Saturday, 27 December 2014


A thought occurred to me as I sat watching a feelgood TV programme with a happy ending the other day. Such programmes are called feelgood because that's how most people find them; it leaves them feeling good. Most people in my experience are touched and even tearful when they see or read about acts of kindness, and things turning out well for folk who've been through hard times. Most people genuinely hope for and enjoy happy endings, and feel cheated when that doesn't happen. I'm sure it isn't just me; so how is it that the vast majority of us whose instinct is for goodness and kindness and peace are so often seduced by the vicious and heartless minority that get off on division and cruelty and conflict? In fact we often pour a measure of scorn on the "happy ending", and persuade ourselves that this sort of programme is at best a guilty pleasure. Someone once pointed out to me as though it were an unanswerable fact of life that TV drama should reflect the gritty truth that the world is a sad place and often devoid of happy endings. Why? Might not TV drama be better reflecting our hopes and dreams and aspirations, and maybe real life might find its way to reflecting that?

Christmas Carols

I've enjoyed singing this Christmas, despite at one time feeling completely unprepared and unpractised. Where did all the time go?  Five carol concerts and the same number of carol services later, plus a bit of less formal singing in residential homes and the like, later (and with something of a Christmas cold to finish off), I'm pretty much all sung out. I've learnt a few new ones, and some of those will become favourites, I think, and I've revisited many of the old ones.

Of course, carol singing has become a very choral affair. Watching as I did the carols from King's this year, I was struck by the way in which every congregational carol now has to end with a descant that seemed in that particular case to completely lose the thread of the original tune. The descants seemed to have been specially written - I didn't recognise them, and I think that if we're going to have descants at all, we should use them sparingly, and maybe stick to some of the ones that have become traditional and well-liked, and with good reason. Sorry, Mr Cleobury; the rest of it was nice.

My grandpa hated descants, and some of that must have rubbed off. Fancying I knew a bit about carols, I did one of those little quizzes that turn up on Facebook, and scored fifteen out of fifteen, which pleased me, but at the same time I was annoyed, because several of the questions were in fact about secular Christmas songs, including a couple I'd never heard, so my maximum score was a bit fortuitous. The theme of the quiz was "well-loved carols", and I'm sad that the definition of "carol" has got so much diluted. "White Christmas", love it or hate it, is not a carol.

Strictly speaking, "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" (and many more) are not carols either, but Christmas hymns, written by known hands, and designed to be sung in church service. Carols were really a form of folk music, and they belong on the streets rather than in churches and cathedrals, sung by the village waits around the houses. They represent the people taking back the Christian story otherwise possessed by priests and prelates, and making that story their own. We have no idea who wrote the most ancient carols; some hymns did become carols, however: "While Shepherds Watched" is one such: written as a hymn, it was taken by the local waits and set to local tunes; we sang it this year to the Yorkshire tune more familiarly sung as "Ilkley Moor Bah't Hat".

Carols were holy words set to traditional dance tunes, so real carols have a good solid dance beat to them. In England as in the plygain tradition of Wales, different bands would have their own carols, and very much their own tunes . . . though of course the best ones might well be poached by other bands and so spread about the place. It occurs to me that songs by Slade, Wizzard and others might well have more of the carol about them, in one sense, than some of the Christmas hymns, being very much "of the people" . . . but of course, the essence of the carol is that it is a faith song, even if sung to what was originally a secular tune.

But the point I'd want to make is that, while I've hugely enjoyed singing choral carols this year, and I think our audiences have enjoyed hearing us, I'd hate to lose that vital ingredient of the "real" carol - that it's a song of the people with something of a subversive element to it, Christian faith sung in the ordinary tongue, and not the exclusive preserve of prelates or even of choirs.

Monday, 22 December 2014

I Saw A Light

I saw a light low in the sky, through leafless winter trees,
that called me forward, drew me on, that sent me to my knees.
I knelt then, hardly dared to move, not sure what I had seen;
and as the world grew dark around, looked where the light had been.
A flake or two of snow fell, soft and cold upon my face;
the breeze had dropped away to leave a stillness in the place
which felt serene and holy, like the half-forgotten past,
like childhood dreams that seem so real, then fade and do not last.
Another world I nearly touched, an almost opened door,
the briefest glimpse of glory, then the sky grew dark once more.
A light once shone when angels sang to shepherds in a field,
and in the east a rising star brought tidings long concealed
to men who studied astral charts in some exotic land,
and sent them searching for a king across a waste of sand.
One week to go till Christmas Day, as from my knees I rose
to make for home and fireside, and to the love of those
who are the lights that light my life, I knew this to be true,
that God whose angel spoke to shepherds calls to me and you,
and though the world's grown dark and cold, and full of sin and pain,
the light of love will never die, the day will dawn again.
The child once born in Bethlehem, and hailed with angel song
would as a man bear on a cross the weight of worldly wrong.
But Christ once laid in manger bed and nestled round with hay
seeks to be born within our hearts, to lead us in his way,
that we may light the darkened world with love and Christian cheer
not only at this holy feast, but through the coming year,
and on till love triumphant is the light that fills the sky,
when comes again the man who on the cross was pleased to die.

Do not be afraid . . .

Some words for use on Advent IV :-

Do not be afraid, for you have found favour with God.  Here’s one version of the words spoken by the angel Gabriel to Mary, in the reading set for this morning’s Gospel, from St Luke, chapter one, and I’d like us to reflect on those words for a moment: do not be afraid, for you have found favour with God.

Now I’d say Mary had some cause to be afraid. It’s not every day you get spoken to by an angel! Personally, I’m not convinced that Gabriel needed to appear before her with his robes dazzling white and with wings of burnished gold. To my mind that might be unnecessary and even counter-productive for messenger angels, so I’ve always thought of Gabriel as likely to turn up in ordinary clothes, off the street, rather than in celestial splendour. But even then, for a young woman of good character to be spoken to out of the blue by a stranger of the opposite sex would have been scary; and the message he then gave her was of course scarier still, by some way.

The angel goes on to say: God’s been gracious to you, or God has looked favourably upon you, or, in the translation I opted for, you have found favour with God. The very first thing the angel said to Mary, and the cause therefore of her fear, was this: “Greetings, most favoured one.” And I think I might well be knocked off balance, myself, if someone I didn’t know came up and addressed me in those terms.

What might it mean, to find favour with God? We may choose to curry favour with our superiors, with people who have some kind of power or influence over us. Currying favour is a big element in office politics: to my mind it usually has more to do with looking good than actually being good. Does it work? trying to get into the boss’s good books by bringing the best biscuits in, by being obsequious, sucking up? Surely a good boss would see through that, and expect something more.

One thing we can say for sure is that Mary wasn’t one to curry favour with God; there was no false or showy piety in her, designed to attract his attention and impress him. I’ve got to admit that from time to time I’ve come across people whose all-too-obvious piety and enthusiastic religiosity I’ve tended to find, sorry to say, rather wearing, and maybe God has too, I suppose. Though are such people currying favour with God, or just looking to impress those around them? Jesus came across a few folk like that: remember the “look at me” attitude of the Pharisee who stood up to pray in the temple? I have a shrewd suspicion Jesus will have based that story on someone he’d really seen.

But maybe that’s been me as well, from time to time, taking pride in the outward show of my performance as a minister, while neglecting the inward purity of the heart? Anyway, Mary didn’t curry favour, but she did find favour. God’s not fooled by outward show, he sees into the heart. He’d seen into Mary’s heart and found there a simplicity of faith and an obedience of spirit that asked for nothing, but offered so much. At the end of his visit to her, Mary said to the angel, “I am God’s servant; let it be as you wish.” But God had known that of her already, God had seen that response already written in her heart.

Mary’s yes to God places her as the first among saints. She is the one whose simplicity and obedience sets the standard to which all Christian folk should aspire. She was a woman from a different place and language and culture than us, so I should probably be cautious about putting words into her mouth, but I can’t help but think that she herself might well have said, “I’m nothing special.” And maybe that’s just the point.

We’re all saints; that’s really just the Biblical word for people who serve God. And when he looks for saints God isn’t searching out superheroes; he makes his saints out of people like us, people who are nothing special, just trying our hardest to be good and doing our best to follow Jesus. People who are not currying favour, but trying to live lives of simple service. Someone once said that when we give God anything less than first place in our lives then we give him no place. He should be number one on our list: being a Christian is a full time job, and a whole self commitment. Nowhere is that more true than in the story we’ve heard today, and the angel’s message to Mary.

But it needs to be true for us too. Of course Mary is special. She is singled out to be the God-bearer, to be the mother of God’s only begotten Son, in whom dwells all the creative majesty of the godhead, even as he suckles at her breasts. God needed a very special person for that task, and he chose Mary, and for a long moment or two as Gabriel gave her the message, God’s great work of salvation depended on her “yes” to him. In response to that awesome story, the Church has rightly wanted to make much of Mary, but that can sometimes mean we place her so high above us that she’s almost out of our reach.

And that, I think, is not a good thing. Of course, Mary is special, but at the same time Mary is also ordinary. She is one of us. Plucked from obscurity, to coin a phrase. And while God’s call to her was unique, that doesn’t mean God isn’t  calling you and me with just as much of a personal intent, with something to do for him that’s special to you, special to me. He’s hoping that we too say “yes” to that call, and “yes” to the favour he seeks to bestow upon us. To us too he says, “Do not be afraid,” for he won’t lay upon us more than we can do.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Rosie's Emporium

[There is a shop with this name in Shrewsbury, and several more around the world, I'll be bound. These lines do not seek to describe any of them, being inspired by no more than the name.]

In the windows of Rosie's Emporium
white lights are sparkling on coloured beads of glass;
against her dark ebony cabinets, bright china pieces,
rainbow drapes of cloth, jewelled pendants
shine out to beckon across the green. I walk across,
watching my breath cloud in the early evening air.
I have no money to spend,
and no space in my life for trifles and baubles,
yet tonight I cannot help but stop,
and gaze awhile, and dream.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Sunday Talk - A Prophetic Church

An optimist is a person who, when walking through a tunnel, rejoices to see the light at the other end.  A pessimist sees the same light, but believes it to be the light of an oncoming train.  An optimist has no need for hope, because everything is bound to turn out fine.  A pessimist sees no point in hope, because we all doomed anyway.

Neither optimism nor pessimism is appropriate within a prophetic church.  But hope is.  True prophets aren't optimists or pessimists, but realists.  Their job is to tell it like it is.  As we read through the story of Israel in the Old Testament we can see how important the prophets were.  They see through the mist that obscures our vision so that we foolishly think everything's all right, and they tell us the truth that maybe we don’t want to hear.  But it's not a hopeless case, for there is a God in heaven, and prophets speak for him.  And with his words they tell us how things have to change, how we have to change our course, if we are to avoid disaster. 

As we travel through this season of Advent we share the delight of the people as they discover a new prophet in Israel.  He is John, the prophet who baptizes. Baptism was the outward sign of inward change.  Now Jews didn't need to be baptized, for to be born a Jew meant you were already chosen and special.  But John changed the rules, saying to the people that their heritage didn't count any more. They'd lost their birth relationship with God, because they'd veered off course, and lost touch with God's law and with God's justice. It’s time to turn back, it’s time to change. And the outward washing in the Jordan river signalled an inward washing of the heart and the soul, through which those who were no longer God's people chose to be God's people again.

But John also told those who came out to hear him that he was not the one, that he was simply the forerunner, the one who was to prepare the way.  Someone is coming after me, he told them, and he is indeed already among you, who is so much greater than I that I'm not even worthy to unfasten his sandal strap. And to prepare the way, John calls the people back to the standards of justice and righteousness that the great prophets have always demanded. They must make themselves ready; the Lord is near. Like the great prophets of old, John calls for justice, telling those who come to him that they must live together in a way that reflects the love of God.  

The Lord loves justice. So says John, and so say all the prophets - men like Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah. 
And we're inclined to agree.  Indeed, we demand justice!  Again and again the voice of the people, or at any rate that voice as distilled by the tabloid headlines, is raised to demand justice, as we consider the things that are wrong in the world around us - shoddy standards, rising crime, unfairness, especially when it's about other people getting more than we think they deserve.  But the justice we demand can begin to present in a negative way, so that it starts to look a lot like revenge, our desire to return a punch in exchange for the punch received.  That sort of justice can be found in scripture, when we read about 'an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth'. But it isn’t the justice John proclaimed, nor is it what Isaiah and the other prophets meant when they talked about justice.

We need justice.  Justice is essential to an ordered society, as any lawyer will tell you. So we measure out a justice that is by necessity disinterested, whose symbol is the blind goddess whose statue stands above the entrance to the court, carrying in her hands the scales to weigh the evidence and reach an impartial decision.  We need to be sure the justice we measure is fair. I think we can take some pride in the standard of justice we have in the UK - for the most part, anyway. But even the best run courts of law, though they may be incorruptible and fair, do not deliver not the justice proclaimed by God's prophets.

For prophetic justice can be neither negative nor neutral. It must always be a positive thing: it must involve what David Sheppard the former Bishop of Liverpool called a 'bias to the poor', so that it brings good news to the oppressed, healing for the broken hearted, prisoners set free. These are the things Isaiah proclaims, these are the things that Jesus will say have come true in him.  And the same positive bias towards those in need should be the mark of the prophetic Church that calls for God’s justice today.

In the Old Testament Isaiah paints a picture of a new spring of God's mercy in which righteousness and justice, will spring up in all the earth, and will be seen in every nation.  Righteousness is a word that can I suppose conjure up something that is stuffy and formal, maybe all to do with rituals and rites, just as justice is easily thought of as an impartial and impersonal process of law. But when the prophets speak of these things they’re speaking about how we should be praising the Lord, and they're speaking about the active presence of the Lord within and among his people.

To be genuinely prophetic the Church will be keeping in good balance, I would say, three facets of the jewel we call active faith:  and they are worship, fellowship, and mission.  That balance is important: we may have wonderful worship but if our fellowship is poor that's not enough;  but then again, great fellowship without a sense of outreach to or responsibility for the world beyond our walls is also not enough.  So I want to go on to say a little bit about each of these things: worship, fellowship, and mission.

Our worship at all times and especially as we approach this great feast of the nativity, must be founded on a sense of wonder.  When we worship we are placing ourselves in the presence of God, and God is always more than we can imagine. In worship we praise the God  the prophets knew and served, and whose call changed their lives: prophets who had been confronted by the awesome power of God's presence, the searing challenge of his word, and who knew God was not to be controlled. Prophets who spoke hard words to the sort of religious folk who acted and worshipped as though they could tell God what to do, as though they'd got God snug and safe within their pocket. 

Our worship together expresses our fellowship, our oneness in Christ. In fellowship we are disciples and apostles, people who learn together, and who are entrusted with work to do together.  Having said that, these days we can struggle just to keep the show on the road, to maintain our churches and their ministry.  Sometimes we can feel as though money and parish shares and things are all we ever talk about in our committees and synods.  Well, those things do need to be talked about, and taken very seriously, because we do need to stay in business; the world needs us to stay in business. We must always remember, though, that we’re in business for the world, for the world that is God's world and greatly loved by him, and not for ourselves.  The prophets of old spoke against the sort of cultic religion that exists for its own sake, that makes of itself a cosy religious huddle that’s self-interested and inward looking.  We’re not here to be like that, comfortable and safe. We're not here to recall past glories or even to nurture present friendships - we are church in this place because God has work for us to do.

And that work is mission. Mission that’s about God's demand for justice and righteousness, mission that reflects in decisive and loving action the prophetic manifesto of our Lord.  True mission isn’t really a matter of knocking on doors and standing on soap boxes, though there may be times when both those things are needed. Mission certainly isn't about bullying or shaming people into faith. Genuine mission is what happens when we see with the eyes of the prophets, and with the eyes of our Lord; when we recognise our neighbour's need, and know that it's our concern.  Above all, mission is an expression of our hope in the Lord, and it seeks to restore hope to the world around us. So the marks of mission are the hand that lifts the broken man, the arm that comforts the bereaved woman, the words that reassure the frightened child.  And like John the Baptist, what we do in mission is to prepare the way: to make the rough ways smooth, for the God who longs for righteousness and praise to spring up in all the world, before all nations, and even here, down our own streets.

Time for a Change

When I started out, this was going to be a serious poem examining the need for spiritual refreshment. I'm not sure what went wrong . . .

I've been letting things slide, she said,
drifting into the spiritual red,
I've been spending so much that I never put back,
I've been letting things slide, she said.

So it’s time for a change, she said,
time to sort out the stuff in my head,
time to shake myself up, get my life back on track,
yes it’s time for a change, she said.

There’s so much I've been told, she said,
that’s confirmed in the books that I've read:
how the spirit grows sinful and sullen and slack,
that’s the truth I've been told, she said.

I shall make a retreat, she said,
find a place where my soul can be fed,
in the stillness and peace find the purpose I lack;
Yes, I’ll need a retreat, she said.

But I think, on my own, she said,
you can sort out your own life instead,
and if you could be gone by the time I get back,
I’ll be best on my own, she said.

So I thought about all she said,
and considered the options ahead;
She's gone off to the nuns, I've been given the sack -
and that's just about all she said.

Saturday, 13 December 2014


I recently had to collect some medicines from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for my daughter, who had had an operation elsewhere and was thus unable to collect them herself but needed them fairly urgently.  My daughter told me the nurse would meet me by the main doors, so that I could just pull into the short wait there and avoid parking charges. In fact I had parked in a retail park a short distance away, done a bit of shopping, and then walked down to the hospital, and arriving there early enough to buy something to eat before collecting the medicines.

I made my way back towards the main door, and spotted the nurse straight away, holding the medicines in a small carrier bag. I was pleased, since my daughter's only guidance was that "she'll be wearing a blue dress" - not all that helpful in a hospital full of nurses wearing blue dresses. She also identified me, which she hadn't particularly expected to do, since my daughter's advice to her was that "he has a white beard." Or so the nurse told me.

I hadn't thought of myself as having a white beard, though happy to admit that my beard does contain some white hairs. On looking at myself this morning, though, I have to admit that there are not many hairs there that are not white. My daughter had worried that the nurse might be looking for something Santa Claus-ish, which my beard, being short and carefully trimmed, is not. I have nothing against the big bushy sort of beard, and often feel I'd like to have one. Several of my friends do, maybe not quite in the Santa mode, but certainly rougher and bushier than mine.

I use an electric shaver on those parts of my face I don't want to be covered in fungus, and a couple of weeks back it literally fell apart in my hand. I've had it for a while, and it's travelled to several continents with me, so I suppose it doesn't owe me much. I ordered a new one from Amazon, and meanwhile settled down to the idle pleasure of not having to shave even a part of my face every morning. I even began to persuade myself that I might not need a new shaver, and that I might begin to resemble the bushier of my friends.

Alas, the sort of beard that seems to look all right on them just looks like an old rug loosely attached to my face. And I find that I really hate my neck being hairy. And it began to itch something terrible, as folks round here might say. When the postman duly arrived, some days later than I'd hoped, bearing a parcel from Amazon, I was more than ready to open and use its contents. I wouldn't want to remove my beard altogether - after all, I've had it since I was just turned eighteen, and I flatter myself that it does quite suit me - but it's more than worth the effort to keep it neat.


I've spoken before about my love of gates. I often photograph them - the one in the header picture above is on Arnside Knott, by the way, a lovely bit of south Cumbria, overlooking Morecambe Bay, and well worth a visit. I'm not sure quite what it is about gates I so love; in part it's simply that often they are rather rough and ready, like that one, made and installed by someone local, then weathered through the years.

But then, gates of all sorts are symbols of possibility. The chance is offered to get beyond the wall or fence or hedge that might otherwise be a barrier, and to see what's beyond. A wicket gate of course allows you to see through it, and therefore invites you into what lies beyond; of course, there are also tall solid gates that are designed to form part of the barrier, and I don't like them so much.

The act of passing through a gate - and, of course, of closing that gate behind you - speaks of the necessity at times of decisively taking a step forward in life, of saying, "I have moved on from there." It's not quite a matter of burning bridges; after all, the gate is still there, and the path through it. And my past remains part of me, part of what forms me, as I travel forward. Once the decision is made to pass through the gate, however, rather than just looking through and wondering, even if it's not quite a matter of "no turning back", the course I have set is an onward one, my declared intention to engage with what is new.

Anyway, here is another of the wonderfully rustic gates on Arnside Knott, this one looking out over to the long railway bridge that takes the train from Arnside to Grange over Sands, across the River Kent.

Friday, 12 December 2014


A sky without stars,
a road with no signs,
with no shape to it all.

And he bears the scars
of my failed designs,
my stumble and fall.

Why do I still stand?
What right I to live?
What right I to be free?

The deep marks in his hand,
what it cost to forgive,
what it cost to save me.

At the moment I fell,
I was met by his love,
I was saved by his grace.

So ring out, sanctus bell,
ring on earth, ring above:
see, how bright is his face,

bright with love all divine,
as he now breaks the bread,
as the new wine is poured.

And a new star will shine,
shine to quicken the dead,
and lead us to our Lord.

Thursday, 11 December 2014


Started writing my Christmas cards, and putting together our annual round robin. Much scorn is poured on round robin Christmas letters, but they seem to me a very useful and sensible way of keeping in touch and doing some simple updating. It doesn't have to be about little Chardonnay's exam results, Tarquin's gap year in South Africa or their parents' new Mercedes . . .

Anyway, while writing I was inspired to ring an old friend, and it is fair to say that no amount of carefully composed round robins can replace a good conversation, whether phoned, Skyped or face to face. Trouble is, I just won't have time to ring everyone!  During the course of our catching up my friend expressed her unhappiness that, following my resignation more or less four years ago, I am still not licensed as a priest; well, there's good reason why I remain in limbo, and, while my present situation is at times uncomfortable and frustrating, mostly I find myself able to accept it as the necessary discipline of the Church. At the same time I am not entirely convinced of my fitness for (this) service - though I feel very strongly that God continues to call me to priestly ministry, and that were I to resign my orders, something I have often considered, it would be contrary to that call.

What does make me sad, however, is that letters to my bishop have remained unanswered, over a period now of many months. I've not inundated him with correspondence, we're talking here of two letters, but they were I thought significant letters which demanded acknowledgement if not considered reply. Would he treat letters from a fellow bishop or other senior cleric with the same disdain? Is he afraid, I wonder, to write back in terms he feels might upset or anger me? Or is he genuinely unable to decide what to do about me? It's never very pleasant to be told 'No' when you've been hoping for the answer 'Yes'. It's frustrating to be told 'I don't feel able to make a decision as yet', when you yourself feel that decision is overdue. But it is crushingly sad not to be told anything, to feel as I do completely airbrushed out. It is an immense weight upon me, and enough to keep me awake for a good part of most nights.

More than that, it seems crazy. I have been I think in many ways a very good and able priest, and the call is still there, for all my efforts, now and in past years, to stop my ears to it. The time may not be right to restore my licence, but the time must certainly be more than right to begin thinking seriously - with me - about how to rehabilitate me as a minister, and to help me work through my own fears and uncertainties and remaining demons . . . partly for my sake and as a pastoral principle and duty, but also for the simple and straightforward reason that the Church needs all the ministers it can get, so why leave a potentially good and able one as a wasted and wasting asset?  In these days when bishops are appointed more to be CEO's than chief pastors, that last reason remains valid, I feel.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

January Birdsong

Nature notes for the month to come . . .

I’m not sure quite when we can expect to see the first snowdrops, but very often they begin to peep through in January, as a reminder that spring is making its first feeble inroads into winter. But really, spring is still a distance away - so when on a mild but still morning in December I ventured out just about as the sun was thinking about rising, I was surprised to hear something of a dawn chorus from the wood behind our house.

Robins and thrushes do sing through the winter, and most of the voices I heard that morning were theirs. Having said that, pretty much as soon as the daylight begins to increase in length, the hormones of our garden birds will be working to get them ready for the breeding season ahead. Light-detecting cells in the brains of our birds will have registered the changing daylength, so that resident birds begin to think about pairing up. Given suitable conditions, they may begin to nest well, thus stealing a march on their summer visitor rivals.

And the dawn chorus will be one of ths early signs of this. More and more bird song can be heard as we travel through January, till by the month’s end, there’s something of a chorus. That’s a sure sign of the changing season, for the birds will be beginning to sing properly, claiming territory and challenging rivals.

The most territorial of our garden birds, robins and wrens for example, ill be among the first to let rip, but they’ll be joined by blue tits and particularly great tits as we get into the month, especially if we get a few fine days. On warmer days dunnocks will join them - the dunnock has a weak but quite sweet song, uttered in short phrases as it moves from perch to perch.

Song thrushes and blackbirds will have been singing, off and on, for a while, though maybe it will be the skirmishes between male blackbirds that are most obvious. Once the blackbirds are singing seriously, though, there’s no finer sound. Where we are, for some reason, we get very few starlings, which is a shame, because I do enjoy their songs, which involve some quite strange sounds and fair amount of mimicry. TV aerials are a favourite vantage point.

But none of them will have much time to do this. In fact, early birdsong and good garden feeding are closely connected. The short and cold days requite birds to spend most of their time finding enough food; the easier we make that, the more chance they have to sing. Every day a small bird must find enough food to lay down fat reserves for the night to come - starvation is always just around the corner. Tiny birds like goldcrests and wrens need to spend every moment of daylight feeding, and blue tits and siskins will need to feed for perhaps nine-tenths of each day. Mortality rates can be huge when hard winter weather strikes. So our help with food really can help to bring spring in a little early!


A favourite limerick of mine, of which I was reminded today . . .

There was a young man who said "Damn!
It is borne in upon me I am
an engine that moves
in predestinate grooves;
I'm not even a bus, I'm a tram."

Maurice E. Hare (1886-1967)

Monday, 8 December 2014

A Quote . . .

. . . I came across that speaks to me and challenges me. Although it's not exactly where I am, the last sentence rings more than a few bells:

“To be bitter is to attribute intent and personality to the formless, infinite, unchanging and unchangeable void. We drift on a chartless, resistless sea. Let us sing when we can, and forget the rest.”

(H.P. Lovecraft)

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Sunday Talk

Prepared for tomorrow . . .

I had a day working in Shrewsbury last Wednesday, and as it was a bit quiet for a while I started to think about what I might say to you this morning. Our office is on the Frankwell island as you go in to Shrewsbury, and looking out onto the island there seemed an endless flow of cars heading into town and out again. It was a bright morning, with a clear blue sky, but cold with the grass on the island frosted over. People hurrying by were all well muffled up. Among them were a noisy group of small children who hurried by with their mums to the nursery and playgroup just a little further down the road. They were excited, and I gathered that something Christmassy was happening today, perhaps their nativity play. My grandson Alex’s nativity play happened on Friday, so maybe nurseries and playgroups get their plays in early, to avoid clashes with what older siblings will be doing at school.

I couldn’t help but think how Christmas things seem to happen earlier and earlier, so the season of Advent has all but vanished. My C of E background means I’m quite hooked on the Christian year with its seasons and holy days, and I thought back to how Advent being kept when I was small. Both at church and at home, it was quite un-Christmassy as I recall. It was a time of expectation and anticipation and for getting ready, but the tinsel and glitter didn’t get hung up till Christmas Eve. In church we had our Advent ring, with a candle for each Sunday, and I’ll tell you a story about that in a bit.

Someone said to me the other day, “By the time we get to Christmas Day, I’m fed up to the back teeth with Christmas.” But visiting my son-in-law’s home city of Krakow near the end of January 2012, I was surprised to find Christmas lights still burning, and a beautiful nativity tableau in the main square of the old city. Kris explained to me that they’d stay till Candlemas, 2nd February, 40 days after Christmas Day.

Of course, Poland’s a more overtly religious country than the UK, where we probably haven’t kept the forty days of Christmas since medieval times. But these days the story of the birth of Jesus gets crowded out by all the tinsel and glitter and blatant commercialism. This year there’s been some fuss in the media about so-called nativity plays in schools and nurseries that don’t necessarily even include the birth of Jesus, and where children are as likely to be dressed up as present day celebrities, or, in one instance I heard of, meerkats, as shepherds or wise men or angels.

I was going to tell you about the Advent candles at the church I attended as a child. They were rather grand, set in a giant ring of winter greenery that was suspended by four strings from the roof of the church above the choir stalls. A very tall set of steps, and a great deal of nerve, was needed to light them, one for the first Sunday, two for the second, and so on. By the time you got to the fourth Sunday in Advent, the first candle would have burned rather low, and on this particular year, at the very end of morning service on the last Sunday before Christmas, the flame from the first Sunday’s candle caught the tinder dry holly and ivy around it.

The greenery duly flared up in quite a spectacular way, and burnt through the two strings on one side of the ring, sending the whole thing, now well ablaze, swinging down on its remaining strings, straight across the stalls where a moment before the choir had been happily singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” We watched, awestruck, from the doorway into the choir vestry. One of our basses, Mr Bunce, remarked in a deadpan voice, “That was quite spectacular. We must make sure we do it every year.” That was in fact the last year we ever suspended an Advent candle ring from the church roof.

It occurs to me though that there are lots of one-off Christmas things that have turned into annual traditions; more and more stuff gets added into the Christmas mix. “I love to hear the traditional Christmas songs,” said someone to me the other day, “they get me into the Christmas mood.” She wasn’t talking about “O Come All Ye Faithful”, but about songs that I’m sure you know only too well by Slade and Wizzard. She said it just to annoy me, but there’s more than a sliver of truth there even so, traditional carols have to fight it out these days with Bing Crosby and Mariah Carey and the latest X-Factor winner.

And every year has its Christmas “must-have” that trendy parents anxiously track down and snap up before, horror of horrors, they’re all sold out. Looking into Toys R Us the other day it’s clear that this year the “Frozen” franchise is doing big business. This is a Disney franchise of which I know nothing, but my 4 year old grand-daughter knows everything, having moved on from Peppa Pig to be fixated on princesses.

So how do we as Christians hold the line and get the message over, when baby Jesus and the meaning of his birth gets lost among the secular Christmas razzamatazz? Here are some statistics I found on a website: “Just 12 per cent of adults know the nativity story, and more than one-third of children don’t know whose birthday it is. Meanwhile, 51 per cent of people now say the birth of Jesus is irrelevant to their Christmas.” The website concerned was “Christmas Starts With Christ”, and you’ll know something about this annual campaign if you happened to watch “Songs of Praise” last Sunday. Christmas Begins with Christ is a poster and event campaign that aims to restore the balance and turn back the secular tide at Christmas time.

I think this year the message seems better and clearer than perhaps its been in some past years. It focuses in part on some of the things people don’t enjoy: the queues, the getting into debt, and on, for example, the “trolley wars” that broke out in Tesco stores on so-called ‘Black Friday’. Does Christmas begin here? - it asks; no, Christmas begins with Christ. I hope the message gets through.

There’ve always been midwinter festivals, there were already midwinter festivals before Jesus was born. The days are short, the nights are cold, people get frightened by the darkness, and everyone needs a bit of cheering up. But until people discover what a clerical friend of mine persists in calling “the reason for the season” all the light and sound and eating and drinking adds up to nothing more than whistling in the dark. Christmas begins with Christ, and not with any of the other stuff.

Let me get back for a moment, though, to the disappearing season of Advent. Advent isn’t really about waiting for the baby Jesus. That’s not the theme of any of our readings this morning, not even the first one from the prophecy of Isaiah.  Their common theme is comfort and salvation, and linked to that is the inevitable theme of judgement. John the Baptist didn’t proclaim the birth of Jesus, because by then Jesus had grown up and become a man. The writer of 2 Peter (probably not Peter himself, but someone writing with his authority) wasn’t writing about the birth of Christ but his second coming, and the day of judgement. Be glad it hasn’t happened yet, he tells his readers, for that means you’ve still time to set things right and to share the good news with others. Isaiah wrote about the rescue of Israel from their slavery in Babylon, but his words speak of God’s constant desire for the liberation of his people, enslaved not by his doing but their own.

“God helps those who help themselves.” There’s a well-known phrase which when properly understood is quite true. Until we take the first step on our journey of faith we remain apart from God, but once we take that first small step, say that first feeble prayer, give that first unworthy gift, God will meet us in our endeavours, and bless us and make from our small offering more than we could think possible.

And here for me is the heart of the Advent message. This is a season in which we can reopen the door we’ve closed, shine up the prayers that have gone rusty, turn our getting and hoarding up back into giving. Put simply, Advent is our preparation not so much for Christmas as for discipleship. For all the efforts of the Christmas begins with Christ campaign, what counts is what folk see their local churches doing and what they find there when they go to them. The modern secular Christmas is all glossy on the outside, but how much of any value or substance is there inside? We may well be disappointed when we get past the outer packaging. But it’s the same for us in the Church; the message we offer stands or falls not by how well its packaged, but what there really is inside: the quality of our discipleship.

Christmas begins with Christ. Shepherds in fields abiding saw angels in the sky, and heard from them the good news of a child born to save his people. But they believed not when they heard the angels but when they went down to Bethlehem and actually found the child, there in the stable, just as had been promised. Mission is the vital life blood of the Church: we need to be telling people about Jesus, and no more so than now; but then they need to be able to test out the truth of what we say. They need to find him living in us, present among us, reflected in the quality of our fellowship and the generosity of our love.

So perhaps we shouldn’t panic too much in the face of the commercialisation of Christmas, just hold our collective nerve and stick to the things we should be good at. I think we might aim to be a bit more resistant than we sometimes are to the secular insistence on getting the whole of Christmas done and dusted and out of the way by the morning of Christmas Day. That may be the agenda of the media and the high street, but it doesn’t have to be ours. And I think we do well to make space in the pre-Christmas bustle for Advent to still happen, and to take seriously its big themes of the quality of our witness and discipleship, of the good news of salvation and of a God who does not abandon us, but alongside that the reality of judgement and the fact that we must answer for ourselves. And now and always, churches should simply concentrate on being what they are called to be - places of refuge and of discipling - of prayerful faith, heartfelt praise and open-handed generosity. Christmas is empty without Christ, and there are many people who feel that emptiness, and long for meaning and purpose and answers and call. When people like that come looking for Jesus, they need to be able to find him here, where we are, and in what we do; and because they see him reflected in us, to know him to be real and his love to be true.

And the good news of Advent is that we need only to take the first step. He will meet us and transform us, and make us his.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Another Music Quote

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”

Albert Einstein

On Music (Quote)

Music is not certain or solid or real. It operates solely through our heads and our bodies. It contains doubt and uncertainty, it exudes sadness and longing. It radiates into us, or floats past us. It is not really under our control. Composers are merely carriers, drawing water from a gigantic well to come parched and needy tribe, stranded far away from their natural homeland. When they first taste the water, the tribespeople think they can see their old country, hear their lost children playing, feel the old breeze on their faces. After that first heavenly sip they feel sure they will be able to find their way back home. But soon the cup is empty and they are standing once again in their new, empty surroundings, thirsting for more.

Howard Goodall

Tuesday, 2 December 2014


In times of darkness and of light,
in times of sorrow and of joy,
may love be ever at the heart of all we do.
May our trust be in its permanence and power,
to give our lives purpose and meaning,
to form friendships and to build communities,
and to comfort and encourage our hearts,
for when we know love, we glimpse what is eternal.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Some Thoughts at the Beginning of Advent

A few lines from a Sunday talk used today :-

Here is the hope I keeping coming back to when I look at the world news and despair, or are tempted to, at how cruel and unloving we can be to each other; and when I look at myself and see how much and how deeply I fail as a disciple, and fail in love. God has made us to be like him; and in the fullness of time he sent us Jesus to show us what that means. So however dark the world gets, the possibility of life and love is always there; so however deeply I fail, the seeds of love are still there set within me. We love God because he first of all loved us; he has always loved us and he still loves us, however unlovable we may be.

Here are words from Desmond Tutu. They’ve become a creed, a prayer, and I think they've been set to music as a worship song, and for me they sum up the faith and the firm hope that is central to my keeping of Advent :-

Goodness is stronger than evil;
love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours through him who loved us.

Victory is ours through him who loved us; Advent is about preparing ourselves for service and for judgement. We could look at the world and see so much that is frightening and evil and wrong that we just know there’s no point in even trying to serve, what difference could we make? But victory is already won; love is stronger than hate; victory is ours through him who loved us.

We could look at ourselves and know that the promised judgement can be nothing less than terrifying, because we have failed, and are justly condemned; our pathetic attempts at goodness are more than cancelled out by our sin, and our sins drag us down to the depths. But victory is already won, and forgiveness is already ours: light is stronger than darkness, love is stronger than hate; victory is ours through him who loved us.

I suppose that, as usual, I’ll be run ragged as this Christmas approaches, just like any other year. I’ll be last-minute like I always am, though I did manage to buy my Christmas cards (and a few sprouts!) the other day. But in all the rush and bustle of these weeks I shall make sure I set some time aside for the things Advent is really about, to draw closer to Christ, as he seeks always to draw closer to me . . . and I hope you’ll be making the time to do that too.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Walking home in fog

I am set adrift
in a silent world,
a world with no straight lines,
with no sharp edges; nothing
clearly defined, no way easy to tell.
Black water drips from every branch,
fallen leaves cling to my shoes,
this is become a strange and wild place,
a place in which - perhaps - to encounter ghosts,
maybe sent from somewhere else,
maybe of my own creation.
The light from the street lamp on the corner
is reflected back upon itself, to become
a ball of brightness that illuminates only the circling mist;
none of the light reaches me,
all remains dark where my feet tread.
I am not one to be anxious;
I know my way home,
know these streets to be safe, and have
a calming measure of whisky within me -
and yet I am glad, I admit,
to see the shape of our house suddenly solidify before me,
to reach my front step, and get inside.

Monday, 24 November 2014

The Shepherd's Song

There was always a song spinning round in my head,
a song I might sing in the village one day
with a girl by my side, and a beer and barm bread,
far away from the smell of wet sheep and stale hay.

But with no girls to please and no money to spend,
we were worlds away then from the taverns and bars,
with a long night ahead and the sheep safely penned,
and a good bit of fire and a sky full of stars.

A sky full of stars that you almost could touch,
so much closer it seemed than the village below,
where nobody cared much for shepherds and such,
rough men from the hills you’d prefer not to know.

We were welcome enough when we’d money to burn,
but otherwise best on the moors, out of sight;
tossing dice by the fireside, it came to my turn
when all of a sudden the sky flamed with light.

Don’t ask me to tell you now what we all saw,
or what voices we heard sing a new kind of song;
a moment of glory, then still as before,
yet our hearts were all filled with a yearning so strong,

it was as if each one had heard some great voice
say, “Tonight it begins, as God meant it to be,”
the voice of an angel that gave us no choice,
but to close up the sheep pens and go down to see.

And there in the stable out back of some inn
we found what the angel had sent us to see:
a mother and child, with the beasts looking in;
and we stumbling and clumsy, my workmates and me.

We’d no birth gift to bring him, we just stood a while,
tried to tell what we’d heard, saw the light in his face;
and she was so tired - yet how radiant her smile,
and we knew that we stood there surrounded by grace.

Then the song in the sky and the song in my head
met and mingled, so that I knew I must sing,
a sweet lullaby there by that rough manger bed:
it seemed angels sang with me on hovering wing.

And as bells rang in heavenly realms far above,
what we sang was forever, for all, and for love.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

No Sermon

I had set myself the objective of writing a sermon for each Sunday, although few of them would actually be preached from a pulpit. That resolve has slipped rather over the past couple of weeks, but happily I've heard a few good sermons in that time, and maybe there will have been a few lessons learned.  No sermon from me today, then, but on the day of "Christ the King" it was good to be singing this morning about "the royal robe I don't deserve", which is such a telling phrase. We are given a royal robe to replace the rags which are all we deserve; but what are we to do once we are wearing that robe? We are to do what our king does, who tells us that the greatest in his kingdom is the one who is humblest and who takes the lowest place. We are to serve, for we best do honour to our King by seeking to be like him, and he is the one who is among us as one who serves. Simple message, vital message; but a message too often ignored, passed over, deferred, watered down, explained away. It can't be explained away: our King has a crown of thorns, and his throne is a cross of wood - and it is here that we must come, in sadness and awake to our own failure and wretchedness, to receive those royal robes.

Wise Word

"If it don't look like Jesus, then it ain't God." Wise words quoted to us at a workshop day yesterday by Roger Jones of Christian Music Ministries. There's a lot in the world that claims a religious justification, to which we could usefully apply that simple test. Sadly, there's a lot within the organised Church to which that test could also be applied.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014


Yesterday I attended the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital for a colonoscopy, as required by my GP. I've had this done before, but remember nothing about the previous occasions, since generally I seem completely to forget all that has happened while I was sedated. Not so yesterday, though - were they using a different sedative, I wonder? I was completely conscious and attentive throughout, and in a strange way almost enjoyed the experience. I certainly couldn't fault the staff in any way: from receptionist to doctor they were polite, efficient, attentive, and on the whole quite good at the sort of small talk that sets you at ease. I'm glad to report that nothing harmful or bad was found - indeed, looking at the inside of my bowel on the screen (something I must have done on previous occasions too, but remember nothing about), I have to say it looked rather pink and healthy and not in any way revolting, as I might have supposed. Of course, one is thoroughly cleaned out beforehand, using something called Moviprep . . . but that's another story.

"Are you worried at all?" I was asked by the kind nurse who booked me in. I replied that I wasn't, but then realised that actually, just a bit. My GP had said when she sent me that "I don't think there's anything to worry about, but it's always worth checking." But then you think, "Yes, but what if there is - even something small and caught early? It would still change everything." We live on a knife edge all the time; as one of the funeral prayers reminds us, the thread that separates life from death is a slender one. The clock ticking remorselessly in the background as I write this is an indicator of my mortality, each tick one less second of life. And it isn't just about me, but the many lives my life connects with - so that just for a moment back then, I understood how for some people their engagement with disabling or terminal illness includes dealing with the feelings of guilt they have, the sense of letting other people down.

Anyway, in my case there was nothing to worry about; not this time, anyway. But it's good to visit now and again the reality that we are mortal, that one day, as the men in the trenches knew, a bullet comes with our number on it. "Live each day as if thy last" is a good motto. Or, to put it another way, our best response to the reality of death is that we seize hold of life and live it well, adventurously, lovingly, fully - that we make the most of every moment.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014


A short verse, original by "anonymous", slightly tweaked by me, that I shall use today at a funeral :-

I’d like the memory of me to be a happy one,
I’d like to leave an afterglow of smiles when life is done.
I’d like to leave an echo whispering softly down the ways
of happy times and laughing times, and bright and sunny days.
I’d like the tears of those who grieve to dry before the rain,
for though sometimes the skies grow dark, the sun will shine again.

Sunday Talk

I was due to speak at a little chapel last Sunday, but in the end everyone decided to join the Remembrance Service at the parish church instead, which I think was the right thing to do. I had chosen not to preach on the Remembrance theme, as it happens, but on the set readings for the day (the parable of the wise and foolish virgins), as given below :-

Weddings in first century Palestine were rather different from weddings today. So far as we can tell, the marriage ceremony followed a lengthy betrothal or engagement period which was itself a contractual arrangement that could be ended only by a formal divorce. On the marriage day itself, the bridegroom would come to collect his bride and they would make their way in procession to the place where the marriage was to be celebrated. In the story Jesus told, perhaps it was a procession of this sort for which the ten bridesmaids were waiting, with their oil lamps.  And the bridegroom, as we heard, was late.

I thought it was brides who were supposed to be late. My daughter got married two months ago, and she was 25 minutes late. That actually counted as a minor success; the photographer had told us she’d be an hour late. Her new hairdo fell out and they had to start again, apparently. On the day, all sorts of people could have been late in fact: my brother Colin was travelling from Llandudno, I’d a nephew coming from Anglesey; my sister was coming across from Oakham in Rutland and picking up her daughter in Stratford-on-Avon on the way. My son was coming from London, as were many of the groom’s friends, and another brother, Terry, was coming down from Blackpool. And since my son-in-law is Polish, all his family had flown in from Krakow. In fact everyone apart from the bride arrived on-time, though my brother and sister-in-law from Llandudno did run things a bit tight.

But the tension! Had we done everything, prepared everything, paid for everything? For weeks, my daughter’d been sending us planning rotas, showing what we should all be doing, and the date we should have done it by. Mostly, we ignored them, and it didn’t matter. It all went really well, and everyone had a good day, especially the bride and groom.

We forgot a few things, and we didn’t quite get round to doing a few things. None of them mattered too much as it happens, but with so much to coordinate, we could easily have missed something important. And then it would have mattered a lot. Weddings today are very different from weddings in first century Palestine, but they’re just as important, that’s for sure.

Whatever you’re planning, it’s important to have a plan B. Not everything will go exactly as predicted in plan A, so you need to make sure you can still keep all the wheels on the road, even so.  Keep things slick, and no-one else will notice, that’s the theory. It’s wise to make sure you have oil in your lamp.

Well, this is a parable about judgement, of course. Jesus had a lot to say about judgement, of course. He didn’t only talk about finding lost sheep and binding up wounds; there’s also a hard edge to his teaching. His people will have to answer for their action and for their inaction.

It’s good that this is a parable about inaction. When we use the word ‘sin’, we’re mostly thinking in term of sins, plural, in other words of the bad things we might do, or maybe see other people doing. Mostly we ourselves are nice and good, and don’t do much that’s wrong. But sin mostly isn’t sins at all. Sin is less about what we do, more about what we don’t do. When we don’t get round to things, when we can’t be bothered. Too much of the time, that’s me. I’m dreadful at not getting round to things. A procrastinator, a last-minute man, that’s me. To be honest, we’re a family of them; that’s why my daughter kept making out her rotas and lists, and that’s also why we mostly ignored them. Which group of bridesmaids would I have been in? I think I know.

More than once, I’ve been saved by the fact that Tesco’s open 24 hours. Well, there were no 24 hour superstores back in those days, to sell foolish young ladies oil for their lamps. I can imagine them hammering on the dealer’s door to wake him up. It must have taken them ages; and when they got back, they were too late.

So let’s think about what the message might be of this story for the people who first heard it, and for us today. We all know the song, “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning.” This is a story about how we make ourselves ready for the Lord. Maybe those who first heard Jesus were thinking mostly about being prepared and ready for the second coming, the Lord coming in judgement and fire, the end of all things, the moment of reckoning. Will he find us ready and prepared, or will he find us wanting? It has that meaning for us as well, but I think we must also read it as referring to the ways in which we prepare ourselves for service in the world today. These are not alternative readings, and mutually exclusive; as we wait for our Lord, our waiting needs to be active and purposeful. We should be waiting as witnesses and as those who have a story to share.

We wait as members of a servant Church, dedicating its energies and skills into making the world around us here as heavenly a place as it can be. We proclaim the kingdom to come by building kingdom values of love and peace and compassion and service here where we are – loving our neighbours as ourselves.  Our beginning point in being sorted out and ready and prepared as Christians is constancy in prayer and in our reading of God’s word. If we don’t pray regularly and we don’t read regularly that’s like having the lamp but no oil to put in it. Lamps without oil go out; so does faith without prayer.

So, next question: what do I mean by prayer, and how do we go about reading God’s word? It isn’t just that we do it, it’s how we do it. Let’s think about prayer. Prayer isn’t really about reciting things, even something as holy and relevant and beautiful as the Lord’s Prayer. Of course reciting prayers can and should be part of our prayer life, but it shouldn’t be all we do. We don’t necessarily have to kneel to pray, nor even to speak. One definition of prayer speaks of “the practice of the presence of God”.

I love the story of the old men who used to wander into church every lunchtime and sit there for a half hour or so. One day the minister stopped him as he was leaving and said, “I love the way you come here every day to talk to God.” “Oh, I don’t talk to God,” said the old man, “leastways, I do sometimes, when I’ve got something to say, and sometimes I reckon he talks to me. But most of the time we just sits here together in peace.” Now that’s praying: choosing, in our busy lives, to make some space to sit a while with God. Words are optional, so is sitting, some to that. We may be busy, but we can never be too busy to pray. So I know one person who prays as she washes up after breakfast, another who prays as she drives to work each day (in case you’re worrying, she doesn’t close her eyes to do it).

How we do our reading is also important. There’s no prize for being able to devour bigger chunks of scripture than the next person. Often, small is beautiful in our scripture reading. It’s good to hear what others make of what we read, which is why bible study groups can be helpful. A word of warning, though: avoid any bible studies I might be leading, if you want to actually stay on the subject! Better still perhaps, read using a study guide or notes like the ones produced by Scripture Union, Bible Reading Fellowship and others.

But don’t read just to be dutiful, just in order to have done it.  It’s often worth doing a bit of serious study: the Bible comes alive when we understand it more clearly, the geography, the political context, the cultural practices, all of that. When we understand clearly what each story meant for the people who first read it, then that can help us to understand what it might be saying for us today.

But on the other hand we don’t always want to get too academic about things, because we can also just use the Bible as a catalyst for prayer. Read a short passage, perhaps one that’s so well known you don’t need to really think about it too deeply; so just read it and pause, reflect, don’t worry about the meaning so much as what God might be wanting to say to you personally through those verses. I remember being told about this sort of use of the Bible by a member of the Iona Community, and finding it quite exciting, that God might use these age old words today to say something to me that’s fresh and new. Expect to find new things as you read, expect that God might want to meet you here.

Please don’t imagine that I’m any sort of expert. In fact, I suppose I’m advising you to do things I don’t do very well myself. That’s something I have to admit. But I know I need to pray and to read, and I know I can always grow and develop in the way I do those things, and I know that it’s here, in my praying and in my reading, that I’ll I get the fuel and the motivation to keep on serving, burning.

Here’s a final thought, not about fuel for oil lamps but fuel for motors. I’ve an old friend who’s a motor mechanic, and he always has virtually no fuel in his car; someone else I know who drives for a living never lets his fuel tank go below half way. I know which one of the two I’d prefer to travel with!

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Each Life Matters

Some words I've prepared for a memorial ceremony :-

What does it mean, to belong together? Simply that, on our own, even the greatest of us is only quite small. We are formed and made to be part of something greater than our mere selves: to give and to receive, to love and to be loved, to be cared for and to care. We are measured not by what we get and gather and own, but by what we give: within our families and with our children, in the nurture and teaching we have offered; among our friends, in our loyalty, and in our sharing of joys and tears; and within the wider world, in service and compassion, in perseverance and honest work. Like leaves on a tree, one day it will be our time to fall, and for some this will be too soon and out of season. But what each of us has given to the greater whole really matters; each life matters, each person matters, and what we have given of ourselves is what will live on.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Quite a long time . . .

. . . since I last posted anything here. There's lots happening, maybe too much, so that I find myself both not having time to post stuff and also not really being able to properly interpret what's going on around me. It's a bit like pushing a huge great boulder up a hill; it's all right just so long as you keep pushing . . . the trouble is that as soon as you stop, the boulder rolls back and crushes you.

Or maybe it's just that we fool ourselves into thinking that. Perhaps what happens is that we stop, the boulder rolls back, but someone steps forward and takes the strain. Or perhaps the boulder doesn't roll back but is quite all right just sitting there a while, it's just that we spook ourselves into thinking it's bound to roll back.

Maybe I'm in danger of taking this particular metaphor too far!  Here's something I posted earlier on today on Facebook, which is a reflection on stuff from last weekend. Many of my FB friends have "shared" material posted by rather extreme right wing groups, who have done their best this year to hijack the Poppy Appeal for their own ends. I'm sure the friends concerned would not, for the most part, subscribe to the aims of these groups (some might, I suppose, I don't require any of my friends, FB or otherwise, to pass some kind of political opinion test, and on the whole I enjoy the variety of their views). Myself, I don't share anything until I know where it's come from.

Anyway, here's what I wrote -

I have been very moved this weekend at the attendances and the quality of worship, music, ceremony and preaching I've encountered at a number of Remembrance events. Good and powerful address by Steve Willson at St Mary's Welshpool yesterday making the essential point that the enemy is extremism, of all kinds, in all places, in (sadly) all faiths, creeds and political groupings. I hope it was heard, not least by the many young people in church. With that in mind, how sad that groups like Britain First have sought to hijack the poppy and remembrance for their own sectarian ends. They presume to know what those who fought were fighting for: I prefer to believe they were fighting for freedom, tolerance and a world where all are affirmed and valued - in a world war in which they fought alongside comrades of many different creeds, colours and cultures. I am proud of my country and my heritage, but proud most of all of what it can do and be in a world where peace and justice should be the right and the possession of all.

I'm pleased to see that it's had more "likes" than any other of my recent posts.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Blessed are the gentle

A talk prepared but not given . . .

Blessed are the gentle; they shall have the earth for their possession. As I read through this morning’s Gospel reading, that was the verse that caught my eye, though I have to confess it did so for a slightly unworthy reason. I was reminded of a poster I saw on a railway station platform, which simply said, paraphrasing that verse, “The meek shall inherit the earth.” Underneath, someone had written, one of the meek, presumably: “If that’s all right with the rest of you.”

For it does seem a bit far fetched, don’t you think, that the meek should inherit the earth. How’s that going to happen? If, for example, you take a very literal view of a re-created earth like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Christadelphians do, then yes, the gentle and meek are left to take possession of an earth just like this one but with all the bad bits taken out. That isn’t quite what I believe, but I’ll come back to that.

It seems to me that on the whole, religion these days is getting less and less meek. A hundred or more years ago, murders and bomb outrages were likely to be perpetrated by young atheistic anarchists, but now the bombs are liable to be planted by young converts to Islam, or perhaps young people converted within Islam to a form of the faith they believe to be purer and truer, and to a war which they believe – and are taught – God is requiring them to fight. The carnage their actions produce is they believe blessed by God, and they themselves are blessed by God, the more so if they die as martyrs to this holy cause. I find it hard to comprehend how anyone can choose to believe in a God who calls us to kill and maim and destroy; but when I said that to a non-religious friend he pointed out that the Bible is full of instances where God does seem to demand just that from his people.

So that caused me to think again. The Old Testament very vividly recounts occasions when people were slain in their hundreds and thousands, and whole families executed for what seem to us trivial reasons, and kings brought low for not slaying and destroying everything they should have. It can make uncomfortable reading for the naturally meek and gentle.

“This is the word of the Lord” we say at the end of a reading. But it doesn’t always quite feel like that. Or not always when it’s from the Old Testament, anyway. Someone asked me the other day whether I was a fundamentalist where the Bible is concerned, and my answer was “Yes and no”. Yes, in that the Bible is fundamental to my faith, and this is where I must go, and do repeatedly go, to discern the word and the will of God. But no, if what you mean by fundamentalism is the “every word is holy” attitude that has to give each part of this amazing collection of literature the same prescriptive power and authority.

In other words, I value and I use the Bible, but I’m not held prisoner by it. And more to the point, when I read the Bible I do so as a Christian; my beginning point is the Gospels, the story and the words of Jesus, and the New Testament provides the glass, the prism, through which I may read and understand the Old. Not rejecting it or throwing it out, for, difficult though they may be, these Old Testament verses are the scriptures that informed and empowered our Lord himself; but at the same time, not reading them and being bound by them as though our Lord Jesus had never walked among us and said and done the things he did. I think of the Old Testament as the winding quest of a people seeking to follow and serve and discover the God who is fully revealed in the witness of the New Testament, and in the person of Jesus. And whatever I read, I read from the foot of the cross.

There are many Christian martyrs, and indeed most I would think of the saints we honour at All Saints’ Tide will have died as martyrs. Nowadays martyrdom is maybe the ambition of young idealistic Muslim jihadis, but that’s a martyrdom achieved in the course of killing others: scandalously, all too often those who have never lifted hand against them, sometimes those who have actively sought to help, and indeed many who were themselves fellow Muslims. How does that compare to what we read in scripture? It’s maybe not too far from some of what we read in the Old Testament, but it’s a world away from the Gospels; and when we stand at the foot of the cross, and see the nails and the spear and the crown of thorns, what rules there is meekness and gentleness, and I am reminded of the words of Graham Kendrick’s lovely worship song “Meekness and Majesty”, or the immense words of Isaac Watts, “When I survey the wondrous cross”.

A number of the early Christian martyrs died not in the course of killing but because they would not kill, and many more because they would not speak against their Lord, or deny him, having given their lives to him. The hallmark of such people was meekness, but let’s be sure about one thing here: such meekness was not a wishy washy doormat sort of a thing, in which you let everybody walk over you because you’re afraid to stand up for what you believe. Not for a moment: what we see in the saints we honour today, and in the martyrs of our Church especially, is a tough meekness that knows what it believes, and will not let go of that whatever threats may be made. What these men and women have in common with today’s Islamic so-called martyrs is that they have found something that is to them of more value and importance than anything else, even than their own life; but for the Christian saint everything rests in Jesus, and the only way of life – or of death – is to be as like him as we can be.

I said “as we can be” to make the simple but important point that though we tend to reserve the word saint for specially good and holy people, in its original use the word was used for anyone who follows Jesus. If we use the word in that way, then we are all saints; and we should all aspire to the meekness and the gentleness we find in Jesus.

And in so doing we shall inherit the earth; or, in the version from which I read this morning, we shall have the earth for our possession. Here is what I think that means: it means that the things that will truly endure in this world are cross shaped things. It may look as though might will always win the day, and that those who by their guns and bombs instil fear in others, the tyrants and the terrorists, and for that matter the greedy and the grabbers, will always have the upper hand, but the reality is that nothing built on those foundations can last. As Jesus himself said, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”

In a way I feel sorry for the idealistic young men, young women too, who have been seduced into fighting for ISIS, or engaging in acts of more or less random terrorism, in the name of Islam and in the belief that they are serving and pleasing God. I mourn with a heavy heart for their victims; but I have nothing but contempt for the twisted and bitter teachers who hijack the name and the authority of imam in order to twist and poison idealistic young minds. These so called holy men bear if anything by far the greater guilt. These are men with hands covered in blood. They proclaim a god who loves the righteous and hates in the infidel . . . but what sort of righteousness involves a man covering his hands in innocent blood? We proclaim the God who from the cross proclaims his meek and gentle and forgiving love for all the world, and even for those who nailed him there and left him to die.

Those who live according to the Spirit of this man will always be life-affirmers rather than life-deniers. The offering of our own lives is not an attempt at earning or cadging our way into heaven, but our response to what has already been achieved for us, on the cross, and that what the cross stands for is not ours alone, but a message for the world, a word of love that everyone needs to hear.

There will always be those in the world who will stop their ears to it; for them, might is always right, and they will even find religious excuses for their cruelty and barbarism or to justify their greed. Often it will look as though they are winning, but nothing they build can last. Only in the meekness of the man who died at Calvary can we find the true majesty we take as our model of how to live, by his grace, and as givers and enablers and life-bringers. We honour this in the saints, men and women whose lives were transparent to that great example of love; may that same light shine also in us, and in the meek and courageous witness of his Church in all the world.

All Saints

A talk prepared but not given . . .

  I heard the other day about a type of cloud called a noctilucent cloud. Noctilucent means “shining at night”, and that’s what these clouds do. They’re very high clouds indeed, made up of ice crystals, and they appear to us when it’s dark, shining with a blueish or faint white glow. The sun is below the horizon, but it’s light still reaches that portion of sky, so that the clouds to glow in a way that’s quite different from the light on clouds along the horizon at sunset.

You think of clouds normally as blocking the light, but these ones shine instead. To see them you might almost believe they can somehow make their own light, but of course they can’t: they just take the light that is offered them, and then share that light with us the cloud watchers, somewhere far below.

Another cloud image that came to me as I was thinking what to speak about today is this; my particular story is located in the little northern market town of Glossop between Manchester and Sheffield, on a cold and grimy and grey winter’s day a few years ago. I’d gone there to walk up into the hills and take part of the Pennine Way. I arrived by train, walked from the station to the town centre, and couldn’t help but feel rather depressed, because it was one of those days when everything just seemed grey and dismal. Glossop was completely covered by clouds that seemed to start somewhere around chimney pot level. And everywhere was dripping wet, water dripped from every telegraph wire, down the drain pipes and the awning of the shops and the market stalls, and you got showered every time you happened to knock the branch of a tree. I trudged up out of the town and onto the Pennines, and as I did so, I reached a point at which the world was utterly and completely transformed. I came out of the clouds and into a magical and sunlit world on the hill tops, looking down now on the cloud in the valleys changed from dull grey into dazzling white.

On All Saints’ Day we celebrate and remember those who, as the Book of Revelation reminds us, are clothed in dazzling white. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Like those noctilucent clouds, the light with which they shine is not their own, they shine with the light of Christ.

Another image that always comes to mind on All Saints’ Day is the stained glass window. Most stained glass windows contain pictures of saints, I suppose, and our ancestors would have learned about the saints from the stained glass and the wall paintings in their church. I remember that in one of my previous churches we had a very large and lovely stained glass window at the east end, behind the altar, and we thought it was a bit of a shame that at our biggest service of the year, the Christmas Eve carol service, all you could see of it was a big black shape behind the altar. So my churchwarden had the bright idea of installing temporary floodlights to shine up at the window from outside; the whole scene was transformed into  the Victorian equivalent of glorious Technicolor.

Like stained glass windows and noctilucent clouds, saints shine with a light that isn’t their own, it’s been given them by God. We think of saints as people so irradiated with God’s love that they glow, and that glow touches those around them. Each stained glass window glows in its own special way, with colours and shapes and designs that you only see when the light shines through - in the case of our big East window, a rich display of purples and reds and gold. Saints also each shine in his or her own special way; their stories are all different, their skills and talents and loves, so each saint we encounter will shine in a special and unique way.

But all of them shine because of the one light they have been given, the love-light gifted them from above; and so the one true light of God shines into the world in a myriad different ways. Each shard of saintly light bears witness to the loveliness of God in a new and special way, and all form part of the one unbroken glory that is God’s alone.

I love to read about the saints, and their stories both encourage me and challenge me. I’m encouraged by their stories of kindness, constancy, valour, and steadfast faith. But I can’t help but be challenged when I think, would I have done that? Could I have done that? Would I have remained true, or would I have drifted away? It’s easy to be a saint when the road is clear and everything is sunny; much harder when there are rocks about and the road is dark. I’m all right till tested, but how would I cope with the test?

Saints are not super-heroes, but they are people who know the truth about themselves. Saints aren’t specially good and perfect, but they are honest: honest in admitting their weakness, honest in owning up to their mistakes, honest in accepting the discipline they needed, and honest in opening their hearts to God’s forgiving love and healing touch. Peter the foremost of the apostles denied his Lord three times, and then burst into tears when he realised what he’d done; and like him, many of the greatest saints were and are men and women who’d been brought face to face with their own weakness. Saints don’t set out to be heroes of the faith, it’s something that happens to them. And it happens because these are people who’ve said yes to God and who’ve gone on saying yes to God, even when the world told them it was a foolish thing to do, even when the world attacked and persecuted them for doing it. At its simplest, that’s what makes a saint – a saint is someone who, when God calls, keeps on saying yes.

And so we all get our chance to be saints. There’s no pre-qualification. It’s not like the Olympics, where you only get into the team when you’ve beaten a certain time or won a certain race. God calls, and we say – Sorry, what was that again? Or – Not just now, thanks; or – Isn’t there someone else who could do that? Or – Yes, sure, I would, but I’m doing my hair tonight.  That’s what we say, or is it just me? But the saints we honour today didn’t say any of those things, or any of the hundred and one other excuses we come up with to justify being lukewarm or part time in our faith. No – these guys said “Yes” – maybe not straight away, but once they’d said it they went on saying it; they persevered in the faith.

Getting back to clouds for a moment, bits of the song “Both Sides Now” started playing in my head as I sat down to write these words. Judy Collins, I think, singing this about clouds: “Now they only block the sun, they rain and snow on everyone; so many things I could have done, but clouds got in my way.” Some last, cloud-based thoughts, then. Firstly, that when we’re not part of the solution, we may well be part of the problem. Saints shine to lead people to the Lord, but we could be blocking the light, and barring the way, or concentrating on looking good ourselves, instead of pointing the way to Jesus’. Let’s be noctilucent clouds, that shine God’s love where otherwise it would be dark.

And finally, thinking of my day in Glossop, maybe saints are those who even while they live in the grimy and grey world trapped under the clouds, can see the glory above the clouds, and bear witness to that glory. They’re not restricted by the ordinary and the everyday, and that’s why they could do such amazing things, all the time saying, with St Paul, “Yet not I, but Christ at work within me.”