St David’s Day

Saint David is the patron saint of Wales, and his feast day is celebrated on 1 March, the date of his death in 589 CE. I have fond memories of eight years lived in South Wales during my working life as a Salvation Army Officer and celebrating this special day with my family.

The Welsh will be especially celebrating this year (2021) after their victory over England in the Six Nations Championship, only two days prior to this traditional festival. I’ve always supported Wales (and still do) as long as they’re not playing England, but it never worked the other way round – England being seen as the ‘enemy’. It was often the subject of gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) teasing during the welcome and announcements on Sunday in worship at the Salvation Army, I gave as good as I got and often fully deserved the reaction I provoked.

Traditional symbols of daffodils (Wales) and leeks (Saint David) are worn, traditional Welsh food eaten, and traditional Welsh dress worn by the women and girls. I well remember my (now grown-up) English daughter proudly going to school in her Welsh costume. Teasing aside, we’re all enriched by appreciating and (when and where appropriate) respectfully sharing in the traditions of others.

Hardwick Hall Country Park

It was absolutely wonderful to get out of the house today, to experience the signs of spring in nature, and breathe in some fresh country air. Coronavirus, lockdown, home schooling, and the winter months, have all taken their toll on us as a family, and so an afternoon out at Hardwick Hall Country Park was truly welcome.

The park is located near Sedgefield, and is only a short drive from our home in Norton. The Serpentine Bridge was restored in 1994 to match the original bridge of 1754, and is a Grade II listed building. You can see all the photos I took here.

Norton High Street

Following my retirement we’ve been privileged to live in the beautiful village of NortonStockton-on-Tees. It’s a delightful village and we live in easy walking distance of the Parish Church, the Village Green and the Duck Pond, with the latter being the obvious destination when out with our young children.

Sometimes we walk up and down the High Street, enjoying its wonderful feel and character. I took the above photograph on a fine day at the beginning of February 2021. I’m hoping to take a collection of photos in the near future which reflect its history and variety, I’ll post them here in due course.

Norton High Street (not to be confused with the High Street in Stockton) is the main thoroughfare through Norton and is a leafy street of some considerable length that is full of charming 18th century houses and it is worth a stroll for those with a passion for old houses to pick out some of the best ones. Some are occupied by pleasing outlets and places to eat. You can read more here.

Norton High Street is very special to Naomi and I because we met twice for coffee and cake in Cafe Lilli and Cafe Maison before our first proper date in 2013. Both are worth a visit after the coronavirus lockdown.

See also: Norton Duck Pond and Norton Parish Church

Halifax Piece Hall

Our half-term day trip to Halifax this time last year (February 2020) was a wonderful family day out, although little did we know how coronavirus would soon become a world-wide pandemic (March 2020) and change all of our lives. It was a wet day (as you can see from the above panorama), but we look back with an increasing fondness engendered through an enforced lockdown.

Halifax is a historic market, mill and minster town in West Yorkshire, England. In the fifteenth century the town became an economic hub of the old West Riding of Yorkshire, primarily in woollen manufacture. From New Year’s Day 1779 manufacturers and mercers dealt internationally through its grandiose square, the Piece Hall. Today it houses many small shops and independent businesses, along cafés, restaurants and venues.

Both Naomi and I have lived near Halifax (before we knew each other) and have friends there. It was lovely to visit with our family, and hopefully we can visit again soon when the lockdown restrictions ease.

Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day)

Shrove Tuesday (more commonly known as Pancake Day) is the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the Christian year. Lent is associated with the time Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism. The date of Shrove Tuesday is determined by the date of Easter each year, but always falls on a Tuesday (obviously) as Easter always falls on a Sunday. The name comes from the word shrive, meaning absolve.

Lent is the second period of reflection in the Christian year, the first being Advent. More specifically, it’s an opportunity for self-examination, fasting, confession, and repentance – a time to grow spiritually before Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter.

Making pancakes was one way to use up food before fasting. Traditionally, many different types of food would be given up including meat, fish, eggs and dairy-based foods. These foods were cooked and eaten on Shrove Tuesday so they wouldn’t be wasted during the period of Lent.

As this is the last day of the Christian liturgical season historically known as Shrovetide, before the penitential season of Lent, related popular practices, such as indulging in food that one might give up as their Lenten sacrifice for the upcoming forty days, are associated with Shrove Tuesday celebrations. The term Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday”, referring to the practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season, which begins on Ash Wednesday. Many Christian congregations thus observe the day through the holding of pancake breakfasts, as well as the ringing of church bells to remind people to repent of their sins before the start of Lent. On Shrove Tuesday, churches also burn the palms distributed during the previous year’s Palm Sunday liturgies to make the ashes used during the services held on the very next day, Ash Wednesday. Wikipedia

Today, making pancakes on Shrove Tuesday can be simply a cultural thing, and (for retailers) a marketing opportunity. So, whatever the meaning, or combination of meanings, for you – will you be making and tossing pancakes? If so, let me know how you get on. As for me, I’m quite proud of my pancake tossing skills.

See also: Ash Wednesday (Start of Lent)

Living Life in God’s Love

Love it or loathe it, you’ll know that today (14 February) is St Valentine’s Day. It’s a Christian festival, but also a huge marketing opportunity for shops and online retailers. While I was a corps officer and leading worship, it was always helpful when this day fell on a Sunday, and this year (2021) it does just that.

Although there was a Saint Valentine, there are several after whom the day may have been named. I’ll focus on the traditional attribution, but you can find out more here.

Legend has it that the emperor was dismayed that the men of Rome were not enlisting for the army, because they loved their wives and families too much to become soldiers. So he decreed that engagements and marriages were against the law. Valentine was a priest and doctor in Rome, and he refused to obey. He went on marrying young men and women because he believed that was God’s way. He got dragged before the authorities in Rome on 14 February 270 (actual date not known) and, having refused to change his ways, paid the price.

We’ll never know how true the legend is, but Saint Valentine has been associated with this lovers’ festival for many centuries. As Christians, the one love story that we especially celebrate is that of the Lord Jesus Christ. Because of his great love for us, he was prepared to sacrifice himself in life and on the cross.

Bible Reading: Ephesians 5:1-20

Paul wrote: […] live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God

The love expressed on Valentine’s Day might be deep and meaningful, it might just be shallow and expected, and it might even be it might be a joke or a bit of fun. But the one thing we can be sure of is that we are all loved with the very love of Jesus. No one deserves it and no one is left out.

None of us are perfect, none of us deserve this love, because we are all flawed human beings. Sometimes we don’t recognise our collective failings, thus making it difficult to cope with human weakness, both in ourselves and others. Sometimes we ascribe sinfulness to others and not to ourselves, it’s the oldest human failing.

Of course, there’s clearly goodness in individuals, but we are all flawed because of our basic humanity. This is a big subject, and the discussion of inherent evil or inherent good is for another time and place.

Christian teaching shows us that we are insignificant and worthless in relation to the universe, but significant and of infinite value to God, even though flawed and without any claim on grace.

Edward Norman has written: The supreme loveliness of the life of Christ exhibited the sacrifice of God himself for creatures who were undeserving. It was not because men and women were good that Christ died for them. How can it have been? On the hills of Galilee and in the desert places of Judea the Saviour had loved those whose lives encouraged no love and inspired no pity. Nothing in human nature has changed, and it is not going to. Jesus came into the world precisely because we were not good, and because we are not capable of self-correction. People today will begin to cope with the evils of existence if only they will bring themselves to accept that their own natures are inherently flawed. And the hand of God himself extends from the cross to lift and save those who reach out to him.

Accepting responsibility for our own sinfulness can open the floodgates of God’s mercy and love in Jesus, and we can be transformed. We can also better accept the sinfulness of others. Although we don’t deserve it, God offers us love through Jesus, and he challenges us to live a life of love in response, loving him, others, and ourselves.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 5:1-2

Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5:15-20

On this Valentine’s Day, do we need to give more of ourselves to God? Giving ourselves to him as a fragrant offering and sacrifice? As Rick Warren has written, let’s move from smelling the odour of waste to the bouquet of grace.

Darwin Day (12 February)

Darwin Day is a worldwide celebration of the birthday of Charles Darwin on 12 February 1809. The day highlights Darwin’s contributions to science and is an opportunity to promote science in general. In an age when science and critical thinking is often derided, ignorance nourished, and fake news cultivated, we do well to heed scientists and experts. Darwin Day is an opportunity to engage our brains as we journey through life, rejecting ignorance, bigotry and prejudice.

See also: The Magic of Reality (Dawkins)

Richard II (William Shakespeare)

On this day (7 February) in 1601, the day before the Earl of Essex‘s planned rebellion against Elizabeth I, his agents bribed the Chamberlain’s Men to stage a performance of Richard II. He believed that the deposition scene, where the unpopular king willingly abdicates his reign, would steel the rebels in their resolve. Essex was executed on 25 February 1601.

See: This Sceptred Isle

‘This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle’: so begins probably the most famous speech from Richard II, William Shakespeare’s 1590s history play about the fall of the Plantagenet king. These words are spoken by the dying John of Gaunt, and the phrases he uses – from ‘this royal throne of kings’ and ‘this sceptre isle’ to ‘this other Eden’ and many others – have become known in the popular consciousness. Source

I have a very fond memory of a performance of Richard II by the RSC in the Roundhouse, London, it was memorable for a dramatic deposition scene where sand poured onto the lone king from a great height for a prolonged period.

Luna 9 (1966)

On this day (3 February) in 1966, the Soviet Union’s unmanned Luna 9 spacecraft achieved the first survivable landing on the Moon, and we saw the first pictures from another celestial body.

The lander had a mass of 99 kilograms. It used a landing bag to survive the impact speed of 22 kilometres per hour. It was a hermetically sealed container with radio equipment, a program timing device, heat control systems, scientific apparatus, power sources, and a television system. Wikipedia

Queen Victoria’s Funeral (1901)

One of the largest gatherings of European royalty ever to take place occurred on this day (2 February) in 1901. Victoria’s children had married into the great royal families of Europe and a number of foreign monarchs were in attendance, including Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany as well as the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand. They all came together for the funeral of Queen Victoria. This event marked the end of an era, it had been 64 years since the last burial of a monarch.

She was dressed in a white dress and her wedding veil. An array of mementos commemorating her extended family, friends and servants were laid in the coffin with her, at her request, by her doctor and dressers. A dressing gown that had belonged to her husband Albert who had died 40 years earlier, was placed by her side, along with a plaster cast of his hand, while a lock of John Brown’s hair, along with a picture of him, was placed in her left hand concealed from the view of the family by a carefully positioned bunch of flowers. Wikipedia