Saturday, 30 April 2016

Some thoughts for Rogation Sunday

To be preached at Chirbury tomorrow . . .

I’d been Vicar of Minsterley for quite a few years when a team from Midlands Today came to film a short piece about our maiden’s garlands - but it was only then that I realised that among the carvings by the main doorway on the west front of Minsterley Church is the Green Man. It came as a bit of a surprise to find masons still carving such images as recently as the late seventeenth century, when Holy Trinity Church was built. As a figure from pagan legend, the Green Man can’t have been very acceptable in the reformed Church, though not uncommon in medieval churches. But there he is, and in fact he’s there in this group too, in a much more recent incarnation, among Waldegrave Brewster’s carvings in Middleton church.

So perhaps he never really went away in these parts. He still dances at Bishop’s Castle, I believe. Maybe his appearance at Minsterley was part of the rediscovery of old images and traditions that came with the restoration of the monarchy - a bit of life and colour restored after the plain whitewashed walls and solemn tables of Cromwell's puritan austerity. Brewster, of course, carved almost every image he could think of at Middleton, including the witch at work at Mitchell’s Fold; the Victorian era was a time of huge rediscovery of ancient tradition and country lore.

Anyway, I’m happy to let the Green Man begin my sermon for Rogation Sunday, because, pagan or not, he can stand as a reminder that we human beings are rooted in the land. If the green things of the earth do not live and thrive, then neither do we. In Genesis chapter two we read that Adam and Eve are made of the same dust and clay as everything else. We human beings often behave as though we were gods, different from this thing around us called nature; but the fact is that we are part of it, made from atoms and molecules, genes and chromosomes, like everything else living.

We’re also destined for the same end. Those who go to church on Ash Wednesday are told to remember that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But we’re not just dust. We’re also sentient beings, able to interpret the world around us, and to be creative and inventive; and as Christians we talk about being not just body, but also spirit - made of the stuff of the earth, but made also in the image of God. And made therefore to seek and know the mind of the Creator, who calls us to be stewards of the earth he made. The story of Adam and Eve began in a garden, where they fell from grace and were cast out. But then out there in the hard world beyond Eden their task and ours is to make new gardens for God.

Back to Eden was the title of a project I helped introduce when I was working for the mission agency then called USPG. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts - to give it its original title - was founded more than three hundred years ago by Thomas Bray, born near Trelystan and baptized in Chirbury. For three years I was part of a team promoting the mission work the society still funds and supports all around the world.

Underpinning our mission strategy was something called the Five Marks of Mission, adopted by the Anglican Communion in 1990. Briefly, they are (1) proclaiming good news, (2) teaching and baptizing new believers, (3) responding to human need, (4) transforming unjust structures; and (5) safeguarding the integrity of creation and renewing the life of the earth. Renewing the life of the earth was very much the theme of the Back to Eden project, which was based in the South African Diocese of Umzimvubu. The Umzimvubu is also a river rising in the Drakensburg Mountains close to the border between South Africa and Lesotho, and flowing down to the Wild Coast of the north-eastern Cape Province.

This part of South Africa became the African homeland of Transkei, where many people were resettled from the cities into new but pretty basic homes, hardly more than concrete boxes with little in the way of facilities. The land around had become impoverished, because it was badly farmed by urban people resettled against their will who had little idea of how to live on the land. Their main fuel was wood, and the loss of trees made the land vulnerable to erosion, exacerbated by the practice of burning off areas of land to provide young shoots for the cattle. The river itself, quiet and easily forded in the dry season, would become in the wet season a raging torrent that ran blood-red with soil ripped away and carried off downstream, leaving huge gullies called dongas, scars across the face of the land that grow deeper with each wet season. Repairing the dongas was the most urgent task, but repairing the whole relationship between people and land was important too. The Green Man reminds us how we all depend on the land: if the land is damaged we are damaged too.

So the then Bishop of Umzimvubu, Geoff Davies, had made care for the environment a vital component of his strategy to build the church in what is still a young diocese, founded in the mid 1990’s. Looking at the Back to Eden Project, I was inspired by the stories of lives being rebuilt, families nurtured, and the land itself being healed and repaired. When I talked about the project to churches and groups I would show pictures of children helping carry big stones to fill in and stabilize the dongas; of market gardeners looking very proud of the crops they were learning to grow and harvest; and of young men learning how to put fences up, one of the new skills being taught that would help them earn extra money to supplement their income from working the land. The most inspiring thing was that all this was small-scale and locally initiated - a big project made up of lots of small schemes which each had identifiable and achievable targets.

The result was that people were taking control of their own lives, as they learned how to love and respect and conserve their own land. We had helped fund this work over several years, and the next step was to make it a project and guarantee further funding. The title of the project came from a senior retired priest in the diocese, Fr Nceba Gabula. His impressive gardening skills were being used to further the mission of the  church, as he taught his people new skills and  showed them how to use the land well and sustainably, and make their own little patches of ground productive. And he had said this: "Our mission to go back to the garden of Eden, back to creation, is a call to liberation for the people of this region."

I believe God calls all of us as his people to build gardens of love through our care for one another and our care for the land. Sadly not everything has gone well since that time in Umzimvubu. There’ve been troubles and divisions, and last year their cathedral burned down in mysterious circumstances. That’s so sad, because the need there is as great as ever. I can only hope that the issues there will be resolved - so that both land and communities can continue to be healed and restored. Fr Gabula described Umzimvubu as a land that used to be Eden when people lived in harmony with it, and when they honoured God by their care what he had made; and his vision of going back to Eden, with the land secure and fertile, and the people in a creatively loving and obedient relationship with God, still needs to happen.

As it does for all of us at Rogationtide. We don’t really need the Green Man to tell us we belong to the land, if God’s creative Spirit dwells within us. God’s Spirit is active across all kinds of human boundaries, and we as people of God are a holy nation. Wherever we live and whatever language we speak, we belong together in the love of God and in our sharing of the world he made. Like the sun and rain, may his word bring our earth and ourselves to new life.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016


My two poems presented at my poetry session with Paul and Lyn today were "Watching the Wheels" (posted here last month) and this one. I'm quite pleased with them both.

Tiniest of woodland birds, you scurry mouse-like
through dead leaves and brambles, then in a blur of tiny wings
flash low across my path to find a leafless perch,
where with sudden burst of song you bring the copse to life,
assuring me that spring at last is here.

Thursday, 21 April 2016


My planned sermon for the Sunday to come . . . (now slightly edited - 23/4/16)

It’s a shame that we don’t make space for the third reading at our communion service, because the today’s, from Revelation chapter 21, is  reading I quite like. In his great vision of the end of all things, John writes: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, and I saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband.”

We might need a new earth. The other day I saw a programme about the nature of Hawaii. Not a place I’ve been, or ever likely to go, but from the point of view of its wild environment Hawaii is very special - a place of huge scientific importance. There are many endemic species found nowhere else on the planet, and immense volcanoes that can help scientists decode the geological changes that shaped the early days of our planet. Offshore it provides a haven for many rare fish, birds, turtles and reef corals.

All of that was on the programme I was watching; but it also homed in on the mess humanity is currently making of this unique set of habitats. In particular, there is plastic rubbish that’s perhaps spent anything up to fifty years travelling the Pacific only to end up on Hawaiian beaches, where it just sits, and doesn’t decay. A lot of plastic gets eaten by the albatrosses, clogging up their digestive systems so that many of them starve to death. To an albatross, anything floating on the sea looks like food, and gets eaten, including all kinds of disposable plastic.

Disposable to us, but not to the planet. Disposable things don't really get disposed of, they just end up out of our sight and therefore out of our minds, but in places where they still do damage. The programme provided a glimpse of what we don’t usually see: how the way we live has consequences, and often they’re not good ones. What makes life easy for us here seems to be having an unguessed-at impact on the other side of the world. This should be of immense concern to everyone, but especially to Christians, for all created things speak to us of God and are precious to him.

In the Book of Revelation John shared his vision of how things would be in the new age, when pain and tears would be no more. The Church that first heard his words knew a lot about pain and tears. It was living under persecution; Christians were being put to the sword, or set upon by wild beasts in the arena. Some would have recanted their faith rather than face such terror, persuaded perhaps that they'd been wrong ever to have put their faith in Christ. For how could God let such awful things happen to his faithful people?

Yet right from the start Jesus had warned his disciples to be ready for the persecution that lay ahead, for days when they’d be arrested, dragged into court, betrayed by family and friends, put to death even. He’d told them that those who look for an easy life here had already received their reward, and advised them not to lay up for themselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust corrupt, and where thieves break in and steal, but instead to lay up treasure in heaven. For, he said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."  I thought of those words as I watched the distressing images from Hawaii, of earthly treasures turned into dross that clogs up our waterways and pollutes our planet. God made us stewards of creation, and we’ve let him down.

The readings we did hear this morning urge us to take a global perspective. In the reading from Acts, Peter is taught a lesson. Good Jew that he is, he’s horrified at the thought of eating food that isn’t kosher - but that’s what he’s commanded to do in the dream he had. And he begins to understand that the message of life and salvation entrusted to him is for the whole world, for non-Jews as well as Jews, not confined by any human boundary. And in the Gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples, "Love one another as I have loved you." It’s through the witness of our love that the world gets to see that the message we bear is true. Words only go so far - it’s in our loving and Christ-like action that God is shown to the world, and we are identified as his people.

Love. English is a language of great and poetic beauty, but it  falls short of that greatness perhaps when we come to that little word 'love'. For that one word in English translates several different words in Greek, the language of the New Testament, and they are these: eros, which is the sexual or romantic love between two people; philia, which is the love between friends, which also forms the words philadelphia, love between brothers, and philanthropia, our duty of love towards neighbours and visitors. And then there is the word used in this passage from John and elsewhere in the Gospels, the word agape.

Now this is or should be a special word for Christians, and it’s therefore worth unpacking. Agape is love without limits or boundaries; you don’t have to behave in some particular way, or to be a member of some particular group, or to be related to me, in order for me to show you agape love. Agape is an unconditional love that is expressed in our helping and treasuring and upholding the thing or person loved, without desiring it as a possession, or hoarding or consuming it. It’s love the respects the freedom of the other, it’s love that is fundamentally selfless, expressed in free gift and sacrifice, it’s love that is the deliberate decision of those who wish to continue and share the love of Christ.

Agape describes both the love God has for us and for his world, and the love by which we may glorify him. Agape is the currency of that new heaven and new earth in John's great vision; it will be triumphant over all that is ungodly and selfish. John encourages the persecuted Church of his day to be strong and steadfast, and not to give up on agape or on God. For Agape is also the new heaven and earth among us now: the love that will transform our living together as human beings and our care as stewards for the natural world around us. Agape is love that lives for tomorrow within the world of today, that finds its expression in service, and strives for what is good, challenging us to recognise God in our neighbour, and his imprint in every fold and furl of creation.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The Annual Meeting and Other Thoughts

A sermon preached at Chirbury Parish Church last Sunday, on the set readings for the day . . .

I want to take from the readings we’ve just heard some thoughts about discipleship, fellowship and mission - three vital words when it comes to our identity as the Church of Christ. First we have the story from the Acts of the Apostles about Tabitha (or Dorcas, to give her her Greek name), at Peter’s hands miraculously healed if not indeed raised back to life from the dead.  It’s a powerful story, but alongside the miracle we also get a quite charming insight into the close fellowship of the little Christian community in Joppa where Dorcas had “filled her days” - so we’re told - with acts of kindness and charity; isn’t that a lovely thing to be able to say about someone - could be said of me, or of you? Certainly I find a personal challenge in that description.

Dorcas seems to have been quite a saintly lady - but then again, in the New Testament the word saint is used of all the faithful, and not only of a few special people who’ve been canonised. So all of us are saints, potentially at least, all of us members of the vast throng mentioned by John in one of the readings set for today that I haven’t used, from chapter 7 of that immense vision of the last things we call the Book of Revelation. This is what he writes:

“After that I looked and saw a vast throng which no-one could count, from all races and tribes, nations and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb. They were robed in white and had palm branches in their hands, and they shouted aloud: “Victory to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

So we’ll be all robed in white, then. I’d certainly like to think so - but if I’m to be robed in white and given a palm branch to wave it won’t be because of my own goodness or my own achievements, however steadfast and noble and enduring and loving I’ve managed to be. The only reason these robes are white is because they’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb. Those who receive these robes have placed their hope in Christ, for it is Christ alone who justifies us and makes us clean.

For now though we are the Church militant here in earth, with a gospel-shaped job to do. So here are three things that lie at the heart of what being the Church should be: three things we should be looking for, praying for, and working for:  first, we should aim to be a community of people who belong to one another because we belong to Jesus, and who therefore should aim to be constantly growing in our care for each other;  second, we should each of us be constantly striving to excel in acts of kindness and charity;  and thirdly that everything we are and everything we do should be focused on Christ, for without him nothing we can do, nothing we can attempt, has any lasting value.

In our reading from John’s Gospel we find Jesus telling his opponents that his own sheep will hear his voice and willingly follow him. While in these parts sheep are more likely to be herded or driven, a Judaean shepherd would lead his sheep, and his sheep would therefore need to recognise his voice. Through the day sheep would be grazing together in mixed flocks out on the hills, until called out by their own shepherd.

As Christians most of us spend most of our lives in company with people who don’t necessarily share our faith, or at least don’t practise it. And most of the time that won’t matter. Often we may find ourselves working closely with people with whom we agree on lots of things, but maybe not on what we do on a Sunday. But we need to know who we belong to when the chips are down, and whose voice to pick out when other voices are calling in other directions.  That’s our number one priority, and everything else about being a Christian, being Church, follows from that.

At this time of annual parish meetings, something from which I’m presently spared by age and retirement, church folk will be finding themselves looking back over the year past, and looking ahead to the year to come.

The other day I was talking to a churchwarden (not from these parishes), who told me she’d been thinking very hard about not standing again at her church's annual meeting, but had decided that maybe she would if (underlined). If she could feel a little bit happier about future directions in the diocese and deanery (which I think she was beginning to), if just a bit less stuff to do landed on her shoulders, in other words if a little more if it was shared some of the other folk in her church. I think she was in fact quite hopeful there, since she had some quite positive things to say about the standard of fellowship they had, and clearly things weren’t all bad. When you think about it most of life is a mixture of good and not so good, and none of us get it all right all of the time. We’re a mixed lot of sheep.

Sometimes we’re good at listening to the voice of our Good Shepherd, but often we’re not so good, and stuff gets in the way. We’re wilful, we know it all already, we want our own space; we think we’re sorted already, so we've no need to listen. Or is that just me? Anyway, looking back on my own journey of discipleship and ministry, I have to admit that things have gone better when I’ve taken the time and trouble to ask prayerfully, “Lord, is this your will?” and when I’ve had the humility to go to those with whom I should be sharing ministry and ask, “Does what I'm proposing make sense? Are you happy to be on board?”

But let me remind you of the firm promise Jesus gives to those who do listen to his voice. He says this: “No-one can snatch them from the Father’s care.” We're often so aware of our own weakness and smallness, our age profile, the number of empty pews in our church. We lose confidence in our ability to do mission. But what Jesus asks is this: that we recognise his call, and offer him ourselves as we are. Remember the five barley loaves and two small fish offered by a small boy? Jesus used them to feed a multitude. And he can and he will make much more of us than we could make of ourselves, once we make that offer.

Our annual meetings often reflect on church fabric and finance. We love our church buildings, and I’m glad we do, but however lovingly and carefully we care for them and maintain them, that on its own makes us little more than the curators of a museum. And Church is much more than that. Church isn’t primarily about buildings at all, it’s made up not of stones and stained glass but of sheep who know their Shepherd’s voice, and follow.

The church Dorcas attended probably met in someone’s home, and not in a special building; but it was a real church even so, a place of service and faith and fellowship and love. And the Spirit of Jesus. We need that still, maybe more than ever. It’s only when people can see the quality of our fellowship and feel the strength of our faith that mission begins to make sense.

And mission is what we’re about, not only because we want our churches still to be here in years to come, but because we want our churches to be doing the Lord’s work now, and because like him we care about the people here, about their future,  and about their walk with the Lord. When I was working for a mission agency I was told that mission begins with listening. Mission begins with listening to the voices around us, for if we’re not meeting with people where they are, addressing the real concerns they have and speaking in language they understand then we won’t be heard. But even before that mission begins with listening to the voice of our Good Shepherd, and setting ourselves to follow where he is leading.

It’s right that we should love our church buildings, and our traditions of worship, and that we should support its structures within deanery and diocese and so forth. But at the same time I’d have to say that when I hear the voice of my Shepherd I don’t so much hear him calling me into the church building as sending me out from it. We meet here to gather at the table of Christ our Good Shepherd, to pray in his name to our Father and to receive the enlivening and renewing power of his Holy Spirit; and we are then sent out by him proclaim his name and his love in our bit of his world. And we’ll do that by following him into the places where he already is, to families and streets and homes where he is already present, and where he is already wanting to change hearts, to heal wounds, and to transform lives.

Good Shepherd

A sermon I preached last Sunday at Coedway Chapel . . .

The Good Shepherd is one of the most familiar images of our Lord; the 23rd is the one Psalm people know even if they're not churchgoers. The title of Good Shepherd is given to God not only in the 23rd psalm but also in the prophet Ezekiel. But in Ezekiel God's pastoral care for his people is contrasted with what the false shepherds have been doing - priests and rulers who’ve betrayed God's trust. They should have been doing what the Good Shepherd does, guiding the people, protecting them, leading them to places of safety, but instead they’ve exploited, harmed and endangered the flock placed in their care.

But Jesus declares himself to be the Good Shepherd - and in doing that he claims divine authority and identity. In one of his parables he speaks of the shepherd's joy when he finds the lost sheep and brings him back to the fold. And he identifies himself as that sort of shepherd, one that searches out the lost, one that knows and cares for his sheep.

In the reading we’ve heard today from St John's Gospel he speaks of his sheep as recognising his voice, and we’ll think more about that in a moment. But one reason why sheep would need to recognise their shepherds voice was so they could be led safely off the hillsides at the end of the say to be penned safely in the fold overnight. In one place Jesus says 'I am the door of the sheepfold'. The image that brings up for me is that of the shepherd lying across the doorway of the fold the sheep are penned in. There is no actual door, but any wild beast that might threaten the sheep would first have to deal with the shepherd. The sheep are protected from danger by the shepherd’s own body.

And my own sheep know me, says Jesus. They will know my voice. The other day, walking up on the Long Mountain I was watching a shepherd out with his dogs. It was impressive, the dogs responding to his whistles and calls, and penning the sheep very efficiently. But those sheep were being driven, organised, scared even into going the right way. In Greece a few years ago I watched a shepherd not driving but leading his flock. It was quite a biblical scene, the old shepherd with his staff, and the flock, a mixed flock of sheep and goats as it happens, all with their little bells clanking. Like in the psalm they will have trusted their shepherd to protect them and to lead them to good and safe pasture.

But here’s another image of Jesus from our readings today.  Peter speaks of Jesus as 'the cornerstone'. This is another image with Old Testament resonance: the stone rejected as useless and cast away is restored to become the chief stone of the corner, in other words the stone fundamental to the whole building. And Peter goes on to make clear what he means: that there is salvation in no-one else.

That was a very challenging statement to make to those who had regarded Jesus as a nuisance and a threat, someone who had to be removed. But Peter uses the same image in his first letter, and we can find the image of being built together in Christ in St Paul’s letters too. Jesus is the cornerstone and we are built on him to be formed into a spiritual temple, built to the glory of God.

I was reading yesterday about plans for this year’s Christian Aid Week, which happens every year in May, and then on the radio this morning I was hearing about the final push against the scourge of polio, which is of great interest to me as a Rotarian as Rotary international has taken a lead in this world. We are that close (a pinch of the fingers) to finishing polio off, with just a handful of cases, in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I was glad of the way both those stories helped direct my thoughts and actions towards the responsibility we all share for the poor and the suffering of this one world which is our home together.

And I'm also reminded of our need to pull together, to be working as one in the cause of humanity; the defeat of polio is exciting because there’s been such a good and effective coalition of partners, among them some people I know myself who've just returned from being in India helping to immunise children against this disease. They had wanted to go there, both of them, partly because they had had of the impact of polio within their own families, and now they wanted to help remove it from the lives of others.

And Christian Aid week each year not only reminds us of the needs there are around the world for help, rebuilding, support, but how we can stand together as Christians, united across denominations. Christian Aid is an ecumenical organisation that was founded initially in response to the need of the poor in eastern Europe at the end of the second World War, whose work then spread across the globe, crossing all kinds of boundaries of places, nationalities and cultures. In Christ we all belong together, in him we find our identity and purpose and vocation - and that is the central theme I think of those two great images of Jesus the Good Shepherd, and Jesus the Cornerstone.

Jesus speaks of the other sheep that don’t belong to this fold, but which he must also bring in. There are no boundaries to the work of salvation and to the divine love that overflows in the example and witness offered by our Good Shepherd. And there must be no boundaries to our understanding of what our outreach and mission and service should be as his people, his active body in the world today. For there will be one flock, one shepherd, that’s what Jesus says. Indeed, Jesus also said, on the night of his betrayal, that to do mission the world we must be united. May they be one, he prays to his Father, so that world will know that you have sent me.

I remember once watching a dry-stone waller selecting and placing his stones, talking about his work as he went along. It's a marvellous art, in which, as he told us, each stone in the pile before him already had its place, its own special part to play in the construction of a good and solid wall. His job was to find the right stone for each space, and place it there. As a careless hiker in dry stone country may discover, knock one stone out, and the whole structure an become unstable, and that whole section of wall may well collapse. I’m also reminded that one attractive thing about walls made of stone rather than brick, is the variety of different sizes, different shapes, and maybe different colours and textures too.

And if "Christ is our cornerstone and on him alone we build", it’s marvellous the range of different stones that can then be bonded together in this construction. But each stone has its place, and its part to play. If any stone is missing or not properly supporting the stones that depend upon it, the whole structure will be weakened.

So these images of sheep and stones are pretty basic to how I understand my ministry as a Christian. Jesus shows me, in human form, the God who seeks and finds, and who cares and leads and protects: the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and is known by them.  His call to me is to be an attentive sheep, to follow well, to hear and respond to his voice.  But also to be a shepherd in the service of the shepherd, having a pastoral ministry to those to whom I can offer, in some sense, direction and encouragement and leadership and love.

And Jesus is the rock who strengthens me, who provided the firm foundation for my life.  I should seek to be firmly built in him, connecting myself to his example of love.  There is one corner stone; but in a wall the stones also support each other, and each shares something of the ministry of that chief stone:  strengthening, supporting and enabling those around us.

May we be, in shared and united ministry, both sheep and shepherds to the glory of the Good Shepherd; and both stones built on the strength of the chief stone and stones supporting and strengthening the stones around us - and this again, to the glory of the one stone who is the corner and the foundation, in whom alone is our salvation.  Amen.


My "Nature Notes" contribution for the month to come . . . my second on this subject.

Most children believe that birds live in nests - or at least, they do when they are very young. If they are interested in nature they will soon come to realise the truth - so far as nearly all birds are concerned - that nests are very temporary structures, used only for the brooding of eggs and the nurturing of chicks. But just now the nesting season is in full force, and nests will be in use.

There are many variations on the basic nest template. Some birds make virtually no nest, with some coastal or seabirds, for example,  more or less nesting directly on rock ledges, or in a scrape on a pebble beach. And then there is the cuckoo, of course, which doesn’t bother with making its own nest - or indeed caring for its own offspring - but parasitises on others.

Garden birds do make nests, which vary from the flimsy jerry-built bundles of twigs that are the nearest that pigeons get to nests, to the amazingly detailed little domed nests of long-tailed tits. These small masterpieces can take a couple of weeks to build (or, better perhaps, to weave) - they are soft and warm, made from moss, hair, wool, and maybe a thousand or more feathers. It is usually very well concealed, in the fork of a tree or in thick brambles. But even such a fine and detailed nest is only used by the baby birds for some two to three weeks.

Another very detailed nest is that of the wren, made of grass, moss and leaves. In many birds it is the female that takes the lead in nest-building, while the male spends most of his time defending the territory. In wrens, however, it is the male who builds, and he will in fact build several nests, often quite inventively sited, and the female will then choose the nest she wants to use. Wrens will on occasion use their nests as winter shelters in very cold weather when their small size makes them vulnerable.

Most nests are carefully hidden away, but inexperience and pressure for nest spaces may mean birds build in places that are too obvious, and if you know where a nest is, then predators probably do as well. Nests are at risk from magpies, crows, cats, rats, squirrels, even wood-peckers. Try and keep some thick bushy cover in your garden if you want breeding birds in spring as well as feeding birds in winter. Nest-boxes will benefit many birds which like to seek out holes in which to build their nests - like tits, nuthatches and sparrows. House sparrows like to nest together, and multiple occupancy sparrow boxes can be bought. Other social nesters include jackdaws and rooks - social but not always sociable, as jackdaws will take over the nests of neighbours, and rooks are notorious stealers of twigs - and of course swallows and martins.

Finally, a little mention of the robin, one of our most entertaining nesters. Robins will often nest in sheds and outbuildings, and use buckets, pans, kettles as shelter! Most years a robin or two will make the news with their amusing choice of nest site.


A very busy week has left me without time to post anything. That's my excuse, anyway . . . so, several posts all at once, now!

Monday, 4 April 2016


Tonight we celebrated the Annunciation, on the first available day in the lectionary, a good week and a half after Lady Day. Here is my short address . . .

A London tour guide working the open top buses, being interviewed about his job, told the story of how one day his microphone was taken off him by a very bright little girl on the bus, who proceeded to captivate the rest of the passengers with her version of the story of that tragic nine days queen of England, Lady Jane Grey. She'd seen a famous painting in the National Gallery and she wanted to tell the world about it. The painting was by a 19th Century artist, Paul Delaroche, and it presented the execution in 1554 of Lady Jane Grey as a martyrdom, in which Lady Jane's innocence is declared in the pale lustre of her skin and the simple, pure white dress she wears, all very different from the elaborate Tudor gowns of those who look on.

Delaroche’s painting tells the tragic story of the ending of a young and vulnerable life. Lady Jane was only seventeen when she was put to death, and was by all accounts a young woman of both beauty and learning, to whom the throne of England had passed in the deathbed will of Henry VIII's son Edward VI. But Edward, being only fifteen at the time of his death, was not old enough for the will to be valid. Edward's sister Mary soon gathered the support she needed to claim the throne, and Jane was doomed.

That story lingered in my mind as I sat down to prepare some words for tonight mainly because it contains these great themes of duty and destiny and - in this case - their tragic consequences. There are those in history whose destiny has been to say 'Yes' to the call, no matter where that yes may lead. We could see Lady Jane Grey in that light, Queen Mary too, perhaps, who knew herself born to be queen, and who might have changed the whole destiny of England had she reigned for longer than the five years she did. Had Mary not died at the age of only 42, and had Mary had children, history might have taken a very different course.

But tonight we’re thinking of another young woman to whom destiny called. The Annunciation to Mary the mother of our Lord is a story with the same interplay between destiny and innocence, in which a young girl is told she's to bear a child who’ll be nothing less than God's anointed Son, the one given to set his people free. And so Mary’s life ceases to be her own; later, after the child is born, old Simeon in the Temple will tell her of the sword that will pierce her heart; later still Simeon’s words become reality - and Mary stands on the hill of Calvary to see her son die.

Lady Jane Grey had little choice, perhaps, in her yes to destiny’s call; her destiny was closely bound to the political ambition of the Duke of Northumberland. But Mary the mother of Jesus maybe could have said no. Whenever I read it I sense all of creation collectively holding its breath and waiting on her answer. Then again, God knows us before we know ourselves; and Mary was chosen for the unsaid yes that even so she was sure to say.

Colossal news breaks in to an ordinary life as Mary says what she perhaps need not have: Let it be to me according to your will. Those are words that run counter to much in the modern world. They're about being where we ought to be, and doing what we ought to do, rather than insisting on that modern god, freedom of choice and the right to do whatever I want. But still today there are those who have a sense of 'ought' and even of destiny, and I thank God for their vision and courage and faith; for society to be able to provide well for its members we need those who know the meaning of service and obedience, and who get on and do what needs to be done. And in a society founded on Christian principles, the Church needs to be faithful and responsive and responsible. Its leaders and members need to be responsive - ready to say yes to God's call even though that call may take us to places we may not choose to be, and responsible - knowing we’re here for the sake of others, and that in serving them we serve our Lord.

So may we then take to heart Mary’s words 'Let it be to me according to your will'. What is God asking of us now, at this stage in the history of our nation and of our Church, at this stage in the living of our lives? He is calling me, and he is calling you, be sure of that. Each one of us has a role, a place and a calling within his purpose; in the building of a holy Temple, each stone has its part to play and its place to fill.

The story of protestant Lady Jane and catholic Queen Mary is a tragic tale made only more tragic by the fact that it was religious intolerance what led Jane to the throne and then to the block - an episode in the history of our nation when those who should have been striving together for the Gospel of Christ were instead fighting each other. Mary prayed was that it should be to her according to God’s will. If that prayer is ours too, may we also recall the prayer of Jesus in the garden: 'Father, may they all be one, that the world may believe.'

I’ve never done an open top bus tour in London, but Ann and I did do one some years ago in Marrakech. We were on the edge of the Sahara, but it was cold and rainy, and the rain grew heavier throughout our journey. Being British, we stuck it out upstairs for quite a while, but eventually we had to admit defeat and retire to the relative dry and warmth of the enclosed seats downstairs. God sometimes has to work very hard on us before we finally give in and let him have his way; he does have to put up with us being short-sighted and foolish and stubborn. We’re not good at saying yes to him, and maybe we need to leave more space in our prayers to hear what he wants to say to us.

Maybe our prayers have too many of our words in them, and not enough of his. The thing is, his words may not be what we expect or desire; they may run counter to our own plans. With that in mind, we can only give thanks now for Mary, and for her simple 'Yes' that opened the way for the Word of God to be born among us. So we see divine love take human form as Mary’s yes to God allows his yes to the world.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Doubting Thomas?

A sermon for the second Sunday of Easter . . .

So today our Easter story is the story of doubting Thomas. I’ve always had a special regard for Thomas, maybe in part because the first church I had charge of as a young curate was dedicated in his name. He gets labelled as “Doubting Thomas”, but I can’t help but think that’s a bit unfair. It wasn’t that Thomas couldn’t believe so much as that he was determined not to. When he says “I will not believe,” he uses the strong version of the verb. He’s not saying “I can’t”, he’s saying “I won’t” - so why is that, we might ask.

You see, Thomas wasn’t lacking in chutzpah or courage. It was Thomas who said, “Let us go also, that we may die there with him.” That was when Jesus decided to return to Judaea after hearing of the illness of Lazarus. Judaea was a very dangerous place for Jesus to go, people there wanted to do him harm - so Thomas doesn’t come across as a man lacking in faith or courage. It might even be that the absence of Thomas when Jesus appeared to his disciples on Easter Day was because he’d been out on the Jerusalem streets, rather than hiding behind locked doors like the other disciples.

So here’s what I think. Thomas wanted so much for his Lord to be risen and alive; and when at last he did see Jesus, he didn’t for a moment need to actually do what Jesus told him to do – place his finger in the marks of the nails and his hand into the wound in his side. His trust in Jesus was so sure and complete that he straight away falls before him and hails him as “My Lord and my God.” But his longing for Jesus to be alive was such that he dared not trust anyone else’s word for it - even that of his friends. What if they were wrong, what if it was all an illusion? That would be a disappointment too much to bear, and Thomas was not prepared to take that risk. His faith remained strong, and he wanted so much for it all to be true, but he didn’t dare take the risk of believing.

That’s what I think. For me, we do Thomas a disservice when we label him as a weak and wobbly doubter. Thomas would go on to travel half a world to take the Gospel to India, and to die a martyr’s death, or so the tradition goes. But his initial refusal to believe allows Jesus to say to us “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.”

So what about us who have not seen? What is the ground of our faith to be? I can only speak for myself. My own Easter faith rests firstly in the existence of the Church itself, built as it is on the foundation of apostles and martyrs. Had there not been people who knew Jesus and who knew that this man had been dead but had risen from the dead, it’s hard to see how the message of Jesus could have survived, or how the Church could have been built. His people should have been defeated, downcast, disillusioned, but something happened to make them lose their fear, and to fill them with joyful courage.

Secondly, my faith rests on the examples of people in whose lives the light of Christ has shone. Some of them I’ve known, others are people I’ve heard about, some of whom bear the title ‘saint’. Some have directly ministered to me, some have taught me, all have inspired me.

But thirdly, I find faith simply in the living of my own life. It may be that I am mistaken and full of illusion; not everyone I know s going to be convinced, but my own sense, from a life that’s managed to contain thus far some pretty impressive highs and lows, is of there being point and purpose and direction to my life’s journey, which leads me to have a personal sense of God’s call and challenge. I’m not a very holy or pious person. I’m not very good at praying, I don’t read scripture as much as I should. Why God should want me, I don’t know. But my sense is that he does.

You may not be convinced. Where’s your proof, you might ask. I have friends and family members who do not believe in God, and I’ve not managed so far to get them to see things my way.

But that’s the point I suppose. There is no proof, or perhaps I should say there is no empirical proof. There are perhaps two kinds of proof: empirical proof, the proof that scientists seek and work from, where you do the same experiment, you get always the same result, wherever and whenever you do it. But there is also what I would call experiential proof. It’s not repeatable for every different person and in every different place; it’s highly subjective, it’s to do with living relationship rather than scientific law – but it works for me.

Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe. Faced with empirical proof, you have no choice but to believe, unless you work really hard at continuing to believe in, say, the earth being flat, the moon being made of cheese, or Mars being inhabited by little green men who build canals. But experiential proof isn’t transferable; so how do we pass on the flame of faith to others?

The clue is in the phrase I just used – the flame of faith. Our faith needs to be a flame, something we pass on by our own burning. People won’t believe Jesus is alive unless they see him alive in us. People won’t believe that Jesus can be their good news unless it’s obvious that he’s our good news. And every little bit helps. Desmond Tutu said: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” The Easter message of Jesus risen and alive should overwhelm the world - what good news it is that love is stronger than death, and that within that saving love you and I are known and loved and treasured. So do we have, and can we share, that flame of faith?