Sunday, 29 December 2013

A Sunday Talk

. . . for the Sunday after Christmas :-

Tragedies of one sort or another strike at every season of the year, somewhere in the world;  but tragedy at Christmas is especially poignant. A concert at which I sang just before Christmas supported the work of Save the Children in Syria and among the refugees from that sad conflict, and a representative from the charity told us about some of the work they were doing; it’s so sad that so many children are suffering there, who have no part in that war, nor do their families, just the desire to live in peace and safety. And among the TV adverts for beds and sofas, you’ll have seen many images of suffering children, as aid charities seek our help to challenge poverty, homelessness and disease.

A few weeks ago I watched the final programme in a TV series about pilgrimage, as the presenter arrived at the sacred sites of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The programme didn’t hide away from the fact that there’s something between Jerusalem and Bethlehem now that wasn’t there when I made my visit to those places fifteen years ago. Then we passed through checkpoints, but now there’s also the wall, slabs of sheer grey concrete (with added graffiti) to separate Israel from the Palestinian areas of the West Bank.  Many see this wall as unjust, particularly where it separates families from the land that’s their only source of income; but at the same time the state of Israel insists that the wall is vital to preserve their people from the constant threat of terrorist attack. I remember a scene of children looking through gaps in the wall. When communities are divided, and people live in fear of each other, often it’s the innocents, the children, who suffer most.

The first thing that happens after Christmas in our Bibles is also a tragic event;  and like so many tragic events, it’s the children who suffer.

[Matthew, chapter 2, vv 16-end]

The historian in me has to admit at this point that we have no independent confirmation of the story Matthew tells us.  But it matches what we know of the character of King Herod.  This was a man who would stop at nothing to eliminate any challenge to his royal power. He killed several of his own children, so why would he baulk at killing the children of others.  And life is cheap.  That’s true in the world of today, and it was certainly true then.

The slaughter of the innocents inevitably raises the same one-word question as today’s tragic events - why?  I have a  friend for whom the story Matthew tells of the slaughter of the innocents is the biggest stumbling block to her faith.  It was because of the psychopathic cruelty of King Herod that these children died;  but why was it necessary for God's messiah to be born in a land whose king would murder all the other children in the town?  Surely, my friend would ask, that’s too big a price to pay?  Didn't God know what was going to happen? Didn’t God care?

That last question is one I find rather hard to answer. If God didn’t know, then that diminishes him, and if God did know but didn’t care, that diminishes him too: and what makes God either less than all-knowing or less than all-loving surely also makes him less than God.  Could I have faith in a God who really doesn't know what's going to happen next?  Or who really doesn't care?

And in that thought there is a major faith challenge. It’s basic to our faith that God is love. And we believe that God is omnipotent - in other words, all-powerful - and omniscient - in other words, all-knowing.  And yet the little children died in Bethlehem - as the carol says of Herod ‘All the little boys he killed at Bethlem in his fury’; and today innocent people suffer still, and young lives are still lost that have scarcely begun.

It sort of helps a bit when we have someone to blame. The children died in Bethlehem because of Herod's megalomania and paranoia.  But that still leaves the challenge of the images of poverty on our TV screens, in the aftermath of storm or earthquake or other natural disaster. Who’s to blame then? Even when people don’t behave with deliberate cruelly, innocent people still suffer, innocent lives are lost.  So is God in charge, or is he not?  Or is God a tyrant with the same irrational and cruel streak as Herod or, say, Caligula or Stalin?

My faith is certainly challenged by these events and by my reflections upon them. And yet I go on believing. And what I believe is this - that God cannot be remote and terrible and irrational and cruel, for God is like Jesus. I believe in a God who matches the picture Jesus shows me; I believe in a God whose whole nature is love, and whose way is the way of justice and righteousness. I believe in a God is biased toward the marginalised and the vulnerable and the poor. Indeed, I believe in a God who has chosen to share that life, beginning in the stable at Bethlehem and the flight from Bethlehem to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod: a God who doesn’t stand apart from human tragedy.

But I still have to reconcile that belief with the fact of the persistence of injustice and unrighteousness in the world . . . so how am I going to do that?

C.S. Lewis wrote about 'the problem of pain', something that theologians have wrestled with throughout the whole of Christian history; and at the end of all their writing and thinking the problem remains. Why do I have to suffer, and why does anyone - in particular what about the innocents who just get caught in the crossfire? There comes a point at which rational argument fails, and as a believer I have to take a leap of faith'.  I don't have all the answers, and however lovely the Christmas stories, they still leave me short of complete proof. I have to make that leap, and sometimes I can do it with a fair amount of confidence and hope, and other times I find it’s harder. Faith and doubt form two sides of the same coin, I discover.  Like St Paul, I see dark reflections in the glass, but hope one day to know fully and completely - to know as I am known.

But the very fact that I’m so appalled by the story of the killings Herod ordered in Bethlehem, the very fact that I’m so moved by the images of suffering on TV, etched on the faces of children I’ll never know, who are halfway round the world from me - that in itself is part of the answer to my faith question. We know about right and wrong, good and bad, darkness and light;  we have an intrinsic capacity to care about these things, to know what sort of world we want to see, and Christmas each year rekindles those hopes and dreams within us.  And somehow freedom, love and pain are inextricably linked together.  God made us free to quest for him, to love him, to serve him - or to ignore him.

Christina Rossetti wrote ‘love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine.’ Love was born into a world where then as now hatred and suffering can seem to have the upper hand, where the streets too often run with blood. In this dark world God proves his love in the birth of this child. But a world in which we’re free to love him back maybe has to be a world of chance and danger, and the new king who enters that world isn’t a king like Herod. He doesn’t descend with chariots of fire, he’s born in a stable.

And even as I welcome the Prince of Peace, the Christmas story as a whole forces me also to admit the reality and potency of evil.  It’s dangerous to downplay the role of evil in the world.  Everything can’t be explained away in terms of societal pressures, or failures in nurture, or the impact of poverty, or our genetic inheritance . . . nor is evil the preserve of those people the tabloid press likes to label as 'monsters' - and therefore quite different from us.  Evil can happen anywhere; evil is what happens when good is absent, and when good people look away.

The murder of the children in Bethlehem is a reminder of what happens when evil is rampant and unchecked. All that’s needed for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.  The battle between good and evil is fundamental to our human experience, and it’s an inevitable component of the story of love.  And though I don't have a complete answer to the problem of pain and evil, I think I do have the beginning of an answer that I can work with.  The story of the Word made flesh who dwells among us tells me that God doesn’t leave himself out but includes himself in: love incarnate is calling us to love, and lighting our way.

And this is love not just as an idea or a tinselly picture, but as a programme for action, and for courageous and generous living. So let’s not just think about love, but do it. Evil reigns not so much because bad people do bad things, but because good people let them. Let me close with some words for Christmas from the black author, educationalist and civil rights leader Howard Thurman.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and the princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
then the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

Friday, 27 December 2013

A Small Mystery

. . . A small tragedy, as well.  The other day I found a siskin, a female bird, lying dead just outside our back door. I am not sure what was the cause of death, but a small amount of blood was visible on the tail feathers, leading me to speculate that maybe it was killed by one of the local cats, and left there perhaps as a sort of gift, or maybe just because the bird's killer was disturbed.

So there's one mystery; but the other mysterious thing is that a siskin should be there at all, since we have never seen a live siskin in our garden in all the time we've been here. There will be siskins not too far away, to be sure - when we lived just up the way in Brookfield Road, we had siskins all winter, as very regular visitors to our feeding station. They are delightful small finches, very acrobatic and with an attractive plumage. As they quite often flock with goldfinches - and we have no shortage of goldfinches, with fifteen our highest total at one time so far this winter - we had hoped to see them here, but it's sad that the only one seen so far is dead.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Not Really Believing

Not really believing, and yet
I have come to sing again the old words,
and to rejoice that the candles still are lit;
my heart will still respond, will still be moved
as the remembered stories are read once more
from behind the great brass eagle.

I am here because I want to be, perhaps even
because I need to be.
I should like tonight the chance to be a child again,
with no need to worry about whether shepherds saw a star,
and wise men heard an angel;
Matthew and Luke have written their distinct stories of a birth,
but tonight their stories are melded as one,
one tale, to be re-told by candlelight
and sung to the old dancing tunes that power the faith songs of the people.
I am glad still to be part of this.

And then there comes the story that for me will always stand unshaken,
whatever my doubts about stables and stars:
“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.”  Here
is the truth I shall depend on, the quay
at which I moor my ship of faith,
such a flimsy craft for much of the year,
and so easily cast astray.

The child I was rejoiced at mystery,
was happy not to understand,
loved being so small, where the old arches soared upwards
into a dusty and holy height
hardly touched by the flickering flames below.
We stand for the Ninth Lesson,
bow our heads at the holy words -
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”
And yes, we have seen his glory,
or we have almost seen it, caught this season’s tantalising glimpse
somewhere within the echoes of our carolling,
half-hidden in that holy dusk, beyond the candle flames we have lit:
a light that is not of our kindling, but is his own,
and a Word that is its own music, impossibly ancient
and yet completely, utterly new, as it seeks an entry to my heart.

Homeward bound with “O Come, All Ye Faithful” still in my ears, I see how
every star is newly bright across the virgin sky
as the haloed moon sails high, and the sparkled frost begins to form.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Mixed Bag

We seem to be having a mixed bag of very changeable weather just now!  I parked my car in bright sunshine this morning, and strolled across the road to church for the carol service, which was gently enjoyable; but by the time I came out of church the world outside had changed completely, and I had to hurry back to the car in the face of a determined onslaught of cold wind, sleet and hail.

So a mixed bag of weather, with most of the last few days having begun with morning sunshine and then deteriorated markedly as the day has worn on.  This was especially true yesterday, as I had been completely fooled into thinking that things were going to stay fine all day, and was slightly mystified by travel reports on the radio that spoke of the probable disruption later, once the bad weather arrived.  There had seemed no sign of it - and then, all of a sudden, it arrived!  Fortunately, I was inside by then.

We can for the most part hide away from the weather, though it certainly exposes any weakness in our shelter than we hadn't noticed or attended to properly.  Just at the moment I'm very aware that a day or two spent on my gutters during the summer might have been a good idea - water is cascading through several leaky joints, and working on them at this time of the year isn't going to be easy.  The wildlife that visits our gardens can't hide so easily, and a bit of care on our part will be very helpful to the creatures that live around us.  I like my garden to look tidy at the back end of the year, but I'm prepared to compromise and leave a few scruffy bits, if that will provide winter habitats - which it will.

Keeping the feeders stocked means that birds can find a ready source of nutrition on days when bad weather forces them to shelter much of the time, and leaves little daylight opportunity for hunting or foraging.  A pile of logs provides lots of safe places for overwintering insects and other invertebrates - as does not cutting back all the dead growth in our borders until spring.  Ivy on trees and fences is best left undisturbed, unless it is likely to disturb or unbalance - or smother, I suppose - what it is growing over.  Not only is it a good shelter for many small creatures, it is a winter food supply for insect-eaters - like goldcrests and wrens - that rarely if ever come to feeders, but need a source of wild food and suffer greatly in hard winters.

Our feeders themselves are being depleted of sunflower seeds almost daily.  The nuts and nyger seed last a bit longer, as do the fat balls, but this afternoon everything is running low, so I need to replenish the feeders before nightfall - and replenish my seed hopper in the shed as soon as I can get to the shop to do it!  Once you've made a decision to feed the garden birds, it's good to keep to it!  Having said that, it's also important to maintain good standards of hygiene, as in the wild a good food source doesn't last all that long - once it's finished, the birds have to move elsewhere.  As that isn't true of the garden feeders, the risk is greatly enhanced of diseases building up and of toxic growths where food is allowed to go bad.  It's a bore, washing everything, but I need to make sure I do it this week, to make sure "my" birds stay healthy.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Christmas Song

A poem / song of mine (I did also write a tune for it) that has recently been published in a poetry collection :-

There are brown tyre treads in the virgin snow
and your skin turns blue in the cold wind's blow,
but you ain't got no place else to go,
and you're on your own on these streets, lady,
you're on your own down here.

The sky is black and there ain't no stars,
and the only lights are the cruising cars
and the neon signs of those downbeat bars,
and you're on your own on these streets, lady,
you're on your own down here.

There's no shepherds in these parts, my dear,
no herald angels singing clear,
and any wise men stay home for a warm and a beer,
and you're on your own on these streets, lady,
you're on your own down here.

Yet I remember a night in a time of old
when the sky exploded in burning gold,
and the songs were sung and the tidings told,
and the earth and the heaven were a single fold,
and they called these streets salvation, lady,
this place was Bethlehem.

Yes, they called these streets salvation, lady,
this place was Bethlehem.


My latest 'Nature Notes' article for some of our local magazines :-

Our garden feeders are proving very popular this winter, and we’ve seen up to fifteen goldfinches at a time, plus great, blue, coal, marsh and long-tailed tits, a nuthatch, chaffinches and a beautiful pair of bullfinches, a very proprietorial robin and - much to the consternation of the other birds - a pair of great spotted woodpeckers.  But one of my favourites is a rather undistinguished brown bird that doesn’t visit the feeders, but regularly pecks about underneath, picking up what the other birds drop - and that’s the dunnock.

Dunnocks are brown and grey sparrow sized birds, which is why they have often been called ‘hedge sparrows’. In truth, though, they’re not really sparrows, and have the thin beak associated with insect-eaters, rather than the thick seed-eating bill of the house or tree sparrow. They also have a short but pretty song in season.

Dunnocks feed mostly on the ground, and mostly their dist consists of insects and other invertebrates, plus some berries and fruit - and, of course, bird-table food but generally only the stuff that gets dropped.  Though fairly secretive, it’s a common bird, found everywhere in the British Isles (except Shetland and much of Orkney), with gardens, parkland, scrubby heaths and farmland hedges the dunnock’s main habitat.  The cup-shaped nest, lined with moss, hair and other soft material, will generally be constructed in a dense bush or hedge, or in a bramble patch, and a garden with some good bushes is most likely to attract breeding dunnocks.  Four or five eggs are usual.

The sexes are alike, with streaked brown wings and upper parts, and a grey breast. The head is grey with a brown crown, and there is a brown patch around the eye. While some dunnocks seem to pair in a conventional way, this species is infamous for a degree of infidelity, with some males having several female partners, and some females consorting with more than one male!

With probably something over two million breeding pairs in the UK, this is by no means a rare bird, though it’s often overlooked.  It is a resident species, and our British dunnocks do not move around much, though some extra dunnocks may arrive from Scandinavia to spend the winter here.

Glad Jones, from Llandrinio, whom many people will remember with great affection, was a keen garden bird watcher, and always had dunnocks in her garden.  She told me the story of a visitor one day who, looking out from her window, said, “That’s a fine old dunnock you’ve got at the top of your garden.” When she looked she could not see any small brown mouse-like birds rootling about, so she was for a moment mystified . . . until it dawned on her that her visitor was referring not to a bird of any sort but to an old fork-like implement, a dung-hook!

Monday, 16 December 2013

Bird Report (again)

Yesterday the activity around our feeders was quite frenzied.  At one stage we had fifteen goldfinches in our garden, the flash of yellow as they flew sometimes quite brilliant, even on a rather dull day. The great spotted woodpecker is also a brilliant arrival, of course; interestingly, yesterday as he settled on the nut feeder, the other feeders remained very much in use. Previously, I've noted that when a woodpecker is present, the other feeders are abandoned for a while. The visiting woodpecker yesterday was a male - up till now we'd only seen a female.

Visitors included two long-tailed tits, any number of chaffinches, and a busy wren. There was plenty of jackdaw activity in the trees behind us, and one did fly down to investigate the feeders, driving the other birds away as he perched there. He didn't stay long. A single cock house sparrow lingered awhile. As a child, I remember our garden being full of house sparrows; here they are rarely seen in our back garden. A decent sized flock of sparrows will more or less take over a feeding station, keeping most other birds away (or at least, that was our experience in a previous garden), but individually they don't seem to compete well. One explanation for the decline of sparrows seems to be that, as communal birds, once a colony falls below a certain size it seems to lose vigour. House sparrows were the first birds to find and use our front garden feeder, but now they are not often seen there. Tits and goldfinches, being more agile, seem able to take over.

We never see starlings in this garden, though they do fly across sometimes, and perch on the wires just down the street. They were occasional visitors in our previous place. Again, starlings were ever-present in my childhood garden. In those days we threw out scraps for the birds - bread, bits of fat from the bacon, and so forth. Perhaps today's more sophisticated feeding stations discriminate in favour of certain birds - tits, finches and so forth - to the detriment of our old sparrows. Having said that, starlings were certainly able to drive everything else off the feeding station in our previous garden, on the occasions that they appeared there, and to make effective use of the feeders, so I do wonder about their complete absence here.

Friday, 13 December 2013


Since my resignation as a cleric nearly three years ago, while in many ways my life has remained or indeed become very enjoyable and fulfilling, there've been some big questions around with which I've needed to wrestle, questions to do with identity and purpose: with belief and accountability, with responsibility and calling. Sometimes I seem to be so pulled apart by my often rather contrary thoughts that my end-state is one of numbness, really: just plodding on and getting through things without understanding or feeling anything very much.

I suspect there is nothing all that unusual in this. While some of us cope better than others with the complexities of existence, part of what it means to be human is this capacity we have not only for doing lots of things with dexterity and skill and inventiveness, but also for reflecting on what we do, and of course asking that troublesome question why. Sometimes the best of us find the questions and anxieties of life threatening to swamp us. I'm glad, therefore, and grateful for the people available to me with whom I can just share stuff, maybe not all that articulately always, but whose patient listening is so important.

As I recall from my days in ministry, the patient listener may sometimes feel frustrated by his/her inability to come up with the solutions and cogent advice we feel the situation requires of us; but of course we shouldn't be, the listening process itself is therapeutic. Today I spent an hour trying to express how I feel about the present situation, about possibilities and decisions that are facing me, about what I hope for, what I fear, what I feel about past events. I was well and carefully listened to throughout, not always with complete understanding I suspect, since I'm not at all sure I was always making coherent sense, but certainly I was attended to.

And it's because of that careful listening, rather than because of any wise words offered in reply, that this evening I feel so much more sorted out and organised. I have a clearer understanding of where I am now because when you speak things out loud rather than just churn them around in your head you do begin to make connections and sense out of what otherwise might just be a jumble. This means that the future is also clearer: I may not know yet what choices and decisions I may make when the time comes, but I do know I can approach them with more confidence and less anxiety.

Being listened to achieves a lot. And I am also reminded that one of the most valuable things about time spent in prayer is not that God answers us when we pray (he does, of course, if not always in the way we would choose), but that he listens, and that he does so with patience, with understanding and with love - like the father who stood day after day, watching in hope for the return of his prodigal son.

Thursday, 12 December 2013


One of the choirs I sing with gave its annual Christmas concert in its "home" church tonight, and a good number of folk turned up to hear, I'm pleased to say.  Our concert material ranged from the 16th century to the present day, and included a few lighter pieces as well as some quite serious choral music.  And all went very well. Usually I stay for the debrief over mulled wine and mince pies, but tonight I had a lot to do at home so Ann and I came straight back. But from just the few conversations we had with people as we made our way out, it's clear that the audience enjoyed hearing the music as much as we enjoyed singing it.

Bird song delights us as much as human choirs, and of course many composers have been inspired by, and on occasions explicitly copied, the songs of birds. One of the special things about being human is the way in which we delight in things like the sound of bird song or the colour of spring flowers, or the texture of a partly clouded sky; none of these things is provided for our amusement or entertainment, and yet we enjoy them and find them beautiful.

Bird song itself is simply a mode of communication, or so we are told. A robin singing its wistfully sweet falling cadences at this time of year is just establishing its winter territory, and warning other birds off, something which was particularly obvious when I went for a morning walk along a quite country road on a Greek island in the late autumn. Robins were singing at very regular intervals along the lane, each one claiming its little patch.

Of course, some birds - blackbirds and thrushes in the Spring, to give one obvious example - certainly quite deliberately aim to make their song complex and beautifully inventive. And of course, better than that of the next bird. It's still competitive, but it's not so much a shouting match as the final round in an eisteddfod. The hen presumably finds the song as attractive as we do.

But I'm also thinking about the goldfinches I mentioned in my last post. We're getting a lot in the garden just now, and they are quite beautifully noisy. You can hear them through our double glazing, which normally shuts out most things pretty well. And they do seem just to be having fun, though perhaps that's a sentimental and anthropomorphic point of view. Whatever else birdsong is for, sometimes it's just an eager expression of the joy companions can take in each other. Just as our human singing can be.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Bird Report

As winter begins, our garden bird population is growing, in interest as well as in numbers.  We had at least a dozen goldfinches this morning, among the most attractive of our finches, and very agile birds.  They divide their attention between the nyger seed and our sunflower hearts.  Blue tits visit in about the same numbers, and they prefer the sunflower hearts to anything else on offer, but will also peck at the peanuts and fat balls. They completely ignore the nyger seed, as do the great tits and coal tits which are present in smaller numbers. We have occasionally been visited by a marsh tit, and the other day had a family group of long tailed tits, which were present at the same time as goldfinches and a pair of bullfinches, making for a quite delightful scene.

Coal tits routinely take sunflower hearts and secrete them in various hiding places, including hanging baskets and plant pots. A single bird will whizz to and fro, removing quite a few seeds. Coal tits seem quite fussy, and will reject several before deciding on one they like, so a fair few seeds get deposited under the feeders, benefiting the chaffinches which are not as agile as many of the other birds, and the dunnocks which always feed on the ground.

Today we've had a nuthatch. This particular nuthatch seems to be quite a timid bird, compared to the rather macho nuthatches we've seen elsewhere. Nuthatches can generally move most other birds off the feeders, but this one seems quite oblivious to the fact that in general other birds will get out of its way; it is easily spooked into flying off by even the slightest movement. Of course, everything does get out of the way of the great spotted woodpecker. This comes exclusively to the peanut feeder, but the other feeders generally remain unvisited until she moves on. I think we have only one woodpecker visiting, a female.

Their sheer size means that wood pigeons generally, as they arrive, scare the other birds away. When something that big flies in, the average blue tit or chaffinch isn't going to stop to see whether it's a sparrow hawk or a pigeon, the thing to do is to head for the bushes, pdq! We can have three or four wood pigeons at a time. Sometimes they perch on the feeding station, looking inquisitively at the feeders, but of course they can't use them. Fortunately there are plenty of dropped seeds below for them to go at.

Squirrels manage to get to the feeders, despite the squirrel baffle we've put in. Occasionally I come out and shout at them, but mostly I can't be bothered. Today we had a little spat between a squirrel and a wood pigeon that was briefly quite entertaining. It wasn't much of a fight in the end! I added a new feeder to the smaller feeding station in our front garden this afternoon. I wonder whether it will tempt the local house sparrows? They were the first birds to find the original feeder at this site, but hardly visit now that the local blue and great tits have started using it.