Sunday, 22 July 2018

A bit of a busy day

At present I'm recovering from yesterday which was the annual Trelystan Fete. Trelystan is a small, half-timbered medieval church at the bottom of a field on the Long Mountain. Dedicated to St Mary, it was a chapelry in the Parish of Worthen, but became a parish (Trelystan with Leighton) in the 19th Century, when the Leighton Estate was being developed. Although legally one parish, as I understand it, Trelystan and Leighton operate as though they were each parishes, each with their own PCC.

The Trelystan Fete is one of the big events of the year on the Long Mountain (the other, the Vron Gate Show, takes place next weekend). This year's was particularly well attended. It's a fete like fetes used to be, with teas in the church hall, a barbecue under the churchyard yews, and the usual run of stalls - cakes, books, tombola, bric-a-brac, plants, a couple of draws, skittles and the like - and races for the children, which always go down well. The sun smiled on us (as it's smiled on most people so far this summer!), and we'll have made around £3,300 I think.

I was on the bookstall with Keith, and we made double what we did last year. But of course I do also have to do the formal bits, making announcements and in particular topping and tailing with the opening welcome and the closing thank-yous. This year our wonderful church organist (for more than 72 years now) Mr Elvet Richards BEM was our official opener. Really, Elvet is Trelystan Church, and at the age of 90 is still an active PCC member, and of course our organist at every service, though these days he rarely plays for weddings.  Here I am holding the microphone for Elvet's opening speech. He is of course wearing his medal, awarded in the New Year Honours this year.

I was very successful in the various draws and raffles, but even so I could have done with a quiet day today! Not to be, though - I had services at 9.30 (Marton), 11.00 (Leighton), 2.30 (an away match at Geuffordd Presbyterian Church - I do enjoy going there!), and 7.00 (Corndon Marsh) - after which Ann and I had a much needed refresher at the Miner's Arms at Priestweston (Wye Valley HPA, if anyone is interested).

Every service today was well attended, and my sermon was fairly well received. I may post it, but I spotted one or two bits I'm not happy with, so I'll need to do some editing first. The most direct route to Corndon Marsh, the lane from Chirbury to Priestweston, is currently closed. There is a huge and nasty pothole, and several people have claimed for damage, so the council have simply closed the road, meaning that anyone else who hits the hole and damages their car will have no claim because they shouldn't have been there anyway. It has to be said that no work seems to be taking place. So our journey back was a bit longer than it might have been, made longer by encountering a milk tanker. My reversing skills have much improved since I started driving these lanes!  So begins another week.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

A Walk along the Canal

I had a very pleasant evening walk in mid-July along a stretch of the canal I’d not walked before. I parked my car by the turn from the main Newtown road towards Abermule, and walked the short distance toward the iron bridge over the river, turning just before the bridge to join the canal towpath and head towards Newtown.

Chiffchaffs and a song thrush were loud in the trees, and the surface of the canal was very busy with pond skaters and other water insects. River and canal are close to each other along much of this section, and the splash of the river was much in evidence. There had perhaps been a shower or two up country, and the river was higher than I’d expected after weeks of sunshine - though still not very high, of course.

Plants in flower along the canal included typical waterside plants like meadowsweet, marsh valerian, hemp agrimony, great willow-herb (also called “codlins-and-cream” for its attractive flowers, deep pink with a splash of cream at the centre), and marsh woundwort. Hogweed was also present, one of the plants at least as tall as me. “Is that one of those giant hogweeds?” asked one of a couple of walkers coming the other way. But no, it wasn’t, just the ordinary home-grown species, which can easily grow to five or six feet given the chance.

Giant hogweed was introduced (from Russia, I think) as a garden plant in Victorian times, and is notorious for causing skin rashes and other problems if touched. A couple of other introduced plants along the canal were Himalayan balsam, which is getting to be a problem along rivers, and Japanese knotweed, an annoying problems wherever it grows. I only saw one small stand of this. More common was creeping Jenny, a pleasing ground cover plant of the loosestrife family, which may well have been imported with garden soil when canal banks were being strengthened.

Walking along, I passed a pair of mute swans with five attractive and quite young cygnets. It may be that a previous attempt at nesting had failed, as I’d have expected them to be more fully grown by now. The canal was increasingly full of weed, with a good covering of bright yellow water lilies for much of the distance. I passed two locks in good condition, then a third that was derelict, after which the canal was dry.

Here was my destination, Pwll Penarth nature reserve, former sewage settling pools I think, and host that evening to an impressive number of mallards. Along the paths it was very dry, and I even observed a young oak tree completely dried up, with leaves the colour of parchment. Here and there the white of rough chervil (carrot family), and the purple or mauve of knapweed and burdock were evident. A reed warbler briefly emerged from the phragmites reeds around the pool. Magpies chattered as they hopped from bush to bush, and swallows and sand martins dived across the pool. 

And, by the river bank, a giant hogweed, flower heads the size of dinner plates and huge blotchy stems: a monster of a plant. I decided not to touch!

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Sermon for Sunday 8th July (2)

Based on "2nd Service" readings, from Jeremiah 20.1-11 and Romans 14.1-17 :-

You know, I do often find myself feeling sorry for Jeremiah. I know he moans a lot, so that in past generations anyone who tended to moan and complain might well be nicknamed Jeremiah. But he did have some cause to moan. He hadn’t really wanted to be a prophet, but he ended up being one anyway. Not a bad career move on the face of it, prophets could earn a good living, folk looked up to them, they had status in society.

But the words given to Jeremiah to say tended not to be the sort of hopeful, upbeat pronouncements people liked to hear. Where other prophets were saying to the king and his council, “Your plans are good, and God is on your side. Press ahead, you can’t go wrong!” - or words to that effect - Jeremiah was saying things like “Your plans are rubbish, and God has had enough of you; the kingdom will fall, and if you’re lucky you might get carted off into slavery and exile.” Not surprisingly, he wasn’t heard gladly.

No wonder then that Jeremiah spoke of having been duped! But the word he has is the word of the Lord, the word of truth, a word that would simply burn within him were he not to speak it. The work of a prophet is to speak for God, to speak his word as it is, for good or for bad. Prophets weren’t supposed to be augurists or fortune tellers, predicting the future, even though they might well be looking at what would happen next. The great prophets like Jeremiah were there to tell it like it is, to coin a phrase. And often to say that things can’t go on as they are.

So, says Jeremiah, I’ve been duped. People should be looking up to me. Instead they deride me and search for ways to do me down. But after he’s had his moan he goes on to say, “But the Lord is on my side, a powerful champion.” Moaner he might be, but he was also a man who kept the faith. God chose him as a prophet, as a true prophet against all the false prophets feathering their own nests, because of he was the kind of faithful man who could be trusted with the truth. However unpopular it made him, he’d speak it.

The Church is supposed to be prophetic. What does that mean? I suppose that we’re here to show the way to people, and to shine a light into the world’s dark places. That’s not always going to be a cheery and songs-of-praisy sort of a job. Sometimes we’ll have hard things to say, and if we have we need to say them and not hold back. So long as they really are God’s hard things, and not our own gripes. And so long as our own deeds match our words - since we’ll quickly be caught out and discarded if they don’t. People are on the watch for any slip we might make, just as they were with Jeremiah.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is different from many of his other letters. Elsewhere, Paul’s often writing to places he’s been, churches he’s had some share in founding, and people he knows. To Rome, though, Paul is writing to commend himself, and to make sure the church that is already there will accept him. So it’s much more a statement of where Paul stands, a manifesto for his mission you might say, than his other letters.

But that’s not to say he doesn’t spend some of his time and ink trying to put right those things he thinks might be going wrong. Deeds need to match with words, and maybe they didn’t always, even in the Roman church. “None of us lives, and equally none of us dies, for himself alone,” writes Paul. We need to be serious about belonging together if we’re serious about belonging to God.

So, says Paul, don’t fall out about stuff. Stuff like differences in the way we do things, differences in the way we see things. We won’t always all of us agree on everything. But it’s no job of ours to sit in judgement on one another. That’s God’s job, and we all stand under the same judgement, a judgement that’s guaranteed. We can safely leave the judging to him.

The boundaries between denominations are certainly not as strong as they were when I was little. We went to both church and chapel, and were looked on with some suspicion as being neither fish nor fowl, neither one thing nor the other.

But we do tend to still be very tied to our own church, building by building. I don’t understand why people who’ll drive twenty miles to visit their dentist won’t drive a mile down the road to attend church when there isn’t a service in their own. But there we are, that’s human nature, I suppose.

Still, it’s good that people are different. We eat different things, listen to different music, vote for different political parties, and mostly it doesn’t make that much difference. We can still be friends. We make space for one another, mostly. And we should never cease to listen to those we don’t agree with, because our own beliefs are tested when we put them against others. We best discern God’s word together too, sharing, challenging, being challenged, and also of course praying. I never trust anyone who claims to have their own personal hot line to God. One of the things I like about Jeremiah, by the way, is the way he and God are always falling out with each other. That makes him real. I do that too.

“Love divine” was the top ten hymn when I did a survey recently on my patch; but it’s sung to a lot of different tunes, and not everyone wanted the same one. Most people wanted “Blaenwern”, but there were some who preferred the John Stainer tune “Love Divine”. Chapel folk often sing it to the tune “Hyfrydol” which we use for “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus”. “If we sing it, I want it to the original tune,” said someone to me as we talked about it. “I bet you don’t even know the original tune,” I replied, and when I sang it to him he didn’t. Charles Wesley wrote the words to fit the Purcell tune “Precious Isle,” which was very popular in the theatres at the time, and Wesley thought it ought to have some religious words. These days he’d probably have been writing hymns to fit things like the Eastenders theme tune. Someone has, by the way. For the record, the guy who liked the original tune was thinking of the Stainer one.

Here’s the point, though: it’s the same love divine, whatever tune we sing it to. It’s the same love divine, whatever our tradition of worship. And of course I chose that hymn very deliberately. Love is what makes sense of it all. God loves all kinds of people who come to church, whether they make the sign of the cross and kneel a lot, or raise their hands in the air and dance a lot. More to the point, he also loves all kinds of people who don’t come to church - people who mean to but don’t get round to it, people who refuse to have anything to do with it, people who’ve been hurt by the church, as some have. God loves people who are out playing Sunday league soccer or home washing their cars or watering their cucumbers. I’m sure he’d like to see them in church, but he loves them anyway. They may not know he loves them or care all that much, but that’s where we come in.

For a prophetic church isn’t prophetic in order to look good, and to make sure in the process that everyone else knows just how bad they look. A church in mission isn’t doing it so we can fill our pews and pay our bills. It can sometimes come across that way, but what we need to be is servant churches in the image of our servant King. And prophecy and mission done in his name and after his example must rest in this simple statement: God wants people to know the truth, so we who have the truth mustn’t keep it to ourselves but need to be spreading it around. People may not always like what they hear, because no-one can sign up with Jesus without changing, without being changed. Nor can we, by the way. And no-one likes change.

But our motivation for mission is love - for live is God’s motivation all the way through. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son . . .” Are people hearing that from us? Are people seeing that in us? They need to; we mustn’t hold back. God’s word should be burning in each one of us just as it did in Jeremiah: not that we’re all quite called to do all that he did, but we are all called in some way to be part of the process.

Sermon for Sunday 8th July (1)

Based on the "1st Service" readings, from 2 Corinthians 12.2-10 and Mark 6.1-13 :-

Many people have speculated about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” What was it? A physical ailment, maybe a bad back, or hip, or knee? Was it perhaps malaria, not uncommon in the Mediterranean region at that time? Malaria keeps flaring up and coming back once you’ve had it? We sometimes use the phrase “thorn in the flesh” to refer to a person, someone who’s annoying to live with or maybe to work with. Wow - maybe some people are saying that about me? Anyway, could that be the problem? Did Paul have someone who aggravated him, and who he’d like to be rid of?

Personally, I’ve often wondered whether the thorn was some aspect of Paul’s life he’d tried to put right but found he couldn’t. Like my brother and his smoking. Often when we meet up he tells me he’s given up, but then next time we meet there he is, still puffing away. No tobacco this side of the Atlantic in Paul’s day, but was there some aspect of his character he wanted to change but always found he couldn’t. After all, in another letter he wrote, “The good that I want to do, I find I don’t do.”
So Paul, whatever it was really that troubled him, Paul wanted to be stronger than he was, but he’d come to understand that wasn’t going to happen - and that it would be in his own weakness and imperfection that the strength and wonder of God’s love could be revealed. There was only Jesus he could boast about.

Our Gospel reading today has Jesus sending his disciples out to prepare the way. His ministry is still in its early days, as he travels from village to village in his home district of Galilee. We might think the disciples are rather poorly equipped. They’re sent out with no money, no food, not even a change of clothes. What kind of mission campaign is this? Answer - one in which the missioners also have things to learn and discover. To speak of the Lord, they must also trust in the Lord. They themselves must be trusting in him utterly, completely, for everything.

And this is the example taken to heart by Francis of Assisi when he began his own personal ministry some thousand or more years later. He and the members of the order he founded of Friars Minor, or Little Brothers would also have no money, no pack, no change of clothes, as they journeyed around the villages of that part of Italy, and by doing so began a movement that spread worldwide. “In our poverty, we are rich,” he said.

“In my weakness, I am strong,” says St Paul. Or maybe, in my weakness, my Lord is strong within me. I generally worry more about the Church when it’s strong than when it’s weak. I worry more about rich and powerful churches than poor and struggling ones. With this proviso, though: the church may be small in numbers and poor in resources, but it needs to be big in faith, big in its trust in the Lord.

Like St Paul, and like the disciples Jesus sent out with no pack or second coat, we are in the service of truth, we proclaim the God of truth. My faith tells me this: the love of God is the ultimate truth behind everything I see and know. Love is what makes sense of my life. And I may be small, I may be vulnerable, and I may be getting on a bit, but the truth is no less true for that. Nor is it any less true because not so many believe it.

Father Brian D’Arcy was doing Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show the other day. I don’t hear him often, but he’s always worth hearing, and here’s something he said the other day: “Always treat with caution anyone who claims to be one hundred percent sure of what they believe.” Isn’t that the opposite of what you’d expect? Surely the more certain and sure the someone is in what they believe and preach, the better?

It may seem counter-intuitive, but I do think that faith is about living with questions. Here’s what Paul himself wrote: For now we see through a glass, darkly; then, we will see face to face. I believe in that “then” Paul looks forward to.

For now, though, I still have questions. Not long ago, someone asked me, “Can you prove to me that what you believe is true?” No, I can’t. I can’t prove it because to live a life of faith you have at some point to take a leap of faith; every step isn’t clearly marked. For one thing, good things don’t only happen to good people, bad things don’t only happen to bad guys; I can see that. Some of the world’s evils can be laid at the door of human greed or avarice or prejudice, but not all of them.

As a Christian I believe that evil has been defeated once and for all, that God’s love is triumphant, and that the place and time and event where this happened is Calvary and the Cross. But I can’t prove it. All I can say is that generations have lived this faith (Francis of Assisi among them), and that I’ll live it too. I may not always feel like living it, I may not always be good at living it, and we all have our thorns in the flesh. But it’s in the living, not through the spoken argument, that our faith becomes persuasive.

And that’s why Jesus sent his disciples out to do things, to heal and befriend and to listen and to forgive, to be compassionate and caring. He sent them to live the Kingdom faith and not just speak about it. Some folk they went to would see and hear and understand; others, perhaps would not, and some would even jeer at them. That’s the reality of mission. That’s what happens. “Take nothing with you,” Jesus had said. So the disciples had nothing to offer but themselves - and their Lord.

However good I may be at speaking and preaching the faith, it’s whether I live the faith that counts. And if my words and deeds don’t match up, however wonderful my words, it’s not going to work. To be blunt, if our message as a church really amounts to “Come and join us and keep our church going,” that’s not going to be enough. We need to inspire people, and to be inspired they need to see in us that what we have is worth having, and worth the living of it.

So here are a few points in conclusion: whatever the thorn was in Paul’s flesh, it wasn’t there to derail his ministry but to keep it real, to keep him on the straight and narrow. That thorn reminded him that he wasn’t Paul the superstar preaching himself but Paul the apostle, preaching Christ. To do that he needed to be humble and self-aware, to know that his own strength could never be enough, and to keep living the life of faith. And those disciples of Jesus? They may have seemed under-resourced when they were sent out, but they weren’t. God was with them all the way, and as they worked they would learn to trust him.

Like them, we go in the strength of the Lord and not in our own strength. Like Francis of Assisi and his band of “little brothers”, our mission needs to begin with service, with things done rather than things said. Think about that, because I’d like each church in this group over the coming months to be settling on one thing (or at least one thing) that we can do, that is within our strength and capabilities, to be of service where we are. And if you’re not sure, nor am I. And if you think you’re too small and weak, so do I. And so, I suspect, did those first disciples when Jesus sent them out on the road. So did Paul, with his thorn in the flesh - maybe that was the thorn in his flesh.

But you know, I think it may well be what God wants of us. And one last thing, a rule of my life. If you want answers, don’t go to the guy who’s got them all, or thinks he has; go to the guy who’s still got questions.

Friday, 29 June 2018

More Random Thoughts from the Garden

A new "Nature Notes"

After all, I’ve been sitting out here a lot just lately! We were still busily filling the bird feeders each day, but they were getting repeatedly swamped by young birds that I’m sure really ought to be learning how to fend for themselves rather than just cashing in on the fat chunks and sunflower seeds we put out, so with a slightly heavy heart I’ve decided to take it out of action for a week or so. It seems to have worked, in that there are still plenty of young blue tits about, but they’re now doing what they’re supposed to do, hunting along the branches of the oak tree behind us for the hoards of little creatures there are there, which frankly are easy pickings just now.

It is sad to watch a tree slowly die. I mentioned our elm last time. It still has some green leaves, but slowly but surely the fungus is spreading, with new branches succumbing all the time. Leaves fall as they die in the autumn, because the tree makes them fall when it no longer needs them, by sealing off the leaf stem. The tree still needs these dying leaves, so even the ones that are completely brown and withered are still there hanging on the branches, which really just makes the whole scene look so much worse.

Tree bumble bees are a new species to the UK, first recorded in 2001. We’ve had loads on the white flowers of our strongly scented thornless rambling rose - this is the first time I’ve identified them. Our rose has a distinct flowering season which is over, so the bees have moved on too. They’re not large, and they have a fluffy ginger thorax, a black abdomen and a white or grey tail, quite distinctive. They often nest in bird boxes (wasps and other bees will also do this). At a time when bees are under pressure, it’s good that this new species is spreading well. We need the bees!

Anyone who thinks we’re not made of the same stuff as the animals has only to listen to young blackbirds chasing after their parents for food. They have a particular call which has exactly the same wheedling cadence as kids mithering mum or dad for an ice-cream on the way back from school. The hard cherries on our earliest blossoming cherry are tiny and certainly not for human consumption, but blackbirds love them. Dad refused to listen to his kid’s wheedling, and flew off, leaving junior to make quite a decent fist at tearing off ripe berries and gobbling them down. So obviously he had been watching and learning.

Swifts arrived a bit late this year I think, but they may well leave early, as we have had some quite prolonged sunny spells and that means good hunting for swifts. They don’t linger here - they’ve come to raise a family and once they’ve done that, they go. So swifts leave earlier in a good summer than in a bad one, the opposite way round from what you might think. They leave a lot earlier than most other species, but even so it’s a reminder that for migrant birds August really is the first month of autumn, rather than the height of summer. Birds are already on the move!

Saturday, 23 June 2018

His name is John

Sir Christopher Chope MP is, I imagine, the usual mixture of good, bad and indifferent that most of us are, even members of the House of Commons. However, for at least the next short while, and maybe longer than that, he’ll be remembered as the man who halted the progress into law of a bill designed to protect the freedom and safety of women. It seems he wanted to make the point that laws of this kind should be made by government bill rather than by using up the precious time allowed back-benchers; but if so he picked the wrong time and under-estimated both the importance of this particular issue and the strength of public feeling around it. One foolish word and the whole world was suddenly against him, or that’s certainly how it felt, by his own admission. He may even wish now that at that decisive moment he’d been struck dumb.

Zechariah at the start of our Gospel reading this morning had been struck dumb. Zechariah was an old man with no children, and by now no expectation of children. As a temple priest, born into one of the priestly families, he held a position of honour. And at last his turn had come to have the greater honour of being chosen to burn incense in the inner court of the temple. But as Zechariah took his turn to perform this work, he too spoke out of turn, and his world came crashing down around him.

This is how it happened: an angel spoke to him, and told him he was to be the father of a son. A message from heaven that promised to fulfil Zechariah's deepest longing, a son to bear his name! The  last thing he should have done was to answer back. But he did: No, he said, that can’t happen! My wife’s far too old, this is surely some kind of joke. No it’s not, said the angel, and promptly struck Zechariah dumb. Which meant he couldn’t fulfil his temple duties or any of the rest of his work as a priest.

So our Gospel reading starts with Zechariah off work and unable to say a word. Meanwhile, the angel's promise has come true, and the child’s been born. It’s the eighth day, time for his son to be circumcised, and also named. By tradition the first born son would be named for the father, or perhaps he’d be given another close family name. So that’s what the folk gathered there expected. But the angel had said that the child should be named John, so that’s the name Elizabeth tells them. ‘Hang on,’ the people say, ‘this isn’t a name in your family!’ Squadrons of angels - as I imagine it - are all holding their collective breath, as the people turn to speechless Zechariah, who surely won’t let his wife do something so foolish. He’ll put her right! Zechariah calls for a writing tablet, and what he writes is: ‘His name is John.’ And just as suddenly as it went, his voice returns.

Zechariah did what he should have known to do all along. A priest is supposed to trust and obey the word of God. And his moment of trustful obedience leads to the return of his voice, so that any instinct for protest or ridicule there might have been among the onlookers is instantly defused, and turned to amazement and wonder. A miracle has happened.

In fact this is a story shot through with miracles. An elderly childless couple blessed with a son, a temple priest struck dumb, and his voice miraculously restored; and God using Zechariah’s initial doubt and subsequent faith to proclaim his divine purpose and power. The name John actually means ‘God is gracious’ – giving this name to the child acknowledged him as God’s gift and special. And John wasn’t God's gift just to Elizabeth and Zechariah, he was a gift to everyone. Everyone was talking and wondering about these events. Everyone must have expected great and wonderful new things to spring from this birth.

And one thing I take from this story is that God has a way of bringing good results out of bad stuff, and of transforming human weakness and stubbornness and failure. Those months unable to speak must have been torment for Zechariah, but it was nobody's fault but his own. If only he’d not spoken out of turn; if only he'd kept his doubts to himself. His priestly ministry had been disabled, God had smitten him, and who knows, maybe God had permanently written him off? What if he could never be a priest again? He must have wondered. It happens all the time in human relationships: we fall short, make a mistake, let someone down, and we’re marked with a permanent blot, labelled by our mistakes.

Well, we may treat each other that way, but God never does. What about the times when I’ve blown it, wanted my own way or refused to listen to advice? The times I’ve decided for myself what can be done and what can’t without asking God, gone where I wanted to go, and not where God wanted to send me? God’s word to us: ‘Trust me for what you need, and work for my kingdom’ - Jesus is always saying things like that. But it’s easy not to trust, not to believe it can be done, to look down when we should be looking up.

Basically God said to Zechariah: ‘Who are you to tell me what I can or cannot do?’ - and that’s when he struck him dumb. So Zechariah the priest learned humility and obedience the hard way, as we often have to do. But here’s something I see, looking back through my life: when I’ve made mistakes or wrong decisions, failed to trust as I should, cut God out of the process, in the end I find that’s not the end, and God still brings good out of it all. Things we regret may in the end serve to deepen our spiritual awareness and our knowledge of ourselves, and God can start to use us in new ways. Our doubts, once worked through, may lead us to a stronger and more vivid and worked-out faith.

John isn’t my given name, and yet in a way it is my name, and it’s yours too: for the declaration that ‘God is gracious’ lies at the heart of our shared faith. To say God is gracious means God gives more than we deserve, and loves us though we don’t merit it, and that God renews and keeps his promises to us, even when our first reaction, like Jonah in the Old Testament, has been to rush off in the opposite direction and go our own way instead of his. We Give up on each other, and we may well give up on God, but I believe that God never gives up on us.

‘His name is John,’ said Zechariah, or at least, that’s what he wrote, as his son was circumcised and named. And in our own naming and baptism we become members of the community of John who was himself the first baptizer. In baptism we’re made members of the company of folk who know God is gracious, and who - even if they don’t always get it right - are learning and striving to trust in his divine and holy love. And as I look to whatever lies ahead for me and for us, who can tell where God in his love might be leading us?

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Son of Encouragement

On a bright sunny morning a couple of weeks back I was walking along the streets near where I live, and feeling pretty good. So I smiled at the people I passed, and even said ‘Good morning!’ to one or two of them. But no-one much made any reply. OK, it was Monday morning, but even so - I was beginning to feel a bit depressed. Possibly the fact that I was wearing a high viz jacket and picking up litter meant that people didn’t even see me, let feel they needed to relate to me in any way. I do a stint now and again as a litter champion, trying to keep the streets around me a bit tidier. I enjoy doing it, but for the most part it does seem to render me invisible.

And then I came across a little girl with her mother and I would guess her grandmother - and as I smiled, each one of them smiled back. I felt so encouraged by those smiles, and I had to say thank you. ‘You're just about the first people who've smiled at me all morning,’ I said. ‘Well,’ said granny, ‘it's going to be a gloomy old world if we can't manage a smile between us.’ 

Last Monday was the feast day of the apostle Barnabas. That wasn’t actually his real name, which was Joseph, but a nickname, which means 'Son of Encouragement'. His story’s in the Acts of the Apostles; read it and you’ll find that Barnabas was a man who really lived up to his nickname. He was good at encouraging people, and he did it all the time.

To offer encouragement and support is one response to the simple truth that, as the poet John Donne said, “No man is an island, entire unto himself.” We belong together. The readings set for today focus on ‘The King and the Kingdom’. Jesus told lots of stories about the kingdom of God, and we heard two in today’s Gospel. The kingdom of God is like a seed that sprouts and grows in secret. And it’s like the tiny mustard seed that nonetheless grows up to become a bush big enough for birds to shelter in. 

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God he’s talking about what happens when people start serving God faithfully, and doing what he wants them to do. A kingdom isn’t an acreage of land but people who loyally serve their king. And to encourage one another is a big part of the service our King call us to give.

The kingdom of God starts small and grows secretly, because it doesn't depend on people showing off or throwing their weight around or looking big. Nor does it need people to be religious experts or able leaders or skilled performers. It just needs people to be encouraging one another, loving one another, even sharing a smile or two. Jesus said: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” And he went on to say, “That’s how people will know you belong to me.” God’s kingdom is built on encouragement, on generosity, on compassion, and most of all on love. It’s built when people know we belong together because we belong to God.

The late Scottish bible commentator William Barclay often inspires me with his reflections on scripture, so here’s something he wrote: ‘One of the highest of human duties is the duty of encouragement.  It’s easy to discourage, and the world is full of discouragers. Our Christian duty is to encourage one another. Many a time a word of praise or thanks or appreciation or cheer has kept a person on their feet. Blessed is the one who speaks such a word.’ Amen to that, I say; take inspiration from Barnabas, be ready to encourage each other, and keep the kingdom growing here. 

You don’t need to be an expert Christian preacher to pass on the Good News of God. Often a smile and a hug can be enough to start the ball rolling. I was collecting on the street for charity yesterday morning - that’s another situation where you can often think you’re invisible, but I smiled at as many people as I could as they passed by, and I was pleased that quite a few smiled back, and even more pleased at the amount of money in my tin. It’s true: a good smile goes a long way. 

Every churches should be a place of encouragement. It’s been truly said that we come to faith not when we believe in God, but when we know God believes in us. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Jesus died for all, so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but should live for him who for their sake died and was raised to life.” Wherever we meet in his name, Jesus wants us to be a community of encouragement: to be truly living for him, and sharing his love.

We don’t always know how we’ve encouraged others. Paul wrote that it isn’t always the one who sows the seed who gets to reap the harvest. Let me share an inspirational story that I found quite moving when I heard it. It’s about a man who’d become housebound and severely disabled by an accident at work. Confined to his home, he decided to spend time to writing letters to people in prison. His constant pain meant it wasn’t always easy to write, but he stuck at it. He had a lively mind and the ability to tell a good story, so he knew this was something he could do well.

His letters had to go via the prison chaplaincy, and when he first started writing the chaplain told him that the prisoners he wrote to wouldn’t be able to reply. He understood and accepted that to begin with, but as time went on he began to get discouraged and his confidence waned. What if no-one was reading his letters? What if no-one was even receiving them? He didn’t know, and it was more and more painful to write. Maybe he was just wasting his time. 

At last he decided it wasn’t worth going on. He would give it up.  But just as he made that decision, a letter arrived - not from a prisoner, of course, but from one of the prison officers. Just a very short note, on official prison paper, saying: “Could you please write your next letter on stronger paper? Your letters get passed from prisoner to prisoner, until eventually they fall to pieces. It would be great if we could make them last a bit longer!”
We all need a bit of encouragement. We’re all that bit happier for a smile. But the encouragement of Barnabas -  encouragement not just so I can feel comfortable, but so I too can keep on giving help and encouragement to others. This is the heart of my Gospel: I know that I’m cared for, and that God believes in me. I believe in a generous God who calls me to be generous too. And whenever I pass on something of his love, in however small a way, I’ll be helping the seeds of his kingdom to grow. And so will you.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Tree Bumble Bees

The roses in our front garden are particularly lovely this year. They're ramblers of some kind, with a simple open flower that comes in clusters, looks sweet, and smells sweeter. This year they've been festooned with bees, that I've identified as tree bumble bees. These are a new species to Britain, first identified I think in 2001, but they've spread very rapidly across the whole of England and a good chunk of Wales, and into Scotland too. At a time when our bee population is under threat, a new species has to be good I think, and scientists tell us that there's no evidence the tree bumble bee's spread is harming other species.

The tree bumble bee likes to nest in holes in trees, as its name suggests. One reason for its spread across the UK is that nest boxes will do just as well, and it has even been known to evict the existing avian tenants in order to take over. I don't know where the ones we have are coming from, but they don't seem to be nesting on our premises. They like to come to our rose when it's in shade, there aren't anything like as many about when it's in full sun. I've seen them on one of our fuschias too, but they clearly like the rose better than anything else we've got. The wide open flowers will help. These bees don't like tubes like foxgloves, unlike many other bees. It's interesting to see where different species go. Our cistus - white open flowers like the rose - doesn't attract tree bumble bees, but instead has lots of visits from solitary bees of some species, black and honey bee shaped.

The tree bumble bees have a fluffy russet thorax, often with a black mark in the centre, then a black abdomen and a white tail. They vary in size, depending on the role they play in the colony, but none of them are all that big. They do seem to be very active and hard working bees. I'm glad to have identified them, and glad too that bees of all kinds have certainly benefited from the good start we've had to the summer.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

A Sermon for Trinity 2

(For St Mark's, Marton and St Mary's, Trelystan)

I’m not sure where Jesus is at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. But he’s in a house somewhere, whose I don’t know; he’s not somewhere out on the road, or in a boat on the lake, the sort of places we often find him. He’s in a house; but wherever he is, you’re going to get a crowd: so many people, and so much going on that Jesus and his friends can’t even get a bite to eat.

The story Mark tells us focuses on two sets of people who really should have known who Jesus was and what he was about. But it seems they don’t. Firstly, there’s Jesus’ own family; and then secondly we have the scribes, or teachers of the Law, people who knew the faith inside out. 

So the family of Jesus arrive, determined to save him from himself. They can’t get near; they’re somewhere on the edge of the crowd, and they have to send a message in to try and get Jesus to come out to them. Why? Because they really don’t understand what’s going on. In fact they think he’s gone out of his mind. “He’s beside himself,” they say. The verb used here in the original Greek of Mark’s Gospel means literally “to stand outside of”.

I suppose that was true in way, though not in the way the family were thinking. Jesus was beside himself. Or at least, Jesus was living in more than one world; yes, he was the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, living in the First Century equivalent of the world in which you and I live.

But was that world his real home? Jesus talked a lot to the crowds about somewhere else, another world that he said had drawn close to them as he spoke, as he forgave, as he healed. A world he called “the kingdom of God”. The Kingdom of God is anywhere and everywhere, and it’s the world how God always intended it to be. The world in which God is honoured as Father, the world in which people live together as sisters and brothers. And that was the world of Jesus’ true life, the world he told stories about, the world in which he invites us to join him.

But that was something that really annoyed the scribes, the teachers of the Law. They were there in the crowd, because it annoyed them so much that they’d come down specially from Jerusalem to challenge Jesus. You see, they also didn’t understand what was going on. Religion had to be done their way, or else it wasn’t real. I wonder if we really grasp just how radical all this talk about the Kingdom was? The idea that people could themselves talk to God, could call him “our Father”. Here I am standing here today in a Church, wearing liturgical robes, part of the “organised religion” of our times. We’re human beings, and we need to be organised, and Jesus himself went to synagogue and to the Temple. But when he talked about the Kingdom what Jesus was really saying is this: what we do in church and in the organised religion bit of our lives is less important than that we ourselves are right with God, and right with one another, right with our sisters and brothers, right with the other people God loves just as much as he loves you and me.

Now the scribes so couldn’t get their heads round that that they could only imagine that Jesus was in league with Beelzebul, with the prince of demons, with Satan himself. Or maybe they just wanted to persuade the people of that, so they could discredit this new and dangerous preacher who was such a threat to the way they did things.

What they hadn’t grasped, I think, was the difference between religion and faith. They’re two different things. Religion should be an expression of faith, the servant of faith, a way in which we share our faith, a place where we can encourage one another in faith. But faith comes first - the living relationship with the living God that Jesus called “living in God’s Kingdom.” That’s what it’s really about, much more than hymns or liturgies or ministries or venerable buildings, however much we may love all of that. Religion must never become an end in itself, and maybe for the scribes that’s just what it had become; a system which had God safely and securely locked up inside it.

So what’s the Church really about? The Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cotterell, a very mission minded man and a pretty good preacher, once noted that “Christians have made a religion in the name of the one man who came to end all religion.” But that’s only if the Church isn’t being what it’s supposed to be. That’s only if Church becomes an end in itself. What the Church is supposed to be is a sort of outpost of the Kingdom of God, a community of people united in mission by his Holy Spirit.

Within this story there’s one really difficult bit, and that’s to do with the unpardonable or unforgivable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit. What does Jesus mean by that? I still wrestle with this, and with the idea of any sin being unforgivable, for surely God’s love is greater than any sin. What exactly is Jesus saying to the scribes? Maybe that they know that what he’s saying is true - and yet for their own ends they continue to work against him. They’re working for themselves while they claim to work for God, and for as long as they do that, they’ll not be forgiven.

Anyway, Jesus dealt with the scribes. And he dealt with his own family, too - not by rejecting them, so much as by including everyone in as family. This is the picture of God the Father that Jesus always gives us: God who invites us in, and assures us of a place. So let’s become part of that crowd as Jesus speaks. Hear how he says “Here are my mother and my brothers and my sisters, for whoever does the will of God, and whoever lives in the Kingdom of God, is my brother and sister and mother.”

Where am I really in that picture? Where are you? God is always saying to us, “Come closer, receive more from me, do more with me.” What might that mean for me? For you? Where does his Spirit touch mine? Where is my heart being pressed? How can I grow to be what God’s wanting me to be? To live in the Kingdom is to love in the presence of miracle and mystery, and at the heart of it all, love. And just at this point in my life my task is simply this: to learn how to be, here and now, the person, the child, God says I am to him. Amen.

Random Thoughts from the Garden

My "Nature Notes" for the month :-

Sitting on our patio on a gloriously sunny Saturday, I’m very glad we’ve been able to develop a garden that’s really good for wildlife. It’s helped by the woodland behind, but we’ve installed a good array of insect-friendly plants, we have plenty of bushes and trees, we’ve left some scruffy bits to give shelter, and, though we have no pond, there is a stream in the valley below us, so we’re not far from water.

This means we have plenty of bird visitors - currently young blackbirds pursuing their parents and begging for whatever they can get, and coal tits working furiously to keep their young ones fed too, plus a noisy family of jackdaws rampaging through the treetops. I haven’t seen any young blue or great tits yet; sadly our resident nest of blue tits was I think raided by the local pair of woodpeckers, who very probably took all the young just as they prepared to fledge. All that work by the parents came to nothing - but that’s nature, and we do have young woodpeckers at our feeders.

Finches come to us in many shapes and sizes, and I particularly love the two pairs of bullfinches we have around. They mate for life, and we usually see male and female together, even though they must have a nest full of young. Siskins have stayed with us through the summer, and goldfinches are always around too - along with chaffinches and greenfinches of course. Robins are less visible just now - hard at work I imagine. We have two pairs, each of which think their territory includes our feeders, so some serious arguments develop from time to time. We is plenty of floor level browsing space for dunnocks and wrens, and at the moment wrens are often to be seen prospecting the stems of our lovely tree peony.

We have many more bird species, but starlings are only very occasional visitors, and house sparrows, though regularly seen, only visit us from the gardens on the other side of the road, attracted by the fat and seed chunks we put out.

This seems to have been a good summer so far for butterflies and bees, but there aren’t many wasps - I’ve seen only one queen. Last year hornets passed through from time to time along the woodland edge, but none this summer as yet. When it comes to larger creatures, we’re not short of grey squirrels! And we have also seen frogs, a toad, a hedgehog or two, even slow worms. We don’t see these often, but there’ll be others around we never see. You’re never very far from a brown rat, for example.

Among the trees behind us, the elm succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease last summer, so we were surprised when this spring it leafed up and produced flowers. But now the leaves are drooping and shrivelling branch by branch, and I suppose we’ll never again have the great elms we used to know when I was a child. I’ve planted a young elm which I hope will grow to fill its place. While there’s a good mix of trees behind us - ash, sycamore, oak, wild cherry, crab apple, even a yew - I do hope we can manage to keep an elm or two.

Friday, 1 June 2018


A sermon for Trinity 1 :-

Where would we be without rules? Maybe a lot happier and a lot less hassled, you might think. After all, rules can be a bit of a bore. They’re frustrating and annoying, and they stop us doing what we like. But live a few days without rules and I suspect we’d be ready to ask for them back. Life wouldn’t be safe without the rules of the road, or the rules that govern, say, electrical installation or plumbing standards. And, though just now we might be shaking our heads over the new GDPR - General Data Protection Regulations, if you’ve been asleep for the past six months - the fact is we do need rules to make sure our personal information is handled properly, not sold on to others or used in ways that annoy or worry or endanger us. And that’s before we get to criminal law and all that that involves. I’ve been burgled, and while the police didn’t catch those guys I’m glad they were at least tried to, and that they took it seriously as a crime - against the rules, against the law.

Religious and secular laws and rules are different things in 21st century Britain; but for Jews at the time of Jesus, they were one and the same thing. They would be for Orthodox Jews today as well, in that God’s law governs every aspect of their life. And prominent within the commandments given by God to Moses, from which all the rest of the law derived, was this: remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. If you don’t keep the Sabbath, you don’t do honour to God. He rested on the seventh day; so should we. No lifting burdens, no harvesting crops, no work at all.

The Pharisees kept these rules rigorously and diligently; Jesus, however, did not, or so it seemed. His disciples had been plucking ears of corn as they walked through the fields on the Sabbath, for no better reason than they were hungry, and Jesus had done nothing to stop them. Pharisees saw it happen; they were looking out for opportunities to challenge Jesus so they could discredit him, so they could show the people just how far short he fell from their own high standards.

We’ve heard the story, and also Mark’s account of one of the many healing miracles Jesus performed on the Sabbath. He seems almost to have made a point of healing people on the Sabbath; and here he even does it in church, or in the synagogue. Now of course, Jesus was very much in favour of keeping the Sabbath; where he differed from the Pharisees was in how you go about that. What does keeping the Sabbath really mean?

The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath, was how Jesus put it. And that applies not only to that particular rule about keeping the Sabbath, but to all our rules and laws. It’s a test we need to apply. Put most simply, does this or that particular rule add to the health of the community, or detract from it? Does it apply a burden? Well, yes, of course it does - all rules are in some way burdensome, all rules restrict our freedom to do just whatever we want. But is that burden balanced by a benefit? It should be, if a rule is good. Good rules make our lives better by balancing my rights and freedoms and hopes against yours. And notice that word “balancing”. If a rule is designed to make life really tough for one group just so that another group has it easy or is given a dominant place, then that law is wrong, unjust, immoral - ungodly, I would even say.

“That’s just the way it is, some things will never change.” Lines from a song by Bruce Hornsby and the Range that was a chart hit around the world in, I think, 1986. Written by Bruce Hornsby, the lyrics of the song challenge the idea that segregation (in the deep South of the United States) was just how things were, how things always had been, how things were bound to remain. You’d even hear voices saying that’s how God wanted things to be; to challenge segregation was to challenge God’s order. The Christian witness of Dr Martin Luther King was countered by voices on the other side that also claimed the authority of God and of the Bible. Some things will never change.

Rules govern our lives, and they do need to. We need our own freedom to do whatever we want to be to some degree curtailed, so that other people too may have a measure of freedom, and we can live safely and happily and well together. Good rules aim to ensure the greatest good for everyone. But not all rules are good; Jesus told the Pharisees, who it has to be said loved their rules, that where the law was used to stop good things happening that need to happen then that law needed to be challenged.

Christians are supposed to be law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. Our default position, if you like, is that we’re loyal and obedient to whatever government is in charge of our daily lives, and to whatever system of law is in place. But, as Jesus makes clear, that loyalty to the state must never be at the expense of our first and prior allegiance to God. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.” That is the summary of the law as given by Moses, and we’re reminded of that at every communion service.

If the rules imposed by others stop us from serving God as we ought, and prevent us from loving our neighbour as we’re called to, then we should be ready to ignore such rules - to oppose them and campaign against them, for God wants better for us than that. Christians should be the first to stand up against injustice; but a combination of niceness and fear often keeps us quiet. Martin Niemoller, who as a Lutheran minister spent seven years in Nazi prison camps, wrote this: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” Those words are inscribed at the Holocaust Memorial in Washington DC.

Good rules are there so we can to live together safely and well;  God gave us the Sabbath Day because he knows that folk need a rest and a change of pace in life; but he didn’t give it so that people could beat each other over the head with strictures about what you’re allowed to do and what you’re not allowed to do. If you let the Sabbath stop good things from happening, then you’ve got it wrong. And the Sabbath is certainly not there so that one group of people can lord it over another saying, “Look how wonderfully good we are, unlike you sinful lot!”

As ever when we hear what Jesus says, we’re to go and do likewise. And that means valuing and keeping the rules, because  most rules, most of the time, are good and will serve us and protect us, and the very best of them will make particular space and provision for the weak and the vulnerable. But that’s the point about rules and about ourselves as disciples: rules are there to serve us, and we are there to serve God; the Sabbath is there to serve us and not to enslave us. Get that perspective right, and we can start to live.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Trinity Sunday

My sermon for the Sunday ahead . . .

Vicars mostly don’t look forward to preaching on Trinity Sunday. We find it hard to preach on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity without getting tied up in theological knots! Thinking about it, it’s probably no easier being a member of the congregation, and having to listen to us.

The fact is that we vicars don’t actually talk all that much about God when we preach. We talk about what God wants of us, and we talk about what God does for us, but we don’t talk a lot about who God is.  And when we do try to say stuff about God, who God is, what God is like, language quickly begins to fail us. How do you express the inexpressible? God who made all things, God by whom all things are held in being, God the source of light and life: how do you define and describe God in mere words? But there comes a point - today - when we do have to try.

I would say that these days we’ve mostly forgotten what the word 'God' really means. God has become just a word; I suspect that’s why on the telly certain Anglo Saxon words are largely still banned, at least before the watershed, but it’s OK to say “Oh God!” at moments of stress, even on daytime TV. I actually get more offended by that than by the F word, but most people don’t. For most people, the word 'God' doesn’t mean anything much; not the terrible and remote figure that so filled Isaiah the prophet with awe and fear in the Temple; and not the God that Jesus taught us we can call “Our Father” when we pray. So in fact it’s not a bad thing to do some talking about who God is - at any time, and certainly on Trinity Sunday.

But we will struggle to find the words; how can God be summed up or pinned down? It’s a matter of finding words that can point to what’s beyond words, I suppose. However carefully my words are chosen, God will always be somewhere beyond their reach. But historically the Church has agreed on how to talk about God; and when we say the Creed, we say we believe in God as Father, as Son and as Holy Spirit.

In other words, we speak about God as being those three Persons, and yet the Three are together one God. God is Trinity. Just said or sung quickly, it sounds quite a neat formula: “Three in One and One in Three, Ruler of the earth and sea.” But how, in reality, can anything or anyone be both three and one?

We could start to tackle that by thinking about how else we can say who God is: like the statement the Apostle John makes, when he says that God is love. I could be tempted to say that that’s all we need to say about God: that God is love. Perhaps, though, we should unpack that little word 'love'. It’s a little word with a wide range of meanings. One word in English to translate a whole lot of different words in Greek, the language of the New Testament. If I say that I love cake, I really just mean that I like it a lot. If I say that I love my brother, I’m saying something about the way I feel we belong to one another in a family. If I say that I’ve fallen in love, then that’s another love again. Love can be anything from liking, through sentimental attachment and family identity, to an involvement so passionate and complete that it almost excludes the rest of the world.

So what sort of love do we mean when we say that God is love? I want to start by looking at the very first words about God in our Bible, Genesis, chapter 1, a story of creation, one of the two stories of creation in that book. God speaks to create - he speaks and things appear. And order is formed from chaos, and all that is made is good. I tend to think of God speaking a word of love, that God loves each new aspect of creation into being. God creates the world in love, and the creation in Genesis begins a love story we can trace through the Old Testament and into the Gospels. We may reject God and spoil our own lives and spoil his world, but God continues to love us and acts to rescue us from the bad stuff that would otherwise drag us down. We see that in the words of Isaiah and the other prophets to Israel. And we see it in Jesus, as God sends his only begotten Son.

And here is the climax of the love story: the man who alone can show us divine love within a human life. Jesus lives with us and dies for us, and in him we see death itself defeated. Then last week at Pentecost we saw how the story continues: God comes to be present with his people in a new and different way, in the power of the Holy Spirit, with a new command to take the story of his love out into all the world, a story that’s our story too.

So God is self-giving love. God gives himself in Jesus Christ in costly self-sacrifice to free us from the impact of our sin. And he gives himself as Holy Spirit to lift and inspire us, bonding us in fellowship and service. When we say that 'God is love' we’re saying that God always and eternally gives himself - in creation, in redemption, in inspiration. And as the Church tried to tell that story it found it could do so only by speaking of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The single word that sums this up, other than the word love, is “Yes”. God’s “Yes” in creation brings life into being - we can think of that as the Fatherly love of God; God's “Yes” in Jesus saves us from ourselves - we can think of that as the Brotherly love of God; God’s “Yes” at Pentecost makes us his partners in mission and service and joy - we can think of that as God's love planted within us, inspiring us to live in such a way that God's love is at the heart of all we do.

So in order to say fully and truthfully that God is love, the Church found it needed three ways of talking about the one God. God reveals himself to us, works for us and within us, in three distinct ways. The Doctrine of the Trinity is our attempt to tell the love story of creation and re-creation, of God's love for the world. But it’s only an attempt; the truth is beyond words. Trinity isn’t God sorted out and boxed up. It’s not the last word about God, just a starting point - a way in which we begin to engage with the mystery of God.

For if God is love, then that love is much more than just his love for us. In a sense, that would be to make us the centre of the story, and therefore more important than God. No: God is love in essence, love is his very being, and that was true before creation began. God’s creative love for us is just one expression of the love that God eternally is. No mere formula - not even the inspired doctrine that is the Holy Trinity - can bring God within the grasp of our minds. God will always be more than we can comprehend.

One last image that works for me comes from a prayer I use when I take weddings, asking that the love between these two people, and within the family they form, may flow out into the community around them, making a positive difference to other lives too. Now I think the doctrine of the Trinity says something like that about God. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, separate and yet bound together in a love that flows out and touches us.

Think of it this way. A family could be a closed circle, so that what connects its members does so by excluding others. But some families I know are open circles, in which the love within the family is constantly being released to be shared with others. People coming into their circle feel instantly welcome, and they quickly feel they're part of the family. I think it’s like that with God. The eternal love within God, the interplay of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is a love that flows out for us to share. In the yes of Creation, and the birth and life and death of Jesus, and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, God opens up his own life of love for us to share in, and we are welcomed in, and made part of the family.

We think of God as Trinity, and the Trinity model works because it’s a way of saying that God is love - love that creates, that redeems, that transforms. And yet the mystery of God remains, beyond our words and doctrines; we can’t know God, except as he reveals himself to us: as the mystery and wonder of love.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Some Thoughts on Waiting

I am quickly bored. I don’t find it easy to sit around and wait. And when I had to go into the treatment unit at the Royal Shrewsbury last week, while I wasn’t looking forward to the actual treatment (needn’t have worried, had sedation, don’t remember a thing) - mostly what I didn’t fancy was the waiting around. Fortunately, there was only one person in front of me, and there were some interesting magazines in the waiting room, so I didn’t have to wait too long, and I now know more about the state of our air defences than I ever expected to.

When you’re in hospital, however briefly, you’re placing yourself in the hands of people who know everything (or at least, you hope they do), while you know nothing. You’re quite helpless to help yourself, especially once they’ve got the line inserted and the sedative is flowing. That can feel a bit uncomfortable, but the staff were very reassuring as I checked in.

I’d travelled in by bus, and as I waited for it, I could feel I had some control over my own immediate destiny. After all, I knew what time the bus was due, and what route it would take, and if there was any great delay I had my phone and I could make other arrangements. It was a bit late, as it happens, and I got a bit annoyed as I watched for it without seeing it come. But then the driver kept his foot down, and the roads were fairly clear, and I was still on time at the hospital.

How in control of their own destiny were the disciples as they waited in Jerusalem, having said farewell to their Master on the hill outside the city? Not at all, really. Over the period from Easter Day to the Ascension they had offered themselves to him completely. They were, as Paul later described himself, his people, his possession, and no longer their own. So was their waiting worrisome or frustrating? No. They waited joyfully, and purposefully, and prayerfully. Whatever they thought might happen at the event we celebrate next Sunday, the first Christian Day of Pentecost, nothing could really have prepared them.

On that day they were so overtaken by the joy of knowing God’s active and dynamic presence right where they were that they could only describe what happened to them using images like wind and fire, things that are essentially wild and uncontrollable. So the Church was born in an explosion of joy. But before that could happen the disciples needed to wait, and to pray as they waited. Christian action needs the stillness of prayer as its starting point, for prayer is about tuning ourselves in to God.
“Go into all the world, and make disciples of every nation.” That was a big ask for a tiny group of people who just a month and a half earlier had been hiding behind locked doors, full of fear, with nothing to do but to try and pick up the pieces of their old lives. Things had changed for them, even before the dramatic gift of the Holy Spirit? And a single word - trust - sums it up.

Waiting in hospital the other day, I needed the reassurance with which I was greeted, because I needed to trust the doctor and nurses who’d be examining and treating me. Actually, I was a bit nonplussed to be asked if I’d mind a trainee doing the work - to be honest, the image that floated into my mind was of some young spotty oik on work experience. “Don’t worry,” said the check-in nurse, no doubt seeing the expression on my face, “the doctor will be there the whole time.” I didn’t actually spot any trainee - but I didn’t know who anyone was, so I needed to trust the uniforms and the name badges and the assurances I’d been given.

We take a lot on trust every day, when you think about it. Even on the bus in, I needed to trust the guy behind the wheel to convey me, and quite a few other people, safely and speedily to where we were going. There are multiple checks in hospitals, and I was asked by several different people for my full name and date of birth, which they checked against my wristband. That helped me to trust I wouldn’t get mixed up with someone else, but you still have to trust they’ll be doing the job right.

As they waited in Jerusalem, the disciples had trust in Jesus - and it was a different trust from how they’d trusted him before, as they followed him along the road, village to village. They trusted then him as their teacher, as a rabbi, a man of God. But now they trusted him as something more, and it was Thomas who said it first, when, on the Sunday after Easter, he declared, “My Lord and my God.” Now they trusted that all that had happened - the cross and what looked like a final defeat - that all of this had been God’s plan of salvation being decisively worked out, a great battle won - not only for them but for all the world. They had thought he would restore the Kingdom of Israel and be a new King David: now they knew that in him new life and hope and freedom was being offered to all people everywhere. And they could trust the promise he now gave them: that what they waited for would be given - the power and vision and authority to carry through the immense task entrusted to them - to go out into all the world, and make disciples of every nation.

That work still continues; the Church exists to do mission, and to live a faith we’re called to share with all the world. We’re small and few, but no smaller and fewer than the group of men who started this ball rolling. And the promise still applies. I’m not good at waiting, but I know I need to do it, because I know I need to pray. Each celebration of Pentecost begins a new chapter in our life and ministry; and to be part of that I need to be tuned in to God, and open to his will and to the gift of his Spirit. So in these days of waiting I need to set aside time to reflect and to pray and to get right with him, so as to hear what he’s saying to me, and to accept what he’s offering me, and to be fruitful in his service.

Friday, 11 May 2018

A Few Precious Days

The few precious days of warm sunshine we had at the beginning of May for the Bank Holiday will stay with me whatever the rest of the year might do. On the Saturday I was working, but in the beautiful Ithon Valley at Llanbadarn Fynydd, not far from Llandrindod - and with time for a walk! At this time of the year everything sparkles, and of course I was surrounded by birdsong. Primroses and celandines were prominent along the hedgerows, with some stands of garlic mustard or Jack by the hedge, its flowers just opening and so at their very best against the particularly fresh green of the leaves. Blackthorn was still out in the hedges, with bumble bees busily prospecting the flowers. Earlier I rescued a very large queen from the church, and placed it on flowers outside, where it soon recovered. These large insects use a lot of energy in flying, and need very regular toppings-up with nectar. If you find one looking sad and exhausted, feed it with some sugar syrup and restore it to health!

My walk took me high above the river and the little village beyond, then, later along the side of the river itself. There were swallows everywhere, and plenty of insects for them to catch. The twittering song of swallows is one I always enjoy. A large brown bird flew across to land out of sight by the river. I’d no field glasses with me, so I couldn’t identify it - it would have been nice if it was a curlew down from the moors, but I can’t be sure, though the flight looked right.

Down by the river itself, with the bank studded with widely open celandines (and a fair few dandelions too), a patch of more vivid golden yellow proved to be marsh marigolds or kingcups, among my very favourite flowers. I do like it when a patch of colour turns out to be something special. On the Bank Holiday Monday, a bright patch of purple along the lane near Gaer Fawr, by Guilsfield, turned out to be early purple orchids, five or six flower heads, lovely to find.

We walked into the woods, and along the paths fern fronds were unfolding, and white stars of stitchwort were beginning to open. There were plenty of wood anemones out, their flowers varying from white through pale cream to a few that were very pinkish, and here and there a few clumps of the smaller and gentler wood sorrel, but what we were really there to see (and to smell) was of course the carpet of bluebells that you find especially towards the top of this ancient hill fort woodland reserve. We were not disappointed! Individually, the scent is much fainter than that of (say) a pot hyacinth, but when there are so many together it can be quite heady.

Bee flies were everywhere, little round bundles of ginger fuzz, with a long straight proboscis. They are able to just stop in mid air and hover on the spot, then quickly jerk away, often returning to exactly the same point. Butterflies included lots of combative speckled woods (very territorial), orange tips, holly blues and a bright orange comma. I had hoped to see the sulphur yellow of a brimstone, but I was disappointed. I was far from disappointed by the birdsong, though, with blackcaps, chiffchaffs and other warblers adding their voices to the resident species.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Lord of the Dance

The writer and speaker Kurt Vonnegut memorably said: “If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: ‘Music was the only proof he needed of the existence of God’”. Spike Milligan said of music that “It’s natural, we can’t help but do it.” Not everyone would claim to be musical, but for me music is, if not an essential to faith and worship, very very important, and a precious gift for us to use.

Listening to the birdsong in the early morning - the dawn chorus is at its very best just now - I’m reminded that we’re surrounded by music; it’s a fact of nature. I’ve met very few folk who aren’t turned on by birdsong, and it features in many a classical composition, such as Beethoven’s great Pastoral Symphony, Vaughan Williams’ haunting ‘The Lark Ascending’,  Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ - plus many more besides. What would spring be without birdsong?

What about the human origins of music? Some classical musicians might well regard birdsong as a higher form of music than the drums and bongos of popular human culture, but the beginnings of human music have more to do with rhythm and beat than with clever melody or complex harmony. Back then, music wouldn’t have been something merely performed and listened to, it was there to be moved to, to be danced to. And those rhythms were already inside us.

Rhythm is vital to us living beings; if my heart were to stop beating or if I no longer remembered to breathe in and out, I’d be in deep trouble. The earliest forms of music began with the rhythms that are already within us, and those we see, hear and feel around us. Music speaks of us, and it speaks to us; that we can enjoy music and make music is surely part of what it means to say that we’re “made in the image of God.” To make music is a fundamental creative impulse. Back in the days of Moody and Sankey, their mission campaigns required and used music to lift hearts, to inspire, to call. As my fridge magnet reminds me, music continues to speak where words fail.

So please don’t think of music as a sideline or an optional extra in our Christian life and worship. For me, it’s a fundamental. The better we do music, the better we do everything, I think. So I thank God for the gift of music and song, and for those - Byrd, Tallis, Gibbons, Handel; Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, John Newton; Timothy Dudley-Smith, John Bell, Stuart Townend (to name a very few out of thousands) - who in Christian song conspire to lift us, challenge us, enthuse us, enable our praise. The more we value music, and the better we learn to use it well, the more effective we’ll be in the mission to which we’re called. I’ve heard God’s creation described as “The Great Dance”, and I enjoy Sidney Carter’s great folk-song hymn that describes Jesus as “the Lord of the Dance”; maybe we should dance a bit more in mission and service, both metaphorically and literally! Music may not be the only way to express and share our faith, but it certainly works for me!

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Dandelions . . . and more

Despite the cold start we’ve had to Spring this year, we’ve arrived at last at the best time of the year for flowers. They're all over the place and they're lovely. Once again, it’s a splendid year for dandelions! They're an utter pest when they're on your land, but when they’re on someone else’s or along the road sides they look fantastic. And the bees like them, too. Friends who keep bees assure me that dandelion flowers make very good honey. 

But what exactly is the point of flowers, what are they there to do? For they don’t exist to please us, even though we are pleased by them. They exist purely to enable the perpetuation of their kind, by producing fruit and seed. So every flower we see is essentially a mechanism designed to ensure the plant it's on will have children and grandchildren. Its flowers enable a plant to colonise its own bit of the world and then hang on in there. So flowers aren’t bothered about being attractive to us; in fact that could be counter-productive if we pick them and stick them in a vase somewhere. But they do their best to be as attractive as they can be to whatever pollinates them: bees and hoverflies, or maybe moths or beetles, and in more tropical climes even bats or humming birds. 

They do that by colour and shape and also by smelling nice. That sweet smell promises a supply of nectar and pollen, a reward for the creatures that visit. Some flowers even have special markings to guide a bee in, like the lines on an airport runway. So petals often have lines directing inwards (not always visible to us, as bees can see into the ultraviolet part of the spectrum). Foxglove flowers have little splodgy foot-prints that do the same thing. 

And if flowers don't need us to find them attractive, for that matter we don’t need to find flowers attractive. We don't eat them or use them for any practical purpose; not for the most part, anyway. And yet, though we don’t need their beauty, we recognise it and admire it.

Let me dwell on that for a moment or two, because I think the fact that we find flowers beautiful is a big part of what makes us human beings special. More than that, the fact that we find all sorts of things beautiful and are moved by them, maybe to write a poem like Wordsworth and his daffodils. We take a delight in things, we fall in love, and that’s surely part of what’s meant by saying we’re made in the image of God. We find things beautiful: that’s one way in which we share God’s creative vision. Chapter one of the Book of Genesis tells us that our Creator God delighted in each thing he made. And so can we.

The prophet Isaiah wrote: "I delight greatly in the Lord." One way in which we can delight greatly in the Lord is by delighting in what he’s made, enjoying and marvelling at the beauty and majesty of creation, and in the flowers and other living things with which we share this planet. 

But, as I’ve said already, flowers are beautiful for a purpose.  They have a job to do. The aim of each flower is to become a fruit. Not that a flower has to do an awful lot in order to be fruitful; really it just has to be there, looking lovely to the bees or moths or whatever it takes to pollinate it. Jesus of course said to his disciples: "Consider the flowers around you. They don't toil, they don't weave or spin, you don't see them running about wondering what clothes to wear. But God gives them clothes more beautiful than Solomon, so they can just get on with being what God’s calling them to be."

And it needs to be just the same for you as well, Jesus went on to say. Don't worry about things that really don't matter much, like what to eat and what to wear. When you spend your time doing that, you end up looking inwards instead of outwards. You lose touch with the important stuff, with the things that really matter. No, he said: set your minds on God's kingdom - and everything you need to serve God will be provided. 

What does it mean in practical terms, to set our minds on God's kingdom? While it surely begins with our honouring him as Creator, delighting in the beauty of his work and praising him for giving us so much that’s good, we need to go on from there. For we too are called to be both beautiful and fruitful, like those flowers of the field. I was talking to an old friend about what I’d be talking about this Sunday, and he responded, "Well, it’s a bit late for me to be beautiful!" But it isn’t, for beauty isn’t only our outward appearance, there’s beauty within us as well. We may work very hard on the outward show, and the TV ads certainly encourage us to do that; but we need to work just as hard on the inward beauty that really is much more important. When we’re caring, loving, considerate, generous, then we’re beautiful, beautiful in a way that helps our world be a more beautiful place.

This coming Thursday is Ascension Day, and the nine days between Ascension Day and Pentecost were days in which the disciples in Jerusalem waited prayerfully for the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised they’d receive. The Church ever since has seen this time as a chance to think more about prayer than we usually do. Our life and growth and mission depend on it. Prayer can sometimes feel like a bit of a waste of our time; after all, we’re just sitting there, or maybe kneeling there, when surely we really ought to be getting out there and doing stuff. I often need to remind myself of the sign above the door to the chapel at Lincoln Theological College where I trained. It read “Orare est laborare” (in other words, to pray is to work). For when we pray we’re training ourselves towards God, bending our hearts and minds to his will, rather like a sunflower which turns its head through the day to follow the sun.

Now if our prayer is a work we can offer God (orare est laborare), so all our work should also be prayerful (laborare est orare - to work is to pray). And this season of Rogation leading up to Ascension Day is a time to reflect on this.

Our prayer should encourage our work, and our work should be prayerful, done with God’s will in mind. The days immediately before Ascension Day are kept as Rogation Days, and the word rogation just means prayer, or more specifically, “asking prayer”. Back in pagan times, the people of ancient Rome used to walk through the crops at this time of the year, praying that they would grow well. Christian communities continued to do this, and one particular theme of Rogationtide is that we pray for farmers and gardeners, and give thanks for God’s creation. The hymn “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land that we sing every year at harvest was in fact written to be sung this Sunday, as a Rogation hymn. To the asking prayer of Rogation we add our praising prayers - we praise God for the beauty and goodness of the world about us, and we even praise him for things like flowers and birdsong, which aren’t needed by us but do please and impress and inspire us.

But our prayer needs to be more than asking and praising. To them we need also to add a prayer of commitment. We are stewards of God’s creation; our knowledge and power - and our faith - bring with them a responsibility. We are to keep our world beautiful by being beautiful ourselves, in the things that matter. And God’s kingdom of beauty will be proclaimed and built wherever we are when we are trusting in his love and in Christ’s victory over death and sin, and when the way we live reflects his truth and mercy and love. When we are working prayerfully, working as he desires, and when we are motivated by the mind of Christ, then in our caring, our loving, our mutual concern, our fruitfulness in good works, our generosity and forgiveness, we will shine into the world the light we’ve seen and found in him; and like the flowers, we will be attractive and persuasive in our beauty.