Sunday, 29 November 2015


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

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

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

What I Actually Wrote

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 23 November 2015

What I Actually Preached . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 21 November 2015

A Sermon for Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 20 November 2015

Short Days, Early Nights

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Based on words from Isaiah chapter 43

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

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Winter Birdsong

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 14 November 2015

A Sermon for Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 13 November 2015

More Rubbish

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

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

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

Sunday, 8 November 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 5 November 2015

A Sermon for 3rd Sunday before Advent

Today is the Third Sunday before Advent, in the Christian year. I downloaded the set readings from the Revised Common Lectionary used by churches all round the world, only to find that for some reason the Church of England has decided to go its own way today, with a Gospel reading from the beginning of Mark's Gospel, the story of how Jesus called the first of his disciples.

Of course today is also Remembrance Sunday, and the collect prayer I used at the beginning of our service reminds us of that, and of our desire and longing for a peaceful world - for a peace that surely will only come when all submit to the rule of God. A peace that will only come when all become disciples, when all say “yes” to God’s call.

Jesus said to the fishermen Andrew, Peter, James and John that he would make them “fishers of men”. Christianity is an evangelistic faith; we are called not only to have a faith that we practise, but to share that faith with others. I’m not sure that this means we have to turn people into identikits of ourselves, in fact I’m sure it doesn’t mean that; but that the way we live and speak and witness to our faith should bring others to know God, and to know him as the source of love and peace and justice and righteousness.

Two marks of that witness should surely be comradeship and sacrifice, so that connects discipleship into the great themes of Remembrance Sunday, when memories, perhaps fading memories of comradeship on the field of battle are linked in with our necessary and I hope heartfelt remembrance of the sacrifices made in war, whereby our freedom and nationhood have been preserved.

I have a number of friends who don’t believe, some of whom would call themselves atheists; a couple of them are quite active campaigning atheists. You might describe them as evangelistic in the opposite direction to my evangelism and that of Andrew and Peter and James and John. And they get quite angry when they tell me that Christianity has had two thousand years to persuade the world of its truth, and it’s spent much of that time stirring up trouble and fomenting wars. If that’s what believing in God does, they say, then maybe it’s time to see what not believing in him might achieve.

I try not to say too much about Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung and a number of other atheist leaders who seem to have caused a fair bit of war and done a fair bit of damage in their time; not to mention Adolf Hitler, with his own crazy dreams of Arian supremacy. Religion is not the problem (no, not even Islam). To be fair, atheism is not the problem, either, per se. The problem is extremism; whatever sort of extremism it may be, religious, political, philosophical, racial, the mindset that says I am right (indeed, I am in possession of all the truth) and therefore you are wrong, is poisonous, dangerous and damaging. It’s such a short step from “I am right, and therefore you are wrong” to “I am human, and you are something less than human.” Hence Hitler’s final solution, copied since then by Pol Pot in Cambodia, by the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda and Burundi, and in so many other places where the reality of bloodshed has been concealed under the careful phrase “ethnic cleansing”.

The sad thing about extremism is that it’s also seductive. Kids of an Arab or Asian background from caring suburban homes are attracted by extremist Islam and seduced into terrorist acts at home or else travel to join Isis in Iraq or Syria or the Taliban in Pakistan or Afghanistan. A generation earlier kids from caring suburban homes were attracted by extremist Marxism or Maoism to join the Red Brigades or some similar group. It’s always happened, I guess; though maybe today the  social media speed things up.

I spent some very uncomfortable time last week trying to be an honest broker, the only person two sets of people who wouldn’t speak to each other were prepared to speak to. I’d love to tell you that I sorted everything out and that all is love and peace. It isn’t, I didn’t, I’m not sure yet even how to begin. The same incident as described by each side . . . well, they’re so far apart you wouldn’t imagine they were talking about the same event at all. How do you mediate when each side is determined to put the very worst possible construct on what the other side has done or said? How do you mediate when person A says, “I wouldn’t even breathe the same air as person B”? Extremism is that racked up large scale. No-one is really listening any more; it’s all disinformation; it’s all propaganda. But I haven’t given up, and I won’t.

Jesus called Andrew and Peter and James and John to be disciples. Later on, he also named them apostles. Apostle means someone sent with a message; disciple means someone who learns. We, like they, need to be both. I once shared in the wedding of two people who’d been living together for many years. The wedding itself was taken by Michael Hooper, who at that time was I think still Archdeacon of Hereford. He admitted that years before his word to two people living together outside marriage would have been to tell them they were wrong: simple, unequivocal and, dare I say it, a bit extremist. But he’d learned, he told us, and grown; now he would want simply to hear their story, and rejoice with them at all that they had that was good, before then perhaps saying to them, “But there is more you could do, there’s more you could have.”

That applies across the board. We are disciples, and we don’t stop being disciples. The ones Jesus first called went on learning all the way through the Gospels, and they still had lots to learn after that - read Peter’s story as told in the Acts of the Apostles.

And we’re apostles, we do have a message to give, a word to share - but two things to say about doing that right: the first is that we’re true to our Lord only when our actions and our words match up (read the Epistle of James to see what that might mean); the second is that Gospel speaking begins with listening and learning. We share our faith far better when we discern and praise what is already good, than when we leap in to condemn what is wrong. When I worked for a mission society I was always told that those with whom we share and speak the faith are all of equal worth to ourselves; we’ve no right or call to speak down to them.

And yes, like me last week, we’ll often feel uncomfortable, maybe vulnerable, if we’re taking this discipleship and apostleship thing seriously. We might well be in the middle when it could feel safer to be on one side or the other. But here’s where I stand. I believe that in Jesus I have found the truth, or I might better say, I have been found by the truth. But I don’t believe that makes those who don’t believe what I believe, or think how I think, wrong. I have things to tell them, but I may also have things to learn and to receive.

Everyone I ever see, whatever they believe or don’t believe, is already loved by God; that’s what I believe about them, and it’s what I believe about God. That doesn’t mean I’ll only say nice things to them. Last week, if it taught me anything, has taught me that sometimes you do have to knock heads together, though of course, brother, I am doing this in love. But disciples and apostles have to learn to be peacemakers and bridge builders. That’s what God wants from us; that’s what God wants for his world. Religion that divides and oppresses is not true religion; and the same can be said of politics and philosophies. The simple prayer I know I need to pray more often than I do (and boy, did I need it last week) is this - let there be peace on earth, Lord, and let it begin with me. Amen.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015


Just wanted to place on record that I really like spiders. They do look a bit strange, having as many eyes as they do, and it is a bit annoying when one decides to take up residence in your shower cubicle or right above your bed - and, to be honest, I'd probably not react terribly well to something really large and hairy appearing out of a bunch of bananas - but on the whole I'm happy that they share my world with me. Of course, most of them do a fair bit of good: more spiders equals fewer flies, simple equation. And aren't spider webs just wonderful, especially on a dew-soaked autumn morning. I'm always a bit sad in autumn, because there are just so many spiders around, the world is full of them, my garden festooned with webs - and then, come the first frosts, most of them are gone. That's true for many different small creatures, of course, but I feel for spiders more than most things, because they seem to me to have a certain intelligence, and they make such beautiful things (or the ones that spin webs do, anyway).

Monday, 2 November 2015

More Rubbish

In a busy day today, I managed to make a little space to go collecting rubbish round our streets. It's only a few days since I did more or less the same route, and I was amazed how much rubbish had been thrown down in that time - I quickly had filled a bag. Those of us who volunteer as litter champions are kitted out with bags, pickers and hi-vis vests, and this last was particularly important today as it remained murky and misty throughout. Lots of people walk straight past without a word when I'm out there, but I had a few hellos today, and one quite lengthy conversation with a lady who herself tries to keep her bit of street tidy, and the area outside the school where her daughter teaches. I have met quite a few people who do a bit of litter picking without actually signing up in the way I have, and I'm glad of their concern and of all they do.

I'd like to meet one or two of my regular litter-droppers, as well. Much litter is dropped thoughtlessly by people who aren't thinking what they're doing, or else don't care. Some if clearly dropped by people on their way home after a night on the town; maybe they'd be more careful and caring when sober, but after they've had a few (and adding in a bit of peer group pressure) they become litter bugs. Smokers drop their fag-ends everywhere, and all too many of them also drop cigarette packet wrappers, the packets themselves, the little plastic tubes you get filter tips in when you roll your own, and even disposable lighters.

But my regulars: I'd love to meet the person who so carefully folds his crisp packet into a small triangle, then just throws it down. How can someone be so neat and careful (these really are nicely folded and tucked in) and then just throw it - often only a short distance from a bin? I think I'd also like to meet his psychiatrist. Then there's the person who routinely places his drinks can into the same piece of hedge; I've learned to always look there now. And finally the person who presumably comes to walk his dog on the recreation ground near the Flash - or at least, I guess the dog walks or runs, while he just stands there watching, and consuming cough sweets, leaving the wrappers on the ground. There is a bin right where he stands! Sometimes I do wonder why I bother, but I love my town, and I want to see it looking its best, and I hate it to be a mess. So I'll keep on collecting.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Strictly All Saints

A sermon preached today at Leighton, Chirbury and Trelystan . . .

I don’t watch much telly. I never watch the soaps; sorry, soap fans, but I can’t stand them. Sport? Well, it’s mostly on Sky these days and I don’t have the Sky sports channels. Most of my TV viewing tends to be the more serious stuff, arts programmes, investigative reporting, wildlife documentaries; you know, the sort of thing you can admit to watching when you meet someone smart in the library. I’m not at all attracted by shows like X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent; even Gareth Malone doing his choral things I only sort of dip into now and then. But two shows definitely among my TV guilty pleasures are Bake Off and Strictly Come Dancing. If I miss them I’ll watch on i-player, and there’s not much on I’ll do that for.

Why bring that up on All Saints’ Day? The other day I was trying to work out what hooked me, a mostly non baker and definite non dancer, to Strictly and Bake Off. And what I came up with does connect with what I believe about the saints and about All Saints’ Day. And it’s this: although these two shows are competitive shows, and I am quite sure all the contenders are taking that seriously and really do want to win - in both shows the competitors are also hugely supportive of each other, and it’s that more than anything else that makes them - for me, anyway - such compulsive watching.

On Bake Off I love to see the bakers encourage each other and egg each other on, and maybe lend a hand or an ingredient now and again. When there’s even the hint of something darker (remember the freezer incident in last year’s Bake off?), it’s pretty much a national seismic shock, headlines in the papers. On Strictly what I love most is when I see the dancers, celebs and pros, run up the steps to join the other contestants after they’ve finished their dance (and probably been mauled by Craig Revel-Hall); I love the way they’re always applauded and cheered in what comes across as a very genuine camaraderie.

And I feel I can best understand and envision the “Communion of Saints” in that light. St Paul wrote that being a Christian is like being an athlete. You train hard for the race, and you run the best you can, you run to win. But the race of life isn’t about competing with each other, it’s about each of us doing the best we can. Jesus told his disciples they’d no right to sit in judgement on one another; we can only judge ourselves, not anyone else, and we judge ourselves against the example of Christ.

So, to switch the metaphor back to Strictly, we dance the best we can, and when we do make it up to the celestial steps, we’ll find a saintly bunch of fellow pilgrims there who’ve been cheering us on while we were out there and now they’re welcoming us home. As fellow pilgrims we travel alongside one another, always I hope in a spirit of mutual encouragement. But today we celebrate those who’ve finished their journey, and scripture and Christian tradition encourage me to believe they too cheer us on as we journey, or indeed as we dance, and they’ll be there to welcome us when the music stops.

When the music stops. The readings set for All Saints’ Day this year, Year B in our three year programme of readings, seem to me to dwell more on “when the music stops” than on the active ministry of today’s saintly pilgrims, today’s saintly competitors in the game of life. To be honest, I did wonder whether I’d downloaded tomorrow’s readings for All Souls’ Day instead. But I checked and they’re right: John in Revelation writes of a new heaven and a new earth in which death is no more; then John in his Gospel tells the story of the raising of Lazarus, Jesus’ friend and the brother of Mary and Martha. They’re not the readings I’d have chosen, but I can find an important All Saints’ Day message in them: in the communion of saints we on our journey now and they who’ve finished theirs are linked together in the life that only Christ can give.

And that’s why we can confidently expect that joyful welcome when it’s our dance that’s over, and it’s our turn to ascend those steps. And that’s why we can confidently believe that those we honour as saints (and untold numbers more whose names we no longer recall) are rooting for us now, as we do our best with our turn on the dance floor.

Actually, “Strictly” isn’t the best of images for me to have chosen. Some of you may be able and graceful dancers; I might as well be wearing wellies, for all the grace I ever had! At school we learned how to waltz. I can sort of do that, as long as I’m waltzing in a straight line; I never did get the hang of turning. At our school dance we used to waltz to every tune. The band played a foxtrot; we waltzed. The band played a quickstep; we waltzed. That took some doing, really.

But here’s the thing about sainthood. It’s not about how adept we are, how skilful or brilliant; it’s never about that. It’s about us offering what we can and what we are to God, and then it’s about what he does with it. That’s why (getting back to St Paul’s image of people in a race) the prize is awarded not only to the one who’s first across the line or who posts the fastest time, the prize is there for each one of those who try their best and persevere, who keep going and don’t give up.

So here’s why we honour people as saints. We don’t honour them as different and superior human beings, they’re not super-heroes like the ones in the Marvel comics. We honour them because they’re like us. That’s why their stories make sense; that’s why it’s good they’re cheering us on, good they’re there to welcome us at the top of the steps. To leave you with one last image of what saints are, and it’s my favourite one, the most important thing about saints is they’re like the stained glass windows we often find them in; glass is just ordinary stuff, but when the light of Christ shines through, something special happens. And we can do that, too.