Sunday, 30 November 2014

Some Thoughts at the Beginning of Advent

A few lines from a Sunday talk used today :-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Walking home in fog

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

Monday, 24 November 2014

The Shepherd's Song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 23 November 2014

No Sermon

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

Wise Word

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

Tuesday, 18 November 2014


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

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

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

Wednesday, 12 November 2014


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

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

Sunday Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Each Life Matters

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

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

Monday, 10 November 2014

Quite a long time . . .

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

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

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

Anyway, here's what I wrote -

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

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

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Blessed are the gentle

A talk prepared but not given . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Saints

A talk prepared but not given . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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