Friday, 30 October 2015

At All Saints' Tide

As I shape the memories that have stalked me,
forming them into seasons and stories
I am liberated into relationship.
I learn to persevere, and to walk the hard road,
learn to accept the mirrored face I see.
I am finding my way back - or onward - to yes.

What we pass on is important, it has
a significance we may not realise; while
the stories change as we tell them,
and as they are heard. Our memory
and imagination have a transforming power;
so we see how we might travel on.

A dark place may not always be a bad place;
we are formed by our fractures
and our failures. This is discipleship,
where challenge and gift reach their balance
in my life and in my soul, and where by grace
even in my falling I find fresh hope and power.

And now Emmaus lies ahead, all golden in
the setting sun. Here is where our paths
must diverge, and you will travel on.
But first the bread is broken, and
the cup of wine handed round; for here we are
found and claimed and freed by the yes you speak.


How many more than four dimensions are there,
and what are the dimensions of our dreams,
of our minds, our imagining? To know that,
I should need to know what is a dimension anyway,
and of that I am not sure - not yet. Is time
a dimension, for example? Or is it just an expression
of what limits me, what leaves me
believing only in the three dimensions
that make things solid, that make things real,
or that make at least for a depiction of ‘real’
that works  for me? When the aliens come
they will not be green and bug-eyed monsters,
not any monsters at all, in fact;
monsters require only the three dimensions,
and, limited to that, I think we can be fairly sure
they’ll never get here, there’s just too much
dimensional space to cross, and not enough of the fourth
dimension (which for the moment we will call time)
for that crossing to happen. Warp factor eight? I don’t think so.
Wormholes? Not and survive.
Truth is, or at least my suspicion is,
there is no “when the aliens come”. They are here,
if there is a here, now, if there is a now;
and they are not aliens, only what we always have been
and always can become,
when we are no longer limited,
or no longer limit ourselves,
in our choice and use of dimensions.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015


I've posted this one before, I'm sure, but as it's that time of year again . . .

Late October: trees,
each sunlit leaf a sailboat
set to snare the breeze.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015


One of the two poems I read with our little group today . . .

I should be seriously out of place.  No-one speaks my language here
and I do not speak theirs.  But
this city is so beautiful;  everywhere
I sense I am surrounded by angels, everywhere
there is the echo of Hallelujah.

For all the noise and bustle of these city streets and squares,
the little Daihatsu taxis touting for business,
the urgent sellers of trinkets and those dubiously sealed bottles of agua,
this morning I am feeling at peace in this White City.
Before me is the cathedral, one side of the great square,
either side the shaded colonnades of cafes and shops;
here are the rose gardens and the old ladies feeding pigeons,
there the shady coloured alleys of Santa Catalina.
And behind it all the benign bulk of the mountain el Misti
rises into the clouds, as though it were this city’s personal protecting god.

But as I stray away from the Plaza de Armas
the broken walls along the side streets advise me of the stark volcanic truth.
This wonderful place is not as solid as it seems,
nor its mountain the peaceful protector I might have imagined.
Sometimes in this city
the ground itself has been torn apart, beneath her people’s feet.

Of another great city, our Lord once said:
“Not one stone will be left standing on another.”
I find myself reflecting on the sober truth, that
nothing we build for ourselves will stand for ever;
our strongest walls one day will fall.  And on this peaceful day,
for a moment or two the Miserere Mei
mingles with those Hallelujahs.

Friday, 23 October 2015

My Final Harvest Sermon for 2015

. . . to be preached at Leighton on Sunday next.

We’d driven as far as we could along the deeply rutted track, to where the road petered out into nothing more than a path up the middle of the valley. On either side of us we could see shacks, built of wood, corrugated iron, cardboard - anything that could be scrounged - clinging on precariously. Steps up the hillside had been formed from old tyres hammered into the bank.  We parked our car, grabbed some stout sticks to help us climb and ward off any fierce dogs, and began to make our way up the steps towards a slightly larger shack with hardboard walls and a roof of corrugated iron: this was the local  Anglican mission church of San Pablo, Saint Paul.

Over on the bare hillside opposite the shacks were more newly built; these were people who hadn’t long arrived; many of the shacks were hardly more than tents. Above them, picked out in white stones laid on the bare and dusty ground, I could see the design of a giant clover leaf.  We were in one of the shanty towns of Lima, the capital city of Peru; a community that had named itself el Trebol, the Clover Leaf. El Trebol formed one part of a community of about a million people known as San Juan de Miraflores.  These were people living, very literally, on the edge.

Walking through el Trebol felt rather like walking through a sepia tinted photograph - everything was some shade of brown.  My black shoes had cleaned only that morning, but within a few moments of stepping from the car they too were brown. There are very few leaves, of clover or anything else, in el Trebol. Lima is a city built in the desert, and rain hardly ever falls there, though the garua, a cold and clammy mist, rolls in from the Pacific Ocean some eight or nine months of the year.

There is water in Lima. The Rimac and other rivers bring cool and refreshing water down from the high Andes mountains. But in a city that has grown from half a million to about nine million in about fifty years, water can’t help but to be a precious and scarce commodity. In smart downtown Lima you see plenty of flowers; water flows in channels down the middle of its wide streets to irrigate the plants that grow there.  But in the shanty towns, particularly in this “invasion”, where most of the people had arrived within five years of my visit, there was only dust, and lots of it.  But the people still came; there is a worldwide migration from the countryside into the cities, so that over the past twenty years or so the world has passed a threshold, band for the first time in human history more people live in cities than on the land. Why do they come? They come seeking a better life, and the hope for streets paved with gold. The people I met in Lima had found mostly dust.

We’re here this morning to give thanks for harvest; and for all the problems and anxieties of our world, global warming, the price of oil, the squeeze imposed on milk and market prices, for all that, we do possess a rich and pleasant land. Those of us who grow things may well debate how the harvest has been.  I’ve seen some pretty good crops of plums and damsons, but not everyone has done so well; it’s been a good year for apples, and my beans and potatoes have done all right. But it’s been a poor year for tomatoes, or was that just me? The usual mixture of things, but mostly good, I think.

But in fact we have a good and secure harvest whatever. What we don't manage to grow we’ll find on the shelves at Tesco. We thank God today for all of that, and that we do have enough and to spare.
The Israelites of old were told by Moses and Aaron never to forget that God had given them the land they held. He’d formed them into a nation, and led them to the land he promised.  So they brought a basket of the very first fruits of the harvest to offer to the Lord - offered as a sign that all the harvest would used in a way that would please him and serve him.  His desire was for justice and of peace, his special concern was for the poor, the landless, the vulnerable, for the widow and the orphan.  As they brought their gifts, the people would recite words given to them by Moses, in which they reminded themselves that (quote) "My father was a wanderer in the desert...."

And those words were in my mind as I made my way up the steep and slippery sand bank to San Pablo Chapel. These people had also wandered in the desert seeking a promised land.  They’d fled from poverty, cruelty, and the corrupt officials and lawless terrorists that ruled the roost in places far from Lima. Like the people of Israel, they were dreaming of a Promised Land where they could have a better life.

Some of that flow of people seeking a Promised Land is now crossing the borders of Europe, and it may alarm and worry us. A union that prided itself in open borders is now closing them. And yet, in this unequal world, harvest reminds us of the scripture that says: love your neighbour as yourself. There’s a saying that our neighbour is a holy gift from God. For Mother Theresa every desperate and maybe dying beggar on the streets of Calcutta bore the face of Christ. Harvest should direct our vision outward to those who don’t have a harvest, and who continue to wander in the desert. They are also our neighbours; we share one world, and we share one harvest.

And harvest itself is a holy and blessed thing. Gifts once given become more than just the thing itself, for each gift contains and expresses something of the giver, their nature, their concern, their love. That’s why we treasure gifts and take care how we use them. If we think of the earth’s harvest as God's gracious gift, then it is holy as he is holy, given to be treasured and used in the spirit of the giver.

Here’s a thing: two or three years after my visit to Lima and to el Trebol, someone sent me some photos, newly taken, of the same place I went to. It was just as dusty. But there was now also a garden, a new garden protected from the wind by a fence made mostly out of plastic sheeting, a garden watered and manured to make the thin soil fertile, with the new green of growing crops protected by strings with bits of plastic bags fastened along them to scare off any passing pigeons.

The Diocesan Allotment project was beginning to turn that sepia desert green.  People who'd arrived in that barren place with little but hope were being helped to make their hopes become real.  Seeds grow quickly in the tropics. The photos had been taken over a period of three weeks, and you could see how productive this garden was going to be. The person who sent me the photos was the vicar of a little parish in the Diocese of Worcester, where they have a diocesan link with Peru like the one Hereford has with Tanzania. His parish had raised some money and sent it across to help make this little miracle happen.  And I heard how three lovely Peruvian ladies I'd met while I was out there had worked so hard to turn their vision of gardens in the desert into reality, organising and training the local congregation at San Pablo mission.

There are Christians all over the place, and it's marvellous what we can do if we take an interest in each other, as we should.  My brother called to see me the other day, and I gave him some of my potatoes in a bag to take away with him. We like to share what we grow. So what about my brother in Peru, or in Tanzania?  How can we share with them?  I know that parish in Worcestershire a little bit, that had helped kickstart the allotment project; I preached once at the church there, and it really is set in a green and pleasant land, full of cider orchards and the like.  Thank God for that harvest too!  But thank God too that he plants in the hearts of people who praise him the desire to share the green of our harvest with others, that their land may be green and pleasant too.

God in his constant love led his people from slavery in Egypt to a land that flowed with milk and honey.  And that same love continues today to turn deserts green, and to renew tired hearts and restore withered hope.  May that love inspire in us and in all who honour Jesus as Lord a harvest of faith and Christian service.

Above left - an overview of the shanty town; right - San Pablo mission chapel.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

A Sermon for Next Sunday

To be preached at Marton, where Thomas Bray, founder of SPG, SPCK and the Bray Libraries, was born; based on Mark 10.46-52.

Today has quite a few different labels. For a start, we’re into half term week; we’re back into Greenwich Mean Time as of this morning; and in church terms it’s the last Sunday after Trinity, and also Bible Sunday, and also the Sunday for celebrating the founding of your church if you don’t have a saint’s day to do it on.

Bible Sunday reminds us that as Christians we’re called to be bearers and sharers of the God’s word. And to share the word we must dare to live it; so what will it mean, what’s required of us, if we’re to live the word of God?  Of course doing our best to follow our Lord, living in imitation of him. Our reading from Hebrews reminded us that he’s the one priest worthy of that title. But he’s more than that; he is, as St John tells us, the Word of God in creative action.

And then we have this morning’s Gospel reading, which is a story that’s always attracted and moved me - the blind man on the street crying out for help. It’s a great story for school assemblies and family services, because it dramatises so well: blind Bartimaeus crying out for help, and everyone round him telling him to belt up. This is a man who counts for nothing, he doesn't really even have a name of his own, since all Bartimaeus means is 'son of Timaeus'. And they all tell him to shut up. But Jesus doesn’t. Jesus hears him, and responds.

One message to take from this is that mission happens when we take time for others, when we respond to our neighbour's need; here is where God’s word is revealed and shared. But there’s a detail of this story which is easily overlooked, but which is I think important, and it’s this.  Jesus asks Bartimaeus a question: 'What do you want me to do for you?' The answer is surely obvious, but he still asks the question.

The question Jesus asked reminds me that to do mission in God's name we’ve not only to respond to our neighbour's need but also to respect our neighbour's autonomy and independence.  We don’t have all the answers. As you know, I used to work for one of the world mission agencies of the Church, the one founded by Thomas Bray whose plaque is on your wall - then called the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and now known simply as “Us”.  I learned that to do mission in a worldwide setting you need to start by doing some serious listening, and you need dialogue. During my time there I met some marvellous people, among them church members and leaders from around the worldwide Anglican Communion. I saw the tremendous love and respect they had for the English Church and for the See of Canterbury.  But I also realised they had their own stories, their own projects, their own hopes and dreams; and that I needed to hear what they were telling me.

Did I mention that today’s also the last day of One World Week?  The theme of One World Week 2015 is “Hope in Action”. Hope may seem to be in short supply in today’s world; and a lot of the action in the news reports we see is challenging and worrying. We see the growth in terrorist atrocities, we see terrorist pseudo-states such as those established by the Taleban, Al Qaeda and Isis. And we see huge movements of people, often triggered by the impact of groups like Isis.

From the time I spent time visiting landless or dispossessed families in Brazil, Peru, Palestine and Tanzania, I became very aware of what had driven people like them to up sticks and go - what they were running from, and what they were hoping for. Today there’s an incredible movement of people all across the world - and the asylum seekers and economic migrants arriving on our shores are just one small component of that.

At USPG I also learned that those who take the Gospel to new places need themselves to leave a lot behind and to travel light.  That’s what Jesus told his disciples to do - take the bare minimum for the journey, don’t be encumbered by stuff. There’s a lot of cultural baggage to leave behind if we’re to travel with our faith from where we are to where our neighbour lives.

And if our neighbour’s lost his land, if the land has failed them, if they’ve been driven out of it by persecution and terrorism and war, what then? What can we offer them? What should we offer them? An immense challenge faces us in the UK and Europe today, a challenge that faces the whole world, a challenge with no easy answers. But to begin with, we need to hear their story. We need to make space to listen, as Jesus chose to listen to Bartimaeus.

Charity begins at home, you may say, and I’ll not disagree with that. If charity didn’t begin at home, it wouldn’t begin at all. But where it begins doesn't have to be where it ends. One World Week reminds us that, science fiction apart, we’ve only the one place to go, just one world to share - one home for one family, all of whom are called and loved by our Lord.

That’s what motivated Thomas Bray I think; certainly it motivates the society he founded as it continues today to give support to partners around the world, and as it does what it does in the name of Christ, working in places on the edge, and among some of the vulnerable and dispossessed people of our world. It’s what motivates people young and older to give maybe a year of their lives to go and work overseas. And it’s why while I was with the Society I saw God’s word being not only preached but courageously lived, and our Lord’s name proclaimed, in so many exciting and very valid ways.

So here’s the big challenge I take from today’s Gospel story. For the people who turned out to hear Jesus that day, to catch the latest thing, the phenomenon of this new prophet, this man Bartimaeus was a problem, an annoyance, and maybe even a threat. All they wanted was for him to shut up. Where is Bartimaeus today? When we look at the camps at Calais, hear the stories from islands like Lesbos, see the crowds waiting to cross the border into Slovenia or Croatia, it’s no surprise if we find ourselves thinking the same way. They’re a problem and a threat; shut them up and send them away!

The sheer numbers of migrants, that doesn’t help. We need to hear their stories, we need to identify them as family, but it’s hard to hear any one story, however valid, however moving, when there are so many voices raised, so many people speaking all at once, and when they speak in languages, and from situations, so very foreign to us. But we need still to try and hear them. Christians should always have a One World perspective. If there isn’t “Hope in Action” where we are, then where will people find it? And the response of Jesus that day to Bartimaeus, the unknown, un-named problem man who needed help - and who, in his need knew who Jesus was - the response of Jesus that day shows us what he would want from us today.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Kite Attack

Driving back from Castle Caereinion to Welshpool this afternoon, I spotted a red kite as I crested Golfa Bank: long, thin wings as seen from the side - even from a distance, quite distinctive. As I drew closer, it crossed the road , coming over a field in which a flock of jackdaws was feeding. To my surprise, the kite did a typical piece of kite aerobatics, a spiralling tumble, straight down onto the jackdaws, scattering them in all directions, then actively pursuing a group of them. I've often seen corvids mobbing and harrying birds of prey - amusing to see the tables turned. I can't think the kite had any interest in actually taking a jackdaw, so can only assume it was just enjoying itself.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

A sermon for today if it hadn't been St Luke's Day . . .

Jesus is “a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek” - so we read in today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. Who was Melchizedek then, and why was he so special? Melchizedek is a shadowy and mysterious figure from the Old Testament, who we first find in the Book of Genesis, chapter 14. There he meets with Abraham - who at this stage is still called Abram; he gives him food and wine and a special blessing. My own view of Melchizedek is somewhat coloured by the fact that he was a central figure in the east window of the chapel at Lincoln Theological College, where I trained for ordination - and seemed in that window to be wearing red and white striped football socks. As featured in our window, he became a sort of college icon or mascot, but we found it a little hard to take him seriously as a Bible character.

And that’s a shame, I thought; I decided to do some research. What was so special about Melchizedek, that Jesus should be a priest after his order?  Well, he is in fact the first person in the Old Testament to be given the title of priest. And he was also a king, the King of Salem, or Jerusalem - king then of the place where after many more journeys and adventures, the people of Israel would eventually settle. Melchizedek’s kingship and priesthood somehow confirms Salem as holy and blessed by God, even before the Israelites have been formed into a nation, something that will happen in the next book of the Bible, the Book of Exodus.

So the priesthood of Melchizedek precedes the priesthood of the Jerusalem Temple, and that was very important to the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews. The temple priests had to purify themselves before they could offer sacrifice, by prayers and ritual washing and other rites of preparation. But Jesus is not like them. He is already and always worthy; last Sunday’s reading from Hebrews tells us that he was “tested as we are, yet without sin.”

And he is both king and priest, in a way that no temple priest could ever be.  In chapter eight of Hebrews we read, “This is the kind of high priest we have: he has taken his seat at the right hand of the Throne of Majesty in heaven.”

Two other things to say briefly about Melchizedek: first, that he gives Abram food and wine, something some Christian writers interpret as an Old Testament precursor to the Eucharist; and second, that he both blesses Abram and receives a tribute from him, one tenth of all he’d taken from the King of Elam and his allies. Briefly, a force led by King Kedorlaomer of Elam had defeated the King of Sodom and his allies, and had carried off all their flocks and herds, along with Abram’s nephew Lot. When he heard the news, Abram mustered his men and pursued the victorious kings, winning back everything they’d taken.

By receiving a blessing and offering a tithe, Abram places himself under the lordship of Melchizedek; and this happens before the Law is given, the Law of Moses. The temple priests stood firmly under the Law, which directed and dictated their every action. But the priesthood of Melchizedek can be seen as being before and above the Law. His name itself, translated as “King of Righteousness” led Jewish thinkers, even before the time of Christ, to link Melchizedek with the expected Messiah.

“So what?” you may be saying at this point. Certainly the mysteriousness of Melchizedek has led some rather odd people to make some fairly crazy claims about him. But the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews simply wants to say that Jesus our high priest is very different from the priests of the temple. This ‘priesthood of the order of Melchizedek’ is liked to the humility, perseverance and submission of the one who offers not some creature or gift brought from elsewhere, but his own self: he is perfect priest and perfect sacrifice.

So true kingship, and true priestliness, is revealed in service, and in the man Jesus who is set free to live not outside the rules but above them. This man offers his own self that we might live, and as he does this he redefines both kingliness and priestliness.

But his disciples were slow to realise this of him. In our Gospel reading they’re still thinking about earthly thrones and temples, with James and John in particular asking, as a special favour, if they could have the best seats. I’m sure they felt they’d every chance of the top jobs, once Jesus came into the glory they expected of him. James and John, with Peter, were a sort of inner circle among the disciples, and Jesus shared things with them he didn’t share with the others. But they’ve a lot to learn still about his sort of kingdom, and his sort of king; and maybe everything still to learn about Jesus the priest. Jesus is different from other kings, different from other priests.

And Jesus is himself the message he preaches. And so he says to James and John and the others, “Look at me, and learn from me what it means to be a king: the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” He challenges them to be ready to give, ready to serve, and so to discover what true greatness means.

Like them, we’re disciples of the man who walks a different path, the man who turns the wisdom of the world upside down. The king who is servant and slave; the priest who offers himself as sacrifice. He presents a challenge to James and John: “Can you drink the cup that I drink? Can you be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” And he presents us with the same challenge.

The Church is a very human organisation; we’ve books to balance and rules to govern us, we’ve hierarchies and pay scales and all sorts of other stuff that means we can look much the same as any other organisation. But our Lord is of the order of Melchizedek - he doesn’t copy the way of kings or governors like Herod or Pontius Pilate, or the way of high priests like Annas and Caiaphas. He is his own man, and God’s, and his is the way of total abandonment of self. He is love incarnate - love made flesh among us - and love is never bound by the rules. He’s called and chosen each of us - to be his, and like him to be great in service. “Let the greatest among you become like one who serves.”

So while churches have to have order and organisation, and rules and canons, and some kind of system of leadership - while therefore churches must in some ways to mirror the world, and seem to operate in the same way, in fact the way we do and decide things must be always challenged by the Lord we follow and serve. We must never let the rules take over; we must never let systems become more important than people; we must never let our buildings, beautiful and special though they be, be the reason why we’re here when what we need them to be is servants of our worship and witness and mission.

Jesus is “a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek.” For me the most important thing about what the writer of Hebrews tells us is that our Lord never conforms to the status quo; and nor should we, not if we truly believe that this king of righteousness, this one true high priest, is our Saviour and our Lord, and the example and director of our lives.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

A sermon for tomorrow, which is St Luke's Day

Today is the feast day of St Luke. Luke at once interests me, inspires me and challenges me. He wrote what is I think my favourite Gospel and I love his poetic touch; he’s a prime source for my faith in Jesus Christ. Luke’s Gospel lays great stress on the prayerfulness of Jesus, the social care and concern of Jesus, and the work of the Holy Spirit. And Luke is also, of course, the author of the Acts of the Apostles; Acts and his Gospel really belong together as one, even though in our Bibles we bind St John’s Gospel between them.

Both Luke’s books are well written and finely structured. Luke was an educated man: he might have been a non-Jew who’d accepted the Gospel message in the very early days of the Church, or a Jew from the Greek diaspora or dispersion, in other words one of those who lived away from the Holy Land and had been immersed in Greek culture and learning. Luke presents his Gospel as a journey, from Bethlehem to Nazareth and on to Jerusalem; and in Acts he continues that journey from Jerusalem to Rome.

And he made some of that journey himself; most of the Acts of the Apostles is written in the third person about things happening to, or done by, other people; but there comes a point, in Troas I think, at which Luke ceases to write ‘they’ and begins instead to write ‘we’. These verses are first-hand experience, Luke was there. As we heard Paul write to Timothy in our first reading, Luke was Paul’s constant and faithful companion through much of his mission.

Mary the mother of Jesus has a higher profile in Luke’s writing than anywhere else. Her song, the Magnificat, is found in Luke’s Gospel, as is the Benedictus (Zechariah’s song) and the Nunc Dimmitis (words from Simeon in the Temple). Luke is a very poetic writer; he also explicitly tells us that Mary was present when the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples of Jesus at the first Christian Pentecost.
It’s perhaps because Mary has the place she has in his Gospel that Luke was popularly believed to painted Mary’s portrait. The idea that Luke was an artist has no historical foundation, but the belief, that Luke was a physician, a doctor of medicine, is much more credible, so he’s become a patron saint for doctors and all who work in the healing professions. His feast day today is often used as an opportunity to celebrate and pray for their work.

And also to reflect on the healing ministry of the Church. The Church has always had a strong presence within the world of medicine, of course. Many of our great hospitals had a Christian foundation, as does the modern hospice movement. Although in many places their jobs are under financial pressure, chaplains are still seen as important within hospitals, and chapels are well-used. When I worked for a mission agency, a very substantial part of our fund-raising and expenditure had a medical theme; and I found it very moving a few years ago to be able to visit one of the hospitals, Milo in Tanzania, that I’d been supporting and reading about for many years.

But here is also where I’m challenged: to take seriously the healing ministry of the Church, not as a sort of optional bolt-on to what else we do, or as a fund-raising exercise to support those bits of our health service that are not fully funded by statutory means, but as something that is or should be an essential part of our mission. The New Testament record as a whole would seem to suggest that if the Church isn’t doing healing, the Church isn’t really doing mission.

When Jesus sent his disciples out to prepare the way, as we heard in this morning’s Gospel reading, his instructions to them included, “Heal the sick.” When Jesus himself preached to the crowds, there were always miracles of healing. And when, in the Acts of the Apostles, the Gospel is taken out into the world, message and healing are intertwined.

This challenges me partly because I do believe the Church at every level should be taking the call to heal more seriously than it often seems to; but also because a lot of the healing ministry I come across causes me some disquiet. I confess I find myself pulled in two directions.

I’ve attended some events where healing ministry has been conducted in what seemed to me to be an exercise in whipping up hysteria. And that felt a million miles away from how I see Jesus operating in the Gospels. There’s a type of faith healing ministry that seems to require a high profile and high emotion environment before healing can happen; and to me that seems a world away from healing as the essential life blood of the Church in mission, which is what I believe.

We have to be in the healing business, because God is in the healing business; God desires wholeness and not brokenness, so his Church must be a place where broken people are healed and restored and made whole. We shouldn’t be afraid to offer healing when we invite people in; we shouldn’t be afraid to campaign for healing when we go out into the world; and we shouldn’t be afraid to believe that healing might be true and possible within ourselves. Our living and our praying should reflect this and express it.

But our understanding of what healing is may be too narrow, while God’s response to our praying may not be what we expect or require of him. My father attended healing services in his local church when he was terminally ill; at one I was among the ministers who laid hands on him. It didn’t work; he still got more ill and died. Or maybe it did work; my father was very much reconciled in spirit by the time of his death, and it was a good death, and many of our memories of that sad time are, perhaps surprisingly, good ones. It wasn’t the answer we wanted, but I think my father did receive a healing touch. Healing isn’t only physical healing, and we all remain mortal, and will experience physical death.

If healing isn’t only physical healing, nor is it only personal healing. There’s the healing of families, of conflict situations, of relationships, perhaps also the healing of histories and memories that are the cause of separation and suspicion. The healing of communities and societies, the bridging of gaps, the need to learn or rediscover what it means to belong together - I am sure that all of this too is part of the healing ministry we’re called to as Church.

Personal physical healing is certainly part of what we should be doing, but only part. Through most of my ministry I’ve arranged and led healing services, seminars, prayer groups and other activities. But we need to be engaged with the need for healing on every front, and with a real breadth of vision. Too much of the world’s religion, and certainly too much of the religion that shouts loudest and makes the biggest headlines, maims rather than heals (maiming spiritually, ethically, mentally, societally as well as physically), excludes rather than includes, bullies rather than invites, frightens rather than consoles. Many people, when they see that sort of religion in action, say, “If that’s what religion does, I want none of it!” But nor do I; such religion, though powerful and, sadly, often persuasive, is false, and it denies the God whose healing touch we see in Jesus, especially in the Gospel picture of Jesus painted for us by Luke.

True religion is about healing, because God is about healing; for me the challenge of Luke is this: that it’s only when we’re passionately involved ourselves in working to make ourselves, our families, our friends, our communities, our nations, our world better that we can really even begin to preach the Gospel. But there’s also a promise in Luke: when we’re sure ourselves that the love of God can change things, that it can heal, restore, set right and enliven our world, then the way is open for marvels and miracles to happen among us.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Yew Trees

My nature notes piece for the month . . .

I happened to be in the churchyard at Castle Caereinion not long ago, and was mystified by a sharp tapping noise coming from a large yew tree near the south-east gate. I walked quietly up to the tree; several birds flew off as I approached, but the tapping continued. I had thought woodpecker at first, but this tapping, though very definite and distinct, was I think not loud enough; this was a smaller bird.

In fact, the number of birds in this large and spreading and quite ancient tree was huge, as many as I’ve ever seen in a tree this size. On top were a dozen jackdaws, part of a flock that had flown in and settled in various places round about. A pair of collared doves appeared, invisible until they flew off. The village house sparrows were coming and going, with lots of blue tits, great tits and miscellaneous finches.

The yew is probably the most long-lived of our native trees. Unusually for a conifer, its seeds are borne not in cones but in red berries (or, more precisely, in fleshy berry-like structures called arils). These berries are popular with birds like thrushes and blackbirds. The seeds are excreted, an effective dispersal mechanism much needed as yew seeds will not germinate well, if at all, beneath the parent tree.

Yew berries are also taken by squirrels and dormice, and the fleshy part (the aril) is quite good eating. The seed itself, however, or more precisely its coating, contains toxic alkaloids, as do the leaves, which growers may harvest and sell as the taxane alkaloid is the active ingredient of an effective cancer drug. Not all yew trees have berries - yews are dioecious, bearing male and female flowers on separate trees.

One possible source of the tapping I heard could have been a nuthatch, particularly since I spotted at least one among the birds flying from the tree. Nuthatches do take yew berries; more to the point, they often place nuts and seeds in crevices in order to hammer them open with their sharp beaks, and the trunk and branches of an old yew will supply many such cracks and openings. The soft bark also attracts tree creepers, who probe for insects as they creep, mouselike, up and around the trunk and branches.  The yew’s thick canopy is good shelter, which helps explain the sheer number of birds there were in the one in Castle churchyard that day. Yews are noted as giving shelter and nest sites for our two smallest birds, the goldcrest and firecrest.

No-one seems very sure why yew trees are planted in churchyards, but being very long-lived they have been seen as symbols of immortality. They may also have been planted over the graves of plague victims to purify the soil.  But there are many church-yards that contain yews older than the church, and this is a tree that was regarded as sacred before Christianity reached our shores.

Part of the yew canopy, and the roof of Mike Rogers' shop

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Sunday Sermon

These are my words for this Sunday, based on Mark 10.17-31 :-

One way to catch a thieving monkey, so they say, is to put a tempting tit-bit like a bit of fruit inside a narrow-necked jar that’s just wide enough for the monkey to get his hand inside.  You need to firmly secure the jar itself, maybe tie it to a tree.  And what happens is the monkey puts his hand inside the jar to grab the goodies inside, but of course he can’t get his hand out unless he lets go of it. And he won’t let go, so you can sneak up on him and catch him, caught by his own greed.

Jesus said to his disciples, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."  Like the monkey, we find it very hard to let go of the goodies; we become trapped by our possessions. Things we possess begin instead to possess us, and things we think of as helping us control our own lives start instead to bring us under their control.

And yet what Jesus said would have seemed quite shocking to his disciples. It ran counter to what they'd probably heard before. Many Jews would have reckoned a man who was well off and doing all right to be finding favour with God; his wealth and success were proof that they way he lived must be pleasing to God. That, I think, is why the disciples said in amazement, 'Then who can be saved?'

Though there were some religious teachers among the Jews who encouraged their followers to renounce worldly wealth. John the Baptist for example, or the community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Essenes, who lived an austere monastic life in caves. Through the years of Christian history there’ve been teachers and preachers who’ve encouraged poverty, such as Francis of Assisi, whose feast day was a week or so ago. He recalled how Jesus had sent out his own disciples, telling them to take no possessions, no food, nothing for the road, and he set himself to do the same.

Francis of Assisi had in fact been born into serious wealth. He’d have expected to inherit all his father’s possessions, and his father was been a very wealthy merchant. But Francis took a dramatically different course in life. He took very seriously the words Jesus spoke to the rich young man about selling possessions, and giving to the poor; he threw away his affluent possessions, even the clothes he stood up in, and set himself to serve, as he said ‘Sister Poverty’, taking the open road to be a little brother to anyone in need. We call followers of Francis ‘Friars Minor’, which just means ‘Little Brothers’. In old age Francis received the stigmata, the marks of crucifixion in his hands and feet, as a tangible symbol of his deep devotion to his Lord. And yet he knew that none of it was ever enough; he was still a sinner in need of grace; in his poverty still at risk of being distracted by lesser loves from the one great love, the love of Christ.

If someone as saintly as Francis knew himself to be fatally flawed, what chance is there for the rest of us? Well, that was the point of what Jesus said to his disciples that day.  The rich young man who’d come to him still thought he had to earn his own way into heaven. So Jesus told it to him straight - the only way to do that is to remove from your life anything that can possibly distract from complete and wholehearted service of God, to give away all the stuff that gets in the way.

One of the lessons I’ve had to learn as a minister is how to cope with the burden and pressure of failure. At the end of every week there’s still a load of stuff not finished, some of it not even started, lots of stuff I wanted to do, needed to do, but never quite found the energy or the time. There’s a temptation just to give up, and there’s a temptation to work myself into the ground. I need to know how to deal with that, and where to look for resourcing and support.

I know I’m not the only person to have an impossible job. I’ve known plenty of teachers and head-teachers at risk of going under. Farmers, too; even when you’re absolutely on top of all the routine tasks that have to be done, there’s probably some repair you never quite get round to, or some new development that never quite gets off the ground. And in fact just being a Christian discipleship is also impossible I find, if I’m taking discipleship as seriously as I should. I’m supposed to be Christ-like - so how am I really matching up?

Jesus said, “For mortals it is impossible, but all things are possible for God.”  What makes the impossible possible is the thing Christians call grace, which is the forgiving, saving, healing and undeserved love of God.  That’s the message Jesus wanted to get across to his disciples, and indeed to that rich young man. We don’t have to worry, or to be weighed down by a sense of our own failure. “All things are possible for God.”  God in his love meets our weakness and makes it strong; he accepts our faltering attempts at service and makes out of them a worthy offering.

God forgives us when we fail, but he loves the fact that we try. For me it’s like when I try to speak the language when I’m on holiday abroad. I don't speak any other languages, but I’ll have a go at using the bits I can of French or German or Spanish; and I might make a mess of it, but people are often delighted that I’ve tried and not just stuck to English. They have respected my attempts at speaking their language and have met me in my incompleteness.

That’s what God does too, I think. When we’re doing our best to serve him he delights in that, even when we don’t always get it right. He’s glad to see us having a go. And when we do go wrong and mess up, when we turn to him and say sorry he is always gracious and forgiving. We may sometimes forget to love him, but he never stops loving us.

The rich young man was limited in his vision, and people still are today, and some of them are religious people. There’s the kind of religious zealot who is so sure of himself, so sure of his own perfection, keeping all the commandments and rituals and rules, that they can’t help but look down on the rest of us who don’t match up to that. There’s not much room for love and sharing in that sort of religion, and one of the great curses of our modern world is the sort of harsh, unloving and fundamentalist faith that divides and oppresses and does damage, when faith should surely be including and welcoming and healing.

And others who also lack vision give up on faith to put their trust in a different sort of success and status - in worldly wealth and power and status, maybe also in technology and science. Conspicuous over-consumption is another curse of our modern world, as the divide grows ever wider between rich and poor.  Those who put their faith in worldly goods are as trapped and tied to the earth as that monkey who wouldn't let go of the titbit in the bottle, and with just such fatal results.

To all whose vision is limited we preach the God who loves failures, the God who loves us when we try even though we often fall short. Our own efforts can never win us a place in heaven, and we know it; and knowing that opens the way to a tolerant, welcoming and loving faith whose members will always want to include and encourage one another. It frees us also to take a healthy and wholesome attitude to the wealth we have. Riches and  possessions can be a danger if we get fixated on them, hanging on like that monkey with its hand in the jar. But the things we own are ours to offer to God, and to use in his service. When we do as he desires with what he gives us, it’s then that his heart is pleased.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Light Beyond Shadow

A first draft of a poem:

We sang our Taize, and the small candles around us
flickered into the mist-dark of the medieval nave.
Where we sang,  great pillars soared upwards
to disappear into arches of black velvet.  And I felt
how the uncertain light of our candles
had made the great church both smaller and larger;
our little patch of light became a room,
a simple choral cell in which to sit,
we holy few, come together to sing
only for ourselves and for our God;
while beyond our candles the dark
had become a vast and cavernous chamber,
our few lit pillars just the small beginning
of an endless colonnade; and the starless roof above us
had been raised as high as any stars could fly.

We are afraid in the dark, and
perhaps we are afraid of the dark, for
only our small pool of light is safe and known,
this little space that we call life,
in which the old shapeless primeval dark
is pushed back a little way, and for a little while,
for a moment in time before the great tide of darkness
rolls back in. Our little light is itself defined
by shadow, threatened by shadow too.
But I shall continue to believe
and to sing of the light without shadow,
light beyond shadow, love beyond fear,
light that is there in those dark places, and
has already conquered them. And if
as yet we do not see it, the fault is
in our own sight, not in the light.

Sometimes, perhaps, our singing may touch it,
or open the way for that light to touch us,
to flame in our hearts. And this I believed
that night:  the one and true light
is unquenchable and is all-conquering,
and in him there can be no darkness at all.

Monday, 5 October 2015


After a few very busy days, this is a very tired me writing this!  But it's a good sort of tiredness, I've been doing things I enjoy with people I enjoy being with. Harvest services, singing events, and some more sombre tasks . . . and a good portion of the autumn garden clear-up.  Tomorrow I head for London and a day out with my son, which will be great I know, despite the forecast rain. Tonight I shall sleep well, and feel happy to have done well these last few days.

Amongst everything else, I have put together a collection of one hundred poems, which will be published as soon as I've got it all set up. Time to write some new ones, too, perhaps? But not tonight, I'm far too tired!

Saturday, 3 October 2015


I've bought quite a few books of poetry over recent weeks, from good and sometimes challenging writers. Overall the standard has been high; I hope what I write can match up to that. Often getting the first two or three words down is the most important thing. I may not know at that point what I want to say, but once you force yourself to start, something flows. Some of my poems are almost the finished article when first written - stream of consciousness stuff, I suppose; others will take years of work before I'm happy. None of them are ever finished; there just comes a time when I have to set down my pen, or these days more usually lift my fingers from the keyboard - the discipline to leave it at that. In any case, no poem is completed until read, what I write is never just mine, I have to take the risk of sharing.

Our sunny bit of Michaelmas summer continues, but not for much longer I fear. I've stained and prepared most of our exterior woodwork (of which we have a great deal) before the rigours of winter. We have a few tomatoes left, but the plum tomatoes have all rotted on the vine for some reason. Things are winding down, and there'll be some cutting back and clearing to be done later on today. We've had a wonderful display of Japanese anemones, though - I'm pleased, because when I previously tried them they wouldn't grow for me (annoying, since two gardens away they were as rampant as weeds!).

This week my Permission to Officiate (PTO) in Hereford Diocese arrived. I've been officiating, with the Bishop's blessing, for several months, but it feels good to have the right piece of paper at last.

Thursday, 1 October 2015


Today has been a good day - sunny weather, a very interesting spirituality study day with Adrian Scott, a poet from Sheffield, whose own poems (and works by Dylan Thomas) were thought provoking and stimulating . . . plus too much chocolate brownie (but then again, can you have too much chocolate brownie).  An enjoyable drive home, then harvest festival at New Street United Church, Welshpool, with musical contributions from the marvellous Bordermen. And a pleasant interlude afterwards at the King's Head, Guilsfield.  A day for decisions, too - the right ones, I think.