Monday, 28 December 2015

Painting by Numbers

All those years just
painting by numbers:
all those years spent
filling in all the right colours and
making sure no space is left empty,
taking care you never go over the lines.

From a distance
it all looked OK.
Get closer though,
and there was no sparkle,
no lightness, brightness of touch,
no spirit.

So why not for once in your life
ignore what the numbers in the boxes
tell you to do?
Draw a moustache on the lady’s face,
paint the sky pink if you like.
Let the sun shine in, and
make your bit of the world
a little crazy. Have fun.  Why not
dare just to be happy?

And even though
they won’t like it,
just do it,
for heaven’s sake,
just do it.

After all,
what do they know anyway?
All they are is

Saturday, 26 December 2015

A Sermon for St John's Day

To be preached at Chirbury tomorrow . . .

Over the past few days, I’ve read the wonderful opening words of chapter 1 of St John's Gospel at about six Christmas services, four in this group of parishes, two elsewhere. And I’ve heard them read at one or two others. I like to read aloud from scripture, it’s something I tend do that even when I say morning or evening prayer on my own; and together with some of the Psalms and 1 Corinthians 13, the opening verses of St John's Gospel are among my favourites.  I use modern translations of scripture most of the time, but not when I read from John chapter 1. In my view the modern translations don’t have the poetic majesty of the more traditional versions.

I don’t get to read that passage today, sadly; but we have heard the beginning of John's First Letter, which takes the same theme: the Word of God, by which the universe was created, has come to be with us in human form, and in this event the light of God's love is kindled among us. John wrote this letter towards the end of his long life, and you can think of Jesus “the Word of God made flesh” as John’s Great Idea. But it's an idea based in personal encounter. John writes as a witness, a man who walked with Jesus, heard him speak and shared with him moments of great spiritual intensity; a man who was also there to see him die.

John's Gospel differs a lot from the other three: it's an eye-witness account, but it’s also deeper, more complex, more reflective. It’s not as easy a read as Mark or Luke. John’s words stress the divinity of Jesus, but not at the expense of the humanity of Jesus. That’s a difficult balance. In Jesus the divine Word of God is present here among us, and John shows Jesus as aware of his divine nature in a way we don’t find so clearly stated in the other Gospels: but the Word is made flesh in Jesus the man, and this man is also presented by John as completely and fully like us. Now as it happens John wrote at a time when a dangerous heresy had arisen that John and others must have feared could distort the faith they preached, and do damage to the young Christian Church.

There were people around called Gnostics. The word Gnostic comes from the Greek word for knowledge (gnosis), a word used here to mean arcane and secret knowledge. The Gnostics believed and taught that the most important thing in faith was to acquire ever deeper levels of secret knowledge. As you learned more of these secrets, you moved up in the hierarchy of faith, and you gained spiritual power. John was anxious to counter and condemn this: this seeking after esoteric knowledge for its own sake, and as a means of attaining power, was completely opposed to the things Jesus taught, and the way Jesus lived. True faith isn’t about getting power and secret knowledge, true faith is growing to be like Jesus - and the marks of true faith are seen in acts of compassion, healing and renewal, in those things that are the fruit of love.

So that's why John wrote the things he wrote nearly two thousand years ago. As we read his words now, how different is the world around us, I wonder? It seems to me that people still have spiritual questions and spiritual hunger. I see this in all kinds of people, and in both old and young: people with an interest in spiritual things, people asking spiritual questions about the meaning of life. But one thing I also see is that not many of them are looking to the Christian faith for answers or directions.

So when I was in a big bookshop in Shrewsbury the other day looking for Christmas presents, and I found myself looking at a section labelled “Spirituality”, I wasn’t entirely surprised that hardly anything there was Christian in origin. Some did seem to come from other religious traditions, but most were more broadly ‘new age’. The common factor, so far as I could see, was that they were all self-help manuals, by which I mean their subject matter was mostly about how to take control of your own life and self. They seemed on the whole to be self-centred and morally neutral. There was very little about using spirituality in ways that might benefit others. We live in an increasingly pick and mix society, and spirituality has become just one more pick and mix commodity.

As I looked along the shelves, I found I could choose from Celtic savants or from Indian maharishis, from pagan mythology or native American insights. And I’m not sure that’s all that different from the world in which John was writing. There was an element of pick-and mix about the spirituality of that time too: many different philosophies to follow, and temples at which to worship.

So John writes to proclaim the true faith in the face of a multiplicity of traditions and ideas and cults in the world around him. I find the boldness of his writing attractive, inspiring and instructive. Of course he found the truth he teaches not in a set of ideas but in a man, the man he knew and followed, Jesus of Nazareth. As I read I'm reminded how weak and listless I can be when it comes to expressing or sharing my faith. Shouldn’t I dare to speak out more boldly? How sincerely do I believe that Jesus is truth not only for my own life but for the world? Here is a truth to set me free from fear, to set me free to love and serve, so why am I holding back on that?

John’s own letter begins, as we heard this morning, with a setting out of his credentials. He tells us why he has a right to be heard, that he writes as a witness, he was there. Then comes that great theme of light and darkness, and the Word become flesh in Christ who is the creative Word of God. In Genesis chapter 1 God speaks and things are made, and the very first thing made is light, and then the light is separated from the darkness. And John goes on to write that God is light, and that in God there is no darkness.

Those who know God then should be people of light; we choose the light and turn away from the darkness. For John darkness stands for ignorance, chaos, immorality, apathy and a lack of love. Darkness stands for a life that is Christless, life that fails to recognise in Christ the example he sets for us, the challenge he lays before us, and the call he gives us.

So for me as I stand on the edge of another new year, there’s a challenge in what John says. If I claim to share God's life when in fact I really prefer the darkness, then I’m living a lie. John found many examples in the world around him of people claiming to be spiritually mature, who were in fact completely self-absorbed, self-centred. There was no Christ in their lives. Is that me?

We need to test ourselves. Spiritual growth rooted in Christ will find its proof in acts of love and care, of compassion and healing that reflect the human example he sets us. This is how we prove that we’ve taken him to heart. A true disciple is one who lives what he says he believes. John the evangelist shows us the man who is much more than just a teacher, much more than a purveyor of knowledge. For Jesus is himself the message he preaches: in all he does and says he is light for the world. In him we see the Word made flesh among us, the light of creation kindled afresh in a human life that says, “Come, follow, take me to heart, imitate my love.”

May that Word be alive in his Church as we look to the year ahead with its opportunities and its uncertainties. May that Word be alive in us as we take seriously our Lord’s call to mission, to a mission expressed in service and sacrifice. In this way may we share light within his family and transmit it to the world, a light that shines in acts of compassion and love.

Friday, 25 December 2015

A Sermon for Christmas Morning

Preached at Chirbury this morning . . .

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head. For most of us our image of the Christmas story gets formed as much by the carols we sing as by the Gospel story told by Matthew and Luke. Traditionally carols were sung around the village on Christmas Eve in times past; and they added detail to the bible nativity stories, and relocated them into the frosty landscape of a British winter.

Those extra details in the carols were imagined of course - we can’t know what it was really like - but with nativity plays and Christmas cribs what they do is to help us to become part of the story of the birth of Jesus, so we feel we’re there with the shepherds and kings, not just hearing about an event from ancient history.

The very first Christmas crib is said to have been created by Francis of Assisi. As he grew older Francis retired to the mountain hermitage of Grecchio, in Italy, and there he spent a lot of time alone in prayer, reflecting on scenes from the life of Jesus, imagining what it would be like to be there. As the Christmas of 1223 approached he decided to share some of his imagining with the country people round about; he wanted them to see for themselves  the birth of their Lord.

On his instructions a stable was prepared, with a manger full of hay, and with an ox and an ass standing by. One difference from the cribs we now have was that it was full size, with real people and animals. Another was that in the middle of it all there was an altar table, and the Christmas holy communion was celebrated right in the place where the Christmas story was set.  Francis himself assisted at the service, and he read the Gospel with such devotion, we’re told, that many of those who came were moved to tears.

That was the first Christmas crib, and cribs remain an important part of our keeping of Christmas. A few years ago I went to see an exhibition of cribs that had been gathered together from far and wide. They were fascinating, not least because these cribs, all telling the same story, were in fact very different from each other.  They were all quite traditional in terms of what they contained, with the ox and ass standing by, for example. That ox and ass are now firmly part of the Christmas story as we imagine it, even though they date back to the imagination of St Francis, rather than the bible stories themselves. Some of the cribs contained a camel as well, though camels aren't even hinted at in the bible. All of them had shepherds, and many of them contained a shepherd boy giving a lamb, though that again is imagined rather than biblical; a few cribs had the other traditional image of the shepherd boy - not giving a lamb but playing a tune for the baby on his flute.

Along with those traditional touches, were features of the various cribs that had more to do with the places they came from than the story they told.  One crib was closely based on a traditional Shropshire barn, for example, while the door of another was a scale model of the door of the church in which it was usually displayed.  A third crib had been carefully shaped to fit within the ancient altar table of its church.

And then there was quite a lot of variety in the crib figures. Some were finely detailed and in biblical costume, but others wore medieval clothes, like you might see in a painting of the nativity by Rembrandt or one of the Italian masters; and others again seemed to have more contemporary styles of dress. One crib contained olive wood figures from the Holy Land, that didn't have any clearly carved features. I liked those, because they seemed to represent everyman and everywoman, which is surely appropriate.

For after all, though Jesus was born in a particular place and at a particular time in history, the meaning of this birth is not limited by history; Jesus is for here and now as well as there and then;  and he is for the whole world, brother to all the world's children wherever they are, whoever they may be. And it’s good that in our carols and our cribs we ourselves can enter the story of his birth, for as we do we discover the wonderful events of that holy night as God’s gift for us today as well as for the shepherds and the wise men and the citizens of Bethlehem back then so long ago.

The eternal light is shining in this darkness too, the eternal love is made incarnate in our midst, and echoes of the songs of the holy angels still float across our hills. So why not imagine this child born in a stable on the Shropshire Montgomeryshire border, and into the wind and rain of winter 2015?

If we think of him here and now, so we ourselves meet by his crib,  our carols can be sung not about him but for him and to him;  and as we praise him and pray to him, the light of his love can be born afresh in our own hearts. Heaven knows this is a dark enough time for our world, and who can tell what the new year may bring?

Jesus in history was born in an occupied land, and in the uncertain setting of a stable, with no room anywhere else in the town. And in the uncertainties of 2015 going on 2016, and however much those who hate his message of love may try to keep him out, this child stakes his claim to the dark and painful places of our troubled world and of our troubled hearts. He is born among us as Prince of Peace not just for people of long ago and far away, but for today, for here and now and all the world. Here still he waits for us to say yes to him, here still he waits for us to open our hearts to him, so the love he brings can catch flame in our lives.

Our cribs and carols remind us that Jesus belongs here as well as there, and now as well as then; born in a humble place, he waits on our response. So the greatest of all love stories begins; we trace our historical way to the humble crib in which God offers his love and himself to the world his love has made, a love to be fully revealed in the onward journey from Bethlehem and in the man this child will become. And the story begins again with us, and here in this place, and in the manger of our hearts: for Jesus is both today's child, seeking a place in our hearts, and tomorrow's man, come to melt the hard and cold winter of our world soul by soul with the warmth of his redeeming love.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

A Sermon for Christmas Eve

These are my words for this evening and tonight, at The Marsh, Hope, and Leighton :-

The other day I was told the story of a nativity play that didn't quite go as planned. This particular nativity play didn’t involve primary school children but the church youth group. They’d been given the job of putting on a sort of living Christmas crib for the village. As people came through the doors of the church they could see Joseph, Mary and a number of angels all there in their proper places; it was a lovely and peaceful scene.

People came in and sat down, and revelled in the beauty of it all, as the evening began. The youth club leader began to read the story, while the other participants in the nativity made their entrances. Sadly though, things started to go wrong when the shepherds came in.  Most church youth groups include a few pious and holy young people, and two of these were playing the parts of Mary and Joseph, creating just the right impression as they gazed earnestly at the manger, from which a light was shining. Someone had had the lovely idea of placing a lamp in the straw of the manger, and the light glowed like a halo where the baby was lying.

But most church youth groups also include a less reverent fringe, some of whom had been drafted in as shepherds; one of them, who fancied himself as a comedian, said to the lad playing Joseph in a loud stage whisper: "Well, Joe me old mate, that's a cute little kid you've got there;  are you going to stand us all a pint then, to wet baby's head?"  This remark didn't so much break the solemn spell of the occasion as completely explode it. Even pious Mary and Joseph began to quake as they tried not to laugh, and the chief angel, a large girl who was standing rather precariously on a chair behind them, shook so hard with laughter that she toppled right over. Down she came, taking the backdrop curtain and most of the rest of the props with her.  Having knocked over two shepherds on the way down - as I say, she was a big girl - she rolled around on the floor heaving with laughter, leaving the whole stage in a complete shambles.

As the congregation recovered from the shock, they could see that the only thing still standing in all that chaos was the manger, from which the light continued to shine. And I hope that maybe they were reminded of what St John wrote in chapter 1 of his Gospel:  'The light shines on, and the darkness has not overcome it.'

Tonight we celebrate Christ the light of the world, Christ who enters the shambles of our world, and continues to shine in all the mess we make of things. We celebrate the God who doesn't leave us to it, but enters our messed-up world to transform it, and us, life by life and heart by heart; we celebrate the fact that here in a tiny baby Divine and human paths cross and engage. In the infant Jesus God's unending and unchanging love, the love which has been there from the very beginning of time, is made flesh among us.

I was with one of the choirs I sing with in a local residential home for their carol service. In a break between carols one of the ladies there started to sing the old Sunday school song 'Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.' 'That's not a Christmas carol, dear,' someone told her. But in fact that little song takes us right to the heart of what Christmas is really all about. Karl Barth, one of the greatest Bible scholars of the last century, was once asked after a lecture, 'Of all the theological insights you've ever had, which do you consider was the greatest of them all?"  And Dr Barth, the writer of so many deep and learned books, simply smiled and repeated those same old Sunday school words:  "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

And that’s the whole point of Christmas; to celebrate the start of the greatest love story ever. We're reminded that the fact that God loves us takes precedence over all the other stuff people find in the Bible: the commandments and rules we’re supposed to keep, and the penalties we face when we don’t manage to. Of course, the rules are important, and of course God does judge us, and judgement is the big theme of Advent, the weeks that lead up to Christmas.

But on this holy night we are recalled to the simple truth that God loves us.  God must be angered and distressed by the mess we make of the world he made, and appalled at the reality of human sin; but his response to the mess we make is one of love; he longs to forgive our sin and to heal our hearts. And so in the darkness of this night, and in the darkness of human sin, a child is born and a son is given, and a new light is lit in little Bethlehem. At Christmas the way of God intersects decisively with our own human lives and their journeys;  tonight we affirm the intensity with which God never ceases to love us.

The wonder of Christmas is how small God makes himself, and how vulnerable he becomes. This child is born with nothing guaranteed, to humble parents far from home, and in nothing better than a stable. Imagine that child, laid in a manger, with his parents anxiously watching his little face, listening for his breathing, like any set of new parents. Remember how different the real stable must have been from the clean and glittery cribs that feature on our Christmas cards; remember that any real ox and ass that might have been there will have been every bit as smelly as donkeys and cattle generally are.

This child once grown will call himself 'Son of Man', which means everyman, or any man. He’s born to be one of us, but we also call him Prince of Peace; prince of a peace much deeper and purer than when the guns fall silent on a battlefield - though thank God that sometimes at least that also happens at Christmas. The peace this Child brings is a peace that’s born only in the individual human heart, born when I myself realise that God loves and accepts me just as I am. Then a journey in me begins in which God makes of me more than I ever dreamt I could be. This isn’t a love story to take away the world’s pain and tragedy, it won’t remove in one fell swoop the hurt and sorrow of our lives; but tonight God enters our story to live it with us, and in Bethlehem love divine intersects with our world of shame and waste.

Wherever we are in life, and whatever turmoil there may be in our own hearts, or in the world around us; however lost, faithless or sinful we may be, the God who is love divine and light for the world never ceases to love us, to love me and you, and to desire us and to seek us. Celebrate and sing that love not only at Christmas, but in all the living of our lives, and celebrate the light which cannot be extinguished, that will shine on, however dark and unloving and fearful the world about us may seem to be; and may God's blessing be in our hearts and homes, and with all whom we love this Christmas night and always!

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Sunday Sermon . . .

. . . preached at St Michael's, Chirbury last Sunday (Advent 4) :-

One of my favourite Christmas carols - or, I suppose, more precisely an Advent carol - is “The angel Gabriel from heaven came . . .”  If I’m to be completely honest, I do have to admit that I like it partly because as junior choristers we used to enjoy singing “most highly flavoured gravy” instead of “most highly favoured lady” in the chorus, hoping that the choir master (my father) wouldn’t notice, which he always did, of course. But I like it anyway, that carol: with its vivid retelling of the story of that huge, life-shattering message delivered by an angel to a young girl.

Gabriel in the carol comes across as quite a serious kind of angel - “his wings like drifted snow, his eyes as flame” - the words of the carol inform us. Personally I'd expect God’s angel to have blended in rather better in reality - snowy wings and flaming eyes might have been a bit too obvious on the streets of Nazareth. But then again, perhaps this angel, snowy wings and all, was a vision granted only to Mary.

But why Nazareth, though, I might ask?  Why should an angel come with a message for a peasant girl of no account in such an insignificant little provincial town?  My best reply is that it had to be like that, because this is the way of love, and what begins here in humble Nazareth is the greatest of all love stories. If the messiah had come into the world in any other way he'd have been a different messiah with a different agenda. In the messiah born of Mary, named Jesus and called the Christ, God offers us his love, and seeks our response of love. The truth at the heart of this story is this: love can be won only through love.

Mary is the chosen vessel of that love. "Blessed are you among women!" declares her cousin Elizabeth. Blessed she surely is, but she will suffer as this story unfolds. In the temple old Simeon will tell Mary that a sword will pierce her heart. For  the blessed son she bears she will also see die.
For Mary, to be chosen by God will be to know both blessing and pain: the message of the angel offers her both a crown of joy and a cross of sorrow.

Only Luke tells the story of Mary's visit to Elizabeth. One old tradition places Luke very close to Mary, claiming that, as an artist, he painted her portrait. What certainly is true is that Luke takes great care to get the historical setting right as he tells his story. And he clearly has a sense of theatre too. This story is well staged, and it has songs as well, including the Magnificat, Mary’s song. Did Mary actually speak these words, or did Luke place them in her mouth? Either way, this is a song of revolutionary purpose.

And here is one of the great themes of Luke throughout his Gospel: social concern, and God’s word of promise and welcome to the outcast and the poor. So in Mary's song, the Magnificat, things are re-sorted; the mighty are cast down, and the rich sent away empty, while the humble find themselves exalted and the hungry are fed.

And if that’s what the messiah is coming to do, how could he come into the world in any other way? From the beginning, God’s holy one is identified with the poor, the homeless, the marginalised and the humble. Luke tells us that shepherds were the first people to arrive at the stable; and shepherds people who weren't able to maintain the standards of ritual purity and regular worship that were to be expected. So they were sort of outcast, looked down on by the religious elite. Yet an angel goes to them too, as Luke tells the story. And they come to be at the messiah's side, not because they’ve stumbled by chance on to this new birth but because God chose to tell them, rather than priests or prophets or kings.

Mary, though, remains our focus for now. In a London gallery this time last year, I was admiring a medieval painting of Mary splendidly attired in a velvet gown of blue with red and gold trimmings. Like the finest of ladies of the day, the day being some time in the 15th century. We do tend to dress Mary up, in our paintings, our prayers, our theology . . .

But we shouldn't dress her too finely, for it’s the ordinariness of Mary that makes sense of the Jesus story. God’s son could have been born a child of Herod; or God’s son could have been born to a rival of Herod's, or maybe even of Caesar's, and grown up to kick Herod out and take over his throne - after all, that’s exactly what Herod and his people expected a messiah to do. Someone born into a position of power could have dazzled the priests and the people into instant acquiescence, and taken centre stage from the word go.

But this isn’t that kind of story, and never could be or should be. To Mary the girl, Mary the simple and humble servant comes the most awesome challenge - the Spirit from on high shall overshadow you, and of you shall be born a son who will be Christ the Lord. And Mary could have said 'No'. That was her free choice; love won’t and can’t force its way into the world. Only when Mary says ‘yes’ does the story of our salvation begin. Until she answers the angel all heaven catches its breath and waits; and I find a sense of that divine risk, heaven waiting on Mary, in the carol.

And by her yes Mary became the greatest of saints, and our model as we look to serve our Lord: not because of amazing holiness, or exceptional scholarship, or outstanding bravery, though perhaps courage was part of it - what makes Mary the model for our service is her faithful obedience:  whatever lies ahead, let it be for me, she says, as my Lord wills.

Let it be for me as my Lord wills. We'll be praying that prayer this morning, and we probably pray it every day without really paying the attention we should to the words and what they commit us to. As our Lord has taught us, we pray "thy will be done, thy kingdom come."  And where else can I pray for God's will to be done, other than beginning with me, and where I am? The kingdom comes wherever and whenever we offer ourselves to God. When we pray this prayer, heaven holds its breath and waits on us, as it waited on Mary.

And if I’m serious about "thy will be done" it can’t just be thy will be done when it fits in with what I choose and where I feel comfortable, it can’t just be thy will be done when I can be sure beforehand where it’s going to lead me; I must pray those words and mean them, wherever that may take me. "Thy will be done" is my yes to God’s call.  So where is God leading me, and you?  Where is he wanting to lead our church, in these challenging times?

Why Nazareth and why Bethlehem and why Mary, we may ask today. Or else we could be asking: why Chirbury? why Pontesbury Deanery? why Hereford Diocese? What’s God asking now of me, what's he wanting now from you? Here is where God is working his purpose out, and here is where he's calling us to be the chosen vessels of his grace. But I don’t have the strength, I might complain; I don't have the resources, the staying power, the insight, I might say. I’m not good enough, I might say, and if I'm honest, I often do. God says in response, “That doesn’t matter yet. For the present, all you need to do is to say yes, and trust that I will provide all you need.”

Christmas is just around the corner; and our celebration begins with that essential 'yes' of Mary to God’s angel, for without that yes the story can't start. May our Christmas be a joyful and blessed one, but may it also be a time for us to commit again, and to offer ourselves again - for the Christ child announced to a girl in Nazareth, and born once for all in Bethlehem, seeks still and always to make his home in our hearts, and to be at work in our lives.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Christmas Lights

Each Christmas we rejoice in lights
that sparkle on the tree
to cheer us through the winter nights;
but stand a while and see
the Christmas crib, the story told
of when, so long ago,
glad angels filled the sky with gold
while shepherds stood below.
In Bethlehem a brighter dawn
than all our lanterns give -
the Light of lights, a Child new born,
shines there that we might live.

Friday, 11 December 2015


I'm busy trying to write Christmas cards, and as I do so, I'm reminded that I haven't spoken with, or heard from, many of these people since last Christmas. That's not surprising in one sense; we all lead busy lives, and there's a limit to how many people we can keep in regular touch with, especially if they live far away. But we're not getting any younger, any of us, and I'm also reminded that the people I'm sending cards to are people who are still important to me, even if mostly that's because of memories of past times shared. Social media help us to stay in touch with some of these people, of course, but not all of them, particularly some of the older of my old friends. So I took time out from the writing and addressing just to phone one or two people up, and I'm really glad I did. Christmas round robin letters can help us keep in touch with each other, but nothing beats a real conversation. Let's see if I can do this keep in touch stuff a bit better in the year to come!

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Christmas Rose

The rose is one of the great symbols of Mary the mother of Jesus; this is a poem I wrote some six years ago.

A rose there springs from tender root,
Christ-bearer, hailed in song of old,
the flower of God's eternal love,
a new flame lit in winter's cold.
When half spent was the silent night,
the rose foretold by prophets' tongue
gave birth to one named Prince of Peace,
whose alleluias gladly sung
by angels in the frosty skies
brought shepherds to the manger-bed
to worship him;  as so do we.
The Christmas Rose in white and red,
bright in the darkness of these times
is sign for us of Mary's grace -
Light of the world, of her new-born,
reflects in her so gentle face.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

The Other Disciple

I attended a lovely funeral today of a lady who was obviously a woman of great faith. She had chosen Luke 24.13-32 as the Bible reading to be used; and an unfortunate typo on the service sheets had replaced "The walk to Emmaus" with "The walk to Emma's" - something no-one had noticed when scanning and proof reading, until the service itself! The reader (a retired minister, I think) quite brilliantly introduced the reading by telling us that we now knew just who the other disciple was with whom Cleopas was walking home that day. From what people said, I think the lady herself would have appreciated the humour.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

On Finding The Way (poem)

Panic is rising now like bile in his gut;
he feels its acid measure within him
as he stumbles on through the waste of bracken and bramble.
The vegetation is sodden from the rain that has soaked through his clothes,
while thunder continues to rumble along the far horizon,
and the day's light is failing.  There are no
landmarks to be found, no signs to direct his path,
no safe ground on which to stand.  Behind him the trees are black,
and echo already with the screech of owls.
Now he pushes between unruly clumps of tall rushes, and
beneath his feet the hungry mud is
sucking and pulling at his boots, and it soaks between the seams.
He no longer has the breath for calling out, all his effort must go
to keep moving, best he can. And yet he finds he is singing now
as he walks, singing against the demons of the dark, singing
to time and encourage his steps, that old song from his childhood,
from those dusty Sunday afternoons in chapel:  "Lead, kindly light,
amid the encircling gloom."  Oh, if only he had not strayed
from the well-trod and waymarked path, if only he had listened
to the instructions given for the long day's journey.
If he only he could have swallowed his pride.  Already
it is so very dark, so fearfully dark;

and yet as he presses forward
in that dark a light has appeared, small but clear,
and he hears singing to match his own, and
somewhere up ahead there is the promise of help and warmth of welcome,
of a known way and companions for the journey on; and there will be
rejoicing in heaven.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

A poem written for use at a funeral

Please think of life as precious gift,
to use with care and grace,
that we may make the world we share
a kinder, brighter place,
and if at times the way is hard,
and days bring hurt and tears,
the friends we make, good times we share
are gold to last the years;
and though a leaf may fall too soon
from life’s tall sturdy tree,
the memories will never fade
of one whose soul was free.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Sermon for Tomorrow

(Set readings for Advent 2)

The second Sunday of Advent finds the Church still desperately trying not to be too Christmassy, and to keep a penitential season of preparation and waiting, while in the world around us trees sparkle everywhere, shops are full of people spending whatever they’ve got left after Black Friday, and Christmas carols surround us, or more probably songs by Slade, Wizzard, the Pogues and Bing Crosby.

Those of us who sing in choirs, mind you, we’ve been singing Christmas carols since September, and some of them are probably beginning to grate a little. I’ve already sung my first Christmas carol concert, and there’s another this afternoon (3 o’clock at Llangyniew Church, if you’re interested: they’ll probably fit you in). And there are several more to go. My first Christmas card had the grace to wait until after last Sunday to arrive. To be fair, it’s from my cousin Barbara, who’s moving house, so it’s good she got in early with the change of address details.

I’m some way off yet from sending any cards myself. Advent always catches me on the hop, and I’m never very good at organising all the Christmas stuff. But the theme of Advent is only partly about getting ready to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus. Advent’s big theme is really getting ourselves right with God as we reflect on his promise that we will be judged. “Even so, come, Lord Jesus, come” we pray in one of the traditional Advent prayers, and that isn’t the coming of the baby but the coming of the King. It’s the time when, as we read in the Book of Revelation and elsewhere, this morning the Old Testament Book of Malachi, all must stand before him, and all sin and imperfection will be exposed. And some serious cleaning up will be done. You could be forgiven for feeling that this sort of Advent message jars a bit when set against all the cutesy feelgood stuff in the Christmas promos.

Fact is, though, Jesus had a lot to say about judgement; it was the subject of many if not most of his parables. And John the Baptist before him, part of whose story we heard in our reading from Luke - John was certainly and uncompromisingly about judgement, wherever he went and whoever he was speaking to. Malachi the prophet also used strong language as he complained about the shabby and half-hearted observance that was the temple worship of his day. It’s time for change, he tells us, and the one God will send will come like refiner's fire or fuller's soap to clean things up. This won't just be a surface clean, not just a lick and a polish. This will be the real thing:  cleansing of the temple.

It occurs to me that the word 'cleansing' has acquired some negative vibes in recent years, not least in that euphemistic expression 'ethnic cleansing', which is surely always a monstrous and terrible thing.  Far too often there's a religious element to it, that should shame anyone who takes religion seriously. Catholic against Protestant, Hindu against Muslim, or the terrorists in Mali who executed those hostages who couldn’t quote from the Q’uran. How is that people who do things like can believe that what they do pleases God?

Malachi the prophet was a zealot and a puritan; he probably won’t have been the easiest of people to live with.  The same was surely true of John the Baptist, who could be every bit as uncompromising as any of the Old Testament prophets, both in his message and in the words he used to convey it. He called those who trekked out to see him a 'brood of vipers', which was not the most flattering of greetings. But it’s good and needful that people of prophetic zeal and passion rise up at times when religion has become stale and jaded. We need stirring up from time to time when standards slip, we need to be freshly challenged when we forget what we’re here for.

For what does it means to be a Christ-like and Christ-filled church? The Church is called to be creatively different from the world around it;  and yet also to have a positive, hopeful and useful ministry that we bring into that world and offer to those around us. Paul, writing to the young Church in Philippi in our second reading this morning, prays for them to be kept pure and blameless, and to be able to discern what things are best: best for their own souls' health, and also best for the Gospel cause and the world that needs to hear that message.

The other day I bought some stuff I’d seen advertised that was supposed to be a really effective cleanser. It looked the part, and it had quite a nice perfume, but - well, maybe I didn’t use it right, but it seemed to me to be totally useless at getting rid of dirt. Churches also can look good and maybe even smell good, without really being much good. You’ve heard the phrase, "so heavenly minded that they're no earthly good".

Well, we do have to be heavenly-minded, of course. Jesus told his disciples they were already citizens of heaven. But we do have to some earthly good as well. Jesus wants his Church to care about what’s going on around it, and to challenge what’s wrong, unjust, hateful, thoughtless, greedy, and dirty in the world;  he wants his Church to be practical, compassionate and helpful - a place of healing, comfort, reconciliation and good teaching. There has to be a real connection between what we do in here and what we do out there. Jesus calls us to be lights placed high on a lampstand, not hidden under a bucket.

And that has to begin where we are. The great prophets of old never asked others to do anything they weren’t already doing themselves. No preacher has any right to speak except that he or she knows their own need to hear the message, and to receive God’s healing grace and salvation. If you don’t recognise that in yourself you can’t teach it to others.

All we ask and do and teach has to be tested and measured against what Jesus tells us and shows us. Are we sharing and showing and proclaiming the love we see in him? We must take care not to produce what passes for righteousness, but is at its heart unloving - for nothing unloving can express the righteous will of God. So Jesus promised his disciples that the Spirit of Truth would lead them into all truth. Paul tells us that the Spirit we receive is the Spirit of Christ, whose nature is love. This the Spirit of the one for whom mountains were levelled and rugged paths made smooth; may he be like refiner's fire for our hearts, nerving and enabling us to take his message of love and light out into all the world.

Friday, 4 December 2015

I Saw A Light

A poem written last Christmas (and posted on the blog then in an earlier form) which I've reposted because I'll be reading it on a few occasions this year . . .

I saw a light low in the sky, through leafless winter trees,
that called me forward, drew me on, that sent me to my knees.
I knelt then, hardly dared to move, not sure what I had seen;
and as the world grew dark around, looked where the light had been.
A flake or two of snow fell, soft and cold upon my face;
the breeze had dropped away to leave a stillness in the place
which felt serene and holy, like the half-forgotten past,
like childhood dreams that seem so real, then fade and do not last.
Another world I nearly touched, an almost opened door,
the briefest glimpse of glory, then the sky grew dark once more.

A light once shone when angels sang to shepherds in a field,
and in the east a rising star brought tidings long concealed
to men who studied astral charts in some exotic land,
and sent them searching for a king across a waste of sand.
One week to go till Christmas Day, as from my knees I rose
to make for home and fireside, and to the love of those
who are the lights that light my life, I knew this to be true,
that God whose angel spoke to shepherds calls to me and you,
and though the world’s grown dark and cold, and full of sin and pain,
the light of love will never die, the day will dawn again.

The baby born in Bethlehem, and hailed with angel song
would as a man bear on a cross the weight of worldly wrong.
And Christ once laid in manger bed and nestled round with hay
seeks to be born within our hearts, to lead us in his way,
that we may light the darkened world with love and Christian cheer
not only at this holy feast, but through the coming year,
that we may walk the way of faith, and speak of hope and peace
to those who dwell in chains of sin and long for love’s release,
until that day when angel song fills all the golden sky,
when comes again the man who on a cross was pleased to die.

(Picture - setting sun over the Vistula, Krakow, taken in January 2010)

Thursday, 3 December 2015

I have been advised by my doctor to give up . .

I have been advised by my doctor
to give up writing poetry. It’s
really not good for you, he told me.
“Get away from that paper,” he said,
“put that pen down, and get a life.”

But it’s not that easy. I found a pencil,
half chewed but it still worked. You can
write poetry on the back of an envelope,
so I did; no-one need ever know, I reasoned.

They soon sussed me out. “You’ve been doing it again,”
said the wife. “You’ve got that spaced out look in your eyes,
and there’s an ink stain on your finger.”
Damn! I should have used biro,
it washes off better. But it was only a haiku, I tell her,
I’m keeping off the hard stuff.

Trouble is, for the poetry addict
there is no such thing as “just a drop”.
You’re in there for the lot if you’re in there at all.
I’m not going to write anything, I tell myself,
not today. I’ll be strong, maybe just read a bit,
just some Wordsworth or Keats, nothing modern,
nothing too dangerous. And I won’t inhale.

Then one day I tried this anonymous door,
upstairs room, Poets Anonymous. “I’m Bill
and I’m a - hang on, I’ve just had an idea,
where’s that paper, I had a piece somewhere;
anyone got a pen?” They threw me out,
had to, that was no place for a recidivist.

Back on the street, I made for the Oxfam
second-hand book shop. Then the library.
I am a hopeless case; I have to get my fix.
It’s killing me, I know, but I have to do it.
Sorry, doc, but I am a poet. I just am; and neither you nor I
can do very much about it.
There is no cure, though I suppose the government could try
rationing our paper, or taxing pens. It might at least
make some money out of us. But otherwise, just be thankful
there aren’t too many of us. Yet.


Last night Ann and I attended an excellent presentation by Iolo Williams at our local Town Hall, about the wonderful variety of wildlife we have in Wales. He was less complimentary about pheasants, however . . . As it happens, I'd decided that pheasants would be the topic of my latest "Nature Notes". I do quite like the stupid old birds, but in terms of the impact of pheasants on the environment and other British wildlife, I suspect Mr Williams and I are not that far apart in our views.

So here's my article :-

We quite often hear pheasants from our garden, even though we’re in the town, and sometimes they stroll in and peck at whatever’s under the feeders. They’re gormless birds, but quite attractive; I sort of like them. They are not a native species, but may well have been here since Roman times, and certainly since the fifteenth century.

The British landscape is for the most part able to accommodate and provide for a reasonable population density of pheasants. So in some arable and lightly wooded areas across the UK there is reckoned to be an entirely natural and self-maintaining pheasant population, but elsewhere the presence of pheasants is largely due to the bird being reared and released for shooting purposes. The genuinely wild population is probably experiencing a gentle decline, meanwhile.

Some thirty-five to forty million pheasants are reared and released in the UK each year, and at times it seems that most of them (plus a fair few red-legged partridges, also not native) are scattered about on the lanes along which I’m trying to drive. Shoots are a very big business; opinions differ as to the extent to which the very big operations that some shoots now are can be described as ‘sporting’, and also as to what contribution they really make to the rural economy. I wouldn’t wish to argue for either side of the debate in this article, but I do confess to some disquiet over the release of quite so many of any animal or bird into our countryside; pheasants can do damage to young shoots (friends living on the edge of the Stiperstones had a thankless task keeping the local pheasants out of their rather lovely garden) and also to reptiles and amphibians that they will attack and kill.

It’s also sad to see so many killed on our roads. It takes quite a lot to persuade a pheasant to take to the air, and so they are quite vulnerable to vehicle strikes. They can do some damage, too! - I remember one taking out one of my headlamps on the main road between Shrewsbury and Much Wenlock, and costing me £100. If 35 million pheasants are released each year, and the industry reckons 15 million of these are shot, which is some 55-60% of the lowland game bag, that leaves a lot to be killed on the roads, I’m thinking.

Pheasants forage on the ground and occasionally in trees, and have a varied diet of grain, fruit, and insects and other invertebrates including worms, plus from time to time frogs, slow worms and lizards. Left to their own devices they nest on the ground, in a scrape often in tall grass or under shrubbery, and lay between seven and fifteen eggs. The male gives a guttural call, flying up as he does this so you also hear the wing beats; one male may have a harem of females which he works hard to defend from rivals. Most male pheasants have a white ring around the neck, but races of pheasants have been increasingly mixed by captive breeding and releases, and so you’ll find quite a variety of plumage, including darker ‘melanistic’ birds.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The Sleeper

A poem I wrote a couple of years ago, which always seems to go down well . . .

I preached the other Sunday, as a vicar’s bound to do,
on the milk of human kindness, and First Peter, chapter 2,
when I was miffed to hear an interruption from the floor,
quite clear and unmistakeable, a large and fruity snore.

It came from Mr Barlow, halfway down and on the right -
when I stand in the pulpit, all the faithful in my sight,
there isn’t much I miss; but here’s the point, what could I do
to express my disapproval, but without quite saying who?

I waited till the final hymn, when notices were read,
and after “Thursday: sale of work” I coughed and gently said,
“I noticed someone sleeping as I preached to you today,
I’d welcome an apology sometime;  now let us pray.”

I thought no more about it, it was just one of those things -
sufficient to the day, you know, the evil that day brings.
But when on Monday morning I put on my coat and hat
twelve letters of apology were lying on my mat!

Another six by lunchtime, and by supper twenty-eight,
by which time I’d had ‘sorry’ notes from half the Sunday gate,
and still they kept on coming through the week, till finally
there was only Mr Barlow hadn’t written one to me!

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Thistledown (Haiku)

     Drift in silence while
     the busy world uncaring
     fails to catch your smile.