscape painting. He travelled extensively in the summer holidays and applied these principles to the landscapes he saw, committing his thoughts and spontaneous sketches to notebooks. He popularised a whole series of essays and books that demonstrated how landscapes could be viewed to show the grandeur, complexity and beauty of nature. He advocated certain ‘stations’ what we might call viewpoints where the natural world could be best appreciated. The Rydal Hall Grot was the first of these ‘stations’ that Gilpen cited.

The Grot far from being grotty is described in Wordsworth’s, ‘An Evening Walk’, published in 1793. He had moved to Rydal Mount near Rydal Hall, in 1813 and it remained his home to his death in 1850. Towards the end of the poet’s life his nephew Christopher Wordsworth went with him to The Grot.  “He accompanied me to the gate and then said if I had a few minutes longer to spare he would like to show me the waterfall which was close by – the lower fall of Rydal. I gladly assented and he led the way across the grounds of Lady Fleming (Rydal Hall) which were opposite to his own to a small summer-house. The moment we opened the door the waterfall was before us. The summer house being so placed as to occupy the exact spot from which it was to be seen. The rocks and shrubbery around closing it in on every side. The effect was magical. The view from the rustic house, the rocky basin into which the water fell and the deep shade in which the whole was enveloped, made it a lovely scene. Wordsworth seemed to have much pleasure in exhibiting this beautiful retreat.”

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It is in this place of retreat that we gather, alone and as a college community, to seek God, to reflect and pray and to value the opportunity of being together and sharing something of our lives and calling. The retreat is beautifully led by Leslie Sutton who invites us to awaken our senses to the relationship between art and faith, to explore those places of liminality, vulnerability and paradox. Stories, images and photographs of installations and other artwork open up windows on the soul and of the world in which we live and the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

A free afternoon affords me the opportunity to visit and pray for a dear friend and close companion in community who is in that last chapter of their life here on earth. He is alive and well in spirit but his body is failing. We reminisce, recalling times and experiences shared ‘on the road’, there is laughter and moments of quiet where reflection and space allow both for the sadness of parting and quiet thankfulness for a life well lived.

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Endings and partings, echoed in the sharing of those who this summer will graduate and begin their new ministries as they conclude their studies at college. Leaving and saying farewell but embarking upon new journeys and adventures. Just as it is for my dear friend and companion who must soon journey through the valley of the shadow of death to his eternal home and resting place where there is no more pain and suffering, cancer, grieving or tears of sadness but a place where there is fullness of joy.

I hope and pray for those who are beginning their new ministries that at their conclusion, that the end of their life’s journey here on earth that they will, like my dear friend be able to look back at a life well lived and that the memories and reflections of life and ministry, through all its paradoxes, challenges and unpredictability, will nevertheless be cause for thankfulness and a sense of fulfilment.

A morning walk around Rydal Water triggers mixed emotions; sadness at the impending loss of a dear friend and joy in listening to a young and gifted leader whose ministry is growing and developing, whose life and energy, passion and heart for God and his kingdom is so heartening.

After lunch I sit back in the meeting room with staff colleagues and students and am profoundly grateful to God for the privilege of serving, inputting and imparting some of the wisdom of experiences that I have gained over many years that I pray will encourage, inspire and enrich them in their own lives and ministries.

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A diverse group of young and middle-aged folks, men and women, with differences of theological outlooks, perspectives and experiences of life, following and fulfilling their calling in different ways. Different streams; charismatic, exuberant, prophetic and radical, contemplative, social activists, some more at home in contextual theology, others applied theology and others just wanting to get on with ‘doing the stuff’! Each one known and loved by God, each one by God’s grace and enabling, called to live out the gospel in their varying contexts. Many of them broken and bruised but whose buffetings have become sources of blessing; their scars providing the tributaries through which the love and light of God flow to others. I am enthused by the passion of those who are determined and confident that they will make a difference in the church and the world, whose ministries I and many others will hear or read about and I pray that they will not grow weary or lose their passion in the ensuing years. I am encouraged and challenged by those who will go to the forgotten places and people, of whom little will ever be written or heard of but who will carry the light of Christ to the poor and marginalised, to the abandoned people of our society.

I take delight in the cohort from Cranmer Hall, Durham for whom I have some responsibility. As the first batch of people able to train for Baptist ministry in the north-east they have set a great example and created a benchmark for a new and fresh generation of Baptist pioneers, church planters and missional leaders. They did not need to buy me a pint at the local pub at the end of the day to gain my approval, (although it was much appreciated!) They are a joy and delight to tutor. When so much within our denomination’s life and work is turbulent and troubling, mirroring the disturbance within happenings of the world, there is hope to be gleaned and shafts of light to be seen in the lives of those whom God is raising up for such a time as this.

Another walk around the lake takes in the daffodils and my favourite folk singer Johnny Coppin’s beautiful song, Rydal accompanies me along the lakes western shore. The birds are singing, the buds are emerging and the first blossoms are seen on the trees and hedgerows.

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Winter has passed and spring is in the air.

After winter comes spring.

After death comes life.

Light follows darkness.

Resurrection conquers crucifixion.

Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer God be praised.

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