Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Bird Report

Lovely today to have our garden full of blackbirds!  We record the birds we see on a form supplied by our local Wildlife Trust, with a 1 for a bird seen only once at a time, 2 where two or more of a species are seen at the same time, and 3 where we manage to see ten or more all at once.  For the first time ever, blackbirds scored a ten (I counted eleven, in fact), and therefore got marked 3 on the list, to join blue tits and chaffinches.

They were gorging themselves on rowan berries, so I suppose they'll soon move on - there aren't very many left.  I had put out some bits of apple too, but the squirrels seem to have made off with most of those.  We've also had a bullfinch and a goldfinch today, always nice to see them, and a great spotted woodpecker has started to visit our nut feeder.  It's lovely to watch the birds, but sometimes a bit of an effort to keep up with their appetites!

Changing Addresses

Ann and I needed to change the address details on Ann's Mum's account with the Co-op Bank today.  It should have been simple, but wasn't, because we didn't have either the four digit code or the special secret word that was demanded.  We did have ourselves, bank statements, utility bills for our previous and current addresses, passports, driving licences and a copy of our joint lasting power of attorney and the bank's letter confirming to us that this had been registered two years ago. THANK YOU to the lovely lass at the branch who refused to accept the decision from above that access should be refused because we didn't have the four digit code. THANK YOU to the chap she eventually managed to speak to who actually seemed prepared to put his brain into gear and do something. The whole process, if that isn't too grand a term, took the best part of an hour!  We went on from there to change the address details on Ann's account at Santander, just across the road. It took five minutes.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Living Town Centres

I enjoy town centres, the bustle, the shops, the events and activities.  Even here in Welshpool, which is a town too small to have a really bustling town centre.  Recently our town centre fruit and veg shop closed, and, since there's no market stall selling fruit and veg, only the supermarkets (three large, two small) remain. Our last remaining shoe shop is likely to follow. Coffee shops abound, as do hairdressers, beauty salons and charity shops. But I still enjoy a wander round town, even if the element of choice isn't as much there as it was.

Here's a thought, though. Wherever I've travelled overseas, town centre shops seem to be open into the evening. So why aren't they here? That's surely when working folk are free. Instead, all our town centre shops seem to close just when people are free. I can think of lots of good reasons why we don't open town centre shops into the evening, of course - shop staff want to get home for their tea like everyone else, for a start. Even so, the idea of opening shops in the morning, then closing through the afternoon and opening between - say - four and eight or nine might be worth looking at. Most retail staff in town centre stores seem to be part-timers, so I doubt there would be much increase in staff costs, and it might just bring in more custom.

Of course, you'd really need a whole town to try this out together, with the local council and chamber of commerce and whatever other bodies might be appropriate giving it all a bit of a push. Maybe it's the sort of project that might attract some central funding, as a test run that could be assessed and written up, and from which lessons could be learned, for good or bad. After all, it isn't just that town centres are empty after about six in the evening; the fact is, they've often turned into no-go areas, with many older people, and families with young children too, choosing not to venture into what they perceive as being a hostile environment. Open shops, with a bit of a promotional push, perhaps a bit of street theatre or a special market, might just change all that, and reclaim our town centres for the people.

In fact, in my experience town centres in the evening aren't all that scary now, although Fridays and Saturdays can be a bit of a pain. But the perception widely shared is that once the shops are closed they're not a nice place to be. So why not try out evening opening somewhere - please - and let's see what happens!

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Bad Dream

I had a really bad dream last night.  Like many such, it was a dream dreamt after my first waking-up, after I'd drifted off again for a bit of an extra snooze before getting up.  It was very precise and realistic, full of detail;  I was, I believe, in Mablethorpe for some reason, and, while I've no reason to believe that the town in my dreams resembled the Mablethorpe of the real world, a place I've only visited once in my life and then very briefly, and long ago, it was very convincing - a solid town in other words, not some strange shimmering dreamscape.

It was a very frightening dream, frightening within the dream itself, but scarier still when I awoke, since it took some time for my mind to convince itself that the events of the dream were not real. I had been accused of some appalling crimes, and as I stood accused I could not remember whether or not I had actually done any of that stuff, but knew I had no defence, no alibi or mitigation.  Effectively, my life was over; no-one, not even my closest friends, not even my family, would stand by me or speak up for me.  Indeed, I could not even speak up for myself.

To wake up in that frame of mind did not make for the easiest of starts to my day, to be honest (no surprise, I suppose). The moments before I realised that that was dream, this is reality and in the real world I am (reasonably) safe and secure, and indeed supported and loved - they really were quite scary, and they left me feeling jittery and insecure for the rest of the morning.

I am inclined to take dreams seriously - perhaps not in the sense of many of the dreams of scripture, which convey messages, sometimes in code and needing a Joseph or a Daniel for interpretation, and sometimes very clear and direct, but nonetheless the dream comes from somewhere, and I think that somewhere is somewhere within myself, not somewhere else seeking to communicate with me.  This means that understanding my dreams may help me to understand my deepest self, for I am sure that our hopes and our fears find expression in dreams. Dreams may find their themes in the things that are preying on our minds, but I guess that sometimes it's deeper than that, the fears that are affecting and afflicting us but have been pushed too far down for our conscious mind to really be aware.

I wonder exactly what motivated last night's dream?  I do not intend to try for an interpretation here and now, partly because it would take too long, and partly because I'm not sure that anyway it would be something I would be capable on my own of doing.  But I feel it would be wrong for me to dismiss it and try to forget it either.  I have some exploring to do, with my therapist to help me - not, though, so I can fall into line with what this or any dream may require of me (there's no reason why I should be in any way beholden to dreams), but so that I can discern the fears and fractures that have produced such a dream, and then begin to deal with them.

Self-possession and self-control depend on our self-awareness.  We were not made to be held in the grip of fears, and as John reminds all who have faith, "Perfect love casts out fear."  I'm glad to say that I have many more good dreams than bad ones, and few ever that disturb me as much as last night's. But to just turn away from it would, I think, mean that something within me that needs to be understood and dealt with is remaining untackled.

Monday, 11 November 2013


Yesterday I spoke at a service in a little chapel set in rolling borders countryside, and it was a delight to be there as always, with an enthusiastic congregation, good singing and a real sense of a family gathered to worship.  But what made it better still was the bright sunshine and the autumn colours through the windows.  I enjoy the stained glass windows of our ancient churches, but there are times when the clear glass of the chapel window provides the more inspiring and uplifting image.

I hadn't been back home for long before I felt the clear and unmistakeable first intimations of a cold coming on, and by the end of the afternoon my head was pounding and my nose streaming.  I felt quite wretched all evening, with the occasional mighty sneeze to disturb the rest of the household.  Thankfully, though, I slept well and this morning already feel very much on the mend.

But I've taken the day off even so.  Ann, my wife, is recovering from an operation, and so she needs me to be well as quickly as possible.  And it is nice to have a bit of time to play with, time just to be still in for a while.  At this time of the year especially, as the hours of daylight approach their shortest point, we become all too aware of how busy our lives can get, and how little time we get to be attentively still in.

"What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?"  -  in the words of W.H. Davies.

A friend who phoned this morning was telling me that, her lift to church yesterday having been cancelled, she'd gone for a walk up the hill instead and taken time just to stand and be still, surrounded by the bright autumn colours in the morning sunshine.  Today isn't sunny, but it seems a gentle and soft day, a day in which the colours don't shine so much, but blur together in attractive ways.  I think I'll sit outside for a while (well wrapped up, of course, but the fresh air will I think do my cold some good), and watch the birds on the feeders in our back garden, and the occasional leaf drifting down.  There's plenty to do, but tomorrow is time enough for all that.

Sunday, 10 November 2013


This may seem a strange and somewhat counter-intuitive statement to make in a blog, but I do find myself increasingly feeling that I would like out from the world of digital technology, and back to a simpler time when maybe less was at our fingertips but our engagement with the world and with one another was more wholesome and genuine.

Don't get me wrong;  I am an enthusiastic user of technology, and I do much of my work on-line.  I love the fact that I can find out all kinds of things, make all kinds of contacts, buy all kinds of commodities, here at my keyboard.  A few months ago, I needed a hat . . . well, wanted one, anyway:  a black fedora.  I drove the eighteen miles to Shrewsbury and searched every shop that sold hats, and a fair few that I thought should but turned out not to.  Nowhere could I find a black fedora that would fit me, and that a retired former cleric could actually afford.

Back home, on-line, I found and ordered a hat within fifteen minutes, and paid what seemed to me an unbeatably low price.  The hat turned up two days later, and fitted perfectly.  I'm not surprised the high street is dying, or at least changing rapidly from its traditional form (or at least, the form I've known all my life until now).  Actually, I will come back to high streets, as I have some thoughts and ideas, but that's for another time and another blog.  Anyway, I'm not surprised that high street shops are struggling to compete, but I'm sad.  High Street shopping when I was young was not just about buying things, but also about meeting people, and about being part of the bustle, part of the life of the place.

Ah, but I can meet people on-line, and so many more of them!  Leaving aside the fact of avatars and multiple personalities, and that how do you really know that the person you're conversing with as really who and what he or she claims to be (and leaving aside the fact that some people would say of that "Does it matter?"), while I can see some value in the way the internet enables interest-groups and networking, I worry about those people, those many people I think, for whom this has become their main means of social interaction.  New on-line communities may be springing up, but other real communities, geographically based and centred, are crumbling.  The internet isn't the only factor here of course - TV and other media, and the ease with which we can travel, and the simple fact that work patterns are much more complex than they used to be, all of this plays its part.  But the internet has rather hurried things up.

More so, of course, for people a generation or two below mine;  cyber-sex, cyber-bullying, the application of all kinds of pressure on malleable young minds - I worry about this, and so I think should you.  There is immense damage being done within the generation who are presently in their teens, and while I do not lack confidence in the ability of most young people to make their way through the minefield that is adolescence, it is I think much more of a minefield now than it was in my day.  The internet provides young people with so much more power than we ever had, the more so in this day of tablets and smart-phones;  and even though that power is often in reality spurious and false.

For this is what it comes down to, in my mind;  if we possess technology, then that's good, it gives us power, access, knowledge, opportunity . . . but what about when technology possesses us?  That, it seems to me, is what it will always try to do, as we give it more and more of our time and our commitment.  The wise will recognise the boundaries that need to be kept, the priorities that will need to be reviewed;  but not all of us are wise, or not in any case until after the event.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

A Sunday Talk

Malachi 4.1-2a; 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13; Luke 21.5-19 (set out below)

Some people were talking about the temple and the beauty of its fine stones and ornaments. Jesus said,  ‘These things you are gazing at—the time will come when not one stone will be left upon another; they will all be thrown down.’ ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘when will that be? What will be the sign that these things are about to happen?’

He said, ‘Take care that you are not misled. For many will come claiming my name and saying, “I am he,” and, “The time has come.” Do not follow them. And when you hear of wars and insurrections, do not panic. These things are bound to happen first; but the end does not follow at once.’ Then he added, ‘Nation will go to war against nation, kingdom against kingdom; there will be severe earthquakes, famines and plagues in many places, and in the sky terrors and great portents.

‘But before all this happens they will seize you and persecute you. You will be handed over to synagogues and put in prison; you will be haled before kings and governors for your allegiance to me. This will be your opportunity to testify. So resolve not to prepare your defence beforehand, because I myself will give you such words and wisdom as no opponent can resist or refute. Even your parents and brothers, your relations and friends, will betray you. Some of you will be put to death; and everyone will hate you for your allegiance to me. But not a hair of your head will be lost. By standing firm you will win yourselves life.’

Let me begin with a prayer appointed for this Sunday: “Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son was revealed to destroy the works of the devil and to make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life: grant that we, having this hope, may purify ourselves even as he is pure; that when he shall appear in power and great glory we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”

Yesterday I was taking part in a funeral service at the Methodist Chapel in Snailbeach, on the edge of the Stiperstones, and, despite the sadness of the occasion, also quite enjoying the chance to revisit a chapel in which I took services regularly over quite a few years.  Building on the side of a hill is never easy, and I couldn’t help but notice some scaffolding in place.  Without constant care and attention even the most solid-looking building will become weak;  and when any weakness is discovered, it’s important to get on with the job without delay and put things right. Some of the churches in which I’ve ministered and served have of course stood far longer than the chapel at Snailbeach;  in two, one of which is the parish church at Llandrinio, the stonework in part at least goes back to a time before the Norman Conquest.  For a millennium and more a church has stood in that place to testify to the reality of faith, and to the continual offering of prayer.

I was also of course a canon of the cathedral for a while, sharing with my colleagues in those days a responsibility for the maintenance of that ancient house of God.  Even in this secular age cathedrals are much visited;  across the country in fact cathedrals in general are I’m told receiving more visitors through the week, and more worshippers on a Sunday, year on year. And I think that even those who arrive in such a place with a camera but without a faith come to sense the sanctity of an ancient cathedral or for that matter a small and ancient shrine, the church at Pennant Melangell for example:  a place of prayer, in which the visitor feel, perhaps to their surprise, that they are somehow drawn closer to God.

A friend who does some summer chaplaincy work on odd days at a cathedral not far from here told me of the many conversations he has with people who’ve just come for a day out but have found more than they expected. Some of them have left with a real sense that their lives have been in some way transformed. People I suppose approached the temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Gospel with the same awe as people today show towards our great cathedrals.  The disciples of Jesus, we read, marvelled at the size of the stone blocks with which it was built.

But Jesus told them that not one stone would be left standing on another.  Perhaps he was specifically predicting the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple that in fact took place some thirty years later.  Or perhaps he was saying that however grand and beautiful a building, it will not stand unless the faith of those who build it is real.  Our great cathedrals look so solid, as though they could stand for ever.  But on Remembrance Sunday especially we know how quickly the madness of human conflict can lay waste the work of centuries of human endeavour;  I’ve visited both Coventry and Dresden and stood prayerfully in the ruined shells of great churches.

The great temple in Jerusalem was not of course the temple of Solomon - that was long gone, but the temple of Herod.  Herod, called Herod the Great, began building his temple a few years before the birth of Jesus, and in fact building would still have been going on at the time that Jesus was there. People really did believe that this temple would last for ever, and that it could never be destroyed;  but by 70 AD it lay in ruins, and the city at the heart of Israel’s relationship with her God had been razed to the ground.

In today’s reading, from St Luke’s Gospel, it was the comments people were making on the beauty of the temple's stones and dedication gifts that gave Jesus the cue to say the harsh words he did, words designed to undermine any confidence in the buildings. Certainly those of us who like myself love church buildings may well be challenged here.  I am again and again inspired when I visit holy places, and stand within stones that have faithfully borne witness to the gospel over many centuries.

Those verses I also read from the prophecy of Malachi provide a response for this. The prophet challenges any over-confidence we may place in our own abilities, and in the works of our own hands. We may stand within a precious building, whether a small chapel or a mighty temple; but we must put our trust not in stone and stained glass, but in God - in God for whose worship and to whose glory these places were built.

And this is surely true - that, just as we need to be swiftly attentive to any weakness in the building, the stone and the timber and the glass, so too we need to be swiftly and regularly attentive to any weakness in the spiritual building, in the community of faith, and in the individual Christian self.  I know just how true this can be, and how often it’s true that just when I’m looking good and feeling strong, I’m in fact often more at risk than ever of tripping up and falling.  We need to regularly examine our buildings;  we need also to regularly examine ourselves - and in both cases we need to look deeper than the surface.  Paul tells us that we must never weary of doing right;  in fact I almost lose count of the places in the letters of Paul where he speaks of the necessity of perseverance and of self-awareness before God.

Those hard words of Jesus challenge us to be faithful to God through thick and thin, to be wise and not misled.  And it will, he promises his hearers, be a tough time, a time when even the closest of friends, even one’s own family, may turn against us.  Let’s not forget that for some of our sisters and brothers across the Christian world today, this is what it is like. Persecution is real and harsh, and they would identify in a very personal way with the words of Malachi the prophet about staying true to God's name in a time of burning trial.

But those words from St Luke’s Gospel, though they speak of hard times, they’re also rich with promise. If we stay with our Lord, he will stay with us.  Buildings may be destroyed, possessions may be lost, but our faith is in the God whose love is eternal, and the sign of that love is the cross on which our Lord Jesus Christ lost everything, laid down everything, laid down even his own life, in order that he might open the gate to eternal life to all his people, and so that he himself might be crowned High King of Heaven.  We need have no fear of worldly destruction - even such terrible things as the destruction of Jerusalem and her temple, which I suppose would still have been fresh in the memory of those who first read St Luke’s Gospel and the words of Jesus he recorded there.

Worldly destruction is never the end, never the final curtain, when viewed in the light of heaven - though we, still pilgrims passing, as Psalm 23 reminds us, through the valley of the shadow of death, will still need a persevering faith, which will require us to examine ourselves and to encourage one another.  And problems and troubles and attacks on the faith are also opportunities, or perhaps I should say these events provide opportunities to testify to our Lord.  Jesus tells us that we will be called on to bear witness in unexpected places; he tells us also that if we trust and persevere and stand firm in faith, when the time comes God will provide us with the words we need.

Today this might chime in with memories of conflict and war, and of times when the whole world has felt dark and dangerous, and tomorrow was by no means guaranteed.  It might also chime in with our prayers for Christians who are suffering today:  perhaps in Syria, Iraq or Egypt, perhaps in Pakistan or in parts of India, perhaps in northern Nigeria. We read of the destruction of church buildings;  let us pray they may stand firm in faith.  I find an immense contrast in those verses from St Luke’s Gospel:  on the one hand, the temple will be destroyed so completely that not one stone will be left standing on another, and this will bring in a time of hopeless confusion, of dangers and trials; yet on the other hand Jesus promises those who stand firm that not one hair of their heads would perish.

This story has been repeated throughout the history of the Church, as one of our hymns reminds us: “Through many a day of conflict, through many a scene of strife, the faithful few fought bravely to guard the nation’s life”.  Perhaps in some places today those words will be sung, and people will think on the few who fought in the cause of freedom seventy years ago, and the names read out by war memorials this morning.  We honour them, and shall do in our prayers; but the hymn is really about the times when the Church has seemed in great danger of certain destruction, and the revival the begins with, and depends on, the perseverance of the few, those who stand firm in the faith.  Those who will not be knocked down, even when not one stone stands on another. May we stand with them, and may the light of Christ shine within us and shine out from us into the world he died to save.  Amen.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Light Bulbs

I switched on a light yesterday morning and tripped the circuit, because one of the three bulbs in a corridor light fitting blew.  In fact, one had already gone, so that left only one functioning bulb out of the three - time to get some new ones, therefore.  On investigation, the bulbs needed proved to be different from any existing bulbs in my store, despite the fitting itself being quite similar in appearance to several others in the house.  A special purchase was therefore needed, and made - but why have things become so complicated these days? We seem to have every different contemporary form of domestic light fitted somewhere in our house, and it's all a far cry from the Good Old Days when the only issue was 60 watt or 100, and clear or pearl.

The same proved to be true of our kitchen tap when it started dripping.  In the G.O.D. all that would have been required of me would have been to spend a few pence on a washer . . . but this was a modern lever tap with some sort of ceramic insert.  And can we find a replacement part? No, is the short answer - so it looks as though we'll be fitting a new tap, so long as I can find one that works in the old fashioned way that was always good enough for me.

Tonight I found myself reminiscing over the phone with my aunt about childhood days, and gas lamps, steam trains, slate boards to write and draw on at school, doorstep jam sandwiches at my Granny's house, sherbet dips from the corner shop, all kinds of memories of how things were back then.  Not that everything was better, and certainly there was less in the way of consumer choice available - but maybe now there can be rather more choice than any of us really needs.  At least as regards light bulbs and kitchen taps, I tend to find myself confused, frustrated, and also de-skilled, in our modern world.

Friday, 1 November 2013

All Saints

A teacher was asking her RE class, "What would I need, in order to be a saint?"  After a pause, a hand went up towards the back of the class.  "Yes, Emily?"  "Please, miss, you'd have to be dead!"

Maybe not the answer expected, but true all the same, I suppose - at least, of those famous men and women whom we remember with the title of 'saint'.  We have looked at their lives as a whole, and decided that there is some quality of holiness, of faithful perseverance, of kindness or courage, that we wish to honour and to remember.  Or, because there needs to be order and consistency in this sort of thing, "The Church" in some shape or form has made such an assessment.

In reality, people have feet of clay, and the airwaves are littered with stories of famous people, celebrities and high achievers, who have fallen from their pedestals like Humpty Dumpty from his wall, and with the same disastrous consequences.  But saints are (or were, I suppose) also real people, and you only have to look at the Gospels to see that even the first apostles, the founders of our Church, were anything but infallible. You might even gain the impression that, as they followed Jesus along the lanes of Galilee and Judaea, they were wrong nearly all the time.

So what is special about the Saints, capital 'S'?  Leaving aside the test of miracles performed and prayers answered, I suppose that, fallible and clay-footed though they undoubtedly were, these are people who provide us with an example of faith worth following.  When Jesus calls us, as he does, we can look at these people and see what it might mean to say 'Yes'. Saints challenge us and inspire us, and I like to think of them also as accompanying us - firstly, as pilgrims who have walked already the roads we now travel, and secondly, surely, as those who now pray for us around the thrones of heaven.

They are like stained glass windows, aglow with a light that is not their own, but which in each saintly life story shines in its own special and distinct way.  Saints are not superhuman, and indeed as we read their stories we become aware of men and women who were deeply aware of their own sin and frailty. They made the effort, though, to give themselves to their Lord, so that, like Paul, they could say that "my life is no longer my own;  it is Christ, living in me."  In reality, though, we give away our life in order to receive it back again, for it is as me, myself, that I can be of service to Christ and allow his love to infect and infuse me.

So what do we need, me and you, to be saints? Maybe our saintly status can't be confirmed until we are dead - but already we are saints,or that is the opportunity set before us: to open ourselves, to make ourselves translucent, transparent to the light of the love of Christ, and within that love and through its recreating power, to become our true selves, what we were made and destined to be. Here and now.