Diwali: Festival of Lights

Diwali came very much to the front of my mind when I lived in Leicester, mainly because the city has a very large and diverse ethnic minority population, their Diwali celebrations are widely believed to be the largest outside of India.

Diwali is the Indian Festival of Lights, it’s one of the most popular festivals of Hinduism, symbolising the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance.

Obviously restricted in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, normally there are 6,500 lights all along Belgrave and Melton Roads, around fifty separate events spread across the city over a two-week period, including music, dance and live performances in a variety of venues, all ending with a spectacular firework display.

Aeolian Motion (Phil Johnson)

This morning I took Freddy with me to do some jobs in Stockton-on-Tees town centre, but we also had some fun and did some sightseeing. Freddy got soaking wet in the fountains and had to walk back to the car in wet shorts and bare feet, fortunately there were some spare clothes in the car. You can see the photos here.

We also had a walk along the riverside, passing a striking piece of constantly moving public art entitled Aeolian Motion (Phil Johnson). It was erected in March 2001 as part of a regeneration plan for the area and was inspired by the endless flow of the river and its rich history (see plaque below).

Stewart Park with Matilda

I seized the opportunity to have some Daddy/Matilda time while Naomi was out with Freddy and Pollyanna today. It’s great to be all together as a family, but equally important to have one-to-one parent and child times as they can really deepen relationships.

As I was thinking where we could go, one of the places I came up with was Stewart Park in Middlesbrough to see the animals. Without prompting, she said she wanted to go to a park with animals, so that was decided. We’re obviously in tune with each other and on the same wavelength.

We saw the animals and did all the usual stuff you do in a park on a sunny afternoon (including having ice creams) although she was quite happy making sandcastles and adding ‘details’ (her words not mine) of stones, leaves, pine cones and sticks. You can see all the photos here.

Walk in Coatham Wood

Since moving to Teesside (strictly speaking back to Teesside) I’ve been making a list of places to visit, and this wood was somewhere I discovered recently. Naomi is out with Pollyanna today, so I decided to take Freddy and Matilda. We only had time to see a small part of the wood, so we’re sure to visit again.

Visit this vibrant woodland habitat, bursting with wildlife for you to discover. Coatham Wood, found near Stockton, is a newly planted community woodland, with the first trees planted in 1999. The mosaic of broadleaved and conifer trees, as well as ponds and meadows makes Coatham a great habitat for all kinds of wildlife. Look out for newts and dragonflies around the ponds, or you may spot a deer grazing in one of the open areas. All 5 native species of owl have been spotted around the woodland. Forestry England.

Teesmouth National Nature Reserve

This nature reserve is only a few miles from our home and is in stark contrast to the surrounding backdrop of heavy industry. It’s an unlikely setting, but one that shows how nature can adapt and thrive in the most unlikely of situations.

It comprises sand dunes and grazing marshes, along with intertidal sand and mudflats. Apart from the huge variety of flora and fauna on display, seals can be seen basking beside the tidal channels or swimming near the road bridge (like the one above we saw on a recent visit). This is somewhere Naomi and I are sure to visit regularly with our children.

Cowpen Bewley Woodland Park

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Now that we’re settling into our new home in Norton, Stockton-on-Tees, we’re finding more opportunities to explore the area nearby. Today, Naomi and I took the girls (Freddy was with Grandma and Grandad) and Toby (our dog) to Cowpen Bewley Woodland Park. It’s only a few miles away and I imagine we’ll often be found there, so Freddy needn’t worry about missing out, and he’ll enjoy the trains that pass the park. You can see all the original photos here.

Edward Colston Statue in Bristol

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During today’s ongoing worldwide anti-racist demonstrations, a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol was toppled and unceremoniously dumped in the harbour. You can see the BBC News report of the demonstrations here.

For now though, let’s park our thoughts about the rights and wrongs of tearing down a statue, and simply seek to empathise with how black people would have felt walking past Edward Colston every day. In this highly-charged atmosphere, with the added tensions of coronavirus, we need to keep our focus on the deep issues of racism and white privilege. Let’s discuss these issues respectfully and communicate with grace.

Knowing the history of Bristol, I personally feel that the statue should have been taken down officially and (possibly) placed in a museum long ago. Such an official act could have acknowledged the hurt of the past and brought people together. It could have been a profound moment of repentance, redemption, reconciliation and renewal. Sadly, that moment has been lost.

In these difficult and challenging times we need visionary leaders in all countries and at all levels, unfortunately they currently they seem to be few and far between.

Note: I attended a Yes concert in Colston Hall in the 1970s. They played Tales from Topographic Oceans in full before the album was released in 1973.

Pestilence Lane (Alvechurch)

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A few years ago (actually more years than I care to remember) I travelled to Bristol with Sarah on the first stage of her journey back to Bologna, Italy. I arrived back home in the early hours after driving in temperatures down to -9.0C at some points on the M5 and M42. But it was only later that I found out something interesting.

We had passed Pestilence Lane, and I wondered about the name. I looked it up and found the following information about Alvechurch in Worcestershire. Half the population died of the Black Death in the 14th Century and local tradition has it that the bodies are buried on the outskirts of the village in Pestilence Lane.

This may or may not be true, but the story was taken very seriously when the M42 motorway was being planned. Test pits were dug in Pestilence Lane and the samples were checked for traces of contagious diseases.

Nothing was found and the Hopwood Services were built on the site in 1998. Not a bad name, but ‘Pestilence Services’ would have far been more interesting.

31/05/20 Pentecost Sunday

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Greetings on Pentecost Sunday. This would have been my last Sunday leading public worship before my retirement on Wednesday 1 July 2020. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been possible because of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown. Next month I’ll be taking my remaining holiday entitlement at home before retiring and moving away from Wallsend.

It’s a matter of personal regret that I’ve not been able to lead Wallsend Corps in worship over these last few months, have a public farewell, or hand over leadership in the usual way. My sincere hope and prayer is that Wallsend Corps will be able to move forward into a new future under the leadership of Cadet (soon to be Lieutenant) Luke Cozens. I’m currently preparing handover information and I’m in contact with Luke to ensure a smooth transition of leadership in unique circumstances, ones I believe can be seen as both a challenge and opportunity. God bless you, Major John Ager.

Here’s a short video message from our Territorial Leaders Anthony and Gillian Cotterill introducing a Pentecost Sunday worship meeting, click here for more details. You can find an outline of it by clicking here.

Here’s my Bible message for Pentecost Sunday, the Bible readings are Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21 which can be read by clicking on the links.

When Chichester Cathedral was being renovated in 1962 they found that the medieval builders had built a magnificent cathedral on poor land and hadn’t extended the foundations far enough. As a result of this oversight, the 20th Century renovators had far more work than anticipated.

We don’t need reminding of the parable of the house built on the sand and the one built on the rock. It’s so important that we build our lives upon Christ, getting the foundations right and then building in the power of the Holy Spirit.

But let’s go right back to the beginning, literally, to the Book of Genesis and the story of the Tower of Babel. Genesis means ‘beginnings’, it’s a book that deals with the beginning of everything, not in a scientific way, but in a far more profound way.

Genesis focuses our attention on certain aspects of life, the first eleven chapters paint a picture of the world as God meant it to be, but they also show the appalling mess we’ve made of it; the message is timeless, because we continue to make a mess of it.

In these opening chapters of the Bible we have parables of immense significance. From there on, the rest of the Bible show us what God has done to get us out of the mess, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

We have the story of Noah and the Flood, the message being that the world merits nothing less than total destruction. The Flood symbolises God’s timeless judgement on humankind, as appropriate now as when it was written.

Noah wasn’t perfect, but he represents those in every age who walk with God. God always offers a way back to himself, if only we live our lives with reference to him.

Then we have the story of the Tower of Babel, a story that echoes the Fall: human defiance of God. But instead of the story being set in a garden with two people, the setting is bricks and mortar with a developing civilisation.

The age-old problem is that individuals and humankind as a whole build for their own glory rather than for the glory of God.

William Neil writes:
Man wants to run the world in his own way. He wants to put himself at the centre of his civilisation on a pedestal inscribed with the name: “Glory to MAN in the highest”.
Note how verse 4 says: “Come let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for OURSELVES”.

This is the mistake we make again and again. There is only one God and Creator, we are created in his likeness, and our destiny is to know him, to live in fellowship with him, humbly seeking and obeying his will for our lives.

The builders’ desire for autonomy recalls the rebellion in the Garden of Eden, and establishes the need for Abraham’s redemptive faith in the midst of international disorder. Far from the original garden, the first cities in Genesis represent arrogance, tyranny and wickedness. The city on the Babylonian plain was a magnet for human pride and idolatry, a tower that reaches into the sky. NLT Study Bible

When we put ourselves first, God comes and confounds our plans, and there is chaos and disorder. The confusion of tongues in the Tower of Babel story is but a symptom of a much deeper disharmony that prevents unity and common understanding.

We talk about people ‘not speaking the same language’, meaning that their positions are so far apart that they might as well be speaking a different language.

We see this between individuals, groups and nations. Pride, injustice, and selfishness: all preventing meaningful communication and reconciliation.

But had you ever considered that the story of Pentecost balances the story of the Tower of Babel?

The divided language of Babel becomes the common language of Pentecost, the story is turned upside down; or more correctly the right way up.

The miracle of Pentecost was that a new language came with power, the language of love, the language of the Spirit, the language of unity, a language that all could understand; the love that God showed in sending his Son as Saviour and Lord, a suffering servant for all humankind.

God’s love in sending Jesus is something that speaks to the human heart far more eloquently than words could ever do. As we open our hearts and lives to God’s Holy Spirit he fills and empowers us to live this language of love in the world.

God can work in and through us when we’re open to God’s Holy Spirit, who takes our weaknesses and makes us strong, who takes our brokenness and makes us whole. Then the Holy Spirit can do the work of building the kingdom.

We can always move forward in his power and strength; building on the past, building in the present, and building for the future – especially in these new circumstances of coronavirus. Building, not for our own glory, but for God’s glory.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what thou dost love
And do what thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with thee I will one will
To do and to endure.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Till I am wholly thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with thy fire divine.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with thee the perfect life
Of thine eternity.

Silent Joy in Grief

130824 Mum & Dad

It was one year ago (26 May 2019) that my 94-year-old mother (Jean) died in hospital in Northampton, my father (Fred) having died in 2013.

As I’ve written previously, special days and anniversaries awaken powerful emotions which lie barely below the surface of my day-to-day life, along with the ongoing emptiness of loss. Additionally, this is combined with the strange feeling of ‘lostness’ that occurs after the death of both parents, a feeling which may be magnified for me because I’m an only child of only children.

I had the following words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer printed on the back of the order of service for both their funerals as they expressed something my family wanted to articulate. These words have become even more meaningful to me with the passing of time, and I hope you find them helpful as well.

There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve, even in pain, the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.