Sunday, 23 February 2014

Long-Tailed Tits

As I mentioned in my post last Thursday, LTT's now visit very regularly - in fact they appear several times each day, starting quite early in the morning, and almost always exclusively using our feeder for "fat balls" rather than the seed or nut feeders.  During the winter they visit mob-handed;  the previous year's brood often stay with the parents through the winter.  To see - as on one occasion not long ago - twelve or so of these remarkably agile little birds flitting about together is a real delight.

Now, however, our visitors are a pair, arriving together and very much operating as a couple. Along with our pair of robins, a real sign of spring. Not that today is all that spring-like, with high winds and cloudy skies - but, thankfully, so far not the flood of rain the weatherman was predicting a day or two back. We could certainly do with the comparatively dry spell continuing for a while longer, though I doubt it'll happen.

I hope the daily presence of LTT's is a sign that they'll be nesting somewhere close by. It would be really nice to have their company through the spring and summer. The nest is one of the most finely fashioned of our bird's nests, and they will raise a family of between eight and twelve.

Thursday, 20 February 2014


Today has been an amazingly busy day at our garden bird feeders, perhaps because the birds knew the garden would be a no-go area once our grandchildren had arrived!  Long-tailed tits are daily visitors now, preferring to feed on the fat balls, and there are large numbers of chaffinches, siskins and goldfinches. One or two greenfinches turn up, and the bullfinch is generally around as well. But today we have had a few bramblings again, and for the first time one has visited our front garden feeders, allowing a better chance for photography.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

O.K., so . . .

. . . this remembering to post something every day so that this turns into a proper blog isn't really happening. I'll go on trying, though.  Mum's big 90th birthday bash was last weekend, so that took lots of time and drained lots of energy - sort of (we're a big family so it's not as if there was really all that much for me to do!).  Here are a couple or three pictures, anyway.

Saturday, 15 February 2014


Our garden has been full of siskins, goldfinches and long-tailed tits (again) today. The siskins are my favourite: I love their aerobatic and acrobatic skills.

Old Photographs

Well, the wet and windy weather continues, though it seems we may get a bit of a breathing-space from tomorrow.  To be honest, Welshpool has not come through too badly, compared to many other places in the country. We've had our share of flooding, which is only to be expected, lying as we do firmly in the valley of the Severn, but it certainly could have been worse, and has been in other years. Quite a few trees have come down, though - out and about yesterday and today there are many gaps in the hedgerows and along the skylines.

I've spent quite a lot of time today sorting through old photographs, and putting a bit of a collection together for Mum's special birthday party tomorrow. Memories come flooding back! Sometimes there is a very vivid recollection not just of the place but of the exact moment when I see my seven or eight year old self in grainy black and white. Not that that is always the case; some of the photographs stir very little in the way of memories. Mostly these are more recent photographs than the childhood holiday snaps. Sometimes what Ann recalls is very different from my memories (shades of Maurice Chevalier!). Sometimes neither of us can remember very much. One picture shows all my brothers, my sister, our wives and partners, and Mum; it's taken after dark in the garden of a fairly modern house. Whose, I don't know; what the occasion was, I don't know. I must have been there, but no memory at all is stirred, and Ann was quite surprised to find herself in the picture, too.

It is apparently not true that our brains work less well as we get older (apart, of course, from specific health problems that may occur). It's just that they contain so much information, so many pieces of memory, items of learning, that everything takes longer to process. This, I am informed, is a matter of scientific fact; it has been tested. All I can say is that so far, my own tests seem to suggest otherwise. Unless, of course, my mind has behaved like the digital computer on which I am writing this, and deleted data in order to speed up the essential processes and calculations. Anyway, someone else will no doubt remember what it was we were doing twenty or so years ago, when we meet up tomorrow. And as (I think) Albert Einstein said, the important thing is not that you should know a lot of things, but that you should know where you can look them up.

Friday, 14 February 2014

The Calm after the Storm

Since the idea of a blog is that it should be a sort of diary, I think I should make something of a commitment to post a bit more regularly than I have been doing!  So here goes.  Yesterday was a 'calm after the storm' sort of a day - blue sky and sunshine after the strong wind and heavy rain of the day before . . . though I still did get rained on while out and about, and there is snow on the hills. More bad weather to come, they promise, so the calm before the storm as well. What a wet winter it has been! How long will it be before the farmers can do anything at all in most of the sodden fields around us?

The newspaper Ann brought home majored, like all our news bulletins just now, on the weather and its impact on our lives, with the flooding in the Thames Valley (home, I imagine, to many a senior journalist) very much at the centre of things. It also had on its front page, however, a school photo of the woman recently convicted of three murders and two attempted murders, compared to the adult photo of her brandishing a knife, which half the world has now seen. The trial of the men who assisted her in her crimes has come to its conclusion. The contrast between the innocent face and quiet smile of the girl in the school photo and the reality of the events recounted in court couldn't be greater, but what actually leads a person to become what she became is hard to assess - what combination of nature and nurture, the genes we inherit and what the world does to us. Why is it that the same sort of  experience hardens one person, and breaks another, brings one person to faith and drains the faith away from another? What in particular breaks the restraining code of morality that for most of us, religious or not, governs our behaviour and guides the decisions we make?

I found an old school photograph of my class, on which I look quite angelic. I was surprised not to be able to put names to most of the other children. I remember many of the names, of course, but matching them to the faces is beyond me. As far as I know, none of them has become an axe-murderer, though I'm pretty sure at least one has spent time inside, at Her Majesty's pleasure, as they say. I certainly couldn't tell which by looking at the picture, though!

An axe murderer features in the Van Veeteren story (crime novels by Hakan Nesser) that I've just started. A quote from the first few pages of that book, which I thought worthy of reflection: ". . . did there come a point, (Van Veeteren) had started to wonder, beyond which we no longer look forward to something coming, but only to getting away from what has passed?" Discuss, as they say. I suppose I do hope that by the end of my life I may feel I am ready to leave it - but I do also hope that until that time I shall continue to look forward in hope and expectation. I may also look back, and at times that will be with regret, but I should not ever wish that to be the dominant theme of my existence. Or at least, not until the last possible moment.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Man versus Squirrel (4)

Snowy this morning, and a squirrel has for the first time sampled our front garden bird feeders.  The pole on which they hang is decidedly rickety, and I was half afraid the weight of a squirrel would bring it down.  It didn't, but the squirrel was a bit disconcerted by the amount of sway, and decided to descend to ground level!

In the back garden, my new squirrel-proof bird feeders have failed at the first hurdle.  Most birds seem quite put off by the mesh around the feeder, for a start.  Even the siskins won't go through, though the doughty little coal tits do.  Meanwhile, the squirrels have quickly perfected the art of just taking the lid off the top of the tube, and stretching down to eat what's inside.  Just to make sure we can't put the lid back, they've bitten through the catch, too.  Game, set and match to Sciurus carolinensis, I should say.

(Supposedly squirrel-proof bird feeder)

Monday, 10 February 2014


It's been a while since my last post - I've been busy elsewhere - and I should have posted up this Sunday talk, given a week ago on 2nd February:

Around the time of the millennium, Christian leaders gathered in Rome at the invitation of Pope John Paul II to remember the martyrs of the Church worldwide, of the twentieth century.  There had been an awful lot of them.  Those who gathered in Rome heard the stories of women and men of many different cultures and nationalities who had refused to deny their faith, and whose blood called out from Auschwitz and from the gulags of the Soviet Union, from Burundi and from Uganda, from Central America and from China.  The commemoration took place close to the Colosseum where in the first years of the Church Christians had faced the lions, to be reminded that still today church leaders and church members still find themselves faced with the horrors of the cross and the reality of sacrifice.  To name a few: Janani Luwum, Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Maria Skobtsova, Maximilian Kolbe:  there are many more.

I wanted to began what I say today by mentioning these martyrs of modern times because today is the day, forty days after Christmas, when traditionally Christians have recalled the story told by Luke in the reading I used a moment ago.  Jesus was brought to the temple by his parents, to do for him what any good set of parents would wish to do for their first-born son - to present him. Today is the day popularly known as Candlemas, but better titled the Presentation of Christ in the Temple;  and today has sacrifice as its central theme.  

When a firstborn child was presented in the temple he was offered to God as God's own possession.  At the same time a ritual sacrifice was also offered - for fairly poor folk like Mary and Joseph this would have been a pair of doves – and that sacrifice was to buy back the child to remain part of his own family. What lies behind this ceremony is an awareness of the way in which we all belong to God, something Mary and Joseph affirmed when they did for their firstborn son what the Law of the Lord required.

I recall visiting a Greek Orthodox monk some years ago, just at this time of the year - he was a painter of icons who was doing a bit of art restoration work for the church I was ministering in back then.  We found ourselves talking about the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and he told me that the great teachers of the Orthodox Church understood the story of the presentation of Christ to be an icon of the Holy Trinity. What do you mean, I asked - surely an icon is a painting?  Yes, it is, he replied, but it’s more than just that; the icon is how we in the Orthodox Church use and interpret everything in scripture and tradition and Christian experience. 

It’s about finding pictures and stories of sacred and holy things, he said.  In the story of the Presentation, firstly, when the Son is brought into the Temple and offered as a sacrifice there is an icon of the cross, which is the work of Jesus our Saviour. Secondly, the doves offered as a sacrifice become an icon of the baptism that begins and enables ministry, and that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Thirdly, old Simeon speaks to Mary and Joseph words God has inspired him within him, and in doing that becomes an icon of the Father.  That’s not the way I’d used scripture up till then, but I could see there was something in the way it takes a familiar story and looks at it in a new way, that maybe says something important about the way in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit belong together.

Actually, to think of God as trinity is itself an image of sacrifice. As we try to express something of the mystery of God, one way of putting the trinity onto paper is to draw a triangle. Each point of the triangle, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is completely God, and yet each is not the other.  This is a relational way of understanding how Father, Son and Holy Spirit belong together.  But on its own it’s not enough, it’s too static - so we might go on to represent the Trinity by drawing a circle.  

A circle makes for a much more dynamic way of expressing the idea of the trinity, because it has no fixed points at which Father, Son and Holy Spirit are located. Each person of the trinity could be at any point on the circle, and you could add arrows to your drawing to suggest the constant movement that is interplay between the persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This gives us a participative image of God as Trinity. Again, not enough on its own, so the triangle and the circle are often drawn together, as a triangle with a circle linking round through its sides, and this has become one of the classic symbols of the Trinity that you will sometimes see in churches and cathedrals and in Christian art.

And this presents us with a fundamentally sacrificial image of what it means to say that God is trinity, for what the circle and triangle linked together try to express in picture form is the self-giving love that is the very heart of God, in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit hold themselves together in mutual service.  Again, Orthodox Christians see the blood of the martyrs as an icon of the sacrificial nature of God.  Those who have given their lives for his life, their love for the divine love promised by the Father, revealed in the Son, and brought to life within us in the Holy Spirit have revealed something of the wonder of God who as Father and Son and Holy Spirit exists in mutual service, each member of the Trinity serving the others, for that is the nature of love, and God is love.

And we in our turn are challenged to reveal in our own lives the self giving love of God.  That is or should be the theme of our worship Sunday by Sunday and our prayer day by day;  we offer ourselves to serve and to love, and to give what we can. Most of us may never be faced with the stark choice of martyrdom;  but we’re all called every day to dare to offer our selves to God, and, as St Paul puts it, to present our selves, our souls and our bodies to be a living sacrifice.  It’s not easy, though.  I wonder how well we ever manage it - living our lives in a genuinely sacrificial way, setting aside our own concerns and priorities and pride and status in order to love the Lord our God and therefore also to love our neighbour as ourselves.  

The story of the presentation of Christ in the Temple presents the new covenant God makes with us within the circumstances of the old covenant of the temple worship and sacrifice.  The people of Israel belonged to God, but they were alienated from him by their sin, and that sin needed to be sorted out. The sacrifices offered in the temple were made to redress the balance, and to placate God’s anger and restore his favour toward his people. So the ritual sacrifice Mary and Joseph offer in the temple that day is just part of an ongoing continuing round of sacrifice which is never sufficient, never worthy, by which a people set apart from God by their own sin seek to make things all right again and restore his favour.  But within this old covenant Simeon sees in this child the beginning of something new, something for which he has waited so long, and something that will bring to an end the old round of temple sacrifice.  The old ritual is rendered obsolete by the new light who will be a light to all nations and the glory of his people Israel.

Until this time sacrifice was offered to placate God’s anger, offered in fear and trembling;  but now, in the light of Christ we no longer need to live in fear.  We can offer a sacrifice of ourselves as a thank-you rather than as a penance - and the reason we can do this is that the one true perfect and sufficient sacrifice has been offered; the sacrifice that restores us once and for all to the status of sons and daughters of the living God.  Through the child offered that day in the temple, all the little sacrifices of our own lives are offered an eternal worth and value.

Tertullian, one of the fathers of the early Church, writing at a time of great persecution and affliction, said that 'the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church'.  This is true now as it was then in a very literal way: the Church has often been at its strongest when it has been most severely attacked.  The brave sacrifices of those we honour as martyrs have inspired others and have drawn them to know and to follow Jesus, for by them men and women of faith have declared in a way no-one could deny that their faith in the Lord, their love for the Lord, the love they have found in the Lord, is for them a truth above all truth, and a life beyond all life.  So we should certainly thank God that when darkness and desperation have surrounded the Church there’ve always been men and women who did not stand down or run away or betray their faith but stood firm to the end.  And we should thank God that still today he is giving strength and light and courage and perseverance to his people who face persecution.

But the Church needs always to have a spirit of sacrifice, if it’s truly to be the Church of Jesus. The Book of Common Prayer includes these words: ‘Here we offer and present unto thee, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a holy and lively sacrifice’, and they seem to me to encapsulate what it means to be the Body of Christ in the world:  they are words not just to say, but to live.  The apostle Paul writes to the Colossian church that ‘he is helping to complete, in his own poor flesh, the full tale of Christ’s afflictions’.  But he’s doing this as a thank-offering to the God in whom he already has liberation and the promise of life.  

Because of the offering Jesus makes of himself, each small sacrifice we make, each little presentation of my self to God, can grows to be something better and stronger than our own efforts could ever make it.  However small the sacrifice, if it’s given wholeheartedly and lovingly, if it truly is presented to God, then God promises to make what we give into an icon of his glory.

Historically the Presentation of Christ in the Temple was within the Church an ending of the Christmas season and a time to start looking forward to Easter.  Traditionally called Candlemas, it became an opportunity for new commitment, for a new offering of ourselves. Old carols that used to be sung today tell of taking out the old Christmas greenery, holly and ivy and stuff, that would have decked our halls, to bring in new branches of rosemary and bay that look forward to the coming spring.  And the people would gather by the font in church to recall their baptism promises and to recommit themselves to live faithfully and courageously.  So may we just use this moment today to offer ourselves once again to our Lord who has offered so much to us, and whose Son was in the Temple acclaimed as a light for all the world;  a light for you and me, this tiny child who is the wonder of God himself held in the arms of old Simeon who had waited so long. And let us pray again that his light may shine in our lives, and that his glory may indeed be seen and known in all the world.