Friday, 31 October 2014


A Christian name (the Eve of All Hallows or All Saints) for what is in essence a pagan festival, and one of the many such festivals designed to counter our very basic fear of the dark and all that the dark might contain. The lighting of fires at this time has been transferred to bonfire night, and to the memory of Guy Fawkes, but would originally have been a practice at this season.

Having said that, what for some people is designed to counter evil can become for others a celebration of the dark side. Perhaps Hallowe'en is at risk of becoming too much a celebration these days, not least because for many people there is no established and practised faith in the light side. I don't necessarily believe that youngsters are seduced into satanism because they celebrate Hallowe'en - well, I don't believe that at all, and I find those who shout about that from (generally) a conservative evangelical standpoint, somewhat risible; what I do believe is that when we turn the occult into an occasion of fun, we maybe cease to believe as much as we should in the true presence and persistence of evil.

That's not to say that a bit of play and fun today is always unhealthy. While the wealth of plastic Hallowe'en trivia sold in the supermarkets is probably doing more for the Chinese economy than it is for our own wellbeing, I remember how much I used to enjoy Hallowe'en as a child, and that the experience of being just a bit scared of the dark and the turnip lanterns (not pumpkins, for the most part, in those days) was probably good for me - not least because the following day we also celebrated All Saints and the triumph of light. I used to hate apple-bobbing, though . . .

As a Christian, I believe (with Desmond Tutu) that light is always stronger than darkness. How can the Church demonstrate this and teach it? Not, I think, by fulminating against Hallowe'en, not by setting up alternatives to it, but by joining in the fun. All the Hallowe'en activities I attended as a child were church-based, since that's where much of our social life centred. Today a church that seemed to celebrate Hallowe'en would come in for a lot of stick from other Christians, I suspect - but that's a shame. We should include Hallowe'en in what we do, but just make sure that when we do so, we teach the whole story: firstly, being serious among the fun about the reality of fear and of evil, that the stuff we make light of and have fun with today is still real and still doing harm; and secondly, making clear that the reason we can have wholesome fun with the dark is that we know in Christ the ultimate victory is already won. Dark is scary, but in the end the light is stronger; even the smallest of candles, once lit, will drive the shadows back.

Saturday, 25 October 2014


This should have posted yesterday, but something went wrong . . . probably my fault, technology and I don't really mix, and in my heart I mourn the loss of the inkwell and the nib pen, on my old wooden desk with its tip-up seat in class 4b at school. Ball points were banned for a while at my school, I recall, though I think that was mostly because of a craze we had for converting the plastic tubes into blowpipes to fire little darts constructed from pins.

Anyway, the other day I was part of a four person panel assembled at a local Presbyterian church for an 'any questions' evening. It was a good experience, I enjoyed being put on the spot and having to think things through. I knew the other three members of the panel, and, if there was a fault with the whole process it was perhaps that we all seemed to agree most of the time, so there was none of the combative stuff you see on the telly.

But I think we had between us some useful things to say, on subjects ranging from the situation in the Middle East, through what sort of music to choose for Sunday worship, to who we might choose to invite for a meal, and what we might cook for them (me: Mel and Sue from 'Bake-Off', and cakes, of course, and plenty of them). The evening was well attended, and the chapel (New Street in Welshpool) is lovely, well appointed, nicely cared for, and deserves a bigger congregation than it gets.

Of course, this was an evening for insiders, that is, for members of the churches of the local presbytery. It would be good for the churches together in our town to do something similar as an outreach event, to present in open forum what Christians believe about issues of note, even if we don't all always believe the same things - and to take the risk of criticism and attack from outside our fellowships, for that in itself is a test of our faith and resolve, and an opportunity for witness.

A Sunday Talk . . .

. . . based on the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple :-

“No, I don’t have a prayer, really.” Those were the words of a friend of mine - we’ll call him Terry - in a conversation we had the other day.  He told me he didn’t have a prayer.  He’d just been interviewed for a job, and I’d asked him what he thought his chances were.  He’d started out with high hopes, but he didn’t think the interview had gone all that well (not that he minded too much, from what he said, he’d also found he didn’t want that job quite as much as he’d thought he did).

But it’s an odd phrase, I think, especially in this rather secular world, to say you don’t have a prayer. As a Christian, I’d want to reply that we always do have a prayer. But as today’s Gospel reading reminds us, we have to do it right if we want our prayers to be heard. We have to know ourselves, and we have to know what we’re praying for, and why. And we have to honest and sincere when we do it.

The story Jesus told concerned two people who went up to the temple to pray, and the prayer of one of them was heard by God, the prayer of the other was not. I think the people listening to this story would have been pretty sure straight away whose prayer would be heard, and their assessment would have been wrong. The Pharisee went into the temple full of confidence and knowing all was well between him and God. If that’s not the sort of guy whose prayer is heard then something must be going very wrong. The other man was a tax collector, a betrayer of his people and his faith, a man in league with the pagan Romans, a collaborator and probably a swindler and a cheat to boot. He probably entered the temple half expecting to be thrown out at any moment.  But in fact the one of those two whose prayer was heard by God was the one who probably didn’t really think he had a prayer.  But in reality it was the other guy who didn’t have a prayer, for I don’t think the Pharisee was even talking to God at all. 

Imagine him, standing there to declaim his prayers in a confident and loud voice. And picture the tax-collector, mumbling prayers in a way that you probably couldn’t tell what he was saying even if you were right next to him.  And anyway, he wasn’t standing like the Pharisee, but flat on his face not daring even to look upwards.  But here’s the thing: the tax-collector was praying, while the Pharisee was just showing off.  The tax-collector was talking to God, even though perhaps he didn’t think he had much of a chance of being heard; the Pharisee, super-sure of his own goodness, was really talking to anyone within earshot, to anyone he could show off to.

The famous preacher and Biblical teacher Charles Spurgeon was once listening to young ministers in training, as they practised their preaching skills.  He watched one young man ascending the steps to the pulpit full of confidence, almost showing off, and looking very certain of himself.  Sadly his performance as a preacher didn’t match his show;  he made a mess of his address, had nothing really to say, and at the end of it he descended the steps full of shame and dejection.  Charles Spurgeon took him to one side and said, “Young man, if you had ascended those steps the way you came down them, you might have descended them the way you went up!”

In other words, we should always avoid boastful show.  For it isn’t how good we are that matters ever, all that matters is how good God is.  And this is the great theme of the story Jesus told: what we offer God in humility, what we offer knowing we’re not worthy, not sufficient, not spiritually healthy and wealthy, well, it may not even seem worth offering, we may not think we have a prayer - but what we offer God will transform, to make it more than we could ever have been, ever have achieved on our own.  When we’re tempted in our prayer and our worship into too confident a show of what we have and who we are, then we tread on very dangerous ground. I have lost count of the times in my life when pride has come before a fall.

But even when our pride brings us down, we still have a prayer. Over the years I’ve been greatly drawn to the gentle and persuasive writings of Mother Julian of Norwich.  Mother Julian was a medieval mystic, an anchoress or female hermit living and ministering from the church of St Julian’s, in Norwich, from which she took her name - her real name is unknown.  I think her writings speak just as profoundly in this modern world as they did to the people of her day; and I think I’m right in saying that her work has never been out of print since its first publication.  She had a deep and wonderful awareness of the all-availing love of God, coupled with just as deep an awareness of her own frailty and sin. The visions that informed her writing occurred during a period of her life that involved both severe physical illness and alongside that a profound sense of her own spiritual unworthiness.

But one of the wonderful things she says is that she realised how God loved her at the point of her own sinfulness (and even at the times when she was openly rejecting him) - he loved her just as much, just as deeply and fully, in those bad times as he would love her in heaven.  Even at the times when she herself chose to be lost and perhaps also chose to be unlovely, she was never lost to God, never unloved by her Lord.

And that’s true for all of us, and that’s why the prayer of the penitent and suddenly so self-aware tax-collector was heard that day in the temple.  That’s true for me.  I haven’t got a prayer;  or frankly I shouldn’t have, not the way I see it.  What right have I to expect that God should want to hear anything I say, what right have I to insist he should grant anything I might ask?  Haven’t I rejected him, again and again, by the selfish choices I’ve made, by the hurtful things I’ve said and thought, by the unthoughtful and uncaring things I’ve done or the good and kind things I’ve left undone?  I needn’t expect him to like me, and perhaps he doesn’t, or at least I suppose he doesn’t like the ways in which I hurt him.  But he does love me, and so he does hear me, he does listen to me.

I used to hate it when children came up to me at the end of school assembly or at our messy church or family service, to ask me questions about God.  Because they would always ask really hard things, like ‘If God made everything, who made God?’  But the other week a young child asked the minister at a service I was attending, ‘What do you think God looks like?’ and that was I think a bit easier to answer.  As Christians we can say that God is like Jesus.  In Jesus we see the what complete and divine love looks like when expressed in human terms, when lived in a human life:  for Jesus is the one called Emmanuel, God-is-with-us.  So this is what God’s like:  he is like the man who, as the nails were hammered through his wrists to secure him to the cross on which he would die, still said, still prayed, ‘Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.’

God loves me now as much as he will ever love me.  That’s the insight Mother Julian had;  and it’s true for you as it is for me, and it’s true for all those people out there who aren’t thinking of church, or God, or sin, or righteousness today.  God doesn’t only love nice and safe and good people - in fact sometimes we must be harder to love than the prodigal sons of this world, because they might wake up to just who they are and what they’ve done, whereas we might fool ourselves that we’re good enough as we are. For here’s the thing about that story Jesus told: God loved the Pharisee in the temple that day just as much as he loved the tax-collector;  indeed, if either one of those two men was breaking the heart of God it would have been the Pharisee, because that shell of supreme and yet unfounded self-confidence with which he surrounded himself was fatally separating him from the love God so much wanted him to know and to share.  Fatally separating him from the love of God - the way to life is open to us, but we’re made worthy of it not by our own goodness and piety and regular attendance at divine worship, but only by God’s love, by grace, by Jesus. It’s true what they say: blessed are those who know their need of God.

I don’t have a prayer;  that’s as true for me as it was for my friend Terry.  But that’s sort of the point;  as a Christian, I have to wake up to the fact that it’s not about me, it’s about what God can do for me, and to me, and through me, if I let him - with what I can offer him, not from strength and certainty and success, but from weakness and failure.  I don’t have a prayer, except that God gives me a prayer to say out of weakness and brokenness;  not from any place of security or achievement, but when I know I need his healing grace;  not from some high place where I can be seen and admired and respected, but at the foot of the cross where the reality of me is exposed, and I can’t still be the fake me I’d like the world to see and applaud. 

We need always and constantly in our prayers and our meditation, in our planning and our preparation, to come to the cross. We need to come to the place where our Lord bears the pains and the penalty that should have been mine but have become his, that should have been yours but have become his. In the end I have a prayer not because I believe in God but because, amazingly and against all the odds, he believes in me;  and in you;  and in those who don’t yet know him, but who might come to know him if we tell them about the prayers he hears, this prayer of ours he has heard: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Another day . . .

Another day on Planet Earth, and quite a busy one. Some good conversations with great people. Some good singing, and a pleasant meal. A decent pint of ale, and a nice glass of Pinotage, and a glass of champagne to help celebrate a colleague's birthday. We belong to one another, and the ways in which we move between carer and cared-for, giver and receiver, learner and instructor, worker and relaxer - that's what makes life interesting. I am no longer a Priest (note the capital), but I am bound to be a priest without the capital, because all of us who believe are called on to speak of God to others, and to speak for others to God. Again, some of the time we are ministers, and at other times we are the ones receiving ministry.

I have been hugely grateful for the ministry I have received over the past few years, and would like categorically to state (with some sadness) that virtually none of it has been given by Priests, capital P, almost all of it by priests, small p, who might not really have been aware of the priestly status of what they were doing. I hope I have been able to give ministry through this time; I feel I have, and I think I've been able to today.

I've been reading some really rather involved Facebook conversations about the detailed (and rather over-literal and out-of-context, to my view) interpretation of what are obviously seen to be important and key Bible passages. But the quality of our Christian witness is not to be measured by whether we believe exactly the right thing about this or that verse; the measure is simply this - that people look at us, hear what we say, notice what we give and say, "If that's what being a Christian is about, then maybe I should try it too."

It won't always work. Some people will see us as weak, simple, easy targets, there to be exploited. We have to live with that (which is a point I think the Parable of the Sower was told to make), because it will sometimes work, maybe even often. Hearts will be changed.

Monday, 20 October 2014


This is the poem I was working on yesterday, after some more work today. I'm not sure that it's finished yet; nor is quite where I am, though it does perhaps represent one version of me at this time. I've used a rhyming structure that deliberately opposes the first and last quartets.

Was Jesus really tugging at my sleeve
that crazy autumn day so long ago,
my collar turned against the cooling wind,
my tears mixed with the soft October rain?

And so in hope a journey was begun;
I set myself in faith the race to run.
And now I trace it back through tumbling years
that score the lines of laughter, tracks of tears,
recall my sense of purpose, truth and call,
recall as well my stumbling step, my fall.
The gold once grasped turned into dust and waste,
the fruit when plucked no longer sweet to taste.

And so, beset by fears I can’t explain,
more sinned against than thinking I had sinned,
I turn aside from paths I used to know;
I’m running short of things I can believe.

Winter Wildlife

I shall continue to post the 'nature notes' column I write regularly for a few local publications. This one is mainly about swans . . .

Asked recently about my favourite winter birds, I had no hesitation in replying “Fieldfares”, since I’ve always been excited by these large and attractive winter thrushes, often to be found in large and noisy flocks. But the winter wildfowl that arrive at this time of the year are also exciting, bringing with them, often, a flavour of the frozen Arctic.

In past years, I’ve enjoyed visiting Wildfowl Trust refuges, particularly Martin Mere in Lancashire, to see the winter swans that arrive there at this time of year, to stay until March or April. The large whooper swan and the slightly smaller Bewick’s are much noisier birds than our native mute swans, though they’re not quite as silent as the name suggests. These winter swans have yellow and black bills, rather than the orange of the mute swan, and when here they may be found in large flocks or herds, within which they form family groups. The term herd is appropriate when the swans are grazing on grassland or stubble, as whooper swans (and wintering geese) frequently do. Swans will also up-end to feed on underwater vegetation - this will sometimes lead to staining of the head and neck feathers, when feeding in iron-rich waters. Both whooper and Bewick’s swans visit Martin Mere. Generally the whooper swan has a more northerly distribution in the UK.

The cygnets of both species are brown with pink bills (mute swan cygnets have black bills), with the whooper swan cygnet being generally paler than the Bewick’s. The adult whooper swan generally carries its neck very straight, unlike the curve of the native mute swan. The shorter neck of the Bewick’s swan gives it a slightly goose-like appearance, in comparison. The Bewick’s swan also has a rounder and more goose-like head than the whooper swan, and the yellow patch on its bill is smaller and more rounded. The precise pattern of the bill is different for different birds, and is useful when identifying individuals who can then be studied.

These are tremendous birds, I think, and the sight of Bewick’s swans flying over in a great V formation is not to be forgotten. The Bewick’s swan is completely an Arctic bird so far as breeding is concerned, but a few whooper swans may nest by moorland tarns in the north of Scotland, and Orkney and Shetland.

I haven’t left much space to write about other winter wildfowl. Locally these are likely to be ducks (our Canada and greylag geese are here all the year round), with wigeon, pintail, pochard and shoveler (all British breeding species) likely to visit our ponds and lakes at this time of the year. But, to mention one other white winter bird, I was delighted a couple of years ago when visiting north Norfolk in late autumn to see about a few snow geese, white with distinctive red bills and black wing tips, feeding with a larger flock of pink-footed geese. Just a few reach us each winter (they are really American birds), though there are also some escapes from captivity.

Sunday, 19 October 2014


An interesting day today, beginning with a long overdue visit to the informal eucharist held once a month at our local Methodist church. I found it relaxing, friendly and quite moving, and it was followed by a simple breakfast before their main service, for which I also stayed. I was brought up to attend both church and chapel, and have continued to have a foot in both camps, while still feeling that the Anglican boat is the one I am called to fish from.

I will, however, give the local Methodist minister a ring sometime over the next week or three, and arrange to meet. She is aware of my situation, and we have had some good conversation in the past. I think at present that were I to make the move to join that church, a place in which Ann and I both feel very comfortable, it would be as a lay person, having resigned my orders to do so. At present I have laid my orders to one side, but have not felt able to formally resign them. When I have tried to do so, or at least to think and plan towards such a move, I seem to feel God saying to me, "No, you are a priest."

I am in fact something of an accidental priest. I would have been happy to have been told, all those years ago, that I was not recommended for training. The pressure would have been off me, and I could have just got on with life. In one sense, I should be happy now then, perhaps - but instead there's a sense of a space that needs to be filled, and a place I need to be, for all that my life is busy enough, for all that I don't feel any urge to stand again at the altar. Stuff to work through, then. I don't know what God wants of me, but I know he wants something.

Here's the thing, I suppose. I feel that God has forgiven me, accepts me, wants me and has things for me to do; the Church, however, continued to be quite hung up about it all. Anyway, this evening, in an Anglican church, I conducted the male voice choir I sing with at a harvest concert, and was reminded once again, if I had needed to be, that music is the stuff that makes sense of it all. I was rather afraid - I don't very often conduct, am third choice, if that, but a few notes in I was really enjoying myself. And I think it went well.

I read some comic poems as well. I must buckle down to write some more, and serious poetry too. I did spend some time today on a more serious piece of verse, and almost posted it here - but I think it needs more work yet. When I was at my lowest, poetry poured out of me, and it helped, it really did. The fact that I'm not writing as easily now is therefore probably a positive rather than a negative (a sign that I'm too sorted and stable to have much to say), but still, I'd like to be able to do it.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Flu Jab

I went down to get my flu jab this morning. The surgery was very busy, but we were processed through very quickly and efficiently. I'm not quite old enough to merit a flu jab on my own account, and have no health problems, asthma etc, that might qualify me, but I qualify as a carer. In fact I seem hardly ever to catch flu, but it's better safe than sorry, always.

Flu is a serious threat every winter, and the epidemic that does real damage, when it comes as one day it will, is probably going to be a new variant on flu. I suppose today's flu jab wouldn't protect me from a new strain, but the existing ones are bad enough, so I'm glad we do it, and that as many people as do opt to receive it, and if it gets us all through this winter that'll be something. In the meantime, ebola . . . we have been rather slow to respond to this one. Perhaps West Africa isn't very high on the international radar? Perhaps we rather thought it was a tropical disease striking a part of the world where life is pretty cheap anyway, until people in Texas started catching it.

The quality of our world community is to be measured not just by our military response to, say, ISIS in Iraq or Syria, or in our technological co-operation in such projects as CERN or the International Space Station, but in our willingness to respond, and to respond speedily to crises like the one caused by ebola. The UNO believes (according to today's press) that we have fallen short here, and who am I to disagree? Liberia and Sierra Leone are far from economic giants, nor are they important in any strategic sense (as far as I know, anyway), but that only makes the way we respond (or don't) to their need a better and more rigorous test of our humanity.

It occurs to me also that both these countries are, in their foundation, responses to one of the deepest shadows on our western conscience, the transatlantic slave trade. Maybe that might also motivate and inform the generosity of our response: arguably, we still owe them.

Friday, 17 October 2014


Ann and I care for our two elderly mothers, who live here with us. Evelyn, Ann's mum, has been with us for four years (and two house moves), following a stroke, a bereavement and a fall and broken hip, while my mum, Maisie, came to live with us on our move to our present home just under two years ago. It is quite a commitment, but one we gladly make, along with many people who are, like us, of pensionable age but caring for parents or other elderly relatives. Many of them I came to know well during my years in parish ministry, and sometimes they found little support, help or understanding for what they did.

We have been on the whole pleasantly surprised at the amount of help that is available, once the right contacts have been established. That last clause is carefully and deliberately added, because I suspect there are many people who slip below the radar and are just not known about. We have carers who come in twice a day to help my mum, and to give Ann and me the opportunity to do other things; my mum needs quite a lot of practical support, and we're able to get her up and put her to bed, but it does help to have other people here during the day - someone else to talk to and have a cup of coffee with, too, from Maisie's point of view.  District nurses look in regularly, equipment of all kinds has been provided, and we have a social worker through whom we can access other support if needed. We do have to pay for the carers, but a grant from Social Services defrays about half of that; we had to pay to have one bathroom converted into a wet room and therefore made more accessible, but we had help in accessing good contractors, producing a design for the new room and making sure the work was done to the best standards.

Maisie was in a nursing home while that work was done, and, while she was treated kindly there so far as we can tell, sometimes it felt rather haphazard, and we had the impression that communication was poor. She had lost a degree of mobility by the time she came home, and, without prompt action by occupational therapists and the equipment they provided, I am not sure we would have coped with her return home.

During my time in active ministry, like most ministers I regularly visited care homes to take communion services, visit residents and do things like harvest festivals, carol services and little concerts. I have a huge respect for the work they do and the people who do that work, though well aware of the horror stories that have received publicity nationally in recent months. But many very elderly and very infirm people remain in the community, some in sheltered or specially adapted accommodation, but many not. A lot of carers are themselves just as old as the person being cared for - they are spouses or perhaps brother or sister. I think the degree to which a society cares for its carers is one of the best measurements of its overall health. Ann and I are glad to do what we do, and regard it as a privilege, to be able to return in this way some of the care we've received over so many years. We're not saints, and sometimes we get tired, worried, frustrated - often we feel less than fully skilled. Thank you to those to whom we're able to look for encouragement and support.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Starting Afresh

Time, I think, to start afresh with this blog. "Poetic and other notes on an attempt at life" is how I subtitled it when I first began, and maybe I ought to be trying a bit harder to ensure that the blog does what it says on the tin, so to speak.

So, maybe I need to begin with some background. I am a sixty-something man, married to Ann, father of four grown up children, and we have two grandchildren. I spent thirty years as an Anglican priest; now I'm not one in any practical sense, though I haven't gone so far as to formally set aside my ministerial orders. I remain a believer, though not always conventional and correct in my creed - nor, indeed, am I always very good at believing in the Church. I am a member of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis, though, of which more anon, and while I may not be all that brilliant at keeping to my Franciscan rule of life, I do try to take seriously the call to obedience. So while I may not always manage to love the Church, I do applaud and support what the Church is (or is supposed to be) there for.

And I do still have a personal sense of God's presence and call and challenge, without being very sure just now where that might be leading me. I am in transition - that's maybe the best way of putting it. There is still some repair work to be done, and even when that is all complete, there'll be no going back, only a distance further to go, to places and pastures new. I was a parish priest, and I resigned from that because I had to . . . more about that in a later post, when I've thought a bit about how I can phrase it. So unlike other former parish priests, I don't have a priestly ministry in retirement, though I am retired, having reached an age at my resignation when I could claim my Church of England pension.

As it happens, I am able to live quite comfortably, in a large and pleasant bungalow backing on to woodland, in a small and busy Welsh border town. I work part time for a local funeral director, and also have my own small business. I can't minister as a priest, but I can and do speak and lead worship as a fellow pilgrim, when invited to do so. And I can also minister through music and poetry: I enjoy writing and I enjoy sharing what I write with others, and I enjoy singing and have been blessed with a halfway decent tenor voice. I am an enthusiast for gardens and for wildlife and the countryside, and it's here, as also in music, that I feel most aware of, and closest to, the life-giving and life-enhancing mystery that is God.

So there's a start. More, God willing, tomorrow.

Monday, 6 October 2014


A Harvest address given the other night at Sarnau Chapel . . .

Autumn this year has been a little slow to arrive, but now the weather’s beginning to turn a bit cooler, I suppose the leaves will soon be falling thick and fast. And because it’s been a very dry September, quite a few in my garden had fallen already, when I went out to look the other day. Here’s one I came across in my backyard. It’s a sycamore, which is a member of the maple family of trees. The leaves of some of the maples are among the most attractive in autumn because of the bright colours, and many people cross the Atlantic at this time of the year to see the colours of fall in New England or Ontario. We were there last year but just a few weeks too early to get the full effect of the changing leaves.

So the nearest I generally get to the bright colours of fall is likely to be a bright autumn day in the Ironbridge Gorge or at Lake Vyrnwy. Here too though, the leaves can glow so brightly in the autumn sunshine that you might almost think the hills were on fire. And yet these colours are in fact the colours of decay, for all that they can seem for a short time to glow with life and fire. The autumn colours we see were in fact there in the leaves all along, but while each leaf is active and living, those background colours of red and yellow are hidden by the green of summer. That green pigment is chlorophyll, and chlorophyll is in a way the powerhouse of our living planet. This is the magic component that allows a plant to tap into the energy of the sun, and to use that energy to turn carbon dioxide into food, while at the same time issuing out oxygen as a waste product. This process, called photosynthesis, is what provides an atmosphere we can breathe in, as all kinds of plant life flourish in the sun, from little mosses and ferns to the wheat and potatoes in our fields, the dahlias and chrysanthemums in our gardens, up to the giant trees in our woods and forests.

Having trained as a plant scientist, I know how the system works, and yet it still feels like magic, in a way. Not all life depends on what green leaves are doing, but if those green leaves weren’t doing what they do, there’s be precious little life around above the level of bacteria. We certainly wouldn’t be alive.

So, sitting the other looking at this leaf, I found that quite a sobering thought, just for a moment. What if the leaves stopped doing what they do? What if they all died? What if the system stopped working? We’d all be gone in no time.

While our distant ancestors knew nothing about chlorophyll and photosynthesis, they were probably more worried than we are by the fall of the leaves in the autumn, and about the cooling temperatures and the shortening days. How could they be sure the sun would ever grow strong again? How could they be sure the leaves would reappear on the trees. Somewhere behind many of our autumn and winter ceremonies, whether it be bonfires or yule logs of holly and mistletoe, those primaeval fears lurk. The sun has faded but maybe our fires can bring him back. The leaves have fallen, but the evergreen branches that remain are a promise that they won’t be gone for ever.

We haven’t quite got to those darker days yet; but we’ve reached the first of our autumn ceremonies, harvest festival. The origin of this celebration is the harvest home: all is safely gathered in (as the hymn reminds us), so there’s a chance to put down our rakes and sickles and have a bit of a party. Behind the joy of the celebration there’d have been relief too in past times, if the harvest had been good - this year at least there’d be enough put by to see folk through the dark and testing weeks of winter, when nothing could grow and the land was gripped by snow and frost.

This year’s harvest has for most of us been a good one, I think. Some of my gardener friends have had record crops. For most of us though whether the harvest is good or not so good is more a matter of degree than of life and death. Prices may be higher if the harvest hasn’t been all that good, but most of what we need will still be there on the supermarket shelf, and we’ll not starve. Not so in the past. Mass starvation in Europe was a reality of life only a matter of a few centuries ago, and more recently in Ireland, if you think back to the potato famine of not that much more than a century ago.

The Bible includes many stories and incidences of famine. The one that brought Jacob and his sons to Egypt, for example, or the one that threatened to starve the widow and her son with whom Elijah took refuge. People back then knew how close to the edge they lived; nor has famine finished with the human world today - we may always have enough to eat in Europe, but that’s not so true in other places.

So the edge is perhaps closer than we’d like to think. Leaves may not fail us, but there’ve been some scare stories this year about bees. And other insects too, together the pollinators without which - well, without which the plant world would fall apart: no fruit, no seeds. Whatever the truth and the science behind the particular stories and scares that did the rounds this year, it remains true that we need the bees, and that all insects can be very vulnerable to environmental changes we may well make without even noticing.

Tonight our theme is thanksgiving, and you may think I’ve taken rather a long time to get to there. When the old harvest homes began to include singing hymns and prayers in church or chapel, they became harvest thanksgivings. So let’s think for a moment about what we’re being thankful for.
For me this is a time to give thanks to God for all the complexity and wonder of creation, with its possibilities and opportunities, and its beauty and fruitfulness and wealth. And to remind myself that our harvest doesn’t just depend on weather and soil, on leaves and photosynthesis, on bees and other pollinators, it depends on him. We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand. Or so the hymn tells us.

It doesn’t always feel like that, these days, when a field can be harvested, cleared, manured, ploughed, prepared and sown all in a matter of days. But even though we’ve so much power at our disposal, so much knowledge, so much technology, we’re still at the mercy of the forces of nature, as people in many parts of the country discovered only too well over last winter with its widespread flooding. But still there’s a need to give thanks that’s deeply ingrained within us; it’s good to pause at this season of gathering in, and to be reminded that for all our power, harvest begins not with what we’ve devised or done, but with what we’ve been given.

Thanksgiving, then. Thank-you’s come in different shapes and sizes, and some of them can be perfunctory and disinterested, just a nod in the right direction for form’s sake. I hope our thanksgiving at harvest isn’t that sort of thank-you. Some gifts are treated poorly - quickly broken, thrown away or sent off to car boot sales. How much of a thank-you did they ever get? To be truly thankful is to value the gift and to honour the giver. So in our harvest thanksgiving, firstly, we praise God just because the world is such a fantastic place and it’s good to be alive in it; secondly we pledge ourselves to look after the wonderful world that he’s given into our care, leaves and bees and all; and thirdly we recognise the responsibility of harvest, that it’s ours not just to keep but to use.

There’s a lot about harvests in the New Testament, Jesus told quite a few harvest stories, and they’re mostly stories about judgement. And underlying everything else in our harvest thanksgiving is the Gospel message that we ourselves are called to bear a good harvest - thinking back to the parable of the sower, we’re called to be seed set in good soil, that grows as it ought to grow, yielding some thirty fold, some sixty, and some a hundred fold.

This leaf has stopped working. That’s why it fell off the tree as it did. New leaves will replace it and go on working, even if not until next spring. But if all leaves stopped working and never grew back, the whole shebang would come to an end. Not that leaves have any choice in the matter: they’re just components that serve their purpose and are then ditched by the plant or tree when their work is done.

But we as leaves on the human tree of life do have a choice. We can be fruitful in God’s service, we can share what we harvest and care for the world, or we can just look after number one and contribute nothing to the tree. It occurs to me that when a sycamore leaf gets to that stage that’s when the tree gets rid of it - the leaf stops producing food for the tree, so the tree seals off the leaf stem, and a breath of wind soon brings the leaf down. Our best thanksgiving to God at harvest is to be leaves that go on contributing to the life of the whole tree, that have the vision, courage and love to be givers rather than takers, and workers ourselves rather than those who simply depend on the work of others. And as we do that we create an environment in which other leaves will also thrive, and in which our harvest thanksgiving won’t be a single event, a festival day, but something to generate an outward-looking state of mind and a generous and loving commitment of our hearts.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Sunday Talk

Goodness, what a busy week!  I haven't had time to post anything, least of all the Sunday talk prepared for last weekend, based on the set Gospel reading. Here it is, though . . .

“There was a man who had two sons.” With these words Jesus begins a story that can be a bit dangerous for us to read, and here’s why. Because it compares and contrasts two sons, one of whom makes a promise and doesn’t keep it, while the other refuses the request but then does what was wanted after all, we can easily find ourselves reading the story with particular people in mind, and being tempted into doing something Jesus tells us we shouldn’t ever do – sitting in judgement on someone else: “Judge not, so you won’t be judged,” he says.

Of course, the clear message of the story is that it’s what we do that counts, not what we say. Elsewhere, Jesus tells his disciples, “By their works shall you know them” - works, not words. Here Jesus is talking to the religious leaders of his day, the chief priests and their allies. At the beginning of the reading we heard how they came up to ask Jesus what authority he’d got to preach on their patch – for there he was in the temple. He sidestepped that challenge by presenting them with a question they didn’t dare answer honestly.

To me they behaved rather like politicians on Newsnight or Question Time. They scratched about to work out the party line – what will happen if we say this, and what will happen if we say that? Jesus asked them what they thought about the ministry of John the Baptist: were his words from men or from God? And like modern politicians waiting for the text from party HQ or the whips’ office to tells them what they ought to say (our own MP I think being an honourable exception to the rule) there they were, searching for an answer based not on truth, not on what they really thought, but on expediency, on what would play with the crowd.

So Jesus follows up by saying, “Tell me what you think about this, instead,” and he gives them the parable of the two sons. Which of them did what his father wanted? Well, the answer to that was clear enough. A job done is worth a lot more than a job promised.

We’re not told why the first son went back on his promise. He could have had good reason. Things change, problems come up, sometimes you just can’t do what you’d hoped and intended to do. Often we tell the story as though the first son broke his promise out of idleness or because his mates called to take him out for a beer. But Jesus doesn’t say that – so take care: the times when we change our plans for what we claim as good and plausible reasons, they matter too.

In fact, any character defect on the part of either of the sons is completely incidental to the point of the story. The only point of the story is this – that the job gets done by those who do it, and not by those who merely talk about it. Which reminds me of the saying that when all is said and done, there’s usually a great deal more said.

And even those chief priests, they weren’t bad people, or at not for the most part, I shouldn’t think. They were just doing their best to keep the religious show on the road, and maybe to keep their jobs too, but who wouldn’t? And it wasn’t easy, under Roman occupation and with the people themselves often very fractious, and liable to follow any new teacher or possible messiah. Of course, they were very aware of their own status, their high position in society, and the protected and for the most part highly comfortable lives they were able to lead. So maybe they didn’t really have the common touch any more, if they ever did. But I feel sure they were doing their best, even so.

Since it’s these people who clearly are depicted by the first son, the one who promised but didn’t deliver, it’s worth asking just what it was the chief priests had promised, and in what way they hadn’t delivered on their promise. And my answer to that question, I think, has to do with honesty, and is connected very closely with the reason why they couldn’t and wouldn’t answer the question Jesus put to them about John the Baptist.

Fundamental to the role of the high priest or the temple servant is the promise they have made to God, to serve him first and foremost, to give him first place in their lives, to build everything around that prior claim he has, over all else. But it’s so easy for the institution and the way things are done to become more important than the God we’re called to serve and worship, and that’s what had happened here - and the status and security they so valued was also part of the problem. So Jesus had little chance of getting an honest answer, because all they could think of was “What will people think of us if we say this?”

As the religious establishment they had the insiders’ interest in rocking no boats and keeping things as much the same as they could. They were allowing the religion, the cult, to become a business in itself, in which God ends up with a bit part at best, tolerated so long as he keeps to his place within the process. We can see as we read the Gospels how Jesus has much more success with outsiders, with people whose only prayer, like that of the tax collector in the temple, was “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” These guys had nothing to cling to but their honesty, for they were people who knew they’d gone wrong but longed to be right again, they were like the second son, coming to a change of heart and of mind.

But there’s a detail of what Jesus has to say to the temple elite that we mustn’t overlook. They won’t be happy to hear him say that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom ahead of them, but those words ‘ahead of them’ are important. He doesn’t say ‘instead of them,’ he doesn’t say they no longer have a place. For his message is that no-one is excluded. Everyone can have that change of heart and mind that brings them back into the right place. Jesus tells them that unlike the tax collectors and the prostitutes, they did not change their minds and believe John.” But they still could. The door remains open.

Sadly I’s have to say that I have seen churches where God has to know his place, and it’s second place to the organisation and the ritual. Probably all churches have a tendency to be like that sometimes. And I don’t suppose any of us, hand on heart, can say there haven’t been times when we’ve promised, but not delivered; when we’ve promised God, but not delivered; and when that’s happened, we’ve probably had all sorts of good reasons why we couldn’t do it, or had postpone. Life is shades of grey, it isn’t always black and white and easy to decide. So it’s good from time to time to be reminded of our outsider status. We’re saved not by our works, and certainly not by our words, however well meant, but by grace alone; by our Lord Jesus Christ and through the cross on which he bore our sins.

Which takes me back to where we started, I suppose, the danger of this reading leading us into judging others, who perhaps don’t match up to our fine examples, when the truth is, we don’t even match up to them ourselves. This is a story to encourage me into judgement, but I can only judge myself. So I’ll spend a while being honest about the promises I’ve passed up on, and I’ll work at building more transparency and consistency into my life, and I’ll ask my God to help me.