Saturday, 26 January 2013


A sermon to be preached tomorrow in a little wayside chapel not too far from here:

Let’s think a bit today about conversion.  Friday last is a date kept by many in the church as the Conversion of Saint Paul, and because Paul was the man more than any other who took the Christian message out into the wider world, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is deliberately timed to coincide with that day - indeed, it always ends on 25th January.  Paul was the man who had the original 'Damascus Road' experience;  many others have had similar experiences of a dramatic meeting with Christ in a way that claimed them and shamed them and won them and changed their lives.  Their stories are always a great inspiration to me. But at this time of the year we reflect on the story of how Saul became Paul; how the chief persecutor of the first Christians became one of the greatest of the apostles of Christ.

My own background is rather ecumenical, Anglicanism, Methodism and a dash of Presbyterianism were all part of my upbringing, and for some of my ministry I worked as an ecumenical officer over in Telford. I was of course an Anglican minister for over thirty years, but I would not choose or claim to speak now with the authority either of the Anglican Church or of the ordained ministry, but simply as a fellow pilgrim, as someone journeying along the same road.  

And I'm certainly still on a journey;  still discovering what God is calling me to, what he wants from me, who he is . . . and to discover and discern the answers to questions like that is to encounter and to meet with Christ. I've not had a Damascus Road experience; there has been no sudden, one-off conversion that brought me to faith. But I do understand and want to use words like conversion; for conversion is part of the experience of every Christian pilgrim.

For me as for many of us, conversion has been gradual, made up of small events, small discoveries of God's love - not the tremendous, one hundred and eighty degree turnaround of the Damascus Road.  I have experienced my Lord chipping away at things in my life, nudging me from one path to another;  but he couldn’t reach Saul - Paul - in that way.  He had to break through, he had to be tough with this man.  So let's think for a bit about that event, about what it was that changed Saul to Paul - what happened to him, and why it had to happen.

Our first meeting in scripture with Saul of Tarsus is as a bystander at the stoning to death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Not that Saul was one of the people who  threw the stones - in fact he was there to look after the coats, or so we’re told - but we’re also told that he thoroughly approved of what was being done.  He was concerned, you see, for the purity of the faith.  For the young firebrand Saul this Stephen was a heretic and an enemy of God; and his people, followers of the Way as they were called then, not yet known as Christians, were a huge dangers to the faith Saul loved so much;  they were a scandal in the face of the God he was doing his best to serve.

A scandal that needed to be rooted out. Saul was determined to play his part in stopping these people polluting the faith.  This was his duty as a Pharisee;  this was his duty as a faithful servant of God.  For let’s affirm this about Saul, even before his conversion: this was a man of immense and unswerving faith.  This was a man who longed with all his heart to serve God and to please God.  This was a man who had taken a firm pledge to live faithfully under God, to keep his commandments, to do his will, to do always what was right under the law.  For you see, first and last, what you have in Saul is a righteous man.  A man who was trying to be good.

A strange way of going about it, you might think.  Well, I wondered, as I read again last week the story of how Steven was stoned to death - as this righteous man stood there watching Stephen die, did a small seed of doubt begin to germinate somewhere deep inside him?  What he actually did next was to embark on an eager and thoroughgoing persecution of the followers of Jesus, with full authorisation from the high priests.  But I wonder - was that his attempt to drown out a voice from deep inside himself that was already saying 'Maybe this Stephen was right.'  After all, he had seen how Stephen died, forgiving those who were stoning him;  so was Saul trying to stop his ears to the thought that such a man must have been a man of God?

I wonder.  I’ve seen how some people, once they've decided on what they believe, simply can’t begin to consider any new evidence that might challenge that belief.  I’ve heard of something similar happening in, for example, a criminal investigation:  once someone's in the frame, evidence that might point in another direction gets overlooked or quietly shelved. And in religion the line between firmness of faith and narrow minded, intolerant bigotry can be a very fine one.

So here's how I picture Saul who became Paul.  I think that somewhere deep inside himself he already knew the truth:  I think that he already knew, at a deeper level than he could admit to, that Jesus is Lord, and that a man like Stephen and those like him must have been truly serving God.  And yet Steven challenged all the things he held dear, the faith as he had been taught it from his youth up, the organisation he loved and served and was a member of.  He refuses to abandon his upbringing and his heritage, and so Saul stops his ears to that voice within himself;  there's a hard shell around this man as he goes zealously off to wreak havoc among the Christians in Damascus - a hard shell that nothing can break through.

Conversion is a continuing part of every Christian life, I believe.  We are called to be disciples, and disciples are people who are constantly being changed - converted - by the things they learn.  If we're already listening or at any rate open to the idea that God might have new things to say to us, conversion is a gradual process, a series of discoveries and disclosures for the person who is already searching. Often in quiet ways, sometimes catching us by surprise, the love of God, the good news of his love, breaks afresh into our lives.

But that sort of conversion couldn’t happen to Saul;  for Saul was refusing to listen.  I’ve heard people say that they’ve longed for a ‘Damascus Road experience’ - indeed, I’m sure I’ve said it myself:  the one moment that changes everything.  So it’s worth noting perhaps that the experience Saul had on the road to Damascus was in fact a terrifying event, something that quite literally knocked Saul for six.  You know the story - he was thrown to the ground, he was struck blind, he was left so helpless that others had to lead him along.  This was the only way God could break through to this faithful, stubborn man who was refusing to be changed.  He wouldn’t open his eyes to the truth, so he had to be struck blind.  He was proud of the power he had, so he had to be rendered weak and helpless.  He needed to be put in touch with the things his own heart was already saying to him, except that he refused to listen.  For this was the tragedy of Saul: he was a man whose one ambition in life was to serve God.  But far from serving God, he was persecuting him.

Two quotes that came my way the other day.  The first is something repeated by Gerard Hughes in his great and inspirational book “God of Surprises” - ‘Nothing so masks the face of God as religion’.  The other is from the internet - ‘I have no problem with God, but I wish I could say the same about some of the members of his fan club’.  Saul was a man full of religion, but he had yet to truly encounter God.

I remember years ago knocking on doors in preparation for a parish mission, and being told more than once by people sending me on my way that (quote) ‘religion is responsible for too much bad stuff for me to believe’.  Sadly, there’s truth in that.  Something of the same zeal that was there in Saul can be seen in young Muslim men going off to fight jihad, and in young American Christians training with their guns and honing their survival skills for the day of Armageddon. And for every wide eyed young zealot there are cynical political opportunists ready to exploit the power of religion for their own ends.  Anything that people believe in strongly and without question can be distorted and abused for bad ends, with the name of God used in vain, while the true God of love and peace is left outside in the gutter.

So I thank and praise God that he did get through to Saul.  And I praise him too for the experience of conversion in my own life and in the lives of others.  God is like Jesus - or, as Paul himself would go on to write, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.”  In his love he never gives up on us, and that’s true even when we give up on him, when we wilfully go our own way.  We may not find ourselves struck down like Saul was on the Damascus road, but there is a message for us I think in the blindness that left him so helpless that he had to be led like a child into the city.  However the process of conversion happens to us, it is always about realising our own helplessness and resolving our own blindness.  We can’t do it on our own, we need to discover and God's saving love, and admit our need for his presence in our lives. 

And I do believe that all of life must then continue to be a conversion experience.  Faith is as much about living with questions as finding answers.  We don’t and we can’t know it all:  we continue to be disciples, learners, approaching our Lord with open hearts and minds.

And of course, coming to him with the desire to serve. Paul's deepest desire when he was Saul the firebrand was to serve his Lord.  That's why he was converted, and that desire never left him;  and God certainly had a lot of work for him to do.  Our own conversion and journey of faith may be more gradual, for nearly all of us it’s going to be a lot less dramatic - but the reason God is calling us and challenging us, the reason God wants to change us is not just for our own sakes but because he has work for us to do.  The God Saul so zealously tried to serve was locked up inside the laws and rules and customs of his religion, strict Pharisee that he was.  But the real God can never be contained in such a way;  he is wild and free, he is the breath of the Holy Spirit abroad in the world like wind and flame, and he is calling us to get out there with him, to cross boundaries and sail seas like Paul did. The world still needs apostles:  there still is a Gospel to be proclaimed, and good news to be told.  And the work that Paul began, God is calling and arming his people to continue today.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Journey Home in January

Another first draft, some words written today:

Skeletons in silver grey, winter trees
that stand ghostly still against the snow-lit evening sky.
Mist shrouds their lower branches, as though the fields of snow
are rising up to take to the frosting air.
My vision is of a world without life;  it is as if
everything has forgotten how to breathe, as if
every pulse has slowed down to stop.

So there is only you, and me, in our metal box,
and the distant lights of another car ahead.
Nothing else is moving,
nothing else seems to have any substance.
We are surrounded by ghosts,
by the muslin rags and tatters of some ancient time, by the dead and gone.
We are the only survivors.

The red lights in front disappear from
this narrow ribbon of black snaking between vast snowfields,
with we now the only living souls upon it.
In fact I take this road nearly every day;  I drove it all summer - it is
part of the familiar currency of my life.  Yet tonight
I no longer know it, there is nothing here I recognise.
We are travelling across a different planet, betrayed and abandoned, left
to wonder if we will ever make it home.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Gone From There

A poem I wrote some years ago.  I have known a number of people who have made just this kind of journey, and have listened to the stories they tell.  To claim a common cause would be to trivialize their experiences - how can anything in my own life journey really compare with what they have travelled through? - but I can at least say that a chord is struck in my own heart.

It was not a journey undertaken in comfort.  The grey and ancient train
was frequently halted, sometimes standing for hours
in the cold of some remote siding, never picking up speed
even when the line was clear.  There were no occasions
for conversation between passengers;  no eyes would meet,
and no faces would be remembered.
Though the papers, of course, were all correct.
Beyond the grimy windows the air was full of snow,
a white carpet on each station platform, lit by the swinging lamps;
here a sudden clanging bell,
there, briefly glimpsed, a bored boy soldier toying with his gun.

At this stage one did not dare consider the border
and the destination beyond.  It was still too soon
for the risk of believing.
One might pray for people and places left behind
while, as the wheels sang against the dark rails, it was
enough to be moving south;  enough to be gone from there.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Sunday Morning

Another early draft of a poem . . . not a description of this morning exactly (for one thing, I did go to church!), but certainly inspired in part by today's snowy conditions:

Today the world outside is hard and cold,
a scene in black and white, as in the olden days.
Icicles spear down from the guttered roofs behind us, while
starlings re exchanging words in a language half-remembered from my childhood
from the skeletal top branches of the ash trees
that claw thinly up to meet the grey sky.

Often the sky as I see it from our hill seems to soar away,
it is open and blue, as high as the planets and stars;  but today
my gateway to the heavens has become instead a cold steel lid
to close in our little world.  Under its greyness the colours leach away
and our monochrome garden is as still as a photograph:
only a restless wind in the bushes beyond our fence
and the distant starlings exchanging branches
add any motion to this wintry scene.

It is Sunday morning, and across the valley below the town itself is still and quiet.
Its good folk will be mostly
tucked in bed I think, though perhaps a hardy few
might have ventured out to church.  I have not gone with them,
being not in the mood for candles and hassocks and prayers.

I turn away, look back, and the ash tree, suddenly, is empty,
its chatty starlings having found something else to do,
and gone away to do it.
The wind picks up a notch
and snow begins to flurry against my windows.
We are a distance into the New Year, but
any thoughts of spring, for now, remain securely locked away,
held back behind that flat grey sky.  I see a crow arrive
to march importantly along the pitch of the roof behind us,
while I, newly-made hot chocolate in hand, decide
I may just as well go back to bed for a bit.

And maybe - if the chocolate holds out - I might stay there
until the sky is open for business again
and the colours have returned.

Friday, 18 January 2013


I like bridges;  I said that already, a few days ago - bridges are about possibility, the chance to cross over to somewhere new, to continue your journey over new ground.  And I also like gates - I suppose the picture at the top of my blog makes that clear enough - for much the same reason.  Without a gate, the wall is entire and impenetrable;  but the gate allows you to pass through, and even before that, it allows you to see through.  I photographed the gate at the top of my blog a couple of years ago on Arnside Knot, a favourite place I don't visit anything like often enough, in Cumbria.  Let me add, below, another gate on the same height, but with such a special view:

Down below is the estuary of the River Kent, and the beginnings of the great sands of Morecambe Bay - and the railway viaduct crossing from Arnside to Grange-over-Sands . . . and then there are the hills and clouds beyond.  So many possibilities in that scene, so many possible journeys to make!  What temptation there is to pass through that gate!

Not all gates, of course, provide access.  Some lead to private and secret places.  Some, indeed, are more barrier than entrance, high solid things that have only messages of denial and exclusion for the passer-by.  "Keep walking," they say, "there's nothing for you here."  But some gates, even though you can't pass through them, do provide just a tantalising glimpse of someone else's bit of our planet.  Anyway, even when a gate is accessible you don't have to pass through it (in the end I didn't go through the one just above) - it's just enough to know that you could do, that those possibilities are there.

Here's a gate I saw, and photographed, in Tanzania.  There's nothing special about it, but a world of mysterious possibility (for me, anyway) if you were to pass through:

When it comes to the gates that are really barriers, it occurs to me that they are barriers in both directions, sadly. It isn't just that we can't look in, but also that the person inside won't look out. I am fascinated and thrilled by the possibilities of going from here to there, from there to here, of exchanging and discovering and befriending - and, I suppose, of personal refreshment;  and I am equally saddened by the mindset that says "No" to what's out there and that has no room and makes no time for the challenges and delights of the wider world, of difference and discovery, of relationship, debate and conversation.

Life is for living, and to do that you surely have to cross your bridges, and open and pass through your gates, and refuse to be trapped behind barriers and fences, particularly the ones you erect yourself.

Thursday, 17 January 2013


This is the poem referred to in my earlier post below.  I began to write it ten years ago, more or less, in Brazil, and it was finally published last autumn:

To the east the dawn is breaking                                                                                           
while you and your children sleep on.                                                                                   
It is cool in the house just now,                                                                                             
and that old loose shutter sways gently in the morning breeze.                                            
Soon the rains will come.

Stirred from your slumber by the barking dogs                                                                     
you listen to your children, their little sleeping sounds.                                                        
How it came to be like this                                                                                                    
is still strange to you: the years since he left                                                                          
when the factory closed,                                                                                            
promising to send money, to send word,                                                                   
promising one day, soon, things would be good again.

Now the morning sun has found its way in,                                                              
igniting as it always does the specks of dancing dust,                                                          
as you hear the children waking,  trading playful blows.
You smile, and light the candle by the crucifix.
Of course, there was no word,                                                                                               
and you had no forwarding address. By now he could be anywhere                                               
or nowhere.  While for you there is today’s work to be done,                                              
your few hours' cleaning, and the bottles, cans you find                                          
and sort, and trade; alone, how could there be anything but struggle?                                 
Always, times are hard,
but there will be soup today at the mission.

And this whole favela, “Anglo” they call it, with its dust and open drains,                         
with its dirt yards and carts and rubbish piles,                                                                      
is your story told over and over,
translated into many lives,                                                     
your struggle shared, repeated through the heat of the day                                                  
and the night's silent hours; yet thank God that in this place                                    
with children and with friends around he gives once more
the dawn of a new day,                                 
and there will be songs to sing, and still somehow
a hope restored, the sun rekindling faith                                                       
that will not die.


I spent a happy half hour this afternoon chatting with a friend over a coffee or two.  There were important things we should have been talking about, but in fact we spent a good amount of the time discussing writing.  We both write, and we talked about what spurs us, about the process of writing (short stories and poems), and about the ways in which what we write impacts on who we are - including the way in which decisions we make about, for example, how a story might end connect with the decisions we make about our own lives and their direction or goal.

Not long ago I was reading about an author who takes a very disciplined approach to his writing.  It clearly pays off, in that his books are best-sellers - but I could never operate in the ordered and systematic way he described.  As, for the most part, a writer of poetry, I have to say that poems happen as they choose to happen, in my experience.  Of course, some are written to order - I have entered poems in competitions, and I have on occasions been commissioned to write - but most of my writing is done because I have something I want to say, and poetry seems to be how it must be said.

And then some of those poems arrive almost fully-formed.  I remember borrowing a pen to write on a paper napkin in the cafe in Aberdyfi where I was having my lunch a poem that had formed in my mind as I spent the morning walking in the nearby hills.  With very few changes, those verses won me first prize in a poetry competition.  Another poem, though, published at last in my most recent collection, has taken me more than ten years to complete.  It's a poem I burned to write, and yet it seemed to take forever to find the write words, and to make the right shapes with those words.

I think the reason why has something to do with the need to really inhabit the world of each piece of writing.  The first poem had grown directly out of my own experience;  the second involved me trying to inhabit the world of somebody I had met, but whose life was very different from my own.  I am now pleased with what I have written, but it has been a long journey - first, to manage to write the story of Angela (as I chose to call her) in words that felt authentically hers, and then to form those words into poetry.

And I think most poets, perhaps most writers, but poets especially, surely, would agree that it never really is "finished", this thing you've produced.  There comes a point at which you know you have to put it down, to say, "That's as far as I can go" - but it is never finished.  Nothing we human beings do or produce is ever perfect, anyway!  And if a poem is completed at all, surely that happens not when the poet sets down his pen, but when someone else engages with that work as a reader or listener.

For me, to write is a necessity.  It's not a lifestyle choice, it's something I have to do.  What I write is for the most part very much from my soul;  but in the writing it is released from me and is no longer mine alone.  All my poems have a pictorial aspect to them - I do always have a strong mental image of the scene my words describe, whether real or imagined - but I know that my words might evoke quite different images in the minds of those who come to read them.  To me that's all part of the excitement of writing;  it's much more fun not to know quite how the story really ends.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013


I love bridges.  I love the variety of structures, from those that are the product of great and skilful engineers to those that were cobbled together by unknown workaday artisans.  Every bridge is a symbol of possibility and discovery, offering the chance to travel one from this side to the other, telling the story of our refusal to be held back by whatever it is the bridge was built to cross.  For me, it says something, does a bridge, any bridge, about human endeavour.

So cross over, see what's on the other side, find out where that road is leading you - be adventurous!

Sunday, 13 January 2013

He Emptied Himself

The first draft of a poem I've been thinking about for a while, but finally got down to writing today, with this morning's set Gospel reading in mind:

He emptied himself
becoming like you, like me
just one more human statistic
in the arithmetic of creation.
And at the moment of his birth
a star may have shone
brighter than the rest
and one or two may even have seen it,
but no matter, not really;  he had emptied himself,
and he would not be found in the palaces and cathedrals
but down there with the common folk,
taking his place among all the cursing and rags.

A week after Twelfth Night
I watch the falling snow twist and settle between
the stems of winter jasmine.  This morning in church
we heard again how the rough-coated madman John found,
among the crowds who cascaded out to him along the Jordan,
the one man he had no need to baptize,
but who sought and required baptism none the less
declaring himself one with the crowd,
taking freely upon his own back
those sinful rags the rest of us never could set aside.

And as he came up from the water, a voice may well have said
“This is my son, my beloved”
even if only one man there could hear it.
And a dove may well have drifted down,
leaving a feather or two afloat on the water.
And in time the man will be lifted up where all may look on if they choose;
and today, already, he is on that road.

And in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth
every knee shall bow.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Movin' On

The title of my blog was very deliberately chosen.  Having been a parish priest for most of the past thirty-five years, I am now having to adjust to no longer holding that ministry.  This is difficult, for being a parish priest was not only the job that I did, it was me, who I am - who I was, anyway.  Now, for reasons that I don't propose to unpack or examine just now except to say that they have their validity in that every organisation is bound by its customs and disciplines, I can no longer play the role that for so long defined me.

The Church would I suppose still regard me as a priest, albeit one presently without the license to minister as such . . . but I am not sure that I do or even can still regard myself as a priest.  Not only can I not go back to what I was, I am pretty clear that I do not wish to go back.  I feel no great call to the altar;  I feel no great call to a leadership ministry. I suppose I never did feel those things, although I have always felt a more general call to ministry - and that is something I still do feel.  Throughout my ministry, I have always felt an immense sense of privilege when celebrating communion or doing other priestly things - but it was a privilege undeserved and perhaps even unwanted.  It isn't something I greatly miss.

So the past two years have been a process of moving on.  It's been a slow and edgy process, in part because it is in my nature to want to hang on to things, I don't like moving, I don't like change - these things frighten me, I think.  But I have reached a stage where I can at last loose my grip on bits of my past life and past self that need to be abandoned.  I think this is because I am now much clearer about who I now am and, if I am moving out (the other part of my blog title), what the options are for me in doing that.

Yesterday on a radio programme that happened to be on in my car as I travelled, I heard someone speaking about how important it is to learn to love and to care for ourselves - indeed, that our capacity to love and to care for others depends on it.  I am sure this is true.  I have spent quite enough time hating myself and neglecting myself, and the time has come for me to change things round a bit.  In some ways this year has not begun well.  I have felt physically ill and frail, having managed on New Year's Day itself to contract the 'winter vomiting' disease.  But at a deeper level I sense that I am much more at ease with myself and my situation than I have been up till now, and that I am beginning to find some solid ground to stand on.

People who lecture and advise on lifeskills are apt to say things like 'There are no problems, only opportunities' and 'Whenever one door closes, another opens'.  Such sayings can sound trite and are therefore easy to ridicule or dismiss, but of course there is some truth in them. If we always had such positive feelings, no-one would never need to say any of that stuff;  often, we feel more as though 'Whenever one door closes, another gets slammed in your face', and, yes, it has felt like that for me from time to time over the past two years.  But I am learning to be hopeful.  I am learning that no longer being a priest does not mean I no longer exist, or that my existence no longer has any point or value.  Vitally, I am learning that I am surrounded by people who have an interest in me, who care for me, and value what they see and find in me - despite, and perhaps even because of, the changes that have happened in my life.

These ramblings, by the way, are not leading to any great or notable conclusion.  I don't have any great plans for where next.  But I do feel as though I am at a beginning point, and not an ending.  And I am discovering that even if I am not what I was, I am still me, and it still feels good to be me.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

A Winter Walk

The first draft of a poem started today, but which reflects on a walk taken two winters ago, in harder weather:

I find the water no longer flowing
by the old lock, and along the frozen canal
I have traced and followed the footprints of swans
all along the crumbled and frosted snow.
On this hardest of mornings, I look across to see the
grey sheep huddled and sullen where the fodder beet was dropped
just below the brake at the top of the field, and
the few black birds that furl and flap around them.

The sky is as grey as steel,
and as empty as my heart.  I walk on above the lock,
past where a fence has tumbled
under its weight of snow, and into the field,
setting myself to climb under the black trees.  The sheep
do not move as I pass them, crossing a broken stile
to reach the old bridge. The stream here still tumbles thinly down bank,
sheathed though now within a dark culvert of ice.

There are some colours for me to see:
here where the sheep have left a yellow stain in the snow,
there where the brick of the bridge presents an orange red, while
ahead of me a grove of holly stands dark green, and ivy
clambers against the oaks and alders along the stream.  Yet in my eyes
all the colours are merely shades of grey; there is
nothing that shines in them.  Today there is more light from the snow
than from the sky.

As I top the rise and walk across to the stile, I watch
a single heron make its ponderous flight across the black pines,
twisting briefly to evade a couple of crows.  Its harsh cry
seems to echo the length of the field,
where the sheep had stood in silence while I passed between them.

I make the road and turn for home,
skidding briefly on the compacted snow and knowing,
as I swing my arms and clap my mittened hands, that
I too am infected by greyness, drained of light and colour, that
this winter is as much within me as around.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013


Working as I do for a funeral director, I find I do quite a lot of driving, one way or another. I do even more washing of cars, it has to be said!  But before today I had never been entrusted with driving the hearse to a funeral.  Yesterday I was told I would be, and I made sure I sorted myself a cap and gloves to fit, so that I should be properly attired.  But being properly attired is not the same thing as being able to do the job, and I had a fairly restless night worrying about how I would get on.  The funeral was at Shrewsbury Crematorium, and I was especially worried about the approach to the entrance, and the pillars on either side of the car as I approached.  It's a big vehicle, after all, and (of course) rather an expensive piece of kit.

In the end, all went fairly well, and I think I did all right.  Having done it once, I can do it again.  But the first time for anything new is always rather scary, especially when you know that other people are depending on you to get it right.  Reflecting on that, it occurs to me that bravery and fearlessness are often thought of as synonyms, but really they are not.  People who are fearless are often also reckless, because they are not really living in the real world.  Fear, after all, is a very necessary part of that real world!  Without a healthy dollop of fear, we would be constantly placing ourselves in danger, all unawares.

Bravery does not entail an absence of fear;  bravery is about how we deal with fear.  It is about allowing our fears to advise us, but not paralyse us.  Fears need to be measured and assessed, of course.  There are fears that really are telling us, "Do not do that thing!" - but there are other fears, like my fears about today, that are to a large extent groundless, in that, while they may be saying to us, "Take care, don't lose your concentration," and that's important, they need also to be answered by a confident assertion that, even so, I know that I can do this and I should do this.

Even if, at the time of saying it, there are still a few butterflies flapping about inside me!

Sunday, 6 January 2013


The churches at which I worship week by week fall within the Pontesbury Deanery, and this year will be a year of mission in the Deanery, which was formally launched by the Bishop of Ludlow at a special deanery service at St George's, Pontesbury, this morning.  I was there and enjoyed it and was also challenged by it.

I was challenged first of all to think seriously about what mission actually means, then about what it involves, and finally, inescapably, what it requires of me.  Today being the Feast of the Epiphany we were bound to begin with Matthew's story of wise men following a star, and searching for the One that star in its appearing foretold.  To do mission is not about ramming down people's throats something they don't want, haven't asked for, and won't understand - though plenty enough of that sort of mission goes on, I suppose, counter-productive though it is bound to be. A genuinely Christ-like mission is surely about meeting people who are searching, sharing the insights we have, and showing the way or at least sharing the journey.  Such mission begins with listening.

It begins with listening to the questions people actually ask;  as Bishop Alistair reminded us, chiefly the 'why' questions that remain unanswered by technology and science.  The best response technology and science can manage is 'Why not?'  But people are continuing to ask those 'why' questions, including the big one, 'Why am I here?' - despite the best persistence of the militant atheists whose claim is that there is no valid 'why' question, that we just are, and that's all that can be said.

I am sure they are wrong in that assertion.  Not that I have any pat or pedantic answer to the 'why' questions folk ask.  I don't have any inside track on God, any special knowledge of his plans.  When I read the Scriptures, and when I listen to stories of faith, certainly I find pointers and directions, but I don't find all my questions answered.  So I keep asking them. But I do find much to convince me that the 'why' question is valid, and that the very fact that I can ask it, and that it feels important, is a pointer to God - just as the fact that I have a concept of what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong, of beauty and ugliness, encourages me to take a Godward direction in life.

There is a variety of mission that aims to scare people into faith - 'If you don't sign up you're going to hell', that sort of thing.  I get as cross about that as do the Dawkinsites of this world.  The fire and brimstone style of mission for me pretends to a knowledge we don't have, to a certainty that cannot be other than bigoted, and to a God, or an image of God, that doesn't fit with the little lad sought by those wise men all that time ago, born as he was not in a palace but a stable.  I believe in a God who inspires questions as much as he provides answers, but whose nature is love and who draws us to make love the heart of our lives.

I think what I am saying here is that for me the answer to the search I make is to be found (in part at least) within the search itself. That's a theme I discern in much religious poetry, but especially perhaps in T.S. Eliot, in his poem 'The Magi', and in the 'Four Quartets', for example. Faith means living with questions, 'seeing through a glass darkly', to quote the apostle Paul, but learning to trust nonetheless. The questions we ask do not go unanswered, but they will not be fully answered in this life.  There is always more to ask, and more to search for.  Bishop Alistair quoted C.S. Lewis, who said something like, 'There is no proof there is a proof.'  There will be times along the way when hope is all we have.

So for me mission has to begin with my own continuing search, and with my readiness as a searcher to honour the searchings and strivings of others, and to take their questions seriously.  I do not propose to spend any of my time this year trying to lecture others into orthodox belief;  but I hope I'll be able to accompany those who like me are searching, perhaps helping them to see the star, and to trace the path on which it may lead us.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Picking Litter

One of the voluntary things I took on when I resigned from full-time work was to be a 'Litter Champion'.  I don't do as much of it as I should, but my New Year resolutions include a determination to be better at making time for it this year - and, though my resolutions don't formally kick in till Monday (see the article below), I thought I'd crack on and do a bit today.

Litter Champions are given training, and kitted out with a High Visibility vest, one of those stick thingies for picking stuff up, some hard-wearing gloves and a supply of brown bags.  Then it's up to us to get out there when we can, on our local patch, and keep the place tidy.  We send in a report every month, so we are monitored.  The brown bags, when full, we either leave by a litter bin or put out with our own household rubbish.

So I took an hour this afternoon to walk down from where we live to the main road into town, filling a large bag on the way and leaving it by the litter bin conveniently placed along the last bit of footpath leading to the road.  And I was surprised at how much I collected!  I walk that way quite often, and it hadn't looked too bad . . . the fact is, though, we walk past an awful lot of stuff without noticing.

I was praised by one passer-by, which is always nice, and greeted by others.  But so much litter!  How was it I hadn't seen all of that (though I did see some) when I walked the same route this morning?  I do believe in, well, maybe not zero tolerance precisely, but certainly this:  that if you are persistent in tackling the small problems within a community - litter, graffiti, petty vandalism - that has a positive impact that is much wider.  Of course, getting people to accept a degree of responsibility for their own community and, I suppose, a sense of ownership, has always got to be good, and that's a lot of what this scheme is about.

Perhaps it is also true, and I hope it may be, that the more ready we are to spot and sort out small issues, the less likely we'll be to walk past the big ones with our eyes averted.  Most people, I feel sure, do not drop litter except in very thoughtless moments.  The minority who do are spoiling things for the rest of us - but the simple truth is that if there's already litter there, unswept and uncleared, it's easy to add to it.  Get it cleared, and for a while at least it's likely to stay clear.  Deal with things promptly and they are less likely, short term, to recur.  The litter champion project is one way in which we can stay on top of things.

My friend and fellow Rotarian Francesca litter picking last May.

Friday, 4 January 2013


I have attended three funerals in three days this week, all of them religious funerals - two Christian and one Jewish;  one as part of my work, one as a mourner, and one with both hats on.  Each of them was well and sensitively taken, by ministers / rabbi who had known the person of whom they were speaking, and who did well in expressing the thoughts and hopes of everyone there.  Each ceremony was special in its own way, and expressed something of the personality, achievements and life journey of the person remembered, not only in what was actually said, but just in the way it was all done.

Funerals today are rightly much more personal than in times past - than thirty years ago or less, in fact, when I was taking my first steps in ministry.  Families and other mourners are much less ready to simply accept the liturgy 'as set', and even when that is the case, as, quite properly, at the country church funeral I attended last week, that liturgy must be used as a framework within which a very personal tribute is made and farewells said.  A funeral, whether religious or secular, must be a celebration of a person and a life - not hiding or trying to avoid the sadness of parting, for of course that is a big part of what's happening, but also linking together memories and stories, and, I think, helping those who attend to come away from that place with some positive thoughts about their own life and about the meaning of life, whatever religious faith they may or may not have, and whatever their concept of what lies beyond death.

Anyway, three leaders of funeral services helped achieve that for me this week (and not only for me, for after each service I heard many very positive and thankful comments).  To lead a funeral service isn't an easy task, I feel (and, indeed, know).  You have to know the person being remembered (even if that knowledge is dependent on the stories told you by others), but, however well you do know that person yourself, the words you say cannot be just your own words:  they must be appropriate to the gathered memories of all who come.  Similarly, you have to have some sense yourself of the emotion of loss, of the ending of this life and the parting of ways, but you do not have the luxury of being swamped or overwhelmed by such emotion.  And in a religious funeral (these days, anyway) you have to open and lead prayer in a way that will not prevent those for whom prayer is not their thing from remaining part of what's going on.  In a secular funeral the reverse is true - you have the challenge of finding words that are not religious but which in their use will not exclude those who cannot help but bring their own faith to this event.

It occurs to me that I can think of some funeral takers who use virtually the same format every time they lead a ceremony, so that for those (like me) who get to hear it more than once or twice it comes across as more or less a routine exercise, with little more than the name of the person changing.  I am thinking of full services at the crematorium here:  I accept that in a church service there is more reason to stay within the bounds set by the required funeral liturgy - though these days even that includes many options and variations, both in the words used and in the "staging", if you like.  I have always been grateful for the immense range of resource material that is available, and it's there to be used - but I do believe that my planning process for each service must always begin with little more than a blank page, and with some careful and sympathetic listening.

After all, it's something at which you only get one shot.


An unusual start this year - and today, a January day warmer than we sometimes are in June.  I still have a few tomatoes ripening in our unheated greenhouse, and roses are still opening on the briar outside my window.  I shall certainly make the most of this - every bit of fine weather at this time of the year is a slice off the winter, as they say.

I'm just gearing up now for my New Year resolutions.  I never make resolutions that start on New Year's Day - that's pointless, with the Christmas celebrations still in full swing, and so much to tempt me away from whatever austere path I may have set myself.  Mine shall start on Monday, with the Twelve Days (and the Feast of the Epiphany) out of the way.  And they will be moderate and keepable resolutions;  there is no point in setting the bar too high.

In fact, as a Franciscan, I aim to live anyway within a Rule of Life.  I'm not always very good at it;  for example, I'm not naturally good at prayer, in a disciplined way.  But to make a Rule, as I was told when I was first a postulant, is to set yourself something to aim at which is going to be attainable though not easy.  If it's easy, then what's the point - it isn't really helping you to grow as a person;  but if it's too tough then all it does is make you feel small and useless and a failure, and there's little use in that, either.

A good Rule of Life should begin with the real circumstances, the duties and responsibilities and constraints, of your own life.  It isn't about requiring you to live a different life, but living the life you already have in a better and a more caring way.  A more obedient way, too:  God's call to most of us is that we recognise him and serve him in the places where we are, not go looking for him somewhere else.

So my resolutions will in fact be about firming up my own keeping of the Rule I already have - one that is reviewed and renewed each year.  The immense changes there have been in my life over the past couple or three years (with more to come) mean that in fact I have some urgent need to review my Rule again, and this will be done this month, I hope, in consultation with a friend who is also my Spiritual Director.  The review won't be intended to make my Rule easier to keep, just more relevant to my present needs and situation.

I think a lot of us spend more time than we should wishing we were someone else, something that these days has become inextricably linked, I suppose, to the 'cult of celebrity' so blatantly fostered my much of our media.  The real challenge, though, is to learn how to be me.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Sick As A Dog

. . . as opposed to the proverbial parrot!  No, this was the real thing, felt very poorly last night - today I feel weak and drained but not nauseous, I'm pleased to say.  Not, I think, the norro virus or winter vomiting virus, so called, that's going around - though there certainly is a lot of it about;  I'm pretty sure I know what caused this particular bout, something I shouldn't have eaten, particularly after the sell-by date marked on the container.

So, a day without eating today, to settle things down.  Any brush with ill-health, however brief, reminds us just how little control we really have over our own mortal bodies.  After all, my body is, pretty much, a coalition of related cells and interlopers (friendly and essential bacteria and the like), that most of the time work pretty well together without much in the way of instruction from above.  When things go awry, which usually means something is in there doing its own thing and not working for the good of the whole enterprise, its frustrating that I consciously have so little control over the process of putting things right.

Of course, even the troublesome and unpleasant process of being sick is in reality part of the putting right of things.  It's a simple and straightforward way of getting rid of as much as possible, as quickly as possible, of the troublesome elements.  That's why dogs do it;  as natural scavengers, they eat first and ask questions afterwards.  If what they've eaten isn't working out for them, they barf it up pretty quickly (in my experience, all over the lounge carpet).  Very sensible.  "Dogs return to their vomit" though, as the Good Book reminds us.  That's not behaviour I'd want to copy - flush it away as quickly as possible, is my method!

Anyway, I shall take today gently . . .

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Happy New Year

The New Year has dawned with bright sunshine, a real treat after the past few days, yesterday being one of the rainiest I can recall, round here anyway.  The world has a hopeful feel to it, which is nice, and soon I shall go out for a walk I think.  I love the following poster which a Facebook friend posted, and I'm happy to make this my wish too:

The rest of the week will be quite busy, so I shall make the most of today.  I have made a few resolutions, some of which, no surprise, involve chocolate and cakes.  One firm resolution, though, is to take good care of myself and of those dear to me, and to make the time to rest and to relax.  All the busy things we do depend on our getting this bit right!