Saturday, 30 March 2013

Good Friday

Because we are moving house, this has been a less holy week than usual, as regards our formal observance. There has been so much else to do.  It couldn't be helped, really - and all the snow certainly hasn't assisted our plans - but I'm sad because the solemnity of Holy Week when fully kept has, over the years, been terrifically important to me as a Christian and as a minister.  And within the journey of this week, Good Friday itself has been a stark and necessary reminder of the true meaning of love and the true cost of sin.

In one of my previous parishes we developed a system of keeping the week that included a special table, at the back of church, upon which palms were laid on Palm Sunday, and the various other things through the week (this varied a bit year by year, depending on the theme of our daily services;  for example, one year each service focused on a different 'bit player', if you like, in the Passion Narrative, and another year on particular words of importance within the story).  On Maundy Thursday the sacrament was brought to this table (and then used on Good Friday), and the table became the focus for the vigil of prayer that was kept after the Maundy Eucharist and washing of the feet.  A chalice and paten remained part of the collection of items, to represent the Supper given by our Lord.

On Good Friday a purple robe, crown of thorns, and nails were laid on the table, and three crosses were erected there.  I should say that an inventive array of different sized boxes on the otherwise very ordinary table, which were then covered over with white sheets, allowed it to represent the Hill of Calvary.  On Holy Saturday the Easter Garden was created on the front section of the table, and of course on Easter Sunday morning the stone was rolled aside, and the grave clothes and an angel placed in position, as prayers of dedication were said.

Any professional liturgists or experts in ritual reading this will probably throw up their hands in horror, because no doubt we "didn't do it properly".  All I can say, though, is that it worked for us, and I'd love to be doing it that way still.  In fact, it didn't seem to translate into any of the places in which I served since those days, or at least, not as the entire process.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

An Address at Easter

There are times in life when words just burst out of you, when certain words have to be spoken, if not yelled out loud.  A week or two back, when I was struggling with a large wooden gate and the wind just caught it and it then caught and trapped the back of my foot, there were words then I just had to yell, and I have to say that I do hope there was no-one within earshot, since at least one of those words was one that perhaps a good Christian ought not to be heard shouting.

Confession is good for the soul, and that’s one off my chest.  But not all the words that just have to be spoken, that burst out of you, are negative or bad words.  There are times when the shout is one of praise, times when we want to shout ‘Hooray’.  There are times when we want to shout the word I want to spend a bit of time on today, the word ‘Alleluia’.

Let me first of all touch on the seasonality of some religious words.  At Christmas the refrain is one of ‘Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace’.  Those are angelic words that for me form a sort of salvation manifesto. The birth the shepherds were told about, up there on the wild hillsides, was a birth that would glorify God and bring peace to men and women of faith and good purpose on earth. 

A week ago, on Palm Sunday, the word on people’s lips was ‘Hosanna’.  We quite often think of ‘Hosanna’ as a word of praise, and certainly it has a praise element to it, as it was shouted and sang to hail the king who chose to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey.  But it’s more than just that;  it’s a prayer and a plea.  If the Christmas words are a salvation manifesto, the Palm Sunday word is a salvation prayer:  it can translate as ‘Lord, save us.’  Maybe it’s also a salvation credal statement, for those who shouted it that day it was their declaration that yes, this was indeed the promised Saviour, come to claim his throne.

Of course, not even his closest disciples realised quite what that throne would be and how it would be claimed and attained.  They couldn’t for a moment imagine that the crown placed on their Lord’s head would be one of thorns, and that the title ‘King of the Jews’ would be one nailed to a cross.  So on Good Friday there are no words at all, only wailing, and that anguished cry, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ But there is also that last shout, as Jesus breathes his last - and I’m sure that we should understand that to be not a cry of despair or desolation, but a shout of triumph. ‘It is finished!’ - not in the sense of ‘It’s all over’, but rather ‘It is accomplished;  it is complete.’

The work is done.  And then comes the great Easter word of alleluia.  But surely that’s also a Christmas word? - you might ask, thinking of the traditional Christmas singing of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and in particular of the ‘Alleluia Chorus’.  Well, that’s a modern tradition, and it isn’t at all what Handel intended, or when he expected his master-work to be sung.  Alleluia is more than anything an Easter word;  of course, Christians can and probably should be using it all the time - but then of course, we are an Easter people.  Easter is what forms Christians into a single holy nation, and what unites us is that we praise the Lord.

Alleluia is an Old Testament word, but I believe it is found only in the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament.  It is a holy word, or really two words fused together.  Hallel means praise - not praise as a noun, a thing, but praise as a command;  and Yah is God, or the Lord.  Alleluia is an instruction, an exhortation, to give praise to the Lord.  In the Psalms it has exactly that role;  in those wonderful poems of worship, the word alleluia encourages the people to lift their hands and voices in praise, to be joined together as the praising people of God.

The very fact that Alleluia as a word contains the name of God (or a name of God) should encourage Christians to be careful in the way we use the word.  We should not want to be found taking the Lord’s name in vain.  But a look at how the word is used in a secular setting can be instructive, even so.  One dictionary I looked at notes that ‘Alleluia is used to denote happiness that a thing longed for or awaited has at last happened.’ 

In Anglican Sunday services, very often the minister begins the service with this greeting:  ‘The Lord be with you’, and the people respond ‘And with thy spirit,’ or these days, more prosaically, ‘And also with you.’  But at Easter, the minister may well begin ‘Alleluia!  Christ is risen!’ and the response is ‘He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!’.  Those words are written with exclamation marks, of course, in the hope that that will encourage the words to be spoken joyfully and with a sense of triumphant celebration.  The thing longed for an awaited through Lent and Passiontide has happened, at last:  the King is risen and alive, and Mary meets with him in the garden.

And the alleluias of Easter follow on from the solemn fast of Lent.  For though Alleluia is a word that Christians can use at any time, since we’re an Easter people, by tradition, we don’t say alleluia in Lent at all.  The focus of Lent is on things earthly rather than things heavenly;  on penitence rather than praise;  on pilgrimage rather than on paradise.  And Lent leads us into Holy Week, and to Good Friday when I have always tried to be aware only of the tragedy of the cross, and to link my thoughts and reflections in with what those first disciples of Jesus were thinking and feeling - that it was all ended, that it was all demolished, that all their hopes had been destroyed, that the light in which they had put their faith had been squashed and extinguished by the forces of darkness.

It’s for that reason that the first Easter service in some churches starts with the building in darkness.  And then the light is kindled and shared, and then the whole building is filled with light, and only then is that word ‘Alleluia’ sung.

For this is how I feel it to be: on Good Friday human goodness is found to be fatally flawed.  Not all our best efforts can prevent this man’s death.  Even brave, foolhardy Peter is forced onto his back foot by the accusations of those around him, so that - just as his Lord had predicted - he three times denies he even knows Jesus, before the cock crows.

We can’t do it on our own;  our end, our inescapable end, is dust and ashes.  But the good news of Easter morning is that we are not on our own, and never will be on our own.  On this day divine love is triumphant even over death.  The Lord is risen, he is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Alleluia is exactly the right word.  Praise the Lord, for without him we are lost;  praise the Lord, for without him our very best efforts are all doomed to failure;  praise the Lord, for we are set free to join with the hosts of heaven, for whom alleluia is surely their constant refrain.  Alleluia is a word of heavenly praise.  Alleluia is also a simple and profound credal statement;  it is the heart of our faith.  We belong to our Lord, for only in him can we find real life.

Alleluia seems to have been a word used in the very earliest liturgies and forms of worship of the Church.  Because it is both a call to praise and a statement of faith, it is a word that should always be used with purpose and with joy, and never in a throwaway fashion.  For this is who we are.

Whatever actually happened on that first Easter Day - and, however you read the Easter stories in the Gospels, there always remains an aura of mystery about them - whatever happened that day, it was utterly convincing.  It changed the hearts, the lives, of those frightened and defeated disciples.

Pentecost is sometimes called the ‘birthday of the Church’. If that is the case, then the great Easter season is, I suppose, the gestation, the pregnancy, the time during which the infant Church was formed and fashioned - as the risen Christ appeared to his disciples not just to dazzle and bemuse them, not just to delight and reassure them, but also to teach and prepare them.  These were men (and women) who went gladly and joyfully even to death because of what they encountered in the empty tomb and in the days that followed.

In other words, alleluia is more than just a word, a sort of Christian version of ‘hooray’;  it is a way of life.  Christians, as I’ve said twice already, Christians are an Easter people.  So we are an alleluia people;  we should be deeply infected with joy, even when things seem to be going against us;  praise should fill all that we do, even when the path is rough and steep and the day is dark;  we should be immune to defeat, because we know the victory is already won;  we should be unafraid of death, because we know our Lord went there and is there no longer.

We can’t always manage that;  there are times, of course there are, when it all gets too hard for us.  Times when the words on our lips, the words that burst out of us, are more like the one I used when my foot got trapped under that gate.  Times when despair, anger, disillusionment, pain, or for that matter shame and sorrow, tower over us and drive the alleluias out of our life.  I suppose that’s why we need this day each year, to hear the story again, to stand with Mary and the others in that garden;  to have felt the pain and the shame, to have passed through the hard times, the dark times, and to know - even if as yet we don’t quite believe what we’re seeing - that today something new is abroad in the world.  The Lord is risen;  he is risen indeed;  alleluia!

Osprey? (2)

Information that came my way yesterday makes it more likely that the bird I saw the other day could have been a migrating Osprey.  If so, I bet he or she wishes they were back in West Africa - more snow is falling this morning!

Monday, 25 March 2013


I saw a strange sight today, from my car, as I was driving through the small village of Arddleen.  A large bird was being mobbed by a number of smaller ones;  nothing too unusual about that, I often see such a thing - usually the large bird is a buzzard, sometimes a heron, a great black backed gull, even a red kite.  This bird was none of those, that much was clear from my car, but I can't be sure what it was.  My best guess, though, is osprey:  something about the shape of the head and the markings, but it was such a brief view, and I had no opportunity to stop.

The bird in question was certainly a raptor, and ospreys are passing through at about this time of the year, though I suppose the present very wintry weather has to make it less likely that one should be present:  surely any osprey with half a brain is going to have halted its migration, faced with wall-to-wall snow and biting winds.  So I feel this has to be filed away as 'unknown', or at any rate 'indeterminate'.  Pity;  an osprey at Arddleen would be a very special tick!

Friday, 22 March 2013

Barn Owl

We are so lucky to live in a part of the country where barn owls are quite common.  They are such marvellous creatures.  The countryside around us here is still quite mixed as regards the way it is farmed and managed, and there are lots of hedgerows and quite a few old buildings with suitable nest sites.  I quite often see barn owls at night, sometimes leading me along the lane as they fly along the hedges.  Sadly, a few are killed by vehicles because they so often hunt by flying low along, and of course at times across the lanes.

Yesterday though I saw one lift from a hedge top well into daylight hours, as I made my way along the road between Guilsfield and Arddleen, the back route to my place of work at Four Crosses, which I was taking because of very slow roadworks on the main road.  I was very grateful for that diversion, and quite startled by the paleness of the bird as I glimpsed it - looking, in a way, more like a huge moth than a bird, and remarkably white in colour.  I tend to think of barn owls as being of a buff to light brown, as regards wings and upper parts, but they do vary, and whiteness can be the dominant impact as you see one, so the Latin name of Tyto alba (white owl) is appropriate.  The wings are broad and enveloping, almost like a sort of shroud as the bird rides the hedgerows.  The tail is short and wedge-shaped, and the heart-shaped face, which is a very pure white, is quite distinctive, though that part of the owl wasn't visible to me as I drove by yesterday.

Just at the moment, I don't seem to have the time I'd like to go watching birds, so it's a double pleasure when these chance meetings occur!

Sunday, 17 March 2013

A Bible Verse for Today

To stand in awe of human authority may be a snare,
but to trust in the Lord is to find a tower of refuge.
Many may seek audience of a ruler of peoples,
but it is the Lord who decides each case.

Proverbs 29. 25-6

Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Love of the Cross (a Sunday talk)

I was reading an article in my paper yesterday about HMS Belfast, the battle cruiser that’s moored on the Thames not far from Tower Bridge.  It caught my eye mainly because a couple of years ago when my wife and I were visiting our son who lives and works in London, we decided we’d visit HMS Belfast.  I’d walked past it so often when I was doing a job that required me to visit London regularly, and I’d always wondered what it was actually like on board. Anyway, the first thing I discovered about being on board was that it was going to cost us ten quid apiece to get there. Ten quid, I thought, just to go and look round a boat.  What a waste!

That’s what I felt at the time, but of course, we’d agreed that’s what we were doing, so we did it.  And I have to admit that once on board I really enjoyed it: there was so much to see that we were there nearly all day, so our ten quid, somewhat to my surprise, turned out to be pretty good value in the end.

The reading I’ve just used today tells of something that was claimed to be a waste of money.  A bottle of really expensive oil had been just poured over the feet of Jesus! Surely something much cheaper would have done just as well, if something like that had to be done at all.  And surely better things could have been done with all the money it cost. This is a story that turns up in different forms in the various Gospels.  Perhaps Jesus was anointed on more than one occasion;  or perhaps what we have are different recollections of the same event, which the different Gospel writers each use in their own particular way?  But let me reflect for a while on this particular story - both on the event itself, and on the reason why the story has been told in this way.

For one thing, there’s a whiff of scandal about the story. It’s quite an intimate thing to do, to anoint someone’s feet.  And for a woman to liberally anoint the feet of a man, and to dry them with her hair, which therefore must have been flowing down and not respectably up - this was behaviour rather shocking and somewhat out of the ordinary, even before you start to consider what the ointment actually cost and whether it was a waste of money.  A woman would not normally ever loosen her hair and let it down in mixed company.  This was a rather reckless and immodest act.

And therefore the first message I want to take from this reading is that it has to do with the risk and the extravagance of love.  To be in love is to be totally caught up in the other person, so however far apart you may be there's a closeness heart to heart, and a sense that one is incomplete without the other.  People in love do rash and foolhardy things, which other people can then write books or make films about. Actually on the quiet I'm a bit of a fan of rom coms, and I was watching ‘Love Actually’ on the box the other night;  it’s easy I find to get caught up in all the angst and the misunderstandings and the confusion - the twists and turns in the story that precede what you hope is going to be a “happy ever after” ending.

Today’s Gospel is hardly the script for a rom com, but it is about love.  Mary's love for Jesus has led her to behave in a foolhardy way, and as she does what she does she doesn’t care what anyone else might think. But this isn’t the passion of romantic love, but something quite different.  What we see here is the love of a penitent for the means of her salvation: the same love we find in the apostle Paul when he writes that he "counts everything as sheer loss, compared to the gain of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord."  Jesus revealed himself to Mary as "the resurrection and the life", and for her too nothing else matters.  Her Lord is everything to her.

Her anointing of his feet is a sign of penitence. Anointing can be a sign that honour is being conferred, for example, when the head is anointed at a coronation.  That sort of anointing is performed by a superior - at a coronation it’s the archbishop who acts in this way to the blessing of God on the newly crowned king or queen.

But this is an anointing act that springs out of sheer helplessness.  Mary has come to her Lord in total humility, and the whole house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment, for she didn't ration it out, she used the lot, she held nothing back.  For me the force of that fragrance filling the whole house says something important about the way in which a loving and generous act can have an impact beyond itself:  what happens is that others are affected and drawn in to what is happening.  In the marriage service the minister may pray that the love between the two people standing before him or her will be a force for good beyond their own household, that love will flow into the community in which the couple will make their home.  And on so many occasions I’ve seen wonderful examples of how that can happen, though I’d have to say that I’ve also seen the reverse - that bad relationships also can have an impact - a bad impact - beyond themselves.  The Presbyterian Bible scholar William Barclay wrote that loving and generous deeds can become the possession of the whole world.  The Gospel is far better preached through generosity, through giving and sharing, through the practical outworking of love, risky though that can be, than through the most brilliant words, or the most superbly organised campaigns and rallies.

Having said that, as we read the story not everyone was moved positively by the fragrance.  What a waste of money, Judas said.  Maybe others too said, echoing my thoughts at the ticket booth for HMS Belfast.  And it’s understandable.  It does seem like a waste of money.

There are some important lessons I draw out of the words Jesus used in his reply.  "The poor are with you always, but you will not always have me," is what Jesus says, more or less.  The first thing I draw out of this is that charity toward the poor shouldn't be an occasional grand gesture, nor something we do only when we decide we can afford it - it should be our constant commitment.  The poor are always with you - so you should always be aware and concerned and compassionate. It’s important to say this, because you could use those words as an excuse to put off till tomorrow the care that we should be offering today, and I’m quite sure in my own mind that that isn’t what Jesus is meaning here.

But what he is meaning I think is this, the second lesson I take from these words: while acts of charity need to be built in to our programme, and this is something best done in an organised and disciplined way, there are also opportune times in life that you just have to grab there and then, or they will slip away.  How easy it is not to stop and marvel at a sunrise or a sunset, since you know there'll be another one tomorrow;  how easy it is to put off our prayers, or our greetings, or maybe our apologies, rather than seizing the moment and just doing it.  There are moments in human life when the penny drops, when something becomes clear, when a problem is solved or when something is recognized as valuable or lovely, there are times when we just feel uplifted and want to raise our hands and our voices in praise.  Don’t let those moments slip away: now is the time - for action, for decision, for commitment, for worship, for praise.

So the actions of Mary that day, as I read them in this story, challenge me when I’m tempted to be too cautious, and when I seek to measure and ration my generosity or my goodwill. No single person can do everything, but in every life there are times when we mustn’t hold back, and that's how it was then for Mary: now was the time to give all she could, and Mary held nothing back: her Lord was worth all she’d got, and more.

That’s the message I want to leave you with on this Sunday often called Passion Sunday, a fortnight before Easter Day.  Our focus over the next couple of weeks is bound to be the cross.  On Good Friday we may perhaps be thinking of the tragedy of the cross, the pain of the cross, even the guilt of the cross, the weight of sin this dying man bears, our sin and not his, but borne freely.

He gives his all for us, and he does so while we are yet sinners. Every year I am caught up again in the wonder of such a sacrifice.  Every year I am freshly moved by the words of the hymn, “Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all.”  Mary, I think - even before that first Good Friday - she understood this, very deeply.  Today we reflect on the love of the cross, of the cross as the place where the true meaning of love is expressed and displayed and acted out more fully than it could ever be again.  And yet that same love is all around us, we are affirmed by it, convicted by it, called by it.

What should it mean for a church to be cross-shaped?  Some ancient churches are literally cross-shaped, but all churches should be in a spiritual sense - motivated and challenged by the love of the cross to be sacrificial ourselves in our mission, in our service, in our outreach, and in our praise.  And nothing that is a heartfelt response to the loving heart of our Lord could ever be a waste of money, or a waste of time, or a waste of self.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Tree Creeper

Looking out of my lounge window a week or two back, I was surprised and delighted to see a tree creeper, not creeping up a tree but prospecting the mortared crevices on a retaining brick wall just a few feet in front of the window at which I stood.  I was very glad of the chance to observe this bird at such close quarters.

Tree creepers are sparrow sized, and have cryptic plumage of browns, buffs and greys that blend in well against the bark of a tree (though not against our brick wall).  At first sight, they can be more mouse-like than bird-like, as they creep up the trunk of a tree, often circling the tree as they do so.  They keep close to the bark, and use  their stiff tails as a sort of prop as they climb.  The bird then flies back down to start again, or to transfer to another tree.

They feed on small insects and other invertebrates, and life can be tough in a hard winter.  They are efficient hunters, though, and the long, thin, curved bill makes an excellent probe.  Watching the one on our wall, I was interested to see how the bird can stretch its neck upwards and back so as to raise the head while keeping the body close to whatever it is climbing on.

There are some insects active at every season of the year, except when the weather is really cold - but tree creepers are also searching for hibernating insects, and for eggs and pupae too.  We used to see them regularly on the giant redwood we had in a previous garden;  the soft bark of this and other coniferous trees is especially attractive, and its deep fissures and loose pieces of bark provide shelter for insects and also a possible nest-site for the bird.  Tree creepers will nest behind loose bark or ivy, making a loose cup of a nest, lined with bark fragments and feathers, where the female will lay her six or so eggs.  The nestlings leave the nest after a couple of weeks, by which time they can climb well, but are not yet good fliers.

“My” tree creeper spent maybe ten minutes on the brick wall, usefully I hope, before moving its attention to an old stump which it climbed in the traditional manner.  This is a bird that does exactly what its name says!  Then it moved to a small tree, and on to another out of my area of vision.  Normally, you’ll see a tree creeper begin its search near the base of the trunk of one tree, spiral its way up, then fly down to the base of the next tree along to continue prospecting. 

The main distinguishing marks are an eye-stripe which is white or light grey, the stiff tail which divides into two points, and of course the very distinct long curved bill.  Both sexes are alike.  Another species of tree creeper, the short-toed, is found in continental Europe;  the two species are very hard to tell apart in the field, but the short-toed tree creeper is very rarely ever found in the UK.  Someone I used to know in south Shropshire had a tree creeper that regularly visited his feeders, something I have never known elsewhere.  In winter, though, they can be found in mixed flocks, with tits and other small birds.