Reflection for Advent Sunday by Canon Dean Fostekew

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 28/11/2020 - 10:36

Advent Sunday 29th November 2020   Year B

We are at the beginning of a new year; the Church’s calendar refreshes itself today and we begin anew at Advent Sunday. The Church year starts a month or so before the calendar year so for most people 2020 is not yet over. For many this year, I suspect the ending of 2020 will come with very mixed emotions. It has been a very strange (and forgive the too often repeated word) ‘unprecedented’ eleven months, thus far. 2020 will no doubt go down in history as a year when things changed, when normal disappeared and all the familiar map reference points of our lives were swept away and new ones put in their place. With all this in mind, these words from Stephen Cherry’s poem ‘Advent wreath’ feel very apt to me:

I wonder about circles

and straight lines.

I wonder about eternity

and time.

I wonder, though this sounds grand, about the

purpose of my life.

Wondering and pondering on what one’s life means is something I have found myself doing a great deal this year as what I thought was familiar and stable has proved not to be. I have had to re-establish where my life’s ‘map-reference’ points are; some of them have remained the same, like praying Morning Prayer before breakfast but others have changed dramatically, not least worship on Sundays and Wednesdays. Friends I used to see regularly cannot now be visited, but thank goodness for the telephone and Zoom. Twelve months ago who had heard of Zoom? I certainly hadn’t and getting to grips with it was only one of the computer things I had to rapidly teach myself. For many of you that will sound familiar. So pondering on the circles of life or its straight lines will probably resonate.

Advent is always a time for reflection as we anticipate the coming birthday celebrations of our Lord. The readings take on an apocalyptic theme looking to the end time and the coming again of the Christ and we do it through the lens of the first coming of Christ some 2000 years ago. I often wonder if the second coming will be like the first. Unexpected and surprising, almost unnoticed yet world changing. Will Christ’s coming turn the world upside down or will he be ignored? If a minute virus can change the world, I hope that the returning Christ will do the same.

Advent also reminds us that we do not know when Christ will return, just as our ancestors did not know when the Messiah would come. We can look for signs in the heavens or attribute natural disasters as sign posts to Christ’s return or we can just pray, that one day Christ will come again and that our lives will be transformed by his power and grace and above all, by his all embracing love. Christ’s first coming came from an act of love and I would think that God would probably do the same again. Because, above all else our God is a God of love. A God who loves us so much that he sent his Son to redeem us and to show us the error of our previous ways and in whose birth, death and resurrection we are still intimately bound up. Whether or not we accept Christ as our Saviour we cannot ignore the fact that we are united with him in all that he has done. Christ did not come to us the first time only for selected individuals he came for everyone regardless of who they were and whether or not they were able to acknowledge who he was. This remains as true today as it was then.

Today we will light the first candle - of light in the darkness - on the Advent wreath as I hope you will do so at home as well. A candle signifying the start of our journey through Advent with Christ, as we hear and respond to the call of the Old Testament prophets who hoped for the Messiah to redeem them. As we light the candle ‘wonder’ at what it signifies and how it relates to your life; ponder on the meaning of life and whether time is linear or circular. What does time mean in your life and where does Christ fit into it as well? How are you journeying through the years and what does this past year tell us about that journey? A challenge for all of us as we pilgrimage through Advent.  Amen.

Reflection from the Rev'd Russell Duncan for Christ-the-King 2020

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 21/11/2020 - 10:47

Christ The King – Sunday 22nd November 2020

I wonder what you have on your bedside table? Is there a telephone; a glass of water or a pen and notepad? Perhaps also a photograph of someone special or a small gift given by a family member or dear friend? For me, I have an icon of “Jesus Christ Pantocrater”. It is based upon the mosaic which I first saw years ago when I visited the magnificent former Church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul built around 537.

Many of you will be familiar with it. Some of you may also have other icons, pictures or devotional aids which are important. This one depicts Christ in his majesty. In his left hand he holds the New Testament.  In his right hand he makes the sign of a blessing. The word “Pantocrator” is often interpreted as “strength, might and power” or the one I particularly like “sustainer of the world”. Not surprisingly, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western (Roman) Church place different emphasis on this too.

For me, this icon gives an insight into the character of God. In the foreword to Rowan Williams’ book “Ponder these things”, Kallistos Ware, Bishop of Diokleia, writes “ An icon introduces us to a world of mystery, yet at the same time this mystery is not far away, but is hidden within each of us, closer to us than our own heart”. Rowan Williams himself writes that “Icons show us the way; they invite us to follow a journey, to engage in a pilgrimage. They help us to cross borders, to enter into a new and transfigured world”.

One of the books which I have enjoyed reading is by Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford. It is entitled “Seeing God in Art – the Christian Faith in thirty images”. The penultimate painting is entitled “Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven” by Fra Angelico painted between 1423-24. He comments that it “conveys a wonderful sense of joy, ecstasy, music, movement and dance all focused and drawn out by the figure of Christ in the middle”. Do look at it if you can.  He asks “Is life heading anywhere?  Is there some great consummation ahead? Is there some climax beyond space and time?” These are hard and deep questions which we all face at different times.

The Feast of Christ the King completes the liturgical year in the Christian calendar. Next Sunday we start all over again with the beginning of Advent and so it continues afresh year by year. As someone who prefers negotiation and resolution I find this comforting and re-assuring. What is more challenging is when things remain incomplete or unresolved for whatever reason.

Looking back this past liturgical year, we all have our own stories to tell.  Some will be filled with joy and thankfulness. Others will be filled with sadness, dis-appointment, bewilderment and those nagging questions which never quite go away. The effect of the coronavirus still continues to impact upon our lives and globally.

In our reading from Ephesians (1:15-23) we are offered some encouragement by the apostle Paul as we journey together in faith, in love, in hope.  He prays that we might all be given a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him (Jesus) so that, with the eyes of our heart enlightened, we might know something of the hope to which we have been called.

May we continue to hope in Christ the King as we journey together in our life of faith.

Remembrance Sunday reflection by the Rev'd David Warnes

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 07/11/2020 - 12:03

Remembrance Sunday 2020 Good Shepherd

Born in 1922, the poet Philip Larkin had no personal memories of the First World War yet wrote a powerful poem about it. It is called 1914, but the title is printed in the Roman numerals that feature on so many war memorials – MCMXIV. The poem was published in 1964 when the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War was commemorated. Its theme is the enormous changes and the numerous personal tragedies that the war would bring – changes and tragedies of which the young men marching off to undergo military training and the crowds who cheered them were unaware. The final verse suggests that what they, their families and a whole civilisation were about to lose might be termed innocence.

“Never such innocence,

Never before or since,

As changed itself to past

Without a word – the men

Leaving the gardens tidy,

The thousands of marriages, Lasting a little while longer:

Never such innocence again.”

It’s a poem which on this Remembrance Sunday has an extra resonance, for when this year began, we all had plans and hopes which were not to be realised and the news of an outbreak of a novel respiratory virus in Wuhan seemed distant, even irrelevant. Many are feeling a loss of innocence, a dislocation in their lives which is difficult, even impossible to digest. Many are mourning the loss of loved ones.

Remembrance is both vital and fraught with difficulty. It is vital because our ability to remember is not only an essential part of every person’s personality but also, in the form of shared memories, something that binds us together in community.

I had a powerful reminder of that twenty years ago when staying briefly in a village in north-western Russia in the house of an elderly woman, Alexandra Ivanovna. Her son-in-law took me to visit the local museum. In one of the upstairs rooms was a bookshelf with what looked like a set of encyclopaedias on it. He explained that these were the memorial volumes that had been produced in the Soviet era to commemorate the

millions who had died in the Second World War. There were many volumes, and I was taken aback when he told me that these were the memorial books for a single province. He pulled one of them down from the shelf and showed me that for each person commemorated, there was a paragraph about them, giving details of their military service. He pointed out the four paragraphs which commemorated the brothers of Alexandra Ivanovna and explained that she was the only sibling to survive the war. The books were a striking reminder of how the human desire to remember flourished even in a totalitarian state where the individual was subordinated to the collective, a state that was avowedly atheist. There are now similar volumes recording the victims of that state, the millions who died in Stalin’s labour camps. Remembrance is vital.

It is indeed a good and important thing to remember those who served and continue to serve in our armed forces and civil defence, those who never returned. It is also important to remember those who came home scarred in mind or body. Most war memorials commemorate the men and women who died in conflict, but I remember being shown one in a parish church in north Yorkshire where someone with the same surname as mine was listed. When I asked who he was and when he had been killed I was told that this war memorial listed all those from that parish who had served in the First World War, that he was an adopted member of the family with whom we had lost touch, and that he was a Church of Scotland minister. Years later I tried to find out more about this great uncle by adoption and discovered that he had been invalided out of the army for what we would now call psychiatric reasons. He went on to be ordained, to serve in a tough parish in the east end of Glasgow and, in 1939, to volunteer as a Chaplain to the Black Watch. Given his own suffering, that was a courageous thing to do and I think it very likely that he was all the more effective in that ministry because he remembered what he had been through. I regret that we never met, yet nevertheless I remember him. Remembrance is vital.

Remembrance is also fraught with difficulty, for it involves an acknowledgement of loss, the loss of innocence of which Larkin wrote, the loss of freedoms, above all the acute sense of loss that is bereavement. It is to that difficulty that today’s Gospel speaks in a very

profound way. It is, of course, the Benedictus – the prophecy spoken by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, just after he had written down the name of his new-born son, a name which is deeply significant, for in Hebrew John means “God has been gracious”.

Zechariah had been struck dumb for doubting the words that the Angel Gabriel spoke to him concerning the birth of his son. His doubting was highly ironic, for the name Zechariah means “God remembers”. And when, after months of enforced silence, his tongue was loosened, he lived up to his name by speaking of God’s remembrance.

“...he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant”

That God remembers is a heartening reminder that though we have lost innocence, lost a familiar and comfortable reality, lost those closest to us, God remains faithful to us, committed to us. Zechariah’s prophecy goes on to remind us that light comes to us in our darkness and that there is a better way than conflict:

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will

break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the

shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

So as we remember those who died in conflict or were broken by their experiences, we are reminded of the Remembrancer divine, the faithful God who shows us the way of peace; the God who promises and makes possible the re-membering that we call resurrection.


Two reflections for the season of All Saints & All Souls

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 31/10/2020 - 13:23

All Saints Day 2020

“Acceding to the request of our Brother Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham, with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, by our apostolic authority we declare that the venerable Servant of God John Henry, Cardinal, Newman, priest of the Congregation of the Oratory, shall henceforth be invoked as Blessed and that his feast shall be celebrated every year of the ninth of October, in the places and according to the norms established by Church law.”

With these words in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI, raised the late Cardinal John Henry Newman to the status of ‘blessed’ - not quite a saint, but almost. To be a full saint takes two accredited miracles. These miracles have to be associated with prayers and calls to the blessed one on behalf of someone in need or distress. in 2010 the prayers of John Henry Newman were credited with the miraculous healing of Fr.Jack Sullivan, a deacon in the States who was suffering from a debilitating and incurable spinal condition and in 2018 a second healing of a pregnant woman was confirmed. This led to his canonisation by Pope Francis on 13th October 2019. Now no longer ‘blessed’ but Saint John Henry Newman.

Quite what you or I might make of all this could be the basis for an excellent discussion. This reflection, however, simply the question; ‘Why saints?’

The history of the Christian Church is full of remarkable men and women who have done much to promote the ways of Jesus and to care for those whom Jesus particularly told us to look after. Many died violent deaths in the cause of their faith, some just grew holy and others would probably wonder how they have become saints at all.

At the most basic level the saints are good examples of a Christian life lived well. A life in which others were put before self and a life which was perhaps lived counter-culturally to the way of life prevalent at the time the saint lived. One only has to think of St.Francis stripping off his rich clothes and giving them and everything he owned to the poor and needy. After a reprobate youth Francis changed and embraced poverty for the sake of others. Initially ridiculed Francis bore the insults and shame to overcome his mockers and to live a life that embraced the poor, the sick, and the outcast. At his death his lifestyle had changed the attitude of many that knew him and he was quickly canonised (proclaimed a saint) by his great admirer Pope Gregory IX.

If I asked you to close your eyes and to think about the saints or who you believe to be a saint, who would come to mind? Probably a few well known names would appear; for me it would have to be Benedict and Thomas, Oscar Romero and Maximilian Kolbe and a few un-canonised saints that I have known throughout my life such as prayerful Betty from the church I attended as a young man. In the Anglican Church we have no mechanism for declaring anyone a saint, although we do have lists of holy men and women and remember them on specific days, like ‘official’ saints: people like Elizabeth Fry, Samuel Seabury and Canon Lawrie of Old St.Paul’s. Ordinary people who did extra-ordinary things and whose actions and lives need to be remembered and celebrated as an encouragement to others today. But what about those, like Betty who do not appear on any list?

You, like me as I said above, will I am sure, have known people that you believe to be a ‘saint of God’. People who for some reason have inspired you by the way they lived their lives. They may even be a template or touchstone for you in the way that you try to live your life. These are ‘personal saints’. One of my personal saints, alongside, is the late Canon Norman Wickham. Norman was for me a great friend, mentor and inspiration. I hope one day to be half the priest he was. Norman was great fun to know and he was wise without being pious or anything less than human. He was a good and faithful priest whose judgement was sound and whose heart was big. I loved him and respected him very much and miss him greatly. I have others too, important people who have touched my life and to whom I remain indebted today. These people for me are just as much saints as those with the official title. None of my personal saints would ever have considered themselves ‘saint-like’ but as St.Luke records those who are blessed are not those we would first expect:

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
   for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
   for you will be filled.'
Blessed are you who weep now,
   for you will laugh.”           Luke 6:20a-21

John Henry Newman would have been one of those people too. He would not have expected to become blessed or on the way to being a saint. He fought too much with the papacy of his day; he was as dissatisfied with the Church of Rome as he was the Church of England. Dogma never sat easily with him and he always wished to question what he was taught or told to believe. In his day John Henry Newman was criticised, reviled and laughed at. He caused quite a furore when he first proposed the idea that theology evolves and develops as culture and time move on. The concept that theology was not static and that we could continually discover and learn more about God was radical, if not almost heretical in the 19th century. What I have always admired in him is that he stuck to his guns and eventually his ideas led to the Second Vatican Council in 1963. The way that the worldwide church has developed over the last 60 years owes much to his thinking. I quote from the biographer John Cornwell:

“The beatification of Cardinal Newman was first formally proposed more than 50 years ago by Mgr Henry Francis Davis of the Diocese of Birmingham, one of Britain's greatest living theologians at that time. Newman's sanctity, an elusive quality after all, may well have been subject to question, if not doubt, down the years, and he has not been a prolific miracle-maker. Yet his vast and continuing contribution to the intellectual and spiritual life of the Church, culminating in the view that he was the architect of the Second Vatican Council, has never been in doubt. As many theologically competent members of the congregation were saying as we spilled out into the bitterly cold afternoon last Sunday: "The wonder is that he wasn't long ago declared a Doctor of the Church."

It seems ironic with hindsight that the very conservative pope Benedict XVI was the one to  beatify this very radical, almost anti-papal priest and less surprising that it was Francis who canonised him.  God certainly has a good sense of humour in the way he gets things done and by whom.

When any human being is declared blessed or made a saint their relics are dug up and put on show – raised to the altar, is the phrase. Relics so the Catholic Church believes, help to spread the presence of the saint. When Newman’s grave was opened there was nothing left, save a scrap of cloth, a wisp of grey hair and the soil in which he was buried:

“At a glorious Mass for the Feast of All Saints … at the Birmingham Oratory all eyes were drawn, again and again, to the glass and gilded-wood casket, the size of a very small doll's house. This ornate box, containing remnants of the earthly existence of John Henry Newman, was set on a velvet-covered stand, or catafalque, to the Gospel side of the sanctuary. As relics they were meagre indeed, hardly "first class" as they say in the reliquary business: a mere wisp of grey hair, a tiny jar of soil from Newman's grave; a titbit of bloodstained linen (a shaving nick perhaps, treasured by a local convent), and a wooden crucifix you could place in the palm of your hand.”

John Cornwell again.

It seems likely that Newman, fearing that someone might try to make him a saint requested that his remains were covered in a mulch to aid decomposition and that they were to remain ‘until the last trump’ with the remains of his long-term companion Fr.Ambrose St.John, who died 30 years before him. Newman wanted to be buried obscurely in the graveyard attached to the Oratory Church on Hagley Road Birmingham and not for his bones to be raised to the altar in a golden reliquary. Well, he almost got his wish and what scraps are on show are probably as much his as they are Fr.Ambrose. So perhaps they are not yet separated.

Whatever John Henry Newman’s beatification says about his life and ministry is, I think, unimportant to the example his life sets for others. He was radical; he was prepared to do that which he believed to be right. His complicated personal life encourages me too. None of us are perfect but his love and commitment to the faith as he discerned it and to his friend and companion is admirable. Newman was a flawed man and he makes a flawed saint, thank God.

Thank God because we need the imperfect to encourage us in our imperfection and we need saints and holy people to inspire us to get on and live the ways of Christ best we can.

The saints are there to guide us and to encourage us in the muddle we call our lives, many of them muddled through, not quite knowing what they were doing but they were assured of the fact that they were trying to live the life that Jesus called then (and us) to live.

All Souls Day 2020

Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.

What are we doing as we commemorate and remember our loved ones departed?

In some expressions of the Christian Church the belief is held that by praying for by name at the altar, those who have died get days or years knocked off their time in Purgatory. Purgatory is deemed to be a place of trial that the soul went to after being judged by God, time was spent their working off one’s sins before being fully cleansed one could enter heaven or if one’s sins were so great to be confined to hell fire. Some Christians remain happy with this concept but it is not one that I subscribe to and I suspect that there are many of you who would not do so either. The God, I have come to believe in is not a God of rejection but one of loving acceptance, who always offers us the chance to repent and enter fully in to his presence without having to jump through hoops or to endure hell fire.

The most helpful comment I have ever heard about what might happen to us on our death was from Canon Jane Millard when she was working as chaplain to those living with HIV and AIDS. She said that in the many journeys to their death, that she had accompanied those dying, she had come to believe that we die at the point that we reach our ultimate human perfection and that when we do so we are too perfect to remain in this world and thus enter in to the presence of God.

The second most helpful comment for me comes from the late Cardinal Basil Hume, who once wrote that he believed that at the point of death we get to whisper into God’s ear all the things we want to tell him, with the opportunity to say sorry for the things we got wrong, knowing that as we do so we are fully accepted and welcomed into his loving embrace. We are given the choice to do this or not. If we choose not to, then by our own choice we spend eternity out with the presence of God. God does not reject us we do it ourselves.

For me it is this act of whispering that takes us to the point of perfection and leads us into our death. These comments have helped me move away from any idea of Purgatory and to hope that in death we come fully into God’s being in ways that we cannot comprehend in this life. The first reading this morning seems to me to back this idea up for it tells us that the dead are:

  • In the hands of God, safe and secure from torment
  • They and we have hope of immortality in God’s being
  • God finds us worthy of his love and that in death we will abide in that love forever.

As helpful as these comments are they do not remove the pain of loss and separation that we feel when our loved ones die. That pain is often raw for a long time and I actually think that one never really gets over it but learns to live with the pain better as time passes. The one thing we never do is to forget those we have loved and lost – they remain alive in our memories, hearts and consciousness. In the SEC revised funeral rite there is a phrase in one of the prayers of farewell that asks that the departed will:

“ on in the hearts and minds, courage and consciences of their family and friends...”

What this means is that every time we think of them be it with tears or with laughter, or when we do something they taught us, we keep their memory alive and in doing so bring ourselves comfort.

There is another funeral prayer that talks of using the time that we have left aright:

“Grant us, Lord, the wisdom and the grace to use aright the time that is left to us here on earth. Lead us to repent of our sins, the evil we have done and the good we have not done; and strengthen us to follow the steps of your Son, in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

I like this prayer for it reminds us that we all pass through this life quite quickly and that we should try and make the most of it as we do so. We need to regularly reflect upon our lives and to give thanks for the good things and to make amends for the things we got wrong wherever we can. It is a prayer that encourages one not to live one’s life with regrets and to get on and do the things we want to do. We cannot change the past but we can apologise for it, we live in the present and we can deal with things as they arise and we can hope for the future and perhaps control it to some extent too.

So returning to my opening question what does All Souls Day say to us?

It tells us to remember our loved ones both with smiles and sorrow and it tells us not to squander the time we have left. I also think it says to us not to worry about what we may or may not leave behind either. For what we leave behind is ultimately decided by those who are left, for it is they who remember what is important to them about us. This does not mean that we should not try to live a good life, far from it in actual fact because I suspect we would all like the memories we leave behind for others to be good ones.

This morning we are remembering with kind thoughts and prayers of thanksgiving those we love and as we gather at the altar the living and the departed are united in Christ and thus we sing God’s praise; ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord’ for we have a generous and ever loving God and he is our thanksgiving.


Oh! On a final note – what is heaven like? It is a question that we could spend the whole of our lives discussing but I once heard someone on ‘Desert Island Discs’ say that he thought heaven was remarkably like this life but that you had had the nose job!


Autumn traditions - a few reflections

Submitted by Dean on Mon, 26/10/2020 - 10:39

Folklore & Traditions

a few reflections by Canon Dean Fostekew

There is, think, something about the darker months of the year that seems to engender the creation of different traditions. Halloween is almost upon us with the more modern and American tradition of ‘trick or treat’. Based on the ancient Scottish and Celtic tradition of Samhain, which pre-dates Christianity, it was a time when our ancestors believed that the veil between the living and the dead was very thin and it was all about remembering and commemorating the dead. It also confronted death with humour and ridicule, to help keep that “other world” at bay. The Christian practice of keeping All Saints and All Souls  Days on the 1st and 2nd November grew out of this tradition with Halloween becoming ‘All Hallows Eve’ - the preparation for the celebration on the 1st November, when a festival Mass would have been said and a party followed.

The 31st October was also the start of the Celtic New Year and not about ‘ghosties and goulies’, however many of you will remember the tradition of  ‘guising’ at Halloween. Guising is all about disguise. On Halloween, when it was believed that spirits could walk among the living, people dressed up to protect themselves. If a spirit came looking for you, it might not recognise you. Guising door-to-door was also a way of building social bonds and relieving community tensions. It was always meant to be a bit of fun. I suspect the ‘trick or treat’ aspect came from this knocking on doors and hoping for a warm welcome. A bit like carol singing, if you performed well you got a treat!

For me, growing up in the South  of England, guising and Halloween was a bit of a mystery when I came to Scotland. At this time of the year I was more familiar with Bonfire Night. I can remember children making ‘guys’ to burn on the bonfire and collecting money to buy fireworks. This was well before Health and Safety crossed anyones mind! On the 5th November the people from my local community gathered in the old kiln area and an enormous bonfire would be lit. As the fireworks filled the skies we would enjoy playing with sparklers and eating jacket potatoes filled with butter that had been cooked in the flames. But, I wonder how many folk associated the fun with the attempt to blow James VI to bits in Parliament in 1605?

As November moves in to December we have more traditions associated with light and the light returning to the dark world. For Christians this was to herald  the coming birthday of Jesus Christ and to celebrate the fact that He is the light of our world. One only has to think of the Advent Ring - perhaps some of you remember its annual creation on Blue Peter? - with an additional candle lit every Sunday in Advent and the final candle lit on Christmas Day. No doubt you’ll hear more about theses traditions in the coming weeks.

What are the traditions you most remember associated with this time of the year?