Friday, 23 June 2017

Mission and Fear . . .

I came across a lovely story the other day about a little lad watching his mum, the minister’s wife, get the supper ready. “Nip into the pantry and get me a can of tomato soup,” she told him. “I can’t,” he replied. “It’s dark in there and I’m scared.” “It’ll be all right,” she told him. “There’s really nothing scary in there. And anyway, Jesus will be in there with you.” So the little boy walked hesitantly to the pantry door and looked inside. It did seem awfully dark in there. He leaned round the door and said, “Jesus, if you’re really in there, could you hand me out a can of tomato soup, please?”

Fear is one of the most basic of human emotions; from the very earliest moments of our lives we learn to fear. And that’s a good thing. If we didn’t feel pain and fear we’d be incredibly vulnerable; we simply wouldn’t be able to keep ourselves safe - or those around us. Heroes like the fire-fighters who faced danger so heroically as they tackled the dreadful blaze at Grenfell Tower in Kensington - these guys were not fearless, though that’s a word we sometimes use. They were as full of fear as anyone else would have been going into such a tragic and dangerous situation. But they were able to overcame their fear, and that’s what bravery is. How did they overcome their fear? Certainly not by under-estimating the seriousness of the task and the danger involved; they knew what they were going into. But they were well trained, well equipped, highly motivated, and with colleague support they could trust.

Fear is a good and necessary thing, but if fear gets the upper hand it disables us. That’s as true when we think of living out our faith as it is for anything else in life. The Bible shows how fear is part of our fall from grace. Adam and Eve hide from God the cool of the evening because, having eaten from the tree, they have learned to be afraid. Fear and sin are connected; fear disconnects us from a good and loving relationship both with God and with one another.

We encounter much to fear in our everyday lives: fear of illness, of poverty, of failure. We fear what we don’t like or understand. We may fear the other person, the one who looks different, speaks a different language, or dresses or worships differently. We fear those we think might wish us harm. Fear feeds into worry, tension, anxiety, stress; fear feeds into political extremism, religious isolationism, intolerance. A study in the United States of five hundred people found that among them they had 1,800 different fears. The media often help stoke up a culture of fear; the internet certainly does.

Fears left un-dealt with and uncontrolled can box us in, they hold us captive, leave us vulnerable to extremist voices. Fear can have a devastating impact, it can unbalance our perception and the decisions we make. The religious leaders at the time of Jesus were themselves transfixed by fear. Some of them at least were looking for the coming of God’s Messiah; but their minds were closed to Jesus, they failed to recognise him. These were men of God so boxed in by the fear of change, so afraid of losing their power, their status, their influence, that they conspired to kill the man whom God had sent.

Fear is designed to protect us; left unchecked, however, it can paralyze us. But John tells us that “perfect love casts out fear”, so what if we could cast out those fears that disable us? A repeated message as we read the Easter story is “Don’t be afraid.” We are called to be resurrection people: people who trust that Jesus is who he says he is, who trust in the reality of resurrection, and from that trust find the courage to place ourselves into his hands. Our fears won’t be magicked away, but we will find strength to overcome them, to work through them. Jesus promises that when we turn to him he’ll be there to strengthen and guide us. Life can be tough, and sometimes like Jeremiah we may feel that the whole world’s against us. But our Lord lives: we need not fear.

Today’s reading from St Matthew is part of his account of Jesus sending his disciples. Jesus warns them it’s going to be tough out there. They’ll face opposition - but, says Jesus, “Don’t be afraid of those who seek to harm you.”

This passage provides pointers to how we can ensure that our own ministry and mission isn’t disabled by fear. Firstly, we must be realistic, see things clearly, measure things up. In mission expect difficulty and allow for opposition; mission’s about telling good news, but not everyone will hear it gladly. Christians may sometimes expect God to prevent the sort of bad things from happening to us that might happen to other people. But real life’s not like that: look back through the pages of Christian history, look in the Gospels or the Acts of the Apostles: see how people doing God’s work face suffering and tragedy like anyone else. Real life includes a measure of pain and difficulty, there’ll be disappointment and even tragedy: but real life is where we’re called to minister and witness. Neither we nor the first disciples Jesus sent can be immune from the bad stuff that happens in our world. And some bad things may be the direct result of following Jesus.

The second thing I want to say is our faith is in the God who is, not some God we might choose to fit in with how we feel. In other words, God has sovereignty. Verse 28: Jesus tells the disciples to fear not the things they might have to face, but “the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Our Christian worship, service and mission bears witness to the greatness of God: his might and majesty are beyond our human reckoning, and yet he seeks us out and calls us to serve him. To focus on God helps me not to be egocentric, not to place myself at the centre of my own universe, but to see me as I really am. Fear is stoked up by excessive focus on ourselves. But God has power over all things, even over death itself.

Paul wrote: I belong no longer to myself, but to Christ. So a third thing to say is that we recognise that we God’s children and he loves us. Jesus says: “Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” God loves us as his own; as Paul again writes: If God is for us, who then can prevail against us?

So fourthly, we must not keep quiet about what we believe: we should go public in confessing our faith and doing God’s will. In verse 31 Jesus says that “anyone who acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge him before My Father in heaven.” Faith needs to be put to work: our holy task is to be builders of the kingdom, and to do this we need to keep ourselves focused on Jesus and his work of salvation, not on our own fears. That’s not to say those fears aren’t real. Bad things do happen; Christians in many places face persecution. Even here faithful witness is a challenging thing to do. But if our mission is cross-centred and cross-shaped, we’ll find, like a fire-fighter going into a blazing building, that we’ve got the tools to do the job.

So mission should be cross-centred: focused on what Jesus has done for us, on the cross where our sins are lifted from us, and the way to life is opened. At the cross our greatest fear is already defeated. And mission should be cross-shaped: at its heart should be the vertical of the cross, communication between me and God, God and me; perfect love casts out fear, and prayer is the spring of that love, that we are constantly seeking God’s presence, wanting to hear his word. Its expression is the horizontal of the cross: not just me and God, but us and God, in a fellowship of ministry and mission in which we look to each other, support each other, are in communion with each other through our communion with Christ. But the horizontal goes further than that: mission is done when we are reaching out to serve in the world.

For, as Archbishop William Temple famously said: “The Church is the one institution that exists primarily for the sake of those who are not its members.” Mission is fundamental to the work of the Church, and it involves its every member; I don’t mean we all have to stand on soap boxes on street corners, or go from house to house as doorstep evangelists - though some of us may be called to do those things. But all Christians are enrolled in a kingdom movement whose aim is that our world might be a better and more loving and peaceful place - a more Godly place. Our task within that movement is to build kingdom values where we are, where we live, where we work, where we have our being. That’s what we see Jesus sending his disciples out to do - they weren’t going out there to preach long sermons, they weren’t going to harangue people, they were to heal, console, forgive, lift up, to change lives for the better; and then to say: “The kingdom of God has come close to you.”

We’ll not manage that if we’re hooked on, paralyzed by, our fears; but nor can we do it by foolishly thinking there’s nothing to fear. If the world’s all right as it is, and there’s nothing to fear, then there is no mission task. But there is of course: we can see that the world is not how God wants it to be. We can see that he has work for us. But we have the antidote to fear; we have the equipment we need to get on with the job. We are resurrection people, and we already know how the story of our lives will end. We can say with confidence that because our Lord lives, we too will live. And in saying that we can overcome our fear, because we know that the future is in his hands: that my future, your future, is in his hands. Life is worth the living, the work is worth the striving, simply because he has died, and yet lives. Rejoice: the Lord is King! That, as Charles Wesley knew very well, is where mission begins.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Bullfinches

Bullfinches in my garden today.  Father flew to the feeding station, and began to feed on sunflower seeds. Young one followed him, and perched on the top of the feeding station, making piteous noises. Young bullfinches have to same coloration, more or less, as the mother, but without the black cap. Mother then duly appeared, and joined father in feeding. Junior continued to cry. A second male appeared, and was immediately chased away by father. He had another try, and was again repulsed. Meanwhile, junior flew to the bars of our squirrel-proof feeder (the only seed feeder we use through the summer, along with a feeder stocked with fat chunks, very popular just now with the young blue tits), and tried fluttering his wings, only to receive a very stern "Gertcha!" from father, who went back to stuffing his own crop. I imagine junior is exactly that, the last one of the brood not to have cut the apron strings, and needing to be taught that now it's sink or swim.

The other male reappeared, flew straight at the feeders, thought better of it and veered past, to perch on our ornamental hawthorn. I thought he's head for the cherry, where our bullfinch pair spent a happy evening yesterday, along with sundry blackbirds, picking off the ripening berries. But no, back again he flew, and this time father decided to do some serious seeing off, so they both disappeared, with mother soon following.

That left junior, who sat on the top of the feeding station for a while longer, then descended to feed on the ground underneath, seeing off a rather handsome male chaffinch in the process - which suggests that he's got a bit about him, after all. But he certainly hasn't got the hang of the feeder. He did have a go, but then a big family party of blue tits appeared, and he couldn't compete. I was watching all this from our potting shed cum summer house, just a couple or three yards away. Who needs the soaps?

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Kite, etc

. . . my most recent "Nature Notes" column:

I was going to write about this year’s fledglings, which are everywhere in my garden as I write, with hoards of little coal tits and a brood of bullfinches my particular favourites. There are so many, and they seem so without fear that even the grey squirrels are put out by them. Squirrels expect to have control of the bird feeders whenever they choose to raid them. The birds are supposed to move away, but these young birds don’t. The squirrel I was watching climbed the pole from which the feeders hang, to look in amazement as the birds just continued to flutter and feed as though he wasn’t there, before eventually admitting defeat and descending.

But while parking cars for the Welshpool Air Show at the Livestock Market my eye was caught by a superior flying display - a red kite, which was about all day. It was a blustery sort of day, and the kite was totally expert in manipulating the wind, soaring, gliding, dipping with negligible effort, spreading its long wings and twisting its body in flight with amazing suppleness. At times there were two, so they were presumably nesting locally - I hope so, anyway.

Birds of prey never linger long in one spot without attracting opposition. Jackdaws were nesting, probably somewhere by the canal, and whenever the kite strayed too close to their comfort zone, they were up and about, mobbing him, and driving him back across the market. Even small birds will mob raptors and other birds seen as possible threats - I’ve seen songbirds mobbing a sparrow hawk, which would normally have been happy to make a meal of any of them. But in such cases they can probably tell that the hawk isn’t in hunting mode, and so not a direct threat, and out in the open (and in numbers) they probably have the ability to annoy it without being at too much risk themselves.  Mobbing in numbers will tend to confuse and disorientate a possible predator, as when the black-headed gulls at Llyn Coed y Dinas lift noisily as one to drive off a passing heron or greater black-backed gull.

In this case, the kite allowed the jackdaws to see it off, drifting back over the market area without paying them too much regard. It probably won’t have been much of a real threat, and the mobbing came across as something done for form’s sake rather than as a real emergency response. Red kites are mostly carrion feeders, and jackdaws are mostly hole nesters, so their eggs or young will have been safely out of reach anyway.

It was when the kite found and picked up a bit of carrion (roadkill, probably) that it became the target of a serious and concerted attack, which came from two directions. It lifted up with something dangling from one talon, and immediately there was a buzzard on the scene, pushing up from below and trying to tackle the kite. From above appeared a lesser black-backed gull which swooped repeatedly at the kite’s head. In an aerobatics competition I’m sure the kite could have beaten either of them, but against both at once it was up against it. The morsel was dropped as the kite made its escape, but I didn’t see which of the two attackers got it.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Trinity

Let me begin by reading R.S. Thomas’ poem, “The Bright Field”:

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

I think that’s a very wonderful piece of poetry; should I call it religious poetry? Maybe I shouldn’t, since Thomas had a somewhat ambivalent attitude to organised religion, for all that he spent his life in its employ as a parish priest, and a faithful one. But he was a man of great faith. As a poet his mind and heart were always ranging more widely, to touch on the hard lives of his people, on the shortness of our time, on the gap between the hopes we have and the prayers we make, and the little we understand or achieve. So it’s a poem of faith, certainly, a faith that struggles on, that persists, that is held on to, however hard the paths we walk.

Why read this poem on Trinity Sunday? Partly because I’ve just found it and like it, but also because poetry is a way in to what this day’s about. We celebrate what a Christian doctrine: that God’s reveals himself to us as Father, creator, as Son, redeemer, and as Holy Spirit, God inbreathed, the inspirer of faith. But don’t imagine that that’s the whole truth, the last word about God. Poetry reminds that doctrines like “Trinity” are just us trying to express what is utterly beyond us.

Trinity’s not the end but the start of the journey; faith is a dynamic thing, a process of constant discovery. God isn’t a thing to be defined and measured, but a constant dancing presence somewhere just outside the perimeter of our understanding, and yet somehow within us as well.

The doctrine of the Trinity arises from our awareness that the one God we worship makes himself known to us in different and distinct ways; and those who first devised the creeds we say were led to speak about different persons. Not different and separate people: but Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct and different persons who together are one God. They’re not three gods, but one; for Father, Son and Holy Spirit cohere together, and are part of each other.

One image of the Trinity is of a triangle, lines linking the three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. In the one we had as a lectern fall in one of my previous churches, the three sides of the triangle bore the legend “non est” - so the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and so on. At the heart of the triangle was a circle, labelled “Deus” (God), and lines connected that circle to each point of the triangle, these lines bearing the legend “est” - so the Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God.

That’s a nice try, but it doesn’t say enough. Another symbol of Trinity I’ve seen shows the triangle as before but with a circle intersecting the sides, a circle carrying arrow symbols to denote movement. So the lines are static, separating the three persons, making clear that the Father is not the Son, and so on, but at the same time the circle demonstrates the three persons in constant fluid motion, belonging to each other, in a constant interplay of love, so that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not fixed at the three corners, but also moving between, among, within each other.

Does all of this make sense? I hope it doesn’t, really. We may take the shamrock leaf as a symbol of Trinity - three leaflets making one leaf; or ice and liquid water and steam, different and yet all water. But no symbol really says enough. Trinity, God three in one and one in three, remains a mystery, however we try to explain or visualise it.

Which, for me, is where that poem comes in, among others I could list. One reason I enjoy poetry so much is that it’s an inexact science, in which what the poet writes is understood and interpreted in different ways by different people. That’s not to say that some get it right and others get it wrong, but that the act of reading or listening to a poem is itself part of the creative process that brings the poem to life. The pearl beyond price in the parable of Jesus and the poem by RS Thomas is a mystery; we may not fully understand what we’ve found, but we know we have to have it, at whatever cost.

Looking again at the image of a circle within a triangle, we see that trinity isn’t a static thing but something dynamic: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in relationship with each other that is all movement. And we should be reminded that doctrine is not important for its own sake; it isn’t the list of things we believe that matters, but the relationship we have - our relationship with God, and that relationship reflected and expressed in our care for one another, and our creative, useful and loving reaching out to the world. Jesus tells us that, like him we can call God our Father and pray to him in those words. And he offers us the Holy Spirit, the active presence of divine love to spark our fellowship, inspire our love, and enable our response, our praise and our prayer.

Trinity isn’t God sorted, defined, neatly boxed and labelled, but God the mystery of love inviting us in, saying “be part of this.” And isn’t that the pearl the poet finds? - a love that is personal to each of us, a love that creates all, conquers all, enlivens all, a love for all the world.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Pentecost 2017

On this bright morning, with the churchyard grass dotted with cinquefoil,
the old church bells missing one, ringing five, but still lovely to hear,
ringing in Pentecost, the old Whit Sunday, these days more red than white,
I wait awhile outside the door, just to taste again the freshness of late Spring
or early Summer, just to enjoy the brightness that is still there in the green.
But today I am robed in red, and not only for the Spirit; again, there is news of death,
of innocent blood spilled, of indiscriminate damage done in the name of Allah.
Or not, certainly not. Only the old false gods demanded libation of human blood.
We stand in silence, and a prayer is said. “Come down, O Love divine,” we sing.
The God who is love, and who chooses never to be other than love
is not served by those whose minds and faces are twisted by hate, nor by those
who have moulded them so, who manipulated their minds, and destroyed their souls.
But nor will he be served if we answer hate with hate. We may feel safer
if we let that happen, we may leach away some of the anger from within us
(or would we be only feeding it?), but love divine demands of us
the risk of human love, love that speaks all languages, that crosses every boundary,
that holds nothing back. “#Turn to love” said the heart in the poster, brown taped
onto London Bridge. And we must: for if we hate, the men with the knives will have won.
If we go on loving, daring to love, insisting on it, then they can never win,
not on this bright morning, not ever. So thy will be done, amen, thou Love divine.


Friday, 2 June 2017

Jackdaws and others (including Crow)

There's quite a crowd of jackdaws round our way just now, and they've taken to coming into our garden and attacking the fat feeder, which dispenses dollops about the size of a wine-bottle cork and is very popular with the woodpeckers and the house sparrows. The jackdaws keep all of them away and are rather messy and untidy in the way they attack the feeder. One at a time is all right, but when there's three or four together as there were today it's a bit tiresome.

Crow doesn't like them, either, and they will attack him if he shows his face. So he skulks in his tree and hopes they don't notice him. Jackdaws are colonial nesters, but they don't really co-operate with one another, and will steal nest sites from each other, sometimes evicting eggs or nestlings to do so. I think ours are nesting in the wood behind, though I have noticed them prospecting our neighbour's chimneys. At Minsterley our chimneys had to wired to prevent jackdaw access. A friend had a scare when a fully grown jackdaw chick came down the chimney in a cloud of soot and proceeded to rampage in terror around his lounge.

Blackbirds will also have a go at this feeder, by the way. As with the jackdaws, there is much fluttering of wings: it's not a very gainly pursuit. But it's an easy and cheap meal.


Here's a picture of Crow.  He took to visiting our patio every day for a while, but now mostly he stays in his tree.


Sergeant Pepper

I'm trying to be more disciplined, and to post something every day . . . but I was just too late getting back in last night, so this is what I would have posted yesterday . . .


Fifty years since Sergeant Pepper! This is the album that arguably changed everything, or at any rate it changed quite a lot. It was a remarkable achievement that had in its time a considerable impact on the world of popular music, and for that matter still does today.  It was certainly one of the significant steps that helped cement popular music as a serious art form, and no longer just "entertainment".

All I can really comment on, though, is its impact on me, at that time a somewhat green and naive sixth former at a small boarding school in the Midlands. Looking back, I'm a little amused at just how little we knew about life, for all that we tried to present ourselves as young men of the world. I guess we were aware of the existence of hallucinogenic drugs, but Woodbines and black coffee were pretty much the limit of our experience, as we listened to "Sergeant Pepper" in the dubious comfort of our rather ramshackle sixth form study. Even the village fish and chip shop was considered morally dubious, as I recall.

I was, therefore, especially susceptible to this strange new record, with its window into a world very different from mine at the time, but which, at the age of sixteen, I couldn't wait to become part of. Whenever I listen to it, each song sparks into life some particular memory, not so much of places, people or events so much as of how I felt at the time, of the dreams and longings we had. But they are all positive memories. I've always been a Beatles fan - not to the exclusion of other bands and singers, nor for that matter of other types of music, but the Beatles had been there throughout my adolescence, the musical backdrop to some times of utter misery and genuine pain, but also to my hopes, expectations and dreams, to the first confusing experiences of sexual identity, to the first breathtaking goes on that fairground ride called love.

And now, this! It's not my favourite album; it's not even my favourite Beatles album, which is, for the record, "Revolver". But it remains a (maybe the) pivotal moment in popular music, and in me. And fifty years on, as I look back and listen again, the sheer eclecticism of it all still thrills me, as does the fact that here was something that no-one had really ever done before. I'm reminded, too, that some of those dreams and hopes I had never did get achieved, and time is getting short. I'm not yet ready to stop . . .

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Last Day of Spring

That's what it probably was today . . . it all depends, of course, when you choose to start summer. The calendar first day is 21st June, but meteorologists and many naturalists tend to go for June 1st, which makes it easier to keep records, as your season starts at the beginning of a month.  Having said that, Springwatch has only just started, which means for the most part perhaps it should be labelled "Summerwatch". Seasons start at different times for different creatures, as for different people. Some summer migrants haven't been here long - the swifts that are screaming across our skies, for example, or spotted flycatchers. Resident birds and some early migrants like chiffchaffs may well have raised a brood already, and our garden has already seen its share of young blackbirds, blue tits and coal tits.

This has been quite a warm spring, on the whole; and dry, too, though the last couple of weeks have put some water back in the table. The forecast I saw for today suggested the occasional shower. In fact it rained here for much of the afternoon. Winds were light, maybe we were just unlucky - or lucky, everything is still growing apace, and the water is much needed.

Crow, as we call him, because he is, albeit with white wings and a rather hang-dog expression, is still around our garden. He is very shy and cautious, and can't fly at all well. He will sit in a tree above our feeders for ages before daring to come down, and then doesn't stay long on the ground. He has his own route - on foot - back into the wood, and then you hear him climbing bit by bit back up the tree. I managed to persuade him to come down and eat some scattered grain this morning. It's not much of a life. I notice Springwatch tonight features a woodpecker with exactly the same designs on a blue tit nest as ours had, and suggested they wait until the chicks are almost ready to fledge before striking; sad, but that's how nature works.

Summer tomorrow, and a warm day is promised! To close, a bee on one of our rambling roses . . .


Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Sermon for Pentecost

(To be preached at Chirbury)

Not long ago, after attending a family funeral, I had a walk round some of the places I used to know in my primary school days in Stafford. It was interesting to see how things had changed, some for the better but some not so, in my view anyway. My brother Ben has recently signed me up to a Facebook Group called “Stafford Remembered”, and it’s been fascinating to see and to share some great old photographs and memories of my home town, and to re-make one or two acquaintances as well. People all around the world are part of the group, and the impression I have is that many of them really wish that places they knew when they were young could still be just the same whenever they went back to visit. If I’m honest, part of me feels the same way. But I also know that it can't be like that. For better or for worse, the world moves on, and we have to move on as well; you can't hang on to the past, however much you wish you could; you have to let go.

Last week a friend of mine was showing me some photos of a family wedding she’d just been to, her niece’s, I think. I didn’t know most of the people in the pictures, but it was nice to look in on the celebration: a celebration of love, in which friends and family come together to wish these two people joy and  blessing, God’s blessing, in their married life together. That’s one particular way in which we let go of the old life, to take on something new, at a wedding. The two people looking so happy at the heart of the family groups would not of course be letting go of all the old stuff: “something old” is deliberately part of the list of what you have to have at a wedding, and families and friends continue to have a part to play in the new partnership sealed in a wedding ceremony. But things will be different: husband and wife belong to one another in a new way.

To start out and begin again is a recurring theme within the church year: Advent, Candlemas and Lent; Maundy Thursday and Easter Day - all these are times when we're encouraged to start out afresh, and to make a new commitment to God.

And today is also one of those special days, and perhaps the most important of them: Pentecost. Today is sometimes called the birthday of the Church; when the Holy Spirit entered the lives of the apostles with sudden and dramatic power. Birthday - yes, from this point on this band of folk not only had a message for the world, they had the means and the desire to share that message, and to share it with an infectious joy that would cross all kinds of human boundaries.

They were changed from what they had been - disciples, followers, learners - to become instead witnesses and apostles (the word apostle means messenger). The experience they shared of God's presence and power was totally transformative - something they simply had to share, and take out into all the world. And there’s still a hunger for the message of joy they had to share.

After another funeral not long ago, a slightly unconventional one, I found myself talking with a young teacher who works in a church school in London. Christian values are important to her, she said, and she’s clear about what she believes; but she’d been finding it hard to actually go to church week by week. That was partly just the pressure of teaching and of city life, but also she wasn’t sure what to say or do, or when to sit or stand, in a fairly traditional church. “It sometimes seems that everyone’s looking at me,” she said, “and sometimes I don’t really feel very welcome there.”  Things like when to stand or when to sit aren’t important, I replied. "But they do feel important when I'm there,” she said. As a girl she’d always been chapel, so maybe the culture shift between church and chapel was part of the issue - but not the whole story. Anyway, she’d keep trying, she said.

That conversation reminded me that there’s a real market out there beyond our sturdy walls of people who are serious about faith but maybe unsure about religion. People who are not churched, but who do perhaps want to make a new start in life, and to know God.

I remember at a clergy training day some years ago Robin Gamble, of “Leading your Church into Growth”, saying that many clergy he spoke to felt their churches were surrounded by opposition and hostility. There is some of that of course, he said, but the truth is that churches are mostly surrounded by people who think well of us. But they don’t come, most of them, most of the time. Why is that, and how can the Church today help people to find that new start in Christ, in the Gospel, and indeed in church? Over the ten days since Ascension Day, we’ve been asked to reflect on that and pray about it within our diocese, and this afternoon there is a gathering at the cathedral to celebrate faith and mission on this birthday of the Church.

The challenge of mission and church growth begins with ourselves, with being open to renewal, and ready to make a new start. Like in my home town, that means some of the old has to go or to change, but not all of it. Some new things need to come in, but always in the service of the unchanging and undiluted message of God’s saving love and the power of the cross. We’ll win no converts by being trendy just for the sake of it, but nor will we is we’re inflexibly hooked on traditions whose main role is to make us feel comfortable. A living faith is always open to change.

The Pentecostal experience of those first disciples was of God not far off in space or far back in time, not needing to be approached in some special way or by using special words, not needing all the paraphernalia of the temple cult - but simply there, powerfully and compellingly present in the here and now of their lives. The only way they could describe what happened was by speaking of the uncontrollable and cleansing forces of nature: wind and fire. A rushing mighty wind that filled the whole house, and tongues of flame that rested on each one standing there. They were so filled with joy, so completely infused with a sense of God’s power, that as they spilled out onto the street people thought they were drunk on new wine. And so, in a way, they were.

But that was then, what about now? Bishops Richard and Alastair have asked that in every parish we pray for the God’s gift of his Holy Spirit, which is what the disciples had been commanded to do. But what does that mean, in practice? I don’t think it’s about signing up for a happy clappy style of religion, not necessarily anyway; but it does I think mean taking the risk of stepping out of our comfort zone - to coin a phrase, it’s about “letting go, and letting God”. Asking God to empower and enthuse and re-vision us in his service.

Is that scary? It should be, because it’s about me surrendering control of my life from me to God. I’ve been thinking about scary things ever since an otherwise quite sane and sensible friend told me she was going to do the zip wire at Blaenau Ffestiniog to raise funds for charity. Something I would never dare to do, or that’s what I think now, anyway. Put myself completely in the power of others? Let go, and hope for the best? That’s maybe how it was for the first disciples in that first Christian Pentecost. But this is my prayer: I’m convinced I need to pray it, and I think every church needs to pray something along these lines, if we are truly to invest ourselves in the future that God desires: “Lord, bless me and fill me with your Holy Spirit. May I receive again and afresh the blessing of your love, and may I be empowered to share that blessing in your world. Amen.”

Monday, 29 May 2017

Blue Tits and Woodpeckers - an update

I posted a few days ago about the great spotted woodpecker's attacks on our blue tit nest box. Well, the box is now deserted, and while the entrance hole doesn't seem any larger, I think it has probably been enlarged enough to allow chicks to be snatched. So I fear the worst. The woodpeckers are frequently around, and very vocal.

I might be mistaken, though, in fearing the worst. I'm sure the chicks were close to fledging, and they might have gone, even though I missed seeing them fly. Today, there were briefly some young blue tits near the feeding station. There's a nest not far away in the wood (the two sets of parents were quite combative towards each other), so they might be from that brood, but equally they could have been "ours". Anyway, my next job is to get the box down and sort out a replacement.

A strange bird has been visiting our feeders over the past few days - brown and black and quite scruffy looking. Its behaviour suggested a coal tit, but the plumage frankly didn't convince at all! But it was: a small throng of young coal tits duly appeared, and the scruffy parent got on with the task of feeding them. It's a reminder if I needed one as to just how hard the parent birds have to work, and at what cost to their appearance if not their health, to raise probably at least two broods of young through the season. I have to say that, though scruffy, the adult bird seemed healthy and active enough.

Coal tits are right at the bottom of the pecking order, just below blue tits which are usually next to bottom. Our resident blue tits this year, however, have not been ready to accept that place, and have seen off great tits and other larger birds, as well as the other nearby blue tit pair. Coal tits, aware of their place, generally make swift raiding visits to grab a seed and then go. Often they plant the seeds they grab, keeping them for later. When sunflowers start growing in unlikely places like hanging baskets, coal tits are usually the reason!

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Prayerful Waiting

Only Luke tells us about the Ascension. He tells the story twice, to close his first book, his Gospel, and to begin his second book, the Acts of the Apostles. Acts is sometimes called Acts Luke’s Gospel of the Holy Spirit. The Gospel takes us with Jesus from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and in Acts we go with the disciples on from Jerusalem to Rome, and into all the world.

It’s in Jerusalem, or just outside at Bethany, that Jesus takes leave of his disciples. And they return to Jerusalem to wait prayerfully and joyfully for the gift of power and prophecy and insight that he’s promised them. The Gospel tells how the disciples travelled with Jesus from Galilee to Judaea, along country roads and city streets, listening, watching and learning, and growing more and more certain that this was the man through whom God would act to save and restore his people. But then their hopes were dashed; they fled in terror as he was arrested, quickly condemned in a staged trial and put to death on a cross. But then there is Easter: their Lord was with them again; over a period of forty days he taught them how in the prophets and psalms the servant who would suffer and die to save God’s people was foreseen. They came to see that what had seemed so much like failure and the ending of all their dreams and hopes was in fact God’s salvation being brought to its wonderful fruition. The cross, the ultimate sign of degradation and defeat, was instead a throne, the place where we are drawn to know the wonder of divine love.

And this good news, God’s love triumphant over sin and death, isn’t reserved for any one place, or any one time, or any one people. There is what we call the Great Commission: "Go into every place, preach the Gospel to every nation." The disciples were about to begin this work.

Next Sunday, Pentecost, the Church recalls how the disciples were given the power they needed to be God’s witnesses to the world. As he left them on that hillside at Bethany with his hands lifted in blessing, Jesus told them to stay in the city until they were clothed with the power from on high. Today we remember those days of prayerful waiting, and in our diocese and across the Church of England we’re asked again this year to spend time ourselves in prayer for the Church in mission; to wait prayerfully, for God still has work for us to do.

We may think we’re too weak and small to do that work; we may well think the task’s too much for us, but it isn’t. Those who waited in Jerusalem were a tiny band of folk: not well educated, not well off, not well known. They had no buildings or organisation, and they were probably quite frightened, too, for Jerusalem was a dangerous place for any friends of this man who’d been crucified.

But they waited, and they prayed. I doubt they prayed for anything in particular; how can they have known what to pray for? But prayerfully they placed themselves at God’s disposal, to be used as he desired. Often as the Church we are tempted to set our own agenda, whatever that agenda may be. To keep things how they’ve always been, perhaps? To defend the Church’s prestige, its standing in society? To make sure our Church is large and growing - but isn’t faithfulness to God’s word more important? To keep our Church rich and secure - but shouldn’t the Church of Christ be taking risks with poverty and generosity?

Last Sunday, Aldersgate Sunday, Methodists looked back to what happened to John Wesley when he waited prayerfully on God. he was already a Christian, a son of the vicarage and himself a Christian minister, but on that day he experienced God’s love and God’s call in a new and deeper way. His heart was, as he put it, strangely warmed, and a new ministry began.

Wesley’s words are used in the annual Methodist covenant service: “Christ has many services to be done; some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both. In some we may please Christ and please ourselves, in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is given us in Christ, who strengthens us.”

The power to do all these things is given us in Christ. I was given a copy of those words not in my local Methodist Church, though I do go there quite often, but at our Cathedral last year, at an evening of sharing resources, ideas and expertise in mission and ministry, discovering some of the good things that are happening round our Diocese. Next Sunday there’ll be another event at the Cathedral, which I hope to attend, to follow this time of prayerful waiting that reflects how those first apostles waited on God in Jerusalem. The gifts of the Spirit are promised to us as to them - to equip God’s Church for the challenge of mission in this confused and often hurting world, a world so much in need of his love.

Like those first apostles, our prayer is mostly about listening for God, waiting expectantly for his call. His promise hasn’t changed: "Commit yourself to me, to my way of love, and my Spirit will be your strength, your guide, your hope and your vision."

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Woodpeckers

Great Spotted Woodpeckers have been regular visitors to our garden ever since we moved in here, but generally more in winter than summer, and we've had no evidence of them breeding in the small woodland behind us. This year, though, we've had lots of drumming, and very regular visits by both male and female through the spring, so we're pretty sure they're nesting close by. That's good, but it brings into play the less attractive (to us) side of the woodpecker - that they predate the nests of other birds.

We were woken the other morning by a loud tapping noise from just outside our window. I wondered whether it was a blackbird prospecting the gutter - moss grows readily on our gently sloping tile roof, and chunks of it end up in the gutter, where blackbirds and jackdaws often examine it hoping to find invertebrates to eat. Ann, however, immediately identified the sound as a woodpecker trying to break into the nest box, which is currently being used by blue tits. A bang on the window, and there was a distinctive blur of black and white as the culprit fled back into the wood.

Since then the woodpecker has been back quite a few times. Each time we've heard it, we've acted quickly to scare it off, but the damage is being done, and the hole is much larger than it should be. Whether any of the chicks will survive to fledge I'm not sure, but at present the parent blue tits are still busily attending and feeding, so we can but hope.


The nest box, with woodpecker damage around the hole.

This nest box has been in place since before we moved in here, so was due for replacement anyway. We'll need to make sure that the new one has the nest hole protected by a metal front. A reminder, if we needed it, that nature is red in tooth and claw (and, in this case, quite fearsome beak).

Friday, 26 May 2017

True Religion

John Wesley, whose conversion was celebrated in Methodist churches last Sunday, famously said: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

I thought I’d begin with that quote on this Sunday after Ascension Day, because I’ve found myself over the past week reflecting on the difference between false religion, of which there is much in our world, and true religion, which is what their Lord told the first disciples and their companions they were to take out into all the world.

St Luke tells us that it was as he blessed them that Jesus was taken up from them through the clouds and into heaven. As he blessed them, as his hands were raised in the act of blessing. The inference is that blessing is what he is always doing. There’s no point in our Christian lives, there’s no time in the history of the Church, in which we do not have, in which we are not offered, the blessing of Christ.
And our task as his people is to pass that blessing on, to everyone, in every way, at every time, to paraphrase John Wesley: not in order to earn brownie points, not in order to justify ourselves, not to merit eternal life, but simply because we have been already blessed, we have been redeemed, and we have the gift of heaven.

Luke tells us that Christ ascended through the clouds, and a picture in my Sunday school bible presents that in a very literal way, as his sandalled feet lift from the ground. Actually, the how isn’t so important. The clouds Luke mentions are in the Bible always a symbol of mystery, and those who first read Luke’s words would have known that. There is mystery here, but the simple facts are these: Jesus was with his disciples, teaching them, encouraging and preparing them, opening the eyes of their minds. And then there came a time when he was no longer with them.

They’d been told to wait, and Luke tells us they waited joyfully. Of course they did: they knew the truth, they knew what the cross now was - no longer a sign of defeat and death, of things having gone terribly wrong, of God’s plans being thwarted by evil men. Instead, the cross has become a royal throne, the place where God’s love had been proved triumphant, the sign of life, and the hope of glory. They knew this truth, and they knew they were blessed, and held securely in God’s love.

One of my favourite hymns is Timothy Dudley-Smith’s powerful hymn “Lord of the years”. I especially love the last verse, which begins, “Lord, for ourselves; in living power remake us, self on the cross and Christ upon the throne.” “In living power remake us” - that’s exactly what those first disciples will have prayed as they waited in Jerusalem for the gift that had been promised, the gift of the Holy Spirit that would send them tumbling joyfully out onto the streets to begin to change the world.

“Self on the cross and Christ upon the throne” - here in just a single line Bishop Timothy sums up the essential heart of Christian service and witness and mission. Self on the cross and Christ upon the throne. Paul writes in Romans chapter 6 verse 6 (in the New Living translation) “We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin.” But it’s one thing to say that; now we have to live it. In obedience, in service, in love given that reflects and responds to the love received: knowing that Christ is on the throne, at the right hand of the Father, and that we have his blessing.

“Religion has been the cause of most of the troubles of our world throughout most of human history, and it still is today.” So said an atheist friend to me the other day. I think it’s often a good thing for Christian ministers to have one or two atheist friends. There’s always the chance we might convert them, but meanwhile they do help to keep us on our toes.

Now I could have pointed out that an awful lot of evil has been done by people who weren’t remotely religious, and by regimes some of which had banned all forms of religion. I could think of past atrocities perpetrated by Josef Stalin, I could point to the atheist nation that is North Korea today. But it’s hard to deny that religion has been involved in a lot of bad stuff through the centuries, and that some form of religion, however twisted and perverted, played its part in the terrorist outrage that last week in Manchester came close to all of us.

I can understand why some people, like my friend, want to switch off from all forms of religion. It’s all wrong, they say. Take no orders from anyone, only yourself. Live your own life, don’t expect any god to tell you what to do, don’t trust anyone who claims to speak the word of any god.

I can understand, but I don’t agree. Many of those whose bad actions are fuelled by hate find in religion a label to justify what they do; but if they didn’t have that label they’d find another. The Manchester bomber may have believed that what he was doing was pleasing to God, but he believed that because he had been brainwashed, indoctrinated, re-educated by people whose guilt is, if anything even more than his; he was in a way, simply a weapon they made and used, with evil intent.

Where religion is used to justify terrorism, violence, hatred, such religion is false: simple statement. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, leaders of every faith would I am sure stand together to affirm it. We’ll think in a moment about what makes it false, what proves it to be false. A word first about false sacrifice. The phenomenon of the suicide bomber is one of the saddest and scariest developments in terrorism over the past fifty years. It horrifies me that those who plan terror attacks can find or make willing candidates ready to sacrifice themselves for the cause. False sacrifices in the service of false religion: young people persuaded that the success of their sacrifice can be measured in the number of other young lives they take with them.

Such a perverted form of self-sacrifice is horrific and shocking and sick when compared with the man who as he hangs helpless on a cross is saving the world, is facing down and defeating the power of death itself, when compared with the sacrifice at the heart of our faith. Christ dies that we may be freed from death, Christ dies that we may live.

That word faith is crucial. Faith isn’t the same as religion, but true religion expresses faith, is founded in faith, is enlivened and enabled by faith. Faith isn’t just belief, it’s also trust: not just saying to God, “Yes, you exist” but seeking to align our heart to his, to make him our example, and to praise him not only in our prayers and the songs we sing, but in lives of active and obedient service.

For Christians, that’s expressed in those four words of Bishop Timothy, “Christ upon the throne.” We believe that God is like Jesus. John wrote in chapter 1 verse 18 of his Gospel, “No-one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” Faith rests in relationship; if we seek to make Jesus the centre of our lives, we’ll want to be as like him as we can be in all we do, in our living, our giving, in the care we show.

All the great religions speak of God’s call to his people in terms of love, justice, peace, service. There are many forms of false religion in our world, not all of them violent, but all I would say harmful. Some false religion is idle, lazy, self-interested, uncaring. Some is divisive, sectarian, factional. Some is ambitious and power-hungry in a worldly way. Some is cold, ritualistic, exclusive. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” said Jesus; and “I give you a new commandment: love one another, as I have loved you.” False religion works against the good of all, to promote the good of some; but Christ calls on us to seek the good of all. The message and challenge of Ascension-tide for all of us is this: “Self on the cross, and Christ upon the throne.”

So in his name, and with his blessing, and according to his will: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Ascension Day

This morning I spent a couple of hours packing bags in Tesco, raising funds for Hope House. Chatting to people as I did it, obviously some of the time I was talking about Hope House and the work it does. But conversations also drifted onto the events in Manchester, that bomb that deliberately targeted children and families, since my time in Tesco included the minute’s silence held nationwide at eleven o’clock.

After the silence one man said angrily, “This country’s finished. It’s in a mess. Somebody needs to start doing something!” I have a feeling that I might not have agreed with him who that somebody might be, and what they should be doing. But I certainly did share with him a sense of anger and shock and helplessness. The young singer those young people had gone to see said, “I have no words.” How can anyone choose to act with such cruelty and lack of pity against innocent young people? It beggars belief.

Someone said to me the other day, “Why does God let something like that happen?” And this morning in Tesco someone else commented, “It’s a godless world we’re living in.” In these few words I can’t do much to address the problem of evil in the world, let alone the specific point of how anyone committing such a hideous crime could believe that they were serving and pleasing God, as I presume the bomber did believe. But those who worked on his confused and credulous mind to persuade him that his God would be served by indiscriminate killing are I believe even more guilty, and have even more to answer for, than the bomber himself, who was, in a way, just a weapon they made and used.

Anyway, the person who asked why God lets these things happen went on to answer his own question by saying, “God sits there up in heaven and doesn’t care what’s happening down here, that’s what I think.” said I can understand and sympathise with that point of view. But I don’t share it.

Today is Ascension Day, so I suppose our theme is Jesus going back to heaven. Today is the day when he was taken bodily up through the clouds, leaving the disciples back down there to get on with things without him. That’s the story St Luke tells, at least. As it happens, only St Luke tells this story, so one question to ask straight off is why should that be? Why don’t the other Gospel writers tell the same story?

The reason they don’t is that only St Luke needed to tell it. He told it twice - firstly as a means of ending his Gospel, and then secondly to begin his second book, the Acts of the Apostles. So, today then are we just here to commemorate a mere literary device?  No, there’s more than that to Ascension Day; but I think today’s more about what the story means than about the physical details themselves. And what the story is told to convey is something agreed on across all the Gospels: that Jesus was with his disciples for a period of time after Easter Day, but then was no longer visibly and physically present with them.

He was with them to make sure that the truth of the resurrection had firmly lodged in their hearts and minds; and to make sure they were ready for what would happen next. What that meant for them and means for us is this: firstly, that Jesus left them in order that something new could now happen; so that the gift of the Spirit could fall upon them, giving them courage, insight, vision, love. Through his Spirit, far from abandoning his world, God in Christ continues to be actively involved through the life of his Church, through its fellowship and witness and service.

Secondly though, Jesus left them to take his place at the right hand of the Father, from which, as our creed reminds us, he shall come again to judge the world. Ascension Day is about the active presence of Christ in the world, the promised gift for which his disciples waited in Jerusalem; and it’s about the kingship of Christ, and that we and the world stand under his judgement.

The last verse of Timothy Dudley-Smith’s great hymn “Lord of the Years” reads: “Lord, for ourselves; in living power remake us, self on the cross and Christ upon the throne.” With admirable economy Bishop Timothy sums up in these two lines the essential mission of the Church. Self on the cross and Christ upon the throne. Ours must be a cross shaped mission, marked by self sacrifice, measured in lives lived with others in mind; that’s what the Spirit of God lovingly inspires in the Church. And it’s to be an obedient mission, a mission true to the mind and heart of Christ, to his example, teaching and instruction. “A new commandment I give to you,” he told his disciples: “that you love one another, as I have loved you.”

So Ascension Day is a celebration not of the departure of Christ from his disciples, but of his abiding and enlivening presence with them - and in the Church that continues his work today. Not that this allows for any easy answer to the question “Why?” Why Manchester, why Westminster? Why Paris, why the attack a month ago that killed a coachload of schoolchildren in Syria? Why so much evil and sadness in the world? Why so much evil, loveless and false religion? But I am confirmed in my belief that what Christ calls from us today is a prayerful waiting on his words, and that we accept him as our Lord and King, and living lives of service that reflect his sacrifice and proclaim his love. And that in the face of false religion, religion that teaches hate and demands and destroys lives, our sacred call is to live that true religion whose hallmark is love.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

On Hell and Aldersgate - a sermon for the coming Sunday

At every main Sunday service we Anglicans are required to recite one of the creeds, generally either the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. These days we do sometimes use other statements of faith instead, maybe the one used at baptisms or the one derived from Philippians chapter two. A creed is a statement of shared belief, and to stand and say the creed together expresses our fellowship as God’s people. But the Apostles’ Creed, which dates from the fourth century AD, was designed, like other creeds, to be also a test of faith, a statement of what you had to believe to be part of the Church; and if you couldn’t say and mean each and every word you were in a state of heresy.

So every phrase in the Creed is a precise and carefully judged statement of orthodox faith. Today I want to focus on one small segment which personally I always found really difficult when I was a boy in our church choir back home. And it is this: “He descended into hell.” The longer Nicene Creed we most often use at Communion doesn’t include this phrase; it simply says, “He suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again”, in the version used in Common Worship.

But the Apostles’ Creed at morning and evening prayer says that Jesus descended into hell. The Biblical basis for this phrase seems in part to lie in a phrase from one of today’s set readings, the one from chapter three of the First Letter of Peter. In verses 18 to 20, Peter writes: “Christ suffered for our sins once and for all, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God; put to death in the body, he was brought to life in the spirit. In the spirit he also went and made his proclamation to the imprisoned spirits, those who had refused to obey in the past.” That last sentence, about making proclamation to the imprisoned spirits, is quite difficult to interpret, but as I read it I find myself asking - where else would spirits be imprisoned but in hell?

The first part of what Peter writes is clear enough: he tells us that Christ, the one who is just, has gained freedom for those who are unjust, in other words, us, fallen and sinful people. By living a righteous life and dying a righteous death, Jesus has  bridged the gap between the righteous God and us his unrighteous people. But then Peter goes on to address a question I’ve generally not thought to ask: where was Jesus, what was he doing, on the day between his burial and his resurrection, the day we call Holy Saturday? The Apostle’s Creed tells us Jesus descended into hell. And here, having written in verse 18 that Jesus “though put to death in the flesh, was “made alive in the Spirit” he goes on to say that in the spirit he made proclamation to the spirits in prison.

Through much of the Old Testament, when thinking about the place of the dead, the Bible speaks of Sheol, the pit, a shadowy place between existence and non-existence. But by the time of Jesus some Jews, the Pharisees for example, had a well-developed belief in life after death, although that wasn’t shared by other groups like the Sadducees. The early Church began to contrast heaven, to which the righteous dead would go, with Hades or hell, the place to which the unrighteous and disobedient would be sent. Peter in this reading uses the usual word for prison, rather than openly speaking of hell, but he surely does mean us to think of hell, for here is where those who persist in disobedience are held.

He tells us that Jesus “gave his proclamation” to those who’d refused to obey in the past; and then speaks about the time of Noah, and of the eight people, Noah and his wife, and his sons and their wives, who passed safely through the flood. For Peter this is a sign of the salvation we receive through baptism, by which we’re brought through water to safety. But it seems the dead are not excluded from the salvation offered to us. Reading on into chapter four and verse 6 Peter writes again that “the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like mortals, they might live in the spirit like God.”

To me this means that there are no limits to the reach of God’s love. The creeds of the Church affirm that only in Jesus do we find a power and a love that can conquer death itself. There’s no limit to what Jesus does for us, there’s no place he won’t go, as he seeks to change our hearts and bring us back to God. Peter tells how God’s righteous servant brings the unrighteous, both living and dead, back within the reach of God’s love, back within the bounds of its saving power. God’s boundless love, the triumph of his Son: this is not limited or conquered, not even by the powers of death and hell. Jesus said to Peter that on this rock he would build his church, to stand so sure that not even the gates of hell could prevail against it.

In a way I’ve always sat a little lightly to creeds. I’m happy to recite them and I believe in what they stand for, but I’m poetic rather than precise in the way I understand the words I say. “Now we see through a glass darkly”, Paul wrote. God is beyond our reach and sight, but we rejoice in the mystery of a love we see in Jesus, love that seeks us out and saves us. The centre of my faith is the relationship of love I’m offered: “What a friend we have in Jesus”, as the hymn puts it. Jesus is love divine, acting to change hearts and lives, acting without limit, going even to hell and back for us. There’s nothing he won’t do, and nothing in life or in death, on earth or even under the earth, can separate us from his love.
 
Methodists call this Sunday Aldersgate Sunday, the one before the 24th May, when John Wesley’s faith was transformed and his heart “strangely warmed” (as he described it) in a meeting room in Aldersgate Street, London. What was it that warmed his heart that day? Love, pure and simple, love that claims us, love that redeems us, love that sparks our love and enables our witness and service and praise, love without limit. It’s not what you believe that counts, nor is it even the list of good things you do. We are saved through grace, brought home by a love we don’t deserve, by the one who is love without limit, love without end.