A bird’s eye view

Despite attempts to discourage them, a number of pigeons make their home in the tower at Hexham Abbey. Here is what one observant pigeon might have witnessed last night…

It is Thursday evening and my peace and quiet is yet again interrupted by the deafening noise of the bells ringing. These Hexham Abbey Ringers are such an active ringing guild I really don’t know why I stay in this tower with the constant racket and the ever present danger of getting smacked by a 2 ton bell swinging by at incredible speeds. Most of the regulars are here tonight – a good turnout it appears, probably about 15 humans. The practice gets underway at 7:30pm and tonight I heard them saying they are preparing for a striking contest this Saturday near Durham. Since I’ve been living in this tower for sometime I have learned that means a contest to see which ringing band can ring through complicated bell changes with the least number of errors. I am proud that my hometown ringers won this contest last year and I hope they bring the trophy back again.

But what is this? A new face? A tiny yellow Peugeot pulls up, so small I can’t see how they managed to make it four doors, and out climbs a tall lanky guy who I’ve not seen here regularly. Does he know how to get up to the tower during the practice? The door on the ground floor is locked. Let’s see if he knows the secret.

He does! He comes up to the door and reaches up to the door frame to push a small, unlabeled doorbell button. I hear the familiar chime of the doorbell in the ringing room. It startles one of the ringers who is sitting out intently watching others ringers practice for the contest. She gets up and reaches for a small, shiny key that I’ve often coveted for my nest. Then she slips out of the room, up a small spiral staircase, and opens a tiny trapdoor onto the edge of the roof of the abbey. It is good thing she isn’t afraid of heights! From the roof she tosses the key down, down, down onto the Abbey lawn where the new man collects it.

He seems to know what he is doing, or pretends like he does at least. He unlocks the door, closes it behind him, and begins the journey up into the tower. He first climbs the ancient staircase in the Abbey sanctuary up to the second floor landing. From there he opens a small wooden door signed, “Ringers In” and then turns and closes it behind him. He then climbs a tiny spiral staircase struggling to avoid hitting his head on the steps as he goes up. He reaches a passageway and joins the heating pipes and thousands of footsteps before him that have crossed the tiny walkway along to the tower. He is obviously still new because he pauses halfway along to look out over the open railing at the dark, quiet, and majestic abbey sanctuary which now lies below him.

He can hear the ringing bells louder now I’m sure – they are deafening me! He makes his way to a second spiral staircase in the tower and climbs the final steps into the ringing room where he sees 10 ringers calmly concentrating on pulling their ropes in a complicated pattern and order. He plops down onto an old pew to sit and watch, hands the key back, and rests from the effort of climbing the all those steps.

I wonder what he is up to? Now that he is closer I do recognize him. He has come a couple of times before to watch the ringers, and probably as much for the conversation and pint of beer that they enjoy together after ringing at a local pub. But tonight his face has a different look about it. Is it fear?

After a few minutes the active ringers take a break. The loop up their ropes in a specific way to keep them from trailing on the floor and step back to chat with each other. One of the most experience ringers, a man they call Andy, then gestures to the tall new man to come and join him at bell #4. I think the new man is going to try to ring it! This is going to be amusing. It always enjoyable to watch new people try to ring bells. They think it looks so easy and then find…

He seems to know a little bit about how to hold the rope and where to put his hands on the sally, the cloth covered part of the rope. He must have had a lesson or two already. But I’ve never heard the bell ring before so he must have done it with the clapper immobilized. This will be his first real ring I’d guess.

He reaches up and grasps the sally. Then gingerly pulls down on it. As he pulls I look over and see the bell move from its resting position with the mouth up and begin to rapidly pick up momentum as it swings down and head back up to the 12 o’clock position again. I can tell right away he didn’t pull down on the sally correctly as the bell doesn’t have quite enough pull to make it all the way back up to the top. He is probably afraid of holding on too long because he’s had his hand burned by the rope as it suddenly jumps up at a certain point when the bell swings around. It has rung once, and now twice, as it comes back down again from about 11 o’clock and heads down and up towards 1 o’clock position. But he has a problem already because the bell is falling – it isn’t making the full rotation. So he has to pull on the rope much more quickly and harder than he should. And the bell is ringing faster than it should. I look out the window and I’m sure I see a passerby wince as they wonder why the bell is tolling so rapidly as if it is in some kind of race against time.

But he keeps trying. He gets is going a bit better for a few rings and then things kind of fall apart again. I hear the excellent teacher say, “Don’t look up.” Then, “keep your hands together.” “It is falling again, pull it harder.” “Not too hard, you’ve hit the stay.” (I see he has tipped the bell a bit too far this time and it gone past the correct 12 o’clock position). “The rope is slipping through your left hand, move it up.” “Pull straight down, not out in front.” “It is falling again and ringing too fast.” “Okay, okay, give it me now.” And mercifully the teacher takes the bell and with one stroke has it back under control. I don’t know why my heart is beating as hard as the learner but it certainly made me nervous to watch!

The other ringers have all been circled around watching the newbie. I’m sure that helped his nerves! They makes lots of friendly comments about how well he is coming along but everyone knows that he has a LONG way to go! After all, some of the ringers have been at it for forty, fifty, even sixty years!

The newbie sits down ashen faced, sweating, and breathing hard. Telltale signs of adrenaline rushing through his system.

During the course of the rest of the evening they give him two more chances to make a racket with the bell. There are moments where he seems to manage but much of the time he is clearly trying to keep all the different parts of the ringing straight in his head and not panic – hard to do with a massive bell swinging up and down over and over. I’d say he had the bell under control maybe a third of the time and the bell was controlling him the rest. All I know is that I am going to stay away from that thing when he tries to ring it!

But as they close the practice by hoisting all the ropes back up so they can’t accidentally be touched and head out to the Globe for a drink, the newbie seems pleased. He has officially rung his first real bell in one of the finest towers in northern England.

– The Pigeon of Hexham Tower


Cuddy’s Ducks

I have been reading a book about St. Cuthbert called “Fire of the North” by David Adam. St. Cuthbert was a very significant monk and pastor in Northern England in the 7th century who has an enduring legacy in Northumbria still today. I am also reading a book about the Lindisfarne Gospels – a beautiful illuminated (illustrated) document containing one of the most authentic versions of the Vulgate (Latin) Gospels and the oldest surviving English translation of the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It was created at Lindisfarne (Holy Island) shortly after St. Cuthbert died on the Island. I hope to write more about him as the thoughts from these books have a chance to percolate in my head.

But today I came across an account about St. Cuthbert that fits well my experience on sabbatical so far. David Adam writes that the monk Cuthbert took to befriending eider ducks that would visit him while he lived in solitude out in the North Sea off the eastern coast on Inner Farne Island; a few miles from Lindisfarne and the priory. Younger members of the monastery community took to calling them Cuddy’s (Cuthbert’s) Ducks. Cuthbert explained his interest in the ducks by saying,

“We lose our relationship with creation because we have lost sight of the creator. If only we loved the creator we would learn to love his creation. How can you say you love the creator if you do not enjoy his creation? I fear those who can divide their religion from the rest of their work or lives. If you cannot understand that deep [of the sea], how can you understand the deep that you say is God?”

A number of people when they hear we are on sabbatical in England ask if we are studying anything or writing a book. We usually respond: “Not formally, we are really just living.” And yet, even though we aren’t studying anything in the traditional sense like taking a class or writing a book, I have found myself learning a great deal.

I have been learning the roads of Northumberland and the North Pennines on my bike. Each ride I do is quite an experience as I encounter cows that have escaped from their fields, pheasant and grouse warbling at me to move along from their feeding grounds, roads that suddenly end when they appear to go further on a map, rain that pours from the heavens and sprays up from the road, and all manner of other adventures.

I have just started learning how to ring a bell at Hexham Abbey. It is MUCH harder than it looks! Much! It is also a great deal of fun and a totally new experience that engages all my concentration, and to a surprising extent, my muscles.

Trying to keep the bell and rope under control!

I have been hanging around the Bike Shop here in Hexham. Though I haven’t done a lot of work on bikes, I have built up one bike from out of the box and have been observing all manner of random repairs on every conceivable type of bike from kids bikes to brand new $4500 custom-made mountain bikes. I’ve been around when the owner places orders with distributors and have observed him juggle the everyday mixture of answering phone calls, helping customers who stop in, making repairs, and shelving inventory, all while trying to find a moment for a cup of soup for lunch.

I have surprised myself with my interest in the depth of history that exists in this country. This past weekend we enjoyed having Hannah, a student member at Pres House, with us for a couple of nights. We visited Housesteads Roman Fort and walked along Hadrian’s Wall, envisioning what life would have been like in the 2nd-4th centuries when the wall was built and just as Christianity began spreading throughout the Roman Empire.

Hannah and our girls standing on Hadrian's Wall which heads off in the distance. Hadrian's Wall was the northern most edge of the Roman Empire and is just a few miles from where we live in Hexham.

So, no I am not studying anything in the traditional sense. But I am learning a great deal from my “Cuddy’s Ducks”. And I am finding it very refreshing and invigorating. It is in the midst of this varied living that I am experiencing God’s presence anew. I resonate with St. Cuthbert and hope that as I come to understand the depth of life around me in new ways I will further come to understand the depth that is God.

– Mark

Football (not the American kind)

One of our new friends here in Hexham is newly retired. A couple of nights ago we were having a pint and he commented that he doesn’t know how he ever had time to work he has been so busy enjoying retirement. I feel a little the same about being on sabbatical! This week has been full of bike rides, eating meals as a family, visiting my grandmothers, reading various books, journaling, hanging out at the local bike shop, beginning bell-ringing lessons (more to come on that later), and today, my first official British football match. The days just fly by. How did I ever have time to work?! Well, I’ll figure that out again in a couple of months.

Thanks to another new friend here I attended today’s game of Newcastle United against Stoke. My father grew up attending Magpie matches. Today’s game was especially exciting because with their 3-0 win Newcastle moved up to the fourth spot in the Premier League (England’s top league). If they can hold onto that spot over the remaining four games of the season they will enter the very prestigious European Champions League. The final game of the Champions League is the most watched annual sporting event in the world.

Throughout the match I was struck by how focused the experience is on the actual football. There is no scoreboard in the 50,000+ seat St. James Park (Sports Direct Arena) where Newcastle plays. Not only is there no jumbo-tron to watch instant replays over and over – there is no scoreboard of any kind. There is simply a small game clock in one corner of the stadium. You better keep track of the goals yourself or you’ll be out of the loop. There is also no half-time show, no t-shirts being shot into stands, no music, and no vendors in the stands. There is only football. And today, the football was brilliant.

– Mark

The Hazards of Preaching

I am a petite person, 5′ 3″ to be exact, and it’s been a half-joke that I need a step-stool at Pres House when I preach so that people can see me over the pulpit. Well, this past week we visited Salisbury Cathedral where I discovered one possible solution to my vertical challenge:

Ha! Well, in fact Pres House used to have a pulpit that you had to climb up into, though certainly nowhere as ornate, impressive, and large as this one. However, I’m definitely glad I don’t have to preach from this pulpit—too intimidating for my taste!

One of the things I most eagerly anticipated about being on Sabbatical was the break from preaching. I have a love-hate relationship with preaching. On the one hand, I have grown, been stretched, and experienced God’s grace through the ministry of preaching. On the other, I have spent countless nights hunched over my computer in an agonizing and seemingly futile effort towards creating a meaningful message. It’s a crass image, but what I often compare sermon writing to is being constipated—it’s uncomfortable, a struggle for every single word, and often leaves you exhausted with not much to show for it.

Perhaps that’s a bit graphic, but you get the point. In the past couple of years, I frequently wondered why anyone would think a pastor could possibly have enough interesting and worthwhile thoughts to share week after week, year after year. It was a sign of my own fatigue and need to be reminded of the true nature of worship.

Preaching, and leading worship for that matter, is a risky affair. I don’t know what all the symbolism means in this imposing pulpit at Salisbury, but I do wonder if that wooden “crown” that sits atop it is to keep the head of the person who occupies it from floating away or getting higher than it should. Worship is so much more than the words that pour forth, the music played, and the prayers offered.  It’s hazardous for the person who regularly climbs up there because it can be easy to forget the dramatic story they are presiding over. As Annie Dillard says,

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” —  Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters

It has been good to step back from the role of preaching and reflect upon this. Perhaps when I return from Sabbatical I should start wearing a helmet and armor! But don’t count on me using a step-stool.



Today my daughters went back to school after a two-week Easter holiday. One of the things I love about being on sabbatical is that I can pick them up from school and then spend the afternoon sitting with them around the kitchen table eating a snack and talking about their day. Today my eldest had a project where she was supposed to put various world historical events in timeline order from the Ancient Egyptians to the Normans (this is English history!) to World War II. As we were talking about how the Egyptians built pyramids 5000 years ago we got to reflecting on the fact that Stonehenge, which we just saw a few days ago, is also that old.

Of all of our activities in the south of England, visiting Stonehenge was one of my favorites. I wasn’t expecting this necessarily. It is a bit like going to a movie that everyone has seen and everyone is talking about and you can’t see how it will live up to the hype. There are endless numbers of tour buses coming and going from London bringing people from all over the world to see stones standing in a field. And our first glimpse of Stonehenge was quite anti-climactic. We were just about to reach our bed and breakfast after a very long day of driving in constant rain when suddenly off to the side of the road was the iconic Stonehenge. The most striking thing about that first glimpse was the brightly clad guard standing vigil in the rain to deter any shenanigans from happening in the night.

But the next morning when we visited and listened to the audio tour I found myself experiencing the same sense of awe that countless others have experienced over the years, no make that millenia. And then the following evening we joined about 20 other people for a Stone Circle Tour inside the stones – a tour that we booked about two months earlier. That evening the light and sky were spectacular. It rained for a few minutes of our hour spent in the stones but the clouds and setting sun were a marvelous backdrop to the massive, silent, stones. Up close we could see the more than sixty forms of lichen that populate the stones and give them extra character. At the bottom of this post is a short video montage of some of the photos we took.

It took an estimated thirty million hours of human labor to erect Stonehenge. Work on the project took place on and off over a period of almost a thousand years. They somehow moved stones weighing as much as forty tons from miles away to the site on Salisbury Plain and got them to stand up on end. Then they hoisted more enormous stones on top and connected them with joints to form a continuous, level lintel around the circle. This picture depicts what it looked like when fully complete:

Nobody really knows why it was built and what it was used for. But in all likelihood it had something to do with a people seeking meaning beyond themselves. That is a humbling reminder. For thousands of years people have been striving to know and understand what is beyond their everyday human experience. Standing amidst the monumental work that is Stonehenge made me feel a bit lazy. Sure I spent a few years at divinity school, but how hard do I really work to seek meaning beyond myself? And will my efforts stand the test of time?

– Mark

Easter in England

Happy Easter from England!

One of our hopes for coming to England was to be able to immerse ourselves in ancient traditions and places after spending much of the past 7 years of lives creating new things. This morning we celebrated the resurrection of Christ at Hexham Abbey, a place where Christians have gathered for worship for since 674. The Anglican (Church of England) service was very traditional and took place in the great nave of this ancient church. We enjoyed it, but we did also miss worship at Pres House (especially giving and receiving large chunks of bread during Communion!).

Easter is a curious “holiday” in the England as it is in America. The Abbey was packed with people. Many I suspect, only attend church on Christmas and Easter. Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the Anglican church, said this week:

“I must admit that I don’t lose too much sleep about people turning up at  Christmas and Easter who are a bit vague about what exactly it is about. And that people do come in at those moments and let the story wash over them and think what it might mean to orientate your life somehow in the light of those extraordinary things, well, that I welcome.”

I wholeheartedly agree with the Archbishop on this point. God’s grace is bigger than our record of church attendance or even our understanding of the faith. But I do find it curious that Easter bunnies and Easter chocolate plays a much larger role in our lives than the story of God’s marvelous defeat of death.

English people love their chocolate. Imagine the cheese aisle (aisles really) in Wisconsin. Then add the bratwurst aisle and maybe the beer aisles as well. That gives you an idea of what the chocolate aisles look like in Tesco, the large grocery story in Hexham. It seems at times that the main purpose of this season is to engage in the exchange of countless boxes of huge chocolate Easter eggs which are always accompanied by some other form of chocolate. We have received many of them (just look at the picture below!). And we have given them too.

I like chocolate. Particularly English chocolate. And I like the fun celebration of Easter eggs and bunnies and such. But in my life I don’t want the true joy of Easter to be drowned out by rivers of chocolate. It isn’t easy. Humans are very good at replacing meaning with…well, chocolate.

And so it was a blessing to come down to the breakfast table this morning to this:

My oldest daughter made it at school and hid it in her room all week to give to us this morning. The girls go to a Roman Catholic school here in Hexham. It is a beautiful reminder of the light of Easter that breaks forth in to our lives and world. And that is even sweeter than chocolate.

Tomorrow we embark on a week-long trip to southern England to visit Salisbury, Stonehenge, Bath, Oxford, and the Cotswolds. We are looking forward to spending some time in a part of the country that we’ve never seen.

– Mark