Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Insects that bite and sting . . .

. . . my "Nature Notes" article for the month ahead :-

We were sitting outside in the sunshine with a glass or two the other day when a particularly persistent wasp decided to spoil the party. We are surrounded by millions of insects, and some of them can be a bit of a pain.

Wasps and hornets are probably the more feared than most British insects, and some people can have extreme allergic reactions to their stings. Hornets, though larger than wasps and with a nastier sting, are much less aggressive than smaller wasps and are really no trouble provided you keep your distance. Other insects can be confused with hornets, such as queen wasps and some quite harmless insects like the giant wood wasp (stingless) or the hornet clearwing moth. At this time of the year wasps have less work to do and lots of sweet stuff to binge on - hence they start to be more troublesome. Our instinctive reaction is to try to bat them away; I do it, but it’s never a good idea - it only makes them cross and all the more more likely to sting. If you do get stung and start to feel faint, out of breath or your skin begins to swell up, seek immediate medical attention.

Like wasps, bees will sting when they feel threatened, and we can be allergic to their stings too. Bee and wasp venoms are quite different from each other. Ants can also be venomous; ant poison is administered via a bite, but most British ants don’t have high toxin levels, and won’t cause much damage. Ant and bee stings are acid, and I recall we used to treat them with washing blue; wasp stings are alkaline, and can be eased with a bit of vinegar. The little black garden ants don’t bite.

Horseflies are my number one hate. Bees, wasps and ants bite or sting if threatened, but horseflies really are out to get you, and some can be very persistent. In my experience, there are those that sneak up on you, and you don’t know they are there until they have bitten you, but even nastier are the big black horseflies that have a loud and very annoying buzz and just seem to want to terrify you into submission (maybe that makes the blood flow more freely). Horseflies are in fact placid vegetarians most of the time, but the female, as with mosquitoes, needs mammalian blood before she can lay her eggs. They cause damage by ripping the skin so that blood flows freely, which they then lap up. The wound is very painful, can easily become infected, and horseflies can also carry a number of diseases. It’s important to treat wounds with antiseptic wipes, and keep them free from dirt.

Midges and mosquitoes are a nuisance rather than a danger in the UK, though of course mosquitoes spread malaria and other dangerous diseases elsewhere in the world. Mozzies are more active in the early morning and the evening than at other times - cover up, and use over-the-counter repellants. Then there are ticks - but they’re not actually insects, so I’ll leave them for another time!

Saturday, 22 August 2015


I've just shared this on Facebook, but I'll post it here too I think . . .

Sermon for tomorrow

. . . to be preached at Marton, Llanymynech and Corndon Marsh. Text (RCL) Ephesians 6.10-20 and John 6.56-69.

A sentence struck me as I was reading through the scriptures for today, and it was this: “From that moment many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.” I wonder what provoked that? What was going through the minds of those people who had followed Jesus but now fell away?

I didn’t register for the Labour party leadership election. I was slightly tempted. I’m very much a floating voter, but now and again I have voted Labour. Mr Jeremy Corbyn, though not as far as I know a religious man, is in a way the most messianic of the candidates. I can see why he’s become the front runner, and why he seems to be gathering support from young and idealistic party members and supporters, however damaging it all might be to Labour’s electoral chances.

I reckon Jesus attracted people like that: idealists, who liked the sound of this new world, this Kingdom he talked about. But how do you get there? Some of his folowers were realising that this man was making some powerful enemies. What he said sounded good, but the road was looking less like a triumphal procession than a collision course. It’s all very well to say that the meek shall inherit the earth, but what if the other guys don’t agree?

Jesus even offered his closest companions a chance to take the exit door. “Do you also want to leave?” he asks them - and I think what he was meaning was something like “You can leave too if that’s what you want. I shan’t hold it against you.” It’s Peter who speaks up of course, but he speaks for them all: “Where else can we go? To whom else can we turn? You speak the words of life.”

People were beginning to walk out on Jesus because he was saying things that sounded a bit weird, and they were beginning to think that this might not be such an easy ride. You have to aim pretty high to keep up with this man: people prefer to be comfortable, and this was starting to look as if it might not be. The Twelve must have been as shocked as everyone else at some of the things Jesus said - what did he mean by it? But they stayed with him because, as Peter sort of said, “We may not understand everything you’re saying to us, but we know what you are, we know you’re God’s man.”

By the time Paul wrote his Letter to the Ephesians he knew very well that to follow Jesus wasn’t an easy road. He’d had his own share of beatings and imprisonment, and he speaks of himself as “an ambassador in chains.” He begins the last chapter of his letter to the Ephesians by telling them to find their strength in the Lord, and follows that with those amazing words that compare what they’ll need for the fight with the armour worn by a Roman soldier. And that’s a good comparison: there were no soldiers in the ancient world better prepared and protected than the army of Rome.

I’ll say a bit more about that armour in a moment, but first a question I ask myself on a regular basis: how committed am I, really? How far would I go, how much would I face, to follow my Lord? How good am I at dealing with the stuff that tempts me away from where I should be and what I should be doing? Don’t I drift from the path and lose my way all too easily, again and again? And does Jesus even want me, after all this time, and after all this failure?

It seems to me that the devil’s very good at persuading people they’re not good enough, they can never be good enough, so they may as well give up trying. Even so-called saints have feet of clay really, he tells us. So give up, and enjoy yourselves instead.
Paul came across plenty of human opposition in his ministry, but that isn’t what he’s writing about in the words we’ve heard to the Ephesians. He speaks to them about the wiles, the stratagems of the devil, saying “Our struggle is not against human foes, but against the elemental forces of the universe.”  Just as mine is today, and yours.

One of the reasons why the Roman army was so effective was that they had excellent defensive armour. The great shield especially, when raised up and employed properly left pretty much no way through for the enemy. Use the armour God gives you, says Paul to the Ephesians, and he says it to us too.

What does this armour consist of? Paul talks about truth, integrity, peace: in other words, not just looking good on the outside, but being true at heart; and then he speaks of the great shield, which is the shield of faith, along with the helmet of salvation. Those disciples who faded away when it looked as though the going might get tough lacked faith; unlike the Twelve, they couldn’t bring themselves to be sure of Jesus. And we have the helmet of salvation. The conflict may continue, but the decisive battle has already been won. And though we may sometimes fail, and stray, and let our Lord down - as did every one of the Twelve at some point - we’re not excluded by that, that doesn’t mean we’re not good enough. Jesus has made us good enough, he has given us a share in his victory. Through him we have access to the Father, despite ourselves. In him we find a love that will never let us down; the journey we make with him, though sometimes the road may be hard, is our journey home. As Jesus says in John chapter 14: “In my Father’s house there are many rooms. I am going to prepare a place for you.”

With this promise in mind, I can resist the temptation to give up and to stop believing. Or I should be able to. In fact I’m not always good at keeping my armour up to scratch, and sometimes that armour doesn’t work as well as it should. We keep our armour in good trim by coming regularly to our Lord’s table, and between those times by being disciplined in our praying, our reading of the Bible, and the way we seek Jesus out and choose to spend time with him. We need to do this, just as the Roman soldier needed to work hard on his armour to keep it up to scratch. If he didn’t, he’d be a weak link in the wall of shields that presented such an impregnable defence against any opposing force.

“Seven days without prayer make one weak (w-e-A-k).” I recall seeing that on a church notice board, and it’s right. Paul tells the Ephesians to “constantly ask God’s help in prayer, and pray always in the power of the Spirit.” And to be watchful, and attentive, for what we face is rarely a full-on attack, it’s more subtle than that, more persuasive, cleverer. So we need to be on our guard.

Finally, Paul adds to all this defensive armour the one weapon he talks about, which is the sword: the sword the Spirit gives you, he says, which is the word of God. So is this a soldier taking cover and cowering behind his shield? No it’s not: Paul reminds us that we’ve a job to do and a word to speak, and that God has sent his Spirit to help us do it. The Roman soldier knew when to take cover and when to break out of cover, and take the initiative. And though sometimes all I can do is to hold on, faith requires me to do more: to live for Jesus, to work for Jesus, to strive for Jesus. So I pray: Grant me shelter and refuge when I need it, Lord, but then show me how I can be an active witness to your love - and may your Church be a bright light in every dark place, shining your love into needy and broken lives. Amen.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Retreat: first morning

Another first draft . . .

As I look out through the leaded panes
of the seaward window of my room or, maybe, cell,
a pale sun filters through the leafless branches
of the clifftop trees; early morning, low tide,
with oystercatchers and turnstones prospecting the shoreline,
the sudden black and white of their flurried wings.
Sheltered by gothic walls, I am where I need to be,
though not entirely from choice. I am here
because I will have things to do, and need to be prepared,
or maybe because God has things to do with me,
in the interplay of trying and being tried
to which we give the title ‘retreat’.
This is my week’s shelter from the world, yet not a place to hide
nor any admission of defeat. I am here
to confront in me what needs to change
and to confirm what needs to grow;
I am here because it is right to be here,
where the tide runs softly over the pebbled sand,
while the sun lifts over the winter trees
to lose itself as a smear of brightness in the soft clouding
of this new day. I am here because of the love
that has claimed me and will not leave me, here
to slow things down to the tempo of my own heart,
and to align myself to the peaceful rhythm
of the praise and prayer of this house.
And I am here because of where I shall be next,
to know here the close-breathing presence of my Lord
that I may know him too where he will be, there.
The chapel bell rings softly, half-hidden behind the calls
of curlew and gull; on this silvered morning
my healing time begins.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

A Sermon for Tomorrow

Preached on the set readings, viz Exodus 16.2-4, 9-26; Ephesians 4.1-16, John 6.24-35

 “Are we nearly there yet?” Yes, it’s the summer holidays, and dads and mums up and down the country will be listening to variations on that question from the back seat as they head off on holiday or out for a day trip. I remember it well from when my kids were young; we used to try and head it off with I-spy games, spotting interesting pub signs, or things like first to see three mums pushing push chairs. These days kids can listen to their ipods, watch Peppa Pig on video, or play computer games on their tablets or smart phones. Not that it seems to make much difference - it’s still boring in the back of the car, and it still takes just as long.

At least we usually made sure we brought enough to eat with us. Not always - once we left a fully packed cool box with sandwiches and sausage rolls and cakes back at home. It wasn’t very cool or fresh inside that box two weeks later when we got back. But mostly we could shut the kids up for a bit with a bun or a packet of crisps, even if it did sometimes leave us with a major job clearing out the car once we’d got to where we were going. In our Old Testament reading the people of Israel had run out of food. They were miserable and hungry, and the promised land was still only a promise - and they were having to walk there. Moses and Aaron were beginning to get a little worried at the rebellious mood of the people.

But the Lord was on the case, to send quails and also manna, and at the same time to test the people and make sure they recognised who was giving them this food, food to be accepted as a gift and therefore harvested and used daily as the Lord commanded, not hoarded or treated as though it were the fruit of their own labours. This is true, isn’t it, of any present, that the giver is honoured in the way we use the gift. And that’s certainly true of God’s gifts to us - and he has greater gifts to bestow than the manna that saved his people in the wilderness.

Manna was a temporary fix, no more. It was given for as long as the people needed it. But it got them through, and it was long remembered. “Our forefathers were given manna in the wilderness,” said the people to Jesus. “That’s what Moses did for them. What are you going to give us? What can you give us, that’s as good as that?” “You’re mistaken if you think the manna came from Moses,” Jesus tells them. “It came from God, and now God has new bread to give you, bread that will last forever, the true bread of life.” “Give us this bread,” the people plead, “give it to us now and always!”

That sounds like a great prayer to make, but in John’s Gospel people are often found thinking in purely physical terms when Jesus is speaking of the spirit. People have just been fed in the wilderness, five thousand men plus whoever else was with them, women and children: enough for all and twelve baskets left over. Now the crowd want more of the same. But what Jesus is really offering is a different kind of bread altogether. He offers himself, a spiritual bread for the life and health of the world. A gift to be received and used in a way that truly honours the giver.

Before I think a little more about that, let me spend a moment or two reflecting on the verses we heard from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians - Paul’s writing there about receiving and using God’s gifts in a way that truly honours the giver.  He says, “Each of us has been given some special gift, some special share in the bounty of Christ.” Our gifts are different and complementary; they enable us to build one another up; the gifts we’re given are facets of the nature of Christ, so when we use them as we should we ourselves become in some way Christ-like, and the whole body becomes all the more fully what we are called to be - the body of Christ - as we exercise these gifts in supporting one another and serving the community around us.

Paul speaks about “attaining the unity inherent in our faith” and “being measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ.” If we use well the gifts we’re given our fellowship will be enhanced and enriched, and made (in the modern jargon) fit for purpose. That’s promise and challenge for the Church, just as the manna in the wilderness was both promise and challenge to the Israelites under Moses. Promise and gift given freely, the outworking of God’s love, not earned or merited - given because God claims us as his own. Challenge, because to use well what God gives us requires discipline and obedience; his gifts must be used according to the mind of the giver.  As the body of Christ is built (quote) “the whole frame grows through the proper functioning of each part, and builds itself up in love.”

The people had asked Jesus “What must we do to merit God’s gifts and favour?” Jesus replied that the work God requires is simply this: that they believe in the one God has sent. That doesn’t sound too hard; to believe in something shouldn’t take too much effort, surely?  Well, believing in something might not, but to believe in someone does, if we’re serious about it. Believing in something is an academic exercise. Believing in someone brings you into relationship with them.

Many people today speak negatively about the impact of religion on the world, and I’m not surprised. Far too often religion - even some versions of the Christian faith - present themselves in ways that are closed and rigid and at least potentially harmful, at times openly destructive. Such religion is more about believing things than it is about believing in the God who calls us into relationship with him. A comment I read this week about the sad shooting of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe made the point that huge harm is done when we start thinking that one life is worth less than another one. The way is open to exploitation and abuse.

If that applies to the way in which we treat wild creatures (or some of us do), it’s also about the way we dehumanise those among our brothers and sisters who are in our way or not like us in looks or wealth or politics. Or religion. Religion can be a powerful dehumanising force, and we’ve only to look at the appalling violence in Iraq or Syria to realise that. This is not true religion. It’s false and even godless, I’d dare to say. To borrow some words written by the late Terry Pratchett, so-called religious wars are caused by “mad, manipulative and power-hungry men who cloak their ambition in God.” But not the true God; a god they’ve manufactured and distorted so as to give credence to their ambitions.

Genuinely godly faith will seek always to include, not exclude; to encourage, not oppose; to share and to feed, not grab and hoard or neglect. It’s a risky way to live, but it’s the life Jesus shows us. Jesus says, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” It’s not hard to love the crowd you’re with, people who think the way you think. The risky thing is that there are no limits to the love Jesus loves us with; his is the love of the father watching for his prodigal son who has walked out on him; his is the love which prays “Forgive them” from the agony of the cross. This is costly love, but who can deny that our world needs it so very much?

All that’s needed of us is that we believe in the one whom God has sent; but what does it mean? We need to receive and use the gifts God brings us, knowing where they’re from; and we need to honour the giver. We love because we are ourselves most wonderfully loved. And we need to understand that the skills and talents with which we’re gifted come with a duty, a responsibility - to play our full part in building up the whole fellowship, the whole body of Christ where we are.

Remember the question with which I began this address? “Are we nearly there yet?” Thinking back to when I was the child in the back seat of the car, I remember how frustrating it was that it took so long to get from A (boring old home) to B (exciting holiday place with sea and sand); stuck in the back seat there was nothing I could do to make the journey happen more quickly. Not much could be done from the front, either, since we were probably stuck in a queue of traffic.

Let’s apply that same question to our Christian journey. Are we nearly there yet? To a degree the answer’s yes, for every Sunday we celebrate God’s love triumphant over sin and death; our Lord is risen from the dead and in him we are already citizens of heaven. But of course our own individual journeys continue, and sometimes it’s boring, sometimes the road ahead is dark or tough going, and sometimes we’re stuck in a traffic jam. But our God resources us for the journey and travels with us; we know we’re loved by him, and that in love we’re gifted by him. The love in which we’re known and treasured is a love that’s cross-shaped, that’s borne our sins into that great conflict with death and has triumphed. So as our own life journeys continue our task is to travel with hope and joy and thanksgiving - proving our faith in our use of God’s gifts and in the risks we take with love.