Friday, 28 June 2013


I had a dream of running
blood, of stone columned terraces filled with
snarling and baying faces, of whips and nails and spears.
The stench of it all seemed to stay in my nostrils,
the noise of it still rang in my ears
even as I awoke to dappled sun behind my curtains
and the gentle murmur of a distant dove.

Perhaps I read too much history,
and perhaps I think about it more than I should; anyway,
praise the Lord that today we live in a calmer clime; there are
no Christians thrown to the lions in these parts,
no tiered crowds to delight in the violent spectacle
acted out in the arena beneath them, and
to cheer on every hurt inflicted.

These days we stay at home, and watch the soaps.

Thursday, 27 June 2013


My most recent 'Nature Notes' :-

I was watching some young jackdaws the other day, and was reminded that this was an annual delight when we lived in Minsterley, as they always nested in the locality.  Indeed, living as we did in an old Victorian house, it was an ongoing battle to prevent them nesting in any of the many chimneys, and the protective mesh had to be regularly checked.  For someone I know, failure to prevent this resulted in two young jackdaws, plus amounts of soot, arriving unexpectedly in the lounge, via the fireplace (you can imagine the mess).  More commonly, the chimney just gets blocked.

Outdoors, the young jackdaws were as ungainly as any other young bird, but of course much bigger than most.  They had much to learn, but the parents always seemed attentive and watchful.  It can be a stressful life as a young jackdaw, as viewers of this year’s ‘Springwatch’ programmes will know: two young birds were mercilessly harassed by a couple of adult birds who it seems wanted the nest, though these youngsters did seem to be fighting back pretty well.  But for social birds like jackdaws, pecking orders and argumentative neighbours are just part of the scene.

Jackdaws are black-plumaged with a distinctive grey nape, and typical habitats might be cliffs and derelict buildings, but also woodland and open country.  They are of course members of the crow family, smaller than ravens, rooks and carrion crows, but still pretty big.  They are very happy to live close to people, and jackdaws used to visit our feeders in a previous garden, but without much success, being too big and ungainly to access them, despite scaring most of the smaller birds away.

Away from human habitation, jackdaws will exploit holes of any sort, including rabbit burrows sometimes, as nest sites, though they will build nests in more exposed situations.  Nests are untidy, made of twigs lined with grass, hair and wool.  Jackdaws have been known to pluck wool for their nests from the backs of grazing sheep.  Like other members of the crow family, jackdaws will steal and collect shiny objects.

Jackdaws lay between three and seven eggs, which are incubated by the female, with the male making sure she is fed on the nest.  The young fledge at about a month old.  The jackdaw’s “jack” cry gives it its name - my great-aunt, who had a pet one, told me she’d taught it to speak, but I only ever heard it say its name, which as it happens was Jack, which fell some way short of convincing proof.  Jack had a liking for bits of apple and for ham sandwiches, I seem to recall.

In the wild jackdaws eat a wide range of foods, including grain, fruit and insects and invertebrates.  They eat carrion, competing with magpies and carrion crows for roadkill.  They will also take young birds and eggs, though they represent a danger mainly to inexperienced young parents whose nests are not well hidden.

Jackdaws are common throughout the UK, and are present all year, sometimes in very large flocks.  Numbers are increased by continental birds that winter here.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013


I am not sure why I should have such a fear of moths,
knowing them to be harmless, but, alas, I do.
Nor do I know what it is
that so alarms me - perhaps the size of the body,
gross against the slim form of the butterfly,
perhaps the pulse that I seem to sense in the brown and grey moth wings,
when forced to touch or hold them.  Today’s moth,
encountered while mowing the lawn,
I could identify:  a yellow underwing, scrambling helplessly about,
nervously flashing the bright yellow beneath its upper browns, but
seemingly unable to fly very far, and in my way.
This moth was beautiful, I suppose, but also very big -
but also not to be destroyed.  It took a lot of nerve
to stop and scoop it up, but I am glad I did.
It lifted out of my trembling hands, to fall rather than fly
down onto that part of the lawn I had already mowed:
a life saved (for now) despite my fear.  And a small hooray as, settling into its new refuge,
the moth quickly hid the bright yellow of its lower wings, to become
just one more withered leaf, snagged in the shortened grass.


I had heard him before seeing him
along the narrow chalk stream,
that disturbed and distinctive cry
that rippled through to my spine.  In fact
there wasn’t much to see,
just a flash of electric blue,
a tiny bird made larger by its brightness, but still
gone too quickly for those walking with me to see.

We were walking quiet paths in search of a pub lunch,
on an early summer’s day of dappled sunshine
and vivid greens, of dustings of lady’s lace along the hedgerows
and, as we rounded one shaded corner,
a cascade of long-tailed tits flitting through the alders.

And it had already been, I think,
my happiest day of the year - and yet I’d have traded all the rest,
every bit of it,
for that one single flash of blue fire.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Morning Prayer

Under a perfect sky
every leaf’s gold-splashed with morning dew
curlew and cuckoo calling
pigeons clapping their wings in soaring and tumbling flight
I see
mayflies dance their ephemeral waltz above the slow waters
I hear
a sedge warbler chirr from the bright jumble of kingcup and yellow flag
I taste
a myriad scents that mingle in the gentle air.

And if heaven is not something at least a bit like this
then I shall feel sorely cheated.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Thoughts on Prophecy

A Sunday talk . . .

Jesus talked to his disciples about being like light, and salt, and yeast.  Small things that maybe work quietly and unobtrusively, but which make a real difference where they’re used.  I preached about this somewhere else last week, and I talked about how even a small light, a single candle perhaps, drives back the dark and makes a place brighter, better and indeed safer.  I talked about how a little bit of salt can bring out the flavour of the tomato on my sandwich, or the fish and chips in my paper.  I talked about the way just a pinch of yeast allows my dough to rise and to become something than can be baked into a loaf of bread.  And part at least of the task of the Christian disciple is to work in quiet ways, and not to our own glory but to God’s glory, to make the world around us a better place, more light and more loving.

But then thinking it over later, it occurred to me that light and salt and maybe even yeast can also be troublesome things. Of course we know that too much light can be an instrument of torture, and too much salt can swamp and spoil the flavour rather than bring it out, and too much yeast will produce something sour and inedible.  But even in smaller quantities, light and salt and yeast can be a bit troublesome.  Light shows up things we might prefer stayed hidden away.  Salt gets into sore or wounded places and makes them smart.  Yeast changes the shape of things and forces the components of my loaf of bread to work together in ways they otherwise might not.  These images show up another necessary part of the ministry of the Christian disciple.  Christians are called to be troublesome sometimes and not just nice, because we are called to bring the truth of God into places where just perhaps that truth is denied or distorted.  One word for this is prophecy.  Christians and the Church, capital C, are called to a prophetic ministry.  So what does that mean?

There were lots of prophets in the Old Testament days.  Our Bibles hold the writings of some of them, and tell the stories of others.  Prophets had a place in the courts of kings, and in the decisions made by great men.  So let’s look for a moment or two at two prophets who were around at the same time as each other, but whose prophecies followed dramatically different paths.

One of these prophets was Hananiah, and the other was Jeremiah. They were both important and well known figures within the court of the king - and this at a time when, politically speaking, things were tense and worrisome in the little kingdom of Judea.  The Babylonians whose empire lay to the north were flexing their muscles. They’d already carried the previous king and many of his people into exile, along with a substantial part of the temple treasury.  Faced with this situation, Jeremiah was saying 'Things must not go on as they are.  We need to face up to the truth.  We've let God down, and now we are being punished for that.  It's his will that Babylon should conquer us.'  That’s what Jeremiah was saying;  Hananiah, on the other hand, was saying something quite different, along the lines of: 'Don't worry. You know that God will always be on our side, because we are his special people.  So of course he won't allow the Babylonians to win. Everything will be all right.'

In our New Testaments we can read St Paul’s warning to Timothy about the false teachers whose words would, as he said, 'tickle the ears' of those who heard them.  Of course it's always a big temptation for a speaker or preacher to say things that will please his audience.  Everyone likes to be liked.  To his cost Jeremiah discovered that if you say things people don't want to hear they won't like you.  They may even attack you.  But these were the words God had given him to say - they burned inside him, and he couldn’t be silent.

That's what being a prophet is like, or should be like.  There’s an important and valid Christian ministry of comforting and soothing, of affirming and supporting.  We are to be bearers of good news, and good news should be a good thing to hear, a comfort and a strength.  But not at the expense of the truth.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be nice all the time?  The Christian Church continues to be very much part of the establishment of our nation, so that all kinds of civic and national events have a Christian religious content; so that bishops still sit in the House of Lords, and officiate at royal weddings, and crown a new king or queen.  I don’t have a problem with that, unless being part of the establishment means you’re expected to give uncritical support and blessing to whoever is in power and to whatever they might choose to do.

Because that's the sort of thing the prophet Hananiah was doing.  It’s also what he said God ought to be doing. If we're God's people then it's his job to stand beside us and fight for us:  that's more or less what Hananiah had to say.  But when Jeremiah talks about God he talks about him in very different terms.  Jeremiah talks about a holy God, about the righteous God who calls from his people a standard of holiness and righteousness that is a match for his.  St Paul is saying something very similar when he writes about becoming slaves to righteousness.  If instead we choose to go our own way, if instead we choose to live in a way that denies God's justice and righteousness, we can't expect him to come and bail us out of trouble whenever we ask him to.

I'm sure that when Jesus talked to his disciples about being light and salt and yeast he was urging them to take hold of the truth and to speak it and act it out in a prophetic way. Faith that’s a living faith has to be do much more than a safety net or a comfort blanket or a spare time hobby - it ask of us nothing less than the whole of our life.

Faith that’s a living faith will be the faith of a prophet.  A prophetic Church will be ready to comfort the afflicted, but part of its brief is also to afflict the comfortable;  it will be quick to bind up the wounds of those who are hurt, but will also be salt to aggravate a few wounds where people are too apathetic to see their neighbour's need or too self-obsessed to recognise their own responsibility.

What will that mean in practice?  It means that the Church, capital C, must never be afraid of unpopularity, for it must always be on the side of the truth.  The prophet is the one who sees the bad things that happen and doesn’t turn aside from that;  who hears the voices of those who are weak and powerless, and responds, and speaks for them, and pleads their cause.  Politicians may say, “Keep out of our world of politics”; and others will say the same, from their own positions of entrenched self-interest.  But the Church has a duty not only to seek out the lost and the hurt and to bind up wounds, but to challenge the people and the policies that do damage.  That’s a political task perhaps, but it isn’t a party political task.  The Church has to be independent of party politics, for we serve a higher master than any earthly ruler.

Should the individual Christian be a member of a political party?  Personally, I’m not, and I’ve cast my vote for many a different party in my time.  But of course an individual Christian can be a member of the political party of his or her choice - and I’ve met many politicians who are marvellously inspired and motivated by their active Christian faith.  But as with our membership of any organisation, I think that Christians should always be somewhat uncomfortable members - active, hard working, encouraging, supportive, all of those things, but never so tied to our allegiance to any one cause that it takes precedence over our allegiance to our Lord.  Sometimes our faith will require us to challenge things that are wrong.  Sometimes other people won’t like that.

But while a prophetic Church will always praise, applaud, encourage and pray blessing upon the things that are good in the world around us, the prophetic mantle we inherit is that of Jeremiah and not of Hananiah.  So easy to turn a blind eye, but we must never do that.  So easy too to go along with the crowd, to say the popular and populist things that everyone else is saying, but we must never do that either.  So easy to pass by on the other side, and you may remember that in the parable Jesus told that’s exactly what the expected good guys, the priest and the Levite, chose to do.

But where would that leave us?  I’m reminded here of the well-known piece by the German pastor Martin Niemoller, who was imprisoned by the Nazis and became a symbol of peace and reconciliation in the post-War German church:

First they came for the communists,
 and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
 and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
 and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
 and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
 and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Catholic.
Then they came for me,
 and there was no one left to speak for me.

We must never keep silence about the things that are wrong, about the abuses of power, the distortions of the truth, the injustices that mar the face of the world.  It's no excuse to claim that they don’t directly impinge on our lives or the places where we happen to live.  Anything that hurts other people, that cripples other lives, that damages other parts of our world has to be our business, because it is our Lord’s business, and we are his people.

Christ continues to call us to be lights in the world, to the glory of God - lights to comfort and reassure, lights for joy and safety and peace, but also lights to reveal and challenge and change the things that other people try to hide, and the deeds that are born of darkness.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Telling the Faith

Another Sunday talk . . .

I remember that once when I was very small my grandfather took me to see a launch at the shipyard where he worked on the banks of the River Tyne.  I stood in a big crowd of people to watch the bottle smash against the hull of the new ship.  And then nothing happened.  Not straight away, and not for quite some time.  In fact, in my youthful naivety I began to suspect things had somehow gone badly wrong, but of course that wasn’t so.  It’s just that some things take a while to get moving.  And yes, at last I could see that the hull was moving, moving very slowly at first, almost too slowly to see, but moving. And then the newly named vessel gathered pace on its maiden journey down the slipway, to slide smoothly into the river to the shouts and cheers of the crowd.

I used that story a few weeks ago when I preached in another chapel on Trinity Sunday.  It came into my mind on that occasion because I found I wanted to think about naming things - and of course every new ship gets named at its launch.  But perhaps there’s also a lesson to take away from the slowness of it all;  things were happening straight away in fact, once the vessel had been released from the chocks that held it - but from where I was standing there was nothing to see, nothing changing, no movement.  In my innocence I’d imagined a sudden dash down the slipway and a great splash into the river, almost as soon as the bottle had hit, but it isn’t like that.  A giant pile of metal like that is going to take some time to start moving.

This theme of things that happen unseen is one that Jesus returned to again and again as he taught his disciples and the crowds that came out to hear him.  He told them stories about hidden things that became revealed or discovered, like the pearl of great price, or the seed that grows in secret.  He told them stories about little things that have a big impact, like the mustard seed that grows to be a huge great plant.

And Jesus called his own disciples his ‘little flock’. He told them they must be like salt and yeast - they must be like the small and hidden things that make a big and crucial difference when they’re put to use.

St Paul described the work of an apostle as planting seeds from which others will reap a harvest. The one who starts the process off may very well not see things through to fruition.  Maybe from where he’s standing nothing seems to be happening, despite all his hard work and careful planning, despite all his prayers, even.

But things are happening, even so;  seeds grow in secret. Of course, some of the seed may not grow at all, or at least not fruitfully, as we know from a reading of the Parable of the Sower.  But the sower’s work must still be done.  For if the seed hasn’t been sown, nothing can ever grow; and if the word hasn’t been proclaimed, then no-one will ever respond.

Reality today, for the churches of our land with their history of being large and secure, is one of having to come to terms with being little flocks, even perhaps just barely hanging on, with a future that looks anything but certain.  It could feel like an inescapable decline, and it certainly does involve a real loss of influence and position and security.  Perhaps, though, the picture isn’t as bleak as it may look from where we’re standing.  The shape of the Church, capital ‘C’ is changing, but meanwhile my experience is that people are still asking big questions about faith. One form of worship and of church organisation may be in decline, but meanwhile other ways of being Christians together emerge and grow. Of course it’s also no longer true that Christianity’s the only faith option in town - that can feel uncomfortable and even a bit threatening to those of us with a long history in church or chapel, but in a way it’s only a return to the situation in which the mission of the first apostles began.

The work of mission is essential, be the Church large or small, because it is the Church’s raison d’etre. The German theologian Emil Brunner once said that the Church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning. That’s a good comparison, for if the Church isn’t doing mission, then its fire has gone out. But how are we to do mission today, and what sort of return will we see, and when?

Well:  churches are organisations, and so they’re organised;  sometimes they’re so organised that the organisation of things matters more than anything else.  I’ve been in churches like that, anyway.  How do we do mission?  Let’s organise ourselves to do it.  Let’s look at methodology, lets set a few targets, let’s train some people up and commission them and give them special titles.  Maybe we’ll be really serious, and do a feasibility study and a cost-benefit analysis;  oh - probably we ought to stick a health and safety audit in there too.  And we’ll need a committee and quite probably a few sub-committees too.  And a budget.  And an archdeacon or a moderator or a chairman of district, someone like that to chair the working party.  Goodness, there’s the advertising to sort out as well.  We’ll need a catchy slogan;  let’s see if we can get some air time;  and how about a big service in a football stadium, just to start things off? I wonder why Jesus didn’t think of all that?  You’d think he would have.

Let’s look at what he did do, when at one point in his ministry he sent his disciples out to prepare the way.  He said to them, you won’t need much, in fact take as little with you as you can get away with.  It’ll only get in the way if you have too much.  And then, just do and say things that’ll make a positive difference:  feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit those in prison . . . love your neighbour.  Mission should be the natural activity of the Church, but that doesn’t mean we all need to stand on soap boxes to do it.  St Francis told his followers: preach the word at all times, and where necessary, use words.

Much of the best mission is wordless.  It’s about loving our neighbour;  it’s about walking the extra mile;  it’s about daring to be a bit different from those around us, though without making a big thing of it.  After all, mission never says “Hey, look at me” - it’s always about Jesus.

Light, salt, yeast - the images used by our Lord.  None of these things is about making a fundamental change, they’re all about making what’s already there that bit better, that bit tastier.  Sunlight through a stained glass window brings the colours to life;  a single candle burning in a dark room drives back the dark, so we can find our way and see all the things that are there, and, I suppose, not bump into things too much.  A grain or two of salt will make my salad tomatoes taste much more tomatoey, or my fish and chips like fish and chips really should.  And just a grain or two of yeast will allow the things I mix together to make my loaf of bread achieve their full potential.

There’s no need to be too heavy about this.  Too much light simply dazzles, or indeed becomes painful, it can even be used as a form of torture.  Too much salt, and my tomatoes don’t taste of tomatoes any more, they just taste of salt.  The same with yeast:  too much, and the loaf rises too quickly and just tastes sour.  In fact, of course there are times when the churches of a place need a big mission push, so in reality all the planning and organisation I made such fun of earlier can be good and have a purpose - but even then, if the quiet work of yeasty and salty mission isn’t going on before and during and especially after the big event, then all those big plans will have gone for not very much at all.

In fact, any big declarations in mission that we make as churches stand or fall by what people see of the local Christians they know, or the local churches or chapels they may occasionally attend.  We are the measure by which the message is judged to be true or false.

That feels like a big ask, and it is.  It would no doubt be better if mission was something we held back on until we were sure we had the strength and the resources and the courage and the cash to really do it.  But in fact everything we are and do as Christians is mission.  It isn’t that we’re either doing mission or we aren’t, so much as that we’re doing it all the time, sometimes well, sometimes badly.  All that we are and do either proclaims Jesus as Lord, or else doesn’t.  In which case, it’s sort of negative mission, isn’t it?  I was cut up quite badly the other day by a car with a fish emblem on the back - there was a bit of negative mission, if you like.

But, thinking back to the story of Jesus sending his disciples out - he sent them to the towns and villages he was intending to visit himself.  And that’s still the case.  There isn’t anywhere we go in mission, nowhere we get sent to, that Jesus isn’t going to himself.  I’m reminded of something written by a missionary of a century or more ago, who had gone into dark and pagan places to take the light of Christ.  Or that’s what he thought he’d been doing - but in his memoirs he noted how again and again he found his Lord already at work in the places he travelled to preach the Gospel, and in the hearts of those to whom he preached.

And, to repeat what I’ve already said, often there won’t be anything much for us to see, but that doesn’t mean that nothing is happening.  We sow the seed, someone else may reap the harvest;  or, we knock away the chocks on the slipway, but it may be a while before anyone can tell that the ship is moving.  A former colleague of mine, when visiting his local hospital as a young curate, once called to see a parishioner who at the time was quite rude and resentful, and didn’t want to be bothered by God or by anyone working for him.  Years later, revisiting the church where he’d served his curacy, he found that the man he’d visited that day was now one of the churchwardens.  That day, unknown to himself, he’d planted a seed of faith that eventually blossomed big time.

I had a similar experience.  When clergy take weddings and funerals - and even baptisms, for that matter, a lot of the people in church look bored, uncomfortable and even hostile at times.  They don’t want to be in a church;  they’re just there because they have to be, or maybe they’re just there for the beer and sandwiches afterwards. It’s tempting for the minister - and for the regular churchfolk there too - to write off such people, or maybe not to try too hard.  I hope that’s not been true of me, but if it has, I should stand corrected by someone I came across in a church not far from here, who told me his conversion began with something I said in the address I gave at a wedding he happened to attend.  I don’t even remember the event;  I’m just glad that on that one occasion, the Lord was able to use me.  Maybe there were other I’ll never hear about, who knows?

But there are other stories I could tell you, such as the lady who eventually started coming to church despite her own doubts and inhibitions just because her neighbour who did attend always seemed so happy and positive and helpful, so much so that she started wondering why.  Or the chap out walking his dog who each Sunday used to pass the time of day with a neighbour on her way to church.  Their greeting was the same each time:  “Say one for me while you’re there!” he used to say.  “Why don’t you come yourself some time?” she’d reply.  “Maybe I will and surprise you!” he would always say back.  And one day he did;  and the next week he brought his wife;  and the week after her brother came, with his wife;  and then his wife’s parents started coming;  and ultimately the church grew by ten or eleven souls because of that one encounter.

Well, God moves in mysterious ways, but always exciting ways as well - and it is his work, of course, and not ours.  All we need do, but we must do it, is to keep sowing the seed, not by saying a lot, but just being Christ-like in our thinking and in our acting, and adding a bit of salt or a bit of yeast to the mix.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Thoughts on Trees

My "Nature Notes" article for this month :-

We’re very fortunate in that our new garden backs onto woodland, and so as we look down from our veranda there’s a green wall on the other side of the flower beds, providing lots of hiding places for birds and squirrels.  It’s quite a varied patchwork of green;  there are many different species of tree here - oak, sycamore, rowan, wild cherry, crab apple, a good stand of laurel that ensures some green leaves all the year round, elder just waiting to come into flower, and, planted at our garden edge, pyrocanthus, rhododendron (beautifully in flower as I write this), various blossom trees and what looks to us like a climbing hydrangea.

But the trees I want to dwell on specifically are two that are a cause for concern:  ash and elm.  Since elm trees have more or less disappeared from much of the UK, thanks to the depredations of Dutch elm disease, I was delighted to see a mature specimen directly at the back of our garden.  It has flowered and fruited well this year, and looks very healthy (see picture above).  Has the dreaded disease simply not found it out yet, I wonder - or is it one of those fortunate trees that has a natural immunity to it?  I hope for the latter.  I hear that there’s a scheme under way to establish cuttings taken from disease-resistant elms in settings throughout the UK, n the hope that one day the elm can be once again be as familiar a sight as it is in, say, the paintings of John Constable.  The young trees will be carefully monitored, and I hope the project meets with success.

There are several ash trees in our patch of woodland, and now we have ash die-back disease to contend with, a disease that has already been identified in Wales, where it seems usually to be associated with the import of young saplings.  It astonishes me that we should have felt we needed to import saplings of a tree that reproduces so readily in this country that I must have pulled up over a hundred baby ash trees already since moving in here, growing in gravel paths, plant pots and even in one untended gutter.  The answer, presumably, is all to do with money, and sometimes what seems to be cheap is in fact ruinously expensive.

There are indications that warnings were ignored from conservationists and foresters  - though I suppose it’s easy to be wise after the event, and deciding which warnings, out of the many that cross the desks of environment ministers and their staff, should receive a prompt response can’t be easy.  If there is any cause for hope it’s that ash reproduces so well and is a comparatively quick-growing young tree.  Given a natural immunity within our ash stocks, they should recover in time, and perhaps, as with elms, a helping hand can be given.  However, although dead trees have their own wildlife benefits (ask any woodpecker, if you can prise him away from the nut feeders in your garden), it would be sad to see the old standard ash trees bare and dead that are such a familiar feature of our field edges and the turnings in our lanes.

And you can’t help but wonder - what next, for the ancient and lovely trees of our green and pleasant land?

Saturday, 1 June 2013


A surprise on June 1st to still have a daffodil in bloom in our garden.  Here it is, photographed this morning :-