Tag Archives: Sins and sinners

For all

In the early days of my ministry it was my privilege to live and work in Northumberland, a beautiful and interesting part of the North East of England. Our manse and my principle charge were situated in the small, friendly town of Haltwhistle nestling in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall, a good place for a young rookie minister, providing the learning experience so essential in shaping a long-term future pastoral ministry. There could not be a more friendly, helpful, encouraging and loving folk and their contribution to that learning experience is something for which I continue to be grateful. There was a lot to learn, in spite of three years in College and three years as a probationer minister. There was one thing I knew nothing about until I went to Haltwhistle, and it was a lesson I found difficult to execute throughout my forty-one years’ service.

Haltwhistle lies on one of the main routes between the City of Durham and the Scottish border – why highlight Durham? There is a prison in Durham and there are always guests of Her Majesty who are Scots. On release from their internment, some will head for Haltwhistle and some were chronic con men anxious to prove that their skills were not in need of repair. I never realised how many of the boys’ grannies were dying and the poor lad did not have enough money left to get to her quickly. Like some other discharges they had come out of jail the day before and spent the evening in a pub and, becoming a bit tipsy, they were robbed. They were begging for their fare, a story oft-repeated. Many a time I felt guilty when I thought of some of the Teachings of Jesus. There was another reason for stopping at Haltwhistle: two blocks up the street from our church there was a doss-house, used by some of the Durham men, but more so by men who had made a wreck of their lives, mainly from the abuse of alcohol. They lost their allowance chitty or their pension books. They had to go to Carlisle to sort things out but did not have their fare. As I think of this pastor’s dilemma I can only recall one occasion when, unwittingly, I turned down a genuine case of need. I did not sleep well for a bit!

By Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) (Strand Magazine) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Sidney Paget (1860 – 1908) (Strand Magazine) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

He came into the church, bearded, dirty and dishevelled – a gentleman of the road. He bowed facing the communion table, genuflected and selected a pew. Brother, you have come to the wrong place, I thought to myself as I continued with my sermon. In all probability he had already visited the Roman Catholic chapel before he decided to present himself as a Methodist. Success at last, the missionary minded member of the congregation fondly imagined! Alas, before I had finished saying the benediction he was out of the door (he forgot to genuflect) and, as I imagined, I had misjudged his motive for the visit. However my imagining was short-lived. There he was standing outside by the door with cap in hand. Within minutes, the caretaker appeared on the scene holding a bucket of hot water with a liberal dash of disinfectant, and proceeded to wash the pew on which our visitor had sat. We do not want to have to mix with his kind again, the gesture seemed unmistakably to imply. He was like the disciples of Jesus who decided there were people who belonged to the wrong set and who were to be prevented from meeting Jesus, or from whom they must protect him – undesirable people. They had still to understand the purpose of Jesus’ mission; still to learn, as Charles Wesley did, that it is For all; for all, the Saviour died. People pointed at Jesus because of the company he kept – this man welcomes outcasts and even eats with sinners, they protested. To which Jesus replied, I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners. Search the Scriptures, and we will search in vain – we will not find any mention of hot water or disinfectant.

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Bonfires

Picture: John Marsh

Picture: John Marsh

When it came to Guy  Fawkes night, mine might have been thought to be a deprived childhood. As a boy I we did not have fireworks and were warned not to go near a bonfire: the first we probably could not afford (almost forgot the sparklers!); the second could be dangerous. There were no organised and supervised bonfires nearby. It was not until I went to college in Leeds that I had my first experience of a real Guy  Fawkes night. It was a tradition at Headingley College to set up a huge fire on the football pitch behind the chapel. There were a lot of broken tree branches around the college and hedge clippings provided by the College handyman. On the week before the event, studies and cupboards, wardrobes and drawers were plundered and anything that had outlived its usefulness was bundled down to the site of the fire. And added to the junk, maybe, were some manuscripts of sermons that failed to fire a much prayed-for mighty converting response!

We always had a Guy, and each year our Guy was made to represent someone against whom the students had a grouse. One year it was an official of a Temperance organisation. His offence was to be quoted in the press claiming (erroneously!) that the students of Headingley College drank beer at the end of term Christmas party. (Tut! Tut!) The College debating group ensured that he was duly tried before a jury and sentenced. The accused was always found to be guilty – there was no other option. It then became the College Constable’s duty (the biggest student) to deliver the prisoner to be consumed in the flames. Outrageous conduct, totally inappropriate for theological students was the judgement of those who did not approve. (Spoil sports.) Grown-up school boys we may have been, but it was jolly good fun and, better still, a more relaxed setting for closer bonding. And it gave us the chance to let off steam before Autumn Term exams. It also served a useful purpose getting rid of the rubbish that gathered round the College. (Not a reference to the football team). Those days have gone, I suspect never to return. Sadly, present day students, mostly older, married and non-residential, miss out on this crazy diversion from the regular curriculum.

All very interesting, but I guess you may not expect the eccentric activities of former students training for ordained ministry to be the topic of this piece and you would be right. Yes, there is another reason for my nostalgic skip back in time. November 5th, Bonfire Night, brings to mind something of greater significance. As the days shorten and the nights lengthen and there is nothing worthwhile on the telly, we could spend an interesting hour or so of an evening taking our own trip down Memory Lane. I am sure each one would uncover a rich treasure store of memories, a collection of remembrances, upon which we look back with mixed reactions. Bonfire Night prompts me to suggest that it might be no bad thing for us to ransack the drawers and cupboards of memory, first to be sure that God is given the thanks He is due for the wonderful gift of life which is His to give. Moreover, to see if there is any trash that needs to be taken out and burned. Memory plays strange tricks on us, persuades us to hoard all manner of rubbish: unless we are careful we may discard many precious things. Someone has said, Memory is a crazy witch, she treasures bits of rags and straw and throws her jewels out of the window. (Oliver Wendell Holmes.) If that was memory’s worst offence we might forgive her. But so many of the bits and pieces we decide to keep are like acid which, if we hang on to them long enough, can eat away at our soul. It was a wise man who prayed, Lord, help me to remember what I ought not to forget, and to forget what I ought not to remember. Think, for instance, of the blessing it would be to make a bonfire of the old failures, of secret things we would not want our best friend to know, the hurts caused us by unthinking, inconsiderate colleagues, the unkindness inflicted of all places within family, even in church. The list of mistakes, failure, sins is by no means exhausted; the longer they linger the more bitter and poisonous they threaten to become. So, let us get rid of them – make a bonfire of them. Life can be less burdened and much happier and if conscience remains tainted and there is reason for guilt to persist, there is a voice that speaks with supreme and godly authority and assures us: Your sins are forgiven.