Wednesday, 28 January 2015


A poem I'm working on. It may be finished; it's hard to tell . . .

He was sitting on that cracked stone bench beneath the black and broken ash
carefully sticking pins in a voodoo doll, and, as he did do,
chain-smoking his rizla speciality roll-ups of
found and collected tobacco cut with, I don’t know, perhaps the mugwort
we used to smoke experimentally at school.
I wonder if he remembers me from those days; he never speaks,
and nor do I, to my shame perhaps. Not far away
a few anxious starlings strutted and pecked, not caring
to come too close. As much as they part of the park wildlife,
he sucked on his creased and thin smoke, cursed at the grey and spitting sky, and
chose to dig in a pin with unusual fierceness, just as I happened by.
Was it just coincidence that a sudden pain shot through my spine?
And, if so, why the raised eyebrow and half smile, as I glanced across?
He is there on that bench every day, and his doll is always with him,
and the pins are carefully inserted. I wonder who that doll may be? Perhaps anyone who happens
to get too close. Like the starlings, I think it may be best
to keep my distance. Tomorrow, perhaps, I may choose a different path through the park,
and allow the thrust of the pin to be for someone else.

Monday, 26 January 2015


I've attended two funerals in recent days in Anglican churches, taken by clergy who in both cases kept fairly closely to the standard funeral liturgy. Both services were well-taken, and with a real sense of empathy and pastoral support for the families and friends involved. Often when the standard service is used it can feel like an exercise in just getting from the beginning to the end; not so in either of these cases (nor, knowing the clergy involved, would I have expected it to be). We can often moan about "having to use the book", and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that these days it can be a breath of fresh air to start with a blank sheet of paper rather than a whole lot of words.  The truth is, though, that the C of E funeral liturgy actually contains a great deal of good stuff . . . as ever, it's how it's used, and the time taken in preparation and as the service progresses, that makes the difference. I think these families will have really felt cared for, nurtured and supported at this sad time for them.

Sunday, 25 January 2015


I heard an interesting sermon that touched on the themes of Candlemas today (though the festival itself is a week away yet). What were at one time significant community occasions have now faded into all but insignificance, even within the Church. The great themes of recognition, salvation, and light are really still as important as ever; much modern worship trivialises them (one of the worship songs featured on tonight's "Songs of Praise" was truly awful, and others weren't much better - and this is said by someone who enjoys modern music. I just expect the modern music I sing in church to be at least as good, both lyrically and as a tune, as the music I choose to play in my car. The best is; but there's too much of the other . . . and most of the lyrics have no depth.

I remember organising a Candlemas gallery carol service at Minsterley, with musicians in our minstrel's gallery (normally closed off from the main body of the church by perspex screens, and choir singers below. We used, among others, a traditional Candlemas carol part of which was read out in today's sermon . . . about taking down the old Christmas greenery and putting up the new, greenery that looked forward to spring. Proper carols were songs of the people, set to the best dance tunes of the day, and balancing sincere faith with a subversive attitude toward the structures of the Church (and therefore, in those days, of society). Amen to both sides of that balance.

At the Arddleen Tabernacle plygain a week ago I sang Paul Wigmore's song "Light beyond shadow" to John Dankworth's lovely tune. Today's "Songs of Praise" opened with "Sing of the Lord's Goodness", another hymn with a good jazz feel to it (and a great descant, though that didn't feature today). Now that's what I call faith music . . . that and gallery carols, oh, and - well let's just say a hoorah for good music wherever and whatever it may be. We can do much better than we sometimes do, but it's clear that the devil doesn't have all the best tunes.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Gone From There

A poem I wrote some time ago, that I've looked out in response for a request for original writings on a WWII theme:

It was not a journey undertaken in comfort.  The grey and ancient train
was frequently halted, sometimes standing for hours
in the cold of some remote siding, never picking up speed
even when the line was clear.  There were no occasions
for conversation between passengers;  no eyes would meet,
and no faces would be remembered.
Though the papers, of course, were all correct.
Beyond the grimy windows the air was full of snow,
a white carpet on each station platform, lit by the swinging lamps;
here a sudden clanging bell,
there, briefly glimpsed, a bored boy soldier toying with his gun.

At this stage one did not dare consider the border
and the destination beyond.  It was still too soon
for the risk of believing.
One might pray for people and places left behind
while, as the wheels sang against the dark rails, it was
enough to be moving south;  enough to be gone from there.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

January Trees (Haiku)

Black bare bones, they claw 
at the sky in quiet despair,
winter’s victims still.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Hymn for Unity

Some verses based on Psalm 133. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity began yesterday.

How beautiful a thing
when friends walk hand in hand,
and, unity our common tongue,
as sisters, brothers, stand.

It is the precious balm
anointing Aaron’s head,
the dews of Hermon fresh and sweet
upon Mount Zion shed.

Fulfil your promise, Lord:
your dews of blessing pour,
that we may serve you now as one,
and praise you evermore.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Rose Remembered

A poem written for a funeral tomorrow :-

Happy were we to see this flower bright,
a rose in bloom, reflecting golden light
from glistening petals angled to the sun;
fresh beauty, with the morning’s dewdrops spun.
In time with evening mists all roses fade,
and though we’re sad to lose the show they’ve made,
the rose remembered in our heart still flowers,
and her sweet fragrance fills the silent hours.

Sunday Talk

A talk I'm giving this morning . . .

Since I ceased being a minister, I’ve still needed to earn a bob or two, and I’ve tried my hand at a number of things, some of which have involved fairly hard physical work. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it. Long ago, having just graduated but not having found a graduate job, I spent a few months working a sand-blasting machine in the production department of a factory making heavy electrical equipment.  It was heavy, tiring and - to be honest - rather boring work, after all, there isn’t much you can do to add interest to a job that involves blasting clean a succession of identical electric components. But, once I’d got to grips with the work, I quite enjoyed my time there, one of the few times in my life when I actually helped make something. As part of a production line I had to keep pace with the speed of the line. To begin with, at least, that was just a bit faster than the speed I could easily manage, but I got better and faster as time went on.

I couldn’t talk much to my workmates except at break times, it was far too noisy, but they weren’t a bad bunch of lads, and though we moaned about the job I think we were secretly quite proud that we could hold our own, keeping pace with the production line and playing our full part in the process.  Everyone seemed determined to do that job well, and not let the side down.  It was a hard working and loyal team, that disproved some of the negative things people sometimes say about the British worker.

I was glad of that loyalty, since I wasn’t much good at the job when I first started.  My first attempts mostly got sent back, with dire warnings about holding up the line.  Some of the others covered for me, and one guy very patiently worked alongside me till I’d properly got the hang of things. Theory and book learning can only get you so far; to really be able to do the job - whatever that job might be - you probably need someone to show you, and to work  alongside you while you learn by just having a go and trying to do it.  I was very glad that our section included some good natural teachers.
I remember from my schooldays that some teachers were miles better than others, even though presumably all my teachers had the appropriate qualifications. To be a good teacher, you need more than just the right certificates.

The recommended Gospel reading for today tells the story of Jesus and Nathaniel. Nathaniel was brought to Jesus by Philip, and he eventually became one of the Twelve; probably he was the same person as Bartholomew who gets a mention in the other Gospels. Nathaniel was looking for a teacher, a good teacher; he had questions he needed answers for; in other words, he was keen to be a disciple; a disciple is simply someone who listens and learns, who sits at the teacher’s feet and follows him along the way. Jesus had called Philip to be a disciple, and Philip was so excited he went straight away to find Nathaniel and tell him all about this great new teacher. Nathaniel, however, was not convinced.

Nathaniel knew that no good teacher would come from somewhere like Nazareth. Nazareth wasn’t a very pure place; it was in the north, in Galilee; here Jews lived alongside many non-Jews, and spoke more Greek than they did Aramaic or Hebrew. Galilee was a long way from the centre, a long hike from the Temple in Jerusalem. A teacher from Galilee couldn’t possibly have the right qualifications. How, despite himself, Nathaniel became convinced, we've heard in that reading from the end of chapter one in St John’s Gospel.

Jesus describes himself to Nathaniel as the ladder connecting earth and heaven, the one who will re-connect man and God. What makes him not just a good teacher but a great teacher, the best, is this: he sees deeply into the heart of us, he knows better than we do ourselves what makes us tick. And so he meets us where we are. We see this again and again in the stories of his encounters with people in the Gospels. We see it also in the experiences and the life stories of men and women who’ve offered themselves to follow him through the centuries.

This isn’t a man who stands high above us and lectures us; Jesus gets alongside us, and he is himself the message he gives us, he is himself our example to follow. And he calls people, all kinds of people. Look at those first twelve, and you might well ask - whay them? Why Nathaniel, or Philip? Why Peter and Andrew and James and John, or any of the others Jesus called?  For the most part these guys weren’t exactly high-fliers.  None of them was already a priest or preacher.  So why them, and why any of us, come to that?  I think another mark of the truly great teacher is that he will see things in us, possibilities and abilities, that we ourselves aren’t aware of. So what does Jesus look for in us, when he calls out and chooses disciples?  What is he looking for and expecting, from his Church?

A friend of mine is about to take up a new and fairly senior job in the Church. Knowing him, he’ll be asking some pretty serious questions of himself, as he prepares for his move.  And I know how eager he is for the prayers of others he prepares for the new ministry to which I'm sure Christ is calling him.  It's not a ministry he’s sought, in fact I think he’s spent most of his ministry doing his best to avoid any sort of promotion.  But I feel sure it’s a ministry he’s right for, and others have prayerfully seen that in him. Reflecting on that, I’m reminded that those first disciples of Jesus were called despite themselves;  and yet at the same time they were called because of themselves.

They weren't themselves the finished article, and if that’s what Jesus wanted he'd have been best looking elsewhere.  When we read the Gospels they don’t come across as the obvious best men for the job.  To be honest, there are times when they come across as a bit of a rabble, prone to arguing among themselves, and not always very bright at grasping what Jesus is really saying to them.

But they were enthusiastic and loyal; they were there when Jesus called, and they had the guts to say yes to him - and that's all Jesus needed of them.  Everything else could follow, so long as the starting point was right;  what Jesus wanted from those first disciples, and what Jesus wants from his Church today, are loyalty, enthusiasm and commitment - qualities he can build with.  Loyalty: loyalty to Jesus and to the message and mission with which he entrusts us;  and loyalty to one another in the work of mission we share. On the first day of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it’s good to remind ourselves that we need to be together, we need to be praying for one another, we need to work to help each other, to support one another, to teach one another, in Jesus’ name. We need to be, not this or that particular sort of Christian, but simply this: disciples, fully focused on our teacher and saviour Jesus, the ladder between earth and heaven, the one who reconnects us to the Father’s love.

Back to sandblasting. I wasn't a natural sandblaster, to be honest I probably wouldn't have got the job without my Dad pulling a string or two.  I think that over the time I was there I actually got quite good at it, but the only reason I got good was that I was part of a good team. Being a Christian disciple is much the same - it’s about being part of a good team, and it’s about helping to make that team work. I've always thought of Jesus as calling us to be both cared-for and carers, learners and instructors, sheep and shepherds.  Like the first disciples Jesus called we’re not the finished article, there’s always new stuff to learn. So we need to be humble and honest, and ready to receive the things we need if we’re to grow and learn and improve;  we need also to be caring and clear sighted, so we can see where other people need our support, help, teaching, guidance, correction.  Disciples belong to Jesus, but they also belong to one another.

One of the wisest things said to me about Church was said not by a teacher or a church leader, but by a young person in one of my confirmation classes:  she wrote, "Church is what happens when people say 'yes' to God."  All the other stuff is incidental, however much we may like it or be moved by it - the buildings, the traditions, the liturgies, the familiar prayers we say and the favourite hymns we sing, robes and pews and stained glass windows:  that's not why we're here.  God says yes to us by sending Jesus as his Messiah:  Church is people saying 'yes' back and following Jesus when he asks us to.  But we can only say 'yes' to Jesus when we’re also saying 'yes' to one another. And disciples who come to learn from Jesus learn how to be teachers themselves, or apostles, the word we use . . . people with things to say, with a message to take out to the world, with love to share and to put into action.

The more we do that, and the better we do that, seeking his help to do that, then the more the Church will grow to be what our Lord calls it and wants it to be - a community committed to mission, and looking for growth.  Of course, knowing what needs doing isn’t the same as knowing how to do it. I was quite clear right from the start about what was needed from me as a sandblaster, but I wasn’t quite so sure about how to do it, until I got some help and teaching. So how shall we do discipleship? Our starting point is being there for each other, and wanting to grow (though for the stick-in-the-muds among us that may carry a bit of a health warning, because things that grow are bound to change when they do so); and prayer has to be our first commitment before we rush into anything else.

I don’t know about you, but my first prayer as a disciple is much the same as maybe those first disciples like Philip and Nathaniel. Why me?  What use can I be?  Those are questions that seem to always recur in my experience:  but whenever I ask them I seem to hear Jesus saying to me: Why not?  Just say yes, and come.

Friday, 16 January 2015

A Winter Walk

My regular "nature notes" column :-

Early in the New Year I spent a clear frosty morning walking one of my favourite local routes: down across the fields below where we live to join the towpath of the Montgomery Canal, then along past Buttington Wharf towards Pool Quay, turning back along the main road and crossing to the stile opposite to join the Offa’s Dyke route across the fields back towards Buttington, then around the back of the new Smithfield before re-joining the canal towpath near the Rhallt and following it back into Welshpool.

It had been a cold night and everywhere sparkled with frost. The canal itself was mostly iced over, but the covering was fairly thin, and absent wherever there was significant water movement. A couple of moorhens paddled away from me as I walked on from Buttington Wharf, their white tail feathers flicking as they did so. Several blackbirds skidded across from my side of the canal to the other, where the trees rising up the bankside seemed alive with birdsong, mostly robins. A wren was prospecting among tangled stems and lead litter; this is a bird that suffers a lot if we have extended periods of hard weather. For the whole of my walk along this section of the canal, there were buzzards mewing overhead.

As I approached the meeting with the main road, a pair of mute swans glided out of the marshy pools opposite and proceeded along the canal in the Welshpool direction. These swans may be mute by name, but though they are certainly a good deal quieter than our winter whooper and Bewick’s swans, they’re not completely silent, and the cob, or male, hissed at me as they paddled past.

The first field I crossed was crisped by the frost and easy walking. Sheep stood and watched me go by. A few crows were among them, pecking at the cold ground or perhaps looking for insect life among the sheep muck. The path gets quite close to the river bank in places. Water birds paddling noisily away downriver were probably goosanders, large sawbilled ducks, though I couldn’t be sure; they moved like them. There were mallard about too, and heron lurched across but didn’t land.

It was a Monday and the market was busy, with the auctioneer in full flow and big trucks standing ready to ferry the animals to such places as Longtown. The path around the back of the market is gravelled but leads into a small area of rough grassland dotted with dead heads of thistles. Finches and tits were active in the overgrown hedge, and there was a noisy crowd of fieldfares in the field on the other side of the railway. I had to climb the gate, which was locked, and waited for ages to cross the busy main road and head back into town. I hadn’t expected to see much more on that last section of my walk, so I was delighted to encounter a busy band of long-tailed tits flitting through bushes on the far side soon after I’d got back onto the towpath, and a pair of goldcrests - really tiny birds - inspecting the branches of an old hawthorn tree near the back of W.R. Davies’ garage. A very enjoyable winter walk.


Once again, a letter in my newspaper this morning insists that religion is the cause of pretty much all the world's violence, evil and war. This is untrue and should not go unchallenged. The issue is not religion but extremism, and it would be wrong and dangerous to focus on any one particular area in which extremist forces are at work rather than on that central issue of extremism itself. Extremism in religion is certainly a very real and current danger, but extremism in politics, extremism in culturally or tribally diverse areas, extremism linked to personality cults, extremism fuelled by the gaps between rich and poor, between powerful and powerless, between those who judge unjustly and those who are judged against . . . here is the real problem. Religion becomes an extremist force when those sorts of gaps leave people believing they are denied rights, freedoms, privileges, wealth, that ought to be theirs. Focus on one place where extremists are at work and you miss the point: extremism happens when things are unfair and unequal, and always will, whatever labels get attached to it.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

On Morality and Religion

Morality can be defined as "Choosing to do what is right, regardless of what you are told." So if your religion requires you to do what you are told regardless of what is right, then that religion has ceased to be moral and to merit our respect.

The Christian believer may ask, of course,  how we can know for sure what is right, unless God tells us. We have a conscience, but though helpful it is not a sufficient guide (as may be seen from the fact that there is much disagreement over what is moral and what isn't). Israel's history was rarely darker than that time when "everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25). Rather, "fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man" (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Morality is choosing to do what is right, but what is right is whatever God tells us to do. 

As a committed Christian, for the most part I feel bound to affirm the truth of that statement. Nevertheless, the sad truth is that many evil acts are perpetuated by individuals, groups and organisations who claim the authority of God for what they do. It's clear that, for the believer, God cannot be placed under a higher authority called "morality" - he is himself the source of morality - but there are many voices working on us that would claim to represent God, and scripture itself can be misused and distorted. Radical Islam is one manifestation of this, but only one; churches, and the Church, capital C, have been guilty in their time of acting in ways that do damage and harm to others, and it's hard for me to see that as anything but immoral. I suppose I'm wanting to say that religion and faith are different things, even though, ideally, they coincide?

I think I'm also saying that the Christian should be using as his or her moral reference not the mores of society around, not the words of scripture, not even their own conscience, good guide though that may be, but the person and life and teachings of Jesus, and particularly those two central statements: "Love one another, as I have loved you" and "Let the greatest among you be as the servant of all."

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Je Suis Charlie

I am appalled, as many will be, at the news from France today, and attack on the principle of free speech that almost all Europeans will, I am sure, hold dear. Satire is uncomfortable, unpredictable, and sometimes offensive or puerile, but it is part of the process of truth-telling that this blog also seeks to uphold. Therefore . . .

Sunday, 4 January 2015


Time again for some New Year thoughts. Many people I know are having a dry January - that's definitely not for me (but then again, I'm not a big drinker, so what would be the point?). I don't do New Year resolutions to start on New Year's Day itself; there's too much Christmas food left in the house for one thing, and this year NYD was still four days away from the "normality restart" on Monday 5th tomorrow. Best to be realistic, and aim to start any serious resolutions then!

But this year, nothing too grand. I do need to eat more sensibly, and I do need to make sure my diary includes "Ann and me" time (and also "taking the Mums out somewhere interesting" time). My existing rule of life covers most other things, for example reading, study and prayer. Sometime this month or early next I shall be sitting down with Nick, my spiritual director, to have a serious look at that. Ideally, resolutions and rules of life should be stretching but doable. There's no point in aiming so high you always fail, that only leads to depression and giving up; equally, where's the gain in aiming so low that keeping the rule is easy - that won't change me for the better, but it might make me smug and self-satisfied which would be a change for the worse.

But resolutions and rules should also be appropriate: what are the things in me that need changing, and what's the best way to make that change happen? - that needs to be my starting point. Some of last year's resolutions may no longer be appropriate, even those I haven't managed to keep up with, And my rule of life, many seasons old by now, may not quite fit properly with my present responsibilities and life style.  There is work to be done, but that work is worthwhile.

Saturday, 3 January 2015


Some words for this weekend . . .

Every year has its significant anniversaries - for example, one of the many special ones this year will be the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, signed at Runnymede in 1215. It’s also 200 years since Waterloo, 150 years since the abolition of slavery in the United States, and 25 years since the release of Nelson Mandela from prison on Robben Island. All these anniversaries seem to me to connect to the theme of human freedom: Magna Carta began the slow process towards suffrage and democracy in this country, Waterloo brought to an end the imperialist aspirations of Napoleon Bonaparte, and, well, I hardly need to comment on the ending of slavery. The slave trade had in fact ended more than fifty years earlier, and at least by 1865 it was no longer true that thousands of people (in fact, millions in total) were being taken across the ocean from one continent to another, and from freedom into complete ownership, to be bought and sold like any other possession. But those who were slaves, and their children and grandchildren, remained slaves, until the Civil War, and Lincoln, and Gettysburg.

Some years ago I spent time researching the slave trade, and one of the things that surprised and disturbed me was that to begin with, the Church saw no reason to oppose the trade. Of course, there are slaves in the Bible.  The mission Society I used to work for had at one time itself owned slaves, in Barbados, having inherited them with an estate there.  It did understand that bringing education and Christian faith to slaves was something it should be doing, but it didn’t see that that should mean they ceased to be slaves. Indeed, it was argued that they would become better and more obedient slaves if they became Christians. Doesn’t Paul tell slaves that they should in all things obey their masters? But in fact educating slaves and teaching them the faith would begin the process that would in time be bound to lead to their liberation.

I thought to mention that this morning because I think it's relevant to the theme of Epiphany. Throughout the ages of Christian history, and particularly in the great mission campaigns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, people did what they did because the Gospel message must be shared across every kind of human boundary: national, cultural, linguistic - even the boundary between freedom and slavery.

And yet Jesus was born and raised a Jew, and for his disciples he called fellow Jews;  he taught in Jewish places, in the synagogues and the temple.  And though he was critical of some of his fellow Jews, the Pharisees for example, he never spoke against the faith itself, only the ways in which the faith was being distorted or misused. The prophecy which states that the Messiah should be born in Bethlehem also says that he is to 'rule over Israel', and when wise men came from the east following their reading of the stars, the question they asked was 'Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?'

So we know where Jesus belongs, in time and place and culture.  Why then didn’t he stay there?  It’s not the birth of Jesus but his death that brought his disciples to say 'What this man has done is good news for all the world.' But still, we read in the Gospel of Matthew that soon after the birth of Jesus men came from the east - sometimes we call them kings, or else magi, wise men. But anyway, they were not Jews. When he is first born Jesus is revealed to shepherds on the hills, maybe not the expected audience for angels, but Jews of a kind at least. Jewish scribes at Herod’s court knew that something was going to happen in Bethlehem, even if they didn’t know quite what or when. But the Messiah is revealed also to strangers  outside the faith and away to the east, and in this we’re given a sign that the new thing God is doing will change not just the history of the Jews but the destiny of the world.

And this is confirmed in the symbols the strangers present: gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Gold is obvious enough - the child is a king, and gold is a king's coinage. He has kingly authority and power, and the right to rule the nations, even though his route to a throne is very different from the one Herod might have expected him to take.  Frankincense is also fair enough, for there’s something priestly about kingship, which is why monarchs are anointed when they’re crowned. Kings like priests stand between the people and God, and between God and the people, and their role is to be a bridge.  One word for priest is pontifex, literally bridge builder or bridge maker.  Jesus will rebuild the bridges we’ve broken, as the greatest of all high priests.

But for me a chill falls across the proceedings when the myrrh is unwrapped. In my home church choir long ago we used to sing the verses of ‘We Three Kings’ as solos, and this was always my verse, and never an easy thing, because myrrh is costly and special, but it’s the stuff of death.  'He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,' wrote St Paul. For Jesus, this was the only true way to be a king and a priest. He would not grab at status or power, but would let it go.  The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that this man is both the perfect priest, and the perfect sacrifice.  He is the only one worthy to make the offering, and he is the only one worthy to be offered, for the sins of the people: the Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep - who dies that we might live.

These symbols have power and resonance in every culture;  but myrrh especially expresses what crosses human boundaries: a self-giving love to break into every heart;  and the God who places no limits on love, and who loves even the most wayward of his children.

And wherever it may be, and whatever it may look like I believe the Church that bears this child's name should be presenting gold, frankincense and myrrh.  The gold of our own kingship: Jesus shares his royal authority with us, the secret of his throne.  'Let the one who would be greatest among you become the servant of all.'  Wherever the Church is a servant Church it is claiming and expressing the kingship of Christ.

The frankincense of our shared priesthood:  every Christian is called to speak of God to the world, and to speak for the world to God: in other words, to preach and to pray.  And this is the work of the priest;  Peter says we are a kingdom of priests.

And myrrh? Myrrh tells of the way we are joined to the death of Christ in our baptism, dying with him so that we may also rise with him, so that we may share in his risen life and in the new wine of his Holy Spirit.  There has to be a dying, a laying down of the old things, for the rebirth to happen that is Christ in us.  'Lord, you only will I serve;  you are Lord of all my life.'  We never do manage this, always keeping something back, but where the Church is really striving to be filled with the Spirit of Christ, where it’s trying to empty away its own desire for status or standing, then it offers a witness to the death of Christ, and to his risen life.

And the wonderful thing is that the Church is doing all these things in all kinds of places, in African places and Asian places and South American places.  In Sierra Leone, as the Church plays its part in combating ebola. On the streets of Calcutta or Manila, where Christian workers provide shelter and support for the homeless. In the shanty towns of Peru and Brazil where base Christian communities of the very poorest are opposing drugs and crime and supporting families.

Another special anniversary this year is that it’s 150 years since the foundation of the Salvation Army, which brought onto the streets of our land and indeed the streets of much of the world a new Christian force for good, reaching out in Christ’s name to those whose plight was and is most desperate, those who are often overlooked, those whom other people just walk past. Why? Because these are people Jesus cares for, people he wouldn’t have walked past; these are people for whom he died.

The wise men were right to identify the birth of this new king as a very special birth, and to make the journey they made to lay gifts before the child. For the love of this child can transform every human heart, he is God's gift in love to the world he never can stop loving. There is much in our world today that is unfair and nasty and spoilt; it would be easy to give up on hope and to expect very little from life. But we know as Christians that God loves us, and loves our world, even as we are, even as it is, in all its ugliness; we know too that he loves it too much to leave it that way. The love born in Bethlehem still shines, even in the very darkest places, and thank God it does, and thank God for the lives his Son continues to inspire and transform.  May our hearts too receive the love of the Christ child, and may our lives too transmit it and proclaim it in the world.