Monday, 28 December 2015

Painting by Numbers

All those years just
painting by numbers:
all those years spent
filling in all the right colours and
making sure no space is left empty,
taking care you never go over the lines.

From a distance
it all looked OK.
Get closer though,
and there was no sparkle,
no lightness, brightness of touch,
no spirit.

So why not for once in your life
ignore what the numbers in the boxes
tell you to do?
Draw a moustache on the lady’s face,
paint the sky pink if you like.
Let the sun shine in, and
make your bit of the world
a little crazy. Have fun.  Why not
dare just to be happy?

And even though
they won’t like it,
just do it,
for heaven’s sake,
just do it.

After all,
what do they know anyway?
All they are is

Saturday, 26 December 2015

A Sermon for St John's Day

To be preached at Chirbury tomorrow . . .

Over the past few days, I’ve read the wonderful opening words of chapter 1 of St John's Gospel at about six Christmas services, four in this group of parishes, two elsewhere. And I’ve heard them read at one or two others. I like to read aloud from scripture, it’s something I tend do that even when I say morning or evening prayer on my own; and together with some of the Psalms and 1 Corinthians 13, the opening verses of St John's Gospel are among my favourites.  I use modern translations of scripture most of the time, but not when I read from John chapter 1. In my view the modern translations don’t have the poetic majesty of the more traditional versions.

I don’t get to read that passage today, sadly; but we have heard the beginning of John's First Letter, which takes the same theme: the Word of God, by which the universe was created, has come to be with us in human form, and in this event the light of God's love is kindled among us. John wrote this letter towards the end of his long life, and you can think of Jesus “the Word of God made flesh” as John’s Great Idea. But it's an idea based in personal encounter. John writes as a witness, a man who walked with Jesus, heard him speak and shared with him moments of great spiritual intensity; a man who was also there to see him die.

John's Gospel differs a lot from the other three: it's an eye-witness account, but it’s also deeper, more complex, more reflective. It’s not as easy a read as Mark or Luke. John’s words stress the divinity of Jesus, but not at the expense of the humanity of Jesus. That’s a difficult balance. In Jesus the divine Word of God is present here among us, and John shows Jesus as aware of his divine nature in a way we don’t find so clearly stated in the other Gospels: but the Word is made flesh in Jesus the man, and this man is also presented by John as completely and fully like us. Now as it happens John wrote at a time when a dangerous heresy had arisen that John and others must have feared could distort the faith they preached, and do damage to the young Christian Church.

There were people around called Gnostics. The word Gnostic comes from the Greek word for knowledge (gnosis), a word used here to mean arcane and secret knowledge. The Gnostics believed and taught that the most important thing in faith was to acquire ever deeper levels of secret knowledge. As you learned more of these secrets, you moved up in the hierarchy of faith, and you gained spiritual power. John was anxious to counter and condemn this: this seeking after esoteric knowledge for its own sake, and as a means of attaining power, was completely opposed to the things Jesus taught, and the way Jesus lived. True faith isn’t about getting power and secret knowledge, true faith is growing to be like Jesus - and the marks of true faith are seen in acts of compassion, healing and renewal, in those things that are the fruit of love.

So that's why John wrote the things he wrote nearly two thousand years ago. As we read his words now, how different is the world around us, I wonder? It seems to me that people still have spiritual questions and spiritual hunger. I see this in all kinds of people, and in both old and young: people with an interest in spiritual things, people asking spiritual questions about the meaning of life. But one thing I also see is that not many of them are looking to the Christian faith for answers or directions.

So when I was in a big bookshop in Shrewsbury the other day looking for Christmas presents, and I found myself looking at a section labelled “Spirituality”, I wasn’t entirely surprised that hardly anything there was Christian in origin. Some did seem to come from other religious traditions, but most were more broadly ‘new age’. The common factor, so far as I could see, was that they were all self-help manuals, by which I mean their subject matter was mostly about how to take control of your own life and self. They seemed on the whole to be self-centred and morally neutral. There was very little about using spirituality in ways that might benefit others. We live in an increasingly pick and mix society, and spirituality has become just one more pick and mix commodity.

As I looked along the shelves, I found I could choose from Celtic savants or from Indian maharishis, from pagan mythology or native American insights. And I’m not sure that’s all that different from the world in which John was writing. There was an element of pick-and mix about the spirituality of that time too: many different philosophies to follow, and temples at which to worship.

So John writes to proclaim the true faith in the face of a multiplicity of traditions and ideas and cults in the world around him. I find the boldness of his writing attractive, inspiring and instructive. Of course he found the truth he teaches not in a set of ideas but in a man, the man he knew and followed, Jesus of Nazareth. As I read I'm reminded how weak and listless I can be when it comes to expressing or sharing my faith. Shouldn’t I dare to speak out more boldly? How sincerely do I believe that Jesus is truth not only for my own life but for the world? Here is a truth to set me free from fear, to set me free to love and serve, so why am I holding back on that?

John’s own letter begins, as we heard this morning, with a setting out of his credentials. He tells us why he has a right to be heard, that he writes as a witness, he was there. Then comes that great theme of light and darkness, and the Word become flesh in Christ who is the creative Word of God. In Genesis chapter 1 God speaks and things are made, and the very first thing made is light, and then the light is separated from the darkness. And John goes on to write that God is light, and that in God there is no darkness.

Those who know God then should be people of light; we choose the light and turn away from the darkness. For John darkness stands for ignorance, chaos, immorality, apathy and a lack of love. Darkness stands for a life that is Christless, life that fails to recognise in Christ the example he sets for us, the challenge he lays before us, and the call he gives us.

So for me as I stand on the edge of another new year, there’s a challenge in what John says. If I claim to share God's life when in fact I really prefer the darkness, then I’m living a lie. John found many examples in the world around him of people claiming to be spiritually mature, who were in fact completely self-absorbed, self-centred. There was no Christ in their lives. Is that me?

We need to test ourselves. Spiritual growth rooted in Christ will find its proof in acts of love and care, of compassion and healing that reflect the human example he sets us. This is how we prove that we’ve taken him to heart. A true disciple is one who lives what he says he believes. John the evangelist shows us the man who is much more than just a teacher, much more than a purveyor of knowledge. For Jesus is himself the message he preaches: in all he does and says he is light for the world. In him we see the Word made flesh among us, the light of creation kindled afresh in a human life that says, “Come, follow, take me to heart, imitate my love.”

May that Word be alive in his Church as we look to the year ahead with its opportunities and its uncertainties. May that Word be alive in us as we take seriously our Lord’s call to mission, to a mission expressed in service and sacrifice. In this way may we share light within his family and transmit it to the world, a light that shines in acts of compassion and love.

Friday, 25 December 2015

A Sermon for Christmas Morning

Preached at Chirbury this morning . . .

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head. For most of us our image of the Christmas story gets formed as much by the carols we sing as by the Gospel story told by Matthew and Luke. Traditionally carols were sung around the village on Christmas Eve in times past; and they added detail to the bible nativity stories, and relocated them into the frosty landscape of a British winter.

Those extra details in the carols were imagined of course - we can’t know what it was really like - but with nativity plays and Christmas cribs what they do is to help us to become part of the story of the birth of Jesus, so we feel we’re there with the shepherds and kings, not just hearing about an event from ancient history.

The very first Christmas crib is said to have been created by Francis of Assisi. As he grew older Francis retired to the mountain hermitage of Grecchio, in Italy, and there he spent a lot of time alone in prayer, reflecting on scenes from the life of Jesus, imagining what it would be like to be there. As the Christmas of 1223 approached he decided to share some of his imagining with the country people round about; he wanted them to see for themselves  the birth of their Lord.

On his instructions a stable was prepared, with a manger full of hay, and with an ox and an ass standing by. One difference from the cribs we now have was that it was full size, with real people and animals. Another was that in the middle of it all there was an altar table, and the Christmas holy communion was celebrated right in the place where the Christmas story was set.  Francis himself assisted at the service, and he read the Gospel with such devotion, we’re told, that many of those who came were moved to tears.

That was the first Christmas crib, and cribs remain an important part of our keeping of Christmas. A few years ago I went to see an exhibition of cribs that had been gathered together from far and wide. They were fascinating, not least because these cribs, all telling the same story, were in fact very different from each other.  They were all quite traditional in terms of what they contained, with the ox and ass standing by, for example. That ox and ass are now firmly part of the Christmas story as we imagine it, even though they date back to the imagination of St Francis, rather than the bible stories themselves. Some of the cribs contained a camel as well, though camels aren't even hinted at in the bible. All of them had shepherds, and many of them contained a shepherd boy giving a lamb, though that again is imagined rather than biblical; a few cribs had the other traditional image of the shepherd boy - not giving a lamb but playing a tune for the baby on his flute.

Along with those traditional touches, were features of the various cribs that had more to do with the places they came from than the story they told.  One crib was closely based on a traditional Shropshire barn, for example, while the door of another was a scale model of the door of the church in which it was usually displayed.  A third crib had been carefully shaped to fit within the ancient altar table of its church.

And then there was quite a lot of variety in the crib figures. Some were finely detailed and in biblical costume, but others wore medieval clothes, like you might see in a painting of the nativity by Rembrandt or one of the Italian masters; and others again seemed to have more contemporary styles of dress. One crib contained olive wood figures from the Holy Land, that didn't have any clearly carved features. I liked those, because they seemed to represent everyman and everywoman, which is surely appropriate.

For after all, though Jesus was born in a particular place and at a particular time in history, the meaning of this birth is not limited by history; Jesus is for here and now as well as there and then;  and he is for the whole world, brother to all the world's children wherever they are, whoever they may be. And it’s good that in our carols and our cribs we ourselves can enter the story of his birth, for as we do we discover the wonderful events of that holy night as God’s gift for us today as well as for the shepherds and the wise men and the citizens of Bethlehem back then so long ago.

The eternal light is shining in this darkness too, the eternal love is made incarnate in our midst, and echoes of the songs of the holy angels still float across our hills. So why not imagine this child born in a stable on the Shropshire Montgomeryshire border, and into the wind and rain of winter 2015?

If we think of him here and now, so we ourselves meet by his crib,  our carols can be sung not about him but for him and to him;  and as we praise him and pray to him, the light of his love can be born afresh in our own hearts. Heaven knows this is a dark enough time for our world, and who can tell what the new year may bring?

Jesus in history was born in an occupied land, and in the uncertain setting of a stable, with no room anywhere else in the town. And in the uncertainties of 2015 going on 2016, and however much those who hate his message of love may try to keep him out, this child stakes his claim to the dark and painful places of our troubled world and of our troubled hearts. He is born among us as Prince of Peace not just for people of long ago and far away, but for today, for here and now and all the world. Here still he waits for us to say yes to him, here still he waits for us to open our hearts to him, so the love he brings can catch flame in our lives.

Our cribs and carols remind us that Jesus belongs here as well as there, and now as well as then; born in a humble place, he waits on our response. So the greatest of all love stories begins; we trace our historical way to the humble crib in which God offers his love and himself to the world his love has made, a love to be fully revealed in the onward journey from Bethlehem and in the man this child will become. And the story begins again with us, and here in this place, and in the manger of our hearts: for Jesus is both today's child, seeking a place in our hearts, and tomorrow's man, come to melt the hard and cold winter of our world soul by soul with the warmth of his redeeming love.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

A Sermon for Christmas Eve

These are my words for this evening and tonight, at The Marsh, Hope, and Leighton :-

The other day I was told the story of a nativity play that didn't quite go as planned. This particular nativity play didn’t involve primary school children but the church youth group. They’d been given the job of putting on a sort of living Christmas crib for the village. As people came through the doors of the church they could see Joseph, Mary and a number of angels all there in their proper places; it was a lovely and peaceful scene.

People came in and sat down, and revelled in the beauty of it all, as the evening began. The youth club leader began to read the story, while the other participants in the nativity made their entrances. Sadly though, things started to go wrong when the shepherds came in.  Most church youth groups include a few pious and holy young people, and two of these were playing the parts of Mary and Joseph, creating just the right impression as they gazed earnestly at the manger, from which a light was shining. Someone had had the lovely idea of placing a lamp in the straw of the manger, and the light glowed like a halo where the baby was lying.

But most church youth groups also include a less reverent fringe, some of whom had been drafted in as shepherds; one of them, who fancied himself as a comedian, said to the lad playing Joseph in a loud stage whisper: "Well, Joe me old mate, that's a cute little kid you've got there;  are you going to stand us all a pint then, to wet baby's head?"  This remark didn't so much break the solemn spell of the occasion as completely explode it. Even pious Mary and Joseph began to quake as they tried not to laugh, and the chief angel, a large girl who was standing rather precariously on a chair behind them, shook so hard with laughter that she toppled right over. Down she came, taking the backdrop curtain and most of the rest of the props with her.  Having knocked over two shepherds on the way down - as I say, she was a big girl - she rolled around on the floor heaving with laughter, leaving the whole stage in a complete shambles.

As the congregation recovered from the shock, they could see that the only thing still standing in all that chaos was the manger, from which the light continued to shine. And I hope that maybe they were reminded of what St John wrote in chapter 1 of his Gospel:  'The light shines on, and the darkness has not overcome it.'

Tonight we celebrate Christ the light of the world, Christ who enters the shambles of our world, and continues to shine in all the mess we make of things. We celebrate the God who doesn't leave us to it, but enters our messed-up world to transform it, and us, life by life and heart by heart; we celebrate the fact that here in a tiny baby Divine and human paths cross and engage. In the infant Jesus God's unending and unchanging love, the love which has been there from the very beginning of time, is made flesh among us.

I was with one of the choirs I sing with in a local residential home for their carol service. In a break between carols one of the ladies there started to sing the old Sunday school song 'Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.' 'That's not a Christmas carol, dear,' someone told her. But in fact that little song takes us right to the heart of what Christmas is really all about. Karl Barth, one of the greatest Bible scholars of the last century, was once asked after a lecture, 'Of all the theological insights you've ever had, which do you consider was the greatest of them all?"  And Dr Barth, the writer of so many deep and learned books, simply smiled and repeated those same old Sunday school words:  "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

And that’s the whole point of Christmas; to celebrate the start of the greatest love story ever. We're reminded that the fact that God loves us takes precedence over all the other stuff people find in the Bible: the commandments and rules we’re supposed to keep, and the penalties we face when we don’t manage to. Of course, the rules are important, and of course God does judge us, and judgement is the big theme of Advent, the weeks that lead up to Christmas.

But on this holy night we are recalled to the simple truth that God loves us.  God must be angered and distressed by the mess we make of the world he made, and appalled at the reality of human sin; but his response to the mess we make is one of love; he longs to forgive our sin and to heal our hearts. And so in the darkness of this night, and in the darkness of human sin, a child is born and a son is given, and a new light is lit in little Bethlehem. At Christmas the way of God intersects decisively with our own human lives and their journeys;  tonight we affirm the intensity with which God never ceases to love us.

The wonder of Christmas is how small God makes himself, and how vulnerable he becomes. This child is born with nothing guaranteed, to humble parents far from home, and in nothing better than a stable. Imagine that child, laid in a manger, with his parents anxiously watching his little face, listening for his breathing, like any set of new parents. Remember how different the real stable must have been from the clean and glittery cribs that feature on our Christmas cards; remember that any real ox and ass that might have been there will have been every bit as smelly as donkeys and cattle generally are.

This child once grown will call himself 'Son of Man', which means everyman, or any man. He’s born to be one of us, but we also call him Prince of Peace; prince of a peace much deeper and purer than when the guns fall silent on a battlefield - though thank God that sometimes at least that also happens at Christmas. The peace this Child brings is a peace that’s born only in the individual human heart, born when I myself realise that God loves and accepts me just as I am. Then a journey in me begins in which God makes of me more than I ever dreamt I could be. This isn’t a love story to take away the world’s pain and tragedy, it won’t remove in one fell swoop the hurt and sorrow of our lives; but tonight God enters our story to live it with us, and in Bethlehem love divine intersects with our world of shame and waste.

Wherever we are in life, and whatever turmoil there may be in our own hearts, or in the world around us; however lost, faithless or sinful we may be, the God who is love divine and light for the world never ceases to love us, to love me and you, and to desire us and to seek us. Celebrate and sing that love not only at Christmas, but in all the living of our lives, and celebrate the light which cannot be extinguished, that will shine on, however dark and unloving and fearful the world about us may seem to be; and may God's blessing be in our hearts and homes, and with all whom we love this Christmas night and always!

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Sunday Sermon . . .

. . . preached at St Michael's, Chirbury last Sunday (Advent 4) :-

One of my favourite Christmas carols - or, I suppose, more precisely an Advent carol - is “The angel Gabriel from heaven came . . .”  If I’m to be completely honest, I do have to admit that I like it partly because as junior choristers we used to enjoy singing “most highly flavoured gravy” instead of “most highly favoured lady” in the chorus, hoping that the choir master (my father) wouldn’t notice, which he always did, of course. But I like it anyway, that carol: with its vivid retelling of the story of that huge, life-shattering message delivered by an angel to a young girl.

Gabriel in the carol comes across as quite a serious kind of angel - “his wings like drifted snow, his eyes as flame” - the words of the carol inform us. Personally I'd expect God’s angel to have blended in rather better in reality - snowy wings and flaming eyes might have been a bit too obvious on the streets of Nazareth. But then again, perhaps this angel, snowy wings and all, was a vision granted only to Mary.

But why Nazareth, though, I might ask?  Why should an angel come with a message for a peasant girl of no account in such an insignificant little provincial town?  My best reply is that it had to be like that, because this is the way of love, and what begins here in humble Nazareth is the greatest of all love stories. If the messiah had come into the world in any other way he'd have been a different messiah with a different agenda. In the messiah born of Mary, named Jesus and called the Christ, God offers us his love, and seeks our response of love. The truth at the heart of this story is this: love can be won only through love.

Mary is the chosen vessel of that love. "Blessed are you among women!" declares her cousin Elizabeth. Blessed she surely is, but she will suffer as this story unfolds. In the temple old Simeon will tell Mary that a sword will pierce her heart. For  the blessed son she bears she will also see die.
For Mary, to be chosen by God will be to know both blessing and pain: the message of the angel offers her both a crown of joy and a cross of sorrow.

Only Luke tells the story of Mary's visit to Elizabeth. One old tradition places Luke very close to Mary, claiming that, as an artist, he painted her portrait. What certainly is true is that Luke takes great care to get the historical setting right as he tells his story. And he clearly has a sense of theatre too. This story is well staged, and it has songs as well, including the Magnificat, Mary’s song. Did Mary actually speak these words, or did Luke place them in her mouth? Either way, this is a song of revolutionary purpose.

And here is one of the great themes of Luke throughout his Gospel: social concern, and God’s word of promise and welcome to the outcast and the poor. So in Mary's song, the Magnificat, things are re-sorted; the mighty are cast down, and the rich sent away empty, while the humble find themselves exalted and the hungry are fed.

And if that’s what the messiah is coming to do, how could he come into the world in any other way? From the beginning, God’s holy one is identified with the poor, the homeless, the marginalised and the humble. Luke tells us that shepherds were the first people to arrive at the stable; and shepherds people who weren't able to maintain the standards of ritual purity and regular worship that were to be expected. So they were sort of outcast, looked down on by the religious elite. Yet an angel goes to them too, as Luke tells the story. And they come to be at the messiah's side, not because they’ve stumbled by chance on to this new birth but because God chose to tell them, rather than priests or prophets or kings.

Mary, though, remains our focus for now. In a London gallery this time last year, I was admiring a medieval painting of Mary splendidly attired in a velvet gown of blue with red and gold trimmings. Like the finest of ladies of the day, the day being some time in the 15th century. We do tend to dress Mary up, in our paintings, our prayers, our theology . . .

But we shouldn't dress her too finely, for it’s the ordinariness of Mary that makes sense of the Jesus story. God’s son could have been born a child of Herod; or God’s son could have been born to a rival of Herod's, or maybe even of Caesar's, and grown up to kick Herod out and take over his throne - after all, that’s exactly what Herod and his people expected a messiah to do. Someone born into a position of power could have dazzled the priests and the people into instant acquiescence, and taken centre stage from the word go.

But this isn’t that kind of story, and never could be or should be. To Mary the girl, Mary the simple and humble servant comes the most awesome challenge - the Spirit from on high shall overshadow you, and of you shall be born a son who will be Christ the Lord. And Mary could have said 'No'. That was her free choice; love won’t and can’t force its way into the world. Only when Mary says ‘yes’ does the story of our salvation begin. Until she answers the angel all heaven catches its breath and waits; and I find a sense of that divine risk, heaven waiting on Mary, in the carol.

And by her yes Mary became the greatest of saints, and our model as we look to serve our Lord: not because of amazing holiness, or exceptional scholarship, or outstanding bravery, though perhaps courage was part of it - what makes Mary the model for our service is her faithful obedience:  whatever lies ahead, let it be for me, she says, as my Lord wills.

Let it be for me as my Lord wills. We'll be praying that prayer this morning, and we probably pray it every day without really paying the attention we should to the words and what they commit us to. As our Lord has taught us, we pray "thy will be done, thy kingdom come."  And where else can I pray for God's will to be done, other than beginning with me, and where I am? The kingdom comes wherever and whenever we offer ourselves to God. When we pray this prayer, heaven holds its breath and waits on us, as it waited on Mary.

And if I’m serious about "thy will be done" it can’t just be thy will be done when it fits in with what I choose and where I feel comfortable, it can’t just be thy will be done when I can be sure beforehand where it’s going to lead me; I must pray those words and mean them, wherever that may take me. "Thy will be done" is my yes to God’s call.  So where is God leading me, and you?  Where is he wanting to lead our church, in these challenging times?

Why Nazareth and why Bethlehem and why Mary, we may ask today. Or else we could be asking: why Chirbury? why Pontesbury Deanery? why Hereford Diocese? What’s God asking now of me, what's he wanting now from you? Here is where God is working his purpose out, and here is where he's calling us to be the chosen vessels of his grace. But I don’t have the strength, I might complain; I don't have the resources, the staying power, the insight, I might say. I’m not good enough, I might say, and if I'm honest, I often do. God says in response, “That doesn’t matter yet. For the present, all you need to do is to say yes, and trust that I will provide all you need.”

Christmas is just around the corner; and our celebration begins with that essential 'yes' of Mary to God’s angel, for without that yes the story can't start. May our Christmas be a joyful and blessed one, but may it also be a time for us to commit again, and to offer ourselves again - for the Christ child announced to a girl in Nazareth, and born once for all in Bethlehem, seeks still and always to make his home in our hearts, and to be at work in our lives.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Christmas Lights

Each Christmas we rejoice in lights
that sparkle on the tree
to cheer us through the winter nights;
but stand a while and see
the Christmas crib, the story told
of when, so long ago,
glad angels filled the sky with gold
while shepherds stood below.
In Bethlehem a brighter dawn
than all our lanterns give -
the Light of lights, a Child new born,
shines there that we might live.

Friday, 11 December 2015


I'm busy trying to write Christmas cards, and as I do so, I'm reminded that I haven't spoken with, or heard from, many of these people since last Christmas. That's not surprising in one sense; we all lead busy lives, and there's a limit to how many people we can keep in regular touch with, especially if they live far away. But we're not getting any younger, any of us, and I'm also reminded that the people I'm sending cards to are people who are still important to me, even if mostly that's because of memories of past times shared. Social media help us to stay in touch with some of these people, of course, but not all of them, particularly some of the older of my old friends. So I took time out from the writing and addressing just to phone one or two people up, and I'm really glad I did. Christmas round robin letters can help us keep in touch with each other, but nothing beats a real conversation. Let's see if I can do this keep in touch stuff a bit better in the year to come!

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Christmas Rose

The rose is one of the great symbols of Mary the mother of Jesus; this is a poem I wrote some six years ago.

A rose there springs from tender root,
Christ-bearer, hailed in song of old,
the flower of God's eternal love,
a new flame lit in winter's cold.
When half spent was the silent night,
the rose foretold by prophets' tongue
gave birth to one named Prince of Peace,
whose alleluias gladly sung
by angels in the frosty skies
brought shepherds to the manger-bed
to worship him;  as so do we.
The Christmas Rose in white and red,
bright in the darkness of these times
is sign for us of Mary's grace -
Light of the world, of her new-born,
reflects in her so gentle face.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

The Other Disciple

I attended a lovely funeral today of a lady who was obviously a woman of great faith. She had chosen Luke 24.13-32 as the Bible reading to be used; and an unfortunate typo on the service sheets had replaced "The walk to Emmaus" with "The walk to Emma's" - something no-one had noticed when scanning and proof reading, until the service itself! The reader (a retired minister, I think) quite brilliantly introduced the reading by telling us that we now knew just who the other disciple was with whom Cleopas was walking home that day. From what people said, I think the lady herself would have appreciated the humour.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

On Finding The Way (poem)

Panic is rising now like bile in his gut;
he feels its acid measure within him
as he stumbles on through the waste of bracken and bramble.
The vegetation is sodden from the rain that has soaked through his clothes,
while thunder continues to rumble along the far horizon,
and the day's light is failing.  There are no
landmarks to be found, no signs to direct his path,
no safe ground on which to stand.  Behind him the trees are black,
and echo already with the screech of owls.
Now he pushes between unruly clumps of tall rushes, and
beneath his feet the hungry mud is
sucking and pulling at his boots, and it soaks between the seams.
He no longer has the breath for calling out, all his effort must go
to keep moving, best he can. And yet he finds he is singing now
as he walks, singing against the demons of the dark, singing
to time and encourage his steps, that old song from his childhood,
from those dusty Sunday afternoons in chapel:  "Lead, kindly light,
amid the encircling gloom."  Oh, if only he had not strayed
from the well-trod and waymarked path, if only he had listened
to the instructions given for the long day's journey.
If he only he could have swallowed his pride.  Already
it is so very dark, so fearfully dark;

and yet as he presses forward
in that dark a light has appeared, small but clear,
and he hears singing to match his own, and
somewhere up ahead there is the promise of help and warmth of welcome,
of a known way and companions for the journey on; and there will be
rejoicing in heaven.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

A poem written for use at a funeral

Please think of life as precious gift,
to use with care and grace,
that we may make the world we share
a kinder, brighter place,
and if at times the way is hard,
and days bring hurt and tears,
the friends we make, good times we share
are gold to last the years;
and though a leaf may fall too soon
from life’s tall sturdy tree,
the memories will never fade
of one whose soul was free.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Sermon for Tomorrow

(Set readings for Advent 2)

The second Sunday of Advent finds the Church still desperately trying not to be too Christmassy, and to keep a penitential season of preparation and waiting, while in the world around us trees sparkle everywhere, shops are full of people spending whatever they’ve got left after Black Friday, and Christmas carols surround us, or more probably songs by Slade, Wizzard, the Pogues and Bing Crosby.

Those of us who sing in choirs, mind you, we’ve been singing Christmas carols since September, and some of them are probably beginning to grate a little. I’ve already sung my first Christmas carol concert, and there’s another this afternoon (3 o’clock at Llangyniew Church, if you’re interested: they’ll probably fit you in). And there are several more to go. My first Christmas card had the grace to wait until after last Sunday to arrive. To be fair, it’s from my cousin Barbara, who’s moving house, so it’s good she got in early with the change of address details.

I’m some way off yet from sending any cards myself. Advent always catches me on the hop, and I’m never very good at organising all the Christmas stuff. But the theme of Advent is only partly about getting ready to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus. Advent’s big theme is really getting ourselves right with God as we reflect on his promise that we will be judged. “Even so, come, Lord Jesus, come” we pray in one of the traditional Advent prayers, and that isn’t the coming of the baby but the coming of the King. It’s the time when, as we read in the Book of Revelation and elsewhere, this morning the Old Testament Book of Malachi, all must stand before him, and all sin and imperfection will be exposed. And some serious cleaning up will be done. You could be forgiven for feeling that this sort of Advent message jars a bit when set against all the cutesy feelgood stuff in the Christmas promos.

Fact is, though, Jesus had a lot to say about judgement; it was the subject of many if not most of his parables. And John the Baptist before him, part of whose story we heard in our reading from Luke - John was certainly and uncompromisingly about judgement, wherever he went and whoever he was speaking to. Malachi the prophet also used strong language as he complained about the shabby and half-hearted observance that was the temple worship of his day. It’s time for change, he tells us, and the one God will send will come like refiner's fire or fuller's soap to clean things up. This won't just be a surface clean, not just a lick and a polish. This will be the real thing:  cleansing of the temple.

It occurs to me that the word 'cleansing' has acquired some negative vibes in recent years, not least in that euphemistic expression 'ethnic cleansing', which is surely always a monstrous and terrible thing.  Far too often there's a religious element to it, that should shame anyone who takes religion seriously. Catholic against Protestant, Hindu against Muslim, or the terrorists in Mali who executed those hostages who couldn’t quote from the Q’uran. How is that people who do things like can believe that what they do pleases God?

Malachi the prophet was a zealot and a puritan; he probably won’t have been the easiest of people to live with.  The same was surely true of John the Baptist, who could be every bit as uncompromising as any of the Old Testament prophets, both in his message and in the words he used to convey it. He called those who trekked out to see him a 'brood of vipers', which was not the most flattering of greetings. But it’s good and needful that people of prophetic zeal and passion rise up at times when religion has become stale and jaded. We need stirring up from time to time when standards slip, we need to be freshly challenged when we forget what we’re here for.

For what does it means to be a Christ-like and Christ-filled church? The Church is called to be creatively different from the world around it;  and yet also to have a positive, hopeful and useful ministry that we bring into that world and offer to those around us. Paul, writing to the young Church in Philippi in our second reading this morning, prays for them to be kept pure and blameless, and to be able to discern what things are best: best for their own souls' health, and also best for the Gospel cause and the world that needs to hear that message.

The other day I bought some stuff I’d seen advertised that was supposed to be a really effective cleanser. It looked the part, and it had quite a nice perfume, but - well, maybe I didn’t use it right, but it seemed to me to be totally useless at getting rid of dirt. Churches also can look good and maybe even smell good, without really being much good. You’ve heard the phrase, "so heavenly minded that they're no earthly good".

Well, we do have to be heavenly-minded, of course. Jesus told his disciples they were already citizens of heaven. But we do have to some earthly good as well. Jesus wants his Church to care about what’s going on around it, and to challenge what’s wrong, unjust, hateful, thoughtless, greedy, and dirty in the world;  he wants his Church to be practical, compassionate and helpful - a place of healing, comfort, reconciliation and good teaching. There has to be a real connection between what we do in here and what we do out there. Jesus calls us to be lights placed high on a lampstand, not hidden under a bucket.

And that has to begin where we are. The great prophets of old never asked others to do anything they weren’t already doing themselves. No preacher has any right to speak except that he or she knows their own need to hear the message, and to receive God’s healing grace and salvation. If you don’t recognise that in yourself you can’t teach it to others.

All we ask and do and teach has to be tested and measured against what Jesus tells us and shows us. Are we sharing and showing and proclaiming the love we see in him? We must take care not to produce what passes for righteousness, but is at its heart unloving - for nothing unloving can express the righteous will of God. So Jesus promised his disciples that the Spirit of Truth would lead them into all truth. Paul tells us that the Spirit we receive is the Spirit of Christ, whose nature is love. This the Spirit of the one for whom mountains were levelled and rugged paths made smooth; may he be like refiner's fire for our hearts, nerving and enabling us to take his message of love and light out into all the world.

Friday, 4 December 2015

I Saw A Light

A poem written last Christmas (and posted on the blog then in an earlier form) which I've reposted because I'll be reading it on a few occasions this year . . .

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 baby born in Bethlehem, and hailed with angel song
would as a man bear on a cross the weight of worldly wrong.
And 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,
that we may walk the way of faith, and speak of hope and peace
to those who dwell in chains of sin and long for love’s release,
until that day when angel song fills all the golden sky,
when comes again the man who on a cross was pleased to die.

(Picture - setting sun over the Vistula, Krakow, taken in January 2010)

Thursday, 3 December 2015

I have been advised by my doctor to give up . .

I have been advised by my doctor
to give up writing poetry. It’s
really not good for you, he told me.
“Get away from that paper,” he said,
“put that pen down, and get a life.”

But it’s not that easy. I found a pencil,
half chewed but it still worked. You can
write poetry on the back of an envelope,
so I did; no-one need ever know, I reasoned.

They soon sussed me out. “You’ve been doing it again,”
said the wife. “You’ve got that spaced out look in your eyes,
and there’s an ink stain on your finger.”
Damn! I should have used biro,
it washes off better. But it was only a haiku, I tell her,
I’m keeping off the hard stuff.

Trouble is, for the poetry addict
there is no such thing as “just a drop”.
You’re in there for the lot if you’re in there at all.
I’m not going to write anything, I tell myself,
not today. I’ll be strong, maybe just read a bit,
just some Wordsworth or Keats, nothing modern,
nothing too dangerous. And I won’t inhale.

Then one day I tried this anonymous door,
upstairs room, Poets Anonymous. “I’m Bill
and I’m a - hang on, I’ve just had an idea,
where’s that paper, I had a piece somewhere;
anyone got a pen?” They threw me out,
had to, that was no place for a recidivist.

Back on the street, I made for the Oxfam
second-hand book shop. Then the library.
I am a hopeless case; I have to get my fix.
It’s killing me, I know, but I have to do it.
Sorry, doc, but I am a poet. I just am; and neither you nor I
can do very much about it.
There is no cure, though I suppose the government could try
rationing our paper, or taxing pens. It might at least
make some money out of us. But otherwise, just be thankful
there aren’t too many of us. Yet.


Last night Ann and I attended an excellent presentation by Iolo Williams at our local Town Hall, about the wonderful variety of wildlife we have in Wales. He was less complimentary about pheasants, however . . . As it happens, I'd decided that pheasants would be the topic of my latest "Nature Notes". I do quite like the stupid old birds, but in terms of the impact of pheasants on the environment and other British wildlife, I suspect Mr Williams and I are not that far apart in our views.

So here's my article :-

We quite often hear pheasants from our garden, even though we’re in the town, and sometimes they stroll in and peck at whatever’s under the feeders. They’re gormless birds, but quite attractive; I sort of like them. They are not a native species, but may well have been here since Roman times, and certainly since the fifteenth century.

The British landscape is for the most part able to accommodate and provide for a reasonable population density of pheasants. So in some arable and lightly wooded areas across the UK there is reckoned to be an entirely natural and self-maintaining pheasant population, but elsewhere the presence of pheasants is largely due to the bird being reared and released for shooting purposes. The genuinely wild population is probably experiencing a gentle decline, meanwhile.

Some thirty-five to forty million pheasants are reared and released in the UK each year, and at times it seems that most of them (plus a fair few red-legged partridges, also not native) are scattered about on the lanes along which I’m trying to drive. Shoots are a very big business; opinions differ as to the extent to which the very big operations that some shoots now are can be described as ‘sporting’, and also as to what contribution they really make to the rural economy. I wouldn’t wish to argue for either side of the debate in this article, but I do confess to some disquiet over the release of quite so many of any animal or bird into our countryside; pheasants can do damage to young shoots (friends living on the edge of the Stiperstones had a thankless task keeping the local pheasants out of their rather lovely garden) and also to reptiles and amphibians that they will attack and kill.

It’s also sad to see so many killed on our roads. It takes quite a lot to persuade a pheasant to take to the air, and so they are quite vulnerable to vehicle strikes. They can do some damage, too! - I remember one taking out one of my headlamps on the main road between Shrewsbury and Much Wenlock, and costing me £100. If 35 million pheasants are released each year, and the industry reckons 15 million of these are shot, which is some 55-60% of the lowland game bag, that leaves a lot to be killed on the roads, I’m thinking.

Pheasants forage on the ground and occasionally in trees, and have a varied diet of grain, fruit, and insects and other invertebrates including worms, plus from time to time frogs, slow worms and lizards. Left to their own devices they nest on the ground, in a scrape often in tall grass or under shrubbery, and lay between seven and fifteen eggs. The male gives a guttural call, flying up as he does this so you also hear the wing beats; one male may have a harem of females which he works hard to defend from rivals. Most male pheasants have a white ring around the neck, but races of pheasants have been increasingly mixed by captive breeding and releases, and so you’ll find quite a variety of plumage, including darker ‘melanistic’ birds.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The Sleeper

A poem I wrote a couple of years ago, which always seems to go down well . . .

I preached the other Sunday, as a vicar’s bound to do,
on the milk of human kindness, and First Peter, chapter 2,
when I was miffed to hear an interruption from the floor,
quite clear and unmistakeable, a large and fruity snore.

It came from Mr Barlow, halfway down and on the right -
when I stand in the pulpit, all the faithful in my sight,
there isn’t much I miss; but here’s the point, what could I do
to express my disapproval, but without quite saying who?

I waited till the final hymn, when notices were read,
and after “Thursday: sale of work” I coughed and gently said,
“I noticed someone sleeping as I preached to you today,
I’d welcome an apology sometime;  now let us pray.”

I thought no more about it, it was just one of those things -
sufficient to the day, you know, the evil that day brings.
But when on Monday morning I put on my coat and hat
twelve letters of apology were lying on my mat!

Another six by lunchtime, and by supper twenty-eight,
by which time I’d had ‘sorry’ notes from half the Sunday gate,
and still they kept on coming through the week, till finally
there was only Mr Barlow hadn’t written one to me!

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Thistledown (Haiku)

     Drift in silence while
     the busy world uncaring
     fails to catch your smile.

Sunday, 29 November 2015


So, the season of Advent has begun - and with it my first Christmas carol service! I preferred it when carols weren't sung until after Christmas: our "Nine Lessons and Carols" always took place on the Sunday after Christmas. Advent then truly was a season of spiritual preparation for the feast, and in our house the Christmas decorations went up on Christmas Eve, not before. I suppose that was old fashioned of us, even then. Now, Christmas begins on Advent Sunday (so called, so Advent has ceased to be a season and become one Sunday). But that's life, and I no more turn the clock back on Advent and Christmas than Canute could turn back the waves!

Meanwhile, I've found a really nice live version of "North Street Grande" by Stackridge, a band I've always liked since coming across them in the early 70's. This song dates from 2009, and I was surprised to find they'd released it as a Christmas single. It is indeed a sort of Christmas song, and worth a listen now that WW1 is a hundred years ago:

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

What I Actually Wrote

I posted a first draft of this poem a couple of weeks back; here is what might (you never really quite know) might be the finished version . . .

As I shape the memories that jostle within me,
and form them into seasons and stories, I find
I am liberated into relationship. And together
we learn to persevere, to walk the hard road, and
each to accept as our own the mirrored face we see.
Together we trace our way forward, frame our ‘yes’ to life.

What we pass on as we meet is important, it has
a significance we may not realise, a consistent truth,
even as the stories change in the telling,
and as they are heard. Our memory
and imagination have transforming power; so we discover
new ways to belong together, new journeys to take.

And a dark place may not always be a bad place;
we are formed, made, remade, by our fractures
and our failures. This is discipleship in process,
where challenge and gift reach a new and creative
balance in our lives, within our souls, and where by grace
even in our falling we may find new springs of hope.

And as we walk together with him Emmaus lies ahead,
all golden in the setting sun. Here is where our paths
must diverge, for he tells us he must travel on.
But first we shall sit together; and bread is broken, and
the cup of wine passed round; and here we are named,
claimed and freed by his ‘yes’ that is for ever.

Monday, 23 November 2015

What I Actually Preached . . .

The sermon I posted on Saturday got changed rather a lot before I preached it (at Leighton and Corndon Marsh). I think I managed to correct some of the typos, but probably not all of them . . .

Islamic State, so called, is the latest example in our world of a religious group trying to establish its earthly rule. And people of every faith and no faith have been equally appalled at what they’ve seen perpetrated by this frankly obscene travesty of what it means to be religious, in Syria and Iraq, and also in Ankara and Beirut and Paris. Andrew Neil’s opening monologue to the programme “This Week” has deservedly gone viral, as they say, as he describes the Paris attackers and those who stand behind them as “Islamist Scumbags”. I can’t fault any word of his statement, except maybe to say that the sick violence of those who want to establish a new kingdom, or caliphate as they would call it, in the name of Islam is not in the name of Islam at all, and is a terrible travesty of what that faith truly preaches and stands for.

Atheist friends of mine have been quick to use what Islamic State are doing as a reason to condemn all religion as not only pointless but actively harmful to humanity and to world peace. I can’t agree with them. Religion can be misused by those who are sick in mind and heart, and has been, through the ages, and far too many wars have been fought in its name, including the crusades which for Islamic State represent a way which is still not over. But faith is not the issue, though perverted forms of religion may be. The problem is not Islam or any other religion per se; the problem is extremism, and that takes many forms in our world, not all of them religious.

Today we honour Jesus as our King, and we take time to think seriously about the Kingdom he proclaims. Where is it, and what is it, and what is our part in it? My newspaper seems to contain a new map every day of the territory controlled by Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and defended by its soldiers and militants. But the Kingdom Jesus preaches doesn’t appear on any map; it’s not defined by geography, it has no border posts or defending army.

Of course, there have been attempts to establish Christian kingdoms on earth that had all of those things, and sometimes the process of doing this was a violent one. There were a number of kingdoms, chief among them Jerusalem, that were established at the time of the crusader wars; in Medieval times the Holy Roman Empire took in the greater part of Europe at its height; on a smaller scale you had attempts at strict Christian order on such communities as Jean Calvin’s Geneva. But none of these could ever be the kingdom Jesus proclaims, for, as he says to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, his kingdom is not of this world.  That doesn’t mean that he’s a king somewhere else, like heaven, or not exactly that. After all, when Jesus travelled around preaching he told the people that the kingdom of God had come close to them - right then and there, right where they were. This is a kingdom we can look forward to, but it’s also a kingdom we can see the signs of here and now. The kingdom of God is about how we choose to live, who we choose to listen to and follow and obey.

'My kingdom is not of this world' said Jesus. His is a kingship very different from the kingship of a Caesar or a Herod. This kingship invites us, rather than compels us, and it offers to serve us rather than order us about. Jesus says, “Let the greatest among you become as one who serves.” So if we’re to follow him, we should be like him, in our discipline, in the love we show and share, in our obedience and humility and service.

The theological word for that is ‘holy’. Holy means specially set apart - in order to serve, in order to build bridges, in order to be peacemakers in the world, in order to bring healing and compassion and forgiveness into lives that need to know those things, that need to know the transforming and saving love of our God and King. That’s our Lord himself did, that’s the work he calls us to continue in his name.

Isn't this so very different from the cruel and cynical power play of Islamic State, which can only think of destroying its enemies, and even its own people the moment they step out of line? This king of ours is on record as loving his enemies and calling on his disciples to do the same; and he stands opposed to the power madness of the world; think of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, in St Luke’s Gospel. In it we can find these words: "he has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich empty away." Those words  have even been banned by some regimes, in case they stir up opposition to those who grab at worldly wealth and power.

So where will we find this kingdom, and how can we build and establish it?  The kingdom is everywhere that the Gospel of Jesus is really being taken seriously and lived. It is both our present reality and our future hope. The signs of the Kingdom are all around us, and we ourselves are challenged to live in a Kingdom way, here and now, as we also pray for its fulfilment and its completion. The kingdom is seen and known when there is healing for the sick and troubled, acceptance for the outcast and unwanted, restoration for those who have lost hope or are burdened by failure or sin, and new life for those who feel they have no future and no worth. And it’s not confined to any place, it has no geographical boundaries - it happens and is proclaimed as we live it. It is even happening today in places claimed and ruled by Islamic State.

In fact ‘kingdom’ in our New Testaments is probably better translated as 'kingship', for it’s really about the place we give Christ in our own hearts and lives. It’s about whether we are his obedient servants. William Ruskin said, "He who gives God second place in life gives him no place."  Jesus said, "Shine as lights in the world, to the glory of God the Father."

A card I saw in a local shop the other day said: "Work like you don't need the money, love like you've never been hurt, and dance like nobody's watching." I offer those words to you as a way of being Kingdom people. For this Kingdom is built when its people are working not for any reward, but just because they’re thankful and loving; and where its people go on loving and serving and giving even when it hurts, whatever discouragements come their way; and where its people just do it, just dance before our Lord with his music playing in their hearts and not the world’s songs, without caring what others might think.

Yes, our king might look foolish next to the Caesars and the Herods of this world on their high thrones and with their fine robes and golden crowns; and against the Islamic States and Boko Harans of this world as they brandish their Kalashnikovs he might look fatally weak. The big boys of his day nailed him to a cross, and he hung there helpless, his life draining away, and people looking on and jeering. But in fact his cross is his royal throne, and the moment of his death the moment of absolute victory. There he is proclaimed as Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, and there he challenges us to go for what’s eternal, to live for what can’t be destroyed, and to open our hearts to the spark of love divine through which all things were made, from which all life emerged, by which we are lifted up from a world of sin and failure and death and into the new life only Christ could win for us, and in which we are given good news to take out into all the world.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

A Sermon for Tomorrow

On Christ the King (Rev 1.4-8 and John 18.33-37) :-

Our readings today have been about being a king, because today is Christ the King Sunday. Kings on earth are very grand people. Other people sit on chairs, but kings sit on thrones. Other people wear hats, but kings wear crowns. Thrones are chairs raised up, so the king sits above his subjects, looking down on them, and crowns symbolise an inherited greatness that can’t be opposed or challenged by ordinary folk.

But what sort of king is Jesus? And what will it mean for us, to honour him as our King? He is no ordinary king: he told the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, that his kingdom is not of this world.  But that doesn’t mean that he’s a king somewhere else, like heaven, or not exactly that. Jesus spoke a lot about the kingdom, and he told the people that the kingdom of God had come close to them. It is a kingdom we might look forward to, but it’s also about the here and now, it’s about how we choose to live, who we choose to listen to and follow and obey.

When he said 'My kingdom is not of this world' I think Jesus was declaring that his was a different sort of kingship, and a different source of authority, from kings like Caesar or Herod. A kingship that invites, rather than compel, and that offers service rather than give orders. As he told his friends, “Let the greatest among you become as one who serves.” If we’re going to follow him, we should be as like him as we can be: disciplined, loving, obedient and observant in our response to him, and thankful for all he has done for us.

There’s a theological word for that: ‘holy’, which means specially set apart. We are specially set apart in order to serve, in order to build bridges, in order to be peacemakers in the world, in order to bring healing and compassion and forgiveness into lives that need to know the transforming and saving love of our God and King. That’s what it means to be his people alive and active in his world.

His kingdom is opposed to the power play of the world; think of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, in At Luke’s Gospel. In it we can find these words: "he has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich empty away." Words that have been banned by some regimes, because of the threat to worldly order and power they contain.

So where will we find this kingdom, and how can we build and establish it?  The kingdom is everywhere that the Gospel of Jesus is really being taken seriously and lived. It is both our present reality and our future hope. The signs of the Kingdom are all around us, and we ourselves are challenged to live in a Kingdom way, here and now, as we also pray for its fulfilment and its completion. Jesus sent his disciples out to proclaim the Kingdom, not as something to be looked forward to in the distant future, but as present reality. The signs of the kingdom are healing for the sick and troubled, acceptance for the outcast and unwanted, restoration for those who have lost hope or are burdened by failure or sin, and new life for those who feel they have no future and no worth. This kingdom isn’t confined to any place, it has no geographical boundaries - it happens and is proclaimed as we live it.

As servants of the King and builders of the Kingdom, we’re sent out into the world to get on with it. And where we get on with it is everywhere. The Greek word translated as ‘kingdom’ in our New Testaments is probably better translated as 'kingship', for it’s really about the place we give Christ in our own hearts and lives. It’s about whether we are his obedient servants. William Ruskin said, "He who gives God second place in life gives him no place."  Jesus said, "Shine as lights in the world, to the glory of God the Father."

So we should be sincere and committed, God's people before all else;  and the world should see that in us, we should be bearing a good and faithful witness. A card I saw in a local shop the other day said: "Work like you don't need the money, love like you've never been hurt, and dance like nobody's watching." I offer those words to you as a way of being Kingdom people. The Kingdom we’re talking about gets built when its people are working not for worldly reward, but just because they’re thankful and loving.  It’s a Kingdom built by people who go on loving and serving and giving even when it hurts, whatever discouragements come their way. And it’s built by people who just do it, who dance before our Lord, who have his music playing in their hearts and not the world’s song; people who don't care what others might think, but know they’ve received too much not to be thankful.

Ours is a king who might look foolish next to the Caesars and the Herods on their high thrones and with their fine robes and golden crowns - foolish even next to the Pontius Pilates of this world; but in reality he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and by him we’re challenged to go for what’s eternal, to live for what can’t be destroyed, and to open our hearts to the spark of love divine through which all things were made, from which all life emerged, by which we are lifted up from a world of sin and failure and death and into the new life only Christ could win for us, and in which we are given good news to take out into all the world.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Short Days, Early Nights

The weather is turning colder, and I shall need to protect or bring in some of my more tender garden plants, especially those in pots. Cold weather doesn't bother me too much, so long as I can wrap up warm, but I don't cope too well with the shortening days of this time of the year. I'm not sure whether I'm convinced by SAD as an identifiable disorder, but I have to confess I do feel sad more at this time of the year. As a poet, that might be to my advantage, as it encourages my writing; I'm not sure whether it enhances the quality of that writing, however. I've written some pretty good autumn verse, but I do seem to have written a load of rubbish as well. One thing I have observed - it's probably for the best to be cautious in the decisions I make at this time of the year, and to think through and review things before any of it is set in stone.

Having said that, this autumn has been brighter and less wearing than most, so far at any rate. Of course it has been milder than usual so far, and several of the trees to the back of us - oak, wild cherry, crab apple, even elm - still retain a few green leaves. Our acers at the front kept their leaves much later than usual too, but as always when they did fall they all fell at once! I've cleared most of them, and bagged them for compost; at the back, however, most of the leaves are still lying, and it will be a job for tomorrow, if time allows, to get them collected up.

Is there also a reason inside myself that this autumn has been brighter than previously? There may well be. It isn't that life is any less stressful than ever, but maybe I have a slightly better attitude to the dying of the light between equinox and solstice. The shortness of the days can be a frustration, but it is also a challenge, to get out there and make the most of it. The absence of summer colour is also a challenge, to look more closely and discern the more subtle beauties of the winter scene. And as the other day's amazingly loud mistle thrush (see Wednesday's post) reminds me, there's plenty of life out there even in the cold and short days, and it's often easier to view, too. So I shall make the most of this winter, due in some force this weekend; I do not intend to waste it or to hide away from it. Every day, short or long, is a gift to be treasured, enjoyed, and used.

It's not like this here yet, though there was snow on the far hills this morning . . . I wonder what the weekend will bring?

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Based on words from Isaiah chapter 43

Don't linger where you have been so long -
hear the word of God, and see what He is doing:
look around you now - the deserts bloom,
and new waters flow in the waste places.
What once was desolate is transformed, made new.
Do you not see it, does the eye of your heart not perceive?
Come, and take the way the Lord is making
that we may travel safely;
come, and let Him be our souls' food and drink,
our great Provider and Redeemer:
let Him break from your feet the shackles of the past,
be free to live, and love, in Him.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Winter Birdsong

Let's have another try at writing and posting something every day . . . beginning with this:

I last wrote about birdsong early last spring, and the other day I came across a recording I made in April of the dawn chorus in the wood behind our house; it was lovely to listen to it again as the days head towards their shortest. But there is quite a lot of birdsong to hear at this time of the year too, and the other morning I was amazed at the sheer abundance of song I could hear from my back porch.
Almost all of it emanated from a single bird which, though I couldn’t see it, I knew to be a mistle thrush. This is the largest of our resident thrushes, and it sings more or less throughout the year, and at almost any hour. It will often sing in bad weather, and has been given the name “storm cock” in recognition of this. As it happened, my garden was full of blackbirds at the time - our resident birds are joined by continental visitors for the winter - but though noisy enough in our trees and quite quarrelsome, they weren’t singing, and won’t until the spring.

From October onwards, however, quite a few of our native songbirds will sing, at least on mild and sunny days - not their full spring songs, but trial bursts of song, as though in the early stages of rehearsals. Some garden birds, the dunnock among them, will sing pretty much their full spring song if you happen to get a mild day in December or January, and great tits can often be found giving their distinctive “tea-cher” call from high branches, like the tall conifer two or three houses away down our road.

The mistle thrush is also a high branch specialist, and I was rather disappointed not to manage to see the one that was singing so loudly that morning. Usually they find a very prominent position - there’s a telegraph pole over the road from us, at the top of one of the back gardens opposite, that often gets used, for example. The mistle thrush really is quite a big bird, and I've been approached by people claiming to have seen “a big brown spotted bird, far too large to be a thrush” in their garden - well, I can be pretty sure that they will have seen a thrush, just a rather larger one than a song thrush or blackbird. Its song is very inventive, as are the songs of the other two just mentioned, but rather raucous, and with the components less well connected. I can imagine the conductor saying, wearily, “Sing, please, don’t shout!”

Of course, the sweetest winter songster is the robin. Many birds sing to maintain a territory, but outside the breeding season many of our garden birds just flock together (which is why your garden can fluctuate from very full to almost completely empty!), and so don’t need to sing, just use their “keep together” calls. Robins, however, claim individual territories which they keep throughout the winter, so they need to sing, and they do, usually from a prominent vantage point that overlooks “their” patch. The winter song seems to me rather more plaintive than the one you’ll hear in the spring, built around falling sequences of notes in a minor key. It’s one of my favourite winter sounds, and, as with the mistle thrush, I have on occasions heard robins continue to sing well into the dark.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

A Sermon for Tomorrow

(Set readings for 2nd before Advent - to be preached at Middleton and Chirbury)

If you stand today at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, or the Western Wall as it should really be called, you still get a taste of the immensity of the great temple that once stood there, the temple built by King Herod the Great. What you see today is just part of the retaining wall of the platform on which the temple was built, beginning in about 20 BC. But the blocks of white stone you see there are genuinely immense; they are superbly cut, and precisely fitted together. Some of the stones of the temple itself were apparently more than sixty feet in length, and each of them would have stood higher than the tallest man.  So this was an immense project, and the greatest of the buildings of Herod, whose undoubted megalomania was expressed in grandiose building, in Rome as well as in Jerusalem.  The Jerusalem Temple as a project outlasted Herod himself: it hadn’t yet been completely finished at the time Jesus and his disciples were there.

But in less than fifty years it was no more. All that superb masonry had been thrown down, and indeed Jerusalem itself had been destroyed. In place of the holy city the Romans raised a Roman city that they named Aelia Capitolina.  And I can’t help but be reminded of the words of the hymn:  "Pride of man and earthly glory / sword and crown betray his trust; / what with care and toil he buildeth, / tower and temple, fall to dust."

If you sing on a bit you get to the words: "But God's power, hour by hour, / is my temple and my tower."  We have something much better, and much more secure, than the temple of Herod. The Letter to the Hebrews was probably written before the destruction of Jerusalem, so at that time the temple would still have been a place of ritual and worship. And the writer of that letter made great play of the emptiness of those rituals and the insufficiency of the worship offered and the sacrifices made; they had to be repeated day after day, and even so, could never be enough.

True salvation, he writes, can’t be found in the ceaseless round of temple sacrifices; instead, we place our faith and hope only in the blood of Jesus, only in his true and perfect and all-sufficient sacrifice; by this sacrifice he has opened once and for all the curtain that otherwise closes us off from God. Those who first read the letter to the Hebrews would have known that curtain well, as the veil that closed off the Holy of Holies in the midst of the temple, so that only the priests could enter, and only then after they’d been ritually cleansed. And they’d also have heard the crucifixion stories, where we find that at the moment Jesus breathed his last upon the cross the temple veil was torn in two.

In other words, at that moment the barrier between God and his human creation was set aside, torn away through God's own decisive action.  And we are saved and given life not through any virtue or merit of our own, but by Christ's offering of himself, a once and for all act of love.  This is what we as Christians believe, and its an understanding of God's nature and purpose that is I think unique to our faith.

Tower and temple fall to dust.  To the disciples that day those huge stones, so large and regular and skilfully fashioned, must have seemed the pinnacle of human art and achievement - something that surely would stand for ever.  But nothing built by human hands can stand for ever;  all falls prey to the ravages of time. I remember a few years ago standing in another place of beautiful white stone, the city of Arequipa in Peru, marvelling at the cathedral and the other fine and ancient buildings in the city centre, all constructed from the lovely and pure white local stone. Behind the cathedral rose the bulk of El Misti, the local mountain that seemed almost like the city’s personal protector. But El Misti is an active volcano, and only a few years before much of the city had been destroyed in an earthquake.

Not one stone will be left standing on another. For the people of Arequipa, whose lovely city is a World Heritage Site, those words came devastatingly true, but they did rebuild, and the city is lovely again. But fragile; it could all happen again, and it will, one day. In Jerusalem the disciples were alarmed at the prediction Jesus made that not one of the great stones they were gazing at would be left standing on another. And they asked him when it would all happen.  People continue to  want to know that kind of thing, so all our popular papers and magazines carry horoscopes, and even among religious folk there are those who play with numbers and look for signs, and cults and sects that are prepared even to set a date for the end of the world.  But what Jesus said in reply to his disciples was simply this:  "Don't be deceived.  Especially, don't be deceived by those who come claiming my name and my authority, but whose aim is to lead you astray."

For Jesus, the vital thing wasn’t what would happen or when it would take place, but that for his disciples, for those who will follow him, the only decisive time is now.  Now is the time to say 'yes' to his call and follow. Yesterday is gone and tomorrow has no guarantee; now is all we have. Our response to him here and now is all that matters. "Not one stone will be left standing on another."  That will happen, whenever it does happen, so don’t leave things too late. Say yes, and come with me now. That is the Gospel challenge of our Lord.

World history is littered with the remains of thrones and dominions;  with claims of eternal empires and thousand year reichs.  At the time of Jesus, soothsayers were employed to look into the future with techniques that included sifting through the entrails of chickens.  Today we chase the future with think tanks and focus groups, exit polls and computer models.  But how much more do we really know?

To be human is to be a prisoner of time, and on my life's journey now is the only time I can be sure of;  I can’t recapture yesterday and I can’t secure tomorrow.  But for this hour at God's table on a Sunday we step out of the world of time and into God’s eternal presence. We step from chronos, the Greek word for the time measured on clocks, into kairos, which is time without clocks, God’s time, inbreathed with eternity. When we gather here Jesus invites us to meet with him creatively within the present moment as it connects into the timelessness of heaven.  We share bread and wine at his table and he offers us the chance to be changed as we expose ourselves to his all-embracing and self-offering love.

When as his people we commit ourselves to his will, when we say and mean “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”, and when we dare to let go of our own ideas about what the future should or shouldn’t be, his grace begins a building process in us.  His people are those who offer themselves to be built into a living temple - constructed from mutual service, from loyal and regular meeting with our Lord and from our openness to the transforming and renewing power of his love.  No mere stones and mortar can provide a temple worthy of his indwelling Spirit.  But the plans for the temple he desires have already been laid down, for us to be building, for us to be part of;  and on them we shall find the imprint of his cross.

Friday, 13 November 2015

More Rubbish

(This first paragraph is a Facebook post from earlier today)  A smashing time in Welshpool of late. When litter picking this morning, I found pieces of at least six different wing mirrors in various places around the town. That, I think, is a record - speaking of which, I picked up a CD too. Also found a white coffee mug hooked onto the top branch of a hedge - if it happens to be yours, I left it there.

Not the best of days for litter-picking, to be honest; the remnants of Storm Amelia were still with us, although for the most part the sun shone brightly enough. A strong wind, though, not easy when you're trying to stuff old cans and bottles into a plastic sack.  One pet hate, rubbish-wise - telecom engineers who scatter loads of little bits of fine wire around the various green boxes positioned around the town. Why can't they take the bits home, or at least as far as the nearest bin?

Every so often I try to collect on one of the roads out of town. I hate to think that people coming in to Welshpool should see verges covered with litter. But there is so much of it! Mostly sandwich and take-away food wrappers just thrown from cars, along with the bottles and cans that accompanied them.  Has it become the norm, just to throw stuff out of your window?  There is clearly someone who passes along this section of road regularly who has something of a health concern trip as well as a litter bug tendency, as just along this patch I keep coming across blister packs of paracetamols, aspirins, cough remedies and stomach powders.  As I said in a previous post, you get to know your regulars, though not, perhaps, quite to understand them.

Sunday, 8 November 2015


Exactly one year ago my daughter and son-in-law were on their honeymoon in Sharm el Sheikh. I was a little worried then; I’m more worried now, and I feel for the Russian people mourning the loss of loved ones in the air crash a week ago, and those from this and other nations stranded there as our governments reflect on the possibility, some would say probability, that the plane was brought down by hostile action of some sort. This is the field of war these days - anywhere and everywhere. It’s 14 years since American, British and other allied troops went into Afghanistan (in the aftermath of 9/11), and you may recall President George W Bush declaring then that this was a war “being fought in the defence of civilization itself”.

Perhaps the Taliban wouldn’t have disagreed. Their brand of Muslim fundamentalism would seem to require a return to the Middle Ages – to somewhere around the 14th century, perhaps - and they regard what we call civilization as an evil to be opposed.  As do many other ultra-conservative Islamic groups that have emerged since, like Boko Haran and of course Isis or Islamic State. Why do these violently fundamentalist groups attract such a measure of support?

If I had an answer to that question I’d give it. I don’t, nor shall I preach about extremist Islam today, or any other creed, except perhaps briefly to say that extremism of any kind worries and frightens me. I’m confused by what I see in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, and you’ll probably share my confusion; I wonder how many world leaders are confused and uncertain too, as they look at the news and their intelligence reports, and as they meet and confer to seek some sort of solution for Iraq, or Syria, or wherever. And then there’s the immense numbers of people damaged, displaced, bereaved and traumatised by the horrific events in their homelands: the refugees, the victims of abuse, oppression and terrorism.

War is always wrong but sometimes necessary; that’s what I believe.  Jesus said ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’, and we who follow him must set ourselves to be makers of peace.  Peace making requires more from us than peacekeeping. It may be that peacekeeping is as much as we can do, and I’m thankful for the times when our armed forces have acted as peacekeepers in the world, enforcing the truces and armed stand-offs that all too often are the best we can achieve.

Anything that stops the guns from firing may seem to be good. But some peacekeeping may be wrong and unjust. Perhaps we may keep the peace by appeasing those who threaten war; but such appeasement can never be more than a temporary fix. Maybe that might buy us some useful time, but no true peace was ever made by appeasing evil. However much we treasure peace, there comes a time when - as in 1939 - we must confront those who do evil, at whatever cost, or our freedom is lost.

The freedom we can easily take for granted didn’t just happen.  Our freedom was gained and preserved through the sacrifices of those who dared to strive for a better world for themselves and for their neighbours. And that freedom once gained proved costly to defend, as the red of our poppies reminds us.

If any war can be described as ‘just’, then it has to be a fight not just for our own freedom but for our neighbour’s freedom too.  To defend our own freedom without reference to our neighbour is hard to defend from a Christian standpoint.  The story of the Good Samaritan reminds us as Christians that neighbours aren’t only those who are on our side at the moment, they can also be those we think of as enemies. Many wars today involve people like the Samaritans and the Jews - people who in many ways were much alike, sharing the same land, but who had somehow become the bitterest of enemies.

Since President Bush and others since him have spoken of our forces today acting to defend civilization, perhaps we should ask: what does civilization consist of? It’s surely more than technological sophistication or the right to live or vote how we choose. I hope that when we speak of civilization we have a vision of caring and culture, and a sense of duty and purpose.

This is something many civilized societies will have received from its religious leaders and teachers.  But the modern world shows us all too clearly how religion can also be misused, and I’m not only speaking of the Muslim faith. As Christians we say that God is love, and no other faith would disagree with that statement. So it’s clear to me that religion of any kind that inspires and instils hate is false and godless.  True religion is life in relationship with God, whose name and nature is love, and whose commandments and laws are founded in love. A civilization based in such faith will surely always seek a better world not only for itself, but for everyone.

Soldiers returning from the two great wars of the last century did so hoping to find a new and better world. Some of their hopes were fulfilled, others faded or were dashed. The world continues to change, and often in ways we don’t like, ways that scare us and worry us. But we must never lose that vision of a better world, not just our better world but everyone’s. It isn’t about hanging on to what we’ve got, it’s about continuing to build a better world. In such a world we work hard to defend our freedom, while always looking to extend the freedom of others. As we work and pray and strive for a better world, it’s vital that we never forget what the peace and freedom we have has already cost; the lives we remember at this time remain important.  They are the human cost of our freedom, at a time when the world was very dark.  What price our freedom now?  What price our neighbour’s freedom?

Today we remember the sacrifice of comrades and fellows and forebears; we honour what they did with due gratitude, and with resolution - our living should honour their dying.  And in our remembrance today, as Christians we are bound also to reflect on the cross and on the one true and complete sacrifice made there by our Lord.  For if it truly is the case that we are defending civilization in this dark and uncertain hour, then we must also review our civilization, and ensure we establish it on the firmest of foundations - which for me is the true foundation that is the revelation of divine love we find in the cross and in our crucified and risen Saviour.

Many of our war memorials have the shape of the cross, and I’m glad they do. For it’s in that cross that our Lord stakes a claim upon us that makes sense of our own sacrifices. It’s there he died that all might live, it’s there he showed the length and breadth of his love, and it’s there he forgave even those of his enemies who hammered in the nails. We and all the world stand within the sweep of that wondrous and eternal love, which I hold to be the source of freedom and justice and peace. We acknowledge and give thanks for that love as in this service we remember those who fell on the field of battle, and as we pray for those presently serving; may we also dedicate ourselves under the cross of our Lord to the cause of true religion, based in love, generous in spirit, and active in the cause of peace. Blessed are the peacemakers.