Saturday, 30 August 2014


An address based on the Gospel reading for tomorrow :-

There’ll have been times I think when Jesus was a rather difficult person to be with. He had his natural opponents of course among the priests and the Pharisees, and for them Jesus got to be so difficult he simply had to go. But reading the Gospel stories, you get the distinct impression that the friends and disciples of Jesus found things a bit tough too; they’re sort of scrambling along after him, trying to make sense of it all, but often they must have wondered just what on earth was really happening.

This morning’s Gospel reading must surely have been one of those times. It follows immediately on from last Sunday’s Gospel, in which, if you recall, Jesus asked the question, “Who do you say I am?” Peter (who else) replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and was warmly commended by Jesus. “You are Peter, the Rock - and on this rock I will build my church.”

The Messiah. People all over Israel were waiting for the Messiah. God’s holy one would come and free his people from servitude - which roughly translated, meant kick out the Romans and put a king of the line of David onto the throne of Jerusalem. There’d been a number of Messianic claimants, all of whom had attracted their share of disciples and followers. Peter and his fellows were clear in their own minds that Jesus was the real deal; clear too, I should think, about what ought to happen next - and their thoughts would have been of military victory and high office in the new kingdom.

But if that’s what they thought then Jesus must have greatly confused them when he spoke to them about what he believed would happen. Jerusalem, yes, but suffering and death, not victory: how could that happen to the Messiah?

The disciples are mystified by this, appalled at the things Jesus has told them. And once again it’s impetuous Peter who speaks out. “No, Lord, this shall never happen to you!” he cries. And Jesus, who just three or four verses ago has been commending Peter, now dismisses him with these words: “Out of my sight, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me. You think as men think, and not as God thinks!”

“Out of my sight, Satan!” Tough words, indeed. But think: where did we last find Jesus conversing with Satan? When in Lent we called to mind his testing in the wilderness. There Jesus was tempted of the Devil; in other words, he wrestled with the many temptations that would come his way as he ministered, temptations to turn aside and take the plausible but worldly alternative. A few verses before today’s Gospel reading Jesus had told Peter that his words “You are the Messiah” were not his own, but given him by God; now he tells Peter he’s speaking words put into his mouth by Satan.

Throughout his ministry Jesus must have needed to face down those same all-too-plausible temptations: to make choices that would have seemed sensible and even good - but they were the wrong way to go, they ran counter to his Father’s will. Such as going for worldly power, taking the throne of David that people expected the Messiah to seize: surely a lot of good could come of doing that: people set free, a new peace for Israel under the Law. How could that be bad?

The answer can be found in a phrase we use in the Communion prayer: “once and for all”. God’s love has no boundaries, and God’s salvation has no boundaries. It’s not for one people but for all people. It’s not about becoming King of Israel, the Messiah must be King of the world - and not for the duration of an earthly reign, but for ever. Anything less plays into Satan’s hands, and the long reign of sin remains unchallenged.

But I don’t suppose that at that time the disciples were able to make much sense of what Jesus was saying. It was so far from how they must have imagined things would be. This Messiah will win the greatest of victories, but to the world it will look like defeat. His crown is claimed from the wood of the cross, not on any battlefield. And Jesus goes on to talk to his disciples about what is expected of them. “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

So Jesus told his disciples that even as he sets his face to Jerusalem, he knows that he’s going there to die. And I’m sure that realisation of what was being asked of him would have been as terrifying for Jesus the man as for any other of us; but this man will do everything the Father asks of him. So it isn’t that Jesus enters Jerusalem full of Messianic hope, and then it all goes wrong for him; not at all - he knows from the start what he’s going there to do. He will enter the city to do his Father’s will, and already his life has been surrendered; this man holds nothing back, he gives it all.

Only in retrospect, only after they’ve seen him die, and known him risen and alive, only then will the disciples get their heads round what Jesus had been saying to them all along. But all through their time with him they’ve seen the example he has set, of humility and service, and his word to them has been: “Let the greatest among you be as one who serves.”

Let the greatest among you be as one who serves. Everything we do as Church needs again and again to face the test of those words. Our great and holy task is to present Christ to a world that so desperately needs to know him as he really is, and to know the love which is his way and his being and his gift. Be sure that the Devil still finds plausible ways to tempt and persuade us away from that task.

These plausible temptations so often begin with worry. We worry about our status and position in the world, we worry about how many attend our church on Sunday, we worry about making ends meet and looking after our buildings, and we worry about why the church up the road is doing well while we’re struggling. There’s always something to worry about. And as we deal with our worldly worries, we may choose to model the way we do things on the way we see other successful organisations operate. There’s nothing wrong in borrowing good ideas, just so long as we remember our priorities are different. Sometimes  the way Churches and individual Christians behave will look foolish according to the way the world measures things.

That’s because we follow a man who died on a cross, and he told us we can’t follow him without taking up crosses of our own. If my life isn’t cross-shaped and cross-centred, then however successful and plausible I may seem to be, there’s something vital missing, I’m losing touch with my Lord. For Jesus went to Jerusalem, to the place where Messiahs should go to get themselves made king, knowing that the true Christ must go there in order to die.

I want to close with some confessional words from G.A. Studdert Kennedy, better known in the First World War as ‘Woodbine Willie’ and from his heroic chaplaincy of our soldiers in the trenches. He wrote :-

“On June 7th 1917 I was running to our lines half made with fright, though running in the right direction, thank God, through what had been once a wooded copse. It was being heavily shelled. As I ran I stumbled and fell over something. I stopped to see what it was. It was an undersized, underfed German boy, with a wound in his stomach and a hole in his head. I remember muttering, ‘You poor little devil, what had you got to do with it? Not much great blond Prussian about you.’

“Then there came light. It may have been pure imagination, but that does not mean that it was not also reality, for what is called imagination is often the road to reality. It seemed to me that the boy disappeared and in his place lay the Christ upon his cross, and cried, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my little ones ye have done it unto me.” From that moment on I never saw a battlefield as anything but a crucifix. From that moment on I have never seen the world as anything but a crucifix.”

Thursday, 28 August 2014


I saw a brimstone butterfly today, from the car, while driving in Shrewsbury. This is one of our loveliest butterflies, whose sulphur yellow wings may well be the origin of the name "butter fly". I usually see them on bright sunny days in Spring, when they have newly emerged from hibernation; the one I saw today will have been one of this year's hatchlings, and will spend the next few weeks feeding up so as to be in good condition for the winter ahead.

Here it is on a first class stamp - nice to see our native butterflies celebrated in this fashion.

Sunday, 24 August 2014


"The Gospel reminds us that at every Eucharist (starting at Emmaus) Jesus tantalisingly disappears just as we recognise him and leaves us to love him in each other."

 [Anselm SSF - from a sermon preached at the funeral of Martin SSF]

Saturday, 23 August 2014


A Sunday talk prepared with this Sunday's readings in mind . . .

Although this Sunday is also the feast day of St Bartholomew, one of the apostles of Jesus - and I shall be saying a little more about him later - I’ve chosen in fact to preach on the set readings for this Sunday in ordinary time, and on the Gospel reading in particular, eight quite significant verses (I think) from Matthew, chapter sixteen.

One of the reasons I’ve chosen to do this is that I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for St Peter. St Peter’s was my home church back in Stafford where I grew up, but not only that - I find in Peter a combination of reckless enthusiasm and all too human fallibility that’s rather appealing, and I feel I can relate to.

Yet in this morning’s Gospel reading he’s given the name Peter, which means rock. And, says Jesus, “on this rock I will build my church.” What was it about Peter - or Simon, to call him by his real name - what was it that made him such a rock? At the same time, by the way, it might be worth thinking about what Jesus means when he talks about “his church”.

There’s lots about Peter that’s admirable. Together with James and John, Peter was one of the ‘inner three’ of the disciples of Jesus, so he always had start a sort of leading position among them. He and his brother Andrew had been quick to follow Jesus as soon as he called them, and that eager readiness was just how Peter was, all the way through. He was impetuous, and so, I suppose, were James and John - after all, their nicknames were ‘the Sons of Thunder’. But Jesus wasn’t looking for booklearning or paper qualifications when he called his disciples: enthusiasm and boldness were the things that counted. And Peter had enthusiasm and boldness in spades.

Think back two weeks, when our set reading was the story of Peter walking across the water to Jesus. And he almost made it, too, though in the end Jesus had to rescue him and bring him safely to the boat. How typical that was of Peter: eager to have a go, but then discovering he’d bitten off more than he could chew. The time would come when he’d come to despair at that side of himself: this is the man who disowned Jesus a matter of hours after pledging never to leave him. But later still, he discovered in the light of Easter that his Lord had not disowned him.

Today’s reading shows us Peter with a long way still to go, before he can become the rock on which the church will be built. But Jesus has singled out Peter now because of Peter’s answer when he asked, “Who do you say I am?”  The answer to that question had been forming for some time in Peter’s mind, perhaps especially in the events of that night when he walked to Jesus on the water, and the fierce storm was so suddenly stilled. Maybe they were all beginning to think the same thought, but was impetuous Peter who put it into words: “You are the Christ (the Messiah), the Son of the living God.”

Maybe what Jesus said to Peter could be understood like this: “Now someone has recognised me as the Messiah, the work of building the new fellowship of believers can begin.” It’s the Greek word ‘ekklesia’ that we translate as “church”, by the way. The problem for me is that when we use that word church the image that forms in our minds is coloured by all we know about church as an organisation - with all its buildings and officers and synods and organizations and activities. Peter would in time become the leader of the Christians in Rome, so we may even think specifically of the Roman Church. But by ekklesia Jesus means just the fellowship of those who have union with him, and faith in him.

Having said that, we can’t escape thinking of buildings, because that’s an image that crops up again and again in New Testament scripture. Christ himself is the chief cornerstone, we discover, and only when we build on him can our building stand.  We ourselves should be living stones built into a spiritual temple, and though Peter may have a special role as a foundation stone, the church finds its firm foundation in the witness of all the apostles. And they must themselves rest in, and speak for, our Lord Jesus Christ; he’s the one corner stone, who suffices for the whole building.

Thinking about the special honour that is given to Peter in today’s Gospel reading, we might reflect that still today, if we call someone a rock, we’re saying something very positive about them. “You’ve been a real rock,” we might say to a friend whose stood by us at some difficult time. I hope there’ve been times I’ve been able to be that rock for others, someone to provide a bit of shelter and firm ground to stand on. I can certainly think of some special people who have been rocks for me as I look back, and I thank God for them.

For a Jew, ‘rock’ would have been a really strong term of praise and approval. After all, Abraham himself was the rock on which the nation itself was founded under God and by his good purpose. And ‘rock’ is a word used of God himself, not least in the psalms. Psalm 28, a psalm of supplication, begins with the words “To you, Lord, I call; my rock, do not be deaf to my cry.” In Psalm 18 we read, “The Lord lives! Blessed is my rock! High above all is God, my safe refuge.” That image is repeated in other Psalms, like Psalm 94: “My God is my rock and my refuge.” It’s hard to imagine a Jew using the word ‘rock’ without thinking of those verses and many others from scripture. So whatever else is praised in Simon when he’s called Peter, the rock, his firmness of faith comes first.

Jesus praises Peter for his faith, including that impetuous readiness of his to speak what the others maybe hardly dared think. And Jesus makes clear that Peter’s faithful recognition of Jesus as the Christ is the first spark of a flame of faith that will kindle throughout the world.

I mentioned that St Peter’s was my home church as a child; as a minister the first church of which I was given charge was St Bartholomew’s, and it’s his day today. I did say I’d say a bit about him and so I shall. But not much: Bartholomew is a shadowy figure among the disciples, and we don’t know much about him. His name, Bartholomew is a surname, meaning ‘Son of Tolmai’, so perhaps Bartholomew is the same man as Nathaniel, who’s named in St John’s Gospel, and we are told just a little bit more about him.

Back when I was Rector of St Bartholomew’s, the only hymn appointed for St Bartholomew’s Day basically just took four verses to say that we don’t know much about him. Legend has it that he died a martyr’s death by being flayed alive with a butcher’s knife, probably in Persia, but that’s not a story told in scripture, although it was graphically illustrated in a stained glass window in the church, as I recall.

But maybe it’s no surprise that we know so little about Bartholomew or most of the other apostles on whom, with Peter, the church was founded. Their stories don’t matter, and they weren’t in the business of self-promotion. The sure foundation of the church is found in nothing to do with those people themselves, except this: that they belonged to Jesus, and the light of his love shone in their lives. We don’t know about them, but because of them we know about Jesus. And each person as he or she grasps the truth about Jesus is called to be a rock, a building stone; that’s true for us as well, as we take our place as part of the building, the spiritual temple.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Bloody energy companies . . . !

My tariff agreement with nPower is coming to an end, so at their request I spoke to a nice friendly advisor. As nPower had moved me from a high monthly payment to one I thought rather low, we agreed that on the new tariff starting in September I would pay rather more. Meanwhile, we would leave in place the credit balance that had built up, to provide a cushion - we've not been in the house long, and I'm still not sure about our energy usage rate. All agreed, everyone happy, one more payment at the old rate, then the new tariff and new payment rates.  One week later, nPower refunded my credit balance unasked, then increased my monthly direct debit to a rate higher than the one agreed, beginning in August. I rang and complained that this did not seem the ideal way to do business, and was informed that "We do seem to have messed up!" - but have yet to receive any formal response.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Boat Train

Standing in the marine station, I scan
the shabby weeds growing up between the tracks,
late August, tired flowers blown into seed,
while people stumble past with heavy cases;
on the blank walls the paint is cracked and peeling,
and the stale air is stained with salt and urine.

No-one belongs on this grey platform;
no-one really belongs in the seedy town beyond,
with its closed-down market and unfriendly pubs,
a transit camp where you
don’t dare stay too long, where you
better not catch anyone’s eye.

The train is old and shabby coaches,
all crowded and chaos, claustrophobic,
full of noise though no-one seems to speak;  at last
it jerks into motion, platform lights streak across the dirty windows;
it lurches across the points, as the binding brakes squeal and moan,
liquid spills from a beer can as it rolls.

I look cautiously at the tired faces
between those untidy stacks of bags and cases;
for you perhaps a beginning, a play newly begun,
but for me this is the final act,
for better or for worse the end of my dreaming time
and the last run for home.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Syrophoenician Woman

A Sunday talk based on the Gospel set for tomorrow :-

One of the Powys County Councillors was in the news the other week because, in the course of making a very passionate point about health care provision and the sense people from this side of the border can have, Welsh speakers in particular among them, of being treated as second class citizens, a word was used that on reflection shouldn’t have been. It may be that more was made of the issue than needed to be, or maybe not, but the Councillor felt it necessary to resign from the cabinet following something of a storm of criticism.

The reason why I mention that case this morning is that it returned unbidden to my mind when I read the Gospel reading provided for today in the Common Lectionary, which includes the story of the woman of foreign extraction who came to Jesus to seek help for her daughter. For we find that even Jesus, on occasion, was prepared to use language that was grossly insulting. This could even be rather more serious than the case in our local papers. There a member of the council used an insulting word while making a debating point. Jesus on the other hand used a bad word directly to the person he was addressing. “It’s not right to take the children’s food,” he said, “and throw it to the dogs.”

Make no mistake, it’s a serious and calculated insult to describe someone as a dog. It certainly would have been then, and I’m sure it would still be now. To be fair, it’s a word many a Jewish teacher or rabbi might have used back then, to describe someone who wasn’t of their race, and didn’t therefore share the divine blessing and recognition that was theirs as a birthright. But it was still a bad word.

There’s a question for Biblical scholars to answer, then, when reading this passage, that has some serious theological implications. Just what was Jesus doing when he said that word?  Did he genuinely believe that his ministry and mission was only for and to the Jewish people, so that people like this woman were beyond the pale, and didn’t count? If that was the case, then was this a moment of epiphany for our Lord himself? Did the woman’s humble and faithful response to his insult open his eyes to a new truth, so that he realised right then that the mission he was engaged on had wider implications than he’d realised until that point.

In which case, of course, Jesus was indeed deliberately insulting the woman in exactly the sort of way that any other strict and particular Jewish teacher might have chosen to do. But Jesus isn’t just any other Jewish teacher. Last week I preached on the Gospel reading in which showed Jesus stilled the storm, revealing himself as a man in whom resided all the creative power of God. Is it possible that someone like that look at any woman in need and dismiss her so rudely?

But there are other ways of understanding this passage. Could this be one of the several places in the Gospels where an actual event becomes also an acted-out parable, in which the unexpected outcome challenges us to revise our idea of what’s right and what’s wrong, and what God wants from us and for us. If that’s the case, then maybe Jesus, though he says what any other Jewish rabbi might have been expected to say, is very deliberately doing what he does in order to provoke a response of faith from the woman, so you get a set-piece situation designed to open the minds of his disciples to the truth.

Looking at the story as a whole, it seems to me that Jesus quite deliberately put himself and his disciples into a situation in which something like this was bound to happen. He’d withdrawn to the area of Tyre and Sidon, part of what was then known as Phoenicia, today Lebanon; most of the people of this area were not Jews. So the woman came chasing after him, wanting help for her daughter, and Jesus ignored her, making out that she was none of his concern. She kept on following him, she kept on pressing her case. Perhaps the disciples could have urged Jesus to do something to help her, if only in the hope that then she’d leave them all alone, but they didn’t. Instead they urged him to send her away – and he seemed to concur with that, telling them his mission was entirely to “the lost sheep of Israel”.

Still, though, he didn’t actually send her away, and so she came to where he was, did homage before him, and asked again for his help. And we arrive at the point at which he used that insulting word. Question – did he know already, could he read it in her heart, that her desperate desire for her daughter to be healed would render her immune to insult and rejection? Probably he did, I would say – so often in the Gospels we find Jesus able to see beneath the surface, and through into the hearts of those who came to him.

Notice that when Jesus called her and her kind dogs, the woman didn’t rail at him for using such insulting language. She didn’t in fact even reject the name of dog; instead, what she did do was to turn the word back and use it in defence of her case, reminding Jesus that even the dogs were still part of household, able to eat the crumbs that fell from their master’s table.

It’s St Paul of course who develops the concept that the true children of Abraham are those who respond faithfully to the call of God, that it isn’t a matter of birthright but of faith. But here’s one of the places in which that thought process begins, and while the disciples may not yet have been persuaded that their faith should be shared with the Gentiles or Greeks, perhaps they’re beginning to recognise the simple truth that a trusting faith isn’t only found among their own people, it can turn up in other places too.

I find it such a sad thing that organised religion is so often a cause of division, that it raises barriers and creates second-class citizens. Just now in the news we’re once again reminded how divisive a force militant Islam can be; in our prayers in this service we’ll be thinking of the plight of Christian and also of Yazidis and other minority groups, in Iraq and Syria. But I think all religion can become divisive, both beyond and within itself. With that in mind it’s worth noting that the fundamentalist Sunni Muslims who seek to set up a caliphate across central Iraq may look on Christians and others as second-class, but that’s as nothing compared with their hatred for their fellow Muslims of the Shia persuasion.

But it’s not that many generations ago that Christians in this country were being fined, imprisoned, or stripped of civil rights, because they attended the wrong church on a Sunday, and not so many generations further back that Christians were burning other Christians at the stake. The encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman should stand as a corrective to anyone, including ourselves, who might be tempted to draw too tightly the boundary lines between who’s in, and who’s out, of God’s favour.

Years ago, when I still lived in a vicarage, I recall being visited one day by the Jehovah’s witnesses. We had quite a pleasant chat, in the course of which I mentioned some of my own personal heroes of the faith, by which I mean people I’ve been impressed by and persuaded by, and whose teaching and example have challenged me and encouraged me and helped me to draw closer to Jesus. Mother Julian of Norwich, Francis of Assisi, Charles Wesley, Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among others. You’ll agree that these people have really tried to live by faith, I asked my visitors. “Yes, sure,” they felt bound to agree. You’ll agree that they’ve really committed themselves to serve God, I continued. “Yes, of course,” they agreed again. But you tell me that because they’ve not called God ‘Jehovah’ they can’t be part of the new world that God is planning for us? “That’s right,” they said; that’s the rule, and there can be no exceptions.

I can’t help but admire the faith and courage and persistence of JW’s, and I’m told that the quality of the fellowship at a Kingdom Hall is second to none. But I had to tell my visitors that day that the God they were trying to tell me about was much too small and too narrow to be the real one. For the real God is like Jesus Christ, like the man who recognises and affirms and responds to faith wherever he may find it.

God is always greater than our best and highest image of him. Those of us who speak for him, those who proclaim his word need constantly to be reminded of that simple truth. Imagine how far you think God can see – well, God can always see further; imagine how much you think God can love – well, God will always love more.

We’re not told what the woman who came to Jesus that day believed about God. She may very well have believed all the wrong things, so far as creeds and doctrines are concerned. Had she any intention of changing her faith or her religious practice? The story doesn’t say, nor does it say that Jesus ever asked her to.

She simply came to Jesus with a faith born of desperation, and she loved her daughter too much to let anything stand in the way of the healing her daughter so urgently needed. She saw in Jesus something that many of the most religious of his own people seemed incapable of seeing, and she saw also that her own status as an outsider need not disqualify her from receiving the help she craved.

I think that it’s because Jesus could see that in her, that he dared to use to the woman the word he did. I feel a little sorry for the Councillor I mentioned at start of this discourse, whose argument the day the word was used may well have been a valid and timely one. The fact is though that today the word itself is rightly ruled as unsayable, for its intent has for so long been to degrade and dehumanise. So was the word Jesus used; except that in this instance he used it (I think, anyway) to jolt and shame his disciples – and therefore us – out of ever using such narrow words, and thinking such narrow things. The big thing that stops us – or should do – from allowing our God to get too small and narrow is simply this: that we know that God is like Jesus. John’s words – “No-one has ever seen God, but Jesus has made him known to us.” Paul’s words – “but we have the mind of Christ.”

I imagine it’s always going to feel safer to make boundaries, raise them up into barriers, and hide behind them;  because then we can say to the people who bother us, “Go away, you don’t belong here.” Like the disciples who asked Jesus to send the woman away, we can pray to be left in peace. But that isn’t the way of Jesus: he takes all the risks of active and courageous and inclusive love. And maybe, depending on how we read this story, we may find he’s also big enough, and humble enough, and open enough in his mind, to be able to change his mind and see the bigger picture. Be that as it may, we too need to take the open-hearted, risky loving way, if we’re truly to be his people.  “Increase in us, O Lord, true religion; nourish in us all goodness. Give us courage and compassion, open our eyes and our ears, and flood our hearts with love, in Jesus’ name.”  Amen.

Friday, 15 August 2014

All Change

My monthly 'Nature Notes' column for the month ahead :-

Come September, and the nights have noticeably started to draw in, even though the weather may remain fine and summery. In our countryside and gardens, this is a period of “all change”. In fact, autumn begins in August for many birds; I don’t think I saw any swifts over our garden after the first few days of last month – swifts are the briefest of our summer visitors, but they’ve left us early this year, which is a sign of a good summer, because fine weather and plenty of insect food have enabled the swifts to raise a new generation quickly and efficiently. Once that’s been done they don’t hang around.

Other summer visitors will have spent August stocking up so as to be ready for the long and demanding flight south, and most will leave this month, though a few will linger on into October. Some birds make a dash for the south, while others travel in small bursts, perhaps staying put for a few days before moving on. More unusual migrants like ospreys or migrant terns and waders may turn up at your local pool and stay for a day or two before moving on. Some passage migrants are species that don’t summer here, but come through on their way from somewhere else, like the black terns I once had the pleasure of watching at a pool in the south of England.

We may get to see the odd real rarity, energising twitchers who will travel many hundreds of miles in a season just to get an unusual “tick”. I’m not one of them, being happier watching the sparrows in my garden than queuing up to take a hurried snapshot of a dowitcher or a citril finch. But sometimes I’ve happened to be in the right place to see something unusual, like the red-breasted flycatcher Ann and I saw perched on a rock in Llanfairfechan. This attractive little bird is a rare but regular autumn passage migrant, more likely to be seen along the east coast. Strong winds and stormy weather will increase the number of unusual species that come our way.

Not only birds migrate, of course – so do butterflies, moths and other insects, whales, turtles and other oceanic creatures, along with events like the mass migration of caribou in North America, or wildebeest in Africa. But bird migration is a huge phenomenon, and pinch points where numerous migrants assemble, like the crossing from Gibraltar to Morocco, can be exciting places for the bird enthusiast to be. And then there is the mystery of it all: how exactly do these birds find their way? How do young cuckoos even know to fly at all, let alone where to fly to? – the parent birds leave by the end of July, and the young cuckoos never know them.

Many birds will be migrating to these shores as well, of course – ducks, geese and swans, winter thrushes and finches, and extras of some of our familiar year-round birds like blackbirds and starlings. More on these, though, next month.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Down by the Pool

I don't go as often as I should to our local nature reserve, Llyn Coed y Dinas, particularly since it's only a short way along the road from here. Anyway, I was down that way this morning, so I thought I'd look in. The lake was formed as a consequence of the building some years ago of the Welshpool Bypass, and has been landscaped and adapted to make a very attractive space for nature. It's much quieter now than earlier in the season, because the many pairs of black-headed gulls which breed there have by now moved on; but there is still plenty to see.

On the island just in front of the hide there were a dozen or so lapwing. A female teal was dabbling nearby. There were great crested grebe on the lake, two or perhaps three adults, and two young birds, one of which was eagerly begging for food from one of the adult birds. Coots, moorhens, mallard and the inevitable Canada geese were there in good numbers, as always, and the resident population of tufted ducks were quite skittish, flying about here and there and much less sedentary than usual. Sand and house martins were flying over the water, and a sandpiper was calling from somewhere, though I couldn't see it. Cormorants were about as always, and a pied wagtail was prospecting the shoreline.

Many of the birds visible were, I suppose, this year's young, hence some of the skittish behaviour I saw. The young grebes were very much in juvenile costume, with their distinctive stripey heads, but clearly already expert divers and swimmers. A gang of jackdaws appeared, and I think these will have been young birds; they set on a passing lapwing, and pursued in avidly all over the lake, with the lapwing ducking and diving in an attempt to escape - or, perhaps, just entering in the fun of the thing. For it seemed no malice was intended. At last the lapwing came down on a nearby islet, and the jackdaws flew off. Later, another lapwing, or maybe even the same one, decided to  dive-bomb one of the tufted ducks, and the wagtail also got chased a bit. Birds use play to acquire and hone the flight skills they will need.

While I was watching all this, the one still and unconcerned presence was a grey heron, perched on a rock not far away and clearly just mooching, shoulders hunched and totally ignoring everything around him. That is, until another heron drifted down from the large oak on the big island, with the intention of doing a bit of fishing on the far side of the lake. This was clearly an infringement of sovereign territory; the mooching heron took to the air, was over there like a shot, to drive the interloper all round the lake. Another heron had been skulking in the reeds at the very furthest end of the lake from me, and that bird took off as well, so that for a short time there were three birds in the air all at once, with an array of harsh cries. The third bird soon settled again, out of my sight, but the intruder was pursued for nearly a complete circuit of the lake before lifting over the trees and, presumably, into a nearby field, whereupon the incumbent bird landed back near to "his" rock, hopped onto it, hunched his shoulders and became once again semi-comatose.

All of this in no more than twenty minutes or so break between one shopping tour and the next. As I began by saying, I really ought to get there more often.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014


A Sunday talk given at Arddleen and Geuffordd last Sunday :-

I was shopping the other day at a certain well known supermarket, and, as I often do, I chose to use the self service checkout option. I checked everything through, no problem; clicked the window for no bags needed, since for once I’d remembered and brought my own. Swiped my club card, paid my dues - with actual money for once.  All done.  The voice then instructed me to “please take your items,” so I proceeded to do so, placing my shopping bag on the loading bay and beginning to load my purchases into it: one carton of milk, one bunch of bananas . . .

. . . at which point the voice says (you may be ahead of me here), “Unexpected item in bagging area.” This where it starts to get embarrassing, and it’s probably the reason why I do most of my supermarket shopping at quiet times of the day (or even the middle of the night). Because I can’t resist arguing with that disembodied voice. “Of course there’s an item in the bagging area, you idiot. It’s called a bag. How can a bag in a bagging area be unexpected? Isn’t that what we’re all here for?” People are beginning to stare at me, and a man in a security guard’s uniform has started talking into his mobile phone, though to be fair he’s probably just ordering a pizza for when he comes off shift.

Yes, I know it’s only a recording, but if there’s a voice speaking to me why shouldn’t I answer back? It may not do any good, but if I let off a bit of steam I feel a bit better, so it hasn’t all gone for nothing, has it? One of the places we feel most helpless these days is when we’re having to deal with machines that fail to do what machines are supposed to do - meet our needs and make our lives more comfortable. Instead it feels as though they’re out to get us. In a recent survey, the announcement “Unexpected item in bagging area” was voted as one of the most annoying things you ever hear.

And then there’s the weather. We’re just as helpless there. We can’t control or change the weather for all our 21st century sophistication. We have to put up with it whatever, and today we’re blessed with the remnants of Hurricane Bertha. Only the left-over bits, thankfully, so while we’re getting a bit of wind or rain, it’s just a blip in our summer picture, and not too many roofs will get blown away. I hope. But though we may not like, we do have to lump it.

Sudden squalls are still a feature today of the Sea of Galilee, though perhaps today they’re not quite as frightening as they would have been to even experienced fishermen at the time of Jesus. These days the boats are larger, and they’ve got engines; not so back then. The Gospel reading set for today in the revised common lectionary is Matthew’s version of the story of the Stilling of the Storm. You can find this story in Matthew chapter 14, verses 22 to 33.

Matthew’s version of this story differs a bit from Mark’s, but then there’s also the ‘stilling of the storm’ story as St Luke tells it, in which Jesus is asleep in the boat. Were there two different storms, or are these different accounts of the same storm? Be that as it may, a distinctive factor in Matthew’s version is to do with Peter. Jesus walks on water, but do does Peter.

Let’s reflect on that for a moment or two. It’s a strange story, but it feels true to the picture the Gospels give us of faithful, foolhardy, brave, impetuous Peter. This is a man who’s been out on the lake often enough, and who knows as well as anyone there just how deep it is, and how dangerous. But he’s also a man who knows Jesus, and somewhere in his heart he already knows just who Jesus is. So, when Jesus calls him he gets out of the boat and begins to walk across the lake.

But it’s the middle of the night, and the wind’s blowing a gale, and at some point Peter comes to his senses and realises just what a pickle he’s in. His natural trust in Jesus has been replaced by a distinct failure of trust in himself, certainly in his power to cope with a storm. It feels almost like a sleepwalker waking up to find himself in a strange and dangerous place. Peter panics, but in his panic he still knows where to look for help. “Save me, Lord,” he cries, and Jesus reaches out to him and he is safe.

So Jesus helps Peter back to the boat, and they get in, with everyone terrified at the intensity of the storm. But they’ve no sooner got into the boat, than the storm dies down, to the amazement and awe of them all. This again is one of Matthew’s touches, and I need to refer you to the story in Luke in order to connect into the story with which I began.

For in the version of the stilling of the storm we read in Luke, Jesus does just the same sort of thing that I do in the supermarket. He wastes his time talking to something that by definition we can’t control. I talk to disembodied voices in supermarket machinery; Jesus talks to the weather.

We’ve all done that, or maybe we’ve been a bit poetic: “Rain, rain go away, come again another day!” Nothing worse that getting caught by a rain shower when you were expecting it to stay fine. I have been known to curse mildly at the clouds. It doesn’t do any good though. It’s a fool’s errand.

But it’s not a fool’s errand when Jesus does it. He tells the storm to hush down, and it does. And the lake’s surging waves die away to a flat calm. And the disciples say, “Who is this, that the wind and the waves obey him?” Who indeed? They begin to realise what Peter already I think knew somewhere deep down - this isn’t just a great teacher, this is a man deeply and fundamentally in touch with the creative power of God.

And that’s a terrifying but also a wonderful thing to discover, for us as well as for those first disciples out there on the lake. Put at its simplest, the message of this story is that we may from time to time be out of our depth, but Jesus our friend and saviour never is.

We know that, but we often forget it. Like Peter, we hear the call and get out of the boat - to take on whatever care or responsibility, whatever project or task, whatever journey of discovery our faith or our faith community invites us into. We may think of this in terms of vocation, and people may seek to train and prepare us for the task, and maybe even commission or ordain us into it.

But then the times come when we suddenly wake up to realise just where we are: the water’s too high and the shore too far away; the task seems too great and our own strength too small, there are waters rising up to overwhelm us. Suddenly, we’re out of our depth, and we know we can’t save ourselves; suddenly, we’re sinking.

“How little faith you have,” says Jesus to Peter in the story we heard this morning. As St Luke tells the story, Jesus says much the same to all his companions. Elsewhere he tells them that if they had faith just the size of a mustard seed they could command a tree to be plucked up and thrown into the sea. I’d like a bit more faith, in God and in myself; and the bit of faith I do have is constantly under threat. The world is tough and bad things happen in it, and it can be hard to remain constant in witness and praise. I admit my prayer is often just that I might see a little bit more of the road ahead, to be able to walk it a bit more boldly. But usually we can’t tell what’s round the next corner, or what dangers might crouch in the next shadow; what we do have, however, is this promise - that there’s a hand that reaches out for us, and we’ve a saviour who knows our needs and listens for our cry.

So if what we’re about is God’s work, and if we are God’s people, seeking his word and his presence constantly, God will provide . . . not necessarily what we want, but what we need; not necessarily the means to fulfil our own planned agenda, but the means to persevere, and to bear a true and persuasive witness to the God we’ve met with and walked with in the man Jesus Christ, the God who we therefore know loves us.
If I look back over the often chaotic chapters of my life thus far, and all the wrong turnings, and all the times I’ve stepped happily into quicksand or mud, and all the times I’ve been absolutely out of my depth, I can easily identify with Peter. For I know I’ve been held and supported, and led to safety. And I hope too that from time to time I’ve been able to do a little of that reaching out and saving work myself, for people God has needed me to reach out to.

At a funeral last week that I attended, the minister asked the difficult and daring question, “Where is Jesus in this story?” For the family in bereavement, she suggested, Jesus was present in the very real support they’d received from friends and neighbours around them, and in the sense they were able to have even in this time of agony and desolation and loss, that they were surrounded by love. They were at risk of sinking beneath the waves, but there were hands reaching out to buoy them up.

I’m sure that in the same way an important part of our call as members of the Body of Christ is that we should aim to be Christ (or maybe I should say to be Christ-like) to one another, helping, guiding, supporting, rescuing. Those in positions of leadership or authority in the Church certainly have a prime role to be as Christ-like as they can be, but responsibility isn’t just theirs, it’s the job of every member to be as like our Head as we can be; and that starts with our ministry to one another.

What that may mean in practical terms is a matter for each individual Christian, and each Christian fellowship, to decide. All have different challenges, opportunities, skills and resources. And among us there are those whom God may well be calling specially, in just the way that Jesus called Peter - to step out of the boat and into something quite new and probably rather scary. But make no mistake, he calls all of us to something.

To something we can do - maybe not in our own strength, but his help is available. I can’t talk to supermarket check-out machines (or at least, I can, but it profiteth me nothing); I haven’t up till now had much success with the weather either. But I can talk to God; Jesus has given me permission, and shown me how. The words begin “Our Father” - and that in itself is proof that he will listen and respond, for what father wouldn’t, for a child who is dearly loved.

And a last thought - “Our Father”; not just mine, but yours too, this is the family prayer - so when I pray ‘Our Father’ I am straightaway praying myself into a position of responsibility for and solidarity with anyone who’s also a child of God. And I might also add that who is and who isn’t a child of God is, I believe, God’s affair and not mine. So as I look to God for help when I’m in deep waters, so also I know he calls me to offer myself to him, because there will be times when I in my turn need to be the help he is offering to others.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Concerning Me

"That doesn't concern you!" I was told rather brusquely the other day, when I asked what I had thought was a perfectly valid question. To a degree it was true, as the conversation was about a matter that I had no direct involvement in. Perhaps, then, I was out of order to say anything, but I'd felt I might have a useful contribution to make to an issue that needed to move on a bit, and that would maybe benefit from a fresh perspective. And I still think that, as it happens; This wasn't any sort of bid for power on my part, I had no desire to wade in and take over, it was just that I hoped I might be of some help. So it hurt to be pushed back in the way I was; but at the same time I can understand that when there's a bit of a log-jam people involved can feel vulnerable, so that any intrusion, however well-meant, may come across as a threat.

So what does concern me, and what should concern me, I find myself asking; and how much of myself and my concerns am I prepared to reveal and open up to others. In all probability, there are times when I'm as closed to and resentful of others as others were towards me on this occasion. I can think of times, being honest with myself, when I've been the one to push people away and shut people up, especially when the things they might have said (if I'd allowed them to) would have challenged my own position. In other words, there have been times when my mantra has been "If it can't be done my way, then perhaps it shouldn't be done at all." This is a perspective which, in the end, can be highly damaging: the best good for the greatest number emerges not when it is done "my way", but when it is done the best way. And for that to happen, egos have to be set aside. Whoever we are and whatever status we may have, there needs to be a readiness to open up and listen, and a measure of humility, among all those concerned.