March 2020 – Pigeon Prejudice

Inspired by  the crescendo of the springtime dawn chorus I decided that I wanted to find out more about the woodland wildlife that inhabits and passes through my back garden. Some of the calls of the small birds proved difficult to identify, but my gaze became increasingly drawn towards the large number of wood pigeons who consider my garden to be their primary residence.

As I began to study these grey creatures, I soon realised that I had been harbouring a high level of prejudice against them. I looked down on them as unattractive, clumsy, slow and a bit of a nuisance. That was until I began to find out more about them and to really get to know them. The more I studied them the more my respect and appreciation of them increased. I discovered that the common wood pigeon plays a vital role in the ecology of these North Downs woodlands and, indeed, Culverstone owes its name to them, as ‘culver’ refers to a dove or pigeon. I began to see them not as ugly and cumbersome but as interesting and sensitive beings. As I spent time watching them and finding out more about them, I began to really enjoy and appreciate them. They now make me laugh and I find them so interesting to watch.

This reversal of opinion about the wood pigeon has made me think about my prejudice and ‘unconscious bias’, not just towards animals, but towards people. Pigeon watching and my change of mind about them, has made me reflect on the way that my judgements and prejudices blind me and make me unable to see, appreciate, enjoy and value the presence of any being who doesn’t fit in with the way I see things, or think they ought to be. Jesus made a habit of challenging prejudices, especially religious and cultural ones. He saw people as people, persons rather than cultural stereotypes. He was criticised for crossing cultural boundaries to meet people who were different or considered as outsiders.

People prejudice is a constant challenge, but if we are prepared to take the trouble, we can start to see our pigeons in a totally different and more favourable light.

Rev. Dr. Christopher Noble – Rector

St Mary’s Stansted with Fairseat and Vigo

 

 

 

February 2020 – Storms

Storms and high winds hit us hard up here on the North Downs. As the wind whips up the escarpment it slams into the side of our house and it makes it difficult to sleep. It’s hard to completely relax as there is restlessness in the air, especially with the foxes barking in the wind, it can make for a disturbing night. During the 1987 storms I would have slept right through them, as I was a heavy sleeper at the time, but my wife woke me up and said ‘you’ve got to see this!’ She was right, it was an amazing storm and I remember a large willow tree being bent over, parallel to the ground.

 

Storms with high winds often remind me of Jesus and the storms on the Sea of Galilee. Some years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land and taking a boat trip on the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum. As we were out on the water in quite a small boat a storm hit us and it got pretty scary as the wind whipped up some fairly serious waves. It was just like in the Bible but not quite so bad because unlike then, the fisherman at the helm, although alert, was not beside himself with fear and worry. And, unlike Jesus, I was not asleep in the back of the boat. Jesus was perfectly calm even in the storm.

 

Storms come and go, but these physical storms remind me of the storms of life that come upon us, often when we least expect them. Family troubles, illness, bereavement and uncertainty can hit us hard and make it difficult to steady ourselves and to keep our balance. Jesus was able to totally trust his Heavenly Father in the storm, even to the extent that he could sleep through it. It can seem to us when we pray in the midst of the storms of life that Jesus is asleep. We want to say wake up! Where are you? We ask ourselves where is God in this? Is he asleep? Even though these thoughts and feelings come at such times I don’t think that God is asleep or dispassionate. Just look at Jesus and his compassion in the face of the suffering and death of his friend Lazarus. However, what I have been learning in the storms, is that God allows in his wisdom what he could prevent by his power and that is a hard lesson especially in the more extreme storms of life.

 

Rev. Dr. Christopher Noble – Rector

St Mary’s Stansted with Fairseat and Vigo

December 2019 – Give Him the Name Jesus

All of us have names and one of the great responsibilities of parenthood is to give our children names. We want to give them names that we think they will enjoy and that will be used freely by the people around them. Of course not all children like their names and some young people change their names as they get older. Often our names just become shortened or abbreviated in some way into ones that are more user friendly. In the gospel story an event is recorded that takes place before the birth of Jesus in which Jesus’ name is supplied by revelation in a dream from the Lord to his father Joseph. God tells Joseph that you are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.

The name Jesus is a Greek form of the name Joshua, which means “the Lord saves” so Jesus name actually has meaning and it’s a meaning that indicates what he has come to do.  It was given to him for a reason.  It was given to him because that was his purpose and his destiny. My name is Christopher which means bearer of the cross of Christ. It’s an amazingly appropriate name for me because that is what I do! In different ways as a vicar I testify to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The name Christopher was given to me by my parents before I was born. My name indicates what I do and Jesus’ name indicates what he does, which is to be the saviour of the world. He came to save us from the penalty of our sin so that we can be forgiven, live lives in fellowship with God and receive the gift of eternal life. We are saved from something and for something. Jesus saved us from hell and for heaven. The saviour is born. He is the one who has come to transfer us from the the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of his marvellous light.  Jesus saves us from death for life and that is the real meaning of Jesus’ name and of Christmas.

 

Rev Dr Christopher Noble – Rector

St Mary’s Stansted with Fairseat and Vigo

November 2019 Swords into Ploughshares

Swords into ploughshares is an important idea that comes from the Bible, particularly from the book of Isaiah. The image is that of military weapons and military technologies being converted for use towards peaceful and positive purposes. In the Bible the ploughshare symbolised a creative tool that was useful and beneficial to humankind, in contrast to the destructive tools of war as represented by the sword. This concept was expressed artistically by Evvgebly Vuchetich in his famous sculpture for the United Nations. The sculpture is called ‘Let us beat Swords into Ploughshares’ and represents the figure of a man hammering a sword into the shape of a ploughshare.

BBC Radio Journalist and Edinburgh University Professor Jolyon Mitchell has conducted an extensive exploration of this relationship between art and warfare. His study examines the way that people from different parts of the world have converted the tools of genocide and war into works of art that promote peace. These inspirational initiatives from around the world, including countries like Mozambique and Rwanda, offer a glimpse of hope and light in what can otherwise seem like an endless cycle of war and violence. Mitchell’s study points to the fulfilment of the prophesy of Isaiah which looks forward to a time when God ‘shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’

October 2019 Daily Bread

I have just met with a friend of mine who was visiting the Anglican Church in the Kondoa Diocese in Central Tanzania. He said that the rains have not come and the crops are dead in the fields. There is no water and the children were digging twelve feet down in the dry riverbed to extract just a bowlful of murky water. How different from our mini-heatwaves where we just walk over to the tap and pour a glass of drinking water or go to fridge for a juice to quench our thirst.

My friend commented that despite the drought there is no shortage of joy in the faces and hearts of the people he met as he travelled the rough roads and tracks in a beaten up Toyota Landcruiser. The pictures and video clips of the church services and gatherings for worship all displayed a wonderful sense of freedom and spontaneous joy. The Church meeting under the shade of the ‘big tree’ means no worries about the peg-tiled roof or the wall heaters. As for the offering there was little need of the collection plate as the offering came in the form of a live chicken. There’s an idea for the harvest offering at St Mary’s this year – livestock only!

In spite of our sophisticated food supply chains and the fresh water that we have at the turn of a tap, such encounters are a reminder that we are dependent on many uncertain factors for our food and drink. Inevitably we take it all for granted and hardly give a thought to the many people and systems that work together to give us our daily bread. How many of us stop to give thanks for our plate of food before diving in with the knife and fork?  As it says in the old harvest hymn, ‘all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.’

At Harvest Festival we pause to give thanks for all that we have been blessed with, in food, drink and provision.  As Christians we do not take these gifts for granted and we express our gratitude by giving to those who have lost all and are roaming the streets of our capital, hungry and thirsty. Our Harvest offering and collection for the Manna Society is just a small token of our gratitude to God for all the good gifts that we receive on a daily basis.

 

Rev Dr Christopher Noble – Rector

St Mary’s Stansted with Fairseat and Vigo

September 2019 Waking Words

I woke up one day last month with some words of scripture running through my mind. Those words were from the book of Proverbs where it says:

‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’.

I had the sense that this was important for me. I started to ‘chew’ on this proverb and to let it ‘sink in’ as a form of scriptural meditation. So what have I discovered?  My first thought was that this would make an excellent school or university motto. How good it would be to recognise, as I walk into a place of learning, that true and deep wisdom is derived from this particular attitude of humble dependence on the Lord of the Universe. Of course others might recoil at the idea of God, let alone the thought that he could give us anything by way of knowledge.

I must confess that the idea of the ‘fear of the Lord’ has been clouded for me by a cane wielding school master intent on beating ‘the fear of God’ into me. However, what this ‘fear’ actually refers to is reverence, respect and worship. As the Lord says through the prophet Isaiah  ‘my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways’, thus indicating that even our best thoughts and ideas will often fail to capture the full picture. Fear of the Lord describes an attitude of humble dependence on God in all matters of ‘faith and conduct’, requiring the ability and wisdom to ‘do the next right thing’.

The final part of my reflection involved thoughts of the end of life itself. I believe that when it comes to the matter of my eternal destiny, my attitude towards the Lord is pivotal. If I don’t respect him, honour him or love him then I suspect that I am positioning myself outside of his loving provision. On the other hand, to the extent that I rightly fear him, my life takes on a different shape, not only in this world but also in the the life of the world to come. This is all part of my strengthening conviction that this life is not ‘it’ and the life I live in the ‘here and now’ is not all there is.

 

Rev. Dr. Christopher Noble – Rector

St Mary’s Stansted with Fairseat and Vigo

August 2019 Walking the Dog

Walking the Dog

Over the last few weeks I have been back walking the dog. I have to say that it is not my dog, just one that’s been loaned to me. It is a great joy to be back out there in the park meeting other dogs and their owners at various times of the day. I have really missed being a dog ‘owner’ over the last few years and I have to say it has been wonderful to be back holding the lead.

Wonderful as it is, I have been reminded of the challenge of being in charge of a dog. The particular challenge in this case has been in the form of a young male Lurcher that is still in training.  Having been used to the very particular and specific characteristics of a ‘laid back’  Cocker Spaniel, the Lurcher has given me a run for my money.  I would love to let him off the lead and watch him run, as he is clearly built for speed, but if I did so, I am conscious that he would be gone and I’d have some explaining to do to his owners.  It is very tempting to just let him go as he runs so beautifully in such a fluid motion, almost like a racehorse. I am wondering if he would be a great dog for a fit runner or athlete in training.

The other uncertainty with being in charge of a different dog is the question of how is he going to respond to other people and other dogs?  My approach has been to keep him on a short lead and I have been very cautious at the approach of other dogs or people. It has all worked out quite well except perhaps for a measure of over-excitement, particularly at the approach of other dogs. The young Lucher offers a longing whimper at even the sight of another dog, so my sense is that he is a pretty sociable hound, but as yet not fully conversant with dog etiquette.

The question that I am now pondering as a result of all this recent dog walking is the inevitable one that is faced by all dog owners whose dogs have died. Am I going to get another one of my own? As we know there are lots of reasons for and against, so the jury is still out. And of course there is the thorny question of what would be a good vicar’s dog? I’m thinking Jack Russell….

 

Rev. Dr. Christopher Noble – Rector

July 2019 The Voice of Creation

Living here in the countryside enables me to appreciate God’s creation in a way that I found difficult when living in the London. God’s creation is, of course, not absent in the metropolis, but it tends to get overwhelmed and drowned out by concrete, tarmac and noise. On a recent trip to our wonderful capital I witnessed some wildlife in the form of a very clever rat who was rescuing a half eaten and discarded ‘Happy Meal’ by dragging it to her den behind some building site boards. Although I enjoyed watching this happy rat with her prized McDonald’s feast, it wasn’t a patch on following the flight of two equally opportunist buzzards soaring over Stansted Hill.

Despite being educated in a strident form of dogmatically atheistic evolutionary biology, I find myself now as a believer in a creator God. I now enjoy the pre-critical declarations of the old hymns. Like this one:

‘All things bright and beautiful all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all!’

I am constantly amazed and in wonder as I reflect on God’s creative genius in nature.  Stansted churchyard provides not only a resting place for our loved ones but also a haven for a significant amount of wildlife such as owls, bats, swifts and moles – to mention just a few. Sitting on the bench by the church path, even for just a few minutes, brings a great reward in the form of a butterfly, dragon fly, or maybe some birdsong followed by precious silence.

I am very grateful to God and count myself blessed to live in such a wonderful place where, in the words of Psalm 19:

‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.’

Rev. Dr. Christopher Noble – Rector

St Mary’s Stansted with Fairseat and Vigo

June 2019 – Making Room for God

Ask just about anyone how they are and as likely as not they will say they are busy.  This is true of those who have ‘retired’ from paid work just as much as those who are in the thick of it.  I was recently party to a conversation among vicars and the key theme of the dialogue was how busy they are.  This is particularly true as in both church and society we are engaged in the necessary, but seemingly endless, stream of policy changes along with their resultant ‘action plans’.  Planning and progress are important and we need to think and work for a better future.

But how many of us make space in our busy lives to plan for our eternal future?  Busyness can be a mask for the pain of facing up to ourselves and the first order questions of life and death.  It is true that God can be found in the cut and thrust of life because he is living and active, but as all religions agree, God is most often found in prayer, silence, stillness, solitude and rest. In psalm 46 God says ‘be still and know that I am God’.  The primary requirement to know God and his presence is to just be still.  It’s that simple, but it’s not easy.  Making space for God requires planning and discipline.  It takes time to still our busy minds.  It takes time to let go of our over scheduled lives.  It’s not without reason that this process is called ‘waiting on’ God.  It sounds easy but like anything worth doing it requires practice and some instruction.

The catechism asks the question, ‘what is the chief end of man?’  The answer it supplies is ‘to know God and to enjoy him for ever’.  Knowing God and enjoying God begins by us making space for him in and among the busyness and rush of life.  Paradoxically, a good place to learn to explore creating space for God in your life is not on your own but with others who are seeking the same thing.  This church has a deep heritage in contemplative prayer and an experiential knowledge of God.  If you would like some signposts about how to develop stillness through engagement with God for yourself, then a good place to start is here in the Church. The 8 am Holy Communion service is designed for this very purpose of quiet contemplation in the presence of God.  You are most welcome to come and see for yourself.

Rev Dr Christopher Noble

Rector – St Mary’s Stansted with Fairseat and Vigo

Yew Tree

May 2019 – The Yew Tree

The two questions that I get asked most about the church are firstly, how old is the church, and secondly, how old is the yew tree? The answer that I give to the first question is that the current church was built around 1310. The answer to the second question is more difficult and I generally say that it could be as old as the church if not older, but I don’t really know.

I was talking with Lesley, one of our regular visitors at coffee in the Cloisters from the Chestnuts care home in Meopham. She did some research for me which confirmed that the dating of yew trees is a notoriously difficult thing to do. However, it seems that some ancient yew trees have been accurately dated, like the one in the churchyard of St Digain’s at Llangernyw in North Wales. That tree has a certificate authorised by the Yew Tree Campaign and signed by David Bellamy that says: ‘According to all the data we have to hand the tree is dated to be between 4,000 and 5,000 years old’. Evidently, there are a number of yew trees (particularly in churchyards) that predate the 10th century and there are many between 400 and 600 years old.

One of the reasons that the yew tree is difficult to date is that unlike an oak it tends to develop several distinct trunks (flutes) which mitigate against conventional dating methods like ring counting. Therefore there is a challenge in front of us, to find out the true age of the Stansted churchyard yew tree and if anybody reading this article has any ideas about how we might further this investigation, then I would be pleased to hear from you.

I thought that the conclusion to the article Lesley gave me about yew trees is worthy of reproduction, so here it is:

‘There is so much that can be identified with the yew. The tree has guarded its secrets that have fascinated and mystified generations. Some of these trees will still be watching and observing events and occasions for hundreds of years to come. Therefore, the next time you are walking through the countryside, or visiting ancient sites and churches, take a little time to stop when seeing these old and trusty historians. Take in what they have accomplished and been privy to, and marvel that they are still silently listening to our words and deeds in this, our ever-changing world’.

Rev Dr Christopher Noble – Rector