Thursday, 31 December 2015

At the End of the Year

New Year's Eve marks a threshold for everyone who feels the flow of time. For me, saying farewell to 2015 means the end of an entire era of my life. For this is my final day on the Church of England payroll as a stipendiary priest. Tomorrow I throw myself on the mercy of the Pensions Board. In twenty four hours' time I shall be indisputably, officially, legally retired.

Readers of the Decanal Woolgatherer blog will know that I left Durham Cathedral at the end of September. Since then I have been on sabbatical leave while officially remaining the Dean. The idea was to spend three months in reflection and prayer. I wanted to look back over my forty years of active ministry to draw threads together and find meanings. I wanted to prepare for a very different future, try to think about how to be 'retired'. I wanted to be present to what everyone agrees is a big life-change, perhaps the biggest since setting out on the journey of adulthood, getting married and starting work. 

Well, reality is not always what we expect or hope for. Woody Allen famously quipped: 'How do you make God laugh? Tell him your future plans'. We knew it would take time to settle into a new home and feel we belonged to the Northumberland village where we have come to live. In these far northern lands, the shepherds talk about sheep being 'hefted' on to their hill, that is, berthed in and bonded with their native soil. Maybe offcomers like us who have been blown in from somewhere else can never expect to be fully hefted. There will always be something of the exile in a quondam Londoner like me, even one who is lucky enough to have landed in a beautiful village like ours with a great sense of community.

But as some of you know, recent events have had their own way of contributing to our 'hefting' a lot more speedily than we had predicted. Barely two months into our new home and life, at the beginning of Advent Storm Desmond hit. The house (appropriately named after a collier ship that capsized in the North Sea) began taking in water. Lots of it. We can tell a long story about the drowning of our newly installed biomass boiler in the cellar: I blogged about the floods at the time. Suffice it to say that this village has been marvellously kind and supportive. We have made new friends and got to know our neighbours. This drama helped us more than anything else could have done to 'arrive' in the village and feel part of it. Already, we can't imagine living anywhere else. It's good to be able to say that.

I had decided to keep a journal for the six months before leaving Durham and the six months afterwards. It's been an important way of logging this experience of transition. When you retire, you lay aside a role you've inhabited for years, maybe (as in my case) your entire working life. For me, coming to the end of my service at the Cathedral has been to say goodbye not only to my dozen Durham years but to forty years of stipendiary ministry as a priest. As a family we've learned a bit about leave-taking as we've moved from one place to another in that time. It doesn't get any easier, however practised you are. There's always the painful business of having to say farewells to people you have come to love, leaving a community where you've been contented and fulfilled (if you're lucky enough), packing up your possessions and walking away from your physical home and the environment where you have flourished, felt at ease and been happy. 

Every priest knows that this is the deal. And every retiring priest has known that it was going to happen again, but this time in a uniquely final way. We clergy are well looked after by the Church in retirement. Yet there is still the unnerving sense that somehow, this is it. We are on our own now, responsible for our futures, responsible for the lives we choose to live, and responsible for this house we live in, not the tied accommodation we have enjoyed all these years but our very own property in which we have invested our savings. This sense of being on our own has hit home quite sharply, thanks to December's events. When the cellar floods, the power goes off and the water runs cold, there is no Clerk of Works or Parsonage Board to sort it out for you. But I guess it's good for us. Maybe retirement is the last but one event in the process of growing up (the last step of all being death?).

But we're also on our own in the more profound sense that there are far fewer external demands to control our decisions and priorities. So we are discovering how retirement is about a new experience of time spent together, sitting alongside each other in our local church at the Sunday service, learning how to pray together again. It's a bit how it was when we were first married, before I was ordained. Sabbatical time even had an odd whiff of honeymoon about it to begin with, though the flood rather exploded that perspective. But whatever our circumstances, there are no rules in retirement. We have to reinvent ourselves, develop new rhythms and disciplines, a new spirituality to shape the third age and help us to grow old gracefully. This is what I've tried to think and write honestly about in my journal.

In 2016 reality will kick in. I'm not under any illusions about the challenges it could bring. But part of my reason for asking for sabbatical time before officially retiring was to ask myself some key questions about the future. What are my personal priorities going to be? How am I going to try to be useful to the church and the wider community in Northumberland, maybe beyond? What will it mean, and how will it feel after all these years now to find myself a 'retired priest'? What is expected or asked of me in that capacity? What projects and pursuits might I take up in the next few years, whether in a public way through taking up volunteering roles, or more personally in writing, photography, music-making, walking, reading, travel and other enjoyments where I have longed for more time and have new discoveries to make? 

When the midnight hour strikes tonight, we shall be on Haydon's old bridge over the Tyne (troubled water in recent weeks) enjoying the annual village firework display and party. It's a highly symbolic place at which to mark a threshold in time, a crossing-over, as a commentator on this blog points out. We shall all in different ways be thinking about those many for whom 2015 has brought endless trouble, disaster and pain, including people we know who will be relieved to see the back of the past year. But we shall also remind ourselves, I hope, of all that is lovely and good in life, all that has enriched the past year for us, particularly in the people who love us. And in my own case, these past forty privileged years that come to an end in the coming hours.

And if the world is looking pretty desperate as we link arms and sing Auld Lang Syne, faith gives us every reason not to lose heart. We can cross tonight's threshold with a song in our hearts that's not simply wishful thinking. I'm looking forward to 2016 and discovering the doors it will open and the possibilities that lie beyond their portals. Whatever you are hoping for or afraid of in the coming twelve months, whatever the changes and chances you face, I want to wish you as personally as I can a good new year. I pray that it will be a time of gifts for those in our world who most need them. I pray that for all of us, as Pope Francis is reminding us, it will be a true Year of Mercy. 

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Times Past and Times Future: a blog on Christmas Eve

It's a rich and complex day, Christmas Eve. It's when longing and fulfilment meet, hope merges with reality, BC turns into AD as the poet U. A. Fanthorpe puts it, and when the cattle kneel at the manger in the imagination of Thomas Hardy. 

At three o'clock when the solo treble begins 'Once in Royal David's City' and launches the Kings College 9 Lessons and Carols, we can at last - if we are ready - let go of the weeks of preparation and be glad as Christmas comes once more. How could it not melt the hardest of hearts to embrace this yearly marvel and go in heart and mind with the shepherds to see this thing that has come to pass?

Last year on this day, when I was still Dean, I was leading the bidding prayer at Durham Cathedral's carol service. That beautiful liturgy, so finely wrought in words and music, was always a highlight of the year for all of us. In that vast crowd, no more than one or two other people knew that for me it would be for the last time. I can write about it now, though I couldn't then. When we got to the point in the prayer where it says that we remember 'those who rejoice with us, but on another shore and in a greater light', I knew I would need to take care. 

Here's why. My father died on Christmas Eve so the memory of those with whom we've celebrated Christmas in the past and who are no longer with us was always going to be poignant. But for the first time it struck me that one day, I myself would be included in that phrase. Somehow, this final bidding prayer assumed a profound symbolism. Next year, I thought, the Acting Dean will be standing here and reading instead of me. I shall be in some other place, if not yet in a greater light (I presumed). It was a moment of realisation that was both sweet and bitter: one life was about to end, and another begin. I had to hold on to the pulpit if I was to get through that sentence safely. I did. But only just.

This Christmas Eve at the same time of day we have been with our grandchildren at the parish Christingle service. It was informal and homespun. There was a happy family buzz in the church, a good crowd of excited and excitable children who had brought their parents, not all of them used to being in church, with telling demeanours that were variously charmed, bemused, even a trifle tired as if overwhelmed by the effort involved in a family Christmas. Some no doubt welcomed, as we grandparents did, the chance of some structured time on a demanding day for families with youngsters. 

We sang carols including 'Little Donkey', a song that instantly took me back to when my own children were small and took part in Christingles in our parish of Alnwick. Now one of them was the adult singing next to me, a mother herself whose own children were in turn carrying on this Christmas Eve tradition. The symbolism of the Christingle was explained to us. The air was fragrant with organgey scents. We stood in a big circle round the church with our candles lit. Isaac held my hand as we sang 'Away in a Manger'. (The last time I'd sung it was on Haydon's Bridge on the day after the flood. I blogged about it at the time. Another recent and poignant memory to add to the intricate emotional texture of this day.) 

Afterwards I took him to the Nativity by the chancel screen where he pottered contentedly among the ox and the ass, the sheep and the shepherds, the rocks and the straw and the seasonal foliage. He did not notice that the Holy Child had not arrived yet, still less was he troubled by the incompleteness of the tableau. I explained that the Bambino would be placed in the crib at midnight mass, but I doubt that he took that liturgical detail in. I thought of Christmas Eves past, of the exquisite pain of waiting and wondering, of childhood magic and all the associations the day brings so vividly to mind. 

And I found myself thinking something else. Now that I'm getting old and am retired and am a grandparent, this is one less Christmas that I shall be on this earth to enjoy. This afternoon, Isaac stood at the crib for the first time, at least as a child who was partly conscious of where he was. Who knows when we shall stand at the crib for the final time before we reach, God willing, that 'other shore and greater light' of the bidding prayer? That's not a morbid thought to me. It's simply about the flow of time and how our histories are gathered up and redeemed in God's great purposes of love. St Paul says that through Jesus' resurrection 'this mortal will put on immortality'. It's what incarnation promises.

Enjoy Christmas Eve in the hours that are still left. And when today becomes tomorrow, a very happy Christmas to everyone.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Advent Jottings: fear, tenderness and hope

It's been a strange Advent for us here in Haydon Bridge. Our first Advent in retirement was always going to be a bit different after 40 years of ministry. Factor in the birth of a grandchild and a deluge that flooded our home within a few days and the season has become something of a drama.

Our village and personal crises have made me think in fresh ways about what Advent means. A 'crisis', literally, is a 'judgment'. Along with death, hell and heaven, judgment is one of Advent's great words, the second of the traditional four last things. It's easy to think of it as meaning that challenges and ordeals are sent as a judgment upon us. Well, maybe they are. I don't mean in the simplistic sense that they are somehow deserved: Storm Desmond and the floods it caused are not about punishment or retribution. Absolutely not, any more than Job's ordeals or Jesus's suffering were the result of any wrong they had committed. 

But any crisis that hurts is a judgment on us in that it puts us under scrutiny, at least to ourselves and before God. It questions our attitude to life, our resilience, the strength of our hope. How will we respond? With self-pity and self-absorption: 'why has this happened to me?' Or with patience and perseverance: 'life is tough, and yes, unfair, but we are going to remain expectant and endure to the end by the grace of God'? The sheer volume of kindness and generosity the floods have released in this village have to me been wonderful signs of this gift of expectancy and endurance. They may not always have been linked to explicit faith in God's purpose. But they have been there. 

These clues about 'crisis' and how we respond to it belong to the heart of Advent. This season tests our belief in the grace of God and the ultimate goodness of things by offering to us the possibility of hope. I have often said in a lifetime of preaching that hope is the gift Christianity brings to an often despairing world. If we can only stay with the season long enough, it has a way of lifting our sights and stretching our horizons from the dismal prospect of endless human calamity to the larger vision of God's eternal heart of love. It does this, not by escaping the reality of crisis (as Christmas commercials want us to do) but by setting it within the big story of God's wise and loving purposes. 

This is where the birth of our granddaughter has been a glimpse of light in dark times. Madeleine was born in the first week of Advent and a few days later we had gone to meet her for the first time. That was the day before the flood. I always think that a newborn child recreates the image of the holy family. She was lying peacefully in her mother's arms, her exquisite face conveying a quality I can only describe as a kind of radiance. Her father and brother Isaac were proud and happy, and so were her grandparents. (Sorry about the descent into cliché: it would need a Thomas Traherne to do it justice.) 

Her memory was an important stabilising presence in the difficult days of flood that followed. But in conversation with my wife, and with our parish priest, I now see how it has helped illuminate Advent and Christmas, at least for me. In the middle of 'crisis', beset by fear and anxiety, this 'little tiny child' has been able to evoke tenderness and love. Her birth has been quietly redemptive. It has spoken of a present and a future that are full of the kind of trustful hope that puts human dread in its proper place. In the end, nothing could matter more than this miracle happening in human hearts and lives, our capacity to love and be loved and to glimpse in a baby's face something of that fourth and last Advent word, 'heaven'.

For me, the flood and the baby have seamlessly linked Advent to Christmas. It's not a case of lurching from the last things to the nativity, from crisis to consolation at the winter solstice. Rather, it's about seeing each in the light of the other. In asking us to prepare spiritually for Christmas, Advent, with its desire and longing is telling us about how love lies at the very centre of our destiny which is the focus of the last things. At Christmas we behold this holy Child as the ground of our being who moves the sun and the stars, the Alpha and the Omega, 'immensity contracted in a span'. He is the centre of all our hungers and hopes, and not only ours but the world's. 

Perhaps we wouldn't have recognised these hungers and hopes for what they are but for this precious birth. His coming, in answer to our Advent cry Veni Immanuel brings to our race the good news that we are loved. And it also evokes from us our own capacity to feel pity for a helpless infant, and because of that, to be tender towards God and love him in return. Is this why he had to come to us as a vulnerable baby? Pity, tenderness and love have a way of lighting up how we are with our fellow human beings, as our village has shown so abundantly in recent days. In humanity's capacity to be tender, in our ability to feel and to care lies the world's future. And in our human crisis, in the all too familiar world of cruelty and pain into which Jesus was born, that's the best discovery we could make. 

Happy Christmas (when it comes)!


Sunday, 13 December 2015

The Floods: what I am learning

Famously, the flood is an age-old image of change. It's (forgive the allusion) a watershed; there is life before and life after. Whether it's the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Book of Genesis, The Mill on the Floss or The Nine Taylors, there is a sense of an ending, an antediluvian era that is swept away. What follows the flood will not be the same as it was before. This will be true for us, I think, here in Haydon Bridge where we have come to retire. Its waters, breaking their bounds so promiscuously in this riverine community, have touched us actually and symbolically. How could we not be changed as a result, at least in some ways?

I recall blogging about the terrible floods on the Somerset Levels two years ago. Then, I was a sympathetic bystander living hundreds of miles away, trying to enter into an experience that was not mine. Now it has become our own. I never expected that two months after moving into our home in Northumberland, we would be so suddenly ambushed by the colossal (and frightening) quantities of water that swept down from the North Pennines and inundated our village and other communities in the Tyne Valley. This was not quite how we had envisaged these first weeks of retirement in the run-up to Christmas. 'How do you make God laugh? You tell him of your future plans' quipped Woody Allen. That's become true for us in the past days. Our lives have been wrenched into directions we had not anticipated. 

Not that it was anything like as bad for us as it's been for others. If you read last week's blog, you'll know that the water in the cellar crept up the steps almost to ground level, but not quite. Others have seen their homes flooded for the second time in a decade. We went to visit one of them, a church member who lives on the other side of the bridge. Her house had the river rushing through it to dado height. She and her husband will not be back in it for six months. The roar of a dozen dehumidifiers were a noisy comment on the extent of their inundation. Over in Cumbria, as you know, it is worse still. Our hearts ache for the people we see on TV or read about in the papers.

There's an irony about Burswell House being flooded. It's probably named after a collier ship called the Burswell that was built on Tyneside. It went down in the North Sea in the 1880s. Our house was built the following decade, and was lived in by the pit manager at the nearby Bardon Mill colliery. After the ship had gone to its watery grave, its name was memorialised, either because the pit had a connection with it, or the manager had a personal link to someone on board. Burswell House has shipped a lot of water below, but she is still afloat, and her crew have lived to tell the tale. But there's another irony too, in that these dramas have been happening while the climate change talks have been taking place in Paris. Our biomass boiler and its supply of wood pellets, drowned by the flood, was our little commitment to living more ethically for the sake of the environment. Now it's the environment itself that has dramatically seen it off. But inspired by Paris, we hope to install another biomass, this time in a location where it is well above the water table.

It's easy, when you are hit by disaster, to let it fill your head and suppress everything else that matters, perhaps matters much more in the grand scheme of things. I am trying to stay present to what is happening in our world, to the lives and concerns of this community, and to our own family. On the day the storm rushed down on us, we were in Leeds meeting our new granddaughter for the first time. She is a perfect little baby and is bringing tidings of joy to her parents who have loved her into life, to Isaac her elder brother and to all of us who celebrate her coming. The memory of her beautiful, delicate, peaceful face has calmed and sustained me during this past week. 

And there is much else that is thoroughly good on our very doorstep. I'm learning that there is no better way of arriving in a new community than to engineer a big crisis. I said something about this in my last blog. People in our street, in the village, in the church community have been marvellous. We have been staying with generous neighbours two doors away, invited out for meals, been offered help, put in touch with those with specialist skills of many kinds. I spoke on local radio about this. I highlighted the role of the fire crews who have been on duty round the clock since the weekend. No tribute is adequate to do justice to their role in this and every other community affected. After this, the idea that our local fire station could be axed because of County Council cuts is, if you'll forgive another turn of phrase, dead in the water. For the good of West Tynedale, it's essential that we keep it. 

The significance of all this happening in Advent has not been lost on me as I have lain awake pondering it in recent nights. Traditionally in this season, we reflect on death, judgment, hell and heaven and try to regain the long view of things, God's view, in the light of the end towards which the cosmos is travelling. All four of these awesome realities have been present in my thoughts this Advent in ways more vivid than I've known before; present if not in my direct experience, then through the symbolism of what we have lived through. It's essential, when trouble strikes, to maintain a larger perspective. Local19th century Haydon Bridge artist John Martin, the famous painter of huge apocalyptic canvasses such as 'Sodom and Gomorrah' and 'The Great Day of His Wrath' would have risen to the occasion and helped us. His signature was the towering storm cloud and flash of lightning. His are paintings with a religious message that asks, as Advent asks, what is truly permanent in life? What is of enduring value? What survives the storm and deluge, actual or metaphorical? What ultimately matters? 

So our personal Advent and run-up to Christmas has included a flood and the birth of a baby, symbols of judgment and redemption, calamity and hope. Writ large, this is the daily experience of a world that is both beautiful and tragic. So there is plenty of scope for a rich spirituality of the season that comes directly out of our shared lived experience. Meanwhile, 'postmen go from house to house'. Trains rumble over the level crossing. Children saunter past the study window on their way to school. The church clock chimes the hours five minutes late. The dramas of life get played out and the season of Advent unfurls; yet ordinary time goes on. It's the way of things. God's way.




Saturday, 5 December 2015

The Rain it Raineth Every Day

'Hey ho, the wind and the rain' said Shakespeare in a jolly mood. But no one is jolly in Haydon Bridge today, nor up and down the Tyne Valley. And over in Cumbria and southern Scotland it is worse still. We are living under red flood warnings which means there is a real threat to life.  All night, and all day, the rain has beat down ferociously on this part of the country on the back of a westerly gale. Storm Desmond is truly vicious. 

These old houses let in the water all over the place, and I suppose we should have been prepared for that. But what I was not prepared for was to find water in the cellar, creeping silent and sinister up the steps into the house. This morning there were 4 or 5 inches. Now it is nearer 2 feet. I have been in shorts for much of the day doing what I can to salvage things below. Not that I can do anything about the deep freeze and the biomass boiler. I've taken some photographs standing in freezing water up to my thighs. Not out of my love of photography, not even to record in the house log book. It's for insurance purposes. There will be a lot of claims from the North of England and Scotland next week, I fear. 

Even though this is a serious situation, these domestic concerns are but a little local difficulty compared with what I've seen nearer the river, and learned about from across the watershed in the North West. On the eponymous Bridge of Haydon, a large crowd of onlookers stood in the teeth of the gale to watch the river. Most, I suspect, were not directly affected - the people whose houses line the Tyne in Ratcliffe Road are too busy dealing with a real emergency. The river was (is still) rushing under the elegant arches of the bridge with a fury villagers say they have never seen. It's frightening to be so close to violent water, grasp the risks it poses not just to property but to human lives. Philip Larkin paid tribute to the Tyne at the bottom of Monica's garden by the bridge. He said it was 'muscled with currents', but I doubt she or he ever saw the river like this. 

If you have never lived near a river, as I hadn't before now, you don't appreciate how its quotidian rises and falls affect the mood of a community. There is an excellent village Face Book group where people have been sharing their experiences, asking for help, offering it, and not least, passing on the latest Environment Agency river gauge levels (there is a Twitter feed I now visit obsessively that charts the level at which the South Tyne is flowing, and plots the readings on a graph). Today, our callers have included a neighbour (if there's anything we can do, you only have to ask), the Vicar (ditto), our builder (why is the water coming in at all?), our electrician (is it safe to leave the power on while the water goes on rising?), and our heating consultant (obviously the boiler is off, but will it recover from this emergency?). There is so much good will in this village, so many generous offers of help. I reckon every village can tell the same story in adversity, and we have found it to be true in good times too. 

Meanwhile, we now have a pump in the cellar which is doing its best against long odds. Later in the night the deluge will stop, we're told. 'The rains came down and the floods came up', as the old chorus says. It is referring to Jesus' words about building your house on the rock, not on sand. There is a rock that can withstand even this assault. It is the native goodness and kindness of a village community. We are glad to be living in Haydon Bridge....with all its river's moods and vicissitudes. 

My wife is away helping to look after our 4 day old granddaughter who is, for now, innocent of these things. How blissful for her. As for me, I shall stay up all night if need be, so that I can judge whether I need to take further action like moving the furniture upstairs if the water continues to rise. I shall feel a lot less fearful when the rain stops, even though the risk of flooding will not be over just yet. I shall drink a lot of black coffee, be on call in case I am needed in the village, and wait to see what the morning brings. There isn't much else I can do. Except say my prayers. 

Sunday Morning
Last night the water rose 4 feet to the height of the power sockets in the cellar and was clearly going to get a lot higher. I had no option but to turn off the electricity and abandon Burswell House. Kind neighbours took me in. Meanwhile the street outside was flooding badly. We sandbagged our front doors as best we could. The fire service was out all night keeping the water from our houses. By 5am it began to recede. This morning, to my intense relief, the water in the cellar had reached its maximum, two steps from the top, inches below the point where it would have invaded the ground floor. The fire service are pumping out the cellar as I write. The volume of water is hard to believe. They have been magnificent. The police have toured the area checking that we are ok. Everyone is out to help each another. 

Many people in the village have stories to tell of how an unprecedented Advent flood has shaken this community. They will be echoed by many more up and down the Pennine valleys, in Lancashire, the Lake District, West Cumberland, and the Scottish Borders. There will be a lot of work to do to help one another clear up, try to understand why this disaster happened, and what we need to learn from it. But the important thing this morning is that we are all safe, and glad to see the sunshine once more. Life can begin again. 

Thanks to all of you who have offered prayers, sent thoughts and written kind supportive messages on social media. They mean more than we can say, believe me. 

Sunday Night
No rain has fallen today. The blue sky has felt like a miracle. Fire officers have been at Burswell House all day with pumps, flood-related conversation & endless good humour. I can't praise them enough for the committed way they have risen to yesterday's crisis across the village. If ever I took the Fire Service for granted, I shall never do so again. We must secure the future of the Haydon Bridge Fire Station for the benefit of the whole of West Tynedale.

At dusk we gather on the bridge for the annual ceremony of the lighting of the Christmas Trees. There is a large crowd of children and adults gathered above the river that showed its fury yesterday and wielded such destructive power. It's early to be singing 'O little town of Bethlehem' and 'Away in a manger', but I don't think I have ever found these carols more moving, speaking of divine Love to one another and to the dark chaotic forces directly beneath our feet. Later, outside the church, the Vicar pays tribute to the Fire Service for which a boisterous three cheers are shouted. In his prayer he remembers the victims of the floods. Homely togetherness to lift the spirits. Village religion at its best.

Our neighbours offer us wonderful hospitality again, a Sunday roast and a warm bed for the night. I am learning how kindness fosters not only real community but true friendship. To my surprise, despite everything, or rather because of it, it has been a good day.