Sunday, 19 April 2015

Bird Table Update

Interesting to note that the local robin quickly and readily attacks dunnocks when they approach the area under our bird feeders. Robins are combative birds, but he mostly doesn't attack the other birds that come to the feeders, so why the dunnocks? It may be that some of their behaviour is similar enough to that of the robin, especially during the mating season when the pair we have are constantly reacting to each other, to start him off. Then again, perhaps it's just that they are ground feeders prospecting the area under the feeders for spilt seed, and therefore competing a bit too directly with the robin, who also does that. Blackbirds also feed under the feeding station, of course, but they're bigger birds and pretty mean, and our robin is evidently not that daft.  But the robin does use the feeders, often perching right on top to show that he's the boss bird (except when nuthatches turn up) - yet only very rarely chases other, even much smaller, birds away as he does the dunnocks. Not that they seem to mind very much, they fly off, take cover, then just come straight back and take up where they left off.

Sunday Thoughts

A very pleasant man came to my door the other day to tell me all about Mr Glyn Davies’ election campaign. We had a chat about the political realities as the campaign hots up. “Can we rely on your vote for Glyn?” asked my visitor. “No” was my reply; or not yet, anyway - I’m a floating voter, and I’ll continue to float until I get to the polls. “There’s only a couple of weeks,” my visitor reminded me. Well, someone once said - was it perhaps Harold Wilson? - that a week is a long time in politics.  Anything could happen.

Anything could particularly happen in this election. There’s a definite undercurrent this time of a general discontent with politics, or perhaps with political parties, right across the board.  Mr Farage has been quick to exploit this; we’re different, he tells us, we believe the same things as you do, not like the “conventional” parties, so called. Somehow I’m not convinced. But I do think there is a general perception that politicians are just in it for themselves, that no-one really listens to what real people want, and that the whole process is mired in corruption and sleaze. They’re a sinful lot, politicians, said someone to me last week.

In contrast with that perception, I’d have to say that most of the politicians I’ve met, nationally and locally, have seemed to me genuine people who came into politics because they wanted to be of use and service to others. I’ve known a couple who left politics because they decided they’d be able to do more good elsewhere. The problem with any system is that you can end up serving the system itself rather than what the system is supposed to be producing or delivering, and our political system isn’t immune to that. Nor is the church, by the way. For the record, one senior politician I knew quite well and thought well of is now an ex-MP, having been caught out claiming expenses he wasn’t entitled to - so maybe my judgement isn’t exactly foolproof anyway.

We're right, of course, to expect the very highest standards from those in political power. They should be leading the nation not only in terms of the status they have and the fact that they hold the reins of power, but also in their behaviour, and in the example they set. Those who make the law are by no means above the law, and should not only comply with the law but be clearly seen to do so. It’s not surprising then that when they do fall, it’s quite a fall.

Today's news, as they say, is nothing more than the wrapping for tomorrow's chips. When election day comes round, who knows what the number one concerns in voters’ minds may be, or what events, speeches, gaffes or catastrophes might have shaken things up. Who knows what sins may find people out in the next two weeks or so, what incompetences might be exposed, or whether today’s popular politician of the moment might in a week or two’s time have lost their shiny charisma.

Sin, incompetence and unpopularity were all part of the story of the Passion of our Lord. There was an element of political sleaze about it too. This story isn’t about sin on its own; those other two things, incompetence, unpopularity often go hand in hand with sin.  The story of the cross includes the incompetence of the high priests and their allies, who hadn't the vision to see beyond their own little political games, and even then could hardly make their charges stick, or back them with reliable witnesses; and it includes the unpopularity of Pontius Pilate, who didn't dare listen to his own inner conscience, but listened to the mob instead.

In the reading I used this morning from the Acts of the Apostles, we find Peter and John being challenged over their healing of a lame man in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. A hard challenge, but I think Peter was in fact quite generous in his reply to it. He could imply have condemned the Jewish faithful for their part in the murder of the Christ, but he didn’t.  Instead, we find him telling them he knows they acted in ignorance - and though what they did was sinful, the consequences of their actions were a fulfilment of what God had planned and the prophets foretold.  He could have told them they had blood on their hands that nothing could ever wipe away; but instead he says “Repent, turn back to God, and he is ready to wipe away your sins.”

I want to reflect a little on what sin is and what we should be doing about it - starting right here, where we are. Someone I know well has just had their ceiling collapse. A pipe had been quietly leaking for quite some time, it seems, and damp had been building up unnoticed, until all of a sudden, disaster; everything gave way. It’s often true that though things look more or less OK, underneath the surface there’s more to sort out than you might imagine. Having heard his story, I spent a while carefully looking around everything at home, just in case. Mind you, his house is quite an old and historic building, while my place was built only about thirty years ago.

You do need to be vigilant if you're looking after an old building, and I’ve worried over a fair few of them in my time. Only the other Sunday at a chapel I often attend in Coedway I was agonising with the steward over the five year inspection that’s almost due. Do you have those here? All Church of England and Church in Wales churches have to have a quinquennial inspection, leading to an architect’s report. It’s good, it helps the vicar and churchwardens know what's urgent, so priorities can be set for maintenance and repairs. But of course, it all costs. If you miss something though, it can work to bad effect unseen for years, till by the time you realise things are wrong, they're very wrong indeed.

The other day I was looking through a little leaflet I found behind something else on a shelf, entitled “A Guide to Church Mission and Ministry”. I must have been given it at some time in my past ministry; anyway, it was interesting to note that the first chapter wasn't ideas for house to house visiting or setting up a prayer group or how to run your youth club; it was about keeping the church gutters and drains clear.  Why is that mission, I wondered? But then again, why not? Each church and chapel building is itself a proclamation of the Christian faith, and it does that proclaiming job all the better if it’s in good order, and cared for well. Chapter two, by the way, was about how to re-order your church so that it provides the welcome and the resources you need.

But regular maintenance is as vital for church folk as it is for church buildings.  Bad habits or foolish indulgences, left unchecked, can take us over;  and good practices like prayer, Bible study, or churchgoing, or even just checking to see how the neighbours are:  leave them undone and you may well get into the habit of not doing them.  Charity too: for the Christian needs to be more than an occasional off the cuff thing - for us giving, caring and acting need to be a regular and disciplined part of our Christ-centred living.

And sin, to get back to that little word I mentioned earlier - sin is what happens when we’re neglectful. My friend’s house was tidy, nicely decorated and furnished, well-swept; but the ceiling still fell in, because some vital things hadn’t been done. Sin’s a bit like that. Most of us don’t do much that is bad. We’re nice, we’re law-abiding, we’re here on a Sunday morning when we could be washing the car or playing Sunday league football or lying in bed reading the Sunday papers or the latest Danielle Steel. But that actually isn’t quite enough on its own.

The old prayer of confession in the Prayer Book of 1662 includes these words: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.” I think the prayer gets those the right way round, making “leaving undone the things we ought to have done” first on the list. For most of us, that’s the bigger part of our sin: the chances we let slip, the times when we can’t be bothered, the times when we think it’s someone else’s job.  If we’re not attending properly to this aspect of our lives, then it’s like the damp building up, that’s there and doing damage, even if the ceiling hasn’t yet fallen down.

We have rules to live by, of course. Many of our churches and chapels have the ten commandments inscribed somewhere; in one of my former churches, four one side and six the other, of the holy table. We can tend to think of sin as breaking the rules, therefore; but that’s not exactly it. Jesus wasn’t averse to breaking the rules on occasion, after all. Healing folk on the sabbath, for example. Simplest definition of sin - sin is letting God down. It's not so much that we break the rules as that we break God's trust.

The Greek word 'amartia’ is what we translate into English as 'sin'. ‘Amartia’ has as its origin the idea of falling short, of missing the mark, of not doing right; it means those things more than being about actively doing wrong.  John in his letter says that to sin is to break God's law, and if that's the case we need to consider what that law is at its most basic:  love the Lord your God, and love your neighbour as yourself.  Or as Jesus said to his disciples:  'I give you a new commandment, love one another, as I have loved you.'  Sin happens when we lose touch with the love of our Lord, when we become self-centred and not God-centred.

Politicians get labelled as corrupt and self-serving, even though often that’s more an excuse for people to be idle and apathetic and not bother exercising their democratic right to choose, than a genuine and justifiable analysis. Churches, ministers and church folk can get just as easily labelled, though, and I’ve heard it said: “Self-serving, hypocrites, only care for their own, no better than they ought to be” - I’ve heard it all said and sometimes I’ve had it said to me. Again, it’s more often an excuse than a reasoned argument, said, likely enough, by people who don’t want to do get involved, but feel a bit guilty so need to justify their inaction.

So we need to look after ourselves, our buildings, our institution - to make ourselves and our church as Christ like and as Christ filled, Spirit filled as we can. Paul often says this sort of thing to the churches he founded; people need to look at us from outside and see nothing to offend, nothing that detracts from or runs counter to the message we offer, and the claims we make.

The Easter season, which we’re still in, was for the first disciples a time of re-connecting, of discovering and engaging with their Lord who was the same as he was and yet was not the same, for he has moved on, he is now beyond death and dying - raised, as Paul tells us, as the first fruits, so that all may follow.

'I'm not a ghost,' Jesus assured his disciples, in the Gospel story we heard this morning from St Luke.  'Touch me, and see the wounds;  come, share your food with me, and watch me eat.  Believe.'  Belief in the risen Christ is relationship with a person, not just the adoption of an idea. That’s how it was for them, that’s true for us as well.

For us as for them the message of Easter is that love is the way to live, and the way to life.  That's why people built our churches, and that's why we worship in them on a Sunday (as opposed to any other day).  And while we won't ever quite shake off, in this life, our tendency to sin, incompetence and an over-large concern for our own popularity and standing, we are called again and again by our Lord, and challenged, to be repentant, to accept forgiveness, to be enriched by grace, and so rise above all that, as God gives us strength and vision. For us too, the Easter season is an opportunity to re-connect with Christ, to know his healing and redeeming touch, and to become what we need to be for the sake of the world - not just people who talk about God, but who do God, who are open to his indwelling presence and active in his service: faithful witnesses to the resurrection, and to the power and wonder of that divine love the grave could never hold.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

A Poem I'm Working On

Saturday in the Park

On his usual bench, just north of the bandstand,
the man in the old grey coat sits quietly watching
the usual Saturday morning bustle, newspaper on his knees.
Mums with pushchairs and shopping bags hurry by;
a boy on a skateboard flips it up, catches it neatly;
the curate from the parish church, in billowing cassock,
surplice over his arm, glances at his watch without breaking stride,
a little late perhaps for his first wedding of the day.
Mid-April and a bright and sparkling morning, sunshine and smiles,
chiffchaffs belting away in the high poplars along the river path,
tulips and primulas in mixed array in the corporation beds,
and here and there, whisked on the wind,
the echo of children’s voices from the play-park near the old mill.
He’s here every Saturday, unless it really is too cold.
Years ago he would sit here while his Mary did the shopping;
now, ten years on his own, he still comes. But this is the best time,
with the daffodils out and the new green clothing the trees,
with the lawns dotted with daisies and celandines,
with everything just becoming. Spring! In heaven, he fancies,
if there is a heaven, and if heaven is as it should be,
it will be always Spring, forever just becoming,
everything just beginning to happen. He smiles, look at the time,
better go for that bus; he gets up slowly, folds the newspaper
he never really reads till he’s home, looks around once more.
Another Saturday vigil done, another week gone past,
and was that the year’s first swallow skimming by? He can’t be sure.
He was right about that wedding, though -
the old church bells have just begun to ring.

Bee Flies

Flies come in so many shapes and sizes, and some of them are rather lovely. The other day the garden seemed full of these little fellows, which are not uncommon, and I'm sure play a very important role in pollinating at this time of the year. They are like little balls of light brown fuzz, with black and white wings sticking out at right angles, while they are in flight. They can stop in mid air, and have the usual fly magic when flying, turning on a sixpence, etc. They were very busy in the bottom corner of our patch, visiting the many violets in flower there.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015


We've seen a surprising number of early butterflies - well, perhaps not so surprising, given the lovely weather we've got with us for a few days. Today I was delighted to see a brimstone wafting through the garden and on into the wood. Almost immediately afterwards, our first speckled wood of the year appeared, and patrolled the woodland edge in typical fashion. I noticed two whites today; they over winter as pupae, I think. I've seen small tortoiseshells here and there today, and tonight a peacock spent probably twenty minutes quartering our garden, and basking for a while in sunny spots. We saw our first comma of the year a couple of weeks back, but I haven't seen another yet. Along with the speckled woods, this is usually the butterfly I most expect to see in our garden.

Crossing the Bar

I read Tennyson's poem at a funeral today, and thought I should share it here too, as it's one I love :-

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness or farewell,
When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Tame Creatures . . .

Creatures in our garden seem to be getting quite tame. Today a mouse appeared and wandered up to the bird feeders quite oblivious to the fact that I was standing near. I moved and he or she ran off, only to come straight back despite the fact that I was still there. This happened several times!  The mouse was literally a foot or so away from where I was standing.

Later Ann was sitting out when a sparrow hawk hurtled in and perched in a tree not more than three feet away from her. To be fair, it did fly off fairly promptly when it noticed she was so close, but even so, that's a pretty close encounter for both of them.

Meanwhile, the regulars, chaffinches, goldfinches, siskins especially, seem happy to let me get within a few feet of them as they visit the feeders. And the squirrels . . . well, don't get me started on that one! I can shout and curse and yell and even throw things, and they just sit up and grin at me. Oh well - lovely day today, and I got lots done. The garden is looking quite tidy.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

A Sunday Talk for Easter Day

It is Sunday, the first day of the week; early morning, with the new sun sparkling on the white stones of the great temple in Jerusalem, and on the funeral monuments in the Kidron valley below.  The Sabbath, not just any Sabbath, but the Sabbath of the Passover has been observed, and, for all the tension of this season, with the people itching for freedom and longing for a new King David to seize the throne, things have passed off without too much in the way of problems.

It’s good to make an example at such a tense time, it helps to keep the unruly elements in check. Three men were therefore crucified on the Friday of Passover. No-one much will be talking much about that this morning, though; such crucifixions have become something of a routine event under Roman occupation.  It reminds the people who’s in charge, and is a useful show of strength.

Perhaps Pontius Pilate will still have been anxious. This year Passover had looked like being especially tense. If so, he’ll have been pleased at the reports of his officers around the city.  The garrison troops had been carefully active through the festival, and they’d have made sure their strength was noticed.  It had all passed off more peacefully than at one time they might have feared, and before long the pilgrims would be heading home, and this crazy city could return to what passed for normal here. People could breathe easy again.  There hadn’t, after all, been too many hitches.

Gnarled olive trees stand among the spring flowers in a garden outside the city walls.  It’s here that one of the crucified men Jesus has been laid.  One Jesus, a pilgrim from Nazareth, who seems to have claimed the title of King of the Jews. That’s what was inscribed on his cross, anyway.

The body had been wound around in its grave clothes, and then carefully placed in a new tomb cut out of the cliff face. So he lay in a stone coffin in a stone cave, with a great stone rolled into place to close off the entrance.  Probably Pontius Pilate will have known the place, having given the order that the body might be released into the care of Joseph of Arimathea. This Joseph was a member of the Jewish council no less, and this was the tomb he’d provided for his own future burial. Pontius Pilate had thought it prudent to place one or two of his own men on guard, though; there’d been some popular support for this one, and the Jewish leaders had seemed especially concerned.

But on this Sunday morning those who held power in Jerusalem had retained their grasp on that power: the controllers were still in control.  That’s how the world is, nothing ever really changes.  Just a few short days ago, pilgrims coming into town from the North, from Galilee had been shouting ‘Hosanna’ and acclaiming a new king. This sort of thing happened a lot at Passover; it was after all the festival that marked Jewish independence as a people. These Galileans had cut down palm branches, and strewn them on the road - because they’d found someone different, they’d found a teacher whose words so burned like fire in their hearts, that they were sure this was the one God was calling and sending, the one who would restore the kingdom, the one who would change their world. But on this Sunday morning they were packing for home. The world hadn’t changed after all. The system had won again, as the system always does.

It’s misty and mysterious, and the dew is still fresh, as women make their way through the garden.  Gnarled trunks of old olives look strange and unworldly, and the air is sharp and cold.

Mary and the others with her are anxiously wondering how they’re going to get into the tomb to anoint the body, which is what they are there to do.  How can they roll away that huge stone without help?  All of a sudden, they see the tomb through the mist, and it’s not as they expected to see it. The stone has already been rolled away.  They must have been struck with horror to see that. The only thing they could imagine would have been that something awful had happened, desecration, one more awful thing to add to the awfulness of their grief. A final sad ending at the close of what had already become for them a crushingly sad story.

That’s how it was in the early morning. But by day's end these women and other friends of Jesus will be beginning to realise that they stand not at the end of a story but at its beginning. In the early morning, they’ll have been thinking, “This is how it ends.” By day’s end, though, they’ll begin to understand the greatest event in history has happened, and the man whose final breaths they witnessed, and who they knew was dead, is alive.  He has been dead, and now he is alive.  And as their hardly believing minds grasp this, so they now live in a different world.  They now live in the Easter world, the Sunday world.

There’s a Saturday world and there’s a Sunday world.  The women in the garden and those to whom they ran to tell the news are now Sunday people, Easter people, and we are too.  That’s why we choose to meet on the first day of the week. Sunday by Sunday we affirm and celebrate Easter, and that on the first day of the week long ago in Jerusalem, the world changed forever.  We affirm that here and now we are citizens of a new world in which the old system no longer wins, and death itself has died.

But in the calendars and traditions of the Church Easter is not one but forty days; all those days would be needed for this great mystery to be discerned, rejoiced in, lodged in the hearts of the friends of Jesus, as they move on from their initial delight: “our Lord lives!” to understand what that means for themselves, what it will mean for the world. Easter is not the miraculous escape of one man from death.  We don’t meet on a Sunday to celebrate Jesus the escapologist. Nor has  Jesus survived anything, or returned from anywhere.  Jesus did not come back to life on Easter morning, he went forward into life, into a life he calls us to share. This is something new. 

We may be entertained by illusionists and escapologists, and we may marvel at how a magician manages to escape from what looks an impossible situation.  But illusion is what that is. As we go home at the end of the show we’re still in the same old world with the same laws of physics - and politics - in control. Easter is different from that. There is no illusion here;  this is real.

Similarly, we like to hear stories of survival against the odds told by or about explorers, solo yachtsmen, arctic travellers, people lost in the jungle.  If Easter was an escape like that, it would still be a story worth telling - but a story set in the old world, where the system always wins, and death still gets you in the end, however many cat's lives you might use up in the meantime, and however cleverly you may wave the magic wand.

This isn’t that story.  Jesus has not escaped from death, death really happened to him, he died, he was dead.  But then on Easter morning he broke through, changed the rules, and left the Saturday world behind, shaking off the chains of death for himself and for the world. 

In the days before Jesus came to Jerusalem, there was another death, and another raising from the dead, as St John tells the story in his Gospel. Lazarus died, friend of Jesus and brother of Mary and Martha. Jesus arrived on the scene too late to save him, and yet he still does save him. Lazarus emerges from the tomb  and the people are amazed who look on. But when Lazarus is led out of his tomb, he is still dressed in his grave clothes, he saved from one death to one day still die another.  Now, on the first Easter morning, those rules have been changed. The tomb is empty when the disciples arrive, Peter and John, but the grave clothes are left behind, they find them lying in the tomb.  Jesus has no need of them; death has no more power. He calls us to be Sunday people now, to be Sunday people, Easter people, even when the world about us is till a Saturday world, whose people are still in thrall to the old order of sin and death. 

It may look like the system still wins, we watch the news and see the old power games are still up and running. Easter morning found Pontius Pilate a relieved and happy man, glad to be still in charge, happy the Passover was done with, and things had stayed the same as always. Only they hadn’t. Not many people knew yet, but those few people would tell the world. The world has turned upside down, to turn a cross into a royal throne, and to reveal the love the man who died there showed and preached as stronger than death.

Let me close with some famous words from Archbishop Desmond Tutu:  “Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through him who loves us.”  There is the truth of the Sunday world.

Holy Saturday

Another poem from my past writings . . .

A sabbath rest in the garden:
where the birds sing unchecked in ancient olives, where
flowers sparkle with dew, where vines
are bursting bright new leaves from the bud
where they twine and clamber across the stones.

A sabbath rest: and there is the tomb, sealed shut
and guarded well, by armed men for whom
sabbath is a working day like any other;
they lean on their spears tossing pebbles to scare the birds;  they know that
orders are orders, one does as one is commanded.

A sabbath rest - for behind that stone there is no magic:
the man laid deep inside was nothing less than dead, and
the processes of nature will already have begun
in the body's broken places, in his wounded hands and side:
shrouded the corpse and wrapped, though with some need still
for anointing and spices.

A sabbath rest for mourners lost in prayer
and in the sharing of tears, in some secret place not far away -
no-one expecting any hopeful news, and
all finding nothing to encourage, only to make afraid.
It will be necessary to go soon, to prepare
to join the pilgrims heading north,
keeping their heads down, and blending with the crowds;
they will have to go and they must leave him here.

A sabbath rest in the garden
that is the first day of forever:
for some, his Mother, an expected and dreaded forever
of grief and loss.  Yet while they hide in fear,
somewhere in the birdsong and among the climbing vines
a new forever is being made, and indeed
has already been established upon the wooden throne
that yesterday was raised for all to see,
though no-one yet has seen and understood.

A sabbath rest of birdsong and shining flowers;
an ending that is not an ending, but the quiet
preface to glory.

Friday, 3 April 2015


A poem I wrote some years ago . . .

No, lass, no, I never knew him,
I don't even know his name.
I'm just here to see what happens:
all this crowd of us, the same.

No, you'll not have seen me with him -
I come from a different fold.
Now gie's a sight of that fire, love,
for I'm starved and clemmed wi' cold.

Oh come on, so I speak like him -
and what's that supposed to mean?
Me and half a thousand pilgrims!
By heaven, hell, and all between,

by everything that stands created,
by God himself, I tell no lie:
Look, I never bloody knew him!
Oh!  The paling of the sky -

Let me out!  Just let me through there,
let me breathe the morning air. . . .
Cocks are crowing in the gardens,
and my heart is black despair.