From the Rector
From the Rector - May 2013
- Written by Rev. Steve Morgan
A nation's culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.
One of the best things about going to another country is finding out what makes it tick. Every nation has its traditions, foodstuffs and cultural habits that define its culture. What is normal in one country can seem quite bizarre in another! I was lucky enough to spend quite a lot my earlier life at sea and ended up in all sorts of countries sampling unexpected things. I ate raw herring in Holland, deep fried reindeer in Finland, drank mint tea in Morocco and didn't finish a plate of disgustingly sweet baked beans in America. It's not just food either – Holland has its clogs, India has its Saris and Scotland has its kilts and bagpipes.
It is quite easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we in England don't have an exciting and colourful cultural tradition – but we do. People come from all over the world to see the things that for us are just ordinary and everyday: red London buses, old buildings and fish and chips to name just a few. We have cultural traditions as well - Christmas carol services, the FA cup final, tea in pots and over boiled sprouts you drink with a straw.
Maybe Pooh Sticks as a game isn't quite up there with the established traditions that make our nation great, but it has to be up there with the also ran's. It was with a heavy heart therefore that I read the following press release from the National Association 'very sorry to announce that we had to cancel the World Pooh Sticks Championships ...on Sunday 24th March. If we had just had a little rain on the day then we would have still played and we would have splashed around in wellington boots and dropped our coloured sticks over the bridges, however ... the river was too high and fast...' A serious tragedy you will admit, but being British the show must and will go on. The Championships have been rescheduled for 13th October. The nation is safe - whimsy has defeated health and safety.
When a couple get married, they have to deal with all sorts of traditions – and I don't mean the ones around wedding days and churches. Two people and two families join together and sometimes there is space for only one way of doing something. Every family has a different way of doing things, and just like counties, what is normal in one is weird to another.
As part of the wedding preparation course which we run in the benefice we always look at how couples negotiate the tricky decisions that they once made alone, but will soon have to be made together. Many couples live together these days before they are married, but marriage still brings couples together in ways they would never expect – and they have to engage with issues that can cause serious tension. All sorts of important questions arise? Who is going to be the breadwinner when children arrive? What is the correct way to do Christmas?
Marriage means that you can no longer avoid questions about permanence and children. Some couples argue more in their first year of marriage than they have ever done before – because difficult questions left unanswered or avoided beforehand now have to be addressed. This is all much better in the long run of course, but tricky at the time.
But, back to Pooh sticks. Have you ever wondered what happens to the sticks after the game is finished? After the glory of the game they just float off and are never seen again. 15 minutes of fame and then doomed to a life of endless wandering and floating. Will they make the sea or get caught in a tangle of reeds on the on the way? Will your Pooh stick make a success of life or end up frustrated and stuck as it watches the river flow past. Will it all end up in rags or in riches?
When a couple are married, the Holy Spirit blesses them as they start out on their new journey together. There is no guarantee that God will grant them a charmed life just because they have chosen to be married before Him, but they will always have someone to turn to when things – inevitably - don't go as planned. They can talk to each other of course, but having God to turn to as well can be a real help. There is a wonderful image in the Bible of how God's presence can strengthen a couple's relationship with each other "Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken." Marriage seems to be becoming more and more popular around here. We have more weddings (and baptisms) this year in our churches than I have ever known. This reminds me that despite what you may hear, the institution of marriage is not at all dead, but is as strong today as ever it was.
I have no idea why so many people are getting married, but I do think that is a good thing that they are. We know of course that it doesn't always work out, and that many parents do an outstanding job by themselves, but at its best, marriage gives stability to a couple and love and nurture to their children. I think this is what most of us want in our heart of hearts, so I pray for all those who are going to be married this year. I hope it is sunny for them too!
From the Rector - April 2013
- Written by Rev. Steve Morgan
Give me the young man who has brains enough to make a fool of himself.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Albert and Albrecht Durer were sons of an impoverished goldsmith in 15th Century Germany. They were both talented artists. Their father could not afford to send them to the Academy in Nuremburg to study art, so the brothers made a pact between themselves. One would go to the Academy whilst the other would work down the mines to support him; after 4 years they would swap around. They tossed a coin and Albrecht went to study and Albert went down the mine. Albrecht was an immediate sensation in Nuremburg and was soon earning commissions for his work. Albert patiently toiled underground. After 4 years Albrecht returned home in triumph – he was a notable artist and could afford to put Albert through the Academy with his earnings. The family held a celebration dinner to welcome him home, and towards the end of the meal he turned to his brother Albert and said 'Now it is my time to support you whilst you train' Albert responded with tears in his eyes 'Look at my hands. Every one of my fingers has been broken whilst down the mine, my hands are rough and bruised. I can hardly hold a glass. For me – it is too late.' Albrecht looked from his brother's battered hands to his tear-streamed face with sorrow. Albrecht went on to become an internationally famous artist, but he never forgot his brother's sacrifice. He is probably best known for a work that he did in homage to his brother. He painted a picture which he called simply 'Hands.' We know it today as the 'Praying hands'.
Albert's tragedy was a talent that never flourished. My artistic tragedy was a bit different. My art teacher refused to enter me for GCSE art as she said I no chance whatsoever of passing. This was not a shock. Unlike Albert, I never had a talent to lose. I could never get the hang of making my pencil behave the way it should; all my efforts resembled a drunken Spirograph pattern. It was the same with knitting. We all had to do 'Creative Arts' at school – and that meant a term of knitting, or rather for me it meant a term of 'Miss – how do you this?' If I played my cards right I could get her to do a couple of rows a week whilst I watched patiently; pretending to take it all in. Slowly - even though I never did a stitch - my bright green bobble hat took shape. I got a good mark for it as well, even though I only made the bobble.
It is a good thing, mind you, to be able to make bobbles. They are, like Venus, the bringer of peace. Have you heard of 'Guerrilla knitting'? Police in Leicestershire are convinced that hanging bobbles and knitted items from trees makes people feel safer. This really is true – despite this being the April magazine! Police Sgt Simon Barnes said: "I am really hopeful that the actions will reduce the fear of becoming a victim of crime." It might sound daft, but I think silliness is underrated. Charlotte Bilby, a senior lecturer in criminology at Northumbria University, said of the plan: "I think that making an area look cosier certainly makes an area feel safer. If you see something that makes you smile, that makes you think that other people have enjoyed being in that space and have done something funny, something silly, that's going to change your perception." Why not? Let's all get knitting and cover the world with socks and bobbles. Anything that has a chance of stopping crime, war and bloodshed is worth a go. It might sound foolish, but you never know!
Easter is on its way, and once again we will be hearing the story told in schools, churches and on the television. On the face of it, God's plan to save the world through Easter is one of the most unlikely – even foolish – plans that anyone could have come up with. Surely sending your own son to preach a message of love to a Roman occupied backwater in the 1st Century AD was never going to change the world. The chances are he would end up being killed or tortured for his trouble. Then where would you be? Just a dead hero with nothing to show for it. But the foolishness of God is so much wiser than the dour wisdom of humanity. St Paul certainly thought so - 'For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.'
Jesus' message, and his willingness to die for it, was something that many people could not – and still can't – understand. But, as Paul also says 'The foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.' For this seemingly daft plan did indeed change the world; the message of love, hope and resurrection began to spread everywhere. Human beings have done their best sometimes to corrupt and distort it – but the central message of Easter: love, hope, sacrifice and the compassion of God – speak through it all. It inspires people to great things. Every time I see the 'Praying hands' I think of the sacrifice of love behind the great work.
There many problems in our world, but the answer to most of them is really pretty simple. We just need to put ourselves second and be more generous and kind. It sounds a bit naïve doesn't it - childishly simple and foolish. Maybe it does, but if we all put it into practice – it would change the world. Easter gives us the hope that the impossible can happen if we dare to believe. Why not lead the way?
I wish you a happy and foolish Easter
From the Rector - March 2013
- Written by Rev. Steve Morgan
Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.
I love books. I like nothing better than to get lost in one at the end of a long day; but there are some books on my bookshelf that glare down at me. I glance guiltily away. These are the books I've bought with every intention reading, but have somehow never got round to. I read the vast majority of books I buy now, but it wasn't always that way. I was so easily tempted and drawn in by titles and covers. I once bought a book by Edward Schillebeeckx; someone I had never heard of before, called 'I am a happy theologian' solely because his picture on the cover looked so miserable. Needless to say I have never read it. Then there was the book about Christian attitudes to justice which I bought because it was written by an author called Harry Potter. I did dip into that one. One of the books that stares at me is 'The God of small things' by Arundhati Roy. I have almost read it quite a few times, but there always seems to be something more interesting – maybe just more accessible – to hand at the time. I love the title though. It somehow fits with my understanding of God.
I love it when tiny, seemingly inconsequential things make a huge impact on life. Last year Sainsbury's made the cardboard tube inside toilet rolls 12mm narrower. 'So what' you may say. Just wait – it gets really clever. Each roll still has the same number of sheets on it but ends up smaller. That means you can get more toilet rolls on every delivery lorry. This saves 500 lorry journeys every year and 140 tons of carbon dioxide. Whoever came up with that one is seriously clever! Then of course there is the famous 'Butterfly effect.' This came from one Edward Lorenz, who famously suggested that a hurricane could result in one place from a butterfly flapping its wings many weeks earlier in another. Small things and details are important and I like to take notice of them. Some details can leave you wondering though. I read the label on a pot of cream the other day - 'Fresh Sour Cream.' Is it me or does that not make sense?
One book I am going to read this Lent (I have already started so things are looking promising!) is 'Love Life – Live Lent.' This little book gives a few sentences of wisdom for every day of Lent. There is a daily bite sized challenge as well, designed to help us wrestle with what God, Lent and Easter have to do with our everyday lives. You can find them at the back of the churches if you fancy having a go yourself.
How many changes of real worth start off with something very small? Whether it is an acorn growing into a mighty oak or David taking on Goliath; there is something about the small and vulnerable which is very powerful. I have also watched some very big and clever plans come to nothing; resting as they did on hope and wishful thinking. Things which start small build firm foundations and can grow strong in a natural way. So, take heart any Pompey FC fans out there – they are deliberately playing rubbishly at the moment to build a foundation for the future!
Jesus began with just 12 disciples but his simple message of love and hope spread throughout the world. Humanity – whether deliberately or unwittingly - has done its best to confuse and complicate God's message over the millennia, but nothing can hide the simple truth for long. God's truth cannot be hidden by our mistakes. Again and again people rediscover the simple truths of God through the small acts of love and kindness that they see in others.
I love reading theology books and learning more about the Bible and about Christianity, but every now and again I am bowled over by some act of love or kindness that I witness in someone else. It is then that all the clever stuff really makes sense.
From the Rector - February 2013
- Written by Rev. Steve Morgan
"We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give."
In my defence, it did look just like a hob top kettle. We were doing the family Christmas thing - driving around the country seeing friends and relations. I don't know how many miles we covered, but that couldn't have helped either. We were staying over in a town and I felt a little bit like Tarzan in New York: country vicar dazzled by bright lights and all that. Not only did they have Broadband that worked, but there in front of me was a real live gas cooker. And the gas came through pipes and not from a bottle outside! These city types don't know how easy they have it.
"Shall I put the kettle on" I cried. "Please do." On the gas it went. It was a bit of a smelly gas cooker though; the flames were a bit yellow and quite large. Then I realised. How could they be so daft? Why would anyone want an electric kettle when there was gas on tap? Especially a kettle that looked exactly like it should go on a hob rather than on some silly electric pad. It was also brand new - a Christmas present to match the toaster.
I stood in the kitchen holding the dripping remnants of a once proud kettle feeling very guilty; but it was to get much worse. I offered to pay for a new one of course, but they would have none of it. These things happen they said. Well they do when I am around. Bang went my pride! But it got me thinking though. I certainly didn't deserve to be treated as generously as that and I felt quite awkward about receiving someone else's charity - and this was only over a kettle. What must it be like to receive charity day in and day out; to rely on hand-outs because you can't afford to feed your family? How many parents in poorer parts of the world swallow their pride and self-confidence every day?
There are many people in our own country who live off the generosity of others too. Some of them, often the elderly, can't look after themselves and need help with everyday needs. There are millions of others who can't find a job and so can't pay their own way. I've met – and I still meet – quite a lot of people who rely on benefits to make ends meet. For some this is their only income. The newspapers are pretty harsh and dismissive about folk who find themselves long term unemployed. They call them scroungers who laze in bed while others work and other unhelpful things.
I'm sure there are scroungers who take advantage of the system - I've met some - but I don't meet that many. I've worked in some very deprived parts of inner London as well, and I didn't find many scroungers and cheats there either. But I continue to meet people who just don't have the same income as others. Sometimes it is because their job isn't valued highly enough to pay very well. I often wonder why people who care for our elderly parents get paid so little. Others need benefits because they just can't get a job. Everyone needs money and income, but it is easy to forget that everyone also needs self-respect. This is all a big political issue at the moment, I just hope that those with the quietest voices are listened to as well as those with strong opinions. The poorer people are the harder it is to hear them.
That's why I think we should always err on the side of generosity and kindness. Given that nothing is perfect, is it better to give a bit too much away and have a few abuse the system; or to restrict it so much that those really in need miss out or feel so ashamed that they don't apply? Should people really feel ashamed to walk into a job centre and sign on when all they really want is a chance to work?
The Bible is full of exhortations to do more than is necessary to help others – and it very rarely concerns itself with whether people deserve help or not. If someone needs help – then they should get it. Some of these phrases are part of our language now: 'go the extra mile', 'turn the other cheek', be a 'Good Samaritan' and so on. When times are tough it is always the poorest who suffer most – it was true 2000 years ago and sadly it is still the same now.
We are living in difficult economic times and everyone is finding it hard to make ends meet. But now, I think, is the time to be even more generous towards those in need.
From the Rector - January 2013
- Written by Rev. Steve Morgan
Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.
I have a love/hate relationship with things that are new and improved. On the one hand I like things to stay the same – no one should ever mess with Heinz Baked Beans or Worcestershire Sauce; but on the other, I am a sucker for new gadgets and shiny things. Ask any shopkeeper and they will tell you that new things sell well. If you stock something new and exciting and the chances are that people will buy it. Why? Because it is new and exciting of course! What the manufacturer wants is for you to try something, to like it and then for it to become one of the staples that you buy every week. That at least was how things might once have been; now it is rather different. There is a constant stream of new things which we are invited to buy, one after the other: New phones, new foods, in fact new anything. Even the humble old Duffle coat has been re-launched as a trendy new and improved fashion item – sales up 25% this year. How many of us buy new things simply because they are new and exciting – despite knowing that they will probably not live up to their promises.
Now you might be forgiven for thinking that I am about to embark on a rant about new things being rubbish. Not at all; because the other way around is just as bad. If we constantly live in the past we can find ourselves embarrassed in all sorts of ways. Words change their meanings. Wicked used to be evil – now it is 'well wicked' and good! If you don't keep up with things then technology can leave you behind and all of a sudden you can't work out how to take a library book out or buy a train ticket. It would be easy of course to blame to younger generation for all this, but just ask yourself - who raised them!?
What we need of course is a balance between the new and exciting and the familiar and reliable. Get it right and we have a stable world alive with new ideas. Get the balance wrong and we either end up with a world with no substance that just hankers after the next new exciting thing; or a world so safe and stagnant that it becomes dull.
In the Bible there is a wonderful relationship between the older and the younger generation. The young learn from the old, and the old are kept enthusiastic for life by the young. The book of Proverbs has this: 'My son, pay attention to my wisdom, turn your ear to my words of insight.' In the book of Acts we get the other side 'In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.' It always saddens me when I hear the phrase 'Generation Gap' because there really shouldn't be a gap between two groups of people with so much to offer the other.
I like to think of a New Year's Resolution as a 'Re-Solution' to something I already know how to do. Quite often I resolve to do things that I have wanted to do for ages – but just haven't got round to. Sometimes my new year's resolutions are depressingly familiar to the ones I failed at the previous year. No matter – it is always worth another go – perhaps in a different way. I need a re- solution to a familiar problem. It is a bit like reinventing the wheel I suppose, but once you accept that resolving to do the same thing as you were unsuccessful at last year isn't a failure, but rather a chance to have another go then it isn't so bad really.
To achieve success at any difficult task usually requires a combination of innovation, wisdom and perseverance. Self-belief helps as well – there is little point in starting something that you expect to fail at. But more important than any of this self-help stuff is the reality of forgiveness. Forgiveness makes it possible to start again without guilt or baggage. If we can forgive our own (or other people's) failures it is surprising how quickly hope enters our hearts. I think that will be my new year's resolution – to forgive more.
From the Rector - December 2012
- Written by Rev. Steve Morgan
We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.
Martin Luther King
You'd think that a sausage festival would be a good place to go for lunch wouldn't you? Well it might be, but not in France. We were on holiday and thought the sausage fayre would be worth the 40 mile drive; a bit of culture and all that. We arrived at midday and paid our 6 Euros to get in, but none of the stall holders seemed very interested in selling us anything. Then we realised: they had all stopped for lunch. I had forgotten how important lunch is to the French – everything stops for it. The majority of the French high street shuts between midday and 2pm. Even the boulangeries close. It seems a bit odd to me that baker's shops selling sandwiches and savouries should close just when you most want to buy the things they sell. We could only look in wistfully through the window and dream. We very quickly learnt that lunch was a serious business and no self-respecting Frenchman would ever buy his lunch in a hurry. Lunch requires forethought and planning.
We were doing what we always do on holiday: sampling the local produce and keeping our eyes out for strange and interesting foods. France is certainly the place to do that. Normandy is famous for tripe and we were staying just a few miles away from the tripe capital of the area. There were jars and jars of the stuff in all sorts of sauces, but I couldn't quite bring myself to try it. Maybe next time...
Cheese is a different matter. How could you possibly go to Normandy and not go on a pilgrimage to Camembert and sample la belle fromage? We planned the visit, looked at the route and set off. Little did we know that All Saints Day in Normandy was a major holiday. Everything – including the hypermarket - was closed. But we were assured that the Camembert museum would be open so off we set. There were supposed to be two separate cheese museums in the city of Camembert and lots of farms around so we thought we were in with a chance.
Like so many of the best things in life, the story of the birth of Camembert is one of adversity and courage. Legend has it that in 1791 Marie Harel, who was a farmer in Camembert, sheltered a priest who was hiding during the French revolution. He was from Brie and in exchange for her saving him from the guillotine he taught her the secrets of cheese making. Louis Pasteur's institute became involved later on in the cheeses' history as it was they who suggested using penicillin to give the cheese its white rind. Quite ironic really given that Camembert de Normandy must be made from unpasteurised milk!
As we approached Camembert we began to realise that it was not a metropolis. The lanes became narrower and muddier and the signposts less frequent. Finally we arrived and saw that the cradle of France's most famous cheese was 2 houses, 2 small museums and a village hall in the middle of a lonely valley. We were the only visitors and it was about to rain. We had arrived at lunchtime of course and had to sit outside for to see if it would open. Our faith proved valid because open it did and we had a great time tasting and learning about cheese. Camembert is lovely, but I am afraid that Stilton will still be our cheese for Christmas. I'll have to plan my journey carefully though when I go to buy it, as I've just discovered that the Stilton shop in Colston Basset closes for an hour for lunch.
Even the largest and most powerful institutions can trace their roots back to small beginnings. Camembert began in a tiny village, the Roman Empire began in the small village of Roma, and even Manchester United were once just a small club with no ground or money. They were served with a winding up order in 1902 due to their debts and they lost their first ever game 6-0 (hurrah!). Maybe there is a chance for Portsmouth after all. The tallest trees come from small seeds and Christianity began in a small stable.
Christmas is the end of one great story and the beginning of another. Jesus' arrival in the stable is the culmination of all the stories and promises of the Old Testament. It really is a wonderful story and has all the ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster - love, betrayal danger, anger and excitement. It also has the great promise of a messiah who will come to restore the relationship between God and humanity. Then the New Testament picks up the baton and the tale continues. Most of us know the Christmas story only too well and we will hear it again and again over the coming weeks. But of course it is what it all means that really matters.
I am always taken by surprise by how close the New Year is to Christmas. I shouldn't be of course as it happens that way every year, but for me Christmas is the ultimate new beginning so why have another one the following week. Why not let your New Years' resolutions this year be Christmas resolutions instead. Make them on Christmas Day, pray about them and then put them on hold for a week and start on 1st January. Add God's power to your own will power!
Christmas gives us hope that everything can change for the better. It is when hope enters the world and we can dare to believe all that primary school stuff about angels and love; peace, fellowship and charity. Of course it is naïve to believe that – but then again lots of great ideas seem naïve when they are small and powerless. But some grow to change the world.
From the Rector - October 2012
- Written by Rev. Steve Morgan
Everyone can be great because everyone can serve.
Martin Luther King
You may have noticed that there has been a lot of building work going on in our churches over the past few months. There is quite a bit more planned too! Donhead St Mary has had major repairs done to the large wall by the road, and the tower and west door have been repaired. East Knoyle church is currently closed whilst a major reordering project is completed. You can read more details about this work by clicking on this link. Semley has work to do in its Lady Chapel, and Donhead St Andrew has major plans to make the church into a more accessible and comfortable building. This will involve changing the heating and lighting, installing a toilet and a kitchen and enlarging the vestry area. The hope is that the church will then be used by other community groups and for concerts. You can find out more details on this project by clicking on this link. Using a church building in this way is nothing new. Back in ancient times, the Roman basilica, used for meetings, markets and courts of law, was the basis for large Christian churches – it gave its name to the Christian Basilica. Churches have always moved with the times – 500 years ago most of our churches would have had no pews, no organ, no heating, no electricity, no stained glass, and many would have been much smaller than they are now. Throughout the country many churches are modernising their buildings so that they can serve the world of today just as they have done for centuries.
Churches are not reordered just for the sake of it; nor without serious research beforehand. There is no point having a perfect building if there is no one in it! A huge amount of thought, prayer and preparation goes into the process of ensuring that a church is both up to date and able to meet the needs of its community. The building work itself work is only part of the process. All of our churches are keen to grow and to find new ways of serving God in their local areas.
This is why our benefice of six churches now employs a mission and outreach worker to work alongside the Rector, the Ministry Team and others. As we are a very rural area, there is very little in the way of youth work; and support for the elderly, entertainment and community events often have to be home grown. I am always amazed by the dedication and commitment of folk who run groups like Happy Gathering and T@3. The church is keen to do what it can to help.
Churches belong to everyone in the community, whether they choose to go or not, and we are very keen to listen to people and to respond to them. If you went to one of the fêtes you will have seen the church stall that explained the many things that the church currently does – from obvious things like weddings, baptisms and funerals and visiting the sick and elderly, to less obvious ones like youth work, governing local schools, charity work and so much more. If you have any ideas as to what we should or could be doing to serve our local communities then please let us know. Take a look at the plans in Donhead St Andrew church, or maybe go and see East Knoyle church when it reopens in October. Just to tempt you – there is a fantastic coffee machine there now!