Saturday, 27 December 2014


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

Christmas Carols

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 22 December 2014

I Saw A Light

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

Do not be afraid . . .

Some words for use on Advent IV :-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Rosie's Emporium

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

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

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Sunday Talk - A Prophetic Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for a Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 13 December 2014


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Friday, 12 December 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 11 December 2014


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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

January Birdsong

Nature notes for the month to come . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Maurice E. Hare (1886-1967)

Monday, 8 December 2014

A Quote . . .

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

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

(H.P. Lovecraft)

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Sunday Talk

Prepared for tomorrow . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Another Music Quote

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

Albert Einstein

On Music (Quote)

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

Howard Goodall

Tuesday, 2 December 2014


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