Saturday, 29 December 2012

Ring Out, Wild Bells

I don't often preach these days, but occasionally I'm asked to, and I shall be preaching tomorrow - in these words:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

I don’t know whether you recognise those words.  They come from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”, which was published in 1850.  The bells in question may well have been the bells of Waltham Abbey, as Tennyson was staying near there at the beginning of that year, and, on a stormy winter’s night, they may have been ringing more wildly than usual.  However, the tradition of ringing in the New Year is a venerable one, and I remember how we used to step outdoors at midnight on New Year’s Eve in the hope of hearing the church bells, even though the nearest tower was a good three miles away.

I’ve sung the words of this poem, or most of them, on several occasions, in the inspirational setting by Percy Fletcher.  To sing these words really brings them to life, and, written as they were as part of an elegy on the death of his sister’s fiance, they are full of longing - full of that basic human longing that the bad things might be brought to an end, and that the things we all wish for and hope for - peace, plenty, happiness, justice, healing - might truly come into our world.

So in Fletcher’s setting, the men sing, with harsh and strident voices, Ring out a slowly dying cause, and ancient forms of party strife; while the women respond, in sweet and hopeful tones, Ring in the nobler modes of life, with sweeter manners, purer laws.  The men sing, Ring out old shapes of foul disease,  ring out the narrowing lust of gold;  then all join to sing, firmly and sincerely, Ring out the thousand wars of old,  ring in the thousand years of peace.

Every new year we hope for the old bad things to pass away, and a new blest era to begin.  And if we’re wise enough to recognise our own part in the bad stuff, we make lists of new year resolutions, as our own little commitment to the task of building a better world.  Of course, it’s a sort of nonsense - 1st January is just a day like any other, and 2013 a number artificially set;  why should anything at all be different?  But the very fact that we do hope and dream and even plan for a better world says something positive and good about us.  Where does that instinct come from?  It isn’t just a matter of self-preservation and wanting an easy life, I think - there is something more, a divine seed planted deep within us, the fact that we have souls as well as carnal bodies, that there is the stuff of the spirit within us.

‘Made in the image of God’, the scripture tells us.  And, in case we forget how to search for God and discover him, St Paul reminds us:  ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’.  Let’s look back at Tennyson’s poem, and Fletcher’s anthem, as it draws towards its closing bars:  Ring in the valiant man and free,  the larger heart the kindlier hand;  ring out the darkness of the land,  ring in the Christ that is to be.  We really enjoy singing those last couple of lines, sung with big notes, lots of emphasis, total certainty.  The Christ that is to be.

All the fluster and hype of Christmas is over so quickly.  The world gets back to work, though it may take a few days to do it, with lots of people not back at their desks or their lathes until after New Year’s Day.  And after all the hopeful raising of glasses and making of promises on New Year’s Eve, all the cold and dark waste of January stretches out before us, and we wonder (maybe, if you’re like me) how we’ll ever get through it.

But we are made in the image of God.  It’s an image that’s often muddied and marred and distorted.  And all too often religion twists the whole thing round, so that God is made in our image, or in an image that suits our purposes, and religion itself becomes a tool for division and domination and, to steal some more lines from Tennyson’s poem, ‘false pride in place and blood,  the civic slander and the spite.’

So surely we need to look back again and again at the place in which God enters our human history, and how it all happens.  Not in a palace or a hall, but in a stable, and as a baby born in chancy circumstances to ordinary and humble parents, however special they were in their faith and obedience.  This is what God is like.  God was in Christ.  The one who made the stars comes among us as a helpless baby, born under those same stars in the back yard of a pub.

Now Tennyson doesn’t give us in his poem, ‘the Christ who was born all those years ago in Bethlehem’;  he says, ‘Ring in the Christ that is to be.’  The carols say things like ‘Christ was born in Bethlehem’, but a careful theologian might take issue with that.  It’s all right as shorthand, and of course God’s purposes are fully formed from the word go:  this child doesn’t, from the divine and heavenly perspective, become the Christ - he is the Christ from the word go.  But from our human perspective, and despite the shepherds who came rushing down from the hills (and bearing in mind that the wise men probably aren’t going to turn up for another year or so), the child is Jesus, common enough name, born to Mary and Joseph, common enough names, in Bethlehem, a nothing-much of a town even if it was the city of David, and with most of the world passing by unregarding.  And most of the world would still pass by unregarding some thirty odd years later, as the man this child became, Jesus bar Joseph, hung on a cross outside Jerusalem, with the life ebbing out of him.

And yet the world is changed and transformed as this man becomes the Christ within our hearts, as he seeks constantly to be.  ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock’ he says to the apostle John in John’s great dream of the last days we read as the Book of Revelation.  And you’ll probably remember that tremendous painting by Holman Hunt that illustrates this verse - Jesus the Light of the World . . . and the door at which he stands, which has no handle on his side.  We have to open it, or we can keep it closed.

But we are made to open it, for we are made in the image of God;  in Jesus and in the short span of a single human life we see what that really means.  I love to read Mother Julian of Norwich, and she writes of ‘the property of pity and compassion . . . (and of) thirst and longing (there is) in God’, and goes on to say how ‘it is for us in turn to long for him’.  Jesus the crucified has already borne on the cross all the weight and the darkness of the bad stuff that Tennyson longed for the wild bells to ring away as the year turned.  And our longing for things to change is itself something implanted by God within us, something to do with being made in his image, part of that thirst and longing for him that just might lead us to open the door of our hearts and let him in.

Because I was brought up to know and love the church, and to go to church or chapel every Sunday, I do find it a sad thing that so many of our church and chapel buildings are so empty;  and maybe I feel that sadness a bit more at the year’s end than at other times.  At this new year as at every new year I shall pray and hope for a revival in the Church, and it will happen I think - though change within the Church is as important a dimension of this as change in the wider world, I suspect.  And yet it isn’t getting people into church that is the important thing here, it’s getting Christ into people -helping those in our world who long for peace and happiness and goodness to recognise their longing for God.

Mother Julian, looking in some anguish at the sadnesses and deficiencies and failures in faith of the world around her, and wondering how it could ever be possible that, as she puts it, ‘all manner of things should be well’ received this answer from God to her prayer:  ‘What is impossible for you is not impossible to me.  I shall keep my word in all things, and I shall make all things well’.

It is in that spirit that I make the calendar journey from Christmas to New Year.  My task as a believer is to trust in God, in God who in Jesus has acted decisively in human history and who by his Holy Spirit continues to attract and draw men and women to his example of love.  Throughout his setting of Tennyson’s words, Percy Fletcher uses words from the second verse of the poem as a recurring chorus:  ‘Ring out the old, ring in the new’, of course, but also and more tellingly ‘Ring out the false, ring in the true’. 

It is as we open our hearts to the Christ-child that we expose our selves to the truth, allowing his humility to infect and direct us, learning as he will learn, in the desert and on the road to the cross, to be sacrificially giving.  It is as I live not for myself but for him, it is as the Church lives not for itself but for him, and it is as we seek his strength and courage and vision to do this, and accept those deep longings placed within us as a call to service, that his truth prevails.  It is here that the world will come to see, and to recognise and acclaim ‘the Christ that is to be’.

If You Don't Care

It's pouring with rain here this morning, and I won't be the first poet, or the last, to make the easy connection between rain and tears.  Indeed, those three words formed the title of a song by the band Aphrodite's Child, the band formed by Vangelis and Demis Roussos in 1968 (the song itself being one of many pop songs based on Pachelbel's Canon).  The opening words :-

Rain and tears are the same,
but in the sun you've got to play the game.
When you cry in winter time
you can pretend it's nothing but the rain.

It is perhaps easier to hide one's sadness in the winter, not least because in the shorter days and colder conditions we're out and about less, and keep ourselves to ourselves more.  But for many people there is a huge weight of sadness and solitariness that remains unattended-to, through the long dark evenings.  The bright hustle that leads up to Christmas and the New Year celebrations provides some antidote to this, but then the great dark cold waste of January stretches ahead, and there'll be many of us wondering how we shall manage to get through it.

I was touched to receive a Christmas card which included a short message of thanks for being a sympathetic ear and shoulder at the right time . . . not least because I didn't think I'd done all that much.  It is a very natural thing to care for each other, and to feel sad about the sadness of others, but it's also quite natural, and all too easy, to be so caught up in ourselves that we don't do much - enough - about those feelings.  To quote from the Deacon Blue song 'Loaded' :-

I have found an answer, I don’t think you don’t care -
just you laugh ’cause you’re loaded, and things are different from there . . .

I suppose it's time for me to think seriously about New Year resolutions, and a good starting point could well be that I should care not just in theory but in down to earth practical ways, for those who need me to care.  I can't feel smug about the message in that card;  I'm glad I was able to offer something, but I am also all too aware of the times when I've not been there, caring and consoling and supporting, for family or friends or neighbours.  None of us can do everything, and we're not going to be able to turn back the winter or stop the rain from falling - but I am sure we can all do more than we do, and enough to make a positive difference.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Is There Anybody Out There?

I don't suppose anyone much is reading this yet, as this is still such a new blog.  This leaves me to ponder why I'm writing at all . . . after all, I don't suppose my last blog managed more than about fifteen hits a day maximum, and usually much less!  The answer to my own question, though, is that I do like to write, and it may as well be for a real audience, be that audience ever so small.  And it's a chance to raise issues and even stimulate debate - if there's anyone out there who might be interested!

I work for a funeral director on a part time basis (one day a week, and then on other occasions on a casual basis).  It's work I enjoy doing, with colleagues I enjoy working with.  Funeral directors and their staff have not always received a good press, and a couple of recent TV programmes have exposed severe deficiencies and an attitude at best of some disrespect within some firms nationally.  I suppose it is only right that if things are wrong and badly done, those deficiencies should be exposed and reported.  It is sad but true, however, that the profession as a whole, which is a profession and does seek as such to establish and maintain high standards of service, is bound to find its reputation tainted by those few (I trust) bad apples.  So it's good that there has also been a very positive look at the profession on BBC TV, in their autumn 2012 series 'Dead Good Job'.  I am not too keen on that title, but the approach and content were good, if at times straying towards the quirky.

We aim always for high standards of care and attention and service, and are rightly pulled up sharply when we fall short of these.  It is of course particularly sad when there are funerals at this season, and as such I think all of us on duty took special care over the funerals yesterday and today on which we were engaged, both of which I think were well done, and the family in each case treated with care and well supported.

One thing that is true of every work situation, and the funeral profession is going to be no exception to this, is the way that rules tend to be observed with less rigour over time, that things that ought to be specially considered and planned become merely a matter of routine, and employees become less supportive of one another.  A good firm like ours will take the trouble - and the time - to review and revise procedures and working arrangements so as to prevent this, and will also be attentive and ready to learn, picking up ideas from others and from the industry widely, trying out new things ourselves, and (perhaps most importantly) being guided by our clients themselves, the families and friends for whom we are working.  What worked for them, and what didn't?  What can we do better?  There is always something.  Good planning and briefing is vital;  taking time to debrief can be as well.

A poem which, while not itself a depiction of either of our funerals this week, was perhaps a little inspired by one of them in its writing:

Single stems of roses and handfuls of soil,
and a sky patched in grey, and ivy climbing the old stones;
the river high and swirling over by the bridges,
the cawing of rooks in the high trees beyond the buildings.

A country funeral, soon after Christmas,
the old church warm and well filled, and
the coffin brought to its careful rest close by
the parish tree with its tinsel and baubles and star.

The usual hymns were sung, the prayers read from the book.
And there was laughter as well as tears,
as the stories were told and due tribute paid
before the solemn procession led out along the path.

And after it all was done,
though not alone (the house was full)
she was alone,
and will be alone, as another year begins.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

The Day After Boxing Day . . .

. . . and a day back at work for some people, including me - while the rest of the world lies in or goes for walks, visits elderly aunts or rumbustious grandchildren, or makes for the sales which seem to have been busier than ever when they started yesterday.  Didn't they used to be the 'January sales'?  Ours is a society that can no longer wait for anything!

Anyway, a picture of starlings from me, and to accompany it, a poem I jotted down yesterday - my first new attempt at verse for several weeks, in fact:

Pleasantly disturbed at my desk by the sound of starlings
I turn to see them sitting singly, all facing the same way,
on the various twiggy black branches
of the ash trees behind next door.
As I watch, every so often one arrives or departs,
flying swiftly across our ground
as though on some important mission,
with a schedule to maintain.

Most of the human population have no schedule today to worry us.
It is Boxing Day morning, with the world still more than half asleep.
There are seagulls drifting slowly across the valley below,
and they have complete possession of the skyline.
Meanwhile, I see that roses
are still blooming in our garden,
damaged a little perhaps by the winter rain
but not by any frost or snow, so far.

In the kitchen, the kettle is on for coffee, and
no-one here is going anywhere very much;
there is a rightness and a peacefulness about things,
or so I feel.  The world today is easy and good,
laid back and comfortable.  Happy Christmas,
God rest you merry.

Still, I find the TV remote near my hand, and so I use it;  and the news bulletin
smashes through the illusion of today:
serious winter weather is waiting just around the corner,
a family has been killed in a motorway crash,
another made homeless by floods,
and a hospital is cordoned off as a virus spreads through the wards.
People are still suffering and shouting, killing and being killed in our world,
Christmas or no.  And suddenly there is an urgent crying of gulls,
and the ash branches are empty of starlings
as the black shape of a hawk
rips across our yards.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

A Real Christmas Rose

The so-called 'Christmas Rose' is in fact a hellebore, true roses being summer flowers of course.  But the picture above was taken today in our front garden, a very lovely rose, quite remarkable for Christmas.  We have a number of other flowers on our roses, as we have had very little frost up here as yet, but the others are a bit battered by wind and rain, while this one, sheltered against a wall, seems to have avoided that.  We do have some hellebores as well, by the way - though ours are not yet in flower!

Boxing Day

I don't think anyone really knows where the name 'Boxing Day' comes from, though perhaps it has to do with the 'Christmas boxes' given to servants on this day.  It may go back much further, to an old tradition of placing donations in boxes set out by churches on this day, which is the Feast of Stephen the first Christian martyr.  A tradition of charitable works done on this day is enshrined in the carol 'Good King Wenceslas', written by John Mason Neale.

For us it is usually the day for giving presents to the wider family.  Christmas Day is always for us a day spent quietly at home - then on Boxing Day we venture out and meet up somewhere with other members of the family.  We'll be packing plenty of food later this morning then heading across to my mother's place, and I hope there'll be four generations gathered together there by tea-time.  So far we seem to have a nice day for it, with the sun shining (if in a rather watery way) and starlings making strange noises in the nearby trees.

As I look out from here, seagulls are drifting slowly across in some numbers.  Living where we do, up above the town, there is always traffic noise, even on a bank holiday - but much less of course than on a normal work day, so the sounds of sparrows and starlings come across all the more clearly.  There is a gentle and peaceful feel about things, which keeps me in a Christmassy and generally hopeful mood.  My poem 'The Christmas Rose' follows:

A rose there springs from tender root,
Christ-bearer, hailed in songs of old,
the flower of God's eternal love,
a new flame lit in winter's cold.
When half-spent was the silent night,
the rose foretold by prophets' tongue
give birth to one named Prince of Peace,
whose alleluias gladly sung
by angels in the frosty skies
brought shepherds to the manger-bed
to worship him; as so do we.
The Christmas rose in white and red,
bright in the darkness of these times
is sign for us of Mary's Grace -
Light of the World, of her new-born,
reflects in her so gentle face.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Christmas Day

My cold is still around, sadly;  I'm also a bit sad that Christmas this year is wet rather than white.  But so far it's good, though the two Christmas services Ann and I have attended seemed a bit flat compared to past years.  I think that's as much to do with the weather as anything else.  Also, can I put in a word of complaint about the way people change the words of carols . . .

Looking at my garden, I see there are still roses out, though they do look a bit bedraggled now.  My bright orange geum which has bloomed prolifically all summer still has new flowers opening, and the G urbanum x rivale next to it is also still flowering.  Geum urbanum x rivale is a personal favourite of mine - a cross between two native wildflowers, one of which is on its own a troublesome weed, it has shapely flowers of a wonderful dusky yellow colour.  We have winter jasmine flowering too, but that's to be expected, while the others are a bonus.

Well, this may not be our garden much longer.  We'll have a challenge ahead, to make a new garden suited to our tastes and temperament, but we're very much up for that!  Meanwhile, I've been wished a 'merry New Year' today, which I rather like.  I'm going to work on that, I think - making 2013 a merry time start to finish.    By the way, I'm interested to discover that in Welsh one doesn't wish a happy or a prosperous New Year (let alone a merry one), but a good one: "Blwyddyn Newydd dda".  Perhaps that's a better mark to aim for.

Back to Christmas . . . when we got back from the midnight service, Ann and I trawled through the cards we received this year, to see what the most popular designs were.  Last year, robins took the prize, as I recall, but we only have five or six of them this year.  Unexpectedly, kings (or magi) win the day this year, with at least seventeen, beating snowmen (seven), shepherds (three), conventional nativity scenes (eight) and traditional snowy village scenes (seven) by some distance.  Kings weren't strongly featured in the cards I sent: the two designs I sent to most of my friends and contacts this year were a rather snowy sheep and a cartoon image of Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, though I also used a few cards left from last year, which did have kings on!

My poem 'Magi' follows, with appropriate picture . . .

So that was our reckoning, then:
Jerusalem, we considered -
and yet there remained an uncertainty in our calculation;

and with the camels surly and spitting,
and our porters shouting and cursing as they loaded our things,
and such a waste of sand before us,
we might have chosen not to go.

Our wives were tearful in their entreating:
Why leave your charts and your garrets?
Why leave your children, the pleasures and duties of home?
Why is it necessary to go?

Yet it is necessary,
though we do not know why;
there is a mystery at the heart of things
unrevealed by our ancient instruments.
But this much is clear as we pack our charts and boxes -
the star we have traced and measured
is not to be ignored.

A new light has ascended our heavens,
and has disturbed our hearts.
In all the expert accomplishments of our ordered minds,
we know what we have seen,
and we have seen what we do not know;
and from this beginning we must needs be drawn forward,
sent out, and cast adrift
to the forever changing of our lives
and despite our own lost selves.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Laid Up

Well, the first day of this blog has been a bit of a dismal one.  A pre-Christmas cold has struck me down, and so I've done next to nothing all day.  I hate having a cold, and I don't want this one to get in the way of my Christmas plans, so have decided the best thing is to give in to it, keep warm and well fed and watered, and give the best support I can to the natural immune systems of my body.

So - back in the thick of it tomorrow, I trust!

Starting out

The Sunday before Christmas 2012, and a bit of a new start.  Where this blog will take me (and you) I don't really know, but here's the starting point.  I'm living in Welshpool, on the Welsh borders, and we're sort of in the process (probably, nothing is signed as yet) of moving from one house to another.  I used to be the Vicar of Welshpool, but all of that came to an end two years back.  I had been a priest of the Church of England and the Church in Wales for over thirty years.  You may not be too surprised to hear that for quite a while I was mentally and spiritually nowhere;  now, two years on, I remain a work in progress, I suppose.

Though I no longer operate as a priest of the Church, I remain a believer, and a regular participant in worship.  I do in fact continue to preach from time to time, as invited, but with no greater authority than that of a fellow pilgrim;  I do not feel the time is right for a return to leadership or sacramental ministry.  I no longer stand at the altar, and perhaps I never will again.  The Church pays me a pension, and I suppose is bound to feel some continuing responsibility for me;  but for my part I no longer have any great sense of place within that Church as an institution. Having said that, however, I do not intend for the present to dwell on the events that have brought me to this point.  This blog is about moving on, not looking back.

I am married to Ann, and our next anniversary will be our 38th.  Our four children are fairly widely scattered now.  We have two small grandchildren, who are a great delight to us.  I supplement my pension by working as a gardener, setting up sound systems, and assisting a local funeral director as a member of his casual staff.  I am happy in the work I do, and as a singer, a poet and a naturalist (my degree is in botany).  I love to travel, and have managed, over the years, to see a fair bit of the world, preferring the ordinary places to the "sights", by and large.

So that is my starting point.  You will be very welcome to travel on with me from here, if you'd like to tag along.