Monday, 15 April 2013

A Small Alleluia

A small alleluia in the enveloping darkness,
a gentle but firm refusal
to give up on the light.  However deep the shade
I refuse to accept that night could be forever.
I may walk alone here, and I can see it's getting dark, but
for sure I shall still find a star or two to guide me,
and I know there will be a dawn.

Seen From My Car

My most recent 'Nature Notes' article :-

A couple of months back I was nature-spotting from the 71 bus;  but I seem to see a surprising amount of wildlife even from my car, especially at this time of the year.  Our delayed spring has meant that the trees and hedges have stayed leafless longer than usual, and, though many of our summer visitors are understandably late to arrive, they are coming at last - the chiffchaffs can be heard again in the woodland - while some of our winter birds have yet to leave.

I’m always glad when I hear chiffchaffs, often among the first spring arrivals - but in fact all the birds I’ve seen of late from my car have been birds of prey.  (I suppose a chiffchaff counts as a bird of prey if you happen to be an insect, but you know what I mean!)  The first of these was a barn owl.  Our small fields, good old hedges, barns and other old buildings mean that this part of the world is still barn owl country, and I often see them at night, not least because they frequently course along our lanes and hedgerows, which make for good hunting.  But this barn owl was hunting by day, as I left Guilsfield one morning.  It was a sunny morning (though extremely cold, which is probably why the owl was out in the daylight) and the pale plumage of the owl positively shone as it lifted above the hedge to my right.

A few days later, I was literally just getting out of my car when a sparrow hawk hurtled past me, with quite a large bird securely held in its talons.  It was, I think, a thrush - one less, sadly to join in the dawn chorus.  The speed and precision of the hawk’s flight hugely impressed me - there wasn’t much room for manoeuvre.  Folk with bird tables often moan about sparrow hawks, but there is a natural balance between predator and prey (one result of which is that if you artificially increase the prey population by garden feeding you’re bound to increase the predator population as well - and why not?  It’s a beautiful bird).  Last week, as I parked my car outside a house in Pontesbury, I had a good view of another sparrow hawk, this time certainly a female - quite a large bird - which sailed across to a nearby roof which gave it a good view all around.

The final bird, glimpsed near Arddleen, was a bit of a star if I’ve got it right, and I’m fairly sure of my identification.  I was driving home when I saw a large bird flying across, and being mobbed by smaller birds as it did so.  I thought in terms of buzzard or kite, but it certainly wasn’t either of those.  Herons are often mobbed too, as are large gulls like lesser black-backed - but, again, no.  Though it was only a brief sighting, I was able to get a good view of the colours and, crucially, a side view of quite a distinctive head.  I’m pretty sure that what I saw, on quite a cold and cruel day, was an osprey on migration.  They do pass through this area (and these days, of course, they do nest in Wales), and the week I saw this bird there were sightings coming in of returning ospreys arriving at traditional nesting sites.  So, however unexpected, I’m fairly sure of what I saw.  It’s amazing what you get to see from your little tin box on wheels!

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Love Divine, All Loves Excelling

A Sunday talk :-

I love to sing hymns and choruses and worship songs; in fact, I love to sing all kinds of music, and I’ve always got some song or other roaming around in my mind.  Having said that, it isn’t just the music - the words are just as important to me, and the thing about the very finest hymns for me is the way in which word and tune support and enhance each other to produce something that strikes through to the heart.

It’s worth my mentioning that hymn singing as a congregational activity doesn’t go back all that far as a tradition in worship - really to the new independent congregations that began to flower in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Eventually, of course, hymns were sung everywhere, and there was a huge flowering of hymn writing from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries onward.  Before that time carols would have been sung, not only at Christmas but on many other occasions through the year, but carols weren’t sung in church services - they were songs of the people, sung out in the streets, and disapproved of, I should think, by the authorities and hierarchies of the Church.

That would have been true of hymns as well, to begin with.  The idea of the whole congregation joining together to sing something would to some have sounded rather subversive: it might encourage enthusiasm, which might seem fine to us, surely it’s good to be enthusiastic, but then would not have been welcome, for enthusiasm would lead to a loss of order and control.

Of the early writers of hymns in the English language none were more prolific than Charles Wesley.  We continue to sing so many of his hymns today, because they still work - partly because they’re all so firmly rooted in scripture, and also because they spring from his own very real experience of personal conversion.

My personal top three of Charles Wesley’s hymns would have to include ‘Jesu, lover of my soul’ and ‘And can it be?’, which are both hymns that have their roots in the story of his conversion. The other would be one that’s surely in nearly everybody’s list, the one I’d like to spend a little time on this afternoon, ‘Love divine, all loves excelling.’

These days we’re probably most likely to sing this hymn to the fairly modern Welsh tune ‘Blaenwern’, but there are quite a few other tunes - including the one called ‘Love divine’, which is a four line tune rather than eight lines.  Whenever I hear that tune, I’m transported back to a Sundayschool outing back in childhood days, when I must have been about seven or eight years old.  I suppose we must have sung it then.  But Charles Wesley actually wrote the words to be sung to Purcell’s tune ‘Precious Isle’, which was then very popular in the theatres and halls.  Wesley thought that it was too good a tune to be wasted on secular audiences;  it’s interesting to reflect on what tunes he might pick on were he still writing today - maybe he’d want to write Christian words to the theme tune of Eastenders (I do believe someone has).

But what a hymn he wrote!  What amazing words!  Of course, it isn’t a hymn about a thing called love;  it’s a hymn about a person called love, indeed, about the man whose very nature is love. You’ll be aware, I’m sure, of one particular way you can use the reading I used earlier on, Paul’s wonderful chapter thirteen of his First Letter to Corinth.  As you read through the passage, with all the things Paul has to tell us about love, you can take out the word ‘love’ each time and replace it with the name of Jesus - and as you do that you see that Paul too wasn’t thinking about a thing called love, but of the person who had changed and transformed his life when he wrote those words.  Then you can replace the name of Jesus with your own name: which gives us the challenge of discipleship, that’s shows what we’re called to live up to. 

What a challenge that is!  But it’s not a challenge we have to attempt on our own.  Charles Wesley writes: ‘Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down.’  This is his poetic description of our Lord, and of his Holy Spirit. A hundred years later, Christina Rossetti wrote ‘Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine.’  This is God’s decisive act of salvation:  Jesus Christ is the joy of heaven come down to earth, born at Bethlehem, walked the byways of Galilee and Judaea, died at Calvary and yet three days later was walking in the garden and blessing his disciples.

Jesus tells his disciples that he will be with them until the end of time.  He will no longer be physically present among them, they won’t see him any more, but they will know him by the gift of his Holy Spirit.  And you only have to read the story of the first Christian Pentecost to know that this is a love that’s not rationed out, it’s not something that comes in small measures.  Charles Wesley knew that very well, he knew how love had flooded into his heart at his conversion.

‘Fix in us thy humble dwelling;  all thy faithful mercies crown.’  Until this happened to Charles Wesley, he’d got only half way to where and what God was calling him to be.  He was already an ordained minister, and engaged in revival and mission;  and he was able, compassionate, prayerful, learned and thoughtful about the faith, and totally dedicated. But as yet there’s still a separation between him and God;  as yet he’s still trying to earn God’s approval.  I think that his anxiety to strive ever harder, to do more and more, had in fact worn him out, and made him ill.  So at the time of his conversion Wesley was a troubled soul.  He worried about whether he was good enough, whether he was working hard enough.  He’d had a difficult experience as an evangelist in America and had come back home filled with a sense of failure.  But everything would change for Charles Wesley on the feast of Pentecost, Whit Sunday, in 1738.

He’d been in close touch with a Moravian pastor named Peter Bohler, who’d led him to study verses, for example in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, that spoke of the need for a personal faith in Jesus - indeed, for a personal relationship with Jesus.  He read Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians, where in the verse Galatians chapter two verse 20 - “And the Son of God loved me, and gave himself for me” - Luther had placed particular stress on that word “me”.  This had a profound effect on Charles Wesley, who was then about thirty years of age, and the conviction never left him, that this love divine is to be experienced in a profoundly personal way.

One way in which I’ve heard it expressed is that God doesn’t love people.  It’s not people en masse he loves, but each individual person, the unique spark of his creative will that each one of us is.  He loves us despite our own failures in love, he loves us despite our apathy and hatred and deceit.  He is the man who prayed forgiveness on those who hammered the nails that fixed him to the cross: “They do not know what they are doing.”  And the love he has for me, and for you, and for each individual person, well, it’s as though each one of us was the only person he loved.  He loves each one of us with that recognition, with that compassion, with that intensity.

That’s not something we could ever do;  often we struggle to show that measure of love to even one other human being.  But our own human attempts at love are never more than a pale reflection of his love divine.  We may demand a return on our love;  but God loves us even when we don’t love him back. I’m always inspired by that wonderful picture by Holman Hunt, ‘The Light of the World’, in which our Lord stands at the door, and knocks, and waits.  He waits for us with an infinite patience; he waits for us to open the door and let him in.  We’re unfinished and incomplete without him, and he longs to complete his work of love within us - but always he waits for us to invite him in.

This is something the Church has a special opportunity to reflect on at this time of the year.  Between Easter and Pentecost we take time to think about the ways in which our Lord appeared to his disciples - not just to assure them that he truly was risen from the dead, but also to prepare them for what would happen next, for the new relationship that would begin with the gift of the Holy Spirit. God would be with his people in a new and dramatic way, and the Church whose story begins at Pentecost is not supposed to be a band of folk who gather to remember Jesus and to tell and share stories of a figure from distant history, but a pilgrim people who are living and walking with Jesus today.  As Paul writes, “We have the mind of Christ”;  and we remember how Jesus said to his disciples in the upper room, “Receive my Spirit”, and breathed into them the spirit of power and authority and love.

But let me return to Wesley’s wonderful words.  He writes
“Jesu, thou art all compassion,                           
 pure unbounded love thou art,                                 
visit us with thy salvation,                                 
enter every trembling heart.”

Pure, unbounded love: there are no limits here, no limits to the depth and intensity and clarity of this love, no bounds or barriers to limit its reach, no-one excluded from its gracious touch, except by our own choosing.

Charles Wesley’s own experience of this love as his own personal gift, not granted him because of the earnestness of his endeavours, the quality of his sacrifice, the hardness of his labours, but just there for him, freely and graciously bestowed, set him back on the right road.  Elsewhere in this hymn (we don’t always sing this verse), he writes “Breathe, O breathe thy Holy Spirit into every troubled heart.”  That was what it had been like for him.  He discovered that he had to invite God into the whole of his own self, but he also discovered that this was all he had to do.

There were no special incantations needed, no liturgy.  It didn’t have to happen in any special place, or at any particular time.  Pure unbounded love thou art.  There were no tests or examinations he had to pass to prove himself worthy, no fire to walk through, no list of achievements to audit.  Visit us with thy salvation.  This is about being saved from the otherwise certain failure of even our best intentions.

Enter every trembling heart.  At the heart of the hymn is Wesley’s desire that everyone should share the experience that had so transformed his life.  It was an experience his brother John shared it some three days later. Love divine is a wonderful thing, but it isn’t enough just to know about it and to sing about it;  we have to live in it and live by it, and as we do this to set our hearts on all that’s there in Paul’s wonderful words in I Corinthians 13.

So, to conclude, I do hope we’ll never get to think of hymns like ‘Love Divine’ as crusty and old, even though we’re two and a half centuries further on from the time when they were written.  For me Wesley’s words are as full of freshness and life as ever.  His conversion led to a great outpouring of hymns, and these hymns of his were I guess part of God’s gift and blessing on him, and essential to the birth of Methodism and to the Evangelical Revival of those days. 

Enter every trembling heart;  our motivation in mission is that we know that our Lord is waiting to do just that.  He isn’t somewhere far away, so that you need to shout for him to hear you, he isn’t so separate and holy that you have to be consumed by worry about whether you’re good enough.  That’s something you can leave him to sort out.  All you have to do, all I have to do, is ask, as he stands, waiting, at the door of our hearts.  For this is love divine, all loves excelling, here is our Lord waiting to finish his new creation in us, waiting to make us clean, waiting to make us worthy, waiting to complete within us the transformation of love.

Monday, 1 April 2013

An Easter Poem

I wrote this one some years ago . . .

Taking a handful of words in the half-light,
he shook them, scattered them,
gathered the pieces, shook again.

The people watched in wonder
at his bardic dexterity.  Then,
just as they had begun to suspect
he might have lost the plot, suddenly
in a great cawing of rooks and crashing of waves
the Poem emerged from his word-sack
to challenge the sun in its new-day brightness.

And they knew in that golden instant
that nothing in their lives could ever
be ordinary again.