Sunday, 29 December 2013

A Sunday Talk

. . . for the Sunday after Christmas :-

Tragedies of one sort or another strike at every season of the year, somewhere in the world;  but tragedy at Christmas is especially poignant. A concert at which I sang just before Christmas supported the work of Save the Children in Syria and among the refugees from that sad conflict, and a representative from the charity told us about some of the work they were doing; it’s so sad that so many children are suffering there, who have no part in that war, nor do their families, just the desire to live in peace and safety. And among the TV adverts for beds and sofas, you’ll have seen many images of suffering children, as aid charities seek our help to challenge poverty, homelessness and disease.

A few weeks ago I watched the final programme in a TV series about pilgrimage, as the presenter arrived at the sacred sites of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The programme didn’t hide away from the fact that there’s something between Jerusalem and Bethlehem now that wasn’t there when I made my visit to those places fifteen years ago. Then we passed through checkpoints, but now there’s also the wall, slabs of sheer grey concrete (with added graffiti) to separate Israel from the Palestinian areas of the West Bank.  Many see this wall as unjust, particularly where it separates families from the land that’s their only source of income; but at the same time the state of Israel insists that the wall is vital to preserve their people from the constant threat of terrorist attack. I remember a scene of children looking through gaps in the wall. When communities are divided, and people live in fear of each other, often it’s the innocents, the children, who suffer most.

The first thing that happens after Christmas in our Bibles is also a tragic event;  and like so many tragic events, it’s the children who suffer.

[Matthew, chapter 2, vv 16-end]

The historian in me has to admit at this point that we have no independent confirmation of the story Matthew tells us.  But it matches what we know of the character of King Herod.  This was a man who would stop at nothing to eliminate any challenge to his royal power. He killed several of his own children, so why would he baulk at killing the children of others.  And life is cheap.  That’s true in the world of today, and it was certainly true then.

The slaughter of the innocents inevitably raises the same one-word question as today’s tragic events - why?  I have a  friend for whom the story Matthew tells of the slaughter of the innocents is the biggest stumbling block to her faith.  It was because of the psychopathic cruelty of King Herod that these children died;  but why was it necessary for God's messiah to be born in a land whose king would murder all the other children in the town?  Surely, my friend would ask, that’s too big a price to pay?  Didn't God know what was going to happen? Didn’t God care?

That last question is one I find rather hard to answer. If God didn’t know, then that diminishes him, and if God did know but didn’t care, that diminishes him too: and what makes God either less than all-knowing or less than all-loving surely also makes him less than God.  Could I have faith in a God who really doesn't know what's going to happen next?  Or who really doesn't care?

And in that thought there is a major faith challenge. It’s basic to our faith that God is love. And we believe that God is omnipotent - in other words, all-powerful - and omniscient - in other words, all-knowing.  And yet the little children died in Bethlehem - as the carol says of Herod ‘All the little boys he killed at Bethlem in his fury’; and today innocent people suffer still, and young lives are still lost that have scarcely begun.

It sort of helps a bit when we have someone to blame. The children died in Bethlehem because of Herod's megalomania and paranoia.  But that still leaves the challenge of the images of poverty on our TV screens, in the aftermath of storm or earthquake or other natural disaster. Who’s to blame then? Even when people don’t behave with deliberate cruelly, innocent people still suffer, innocent lives are lost.  So is God in charge, or is he not?  Or is God a tyrant with the same irrational and cruel streak as Herod or, say, Caligula or Stalin?

My faith is certainly challenged by these events and by my reflections upon them. And yet I go on believing. And what I believe is this - that God cannot be remote and terrible and irrational and cruel, for God is like Jesus. I believe in a God who matches the picture Jesus shows me; I believe in a God whose whole nature is love, and whose way is the way of justice and righteousness. I believe in a God is biased toward the marginalised and the vulnerable and the poor. Indeed, I believe in a God who has chosen to share that life, beginning in the stable at Bethlehem and the flight from Bethlehem to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod: a God who doesn’t stand apart from human tragedy.

But I still have to reconcile that belief with the fact of the persistence of injustice and unrighteousness in the world . . . so how am I going to do that?

C.S. Lewis wrote about 'the problem of pain', something that theologians have wrestled with throughout the whole of Christian history; and at the end of all their writing and thinking the problem remains. Why do I have to suffer, and why does anyone - in particular what about the innocents who just get caught in the crossfire? There comes a point at which rational argument fails, and as a believer I have to take a leap of faith'.  I don't have all the answers, and however lovely the Christmas stories, they still leave me short of complete proof. I have to make that leap, and sometimes I can do it with a fair amount of confidence and hope, and other times I find it’s harder. Faith and doubt form two sides of the same coin, I discover.  Like St Paul, I see dark reflections in the glass, but hope one day to know fully and completely - to know as I am known.

But the very fact that I’m so appalled by the story of the killings Herod ordered in Bethlehem, the very fact that I’m so moved by the images of suffering on TV, etched on the faces of children I’ll never know, who are halfway round the world from me - that in itself is part of the answer to my faith question. We know about right and wrong, good and bad, darkness and light;  we have an intrinsic capacity to care about these things, to know what sort of world we want to see, and Christmas each year rekindles those hopes and dreams within us.  And somehow freedom, love and pain are inextricably linked together.  God made us free to quest for him, to love him, to serve him - or to ignore him.

Christina Rossetti wrote ‘love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine.’ Love was born into a world where then as now hatred and suffering can seem to have the upper hand, where the streets too often run with blood. In this dark world God proves his love in the birth of this child. But a world in which we’re free to love him back maybe has to be a world of chance and danger, and the new king who enters that world isn’t a king like Herod. He doesn’t descend with chariots of fire, he’s born in a stable.

And even as I welcome the Prince of Peace, the Christmas story as a whole forces me also to admit the reality and potency of evil.  It’s dangerous to downplay the role of evil in the world.  Everything can’t be explained away in terms of societal pressures, or failures in nurture, or the impact of poverty, or our genetic inheritance . . . nor is evil the preserve of those people the tabloid press likes to label as 'monsters' - and therefore quite different from us.  Evil can happen anywhere; evil is what happens when good is absent, and when good people look away.

The murder of the children in Bethlehem is a reminder of what happens when evil is rampant and unchecked. All that’s needed for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.  The battle between good and evil is fundamental to our human experience, and it’s an inevitable component of the story of love.  And though I don't have a complete answer to the problem of pain and evil, I think I do have the beginning of an answer that I can work with.  The story of the Word made flesh who dwells among us tells me that God doesn’t leave himself out but includes himself in: love incarnate is calling us to love, and lighting our way.

And this is love not just as an idea or a tinselly picture, but as a programme for action, and for courageous and generous living. So let’s not just think about love, but do it. Evil reigns not so much because bad people do bad things, but because good people let them. Let me close with some words for Christmas from the black author, educationalist and civil rights leader Howard Thurman.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and the princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
then the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

Friday, 27 December 2013

A Small Mystery

. . . A small tragedy, as well.  The other day I found a siskin, a female bird, lying dead just outside our back door. I am not sure what was the cause of death, but a small amount of blood was visible on the tail feathers, leading me to speculate that maybe it was killed by one of the local cats, and left there perhaps as a sort of gift, or maybe just because the bird's killer was disturbed.

So there's one mystery; but the other mysterious thing is that a siskin should be there at all, since we have never seen a live siskin in our garden in all the time we've been here. There will be siskins not too far away, to be sure - when we lived just up the way in Brookfield Road, we had siskins all winter, as very regular visitors to our feeding station. They are delightful small finches, very acrobatic and with an attractive plumage. As they quite often flock with goldfinches - and we have no shortage of goldfinches, with fifteen our highest total at one time so far this winter - we had hoped to see them here, but it's sad that the only one seen so far is dead.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Not Really Believing

Not really believing, and yet
I have come to sing again the old words,
and to rejoice that the candles still are lit;
my heart will still respond, will still be moved
as the remembered stories are read once more
from behind the great brass eagle.

I am here because I want to be, perhaps even
because I need to be.
I should like tonight the chance to be a child again,
with no need to worry about whether shepherds saw a star,
and wise men heard an angel;
Matthew and Luke have written their distinct stories of a birth,
but tonight their stories are melded as one,
one tale, to be re-told by candlelight
and sung to the old dancing tunes that power the faith songs of the people.
I am glad still to be part of this.

And then there comes the story that for me will always stand unshaken,
whatever my doubts about stables and stars:
“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.”  Here
is the truth I shall depend on, the quay
at which I moor my ship of faith,
such a flimsy craft for much of the year,
and so easily cast astray.

The child I was rejoiced at mystery,
was happy not to understand,
loved being so small, where the old arches soared upwards
into a dusty and holy height
hardly touched by the flickering flames below.
We stand for the Ninth Lesson,
bow our heads at the holy words -
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”
And yes, we have seen his glory,
or we have almost seen it, caught this season’s tantalising glimpse
somewhere within the echoes of our carolling,
half-hidden in that holy dusk, beyond the candle flames we have lit:
a light that is not of our kindling, but is his own,
and a Word that is its own music, impossibly ancient
and yet completely, utterly new, as it seeks an entry to my heart.

Homeward bound with “O Come, All Ye Faithful” still in my ears, I see how
every star is newly bright across the virgin sky
as the haloed moon sails high, and the sparkled frost begins to form.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Mixed Bag

We seem to be having a mixed bag of very changeable weather just now!  I parked my car in bright sunshine this morning, and strolled across the road to church for the carol service, which was gently enjoyable; but by the time I came out of church the world outside had changed completely, and I had to hurry back to the car in the face of a determined onslaught of cold wind, sleet and hail.

So a mixed bag of weather, with most of the last few days having begun with morning sunshine and then deteriorated markedly as the day has worn on.  This was especially true yesterday, as I had been completely fooled into thinking that things were going to stay fine all day, and was slightly mystified by travel reports on the radio that spoke of the probable disruption later, once the bad weather arrived.  There had seemed no sign of it - and then, all of a sudden, it arrived!  Fortunately, I was inside by then.

We can for the most part hide away from the weather, though it certainly exposes any weakness in our shelter than we hadn't noticed or attended to properly.  Just at the moment I'm very aware that a day or two spent on my gutters during the summer might have been a good idea - water is cascading through several leaky joints, and working on them at this time of the year isn't going to be easy.  The wildlife that visits our gardens can't hide so easily, and a bit of care on our part will be very helpful to the creatures that live around us.  I like my garden to look tidy at the back end of the year, but I'm prepared to compromise and leave a few scruffy bits, if that will provide winter habitats - which it will.

Keeping the feeders stocked means that birds can find a ready source of nutrition on days when bad weather forces them to shelter much of the time, and leaves little daylight opportunity for hunting or foraging.  A pile of logs provides lots of safe places for overwintering insects and other invertebrates - as does not cutting back all the dead growth in our borders until spring.  Ivy on trees and fences is best left undisturbed, unless it is likely to disturb or unbalance - or smother, I suppose - what it is growing over.  Not only is it a good shelter for many small creatures, it is a winter food supply for insect-eaters - like goldcrests and wrens - that rarely if ever come to feeders, but need a source of wild food and suffer greatly in hard winters.

Our feeders themselves are being depleted of sunflower seeds almost daily.  The nuts and nyger seed last a bit longer, as do the fat balls, but this afternoon everything is running low, so I need to replenish the feeders before nightfall - and replenish my seed hopper in the shed as soon as I can get to the shop to do it!  Once you've made a decision to feed the garden birds, it's good to keep to it!  Having said that, it's also important to maintain good standards of hygiene, as in the wild a good food source doesn't last all that long - once it's finished, the birds have to move elsewhere.  As that isn't true of the garden feeders, the risk is greatly enhanced of diseases building up and of toxic growths where food is allowed to go bad.  It's a bore, washing everything, but I need to make sure I do it this week, to make sure "my" birds stay healthy.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Christmas Song

A poem / song of mine (I did also write a tune for it) that has recently been published in a poetry collection :-

There are brown tyre treads in the virgin snow
and your skin turns blue in the cold wind's blow,
but you ain't got no place else to go,
and you're on your own on these streets, lady,
you're on your own down here.

The sky is black and there ain't no stars,
and the only lights are the cruising cars
and the neon signs of those downbeat bars,
and you're on your own on these streets, lady,
you're on your own down here.

There's no shepherds in these parts, my dear,
no herald angels singing clear,
and any wise men stay home for a warm and a beer,
and you're on your own on these streets, lady,
you're on your own down here.

Yet I remember a night in a time of old
when the sky exploded in burning gold,
and the songs were sung and the tidings told,
and the earth and the heaven were a single fold,
and they called these streets salvation, lady,
this place was Bethlehem.

Yes, they called these streets salvation, lady,
this place was Bethlehem.


My latest 'Nature Notes' article for some of our local magazines :-

Our garden feeders are proving very popular this winter, and we’ve seen up to fifteen goldfinches at a time, plus great, blue, coal, marsh and long-tailed tits, a nuthatch, chaffinches and a beautiful pair of bullfinches, a very proprietorial robin and - much to the consternation of the other birds - a pair of great spotted woodpeckers.  But one of my favourites is a rather undistinguished brown bird that doesn’t visit the feeders, but regularly pecks about underneath, picking up what the other birds drop - and that’s the dunnock.

Dunnocks are brown and grey sparrow sized birds, which is why they have often been called ‘hedge sparrows’. In truth, though, they’re not really sparrows, and have the thin beak associated with insect-eaters, rather than the thick seed-eating bill of the house or tree sparrow. They also have a short but pretty song in season.

Dunnocks feed mostly on the ground, and mostly their dist consists of insects and other invertebrates, plus some berries and fruit - and, of course, bird-table food but generally only the stuff that gets dropped.  Though fairly secretive, it’s a common bird, found everywhere in the British Isles (except Shetland and much of Orkney), with gardens, parkland, scrubby heaths and farmland hedges the dunnock’s main habitat.  The cup-shaped nest, lined with moss, hair and other soft material, will generally be constructed in a dense bush or hedge, or in a bramble patch, and a garden with some good bushes is most likely to attract breeding dunnocks.  Four or five eggs are usual.

The sexes are alike, with streaked brown wings and upper parts, and a grey breast. The head is grey with a brown crown, and there is a brown patch around the eye. While some dunnocks seem to pair in a conventional way, this species is infamous for a degree of infidelity, with some males having several female partners, and some females consorting with more than one male!

With probably something over two million breeding pairs in the UK, this is by no means a rare bird, though it’s often overlooked.  It is a resident species, and our British dunnocks do not move around much, though some extra dunnocks may arrive from Scandinavia to spend the winter here.

Glad Jones, from Llandrinio, whom many people will remember with great affection, was a keen garden bird watcher, and always had dunnocks in her garden.  She told me the story of a visitor one day who, looking out from her window, said, “That’s a fine old dunnock you’ve got at the top of your garden.” When she looked she could not see any small brown mouse-like birds rootling about, so she was for a moment mystified . . . until it dawned on her that her visitor was referring not to a bird of any sort but to an old fork-like implement, a dung-hook!

Monday, 16 December 2013

Bird Report (again)

Yesterday the activity around our feeders was quite frenzied.  At one stage we had fifteen goldfinches in our garden, the flash of yellow as they flew sometimes quite brilliant, even on a rather dull day. The great spotted woodpecker is also a brilliant arrival, of course; interestingly, yesterday as he settled on the nut feeder, the other feeders remained very much in use. Previously, I've noted that when a woodpecker is present, the other feeders are abandoned for a while. The visiting woodpecker yesterday was a male - up till now we'd only seen a female.

Visitors included two long-tailed tits, any number of chaffinches, and a busy wren. There was plenty of jackdaw activity in the trees behind us, and one did fly down to investigate the feeders, driving the other birds away as he perched there. He didn't stay long. A single cock house sparrow lingered awhile. As a child, I remember our garden being full of house sparrows; here they are rarely seen in our back garden. A decent sized flock of sparrows will more or less take over a feeding station, keeping most other birds away (or at least, that was our experience in a previous garden), but individually they don't seem to compete well. One explanation for the decline of sparrows seems to be that, as communal birds, once a colony falls below a certain size it seems to lose vigour. House sparrows were the first birds to find and use our front garden feeder, but now they are not often seen there. Tits and goldfinches, being more agile, seem able to take over.

We never see starlings in this garden, though they do fly across sometimes, and perch on the wires just down the street. They were occasional visitors in our previous place. Again, starlings were ever-present in my childhood garden. In those days we threw out scraps for the birds - bread, bits of fat from the bacon, and so forth. Perhaps today's more sophisticated feeding stations discriminate in favour of certain birds - tits, finches and so forth - to the detriment of our old sparrows. Having said that, starlings were certainly able to drive everything else off the feeding station in our previous garden, on the occasions that they appeared there, and to make effective use of the feeders, so I do wonder about their complete absence here.

Friday, 13 December 2013


Since my resignation as a cleric nearly three years ago, while in many ways my life has remained or indeed become very enjoyable and fulfilling, there've been some big questions around with which I've needed to wrestle, questions to do with identity and purpose: with belief and accountability, with responsibility and calling. Sometimes I seem to be so pulled apart by my often rather contrary thoughts that my end-state is one of numbness, really: just plodding on and getting through things without understanding or feeling anything very much.

I suspect there is nothing all that unusual in this. While some of us cope better than others with the complexities of existence, part of what it means to be human is this capacity we have not only for doing lots of things with dexterity and skill and inventiveness, but also for reflecting on what we do, and of course asking that troublesome question why. Sometimes the best of us find the questions and anxieties of life threatening to swamp us. I'm glad, therefore, and grateful for the people available to me with whom I can just share stuff, maybe not all that articulately always, but whose patient listening is so important.

As I recall from my days in ministry, the patient listener may sometimes feel frustrated by his/her inability to come up with the solutions and cogent advice we feel the situation requires of us; but of course we shouldn't be, the listening process itself is therapeutic. Today I spent an hour trying to express how I feel about the present situation, about possibilities and decisions that are facing me, about what I hope for, what I fear, what I feel about past events. I was well and carefully listened to throughout, not always with complete understanding I suspect, since I'm not at all sure I was always making coherent sense, but certainly I was attended to.

And it's because of that careful listening, rather than because of any wise words offered in reply, that this evening I feel so much more sorted out and organised. I have a clearer understanding of where I am now because when you speak things out loud rather than just churn them around in your head you do begin to make connections and sense out of what otherwise might just be a jumble. This means that the future is also clearer: I may not know yet what choices and decisions I may make when the time comes, but I do know I can approach them with more confidence and less anxiety.

Being listened to achieves a lot. And I am also reminded that one of the most valuable things about time spent in prayer is not that God answers us when we pray (he does, of course, if not always in the way we would choose), but that he listens, and that he does so with patience, with understanding and with love - like the father who stood day after day, watching in hope for the return of his prodigal son.

Thursday, 12 December 2013


One of the choirs I sing with gave its annual Christmas concert in its "home" church tonight, and a good number of folk turned up to hear, I'm pleased to say.  Our concert material ranged from the 16th century to the present day, and included a few lighter pieces as well as some quite serious choral music.  And all went very well. Usually I stay for the debrief over mulled wine and mince pies, but tonight I had a lot to do at home so Ann and I came straight back. But from just the few conversations we had with people as we made our way out, it's clear that the audience enjoyed hearing the music as much as we enjoyed singing it.

Bird song delights us as much as human choirs, and of course many composers have been inspired by, and on occasions explicitly copied, the songs of birds. One of the special things about being human is the way in which we delight in things like the sound of bird song or the colour of spring flowers, or the texture of a partly clouded sky; none of these things is provided for our amusement or entertainment, and yet we enjoy them and find them beautiful.

Bird song itself is simply a mode of communication, or so we are told. A robin singing its wistfully sweet falling cadences at this time of year is just establishing its winter territory, and warning other birds off, something which was particularly obvious when I went for a morning walk along a quite country road on a Greek island in the late autumn. Robins were singing at very regular intervals along the lane, each one claiming its little patch.

Of course, some birds - blackbirds and thrushes in the Spring, to give one obvious example - certainly quite deliberately aim to make their song complex and beautifully inventive. And of course, better than that of the next bird. It's still competitive, but it's not so much a shouting match as the final round in an eisteddfod. The hen presumably finds the song as attractive as we do.

But I'm also thinking about the goldfinches I mentioned in my last post. We're getting a lot in the garden just now, and they are quite beautifully noisy. You can hear them through our double glazing, which normally shuts out most things pretty well. And they do seem just to be having fun, though perhaps that's a sentimental and anthropomorphic point of view. Whatever else birdsong is for, sometimes it's just an eager expression of the joy companions can take in each other. Just as our human singing can be.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Bird Report

As winter begins, our garden bird population is growing, in interest as well as in numbers.  We had at least a dozen goldfinches this morning, among the most attractive of our finches, and very agile birds.  They divide their attention between the nyger seed and our sunflower hearts.  Blue tits visit in about the same numbers, and they prefer the sunflower hearts to anything else on offer, but will also peck at the peanuts and fat balls. They completely ignore the nyger seed, as do the great tits and coal tits which are present in smaller numbers. We have occasionally been visited by a marsh tit, and the other day had a family group of long tailed tits, which were present at the same time as goldfinches and a pair of bullfinches, making for a quite delightful scene.

Coal tits routinely take sunflower hearts and secrete them in various hiding places, including hanging baskets and plant pots. A single bird will whizz to and fro, removing quite a few seeds. Coal tits seem quite fussy, and will reject several before deciding on one they like, so a fair few seeds get deposited under the feeders, benefiting the chaffinches which are not as agile as many of the other birds, and the dunnocks which always feed on the ground.

Today we've had a nuthatch. This particular nuthatch seems to be quite a timid bird, compared to the rather macho nuthatches we've seen elsewhere. Nuthatches can generally move most other birds off the feeders, but this one seems quite oblivious to the fact that in general other birds will get out of its way; it is easily spooked into flying off by even the slightest movement. Of course, everything does get out of the way of the great spotted woodpecker. This comes exclusively to the peanut feeder, but the other feeders generally remain unvisited until she moves on. I think we have only one woodpecker visiting, a female.

Their sheer size means that wood pigeons generally, as they arrive, scare the other birds away. When something that big flies in, the average blue tit or chaffinch isn't going to stop to see whether it's a sparrow hawk or a pigeon, the thing to do is to head for the bushes, pdq! We can have three or four wood pigeons at a time. Sometimes they perch on the feeding station, looking inquisitively at the feeders, but of course they can't use them. Fortunately there are plenty of dropped seeds below for them to go at.

Squirrels manage to get to the feeders, despite the squirrel baffle we've put in. Occasionally I come out and shout at them, but mostly I can't be bothered. Today we had a little spat between a squirrel and a wood pigeon that was briefly quite entertaining. It wasn't much of a fight in the end! I added a new feeder to the smaller feeding station in our front garden this afternoon. I wonder whether it will tempt the local house sparrows? They were the first birds to find the original feeder at this site, but hardly visit now that the local blue and great tits have started using it.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Bird Report

Lovely today to have our garden full of blackbirds!  We record the birds we see on a form supplied by our local Wildlife Trust, with a 1 for a bird seen only once at a time, 2 where two or more of a species are seen at the same time, and 3 where we manage to see ten or more all at once.  For the first time ever, blackbirds scored a ten (I counted eleven, in fact), and therefore got marked 3 on the list, to join blue tits and chaffinches.

They were gorging themselves on rowan berries, so I suppose they'll soon move on - there aren't very many left.  I had put out some bits of apple too, but the squirrels seem to have made off with most of those.  We've also had a bullfinch and a goldfinch today, always nice to see them, and a great spotted woodpecker has started to visit our nut feeder.  It's lovely to watch the birds, but sometimes a bit of an effort to keep up with their appetites!

Changing Addresses

Ann and I needed to change the address details on Ann's Mum's account with the Co-op Bank today.  It should have been simple, but wasn't, because we didn't have either the four digit code or the special secret word that was demanded.  We did have ourselves, bank statements, utility bills for our previous and current addresses, passports, driving licences and a copy of our joint lasting power of attorney and the bank's letter confirming to us that this had been registered two years ago. THANK YOU to the lovely lass at the branch who refused to accept the decision from above that access should be refused because we didn't have the four digit code. THANK YOU to the chap she eventually managed to speak to who actually seemed prepared to put his brain into gear and do something. The whole process, if that isn't too grand a term, took the best part of an hour!  We went on from there to change the address details on Ann's account at Santander, just across the road. It took five minutes.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Living Town Centres

I enjoy town centres, the bustle, the shops, the events and activities.  Even here in Welshpool, which is a town too small to have a really bustling town centre.  Recently our town centre fruit and veg shop closed, and, since there's no market stall selling fruit and veg, only the supermarkets (three large, two small) remain. Our last remaining shoe shop is likely to follow. Coffee shops abound, as do hairdressers, beauty salons and charity shops. But I still enjoy a wander round town, even if the element of choice isn't as much there as it was.

Here's a thought, though. Wherever I've travelled overseas, town centre shops seem to be open into the evening. So why aren't they here? That's surely when working folk are free. Instead, all our town centre shops seem to close just when people are free. I can think of lots of good reasons why we don't open town centre shops into the evening, of course - shop staff want to get home for their tea like everyone else, for a start. Even so, the idea of opening shops in the morning, then closing through the afternoon and opening between - say - four and eight or nine might be worth looking at. Most retail staff in town centre stores seem to be part-timers, so I doubt there would be much increase in staff costs, and it might just bring in more custom.

Of course, you'd really need a whole town to try this out together, with the local council and chamber of commerce and whatever other bodies might be appropriate giving it all a bit of a push. Maybe it's the sort of project that might attract some central funding, as a test run that could be assessed and written up, and from which lessons could be learned, for good or bad. After all, it isn't just that town centres are empty after about six in the evening; the fact is, they've often turned into no-go areas, with many older people, and families with young children too, choosing not to venture into what they perceive as being a hostile environment. Open shops, with a bit of a promotional push, perhaps a bit of street theatre or a special market, might just change all that, and reclaim our town centres for the people.

In fact, in my experience town centres in the evening aren't all that scary now, although Fridays and Saturdays can be a bit of a pain. But the perception widely shared is that once the shops are closed they're not a nice place to be. So why not try out evening opening somewhere - please - and let's see what happens!

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Bad Dream

I had a really bad dream last night.  Like many such, it was a dream dreamt after my first waking-up, after I'd drifted off again for a bit of an extra snooze before getting up.  It was very precise and realistic, full of detail;  I was, I believe, in Mablethorpe for some reason, and, while I've no reason to believe that the town in my dreams resembled the Mablethorpe of the real world, a place I've only visited once in my life and then very briefly, and long ago, it was very convincing - a solid town in other words, not some strange shimmering dreamscape.

It was a very frightening dream, frightening within the dream itself, but scarier still when I awoke, since it took some time for my mind to convince itself that the events of the dream were not real. I had been accused of some appalling crimes, and as I stood accused I could not remember whether or not I had actually done any of that stuff, but knew I had no defence, no alibi or mitigation.  Effectively, my life was over; no-one, not even my closest friends, not even my family, would stand by me or speak up for me.  Indeed, I could not even speak up for myself.

To wake up in that frame of mind did not make for the easiest of starts to my day, to be honest (no surprise, I suppose). The moments before I realised that that was dream, this is reality and in the real world I am (reasonably) safe and secure, and indeed supported and loved - they really were quite scary, and they left me feeling jittery and insecure for the rest of the morning.

I am inclined to take dreams seriously - perhaps not in the sense of many of the dreams of scripture, which convey messages, sometimes in code and needing a Joseph or a Daniel for interpretation, and sometimes very clear and direct, but nonetheless the dream comes from somewhere, and I think that somewhere is somewhere within myself, not somewhere else seeking to communicate with me.  This means that understanding my dreams may help me to understand my deepest self, for I am sure that our hopes and our fears find expression in dreams. Dreams may find their themes in the things that are preying on our minds, but I guess that sometimes it's deeper than that, the fears that are affecting and afflicting us but have been pushed too far down for our conscious mind to really be aware.

I wonder exactly what motivated last night's dream?  I do not intend to try for an interpretation here and now, partly because it would take too long, and partly because I'm not sure that anyway it would be something I would be capable on my own of doing.  But I feel it would be wrong for me to dismiss it and try to forget it either.  I have some exploring to do, with my therapist to help me - not, though, so I can fall into line with what this or any dream may require of me (there's no reason why I should be in any way beholden to dreams), but so that I can discern the fears and fractures that have produced such a dream, and then begin to deal with them.

Self-possession and self-control depend on our self-awareness.  We were not made to be held in the grip of fears, and as John reminds all who have faith, "Perfect love casts out fear."  I'm glad to say that I have many more good dreams than bad ones, and few ever that disturb me as much as last night's. But to just turn away from it would, I think, mean that something within me that needs to be understood and dealt with is remaining untackled.

Monday, 11 November 2013


Yesterday I spoke at a service in a little chapel set in rolling borders countryside, and it was a delight to be there as always, with an enthusiastic congregation, good singing and a real sense of a family gathered to worship.  But what made it better still was the bright sunshine and the autumn colours through the windows.  I enjoy the stained glass windows of our ancient churches, but there are times when the clear glass of the chapel window provides the more inspiring and uplifting image.

I hadn't been back home for long before I felt the clear and unmistakeable first intimations of a cold coming on, and by the end of the afternoon my head was pounding and my nose streaming.  I felt quite wretched all evening, with the occasional mighty sneeze to disturb the rest of the household.  Thankfully, though, I slept well and this morning already feel very much on the mend.

But I've taken the day off even so.  Ann, my wife, is recovering from an operation, and so she needs me to be well as quickly as possible.  And it is nice to have a bit of time to play with, time just to be still in for a while.  At this time of the year especially, as the hours of daylight approach their shortest point, we become all too aware of how busy our lives can get, and how little time we get to be attentively still in.

"What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?"  -  in the words of W.H. Davies.

A friend who phoned this morning was telling me that, her lift to church yesterday having been cancelled, she'd gone for a walk up the hill instead and taken time just to stand and be still, surrounded by the bright autumn colours in the morning sunshine.  Today isn't sunny, but it seems a gentle and soft day, a day in which the colours don't shine so much, but blur together in attractive ways.  I think I'll sit outside for a while (well wrapped up, of course, but the fresh air will I think do my cold some good), and watch the birds on the feeders in our back garden, and the occasional leaf drifting down.  There's plenty to do, but tomorrow is time enough for all that.

Sunday, 10 November 2013


This may seem a strange and somewhat counter-intuitive statement to make in a blog, but I do find myself increasingly feeling that I would like out from the world of digital technology, and back to a simpler time when maybe less was at our fingertips but our engagement with the world and with one another was more wholesome and genuine.

Don't get me wrong;  I am an enthusiastic user of technology, and I do much of my work on-line.  I love the fact that I can find out all kinds of things, make all kinds of contacts, buy all kinds of commodities, here at my keyboard.  A few months ago, I needed a hat . . . well, wanted one, anyway:  a black fedora.  I drove the eighteen miles to Shrewsbury and searched every shop that sold hats, and a fair few that I thought should but turned out not to.  Nowhere could I find a black fedora that would fit me, and that a retired former cleric could actually afford.

Back home, on-line, I found and ordered a hat within fifteen minutes, and paid what seemed to me an unbeatably low price.  The hat turned up two days later, and fitted perfectly.  I'm not surprised the high street is dying, or at least changing rapidly from its traditional form (or at least, the form I've known all my life until now).  Actually, I will come back to high streets, as I have some thoughts and ideas, but that's for another time and another blog.  Anyway, I'm not surprised that high street shops are struggling to compete, but I'm sad.  High Street shopping when I was young was not just about buying things, but also about meeting people, and about being part of the bustle, part of the life of the place.

Ah, but I can meet people on-line, and so many more of them!  Leaving aside the fact of avatars and multiple personalities, and that how do you really know that the person you're conversing with as really who and what he or she claims to be (and leaving aside the fact that some people would say of that "Does it matter?"), while I can see some value in the way the internet enables interest-groups and networking, I worry about those people, those many people I think, for whom this has become their main means of social interaction.  New on-line communities may be springing up, but other real communities, geographically based and centred, are crumbling.  The internet isn't the only factor here of course - TV and other media, and the ease with which we can travel, and the simple fact that work patterns are much more complex than they used to be, all of this plays its part.  But the internet has rather hurried things up.

More so, of course, for people a generation or two below mine;  cyber-sex, cyber-bullying, the application of all kinds of pressure on malleable young minds - I worry about this, and so I think should you.  There is immense damage being done within the generation who are presently in their teens, and while I do not lack confidence in the ability of most young people to make their way through the minefield that is adolescence, it is I think much more of a minefield now than it was in my day.  The internet provides young people with so much more power than we ever had, the more so in this day of tablets and smart-phones;  and even though that power is often in reality spurious and false.

For this is what it comes down to, in my mind;  if we possess technology, then that's good, it gives us power, access, knowledge, opportunity . . . but what about when technology possesses us?  That, it seems to me, is what it will always try to do, as we give it more and more of our time and our commitment.  The wise will recognise the boundaries that need to be kept, the priorities that will need to be reviewed;  but not all of us are wise, or not in any case until after the event.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

A Sunday Talk

Malachi 4.1-2a; 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13; Luke 21.5-19 (set out below)

Some people were talking about the temple and the beauty of its fine stones and ornaments. Jesus said,  ‘These things you are gazing at—the time will come when not one stone will be left upon another; they will all be thrown down.’ ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘when will that be? What will be the sign that these things are about to happen?’

He said, ‘Take care that you are not misled. For many will come claiming my name and saying, “I am he,” and, “The time has come.” Do not follow them. And when you hear of wars and insurrections, do not panic. These things are bound to happen first; but the end does not follow at once.’ Then he added, ‘Nation will go to war against nation, kingdom against kingdom; there will be severe earthquakes, famines and plagues in many places, and in the sky terrors and great portents.

‘But before all this happens they will seize you and persecute you. You will be handed over to synagogues and put in prison; you will be haled before kings and governors for your allegiance to me. This will be your opportunity to testify. So resolve not to prepare your defence beforehand, because I myself will give you such words and wisdom as no opponent can resist or refute. Even your parents and brothers, your relations and friends, will betray you. Some of you will be put to death; and everyone will hate you for your allegiance to me. But not a hair of your head will be lost. By standing firm you will win yourselves life.’

Let me begin with a prayer appointed for this Sunday: “Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son was revealed to destroy the works of the devil and to make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life: grant that we, having this hope, may purify ourselves even as he is pure; that when he shall appear in power and great glory we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”

Yesterday I was taking part in a funeral service at the Methodist Chapel in Snailbeach, on the edge of the Stiperstones, and, despite the sadness of the occasion, also quite enjoying the chance to revisit a chapel in which I took services regularly over quite a few years.  Building on the side of a hill is never easy, and I couldn’t help but notice some scaffolding in place.  Without constant care and attention even the most solid-looking building will become weak;  and when any weakness is discovered, it’s important to get on with the job without delay and put things right. Some of the churches in which I’ve ministered and served have of course stood far longer than the chapel at Snailbeach;  in two, one of which is the parish church at Llandrinio, the stonework in part at least goes back to a time before the Norman Conquest.  For a millennium and more a church has stood in that place to testify to the reality of faith, and to the continual offering of prayer.

I was also of course a canon of the cathedral for a while, sharing with my colleagues in those days a responsibility for the maintenance of that ancient house of God.  Even in this secular age cathedrals are much visited;  across the country in fact cathedrals in general are I’m told receiving more visitors through the week, and more worshippers on a Sunday, year on year. And I think that even those who arrive in such a place with a camera but without a faith come to sense the sanctity of an ancient cathedral or for that matter a small and ancient shrine, the church at Pennant Melangell for example:  a place of prayer, in which the visitor feel, perhaps to their surprise, that they are somehow drawn closer to God.

A friend who does some summer chaplaincy work on odd days at a cathedral not far from here told me of the many conversations he has with people who’ve just come for a day out but have found more than they expected. Some of them have left with a real sense that their lives have been in some way transformed. People I suppose approached the temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Gospel with the same awe as people today show towards our great cathedrals.  The disciples of Jesus, we read, marvelled at the size of the stone blocks with which it was built.

But Jesus told them that not one stone would be left standing on another.  Perhaps he was specifically predicting the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple that in fact took place some thirty years later.  Or perhaps he was saying that however grand and beautiful a building, it will not stand unless the faith of those who build it is real.  Our great cathedrals look so solid, as though they could stand for ever.  But on Remembrance Sunday especially we know how quickly the madness of human conflict can lay waste the work of centuries of human endeavour;  I’ve visited both Coventry and Dresden and stood prayerfully in the ruined shells of great churches.

The great temple in Jerusalem was not of course the temple of Solomon - that was long gone, but the temple of Herod.  Herod, called Herod the Great, began building his temple a few years before the birth of Jesus, and in fact building would still have been going on at the time that Jesus was there. People really did believe that this temple would last for ever, and that it could never be destroyed;  but by 70 AD it lay in ruins, and the city at the heart of Israel’s relationship with her God had been razed to the ground.

In today’s reading, from St Luke’s Gospel, it was the comments people were making on the beauty of the temple's stones and dedication gifts that gave Jesus the cue to say the harsh words he did, words designed to undermine any confidence in the buildings. Certainly those of us who like myself love church buildings may well be challenged here.  I am again and again inspired when I visit holy places, and stand within stones that have faithfully borne witness to the gospel over many centuries.

Those verses I also read from the prophecy of Malachi provide a response for this. The prophet challenges any over-confidence we may place in our own abilities, and in the works of our own hands. We may stand within a precious building, whether a small chapel or a mighty temple; but we must put our trust not in stone and stained glass, but in God - in God for whose worship and to whose glory these places were built.

And this is surely true - that, just as we need to be swiftly attentive to any weakness in the building, the stone and the timber and the glass, so too we need to be swiftly and regularly attentive to any weakness in the spiritual building, in the community of faith, and in the individual Christian self.  I know just how true this can be, and how often it’s true that just when I’m looking good and feeling strong, I’m in fact often more at risk than ever of tripping up and falling.  We need to regularly examine our buildings;  we need also to regularly examine ourselves - and in both cases we need to look deeper than the surface.  Paul tells us that we must never weary of doing right;  in fact I almost lose count of the places in the letters of Paul where he speaks of the necessity of perseverance and of self-awareness before God.

Those hard words of Jesus challenge us to be faithful to God through thick and thin, to be wise and not misled.  And it will, he promises his hearers, be a tough time, a time when even the closest of friends, even one’s own family, may turn against us.  Let’s not forget that for some of our sisters and brothers across the Christian world today, this is what it is like. Persecution is real and harsh, and they would identify in a very personal way with the words of Malachi the prophet about staying true to God's name in a time of burning trial.

But those words from St Luke’s Gospel, though they speak of hard times, they’re also rich with promise. If we stay with our Lord, he will stay with us.  Buildings may be destroyed, possessions may be lost, but our faith is in the God whose love is eternal, and the sign of that love is the cross on which our Lord Jesus Christ lost everything, laid down everything, laid down even his own life, in order that he might open the gate to eternal life to all his people, and so that he himself might be crowned High King of Heaven.  We need have no fear of worldly destruction - even such terrible things as the destruction of Jerusalem and her temple, which I suppose would still have been fresh in the memory of those who first read St Luke’s Gospel and the words of Jesus he recorded there.

Worldly destruction is never the end, never the final curtain, when viewed in the light of heaven - though we, still pilgrims passing, as Psalm 23 reminds us, through the valley of the shadow of death, will still need a persevering faith, which will require us to examine ourselves and to encourage one another.  And problems and troubles and attacks on the faith are also opportunities, or perhaps I should say these events provide opportunities to testify to our Lord.  Jesus tells us that we will be called on to bear witness in unexpected places; he tells us also that if we trust and persevere and stand firm in faith, when the time comes God will provide us with the words we need.

Today this might chime in with memories of conflict and war, and of times when the whole world has felt dark and dangerous, and tomorrow was by no means guaranteed.  It might also chime in with our prayers for Christians who are suffering today:  perhaps in Syria, Iraq or Egypt, perhaps in Pakistan or in parts of India, perhaps in northern Nigeria. We read of the destruction of church buildings;  let us pray they may stand firm in faith.  I find an immense contrast in those verses from St Luke’s Gospel:  on the one hand, the temple will be destroyed so completely that not one stone will be left standing on another, and this will bring in a time of hopeless confusion, of dangers and trials; yet on the other hand Jesus promises those who stand firm that not one hair of their heads would perish.

This story has been repeated throughout the history of the Church, as one of our hymns reminds us: “Through many a day of conflict, through many a scene of strife, the faithful few fought bravely to guard the nation’s life”.  Perhaps in some places today those words will be sung, and people will think on the few who fought in the cause of freedom seventy years ago, and the names read out by war memorials this morning.  We honour them, and shall do in our prayers; but the hymn is really about the times when the Church has seemed in great danger of certain destruction, and the revival the begins with, and depends on, the perseverance of the few, those who stand firm in the faith.  Those who will not be knocked down, even when not one stone stands on another. May we stand with them, and may the light of Christ shine within us and shine out from us into the world he died to save.  Amen.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Light Bulbs

I switched on a light yesterday morning and tripped the circuit, because one of the three bulbs in a corridor light fitting blew.  In fact, one had already gone, so that left only one functioning bulb out of the three - time to get some new ones, therefore.  On investigation, the bulbs needed proved to be different from any existing bulbs in my store, despite the fitting itself being quite similar in appearance to several others in the house.  A special purchase was therefore needed, and made - but why have things become so complicated these days? We seem to have every different contemporary form of domestic light fitted somewhere in our house, and it's all a far cry from the Good Old Days when the only issue was 60 watt or 100, and clear or pearl.

The same proved to be true of our kitchen tap when it started dripping.  In the G.O.D. all that would have been required of me would have been to spend a few pence on a washer . . . but this was a modern lever tap with some sort of ceramic insert.  And can we find a replacement part? No, is the short answer - so it looks as though we'll be fitting a new tap, so long as I can find one that works in the old fashioned way that was always good enough for me.

Tonight I found myself reminiscing over the phone with my aunt about childhood days, and gas lamps, steam trains, slate boards to write and draw on at school, doorstep jam sandwiches at my Granny's house, sherbet dips from the corner shop, all kinds of memories of how things were back then.  Not that everything was better, and certainly there was less in the way of consumer choice available - but maybe now there can be rather more choice than any of us really needs.  At least as regards light bulbs and kitchen taps, I tend to find myself confused, frustrated, and also de-skilled, in our modern world.

Friday, 1 November 2013

All Saints

A teacher was asking her RE class, "What would I need, in order to be a saint?"  After a pause, a hand went up towards the back of the class.  "Yes, Emily?"  "Please, miss, you'd have to be dead!"

Maybe not the answer expected, but true all the same, I suppose - at least, of those famous men and women whom we remember with the title of 'saint'.  We have looked at their lives as a whole, and decided that there is some quality of holiness, of faithful perseverance, of kindness or courage, that we wish to honour and to remember.  Or, because there needs to be order and consistency in this sort of thing, "The Church" in some shape or form has made such an assessment.

In reality, people have feet of clay, and the airwaves are littered with stories of famous people, celebrities and high achievers, who have fallen from their pedestals like Humpty Dumpty from his wall, and with the same disastrous consequences.  But saints are (or were, I suppose) also real people, and you only have to look at the Gospels to see that even the first apostles, the founders of our Church, were anything but infallible. You might even gain the impression that, as they followed Jesus along the lanes of Galilee and Judaea, they were wrong nearly all the time.

So what is special about the Saints, capital 'S'?  Leaving aside the test of miracles performed and prayers answered, I suppose that, fallible and clay-footed though they undoubtedly were, these are people who provide us with an example of faith worth following.  When Jesus calls us, as he does, we can look at these people and see what it might mean to say 'Yes'. Saints challenge us and inspire us, and I like to think of them also as accompanying us - firstly, as pilgrims who have walked already the roads we now travel, and secondly, surely, as those who now pray for us around the thrones of heaven.

They are like stained glass windows, aglow with a light that is not their own, but which in each saintly life story shines in its own special and distinct way.  Saints are not superhuman, and indeed as we read their stories we become aware of men and women who were deeply aware of their own sin and frailty. They made the effort, though, to give themselves to their Lord, so that, like Paul, they could say that "my life is no longer my own;  it is Christ, living in me."  In reality, though, we give away our life in order to receive it back again, for it is as me, myself, that I can be of service to Christ and allow his love to infect and infuse me.

So what do we need, me and you, to be saints? Maybe our saintly status can't be confirmed until we are dead - but already we are saints,or that is the opportunity set before us: to open ourselves, to make ourselves translucent, transparent to the light of the love of Christ, and within that love and through its recreating power, to become our true selves, what we were made and destined to be. Here and now.

Sunday, 27 October 2013


Our garden today has been absolutely full of very busy small birds - blue, great and coal tits, chaffinches, dunnocks, nuthatches.  They've been taking turns on the various feeders, but also prospecting along the greenhouse roof and through the various shrubs and bushes, searching out and grabbing whatever they can find.  The chicken wire walls and top to our fruit cage is no barrier to blue tits, and they were flitting in and out like anything, as our runner beans, still standing there, were obviously a very good source of small insects.  Of course, blue tits are no great problem for the fruit grower, and the mesh is fine enough to keep out the more problematic birds, I'm sure!

Since today was quite blustery with some very sharp showers, our comparatively sheltered garden was, I suppose, good and fairly easy hunting territory for birds eager to stock up against the coming winter.  We know of course, having watched the TV weather forecast, that there's a big storm on the way (though I'm hoping the worst of it will pass us by to the south);  I wonder, do the birds have some inner radar that warns them that they might not be doing much feeding for the next day or so . . . is that why they were so busy today?

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

And Again . . .

Yet another scam email purporting to come from NatWest . . . utterly pathetic, it didn't even TRY to be convincing - logo clearly snipped out of something and pasted, spelling and grammatical errors all over the place, and since when did anyone like NatWest call me a "valued customer"? I do find it all rather depressing.

Just a Thought . . .

All the time in our world, things are happening that never, ever happened before.  Be prepared to be surprised.

Friday, 18 October 2013


As I look at the ancient parish church,
its red stones glow in the rain, their corners and
edges blurred into soft-focus.
I pause to stand in the shelter of the lych, to note
how the music sounds of water around me have been enhanced
by worshipful voices raised in song,
“Cwm Rhondda” from within the stained glass
lit against the dark of this wet autumn afternoon.

I am only a bystander, someone passing through, and so
I remain safely outside, glad of the shelter
and glad to hear the hymn,
and perhaps also glad that prayers are being made -
but happy too not to have to be part of anything;
for the moment, I am only observing and recording
from a distance, not yet ready
to step into the baptismal shower.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Finding the Time is Hard

Finding the time is hard
at this season of the year.  The wind
clatters in a burst of spent leaves across the topstones
of the laneside wall, and icy drops spatter the screen;
the last stage of my journey, and already the light is failing.
I pass between the gateposts to park up, and watch
crows scattering like torn black rags
above the broken line of trees that tops the ridge.
Crows seem able to give themselves to be part of the storm,
while all I can do is turn my collar up, and keep my head down,
and lose my hold on time like the trees are losing hold of their leaves,
to be swept across the fields;  it will not be long
till nearly every curtain will be closed
before even I start my journey home.  It is as though
The dark were engaged in a two pronged attack, mounting
a pincer movement to squeeze the life out of the light.
The remains of the day have become skeletal and pale,
washed out like the trees through my rainy windscreen
now that the wipers have stopped.
I shall make my run for the door and my fireside chair,
to close the curtains, sit tight and
leave the world be, hibernate if I could; for anything more
finding the time is hard,
at this season of the year.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013


A mention of an interesting event that I observed last weekend.  On Saturday afternoon I was outside clearing out the greenhouse and doing a few other autumn garden jobs, when all of a sudden there was the noise of a great assembly of crows and jackdaws in the big oak tree to the north of our garden.  To me it seemed like a major argument, perhaps even a battle, with the birds wheeling about in numbers.  I am pretty sure I could hear magpies too, though I couldn't actually see them. I know crows and magpies will fight, and perhaps that's true for jackdaws as well;  anyway, I really can’t be sure what provoked this, but it certainly disturbed the peace.  

We always have crows and jackdaws around our gardens, but I normally only see them in groups of three or four at most.  There will have been forty or fifty birds at least involved in this affair, and the commotion went on for at least a quarter of an hour.  During this time the squabble, if that's what it was, gradually moved south through the wood from the major oak until the birds were mostly in or wheeling above the trees (ash, elm and sycamore) that our own garden backs on to.  And then after a while they dispersed, leaving just a few jackdaws to shout at each other now and again.  I’d love to know what was really going on here, what started it, and how typical it is - after all, these are intelligent and quite highly organised birds.  Was it perhaps about carving out winter territories, or were these young birds just rousting about? I'm sure someone will know, or at least have a theory.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

A Last Bite of Harvest

Well into October, and the Harvest Festival season almost over, nonetheless Ann and I still had two to attend today, one Anglican and one Presbyterian.  The first we attended only the service (Ann played the organ), but had to cry off the lunch, while the other we managed both the service and a very well-laden tea table afterwards.  Both were nicely taken;  the Anglican service could I thought have been better attended, but then again, some who might have been in church were busy instead producing the lunch, I suppose.  I liked the service, simple, clear and with a good cross section of hymns that directed us toward a wider perspective than just the local farms and fields.

The Presbyterian service, in a chapel whose normal Sunday attendance is very few, was I think better attended than had been expected, but a Montgomeryshire tea table is more than capable of coping with a few extra mouths (never knowingly under-catered), and there were plenty of sandwiches and cakes still left when people started packing up for home.  It wasn't a short address, but they like a bit of content in chapel, and there was also a singing-band with guitars, which was nice.  What I liked was the enthusiasm of the preacher, and I felt that his choice of text (from I Corinthians 3) was refreshingly different for a Harvest sermon.

Anyway, that's it for another year, I suppose!  We're already practising music for Christmas, of course, let alone All Saints, Remembrance and Advent.  But I do enjoy Harvest, not least because it's a season in its own right - it doesn't happen everywhere on the same day, so the successive services and socials in different churches mean you can get to see, as you travel about the place, quite a few different interpretations of the theme.

Friday, 11 October 2013


The ivy snakes across the weathered bricks.
As I stand here I can almost think I see it move, trace
the twisting of the stem, the probing of velcro roots.
October has weathered the peacock sky to a flat grey,
and from it the spitting wind cuts through to my heart.

I am here to tend the garden, my task
to rip out a summer’s growth of buttercups and nettles,
to open up spaces and take down old stems,
get things tidy for the winter.
But I shall not touch the ivy, let it grow on.

Let it grow on, hiding the wounds, concealing the evidence.
Even in this chill breeze, its late flowers, frothing green,
are humming with flies and small bees, there to grab what they can
before it is all too late.
For me it has been too late for quite a while now.

The tumbling days of October
are just time at last catching up with me,
preparing itself to make winter real around me
as it is already real within; yet the polished green of the growing ivy
hints at a different outcome from the one expected.

Thursday, 10 October 2013


On my way to Ludlow this morning I was stuck for many miles behind a large lorry, which eventually turned off (hooray!). Not casting any aspersions, as it was being well-driven, and I'm sure it couldn't have safely travelled those narrow and difficult roads any faster. Nonetheless, as I followed on behind I couldn't help a somewhat wry smile at the legend "Speed - the Future of Distribution" on the rear of the lorry.

The reason I was travelling to Ludlow was to attend what turned out to be an enjoyable and stimulating day on the poetry of R.S. Thomas, whose verse I have long admired. He often seems to speak directly to my soul, and I would love to be able to write like him. The day focused on the theme of self-identity, and on some of the significant relationships in the poet's life. R.S. Thomas' poetry has always seemed to me to be sometimes quite painfully honest, but his poems may also demonstrate something of the limits of his own self-awareness - that is, he is very honest about what he is aware of in himself, and in his analysis of relationships, but maybe there were sides to the man, aspects of his character, that others could see and applaud but which remain unrevealed in his writings.

This led us to touch on the limitations of our own self-awareness. What are the things in life that lead us to become more aware of who or what we are? Clearly, the making and unmaking of relationships, with other people and perhaps also with new places; the points of achievement, the moments of tragedy, the times when we fail. Perhaps also the rare and special moments when we find ourselves freed from the fierce tyranny of time, perhaps by something as simple as a sudden burst of sunshine through the clouds, and the way it lights on a field the other side of the valley . . . the moments that do occur when we become aware that we are surrounded by eternity, even as we travel through this world of time and seasons.

Are self-awareness and God-awareness inescapably interlinked for the person of faith? Maybe that's true beyond faith as well, I ponder, having listened to a piece on the importance of religious faith and its insights to many atheists, on Radio 4 as I travelled in. All I can note is that it is often experiences of this sort that prompt me to write verse, even if I don't always quite know what I am writing. And that I find I am bound to agree with R.S. Thomas' own statement to the effect that poets need to write without being confined by orthodoxy or afraid of heresy, if what they write is to be the imaginative truth.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013


I was watching the second of the BBC nature programmes tonight looking at the seasons of natural history in the UK (Spring, therefore), and an awful lot of things seemed to be getting eaten by other things.  My wife, wandering in, said "Urgh, can't watch that!" and exited, probably not hearing me respond with something along the lines of "But that's life, that's how the world works."  And it is.  Nature overproduces, some things get eaten, most of the time a balance is preserved - and just because we grow most of the things specially that we eat (and kill them 'humanely') doesn't mean we're not just playing the same game.  If you don't eat, you don't live, but if you do eat, something else has to be the thing that is eaten. Still, to tell the truth, I wasn't watching that element of the proceedings all that easily and happily, either.

Anyway, a lot of the things getting eaten in the film turned out to be mayflies, and it does seem quite strange to me that something should spend two or three years growing as a nymph down there among the weeds and pebbles of a river, just to have, literally, a day in the sun as an adult, by the end of which all of that day's flies are dead. Sad, too, to think that some of the mayfly larvae will have spent all that time growing and maturing, only to be snapped up by a passing trout the minute they spread their wings. These adults have no other function than to fly, mate, and lay the eggs that will produce the next generation - that will, in their turn, become adults that will have no other function than . . . and so on and so forth.

There is immense overproduction. If all the brood of mayflies survived, I suppose they would swamp the world. But of course, as they emerge, everything else is having a field day, and they get eaten by fish, frogs and toads, by wagtails and other insect-eating birds, even by ducks. I bet all these species can't believe their luck on a day when the mayflies are emerging. It is also, ephemerally, quite beautiful - so many wings beating and catching the sun as these creatures rise up from the water, fall back down, and rise again.

All life is ephemeral, though most is not as ephemeral as the life of the adult mayfly (members of the order Ephemeroptera), and, although sometimes the dark at the end of the Long Day feels a little daunting and scary, on the whole I have no problem with that. But my faith is much more severely threatened, I find, by the prodigality and wastefulness of nature . . . an ever-present theme throughout tonight's account of Spring, but particularly brought into sharp focus when I watched those mayflies.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013


One of the poems I was revising today :-

When it is time to go
I shall hope to be remembered with smiles,
though I’d like to think there might be a few tears besides,
and, surely, a tale or two to tell
accompanied by the raising of glasses and laughter,
and maybe the odd eyebrow too.

When it is time to go
I'll hope to leave knowing
this has been a job well done, and a journey boldly made.
Maybe there might be a touch of frustration too: after all,
it would have been good to have had a little more to try at,
and to have found a mile or two further to walk; but let’s hope, anyway,
that there won’t be too much to regret.

Oh, I won’t have got everything right, I know, and I’ll never hide from my faults.
The plaudits I’ll be happy to share, while the mistakes have been all my own;
and yes, I do feel an ache in my heart for every hurt I've caused.
But when it is time to go
I hope that even those hurts might be looked on kindly,
and that I might find a welcome wherever it is I'm going,
with a slice of forgiveness and forbearance, and a bowl or two of love.

For know this of me, friends, and believe it, when it is time to go:
Always I put my heart into all I sought to do,
always I tried hard at love.  And always I hoped that
by the end of it all
I might have sparked more smiles than tears.

Alpine Incident

A poem written sometime last year, that I came across as I revised other pieces of writing today :-

Discovering a man just hanging on by his finger tips
to the stark and sheer rock face
(they had heard on the wind his cries for help),
the leadership team took a moment in committee
to discuss the correct procedure
and to establish protocol,

then, as agreed and directed, they stamped on his hands.

And, as he fell, they made sure to call down,
advising him to take good care.
They hoped that he would be all right, they said,
and that he would be able to adjust
to the new situation in which he now found himself -
flinging down after him a bar or two
of their Kendal mint cake.

And so they continued on their upward journey,
secure in the knowledge that the right thing had been done,  that they had
acted properly and within the guidelines,
been seen to be beyond reproach.

After all, he had been already
on his way down.


Yesterday I spent some time putting up a new feeding station for our garden birds.  The ones we had were I think too close to the trees that our garden backs onto, and therefore birds using them were potentially at risk from predators, cats mostly, that can use the cover to sneak up on them.  The feeders themselves were also quite vulnerable to thieving squirrels . . . I don't really mind feeding the odd squirrel, but they are greedy little beggars:  they consume far more than I can afford, and hang around for ages keeping the birds away.

So a swish new feeding station (complete with squirrel-proof baffle) has now been placed on an area of flagstones which I can easily keep clean (that's the theory, anyway), and stocked with sunflower kernels, peanuts, fat balls and nyger seed.  And almost straight away, our garden is full of birds;  it's quite remarkable.  So far, I have to say, they've not spent much time on the feeders.  They are still too new, I suspect.  The birds know what they are, and that there's good food there, but they don't yet know how safe it will be to use them.  So birds are flying by, across the garden from right to left, then back from left to right.  Numbers of them have perched in our little row of blossom trees, pretending to prospect the branches for insects. Occasionally one of them will fly across very close to the new feeders, perhaps veering away at the last minute, and perhaps then perching where the old feeders used to be and looking wistfully (or so I expect) across at the new ones.

In other words, birds are just like us. We too hang around waiting for someone else to take a lead, hoping that someone else will take the risk of trying it first, whatever "it" may be. I don't want it to be me that looks the fool, I don't want it to be me that gets caught. Mind you, once someone does take the lead, the rest of us soon enough follow - and I'm sure it will be just like that in our garden too. I'm not one of life's trailblazers, much as I might like to be; but I do thank God very sincerely that such people exist, for so much in human progress has depended on the one person who dared to take the risk, while ninety-nine others were just hanging around and dithering.

Monday, 7 October 2013


An unusual event today:  I decided to put away the sunshade we'd been using over our table on the veranda. Though it was a lovely day today and we all sat out for a while, the sunshade weather is past and over for this year! So I took it apart and opened up the shade so that I could fold it round more neatly, only to find a little furry ball inside.  Closer inspection revealed it to be a bat, too large I think for a pipistrelle, but I'm not well up on other species.  After a while, the bat decided it was perhaps time to move on;  it crawled up the fabric to a point at which it could take off, extended its wings, paused for a moment, and then flew across our garden and along the woodland edge, eventually disappearing into the trees.  I was sorry to have disturbed it;  maybe it would have been happy in our shed, but I don't know.  Was it intending to spend the winter in our sunshade, or had it just been hiding up there till evening?  Well, I hope it found somewhere comfortable and safe in the wood!

Saturday, 5 October 2013


It was suggested to me this morning that Welshpool is, perhaps, the coffee capital of mid-Wales, if not the entire UK.  Our small town seems to have at least one coffee morning each day of the week, and sometimes as many as three, and a hardy band of supporters will trek from one to the next.  Needless to say, I was helping to run a coffee morning at the time of this conversation;  there is a coffee morning every Saturday morning at Church House, with a different charity running it each week (today it was the turn of Welshpool Rotary Club), and a very faithful band of folk who come and support it.  We took just over £100 this morning, I think, which we shall be quite happy with.

I think the punters get a good deal at our coffee mornings - for £1 entrance, plus a quid or two on raffle tickets, they get the chance to catch up on the latest news and gossip, fuelled by pretty much all the coffee they can drink and a plate of cheap biccies thrown in. Having said that, please don't imagine that this means commercial coffee outlets don't get a look-in.  There are plenty of them too. At least three new tea shops or coffee bars have opened in the town this year, and they (together with the many we already have) all look attractive and inviting.  I wonder whether the economy of Welshpool can support so many caffs?  I sort of hope so - after all, it's nice to have a good choice of places where you can sit about and have a good chinwag over a latte or two, and if there are decent sticky cakes on offer too, so much the better.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Harvest Thoughts

The first Friday in October is clearly big in the Harvest Festival world, and a large proportion of our local churches and chapels seem each to have their harvest services and suppers tonight.  I suspect that not quite so many people attend Harvest Festival as used to, but it is even so one of the success stories of the church year, and I hope all of these local Harvests will have had a good attendance.

The present situation of political deadlock in the USA, and the deaths of many economic migrants off the coast of Italy - two of today's headline news stories - are both a reminder that Harvest these days is more global then ever, even if at the level of the local church and chapel we may pretend to old-fashioned self-sufficiency with our local apples and potatoes and sheaves of corn and all those traditional harvest hymns. In reality the economies of the world mesh together to such an extent that today, three days or so into the American shut-down and with the dollar at its lowest for many a year, worried noises from all across the world are beginning to be heard in the news media.  We live in a world where jobs are being exported, or outsourced to low-wage economies, while increasing numbers of people are travelling in the opposite direction, some at immense risk, hoping that our streets may be paved with gold.  Our economies are increasingly dependant on the cheap labour both of workforces in Chinese economic zones or Bangladeshi sweatshops, and also (however hard a line may we talk up on immigration) of those who come voyaging to our shores hoping for a better life and a share of our wealth, whether they arrive legally or illegally.

Hmm - thinking about it, maybe that's why the old traditional Harvest Festival still attracts - it takes us away from the messy mixed up realities of today and allows us to bury ourselves in a sepia tinted simpler past that even then probably never really quite existed.

Thursday, 3 October 2013


I was out a little earlier than usual this morning, as I wanted to spend an hour or so at one of our local nature reserves, Llyn Coed y Dinas.  I had the hide to myself on arrival, and in my hour there was plenty to see - snipe, gadwall, lapwings;  a little grebe and a common sandpiper - and all the regulars, ducks, geese, swans, coots, cormorants, that frequent this bustling reserve, formed by flooding pits that were the result of nearby road-building a few years ago.

What I was really there for was the chance to see a great white heron (or egret;  I prefer heron) that has been at the reserve for a few weeks now;  in fact at one time there were two.  I'd seen quite a few of these birds while on holiday, and I have seen them before in the UK, but for Welshpool this was a rarity, and worth the effort.  It took a while to emerge from behind the bushes at the far end of the lake (until then I'd had very brief and tantalising glimpses of something white moving behind the leaves - I knew what it was but couldn't really say I'd seen it, as such).  Once out in the open, though, I had some very good views.

It was left to itself while at the far end of the lake, but once it decided to fly up to "my end" so to speak - where the hide is, in other words - it didn't have such an easy time.  There were four or five greay herons also on the reserve, and they were obviously rattled by this interloper.  Again and again it was driven off, and forced back into the air.  The grey herons, or one or two among them at least, were prepared to chase the great white half the length of the lake.

Perhaps that's why the other great white heron decided to move on.  This one certainly seemed to have more "stickability" - but it was interesting to see an example of something a little different getting a reaction, and a hostile one at that, within the natural world.  To be fair, the grey herons do get quite fractious and territorial even among themselves, as they carve out their own hunting patches around the lake (I was fascinated, by the way, to get a good sight through my scope of a grey heron just in front of the hide catching and eating a fish.  The fish was caught and swallowed almost in one movement).  But I couldn't help but be reminded of the way in which in human societies the different person or the minority community so easily becomes seen as a threat and identified as a target, when often in reality there would be room for all to live in peace - it just requires a bit of give and take.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

An Autumn Walk

(The first draft of a new poem)

Late afternoon into early evening;  the sound of bells from some way behind me
seems set to follow me all through my walk.  Leaves are turning by now,
red and gold showing amongst the green, while
from somewhere the slow smell pervades of a stinkhorn fungus.
This morning has been wet, that mizzling wet that soaks everything through,
so that now the bracken and the rangy nettles are strewn with pearls.
There is a feeble sort of sun that seems itself to be made mostly of water.
A robin is singing, another responds, and still the sound of the bells
is there, chasing me from a steepled tower half a mile away and more.

Years ago, too many to think about, I used to walk this path;
nothing much has changed, or so it seems - certainly
the bells sound just the same, just
a new generation learning the methods, plain bob minor,
grandsire triples, all of that.  The names mean little to me,
but the sound tugs at my heart, where somehow I am still that boy,
kicking at the leaves and hoping for fallen conkers.

And now I have reached the high bridge over the canal, where close by
busy squirrels are laying quarrelsome claim to the last few hazel nuts.
Here is where I shall pause, and reflect on which
of three or four possible ways back I might take:
perhaps the high path through the wood, and then the towpath.
That’s the way I would always use back then, but there is a steep descent
and my knees are not quite what they were. 
A nearby sycamore has already lost nearly all its leaves -
yellow and brown, they crowd against my feet
as I look down to check my boot-treads and laces.

Ways back I might take;  how about
a way back into boyhood, into the innocence of those far off days,
with my aims and hopes and dreams as yet unblunted by time,
and everything still to happen?
The only way I can take is via those bells
and the memories they stir, and even they are partial now and fading.
“Forty years on, when afar and asunder . . .”
There is only the onward journey, from autumn towards winter,
framed in the frosting air and falling leaves, but with, still,
the hope of a spring to follow.

Central Park, from the 'Top of the Rock'

(See the two postings below)

Some Harvest Thoughts

Just to keep my hand in, a Harvest address, based on Psalm 104 and Luke 12.13-34 :-

This is a favourite time of the year for me, and this year we’ve had the sort of summer that produces a good harvest, so there is much to give thanks for.  We live in a beautiful place here, and indeed we live in a world that is full of marvellous things.  I’ve chosen as a first reading one of my favourite psalms, a hymn of praise that speaks very vividly of the variety of forms of life with which we share our planet, and the way in which the Lord provides and cares for all of them.  I’m a keen naturalist, plant collector and bird watcher, and within the natural world I find our creator God glorified and glorified again.  Christians, and indeed members of the other great faiths of our world, more and more today are coming to understand that we are given the responsibility of stewards within this world of living wonder and variety.  Just as God placed Adam and Eve in a garden to tend it, so we too have the task under God of looking after all that he has made.

So for me that’s a significant dimension of my thinking at harvest festival. We use the earth to provide for ourselves as gardeners and farmers, and also as miners, manufacturers, fishermen and hunters.  But we’re also stewards of creation - so who are we as stewards protecting the earth from? Just ourselves, I suppose - after all, we’re the ones (at our greedy worst) who are the damagers and the exploiters and the despoilers of creation.

And it may even be that the Bible gives us encouragement to do this, to see the earth entirely in terms of resource for us to use.  For right at the beginning of our Bibles, in the first chapter of Genesis, God tells his people that they must “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” - dominion over everything: fish in the sea, birds of the air and all the rest of it.

So where does that leave us?  Well, there is surely a huge difference between using the earth’s resources and using up the earth’s resources.  We’re given dominion over all other forms of life, but the model for that dominion is provided by our Lord himself, and we see that his dominion is a dominion of love and care. In Jesus, who says to his friends  “I am among you as one who serves” he shows us the way of sacrifice and service. For the disciples of Jesus the measure of greatness is never how high and grand a throne we sit on, but how ready we are to serve one another.

I’ve been privileged over the years to travel quite widely in the world, to places where people seem to have very little, and to places where arguably people have far too much; to  places where development is urgently needed, and to places that suffer from over-development;  and certainly to some places where the harvest is poor and sparse.

So I’ve been made very aware of the challenge of sharing, of making space for one another within our human economy. I’ve been in Palestine, seeing how political tensions intervene, so that some of the harvest can’t be gathered because of the borders that can no longer be crossed.  In Tanzania I’ve seen lakeside communities where potentially there could be a rich fishery, only the resources to develop it aren’t there, so instead people just scrape a living, with goats and bony cattle on the shore and dug out canoes on the lake.  In Peru I’ve been in shanty towns where people have migrated to the city hoping for streets paved with gold, and finding instead mostly dust. Many have been driven from their family lands by poverty and by terror gangs.  I visited smallholdings established by the Rural Landless movement in Brazil, to hear stories of violence and murder done by agents of the big landowners against those who were trying to settle the land in a peaceful way.

And in all of these places I found church communities working hard and courageously to make things better for people in need, and taking seriously that call of our Lord to serve.  They were empowering people who had been helpless, and speaking out for people whose voices had till then gone unheard.  All these communities would I’m sure take to heart the verse from my second reading, in which Jesus says, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

I don’t know who it was who said “tread as lightly as we can upon this world, for it’s the only one we have,” but those are wise words. Someone else has said: “Live simply, that others may simply live.”  In his story, Jesus quite brutally exposes the shallow desires of the man who hoarded all his crops in his brand new storehouses and barns.  “What good is all the wealth to you?” the man is told - it’ll all be left behind when you go.

My wife and I have not long got back from New York, where perhaps more than anywhere else on this planet you are brought face to face with human power and conspicuous consumption, in the immense buildings that rise up so high.  We ascended one of them - not the Empire State but the Rockefeller Tower, not quite so tall but 67 floors up as we looked out over the city.

As we surveyed the city skyline, wealth and power was laid out in front of us, expressed many times over in steel and glass and stone.  But looking north from the Top of the Rock, as the viewing floors of the Rockefeller Tower are known, you see not only skyscrapers but also the vast expanse of green at the heart of Manhattan that is Central Park.  We fell a bit in love with New York, for all its demonstration of the power of mammon, but we fell very much in love with Central Park, and for me that green oasis was a timely reminder of the truth that “Man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

In Central Park birds flit through the trees, squirrels forage about on the grass, turtles sun themselves on rocks around the lake, and people eat ice creams and go jogging, sometimes both at the same time.  And here space is made and kept for the natural world and for the wild things, as well as for the refreshment and re-formation that we humans need if we’re to be healthy and strong in body and in spirit. And this should surely be true of the way in which we use the earth wherever we are within it.  Sometimes that means creating nature reserves and game parks and the like, not just as a resource for us or for the tourist trade, but also because the creatures with which we share this planet deserve their own space in which to survive and thrive.

But we also need simply to recognise that as human beings we’re a part of, rather than apart from, the natural order of our planet.  And as such we are diminished ourselves if we abuse or destroy the beauty of the wild places, whether that’s the hedgerows and woodlands that make our own countryside so lovely, or the rain forests and savannahs and wetlands and coral reefs of other lands.

What makes Psalm 104 so inspirational to me is the way in which it tells me that our lives are linked in to the lives of other living things, of wild donkeys and rock badgers and storks, and shows me how God provides for us all. The other day I was listening on the radio to Bishop James Jones, the former Bishop of Liverpool; one thing he said that I felt struck home was this: for Christians, to abuse God’s creation should be understood not only as something foolish and wrong, but also as an act of blasphemy. When we do as we like with the planet we deny God’s sovereignty, we say to him “You don’t really matter, we can do as we please.”

Another Psalm begins with these words: “The fool says in his heart ‘There is no God’".  God gives us the freedom to act as though he were not there, but we're fools if we take that route.  Jesus made it very clear that the rich man with his storehouses and barns was going nowhere.  Why have faith in stuff that will rust and rot and moulder away?  Instead, lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven.

So for me, harvest thanksgiving must always be a time of commitment and recommitment, when we think of blessings received and also of our call to be blessing for others.  Anything less isn’t a real thanksgiving - thanksgiving for harvest isn’t expressed in what we do this evening, in our hymns and our prayers and our gifts on this one day, but in the generous and faithful living of our whole life and in the way we use all that God gives us.

That’s why at their Harvest Thanksgiving, the people of Israel brought the first fruits of harvest to lay before the Lord.  It was their sign and acknowledgement that the whole of the crop was rightfully his, that the whole harvest should and would be used in ways that were faithful and just.  May that be true for us too, and, indeed, may we ourselves be a good harvest to the Lord - through lives that will bear fruit, through lives that will reflect the love and care and compassion that the God we praise has for all he has made, and for all that by its being brings glory to his name.