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

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

Finishing the Job

April 2019 – Finishing the Job

This time last year I was attempting to complete the writing up of my PhD research in the form of a thesis. Finishing the job seemed to take for ever and at times no matter how hard I worked the finishing line seemed to get further and further away, as more unexpected obstacles appeared. I finally graduated in January this year which was the best part of a year after the initial submission of the thesis for examination.

In the gospel Jesus demonstrates a powerful sense of determination to finish the job, or as he says; ‘reach my goal’. There is a driving purpose underlying Jesus life that surfaces particularly in times of pressure and opposition. Even in the face of serious intimidation and when challenged by the orthodox ‘religious’ to leave the area around Jerusalem, Jesus refuses to be diverted from finishing the job that he had been sent to do. When challenged Jesus says: ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal’. Jesus was determined to finish the job.

Jesus preached, drove out demons and healed people with the result that he was enormously popular. But these signs and wonders were just the spotlights for his main life’s work which was to die for the sin of the world and to rise to new life on the third day, demonstrating his power and complete victory over satan, sin and death. When Jesus had finished his work, he exclaimed from the cross the words ‘it is finished’. Jesus had finished the job that he came to do and fulfilled his purpose in life.

He tore down the barrier between us and God. He paid the penalty in his own body for the sins of the world and purchased our forgiveness through the shedding of his blood. No wonder that the primary symbol of the Christian faith is an empty cross representing the ‘finished work’ of Jesus Christ.

This Good Friday we proclaim Jesus victory as we gather to carry the cross through Vigo, Fairseat and Stansted, followed by a joyful celebration of his wonderful Resurrection on Easter Sunday morning.

Rev Dr. Christopher Noble – Rector

road-ahead-closed

March 2019 – Road Ahead Closed

Three times in the last month I have been prevented from continuing on my planned journey because the road ahead has been unexpectedly closed. Each time my initial reaction has been: ‘I don’t believe this, how could they do this?’ and in the case of the recent closure of the A227 (due to a burst water main) between the Vigo Inn and the Wrotham roundabout, ‘don’t they know how important this road is?’

It’s difficult to accept that ‘they’ have closed the road in front of me and that I am going to have to find another way to continue my journey. I have even refused to believe that the road ahead was really closed and decided to ignore the warning signs, choosing instead to drive round the barriers. In one case ignoring the signs seemed to work, until I came to the actual ‘works’ that straddled the whole width of the road, making it impassable.

These ‘road ahead closed’ experiences have made me analyse my reaction to other events in my life where the road ahead is suddenly and inexplicably closed. My gut reaction is to refuse to believe it, let alone accept the situation. Acceptance is often hard to achieve, but when it does come then other options do seem to present themselves. On one occasion my satellite navigation system took me on a route that I had no idea even existed. The destination was the same but the route was completely different and much better.

Since then I’ve been rethinking these ‘road ahead closed’ events in my life and reflecting further on the fact that although at the time all seemed to be lost, the alternative route that very quickly presented itself, was far superior to the one I had planned. In the Proverbs it says that ‘in his heart a man plans his course but the Lord directs his steps’, illustrating that our route and maybe even our destination may be different from the one that we had planned. Even more sobering is Proverb 14.12 that says ‘there is a way that seems right to a man and appears straight before him, but at the end of it is the way of death’. So, next time we are confronted with a ‘road ahead closed’ sign, what are we going to do?

Rev Dr. Christopher Noble – Rector

eleanor-rigby-stanley

February 2019 – All the lonely people

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

This question that was raised in the song Eleanor Rigby by John Lennon and Paul McCartney on their 1966 Revolver album is still as relevant today as it was then. This song has become a ‘modern lament’ for lonely people, as it resonates with something that we all recognise as a painful and difficult aspect of life.

Even with people around us life can be very lonely. I remember hearing the testimony of a professional woman working for the EU in Brussels. She said that when she returned from work to her smart, but utilitarian apartment each evening, she was so lonely that she used to phone up the speaking-clock just to hear another voice. Even though materially she wanted for nothing and was surrounded by people all day, she found the loneliness unbearable. We cannot cure loneliness but as a community we can all do something. The farmers market and coffee in the Cloisters have been a great way for people to get out and have a chat. I am sure that we would all like to be able to do even more to help each other to combat isolation and loneliness.

With this in mind the church hosting a ‘caring concerns’ course on two Saturdays, one in February and one in March. The course is designed to help people in parishes like ours to develop our skills in pastoral care so that we can help one another, particularly those who are feeling isolated and lonely. The course covers listening skills, skills in spiritual care with different age groups, coping with stress, introduction to loss and bereavement, boundaries and confidentiality and setting up a pastoral care team. The course will consist of five main sessions that will be delivered on two teaching days at St Mary’s Church ‘Cloisters’. On completion of the course all participants will receive a certificate.

The two dates are Saturday 16th February and Saturday 9th March. This is an open course and it is geared towards those who have no previous experience as well as those who already have experience and training. If this is of interest to you then I would be really pleased to talk further with you. Please feel free to call or email me about it.

 Rev Dr. Christopher Noble – Rector