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

Norton Duck Pond

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.

The Duck Pond is part of the Village Green and is surrounded by mostly Georgian houses and cottages. It’s beautiful at anytime of day or night, season or weather.

I found this interesting story while researching the history of the village: The village was once the site of a market at a spot called Cross Dike, near the pond. The market was established in Norman times but this ceased operating around the time of the Civil War in the 1640s. One story is that the market established by Henry II and Bishop Flambard of Durham was to operate on the sabbath and this offended God who caused the markets to collapse by swallowing them up with the sudden opening up of the ground by some kind of earthquake that then allegedly formed the village pond. You can read more here.

Thankfully, we can visit the Duck Pond in the current coronavirus lockdown, reminding us of the need to appreciate what we have around us.

See also: Norton High Street and Norton Parish Church

Submerged (Cousin Silas)

Having finished writing about my favourite albums of 2020, it’s time to turn to 2021. Submerged by Cousin Silas is my first favourite album of 2021. These are some wonderful ambient soundscapes in which to immerse yourself and release your imagination. You can stream and/or download the album here.

Cousin Silas writes: Abandoned villages, for me, are fascinating places. The lost history, the forgotten lives and the long gone murmur of rural life. What I find more intriguing, however, are those select few villages that have been lost with coastal erosion, or abandoned due to the valley where they were situated being ‘converted’ into reservoirs. In some cases parts of the buildings occasionally, during droughts or low tides, emerge. Urban legends of bells tolling from the old church, be that submerged or managing to breath again as the water slowly recedes.

All seven tracks are named, and partially inspired, by submerged villages. Obviously there are many more across the UK, but most featured are relatively ‘local’, or at least in Yorkshire and there’s varying degrees of information about them on the Internet. Who’d have thought you could learn history whilst submerging yourself in music? Bandcamp

You can see all my favourite albums of 2021 by clicking here.

See also: Lost (Cousin Silas)

Norton Parish Church

Following my retirement we’ve been privileged to live in the beautiful village of Norton, Stockton-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.

I took the above photo of the church on a recent walk. Like most churches, it’s very photogenic, and a beautiful building inside and out. You can find out more on the church website where there are some excellent Christian resources.

The church was built as a place of worship and protection in about 1020 CE and so is just over 1,000 years old.

St Mary the Virgin, the ancient parish church that stands on the village green, is the only cruciform Anglo-Saxon church in northern England. Its crossing tower with eight triangular head windows has a battlemented top of later date, and there is a 14th-century effigy of a knight in chainmail.

Residing under the church floor there is claimed to be an escape tunnel used by the Saxons and priests when in danger, though it may be a drainage culvert. The tunnel leads under the church floor and Norton Green, eventually surfacing in the Albany housing estate. The church floor was recently renovated and Saxon remains and artefacts were discovered in the tunnel entrance. Wikipedia

See also: Norton Duck Pond and Norton High Street

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

This week is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January), often abbreviated as WPCU. It involves Christian communities from across the world and from almost every denomination.

There are many different Christian churches and denominations, but all have the same basic calling – to worship God, to share the good news about Jesus Christ, and to work for the good of all people. So they often need to work together, as well as co-ordinate the work they each do separately. When they do, they are acting as Churches Together. But being Churches Together means more than that. It means commitment by each church and denomination to deepen its fellowship with the others and, without losing what makes each interestingly different, to work with them towards a greater visible unity.

To help the churches live as Churches Together, a number of small organisations have been created to ease their way. There is one in almost every town or community to help them to work together locally. There are others in the regions and for each of the four nations of Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England. There is also an umbrella organisation in the UK, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI), from which I have obtained the above information. Additionally, there is the World Council of Churches.

You can find helpful resources on the CTBI website, including for WPCU below:

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2021

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2020

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2019

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2018

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2017

07/06/20 How are you?

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Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, just as you are progressing spiritually. 3 John 2

‘How are you?’ we ask. And ‘fine’ comes the reply. But what are we really asking? And do we actually want to know, anyway?

Some years ago, I said ‘How are you?’ to a mentally disturbed man in church. With rare honesty, he responded, ‘You don’t want to know’. ‘But I do’ I protested (perhaps less honestly). ‘Well, look at your feet’, he replied, and I realised that I was walking past him even as I mouthed my automatic question.

Many languages have formulae for greeting, with questions about one’s neighbour’s family, animals, work, travel, sleep, eliciting standard responses. They oil the wheels of everyday life in society.

But what kind of interest in others might we convey in those short exchanges while travelling, on arrival at work, at the school gate, in the check-out queue or (when we get back) in church?

The apostle John, writing to his ‘dear friend Gaius‘, expressed three heartfelt wishes. First, that his friend should have good health. Second, that everything in his life should go well. Third, that his spiritual life should continue to thrive. Three wishes on the physical, circumstantial and spiritual planes.

We appear to think almost entirely about people’s health when we ask ‘how are you?’ Sometimes we scarcely wait for the expected answer, but that little answer ‘fine’ may veil a newly diagnosed cancer or a marriage on the rocks. ‘Fine’ may veil a lost faith or a broken heart.

If we genuinely care for others, we must be interested in their whole lives, in the issues they are facing in their families and in their work. Do we also have courage, with our Christian friends, to ask ‘How is your relationship with God?’

We need to pray for people on all these three planes like John, and when we write to people we need to ask after all these aspects of their lives. But in our everyday greetings, too, may we try to find ways of encouraging others by expressing a genuine concern for things that are going on in the deeper recesses of their hearts and minds.

26/04/20 Bible Thoughts

brown book page
Photo by Wendy van Zyl on Pexels.com

Just some Bible thoughts this Sunday, when we would have been uniting in worship at Wallsend with North Shields and Shiremoor Corps, rather than a full online meeting. This is neither an apology nor excuse, merely a reflection of the kind of week I’ve had in lockdown. I’m simply doing what I can and not what I can’t. My hope and prayer is that these thoughts will be an encouragement to you, as well as stimulating your own reflections and thoughts. God bless you, Major John Ager.

Bible Reading: Philippians 2:1-11

One of the corps I was appointed to in the past had the following mission statement, this was its raison d’être: To put Jesus first and grow as Christians, through Bible reading, prayer, worship and fellowship. To share God’s love and forgiveness, especially through loving service in the local community.

That was and (as far as I know) still their purpose as a church and community centre; the focus of that group of Christians, both individually and collectively. It’s important to have focus and purpose as a fellowship of God’s people. Yes, I know businesses have mission statements, and the church is not a business; but the principle still applies. Having a defined focus helps us to be better Christians.

The church is currently unable to meet because of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, and some of the things that are essential are not able to happen in the normal way. Having said that, the church is finding new ways of doing things, although nothing can fully replace the actual meeting of people in a place of worship. Collective worship and fellowship are a vital part of the Christian life. Whilst many people say you can be a Christian without going to church, I disagree.

Watch the beautiful (although actually sad) song I Am A Rock by Paul Simon and pay particular attention to the lyrics.

A winter’s day
In a deep and dark
December
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I am a rock
I am an island

I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain
I am a rock
I am an island

Don’t talk of love
But I’ve heard the words before
It’s sleeping in my memory
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

The words are very telling, we need each other. The lyrics of this wonderful song are actually the very antithesis of what it means to be a Christian. Yes, we can be hurt when we tear down the walls we build around ourselves, because we become vulnerable. But, as Christians, we follow one who became vulnerable for us, and when we open up to him we open ourselves to the love of God and others.

As we gather together again for worship and fellowship, at some yet unknown date in the future, we may have to reassess our overall vision.

As Salvationist poet Will J. Brand once wrote:
…so much we deemed essential is forever left behind.

See also: No man is an island (John Donne)

Richardson Dees Park in Wallsend

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Richardson Dees Park in Wallsend is a beautiful place to walk with some wonderful facilities, although these are not open in the current coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, it wasn’t possible for Wallsend Churches Working Together (WCWT) to hold their annual Good Friday commemoration and worship (with Wallsend Salvation Army band) in the bandstand this year.

Fortunately, we can still walk in the park and enjoy its beauty, and that’s just what we did as a family on the afternoon of Easter Sunday 2020. The northern end of the park is very close to where we live. Naomi concentrated on photos of our children, I focussed on nature. The above picture is a composite of the eight photos I took on a cloudy day.

Note: Many thanks to my friend and fellow Salvation Army officer Mark Kent for processing the photos for me.

12/04/20 Easter Sunday

Welcome to Easter Sunday worship. This is much shorter today because our Territorial Leaders Commissioners Anthony and Gillian Cotterill are leading online worship with contributions from across the United Kingdom Territory.

Bible Reading: John 20:1-18

Easter Bible Message (Major John Ager)

In the account of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, we begin to glimpse something of what he went through spiritually, mentally and emotionally before his physical suffering and death on the cross.

But why am I going back to Thursday on Easter Sunday?

Actually, I could go back further, to Palm Sunday and even back beyond that. On Palm Sunday he rode into Jerusalem in defiance of the people’s expectations, they misunderstood the nature of his coming and purpose. He came as the Prince of Peace, having previously set his face towards Jerusalem, resolved to go the way of the cross.

Jesus never took the easy way out of a situation; he wasn’t going to be turned from his final challenge. He knew the direction his life was taking, he wasn’t a weak-minded person overtaken by events, he was in full command of what was happening. Yes, this resolve was thoroughly tested in Gethsemane, but his mind had already been made up, and we see his composure during the trial. Jesus even spoke of his coming death as an accomplishment, referring to it as his victory.

So it’s not just about the victory of Easter morning, but the victory secured when Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem.

The time of anguish in the garden sums up his whole life and ministry:
‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’ Mark 14:36

We see both his humanity and his divinity; his humanity telling him to escape the situation, his divinity telling him to obey. We can’t attempt to fathom the depths of his suffering at this time; we do not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear.

Luke tells us that Jesus, being in anguish, prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. Luke 22:44

The words in an earlier verse cannot adequately be translated into English; he experienced severe horror and suffering. The best we can do are the words distress and anguish, different versions try to plumb the depths of his experience.

My music of choice on Good Friday is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It selects itself and still has the power to shock and move the human spirit.

This moment is powerfully expressed:
He is ready to taste the bitterness of death,
to drink the cup into which the sins of this world,
hideously stinking, have been poured.

That’s the victory, the mystery of God’s love that Christ should suffer for us. The paradox of a loving God and a suffering Christ, we can’t fully explain it, the reality will always be bigger than the theology of our finite minds, yet:

We believe it was for us,
he hung and suffered there.

The innocent one suffered for us and, in that moment of death, took upon himself the whole load of humanity’s sin and folly.

He quoted Psalm 22 on the cross:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Sin separates us from God and, as Jesus took on our sin, it separated him from his heavenly Father, in a moment of true abandonment.

Yet the psalm has a positive ending, it’s victorious. It foreshadows the Resurrection, so Jesus was able to say, Thy will be done.

I hope you can see now why I’ve gone backwards from Easter, because the Resurrection was the vindication of the victory already achieved in his life.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:9-11

Be Easter people in a Good Friday world.

See also: Resurrection (Rob Bell)

05/04/20 Palm Sunday Worship

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We meet for Palm Sunday worship online, socially distant but with an emotional and spiritual connection. The Bible message today is about something of the nature of peace, and it’s linked to Misunderstanding Palm Sunday which I wrote and published here a few days ago. You can find a PDF handout of this page here.

We start our worship with Song 365: He is the Lord, and he reigns on high

Reading: Palm Sunday Poem

They waved palm branches as He passed
And hailed Him as their King;
Yet, they knew not of the sorrow
The coming week would bring.
The glad acclaim would soon give way
To jeers and mockery;
In Pilate’s court He’d be condemned
To a cross on Calvary.

But Jesus knew He was the price
In God’s redemptive plan,
The Sacrificial Lamb come down
To die for sins of man.

The centuries have passed and still
He seeks those lost in sin,
Pleading with unyielding hearts
To repent and follow Him.

On this day we shout our praise,
O, let us not delay;
The palm-strewn path of long ago
Still leads to Him today.

Song 225: Jesus comes! Let all adore him!

Jesus comes! Let all adore him!
Lord of mercy, love and truth.
Now prepare the way before him,
Make the rugged places smooth;
Through the desert mark his road,
Make a highway for our God.

Jesus comes! Reward is with him,
Let the valleys all be raised,
God’s great glory now revealing
As the mountains are abased.
Lift thy voice and greet the Lord,
Cry to Zion: see thy God!

Jesus comes! The Christ is marching
Through the places waste and wild;
He his Kingdom is enlarging
Where no verdure ever smiled.
Soon the desert will be glad
And with beauty shall be clad.

Jesus comes! Where thorns have flourished
Trees shall now be seen to grow,
Stablished by the Lord and nourished,
Strong and fair and fruitful too.
They shall rise on every side,
Spread their branches far and wide.

Jesus comes! From barren mountains
Rivers shall begin to flow,
There the Lord will open fountains
And supply the plains below;
As he passes, every land
Shall acclaim his powerful hand.

Prayer: Gracious God, the energy and emotion of a parade can generate joy. Yet the joy of your parade into Jerusalem turned so quickly to pain signalling the sacrifice of your own self. Let this day remind me that while emotions can be fickle, your faithfulness and love remain true. May I see in the giving of your life the power to give myself for others simply for love. When life’s struggle sears my soul or sacrifice strips me of hope, strengthen me with your spirit that strode into Jerusalem to face death even as palm branches were strewn before your path and the crowd cried “Hosanna in the highest.” Prayer source: explorefaith.org

Instead of the Band this Sunday, I give you…

We’ll now take up the Offering and listen to the Announcements: For those of you who give a weekly (or other regular) offering to your church, please save these up as they will be much needed in due course. Additionally, there may be those of you who would like to make a donation to a charity of your choice. Please check your local church for arrangements during this bewildering time, and don’t forget to check back here and the Wallsend Corps Facebook Page.

Song 196: Ride on, ride on in majesty

Bible Reading: Luke 19:28-44

Instead of the Songsters this Sunday, I give you…

Bible Message (Major John Ager)

Palm Sunday is traditionally the day in the Christian calendar when we think about peace, and especially the peace that Jesus came to bring. Jesus rode into Jerusalem fulfilling the words of the prophet Zechariah:

See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Zechariah 9:9b

He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Zechariah 9:10b

Similarly, both Isaiah and Micah looked forward to a day when the nations would beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and look to God and walk in his ways.

Jesus came bringing a message of peace, but the people were so accustomed to war and strife that they rejected it. The people expected him to lead them in military victory over their enemies and vanquish their oppressors. Instead, Jesus offered something far more profound, peace to the human heart.

So Jesus and the crowd were at cross-purposes! They misunderstood that Jesus had come for a CROSS PURPOSE! That was not their purpose, that was the last thing on their minds.

They didn’t understand, their minds were closed to the real purpose of his coming. So when it became apparent that Jesus wasn’t going to fulfil their short-sighted ambitions, they turned against him and he was crucified on Good Friday.

In Luke’s account of these events we see that Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. Indeed, it was the very nationalism that motivated the people on Palm Sunday that ultimately led to their downfall years later.

In today’s world, we need to be so careful that national pride doesn’t become narrow prejudice. Nationalism and prejudice are so often at the roots of conflict, and they take root first in the human heart.

It’s a troubled world out there, and God needs Christian soldiers who bring his message of peace to others. All manner of conflict starts with us. It comes from within, and that’s the very place Jesus wants to come and bring peace.

On this Palm Sunday we need to recognise that true peace can only be built on a right relationship with God. That’s both the foundation and source of all peace; peace with ourselves, peace with others, and peace with God.

The whole of the Bible testifies to this truth. Psalm 29, for instance, starts by calling us to worship: Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to his name; worship the Lord in the splendour of his holiness.

The Psalmist speaks of God’s greatness, which inspires our worship, and concludes with a wonderful promise of peace when we’re in a right relationship with him: The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace.

Similarly, Isaiah speaks of promised peace given to the one who seeks after God: You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you. Isaiah 26:3

Our human nature often wants to run away from the very thing that can bring our peace. Jesus said, if you had only known on this day what would bring you peace.

We have freedom as individuals, but there’s part of us that desires us to act selfishly, to do what we want rather than what God wants. This tendency to think we know best and do what we want is very powerful, unfortunately it separates us from God.

Jesus rode into Jerusalem to announce the possibility of reconciliation with God and the resulting peace it brings. As we approach Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter, we see very clearly the cost of peace-making. The cost for Jesus was the way of the cross; he died that we might live.

Peace is not something that just happens, it requires action. The very word for peace is active rather than passive. ‘Shalom’ carries the idea of wholeness, well-being and harmony, rather than merely the absence of strife or tension. It’s what God wants for each and every one of us.

It’s astonishing that with the cross looming before him, Jesus was able to speak of peace, and that through the events of Holy Week he was able to demonstrate such confidence and poise. With his betrayal, his agony in the garden, his trial and death so near, he promised peace; peace that the world cannot give, a peace that passes all understanding.

He promised those who follow him an inner confidence and serenity that can overcome any situation life can throw across our path. Our security in the world can be very fragile, but our spiritual security is of an altogether different nature. It comes from God himself; it’s strong and we can rely on it.

It was won for us on the cross. Peace and security can be ours as we enthrone Jesus at the very centre of our lives. Not at cross-purposes with him, but embracing the CROSS PURPOSE for our lives.

See also: Misunderstanding Palm Sunday

Song 608: Make me a channel of your peace
Sung by Katherine Jenkins

Poem: The Donkey (GK Chesterton)

For a time of Reflection, Response and Prayer, please read Song 275:

Sing we the King who is coming to reign,
Glory to Jesus, the Lamb that was slain,
Life and salvation his empire shall bring
Joy to the nations when Jesus is King.

Come let us sing: Praise to our King,
Jesus our King, Jesus our King;
This is our song, who to Jesus belong:
Glory to Jesus, to Jesus our King.

All men shall dwell in his marvellous light,
Races long severed his love shall unite,
Justice and truth from his sceptre shall spring,
Wrong shall be ended when Jesus is King.

All shall be well in his Kingdom of peace,
Freedom shall flourish and wisdom increase,
Foe shall be friend when his triumph we sing,
Sword shall be sickle when Jesus is King.

Souls shall be saved from the burden of sin,
Doubt shall not darken his witness within,
Hell hath no terrors and death hath no sting;
Love is victorious when Jesus is King.

Kingdom of Christ, for thy coming we pray,
Hasten, O Father, the dawn of the day
When this new song thy creation shall sing,
Satan is vanquished and Jesus is King.

We finish with Song 135: All glory, laud, and honour

Benediction
This, this is the God we adore,
Our faithful, unchangeable friend,
Whose love is as great as his power,
And knows neither measure nor end.
’Tis Jesus, the first and the last,
Whose Spirit shall guide us safe Home;
We’ll praise him for all that is past,
And trust him for all that’s to come. Amen.

God bless you all, Major John Ager.