Saturday, 25 March 2017

Mothering

Today is Mothering Sunday, often called Mothers’ Day; for my nephew who manages a hotel, one of the busiest days in the year for their restaurant. My mother gets cross if I haven’t managed to find a card for her that says Mothering Sunday instead of Mother’s Day. She likes to keep to the traditional name, but it isn’t just that. Today isn’t just about being thankful for our own mums, whether they’re still with us or not, it also celebrates mothering in many different forms, our responsibility for one another, and the work we do to guide and protect one another, and the love we share.

Many of our best loved hymns celebrate God’s gift of love, and some of them we’ve sung this evening. St Paul’s wonderful words in I Corinthians 13 tell us that love is the best and most enduring thing we can possess; St John reminds us in several places that love is of the very nature of God; in 1 John 4 verse 16 we read “God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” The word mothering speaks of a human love that reflects the love of God, a love that will cherish, nurture, build and transform.

Stafford is my home town, and my brother’s recently enrolled me in a Facebook site called “Stafford Remembered”. I’ve spent more time than I should at my computer keyboard lately looking over the fascinating old pictures posted there, and shared memories. Things from way back in my childhood became sharp in my mind as old photos triggered them. A picture of the old Stafford Market reminded me of a time when I can’t have been more than four years old. It was a Saturday, and I’d gone to town shopping with Mum. We were going into the market, through the arcade of shops in the old market entrance.

I was supposed to be holding on to the handle of my brother’s pushchair, but I let go. Town was fun, and I wanted to look around. Some of the windows in the arcade were very reflective - so I stopped to look at myself and pull a few ugly faces. Maybe if I made a really ugly face I might crack the window - Mum used to say that an ugly face would crack mirrors. But then I remembered Mum saying that if I pulled a horrible face I’d stick like that if the wind changed, so I stopped.

I stopped and looked around; and Mum and the pushchair with my brother in it were nowhere to be seen. And suddenly all the people around me seemed very big and strange. Ahead of me were the doors into the market hall. Mum must have gone in, but I couldn’t see her. It was all so crowded. I can still remember the feeling of panic, and I think I probably started to cry.

Whether Mum heard me crying or just noticed I wasn’t there I don’t know, but suddenly there she was. So I stopped crying, though I soon started again when Mum told me off. What she said was, “Don’t you ever go off again like that!” That seemed unfair when really she’d gone off and I'd stayed where I was! (Though I know what she meant.)

So there’s one memory of mothering. I’ve plenty of good memories of course: being cuddled and loved, getting presents, going to nice places, and things like being allowed to scrape out the mixing bowl when Mum made cakes on a weekend. But I do also remember getting into trouble and being told off when I was found out, and maybe being sent to bed early. And that is also mothering, because mothering involves both love and guidance, and guidance requires discipline and correction, from time to time at least. To love someone is to want the best for them, and that sometimes needs some hard words.

Tough love, I suppose. But mothering is also tough on the person doing it. It involves sacrifice; sometimes to provide for others you must do without yourself. One old man I used to visit years ago used to tell me how in hard times his mother would claim she’d already eaten at suppertime, when in fact she was doing without so that everyone else could have enough. Paul writes of love that “there is no limit to its faith, its hope, its endurance.”

So for me Mothering Sunday commemorates not only our actual mothers but all the ways in which we experience a love in our lives that conveys and reflects the love of God: a love that protects and provides, that nurtures and disciplines, that helps us to become ourselves, and that encourages us to grow, to discover and to dare. Love that is costly and sacrificial, that reaches our and gives what can hardly be afforded; and love that allows us to find our own wings, and to make our own way, that doesn’t imprison us, but sets us free.

The greatest of all symbols of love is the cross, for it is at the cross that Jesus shows us most fully what divine love is. The sacrifice he makes there both convicts us of our sin and liberates us from the sentence of death our sin brings upon us. On the cross Jesus gives all he has, all he is, and even as he hangs there dying he continues to care for those dearest to him.

Mothering Sunday is worth more than a card and a bunch of flowers. I’m so grateful to those who’ve mothered me over the years, not only my own Mum but many other special people. In their love I’ve been helped to discern and discover the love of God. I hope I can play my part in doing the same.

Random Thoughts

Yesterday nationally was a day of reflection on the events at Westminster earlier in the week, including the question of why it is that people should be radicalised into what is a perversion of the true tenets of Islam. For many, including the attacker last Wednesday, this radicalising process began in prison, something that needs to be more fully understood I think.  I find myself reflecting on this simple truth, though - that for every cruel and perverted act of terrorism there are hundreds of acts of heroism, self-sacrifice, simple kindness; and the reason by many of these go unreported is that this is so fundamental to what it is to be human that we more or less take them for granted.

The terrorist turned peacemaker Martin McGuinness has been laid to rest. This was a flawed man in many ways, and I can understand those who, like Lord Tebbitt, continue to mistrust him and his motives. But others who have met him and know him have noted the completeness of his conversion, the genuine closeness between him and Dr Ian Paisley in government, and his espousal of policies that have helped poor Protestant communities. Whatever his initial motivation, the peace process in Northern Ireland could not have begun without his active involvement, and for that we must be grateful, while hoping that from the present situation of political uncertainty in the province a new phase of collaborative government soon emerges.

Brexit will have an impact on that, of course, as on much else, and the trigger will be pulled by Mrs May next Wednesday. I remain firmly of the opinion that the UK should have remained in the EU, and angry that a simple vote after a deeply flawed campaign (on both sides, admittedly) will bring us out. My feelings now though are "let's just get on with it". I regret our disengagement, but it's not the end of the world. We now have to press on and find new ways of still being part of Europe, and of working creatively with the nations of the EU and those beyond. I have my doubts about the ability and competence of the present administration to achieve this, and am aware too that there are parties within the EU who will want to in some way "punish" the UK for leaving; but I hope and pray that goodwill and a constructive attitude will prevail - or at any rate, an honest assessment of the extent to which we and the EU still need each other.

On a lighter note, our garden was full of siskins this morning. We won't keep these delightful birds with us much longer, especially as the weather brightens and warms up, though one or two pairs will breed locally - we generally get a few young birds looking in through the summer. It's a real joy to see them, though they like most finches are messy eaters and leave quite a mess under our feeders.

I've been taking pictures of some of our spring flowers, so here's one to finish with . . .


Friday, 24 March 2017

Great Spotted

It's time this blog had another go at being a daily record. I had an interesting day yesterday doing chaplaincy at Hereford Cathedral. It's such a lovely building, and visitors receive a very friendly welcome. A lot of folk from around Ely and Cambridge were there yesterday, and I met others from Leicester, Birmingham, Kent, and a family from Australia. Prayers of course focused on the sad events in London on Wednesday, and on victims of terrorism and violence in so many parts of our world. Unusually, and perhaps because of London, the cathedral was completely still for every occasion of hourly prayers.



Back home for a good practice with Guilsfield Singers. Only two more weeks till our concert on 8th April. We need to sell every last ticket to stand a chance of breaking even, so I hope we do. The pieces (Stainer's "Daughter of Jairus", Parry's "I was Glad" and the Schubert Mass in G) are lovely. A few of us wandered across to the King's Head afterwards - Peter H has a plan to make this a regular occurrence, I think.



Although this is really my Thursday blog, I'm writing it on Friday morning, and I've just been out to replenish the feeders in our back garden. Sharp and cold - and in the cold air, a sudden drumming. I've heard our local great spotted woodpecker drumming at the other end of our road (or, to be strict, the woodland we back on to), but he clearly has now found a good sounding branch in the great oak more or less just behind us. When he is drumming from somewhere that close, it is an incredibly loud sound! And it will carry a good long way. The bird itself flew to the smaller oak immediately behind us, then off in to the back woods. Great spotted's are regular visitors to the fat chunks in one of our feeders, and a couple of local blackbirds have obviously been watching, because they are giving it a try now, and succeeding, albeit in a rather clumsy fashion. I can't imagine them drumming, though (not would it be possible, as a woodpecker's head and bill are specially structured).

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Red Kite

(A poem in progress)

Brindley’s canal follows the contours
through a mix of greys and browns, yards and workshops,
half hidden behind tangled branches,
under a sky the colour of stovepots, the sun well hidden.
A spit of rain across my face has the feel of December
though the calendar tells me that it’s April.
Nothing much moves; the fishing sites along the towpath
are all deserted.  Blackthorn blossom on a stretch of scrubby hedge
is discoloured, dirty, the petals past their sell-by.

Those yards and buildings still in use
all look the other way, this canal is no longer relevant.
And many of them are merely derelict, shabby remnants
of the days when industry still meant bashing metal.
A cat stalks across one yard, intent on something I can’t see.
My eye is caught by a flash of yellow - coltsfoots,
rushing into flower well ahead of their leaves,
poke their scaly stems up through brick dust,
defiantly insisting that even under these clouds it has to be spring.

Up ahead of me a tangle of metal: pipes and girders
are twisted and turned to create a lattice tower,
seeming almost to touch the clouds; at their base
the bright green of the new growth of nettles.
Whatever this thing was, it no longer functions:
the adjoining buildings are roofless. But then, out of nowhere
it seems, a lifting, rolling, tumbling life force
in a russet red to defy the dark and grime of this day:
a kite, display flying for the sheer hell of it.

Or so it seems to me; the length of each wing amazes,
the fork of the tail, the way the bird tumbles
through the lattice, seems to be just falling, then recovers,
lifts back, sweeps away, banks round, returns.
I for my part cannot move. In the remains of old industry,
a new and dancing endeavour; and, as if in answer,
the clouds shift and in a burst of sunlight
the twisted metal itself catches fire, seems to dance.
Then all is still; but somewhere, a robin sings.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Ravens

When we did the Big Garden Birdwatch in January our star bird was the raven (well, join star bird with the goldcrest, perhaps. We had hardly started our hour when there was an immense commotion, which turned out to be a fight between a raven and two carrion crows who clearly believed it to be trespassing on their space. For a moment or two twigs and branches were flying about in all directions in the great oak just behind our garden.

I’ve written before about the crow family - we get them all (apart from the chough, which is found along coastlines, and the hooded crow, the carrion crow’s northern counterpart, which doesn’t stray this far south). Carrion crows and jackdaws are always around our garden, generally in groups of three or four or so, though the other evening at sunset quite a substantial band of jackdaws came across, chattering away.  Magpies are often about, jays much more rarely, though one was standing on our shed roof one morning as I opened our curtains. Rooks are country birds, so not regularly to be found on our estate, but sometimes wandering past.

But we do get ravens, and I’m delighted at that, since they aren’t really town birds, even though you may well associate them with the Tower of London. Despite its reputation as a bird of ill omen, the ravens at the Tower are highly valued; if there are not at least six ravens in residence, the monarchy will fall, or so it’s said. They are pinioned birds, but even so they do occasionally stray off, and one had to be sacked for eating TV aerials.

In reality, wild ravens are birds of wild places, resident in mountainous regions and nesting on cliffs, and in quarries. They rarely stray far from their breeding range. However they were historically much more widespread, and it was human persecution that drove them into the wilder parts of our land. There are signs now that they are spreading. They eat carrion but also take small birds and mammals, and will forage for eggs, insects, small reptiles - they have a varied diet.

Ravens usually nest on ledges, but will sometimes build a large untidy nest high in a tree. They raise one brood, and start early in the year, building in February. There are four to six eggs, incubated by the female while the male keeps her supplied with food. The chicks fledge in about five to six weeks.

Ravens are very black, and very big. They are the largest perching bird species, and are found in many parts of the world. In flight, they are recognised by their large and fingered wings, and their diamond-shaped tail - and by their high flying and love of thermals. I recently saw one high above our garden, soaring with buzzards, who now and again attacked it in a desultory way, a turning of the tables perhaps, as buzzards themselves are often mobbed by smaller crows and jackdaws.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Woman at the Well

Some thoughts for this Sunday (Holy Trinity, Leighton, and Newtown Methodist Church) - Lent 3:

Well, another week of changing shapes and shifting alliances in the world of politics. We’re ready to begin the formal process of leaving the EU; some folk are rejoicing, while others are horrified and feel disenfranchised and ignored. As expected, the SNP have called for a new referendum on independence; as expected, Mrs May has said no. I doubt there’s much stomach for indyref2 among the Scottish electorate, but maybe the SNP does have a point: the ground has changed. Meanwhile Sinn Fein’s new leader is calling for a new vote on the unification of Ireland, though I presume someone has to form a government in Stormost first. Is the break-up of what we hoped might remain a United Kingdom just round the corner? And will right-wing popularism start winning polls in Europe?

Immigration has been the fuel for much of this. It’s a growing cause of concern across much of the world, and certainly has been here in the UK. It was probably the decisive factor in the Brexit vote - certainly Mr Farage thinks so. Alongside that, there are growing ethnic and cultural tensions in most societies, and they’re being exploited in some places of power, by the current resident of the White House, for one. Wherever different peoples dwell in the same land there’ll be tensions I suppose, especially when language, skin colour or religious faith divide them. Many of the minority peoples of our world experience persecution: I can think of the small Hindu and Christian minorities in Pakistan, the tribal Karen people in Burma who even under the new democracy still seem to get a raw deal, Coptic Christians in Egypt, Muslims in the Philippines, Christians in Indonesia. Just a few from a very long list.

Religion was a big factor in the simmering tensions that existed between Samaritans and Jews at the time of Jesus. They were close neighbours who worshipped the same God and claimed Abraham as their father. But they worshipped in different ways and different places. They wouldn’t even share the same drinking vessels. The boundaries between them were very real, and taken very seriously. But in today's long gospel reading we see Jesus cross that line.

In fact he crossed more than the line of race and religion; his disciples would have been shocked to see him talking to a woman, alone and unchaperoned, even before they realised that she was a Samaritan. And I imagine that if they'd known about her many marriages and her unconventional household they'd have been appalled at that too.

The traditional collect set for today speaks about 'the way of the cross'. (I’ll use it as part of our intercessions.) The Way of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem traces the traditional route of the journey of Christ through the streets and the jeering crowds to Calvary. But we can think of Jesus walking the way of the cross throughout his ministry - an unsafe and unconventional journey on which he challenged the accepted status quo. He didn't teach in a safe and conventional way. He didn’t teach like rabbis were supposed to teach; and he made time for the sort of people no good rabbi would even look at, let alone teach.

In doing this he faced risk: on his journey, the risk of being misunderstood, rejected, and held in disrepute. And at the end of the road the risk of the cross. But only when boundaries are crossed and barriers forced open can things change for the better. Only when prejudices are challenged can things change for the better. Good won’t triumph over evil until people expose that evil, speak against it, take action to prevent the damage and heal the wounds, reach out to those who are denied justice. But too often too many of us simply let things be.

It can be uncomfortable to open yourself to others, to relate to, speak to, listen to those whose cultural choices, beliefs and ways of living are different from your own, maybe challenge your own; but Jesus shows us the way of the cross, which is inescapably inclusive.  Human fear, ignorance and self-interest put up barriers, but Jesus walking the way of the cross breaks them down. The way of the cross exalts our shared humanity over the barriers of race or culture.

But of course we’re not even united as Christians, so we’ve got a distance to go I guess. Christ’s call to serve him, sealed in the baptism we share and the supper he gives, demands unity as the basis for our Gospel mission; but historically we have let differences of order and interpretation and theology - and issues of politics and power - break his Church apart.

“Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it to be none other than the way of life and peace.” Words from today's collect. Jesus offered the woman by the well living water,  and she was keen to have this special water, because naively she thought it might save her time and effort, she wouldn’t have to go traipsing off to the well with her bucket. St John's Gospel’s full of people who interpret spiritual gifts in very worldly ways.

Jesus didn’t offer real water, but he does promise real life and real peace. The woman hoped for an easier life. What Jesus offers may n fact make our lives harder in this world: his way is the way of sacrifice, which means letting go of things we hold dear, letting go of the entrenched positions and set opinions that make us who we think we are. To go with Jesus we have to take up a cross, we have to take the road of risk and service. But this is the way to life and godly peace: to stay where we’re comfy is to miss out on that.

Jesus told the Samaritan woman that his people, the Jews, worshipped with understanding, while her people “worship what you do not know.” But true worshippers, Samaritan or Jew or whatever, are those who worship in spirit and in truth. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth. I’ve always been wary of the rules and liturgies and doctrinal formulations of organised religion, for God is more than mere religion. God is love, and God is found by those who seek him in love. And true religion is more than joining a club: it’s about relationship - a living, loving relationship with God: relationship that leads us into, and requires from us, a living, loving relationship with one another.

For Jesus the Jew, the Samaritan woman had got it wrong (as he told her). She worshipped what she didn’t know. But he still made time for her: she was still worth speaking to, and he still had a message for her of hope and love and acceptance. Those who we think have got it wrong are still worth a hearing, for they are sisters and brothers within the love of God. And when someone else gets something wrong, don’t assume that therefore you yourself have got things right, or at least, not completely. We’ve always more to learn, further to travel. Mission begins with listening, and requires humility. We can’t give unless we’re also open to receive, we can’t teach unless we’re also open to learn.

So I’m sad when I see religion being either defensive or triumphal, and I’m sad when I see religious people wanting to stay safely behind high walls that they themselves have built. For that’s not the faith Jesus calls us to in today’s Gospel; that’s not the faith he himself modelled in this encounter with the Samaritan woman. His is a faith to break walls down, to open ways to dialogue, his is a faith that is provocative, adventurous, and ready to be involved, actively engaged with people where they hurt, where they have needs, where they have questions, and even where they make demands.

The way of the cross requires that we take risks and engage with the other, with the person who is different from us. It requires that we do mission, and that we share what we have. But while we certainly have something to teach and to share, to do it well we need also the humility that allows us to listen and to learn. Mission is effective when those who do it are themselves open to change and challenge. To walk the way of the cross is to walk as a vulnerable pilgrim. But also to walk with confidence: for in Christ we have found the way of life, which he offers as a blessing for all to share.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

In The Desert

My sermon for tomorrow, Lent 1, at All Saints' Parish Church, Middletown :-



“Forty days and forty nights thou wast fasting in the wild.” Today, on the first Sunday of a forty days of Lent which very conveniently began on the first day of the month, we read of Jesus being led by the Spirit into the desert, into the wilderness, to be tempted there by the devil.

I don’t know what your image of a desert might be; I was looking the other day at as aerial photograph of a man and his camel crossing the Arabian desert. They were tiny figures in a waste of sand that was utterly beautiful but also very scary, for there was nothing else in sight, no landmark to find the way, no place to find food, no place to take refuge.

So deserts are scary and dangerous, but in scripture the desert has a more positive role: it’s a place of testing and of renewal, and what happens there is useful and necessary. We sometimes speak of desert experiences, or wilderness years. If they happen to us we don’t feel very blest. My desert experiences over the years have been times of intense spiritual dryness, times when prayers just seemed to bounce back at me, times when I felt alone and unsupported; so not good times, even in retrospect. But looking back I can see how being tested in the desert often did begin something new in me: tough times, but I came out of them spiritually stronger, more aware, and more sensitive.

But I’d never have chosen to go there. They were crisis points, painful times I wouldn’t want to see again. Today we recall Jesus going deliberately into the wilderness. He didn’t have to go, he wasn’t there by chance or by mischance, though we are told he was led there by the Holy Spirit. So it was a place he knew he had to be, and the Greek word we translate as “led” (by the Spirit) is a very strong word - but even so, Jesus was in the desert because he chose to be.

And he chose to go there because he needed that time of testing, to arm himself for the spiritual battle that would be there throughout his ministry. Before he did anything else he had to identify, isolate and deal with the temptations that might otherwise lead him astray.

Does it seem strange to you that Jesus of all people needed to do this? Surely the Son of God would have it all sorted from the start? But Jesus the man is truly and fully one of us, and like us he was tempted. The Lord we praise and follow may be God’s only begotten Son, but here in the Judaean desert all his majesty and might are laid aside. He is completely one of us, except for this: right from the start he will be entirely focused on the will of the one he teaches us to call “Our Father”.

So this morning we’ve heard again the story of how Satan tries to turn our Lord away from the path of obedience, something you can be sure he went on doing wherever Jesus was. But in these forty days in the desert Jesus acted decisively to confront the pressure, and get the measure of his opponent. When he emerged from the desert he was ready for the task.

Temptation is something that’s always there when we’re trying to be good Christians. And temptation works on us by placing something - an ambition, a desire, something coveted or envied - where God should be in our lives. It’s like an itch: hard to resist, but when you do give in to it the relief never lasts long. All you do is start the itch up all over again, and in the end the damage done to our spiritual selves can be hard to repair. So when we pray: ‘Lead us not into temptation’ (or, in one modern version of that prayer, ‘Save us from the time of trial’), I hope we really do take those words seriously; temptation is a serious matter.

Jesus deliberately allowed himself to be led into temptation, so that in the desert he could isolate the chief temptations he’d be facing throughout his ministry, and beat them down. In Lent our task is to reflect his determination - this is a time to look for growth, root out the weeds, face up to things; it’s a time to be serious about temptation and what it does to us. But let’s not be at all negative about Lent. It’s a time of blessing and opportunity: God’s gift to us - a desert time of fasting in which we can isolate our own most dangerous temptations, and beat them back.

So we should make good use of Lent, like Jesus in the desert. It’s not just about giving something up. It’s about dealing with the things that have too big a place in our lives. It’s about getting serious about who controls us, about what God wants from us, and the stuff that stops us responding to him as we should. It’s our chance for a really good spiritual spring-clean, not just so we feel better in ourselves, but so we can better serve our Lord, be more tuned in to his will, have cleared out the rubbish that gets in the way of that.

The thing about the temptations Jesus faced in the desert is how plausible they were. Was it bad to turn stones into bread? Think of the hungry mouths you could feed, not just your own! Was it bad to do some crazy thing that would dazzle people into faith? Isn’t anything that would win you disciples worth a shot? Was it bad to go for political power, to want to rule over the kingdoms of the earth? You’d surely do a better job than those who already had that power!

Temptations are plausible. Most of us don’t want to do bad things, so we’re not tempted to do bad things, just tempted away from doing good things: something that’s harder to spot, and harder to beat. That’s why we need this holy season.

Jesus might have done a lot of good if he’d gone along with the devil. He might well have lived a lot longer, and he  might still be remembered as a great leader whose rule was a golden age. But in truth his life would have been an abject failure, for he’d have let himself be turned away from the way of the cross; and the true and decisive victory of love over sin and death that was his task and his destiny would never have happened. He won in the desert a victory that was the vital precursor to the victory he’d win on Good Friday, the victory of the cross.

You and I are marked with the sign of that cross, so Lent is our time to take seriously what being marked with a cross should mean. It’s about the necessary discipline of faith; it’s about what I need to learn and receive as a disciple of Jesus, and what I need to do and to give as an apostle for Christ. Here is the simple question that begins my keeping of Lent: where, truly, is my Lord in my life?

Friday, 3 March 2017

Snowdrop

A poem I wrote in January, nearing the end of its revision process . . .

On a morning of hard and brittle brightness,
with a chill to the air that waters the eyes,
I venture forth as I must
 to check the greenhouse heater,
when my eyes are caught by a new white,
cleaner than the silvery rime,
half concealed under a leafless shrub.
And yes: the green-fringed steel helmets
of our first flowering snowdrops
have somehow broken through
the tumbled frosted leaves left there from autumn.
We are here, they say, we are here,
shining their defiance to the cold crystal sun.
It is a matter of some astonishment;
to be honest, I had forgotten the bulbs were there.
We are weeks away, really, from spring,
but here is an early wisp of its resurrection breath.
Everything else is still playing dead,
but this gentle plant chooses to bloom regardless,
green and white, white and green:
sweet as a drift of snowflakes,
and yet hard as a bag of nails.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Some Thoughts About Fasting

A sermon for this Sunday (New Street United Church) :-

I remember going into one my local schools when I was still in full time ministry to take school assembly in the first week of Lent - and being really quite surprised to discover that none of the children seemed to have given up anything for Lent. They knew something about Lent: that it began on Ash Wednesday, and that people ate pancakes on Shrove Tuesday to use up the rich food they couldn't eat in Lent. But no-one seemed to have thought about giving things up.

We haven't really done ”giving up things for Lent” this year, said one of the teachers later in the staff room. But when I was the age of those children giving up things for Lent would have been something we at least thought about as children, whether or not our teachers did it as a theme or project.

One year Ann and I were visiting Istanbul during Ramadan, and I have to say we were quite impressed by the way they kept the fast. It reminded us of how Lent used to be kept, but often isn’t really, any more. I do try to keep Lent seriously, but I’m not always all that good at it. This year I’ve decided to use Lent as an opportunity to lose some weight, by giving up some of the things that aren’t good for me and trying to take a bit more exercise.

But I’m aware that that in itself isn’t a Lenten fast. That’s just me on a health kick, or me making an attempt to keep in my present size of trousers. The fact that I’m looking for sponsorship, and that the money I raise will go to charity goes some way towards making it more of a Lenten fast, but it still doesn’t compare with the Lenten fasts of old. For although they involved giving things up, they were chiefly about drawing nearer to God. Fasting in Lent is about developing ourselves as disciples, and clearing out some of the stuff that gets in the way. Jesus in the wilderness was challenging the temptations that would be there throughout his ministry, and tuning his mind to his Father’s voice.

Well, I wish people took Lent more seriously, like we used to. And not just for old time’s sake: when we keep Lent as a fast, we’re consciously imitating the example of our Lord in the wilderness; it’s an opportunity to draw close to him, and like him to make a choice for God over the things of the world.
Don’t we sometimes say, “Well, it's the way of the world,” when we want to justify what we do or what we join in with? As though if everyone’s doing it that makes it all right. Lent is a chance to consciously not do that. We have forty days to put away the things of the world, the things we own or value or desire or are tempted by, that can become petty gods in their own right. Not to just going along with what everyone else does but to choose God’s way instead.

Having said that, I suppose when I was a child fasting in Lent was itself going along with what everyone else was doing. You gave up things for Lent because that’s what everyone did, and it’s what Mum and Dad told me I should do. So in that sense it wasn’t my own personal choice. In Isaiah chapter 58 we read that God doesn’t want us to fast just because we’re supposed to and that’s what the rules say. To fast has to be my own personal decision and desire. It’s not about outward observance, it needs to be a matter of the heart.

So a real fast is a swim against the stream. It’s tough. We fast to control our own desires, and make space to hear what God is saying to us, and so we can say yes to him. That’s what Jesus was doing in the wilderness: taking time aside before he began his ministry of teaching and healing and proclaiming the kingdom: time to face up to the temptations that would always be there, time to be sure he could master them right from the start. So he went away from the world to focus his heart and mind on his Father’s will. Indeed, scripture tells us he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and the word in Greek is a strong one, almost “he was thrown into the wilderness”.

So Lent for us too is about following where the Spirit leads us - in giving things up, and also in taking things up; it’s about disciplined spiritual exercise, it’s about facing up to things. And that’s important and necessary for Christians, by no means an optional extra. It’s fundamental to the task in hand, of following Jesus, of speaking, working and witnessing for him. Temptations are always around us; and temptation is an insidious thing, it’s rarely blatant or obvious.

Think about Jesus in the wilderness, you’ll remember the temptations he faced there. He wasn't being tempted to do things that were obviously bad. That’s not how the devil works, not at his most effective anyway. Jesus was tempted to sort out his own comfort first, he was tempted to opt for short term options, to take short cuts, and he was tempted to seek popular acclaim. Were these bad things? Why not feed yourself and other hungry people? Why not dazzle people into faith, why not go for political power? Think of the good you could do. The temptations Jesus faced didn’t look evil; why not choose your own way, work for your own success, do your own thing? But they would have taken him away from the path he had chosen, of doing his Father’s will, in obedience and service.

If sin came clearly labelled as such, it might not be so hard to resist. But sin is often all too plausible. We persuade ourselves that the ends justify the means, or perhaps that a degree of collateral damage is acceptable. It isn’t and it never was. The Bible word for sin, “hamartia” in Greek, is actually about missing the mark. A bit like throwing a dart and missing the number you’re aiming for. Unless every part of what we do is praiseworthy in God’s sight, then sin has crept into our lives somewhere. Two linked phrases in the Lord’s prayer are, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done.” The one requires the other.

A real fast is a fast with no cheating. In my schooldays, we used to walk out to the park surrounding a big country house maybe a couple of miles away from our school. It was an easy enough walk, and there was a lake in the park that was good to swim in. We knew that on the high gates that led up to the house there were notices saying 'Private - No Trespassers.' So we didn’t go that way. Along a lane nearby there was a fence we could climb that didn’t have any signs telling us to keep out. So if we had been challenged (we never were) we could always claim we didn’t know we were trespassing.

But we knew we were, really. When fasting it isn’t enough just to look good. We might impress our friends, but God sees into the heart. Fasting is about getting right with him, being honest with him, and not just looking pious. If it’s not the real thing, it’s not worth doing. My Lent fast this year will I hope save a notch on my belt; but I need also to control the things within me that lead me away from true obedience to God, so along with giving things up I shall be taking things up: I hope to be more prayerful, more aware, maybe take on some new commitment this Lent. I intend to read, to listen, to reflect.

In forty days of testing Jesus overcame the plausible voices that might have tempted him away from his Father’s will. His life expressed to the full his Father’s love, a love he shares with us and offers to the world. A love to motivate our serious keeping of Lent; fasting is our gift of love back to God, our response to the love in which we know we are held.

And all of that begins on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. In the service I’ll be attending I’ll hear the words 'turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ'. And that's it. Not a divine entrance exam - we’re already citizens of heaven, but my small but grateful gift of love, in response to God’s boundless love; in fasting I need to be giving myself, in obedience, in discipleship, and in praise.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

On Having Fallen (2)

My poem, published in my collection "The Angel on Next Door's Drive", based on the section from Mother Julian quoted in my sermon :-

I stumbled on my journey home, confused as the shadows lengthened,
and, looking back along the grey and darkening road,
I stood alone, my head bowed low,
to sense God meet my questioning sadness
with His blest word of grace.

It seems He allows us to fall so much harder and more painfully
than ever we did before,
having given ourselves at His call,
having been so quick and eager in our desire to serve.

And how easy then it is
for those of us who are not very wise
to imagine at the time of falling
that all that we have done has gone to nothing,
that having fallen here so hard, no-one could ever rise.  And so I thought;
and yet it is not so.

For these are words I found in my heart:  that here we need to fall,
need also to be aware of that falling;
for had we not fallen we should not know
what so much we need to know -
we should not know how weak and wretched in ourselves we are.
And neither should we know as a reviving warmth in our heart
our Maker’s true and marvellous, His own transforming love.

For in the heaven to come we shall truly see
and we shall know for ever
how through this life we bear the marks of our grave and grievous sin,
bear them as stains we could not clear;  yet we shall see in spite of this
how His love for us remained at all times
unharmed and undiminished - that for all our dirt and sin, even as we lay helpless in the ditch,
we were never less valuable to Him.

And so it will be
that through our experience of this falling,
we shall gain a knowledge great and wonderful
to sustain us - we shall know this for sure:
the love we have in God, He holds for us for all eternity.

And here is love
which cannot and shall not be broken by our sin;
here is love for ever strong to save, and - praise Him - all-sufficing.
In our fractured humility, and for all the sharp heart-pain of our falling,
we shall find ourselves upraised and lifted high, ever to be
held firm and sure and safe within His arms of grace.

For, as I paused in thought beside the road, these are the things I learned:
that I am nothing of my own, yet have everything in my God;  and
though we may fall, and may be allowed to fall,
yet our heavenly Mother
cannot and shall not permit Her child to die.
And praise be to Jesus, almighty, all wisdom, and all love:
may His name on lips of sinners, upon these lips of mine,
be now and forever blest!

On Having Fallen

A sermon for tomorrow, which I shall preach at Chirbury :-

Six years ago, almost to the day, I preached my last sermon as a canon of St Asaph cathedral. I was reminded of that the other day when at a family do I was chatting with my cousin Julia, who lives near Bala and is a member of a choir that sings there now and then. It wasn’t a particularly happy memory; two weeks after preaching that sermon I had resigned from my parishes and as a canon, and begun a journey that almost took me away from church and faith altogether. Looking back over the text of my sermon that day, I could sense again the pain I was feeling then. Now I know that God hadn’t finished with me, nor had I finished with the church, but back then it felt as though I was standing on the edge of a cliff.

Actually I love cliffs, and I’ve stood on some pretty big ones in my time - the mighty Cliffs of Moher in the west of Ireland, and the incredibly high Cabo Girao, the second highest sea cliffs in the world, on Madeira. I’ve walked cliff paths in Pembrokeshire and Cornwall, and I hope to do some more while I’m fit enough. I’m fairly confident of my own ability not to fall; what I hate to see is anyone else standing on a cliff edge, I’m always so worried that they might fall. On the telly, I have to turn over or turn off.

And on that day at the cathedral, it felt as though I were looking at myself from outside, looking at this figure, myself standing on a cliff edge, and terribly afraid that he would fall. The back story of how I got to that place is for another time; but of course I did fall. And amazingly, instead of being dashed on the rocks below I found myself caught and borne safely by angels - but I couldn’t begin to know then that that would happen.

I began my sermon that day with the story of a lady I saw regularly on hospital visits. Mair was suffering from dementia. She was always busy, always agitated, worried she might have lost someone for whom she was searching. It took a while to realise she was really looking for herself, maybe a younger memory of herself: so sad that she was looking for someone she could never find.

Dementia takes many forms; and I was sad and challenged to see a mind so troubled in a person whose body despite her age was still quite strong. But something about Mair felt not so remote from how many of us are. Her dementia was an extreme form of something all of us spend time doing: searching for ourselves.

Christians believe we’re made in the image of God, as we read in  Genesis, chapter 1, verse 27: “God created human beings in his own image: in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” In Matthew’s Gospel, a few verses before the reading we heard this morning, Jesus says, “Your own goodness must know no bounds, just as the goodness of your heavenly Father knows no bounds” - or, in another translation, “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

But where will any of us find perfection? When we come to church we begin our time of worship by saying words that recognise our imperfection, our inability to be the self we’re supposed to be: we confess our sins. We measure ourselves against the commandments, love the Lord your God, love your neighbour as yourself, and admit that we’re found wanting.

The Pharisees with whom Jesus contended aimed for perfection in their keeping of the Law of Moses. They carefully interpreted it to fit every situation, but in reality they had turned it into a tool to conspire with imperfection and massage it away. The Law as they interpreted it set limits on how well one had to behave, on the amount of good one had to do, and on the circle of in and out: who is your neighbour, and who you don’t need to care for.

But it isn’t about rules, said Jesus to his friends. There are no boundaries or limitations to being good. You twist God’s Law into something else if you use it to make goodness achievable. You may manage to fool yourself into thinking that keeping a list of rules can make you perfect; but it doesn’t.

We meet here not because of our own goodness but because of the generous grace of God. We meet for this communion meal at a table we can’t set ourselves, to share food we ourselves can’t bless. But God calls us here. I may search all my life and never find myself, but thankfully I’m not the only one looking. A week on Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, when once again we’ll be reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. There’s a chill to those words, but the words that follow, “Repent and believe the Gospel,” assure us we’re not alone in our quest: dust and ashes we may be, but we’re also made by God and claimed now by his grace.

A verse from a communion hymn goes: “though dust and ashes in thy sight, we may, we must draw near.” Why? Because God sees more in me, and in you, than the mere dust and ashes of our mortal selves. He weeps over our imperfection, but he also sees us as he made us to be, and he loves that possibility in us. Some words from scripture: John 3 verse 16 - “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but should have eternal life.” I’m not the only one looking. Psalm 139 verse 1: “O Lord, you have searched me out and you know me - you discern my thoughts from afar.”

And our two New Testament readings this morning are both rich with positivity and affirmation: Paul writes to the Romans about his own imperfection and theirs, about his own struggles, and theirs, but as he does so he assures them with these words: “I reckon that the sufferings we now endure bear no comparison with the glory, as yet unrevealed, that is in store for us.” We mess up and get things wrong, miss out on the good stuff we could do. Life is a struggle and sometimes it gets us down. But God never gives up on us; that’s something Paul knew better than most. God in his perfection meets with us, uses us, and dwells within us, makes us his temple, and destines us for glory.

And back to the words of the Sermon on the Mount, and our Gospel reading today: “Consider the lilies of the field, how God cares for them.” We are worth so much more than mere flowers, so if they are cared for and loved, how much more shall we be, despite ourselves. We have no cause to be anxious, and every reason not to be dragged down by the petty worries of this life. We may feel lost at times, but we are precious, always, in the sight of God. All we need is there for us already. In Christ we find renewal, we are made a new creation; through him who is the King of love, we who in falling lose ourselves are lifted up, are known and loved and found.

Some closing words, from Mother Julian of Norwich: “Sometimes God allows us to fall further and harder than ever before (or at least it seems that way to us). When that happens, we (who are still so foolish) feel as though we have accomplished nothing, that all our spiritual journeys have been delusions. But this is not reality. We need to fall sometimes - and we need sometimes to feel our failure. If we did not, we would not know how weak and exiled from our true selves we are, nor would we truly understand how much our Creator loves us. When we reach heaven, we shall see clearly how terribly we separated ourselves from God - and how, despite that, divine love for us never diminished, nor did we ever become less precious in God’s eyes.”

Friday, 10 February 2017

Redpolls

My nature notes for the month ahead . . .

We’ve seen most of our usual winter garden birds through the season. At the time of writing this, the goldcrests I mentioned last month are still with us, having obligingly showed up as our count for the Big Garden Birdwatch at the end of January. The one bird expected but not glimpsed on our patch over the winter is the tree creeper, but we continue to hope.

Siskins, lovely little green and yellow finches, arrived as usual around the middle of January, with numbers gradually building up. Usually it’s after about three or four weeks of seeing siskins that we start to notice a few streaked brown birds of similar size joining them. A careful look through the binoculars reveals that the bird has just a little smudge of red on the forehead, and we know the redpolls have come.

To be precise, the finches we see are lesser redpolls. There is a slightly larger bird, the common or mealy redpoll, which visits this country from the continent in winter, and some scientists (and one of my field guides) describe them as the same species. But ours are the smaller, darker resident birds. In summer the male redpoll is a handsome bird, with a pink breast and a black chin to go with the red forehead, a pink rump also; but in winter plumage there is less pink to be seen. The female lacks the male’s pink breast and rump. The remainder of the plumage is streaked brown and buff, with two quite prominent buff wing-bars. Like other small finches, the tail is forked, and the overall impression is of a neat and well-proportioned little bird. Redpolls are, like siskins, acrobatic, often hanging upside down from twigs and branches in order to feed, with conifers, alder and silver birch being favourites.

Redpolls are found in the UK all year round, and breed across much of the country where there is suitable habitat. They are woodland birds by and large, feeding on seeds, and found also in grown-up hedgerows and large gardens.  Often, several pairs will nest quite close to each other, building a somewhat untidy cupped nest in small trees like silver birch or in bushes, gorse being a favourite. The nest will be lined with hair and thistledown, and incubation of the four or five eggs is done by the female.

Both parents share in the task of feeding the nestlings, which fledge after about two weeks in the nest. The parents will continue to feed them for a while after fledging. Young redpolls are completely brown, lacking even the red forehead of the female adult.

I am always pleased to see them in our garden, but they don’t stay long. One or two siskins nest near enough for us to see young birds in the garden through summer, but here we only ever see redpolls for a few weeks towards the end of winter. But you can see them through the year at RSPB Lake Vyrnwy or Ynys Hir, or at the MWT’s osprey project reserve near Machynlleth.

Crocus

A first outing last night for my talk on "The Poetry of Flowers" - at Carno Garden Club, reading poems by Clare, Wordsworth, Roethke, Rossetti, Edward Thomas and others, plus a few of my own, this one included :-


I had forgotten I had planted corms beneath a shading tree
on that Friday in September when you came to visit me,
with the summer almost over, and the shortening of the days,
and the news you had to give me of the parting of our ways.

That winter was a long one, with the ground hard under frost,
and the cold north wind sang mourning songs for all that I had lost;
every day so dark and dismal, every vista sad and grey,
what need for light or colour with you still so far away?

Till a day dawned bright with birdsong, and a new warmth in the sun,
and a new hope in my heart, as if I’d only just begun;
I stepped into the garden, and it was a joy to see
the crocus, gold and purple, flowering underneath that tree.

Through all the winter world, beneath its dark and sombre skies,
her shoots had grown in secret, like a love that never dies;
her early alleluia, bright with shining drops of rain,
my promise of the spring, and that you’d soon be back again.

Tough Words and Grace

(Matthew 5.21-37)

Matthew is the first of the four Gospels in our Bibles. Have you ever wondered why? Well, one reason is that, back in the Second Century when the books of the New Testament were first being collected together as what the Church calls the Canon of holy scripture, most people thought Matthew’s Gospel had been written first. Modern Bible scholars wouldn’t agree, and today’s it’s generally accepted that Mark is earlier than either Matthew or Luke, and that both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as one of their source documents.

But Matthew’s Gospel is also placed first out of the four because Matthew was thought of as speaking with special authority, especially as regards his great theme of Old Testament prophecy being fulfilled in Jesus. It’s no surprise then that Matthew’s Gospel should be the first book to follow after the books of the Old Testament. The importance Matthew had in the early Church can be seen in the fact that his Gospel is quoted more than any other New Testament book in the writings of the time.

Matthew sets out his Gospel in an interesting and very organised way. One thing he does is to place the teaching of Jesus mostly together in one place, in what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus sits down and begins to teach at the start of chapter 5, beginning with what we call the beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” And when Jesus finally comes down from the mountain at the beginning of chapter eight Matthew has given us three chapters full of our Lord’s teaching. He goes on to tell us how the people were amazed at the teaching Jesus gave them, because it was new and fresh, it wasn’t like the teaching they received from the scribes. Unlike them, Jesus taught them with authority.

But some of the things he said were pretty tough, including the verses we’ve heard this morning from chapter five. Anyone who nurses a grievance is as much under the sentence of law as a murderer; any man who looks lustfully at a woman is as guilty as if he had committed adultery. And just before he says these tough things Jesus has told the people that, “To get into heaven you must prove yourselves to be far better than the scribes and the Pharisees.”

On the whole, Jesus had more success with sinners than he had with religious folk. People who knew they were sinful, people condemned by others as sinful, listened to him. The scribes and Pharisees, who devoted themselves very carefully to not being sinful at all, and were widely applauded and looked up to, were appalled by him. These were the great keepers of the law - or so they thought. They had reduced religion to the mere keeping of the Law - the letter of the law. But you can keep the letter of the Law without keeping the spirit of the law. The scribes and Pharisees were anxious to be seen to be getting it right; Jesus, on the other hand, said that to be truly right with God you must be right in the heart.

That’s a constant theme of his preaching, being right in our heart. And the tough teaching in these three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel is part of that. Jesus is making clear that if we want like the Pharisees to earn our way into heaven, we have to be perfect; we can’t afford to make a single mistake. The Pharisees were aiming for perfection, so they did their best to keep every last point of the law. But all they were really doing was fooling themselves. They might have looked the part, but what was really going on inside them? It’s what happens inside us that matters, says Jesus, not what we look like on the outside.

One special thing about the Christian faith is that as Christians we discover that in the end being perfect doesn’t matter. Why doesn’t it matter? Because we are saved through the grace of God - through grace and only through grace. We’re not saved because we deserve it, we’re not saved because by trying really really hard to be good we’ve built up lots of merit points; no, we’re saved by grace. And what do we mean by that word grace? We mean that God never ceases to love what he has made. And as we set ourselves - as of course we should - to live faithfully, and to praise joyfully, and to serve lovingly - we do this not to earn ourselves a place in heaven, but as a thank offering. For a place is already prepared for us, and the door already stands open.

So Jesus uses tough words to get a simple but profound message across to those who were listening: be honest about yourself, know you can’t make it on your own, but know also that you are valuable, you are loved, you are treasured, and you are saved. We’re quite good, most of the time, I know: but we need to know that quite good, most of the time, isn’t good enough for heaven. Only Jesus is good enough for heaven, but he opens the way to us: he is the King of love, he is the Shepherd who dies to save his sheep.

And now I want to finish by taking a second point from this morning’s reading. Jesus talks about the practice of swearing an oath to guarantee that the promise you’ve made is going to be kept. And he tells the people they must do that no longer. They should be so clearly honest and straight that their simple yes or no should be enough on its own.

That should be true of course: if we’re serious about being God’s people, other people should be able to rely on us to do what we say we’re going to do, to pay what we say we’re going to pay. We shouldn’t need any oath to guarantee that. We should be the sort of people whose word can be relied on.

But I think Jesus has a deeper point to make here too: something about the way we use religion to serve our own ends. There’s nothing new in the exploitation and misuse of religion, but sadly there does seem to be an awful lot of this around in the world today. It depresses and angers me, and it’s a scandal and offence, when religion is used to twist hearts and minds, to exalt one group above another, to promote hatred and violence, or to grab at personal power and status and wealth. The Dalai Lama has said, “If the faith you hold doesn’t lead you to practise kindness, then the god you serve isn’t real.” Jesus is real: the image he presents is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. To be a disciple of his is to set ourselves to be as like him as we can be. That’s what he means when he says “Follow me.” How sad that some who claim his name and his authority are still ready to preach bigotry and hatred, and to sow seeds of division.

Jesus says, “Do not swear by heaven, for it is God’s throne; do not swear by the earth, for it is his footstool.” And I think that when he says that he is warning us not to make selfish and worldly use of things that are holy. Religion used for worldly ends is religion divorced from God. Everything Jesus says in the teaching we read in Matthew is said to move us away from empty and formulaic religion and into a faith that is about relationship, about love responding to love, and light reflecting light. So that we know our own smallness and insufficiency, our own weakness; but at the same time recognise the holiness of God.

Holiness is about otherness, about a degree of glory, an intensity of light, that is beyond our reaching and imagining, except for this: that God has reached out for us, and that he gives us place and identity and a promised home within his love; and that through the perfect love made incarnate among us in Jesus we who fall so far short of perfection can find life and light and hope.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Water Rail

Ann and I had a shortish visit to Llyn Coed y Dinas, our local nature reserve, today in the pouring rain. There wasn't a great deal about, in particular not the bittern that had been there, but it's about a week since anyone reported a sighting. There were good numbers of mallard, teal, tufted duck, along with a contingent of wigeon and a dozen or so lapwings. A single cormorant shuffled about on one of the floating islands, and a carrion crow startled me a bit by seeming to walk on the water. I guess there must have been something just below the surface he could walk on. He had a good splash, not something I'd have wanted to do in that weather! A couple of lesser black backed gulls drifted about, and an anonymous small brown thing flitted through the reeds and away before there was any chance of identification. I had hoped to see snipe and the water rail I'd been told was about, but none were visible and our fingers were going numb, so Ann and I decided a warm cup of chocolate (hers) or a pot of Earl Grey (mine) would be in order, and we prepared to go. But a guy who'd entered the hide maybe five minutes before suddenly said, "Quick, over here!" - and there, below the side window of the hide was the water rail, just feet away and beautifully marked, pecking about in the scruffy vegetation near the water's edge. These are notoriously shy birds, not usually very easy to see; I've never been as close to one as today. We left soon after, and the tea was good too.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Shutling's Low

A brief journey up into the Peak District today - nice day for it, if cold. I was there to visit someone, so didn't do anything strenuous. I enjoyed the rugged scenery though, including the conical hill Shutling's Low, which I recall climbing with friends at just this time of the year (though some time back), and the dour gritstone walls and buildings along the lanes. This being the area around Three Shires Head, there were also some very open views, particularly over onto the Cheshire Plain. I drove back through Flash and onto the Buxton to Leek road, just to revisit areas I've known of old. The light was fading by then, but we kept a fair amount of light till after half-past five. Somewhere in the Blackshaw Moor area I noticed a guy walking along dressed in T shirt, shorts and sandals; it had been sunny, but the temperature gauge in my car was by this time registering 2 degrees. Clearly, they're a hard lot up that way! I recall, by the way, that when we ascended Shutling's Low we overtook a guy on a mountain bike who was hardly moving at all despite pedalling frantically in some ultra-low gear. He was doggedly insisting on not dismounting! He did rather speed past us on the way down, mind you. My other memory of that walk was the line of muddy boots against the outside wall of the pub in Wincle, ours included.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Sunshine

A lovely day today, but jolly cold to start with. Unusually, the ground was wet from a night's rain while roofs were white with frost. I did my best to wash a car well covered with ice, to discover it's also well covered with little bits of tar, no doubt the product of several runs to Shrewsbury and back of late. They are renewing the road surface, working overnight with road closures, and the road is open through the day but with a temporary road surface. I shall not buy a white car next time (remind me of this - I hadn't intended to last time).

We have a new water meter; the old one is obsolete, apparently. The guy who came was Polish I think, young, pleasant. "It won't take long," he said. "The meter will be under the kitchen sink!" It is indeed under the kitchen sink, I told him - but unfortunately it is also under the kitchen floor. I led him to our undercroft, through the squeeze hole at the back, and showed him where, through another squeeze hole that would take him under the kitchen floor, he could find the meter. It's a bit tight, and you basically have to lie on your tummy, but there is at least an electric light immediately over the meter. Bless him, his enthusiasm was quite undimmed. "No problem!" And there wasn't; twenty minutes, and he was on his way.