Saturday, 25 May 2013


A Sunday talk for Trinity Sunday :-

I remember that when I was very small I was taken by my grandfather to see a launch, at the shipyard where he worked on the banks of the River Tyne.  I stood in the crowd and watched as a bottle was swung with due ceremony to smash against the hull of the new ship.  After which, nothing happened.  Nothing happened for quite a while, in fact.  In my youthful naivete, I began to think that something had gone wrong, but of course it hadn’t.  I became at last aware that the hull was moving, very very slowly at first, almost too slowly to see, like the minute hand of a clock.  Then it gathered pace, and to shouts and cheers it slid smoothly into the river, where it was positioned by tugs so that the remaining work on the superstructure of the vessel could be carried out.

The reason why that story came to mind is that one significant thing that happens at a launch is that a new vessel gets named.  Until the launch ceremony it’s still just a giant pile of metal on the stocks - but then she’s named, she’s given an identity, she becomes a ship.  I suppose the other significant thing alongside that is that words of blessing are used, and the name of God invoked:  when the ship’s been named, the next words are ‘God bless all who sail in her.’

Names are often very important in the Bible, in the Old Testament especially.  I could think of Genesis chapter two, for example: Adam gives names to each of the creatures God has made, and that giving of names establishes the identity of each creature, and also Adam’s authority over them. I could also think of the ways in which names are changed to reflect a new reality or status, like when Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai Sarah.  Their new names mean, respectively, ‘Father of a Multitude’ and ‘Princess’.  Or when Jacob, after wrestling with the angel of God, received the new name of Israel - which means ‘God fights’.

In the Church calendar today is Trinity Sunday.  All the churches which form part of the World Council of Churches, that is - are Trinitarian in belief:  God, we say, is Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and yet not three Gods but one God. One God who has chosen to reveal himself and make relationship with us in these three ways.  We may speak of there being ‘three persons, yet one God’ - though for me the word ‘person’ can be a little misleading.  I find myself thinking of an individual and separate human being, the chap sitting on the bus, the lady ahead of me in the queue at the supermarket, or for that matter the fellow standing in the pulpit to preach.

To say ‘three persons’ can feel as if we’re breaking God up into three separate and individual parts, but that’s not what the Church teaches.  Each person of the Trinity participates fully in the life of the other two, so that, as Jesus says to his disciples, in St John chapter 17, ‘the Father and I are one’.  That’s also why Paul can say as he reflects on what it means to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, that ‘we have the mind of Christ’.  Trinity is an essential doctrine, a belief that we as Christians are bound to share - but I don’t find myself thinking of it as a precise and complete definition of God, just our way of making some sense of how God relates to us and reveals himself to us.

How relevant to that is my reflection on names, I wonder? In the Bible the naming of things establishes identity, and says something about status and purpose - as when Adam names the animals. I suppose the same thing would have been true of the ship I saw launched. It occurs to me though that to give a name, or even to know and to use a name, says something important about relationship.  The same person might be called ‘sir’, or ‘Mr Jones’, or ‘Dave’, or ‘Daddy’ - depending on what the relationship is.  To give or know or use a name may also claim a knowledge of a person or even an authority over them, which is why Jacob asked to know the name of the person with whom he wrestled at the Jabbok ford.

The word God isn’t a name, but a title.  But God does have names, in the Old Testament.  He is ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Jehovah’ - which sort of means ‘I am’ or indeed ‘I am who I am’. Like when he is encountered by Moses in the wilderness. He is also ‘Elohim’, which may mean ‘Majesties’ (note the plural).  But the people of the Old Testament would have felt it wrong and even blasphemous to call him by those names.  That would imply that he was in some sense their possession, rather than that they were his possession.

That’s why the name of God remains hidden and unspoken in most renditions of the Old Testament. God is generally called 'The LORD' - the word 'Lord' being printed in capitals.  That’s an English version of the Hebrew title 'Adonai', used in place of the name of God because that name was too holy to be spoken aloud.

But we no longer stand under the Law, and Christ sets us free to call God by name. The name Jehovah in fact derives from the vowel sounds in Adonai, blended in with the YHWH which are the consonants in Yahweh.  And while as members of the mainstream Churches we don't often call God Jehovah, we do sing hymns like 'Guide me, O thou great Jehovah'. And some Christian Bibles, like the New Jerusalem Bible used in Roman Catholic churches, always use the name 'Yahweh' rather than ‘the LORD’ (Adonai), as in other versions. But Jesus teaches us a new and better name than the Old Testament Jehovah. For when his disciples asked to be taught how to pray, Jesus told them: "When you pray, say 'Our Father, who art in heaven...'"

That’s amazing, don’t you think, that God the unknowable Creator of all things, we can call him ‘our Father’!  St John writes:  'No-one has ever seen God, but Jesus Christ, the only Son from the Father, he has made him known to us.'  On Easter morning in the garden, Jesus told Mary Magdalene to say to the others that he was ‘ascending to my Father, and your Father, to my God, and your God.'

Here is a great mystery over which the Church has pondered through many years.  Jesus was a man with a known origin and provenance.  He didn't appear out of nowhere.  People knew him to be the son of a carpenter in Nazareth.  One of a fair-sized family in fact:  he had four brothers, and he had sisters too.  His disciples knew all this too. They travelled with him, ate and drank with him, listened to him and learned from him.  And they knew who he was, in human terms. They knew his name.

But as they reflected on all they had seen and heard, they wanted to say more about Jesus than the name Jesus could contain. He wasn’t just a specially good and godly man, he wasn’t even just a prophet like the prophets of the olden days.  They’d seen how this man died, and they’d also seen what happened on Easter Day and on the days that followed.  They wanted to say like Paul that in some way 'God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.'  And then there is what John says right at the beginning of his Gospel. John’s great image is of Jesus as the living Word of God, the Word through whom all created things were made.  The Word who first named all things into being.

And John also tells us that "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son."  In his life and through his death Jesus shows us the truth about the Father:  that he loves his creation with a love that cannot be denied and that calls us to respond.

John again tells us how Jesus says to Nicodemus that he must be born again, not of flesh but of water and the Spirit. In both Greek and Hebrew the word translated as ‘spirit’ can also mean ‘wind’, and I’m reminded of how the wind makes itself known in the way it moves and changes things, though we can’t see the wind itself. If you were to catch the wind in a bottle, it would immediately disappear.  Paul, writing to the Romans, completes the circle by saying that it’s through the Spirit that we’re able to call God ‘our Father’.

So it’s our experience of God that leads us to speak of him as Trinity, as Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  This isn’t a philosophy dreamt up from nowhere, but the way God is to us, in scripture and in our own encounters with him.  Nor is it the last word about God, a formula that neatly ties God up, just the best way we can find to express the ways in which he reveals himself to us.

In brief, we first of all know him and name him as our Father: and as our Maker and Creator, the Origin of life and the Ground of Our Being. He names himself Elohim and Yahweh, names that may speak to us of unapproachable holiness, but he also names himself as Father, and he opens the way for us to call him by that name.

Secondly, his nature and creative power is divine love, and that love was made visible among us in human form; in Jesus of Nazareth, the Man for Others, the Christ.  Here is God present within what he has made and sustains in being, present among his people as both priest and sacrifice, as both lover and gift.

And the God of love continues to offer himself to us, continues to be present in and with and among his people.  His love is revealed not only in the creative work of the Father, and the redeeming presence of Jesus, but also in the living power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God strengthens our faith, renews our vision, enriches our fellowship, enables our love.

This is why the Church dares to speak of the one God who is equally three persons: God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, together in a perpetually loving relationship into which we are invited, through which we too are made holy.  Trinity is not a closed and fully worked out formula but a way to speak of the dynamic nature of God, the constant movement and interplay of love between Father and Son and Holy Spirit that affirms our being and inspires our love.

Love: the key to all of this is love.  Whatever other names we may have for God, including those three great names of Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit, to speak of God as Trinity is to affirm what one of the hymns calls ‘his new blest name of love’.  Here is what establishes the unity of the Godhead.  So finally, if we are Trinitarian in our belief and doctrine as the Church of God, so we should be Trinitarian in our action and service.  The divine interplay of love and mutual sharing should be constantly and consistently modelled in us - in our relationships together as people of faith within God's Church, and in the service we as Church render to the world in God’s name.  For Jesus who said ‘The Father and I are one’ also said of his disciples, 'May they be one as we are one, that the world may believe.'

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Potato Field

Somewhere on a rock that hurtles through space
at a speed incomprehensible to him,
a man is standing in a field of potatoes
scanning the crop for spots on leaves.
He sees the things that matter:
the weeds between the rows,
the good growth and the yellowing,
the low grey clouds with their promise of rain.
Kicking the stones, he curses his aching back
and blows on his hands: do you call this summer?
And he watches the kestrel standing high against the wind
at the field’s edge;  and the kestrel’s eyes have not missed
the vole on the headland below
as it scurries for cover in the nettles and docks.

Meanwhile, the rock continues to race around its star,
spinning on an axis of iron as it goes.
We cannot tell its motion, only in the things that matter:
hours and days, the turning seasons, changing leaves,
greetings and farewells
and the tumbling circles of the ageing years. 

Wednesday, 15 May 2013


The latest of my 'nature notes' articles :-

Despite the rather cool and changeable weather we’ve had quite a bit of, I have managed to see a few butterflies around this spring - small tortoiseshells, peacocks, large whites (the gardener’s delight - not!), and spring specialities like the orange tip and the holly blue.  But I was delighted to see a bright and beautiful orange comma in our new garden, on a sunny day at the beginning of the month.

The comma has been described as “looking like a tatty small tortoiseshell”, as its wings have a jagged outline.  When at rest with its wings closed this provides good camouflage, as the undersides of the wings are dark, and the butterfly looks for all the world like an old withered leaf. The Comma is now a quite familiar sight across much of the UK, bucking the trend of butterfly decline by expanding its range. The butterfly carries a single white marking on its underside, which looks like a letter “c” (hence its Latin name of  Polygonia c-album) - or a comma.

This butterfly is one of several for which the stinging nettle is a larval food plant. The caterpillars do feed on other plants as well, including hops, and a decline in hop growing is thought to have been the reason for a sharp decline in comma numbers a century or so ago. The comma overwinters as an adult, and emerges quite early in spring if the weather is suitable. The male will establish a territory, often on the sunny edge of a patch of woodland (which exactly describes our garden). I observed “our” comma flying up and down and returning to settle on a chosen perch - typical behaviour. The caterpillars are black and white, and manage to look a lot like bird droppings.  As well as nettles and hops, they may feed on blackcurrant plants.

The adult butterfly is known in a number of forms, but there are two main types, one with a dark underside and one with a lighter underside (these are also brighter on the upper side).  The darker butterflies are normally the majority, and these appear by about the end of June or early July, to overwinter as adults.  The lighter coloured butterflies, however, go on to breed again almost straight away, to give a second generation of comma butterflies, appearing in August and September.  There will be more of these after a good and warm spring (so not this year, I should think!).

Butterfly life-cycles are often quite complicated; the trigger in this case seems to be day-length at the time the larvae are developing.  More of the lighter type of adult will be produced if at the time the larvae are developing the day length is still increasing. But a gloomier spring, and therefore a later start with the first brood, will mean that most of the offspring will not breed again, but will overwinter as adults.  Their darker coloration adapts them well for hiding in dusty corners or under bark.

Adult commas can be seen at any time of the year - even emerging on some warm winter days - but the main flying period is from April to the end of October.  Adults take the nectar of thistles, along with, for example, blackthorn in spring, ivy late in the season, and also fallen plums, blackberries and other fruit.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Listening - a Sunday talk

English is an easy language to speak, but it’s rather a hard language to speak well. And two words that often get confused by those who are learning to speak English are “listen” and “hear”.  For example, someone may say (as a non-English friend said to me not long ago over the phone), “I am not listening you very well.”  I knew what he meant . . . but of course, to hear and to listen do have quite different meanings, don’t they?  I suppose you can’t really listen without hearing, but you certainly can hear without listening.

I can think of lots of examples of that, but the one that lodged in my mind as I prepared these words was a sketch eons ago from Les Dawson. Les himself and - I think - Hugh Paddick played the part of two elderly ladies, all headscarves and self-righteous rolling of eyes;  and on this occasion there they were, gossiping over the garden fence, except that what you got were two monologues and not any sort of conversation.  Neither was paying a blind bit of notice to anything the other one had said.  The comedy, of course, derived from the accidental meanings and double entendres that happened as the two monologues were connected together.

At other times it can be quite frustrating when you’re trying to explain something and proper attention isn’t being paid.  I recall how in my schooldays, my teachers got rid of their frustration by flicking bits of chalk and occasional board rubbers at recalcitrant boys.  These days of course, they’re no longer allowed to do that, and quite possibly they weren’t supposed to then, either.  And so the frustration remains;  I was giving a talk a couple of weeks back, and the fact that two of the people attending engaged in conversation all the way through all but knocked me off my stride. In a previous church Doreen used to get her knitting out as soon as I started to preach.  I was dismayed at first, but she explained that it helped her to listen.

And maybe that was so, since the one Sunday she forgot her knitting she was fast asleep about five minutes into my address.  The rest of the congregation kindly allowed her to sleep on until the end of the service, when, highly embarrassed, she told us she’d had her little grandson staying, so she’d had hardly a wink of sleep the previous night.

Anyway - last Thursday was Ascension Day, and next Sunday is Pentecost, and in the Bible (in St Luke’s Gospel and his second book, the Acts of the Apostles), this, for the disciples of Jesus, was a time of preparation and prayer.  And that always sets me thinking about the difference between hearing and listening.

The Gospel stories of Jesus don’t always present the disciples in a very good light.  Don’t you find that strange?  Don’t you think they might have tweaked the story so as to look a bit better and brighter than they do?  St Mark’s Gospel was written, we’re told, by Peter’s companion and secretary, who therefore is really telling Peter’s story - yet in it Peter himself comes across as fallible and sometimes foolish.  I’m reassured by that, and I hope you are too;  there’s nothing self-serving in the Gospels - it’s all about Jesus.

But I can’t help but think that it must have been frustrating for Jesus from time to time.  He spoke to great crowds sometimes, other times round supper tables. Folk heard him and were even entertained by him, but often they never really listened.  There were those who didn’t listen because they’d already got their own agenda. People of the party of the Pharisees, or of Herod, or the Temple priests - they weren’t there to be informed or persuaded, certainly not to be changed in any way.  They just wanted to trip him up, to find some creative ways of misusing his own words against him, as indeed they did their best to do on the night before Good Friday, as Jesus stood there on trial for his life.

Meanwhile, for many in the crowds it was all about the thrill of the spectacle, the latest thing.  It almost didn’t matter what he actually said. Maybe some of the time that was true of his own disciples, too.  They already knew what he was going to do.  For why else would you go to Jerusalem, other than to seize the throne and re-establish the ancient kingdom of David?  And if they were the new king’s men then surely they too would get thrones.

So it’s no great surprise to me as I read the Gospels to find the disciples getting it wrong, failing to understand, not  really listening.  Hearing is of course a passive activity;  odd bits of what goes in one ear might lodge within, but no effort gets made to prevent it from all going out through the other.  But listening is an active thing, and it can be hard work.  So there’s a difference between hearing someone - passive - and giving someone a hearing, which means more, doesn’t it?  To give a hearing means you’re involved, you’re giving something.  More to the point, it means (or I think  it does) that you’re exposing yourself to the risk of being challenged, changed even, by what you are hearing.

There are times in the Gospels when we see that happens - to Nicodemus and to Nathaniel;  to Mary and maybe also Martha, out at Bethany;  perhaps to Joseph of Arimathea, certainly to Mary Magdalene.  But there are lots of times when what Jesus says isn’t received, isn’t understood.  Is that surprising, do you think? - that when the Son of God speaks the message of God, which is a message of inclusion and acceptance and of forgiving and healing and reconciling love, it isn’t gladly received by all who hear;  that he preaches, and yet there’s opposition and, more to the point maybe, misunderstanding.  Some of the stories Jesus told address this very point, notably perhaps the parable of the sower, which compares what the preacher does to someone sowing seed on every part of his land. It’s all potentially good seed, but it doesn’t all grow well, and it doesn’t all bear fruit.

And, if you remember, when Jesus spoke about this parable to his disciples, he quoted the scripture about those who look and look, but do not perceive;  those who hear and hear, but fail to understand.  That’s how things are - yet the fact that not all the seed takes is no a reason to stop sowing it - that you still have to do.  Perhaps there’s also a note of challenge to the disciples themselves:  don’t be like that yourselves - work at this, put in the effort to listen and to understand, to be changed, and to grow.

When we read about the earthly ministry of Jesus we often find the disciples not listening, not understanding, failing really to absorb his teaching, but after Easter Day it’s a different world.  One of the features of the Easter stories is that we read a lot about eyes being opened;  we see people not recognising to begin with, but then the scales fall away.  And this isn’t just to do with what they see, but also what they hear.  Like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus - “didn’t our hearts burn within us, as he taught us along the way?”

To mention hearts prompts me to say that surely faith can never just be about being persuaded by intellectual argument or by factual analysis - there needs also to be an emotional investment.  You could say we need not just to listen to the words, but to sing the whole song.  Or that Jesus doesn’t just argue us into faith, he also loves us into faith;  and those aren’t two separate strands to his teaching, it’s all one.  As someone, maybe the great William Barclay, said: “Jesus was himself the message he preached.”  In the precious time between the resurrection and the ascension, the disciples had experienced that to the full;  but now their Lord was gone from them, gone with a blessing and with a promise, but no longer with them in the way he had been.  But he has told them to wait.  To wait in Jerusalem, and to wait in prayer, for the new thing that God would soon be doing among them.  For his wonderful gift of himself, as Holy Spirit.

Wait in prayer.  We tend very often to use a lot of words in our prayer times, but I suspect there wouldn’t have been a lot of words in the prayers of the disciples over that time.  It’s right of course that we should use words in prayer, whether that prayer be praise, or penitence, of petition, for God wants to hear what we have to tell him, or ask him, or even beg of him.  But prayer is (or should be) conversation.  And good conversation can’t happen without listening. Sometimes the listening is far more important than the speaking.  For the disciples of Jesus, this was surely one of those times.

I came across a rather jokey piece a while back in a manazine which ranked voices: which voices were listened to with most attention?  Preachers didn’t come too high on the list, if I remember rightly, but they were some way ahead of politicians, even so.  Stand-up comedians came higher than preachers, but the real winners were satnavs and bingo callers.  Interesting, don’t you think?  Satnavs and bingo callers.

I rarely use the satnav in my car, but when I do I sit fairly lightly to what it tells me.  Clearly that’s not true of everyone, since I know a chap who lives along a narrow lane, and often there are big lorries stuck up there trying to turn round because (quote) “that’s where the satnav brought me.”  For better or for worse, some people are prepared to place themselves completely at the disposal of their satnav when they travel. It’s as if they no longer belong to themselves, but to the disembodied voice on the top of the dashboard.

While that seems daft to me, but it does say something important about real listening, and about prayerful waiting such as the disciples were doing in Jerusalem: it needs to involve a measure of letting go - letting go of our own autonomy, lowering the barriers that normally we raise around our selves.  It’s about taking the risk of faith.  How well founded that faith may be when it comes to satnavs is one thing - but the disciples knew they could trust their Lord.

So they waited, and they waited in listening mode, so that when it happened, whatever it was that was going to happen, they’d be ready.  I’m sure they were also speaking words of prayer, and reading words of scripture, and singing words of praise, but the words weren’t as important as the listening.  And this was real listening, now; self-offering, and purposeful.  No longer were they just passively hearing as they sort of drifted along;  now they were attending, getting themselves tuned in.  They were taking the risk of faith, and opening themselves to the possibility, no, to the certainty of change.

And here’s where to leave it for now, perhaps.  Next week is Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, and the birth day of the Church.  “Be still, and know that I am God,” - the words of the Psalmist.  Sometimes it’s good for us just to take the time to wait;  always, I think, it’s good for us to take the time and make the effort to train ourselves up in the discipline of listening - so that we’re able to listen well to one another, and to those to whose voices we need to attend, because they need us to respond and perhaps then to speak for them;  and to the voice, sometimes the still small voice, of our Lord.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Having Moved

We've just moved house.  We liked our old place, but we like where we are now too - but it's a different world, having moved.  We're a different household, with one more member than before, and there's some settling in to do, not just in terms of finding our way about the premises, and getting to know the neighbours, but also in finding a sustainable and enjoyable - and ultimately fruitful - way of living together.

Years ago I remember reading Bonhoeffer's little book on community life.  This morning I was listening to an interesting radio interview on renunciation.  Living together (the title, if I recall it correctly, of Bonhoeffer's book, which I no longer have to hand) requires some measure of renunciation.  I can't do everything I want to, I have other people's welfare and happiness to consider too.  But one of the wise things said this morning was that it is as we renounce our selves that we find our selves.  There are those who are called to a genuinely solo, and perhaps eremetical, existence, but for most of us the self is formed and re-formed in the various patterns of relationship and community through which we travel, or so it seems to me.