Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Notes from the Feeders - Blackbirds

Among our feeders is one we stock with fatball pieces (Peckish, £2.99, "Home Bargains"). During the winter they are visited a lot by woodpeckers, nuthatches and blackcaps, among others, We've left the feeder in place for the summer, and at present it's a hotspot for blackbirds. We seem to have a remarkably high number of blackbirds in our garden, with the males chasing each other about with furious intent. In fact there are no females to see just now, so I suppose most of the incubation work, as well as nest-building, is left to them.

The blackbirds used to hang around under the feeders pecking up whatever was dropped by those birds nimble enough to use them, but they've now learned to use the fatball feeder themselves, managing to perch there long enough to get what they need. They don't do it in a very stylish way, and there's plenty of flapping of wings, but they manage. Just now they've been joined by some pretty well-grown first-brood juveniles, all spotty and full of attitude, but these haven't to my knowledge tried to perch on the feeders as yet. Occasional jackdaws are able to perch quite confidently on the feeder, despite their larger size, generally staying long enough to wheedle out a big chunk they can fly off with. This morning the song thrush had a go for the first time that I've seen, not very successfully.

The great spotted woodpeckers continue to visit, and the fatballs have now attracted regular visits from the house sparrows that normally live over the road and don't often come to us. There are other feeders nearer, including some we have in our front garden, so either some of those are now left empty or else the fatballs are specially attractive to them. Anyway, from the regularity of their flying visits I suspect we're helping to raise a fair number of sparrow chicks. Last summer we had a visit or two from a family party of starlings - not a bird we normally see on our patch - with the parents teaching the young birds how to do it. Between them they cleared half the food in one sitting - but after a couple or three days they moved on.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Notes from the Feeders - Corvids

It's time I had another go at writing at least occasional notes from our garden feeders. As it happens, there's quite a lot to report just now, so here goes with yesterday's news:

The woods to the back of us contain magpies, jackdaws, carrion crows and a pair of ravens. No jays. sadly - we had them two years ago, but I've not seen or heard one since. Rooks pass overhead now and again, but it's very seldom we see them here. As far as our resident members of the crow family are concerned, though, yesterday was quite fraught. Clearly there are young birds still in the nest - somewhere not too far from us they are being quite vocal. So parents are being protective, and they probably need to be.

So as I was sitting in the garden, a sudden commotion caught my attention, and I looked up to see a carrion crow, a jackdaw and a magpie all involved in aerial combat. Quite a battle was going on. The magpie peeled off and flew back into the wood, toward the sound of what I take to be young magpies in the nest. The other two birds flew on, with the jackdaw continuing to harry the carrion crow. Whether the magpie and jackdaw were acting together or the magpie was seeing off both birds I am not able to judge.

Later, as I cradled an evening glass of tempranillo on my veranda, there came another rather more gutteral commotion. Looking up again, this time I saw a carrion crow in hot pursuit of a raven. They were soon out of sight, but the exchange of words continued for some time. The wooded area behind us is none too large, and none of these birds has a clean slate when it comes to predating on eggs and chicks, so I imagine they are often too close to each other for comfort.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Time and the Kingdom

There’s always time, I tell myself. I spent a full day last week trying and failing to deal with the papers on my desk, the list of people I needed to phone or visit, the bills I should have paid, the lawn that needed mowing, stuff in the garden I’d not quite got round to planting out yet. It didn’t all get done, not by a long way. But maybe I’ll have time to catch up tomorrow. And if things are a bit behind at the moment, I’m OK, there are some windows in my diary next week. Stuff may have built up a bit, but I’m sure it’ll all get cleared, given time.

But maybe there isn’t always time. I need to spend a bit of time looking at priorities, learning to use my time better. Last Wednesday those of us looking at the Lord’s Prayer were thinking about the bit that goes ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.’ But how seriously do we consider those words when we say them? Bishop Stephen Cotterell, in the introduction to the week two session on the Lord’s Prayer, said quite bluntly I thought that we shouldn’t think of praying for anything we’re not also committing ourselves to work for. I guess that applies to the Lord’s Prayer itself as much as any of the other prayers we make. So what is the kingdom and how do we work for it to come?

One day we shall all feast in the kingdom of God. So it’s something to look forward to, then. It’ll happen one day, all in God’s good time. Yes, but not just that. When Jesus talks about the kingdom he’s talking about now, about something urgent, about a priority for our deciding and for our living.

While we might think of kingdoms in geographical terms, as having acreage and borders and boundaries, in Biblical terms a kingdom is wherever the king is honoured and served, without much regard to geography. So the kingdom of God is close to us wherever acts of love put right what is wrong, or heal what’s hurt, or forgive what is amiss: wherever the majesty of the  King of Love is honoured, wherever his will is done.

It may find its fulfilment in heaven, and beyond that gate we call the death of the body, but the people of God are to proclaim the kingdom of God here and now, and that’s not just a matter of words but of deeds, of how we live in community together, and how we reach out to those who need to know God’s love. And if there is feasting in the kingdom to come, we don’t get an entry to that feast until we respond in the here and now to the invitation Jesus gives us.

Statistics published last week state that across the UK 48% of the population now defines itself as having no faith, up from, I think, 25% at the last census. An atheist friend of mine was very quick to celebrate that on Facebook, noting that the various sorts of Christian added together came to less than that. Interestingly, virtually all the increase in those with (quote) no faith seemed to come from a decline in those who labelled themselves C of E. It’s a big decline, but mostly made up of people who used to put “C of E” without really thinking, and who never actually went to church. It may even have to do with how the question was phrased. But it’s still a concern.

Christians do get labelled as boring, as spoilsports, and as outdated, illiberal, Bible bashers who are out of touch with the modern world. Given the way the Church sometimes acts, it’s not always easy to mount a convincing defence against that sort of claim. But when I look at the Jesus of our Gospels, surely to follow this man shouldn’t ever mean to be dull or boring, shouldn’t ever mean not enjoying life, or being closed-minded and illiberal. But it is about getting things right in life.

I love the encounter in this morning’s Gospel reading. The centurion was a man who knew authority when he saw it. He had a quality of faith many of us could learn from. “Just say the word,” he says to Jesus. Just say the word, and I know my servant will be cured.

That is kingdom faith. Expressed by a man who knew about holding authority, giving orders, establishing priorities, getting things done. Which brings me back to where I started, with my untidy desk and untidy life, and my list of things I’ve not got round to yet. Hidden in all of that is a bit of procrastination, if I’m honest. It’s easy to find excuses for putting off the important but challenging things, by doing all the easy and trivial stuff first. It leaves you feeling good because you’ve been busy; except - what’s really been achieved?

I remember this helpful illustration from a training day with the theme of managing time and priorities. The speaker took a big glass jar and a pile of pebbles, and he filled the jar with pebbles. ‘How much more can I get in?’ he asked. ‘Nothing,’ we replied; but of course he could. He got some gravel, and managed to get quite a lot of that in between the pebbles. Well, we knew the jar was full then - except that he got some sand, and there was room for that too, in between the gravel. And then he took a jug of water, and he was able to pour that in too.

‘What does that prove?’ he asked, and we decided he’d proved that you can get more into a jar than you might think - so maybe also more into a day, or more into a diary. ‘That may be true,’ he told us, ‘but the real message from the jar is about how to get so much in: how to establish priorities. To start the other way round, beginning with the little stuff, would leave me not getting a single one of the big stones into the jar.’

I’m exactly the wrong person to lecture anyone on priorities, even from the cosy perch of retirement. My desk is still untidy and the most important thing is whatever’s on top of the pile, or in the forefront of my mind, at the time. Unless it’s something difficult or tedious like my tax return, for example, in which case I’ll probably find something else to do first.

Remember the man Jesus asked to follow him who would have done, except that he had five yoke of oxen to try out first? What would be the equivalent of that for you and me? Well, at least we’re here, and that’s a start! We’ve been praying for the evangelisation of our nation, and that’s an urgent and important prayer. But that can only begin with the evangelisation of me, with me  getting my priorities right. Jesus says, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God.’ Not, seek it when you’ve got the time, when you’ve got the other stuff sorted. Actually, the way you do all the other stuff begins with seeking the kingdom, begins with our saying yes to God, allowing him to Lord in all of our life.

Kingdom living is about getting our priorities right in life - doing the right things, and doing things in the right order. Get the pebbles into your jar first. And, remember, kingdom people are invited to a feast, to something that should be good, of which this table in church of a Sunday is a foretaste and a promise. The  mission of the Church requires of us this: that we are eager ourselves to live kingdom lives, allowing God to reign, and then, in acts and words that reflect and channel his love, eager to pass on his invitation to the world.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

What We Do Not Know

The poem I posted yesterday, still in process of revision (even the title has changed!)

Early morning, lakeside:
a lone fisherman steers his dugout across the waves,
returning from his night’s work. He sees the cormorants
drying their wings on the rocks just offshore.
He sees the scientists already at work at their station on the beach;
sunlight reflects from the rotating blades of their apparatus.

Mostly these days, his is the only boat. It is a longer night than it used to be,
and harder work, and further from shore.
The scientists watch him from the shoreline. They know
how short the time is, and how much they still do not know.
In one place storms level trees and flood the land,
in another, fertile valleys are turned to desert, as the good soil blows like sand.
Tiny dots of life in the oceans that feed the great whales,
are part as well of what makes our climate work,
part of a chain that may be breaking. The stuff we do,
the stuff we empty into the water, maybe on the other side of the world,
is changing the physics and chemistry of the oceans,
and therefore their biology too,
while the plastic bits and bags we throw away
pile up on the beaches of remote Pacific islands,
and in the guts of turtles, too.

Each dying turtle takes a part of our planet with it;
and if the planet is dying,
then be sure that we shall be dying too.
Standing as we do on the shoreline of discovery,
too often we choose to look the other way, with
our souls replaced by microchips, and our selves encased in chrome;
we must not forget the sober, essential truth
that we ourselves link into the same chain as turtles.

Early morning, lakeside: all the fisherman knows
is that the fish are no longer what they were, or where they were;
the morning sun ignites as always a rosy glow on the lakeside hills,
but let us not be fooled; things that used to be balanced
are in balance no longer.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016


Early morning, lakeside:
a lone fisherman steers his dugout across the waves,
returning from his night’s work, passing the rock where
three cormorants are drying their wings in the early sun.
The fishermen sees that the scientists are already at work
at their station on the beach,
sunlight reflecting from the rotating blades of their apparatus.

These days, his is the only boat. It’s a longer night than it used to be,
harder work, and further from shore;
but the fish are still there, for now, if you know how to do it,
if you know where to look.

The scientists watch him from the shoreline. They know
there is far too much we do not understand. Winds and waves
still confound us, ocean currents, the mix of warm and cold waters;
in one place storms level and flood the land,
in another, fertile valleys dry into desert, and the good soil blows like sand.
All of it caused by the unexpected flutter
of a butterfly in some rain forest clearing -
or it might as well be, for all we know.  And time is short.

The scientists know that we do need to know. We are discovering how
tiny forms of life in the oceans feed not only whales but the climate of our planet;
but what feeds them, and what allows them to thrive?
Or, more to the point, what stops them thriving? The stuff we do,
the stuff we empty into the water, maybe on the other side of the world,
is changing the physics and the chemistry of the oceans,
and therefore their biology too.
Meanwhile, plastic bits and bags are piling up
on the beaches of remote Pacific islands,
and in the guts of turtles, too.

And if the planet is dying,
then be sure that we shall be dying with it.
Standing as we do on the shoreline of discovery,
too often we choose to look the other way, with
our souls replaced by microchips, and our selves encased in chrome;
we must not forget the sober, essential truth
that we ourselves are part of it all.

Early morning, lakeside: all the fisherman knows
is that the fish are no longer what they were, or where they were;
and that, although the morning sun ignites the same rose glow as always
on the hills above the lake, things that used to be balanced
are in balance no longer.

(Note on Wednesday evening  -  Thanks for comments . . . this is still in the early stages of writing, and has a little way to go I think before it's fully ready to be unleashed on the world!)

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

God's "Yes"

A sermon for Trinity Sunday . . .

Trinity Sunday sermons: never easy. I never was much good at either numbers or theology. But here’s an idea I came up with a few years ago for a family service on Trinity Sunday. It’s about names for God, and the first of those names is for God as Creator and Father and King. We read how God in the Old Testament formed the children of Abraham into a nation, leading them by Moses across the wilderness to the land he’d promised. His names are holy and not to be spoken out loud, but in scripture we find his name written down as the Hebrew letters YHWH. Our Bibles express that as “The Lord”, but the name itself was translated Jehovah, or for modern scholars Yahweh. So our first name for God is Yahweh, and I’ll write down a Y for Yahweh..

The Gospels of our New Testament show us another image of God: God born among us and living alongside us, God known and revealed in the man Jesus of Nazareth. Prophets of old had said that God would send his chosen one, his Messiah, to set his people free, and one name they gave him was Emmanuel, which means “God with us”. So let’s take that as our second name for God, and write the letter E.

Perhaps you can see where this idea is headed. We now look beyond the New Testament and into the history of this thing called Church, born on the Day of Pentecost. We think of God inspiring, directing, enlivening, and enthusing his people today; God present among us as wind and fire. We might sing “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.” Jesus told his disciples that though he was going from them, they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to lead them into all truth. So our third name for God is Spirit, giving us the letter S.

It won’t have escaped your notice that those three letters together give us the word ‘Yes’. For me, God is the ultimate “yes”. His yes in Creation brings all things into being. His yes to the way of the cross lifts from us the burden of our sins. His continued yes to all of us inspires and enthuses and enables his Church in mission and service.

I could stop there, but bear with me as I say a bit more about this great little word yes. Yes is a releasing word that allows all kinds of possibilities. Contrast it with no: no is a shutting down word, a word to deny potential, a word that refuses to dream dreams. Yes may be a risky word, not all the possibilities it allows are going to work; but the God we believe in is a God who takes that risk. This is God saying yes to us even though we may make mistakes, even though we may go against his will, even though we may even deny his existence. For me God is that yes that releases us to be ourselves, that allows us an independence we can use or misuse.

Yes is a relationship word. Christianity, Judaism and Islam share a history and a scripture, and we worship the same God, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. All three faiths speak firmly of the one true God, and the Islamic statement that ‘God is one, and beside him there is no other’ would be echoed both by Jews and Christians. But we Christians wish to say more than that about God; we wish to say that God is not only one, but also three. That’s a difficult concept to understand: how can God be three and one all at the same time? St Patrick used the shamrock leaf as an image of Trinity; others have used images like ice, water and steam, three forms of the same substance.

But no image of that sort can ever be enough; all of them fall short of what Trinity tries to express about God. Anything that tries to define God tends to fit God into a box, but the real God isn’t boxable or safe, and can’t be contained. That’s why the name of God in the Old Testament is never pronounced: to name God would be to claim to control God, but God is not to be controlled. Christians can sometimes seem to be saying that the doctrine of the holy Trinity somehow sums God up, is somehow the last word on God: not true - nothing we think or say can define the indefinable God. All the doctrine of the Trinity can ever be is our attempt to say what it is God has revealed of himself to us. We encounter him in these three distinct ways, as Father, as Son, as Holy Spirit: in three different ways of saying ‘yes’. And Father is not separate from Son, and Son is not separate from Spirit: that consistent ‘yes’ is one God. And Father, Son and Holy Spirit form a moving trinity of relationship, in which all three are fully and deeply interdependent. As Jesus says to Philip: ‘Do you not know that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?’

God reveals himself to us as Trinity; and in doing so God invites us to participate in that relationship. Jesus prayed that his people might be one, their unity a witness to the world of the eternal commonwealth of love that we call God in Trinity. We are one in Christ, we belong to one another as we belong to God-in-Trinity; our witness to the God who is Trinity must itself be Trinitarian - a oneness that transcends human barriers, that transcends the boundary between church and chapel, between here and the other side of the world, between wealth and poverty, black or white, language, culture and tradition.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York called for a wave of prayer with mission in mind, between Ascension and Pentecost but onwards too into this long season of the Sundays after Trinity that begins today. Trinity speaks of three persons and one God, a dynamic interplay of love in which Father, Son, Spirit belong together, and each one is that wonderful word yes expressed to us and to the world in its own distinctive way. Reflecting on what they had seen and known in Jesus, the first apostles said (in the words here of Paul) that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” Reflecting on what they had been gifted with on the first Christian Pentecost, the apostles knew that, though their Lord Jesus no longer walked alongside them, his Spirit was with them always - again, as Paul said, “We have the mind of Christ.”

Today on Trinity Sunday we celebrate all of that; and, yes, we rehearse a theological theory, a brave attempt to define the God who is one and yet more than one. More than that, though, we affirm God’s ‘yes’ to us and to the world, his yes that sets us free and empowers us. Our mission prayer should be that people encounter for themselves the yes of God to them. And that we may also offer our own ‘yes’ to God in response to God’s yes to us: yes, we shall live together as God’s people, yes, we shall do our best to build and maintain relationships that bear witness to God’s self-giving and creative love, and yes, we shall both serve and proclaim the one we honour as Father and Son and Holy Spirit, as the three persons, three revelations, who together are love in action, the one true God.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

More On Pecking Orders

Nature Notes for the month ahead . . .

A couple of months ago I wrote about the way our local robins seem to target dunnocks, frequently flying the width of our garden to see one off. Robins are feisty little birds and often quite combative toward other species, but the special zeal with which they chase off dunnocks probably has to do with similarities in terms of habitat and food.

But I have noted similar battles between a number of other closely related species. Blue tits, for example, which come a long way down the garden pecking order, will frequently fly at visiting coal tits and chase them away. To some degree size does matter in the garden, and blue tits are among the smallest birds to visit our feeders, losing out to some degree to larger species like greenfinches or for that matter great tits. However, they are persistent, and of course they are quite acrobatic little birds, able to exploit openings some of the other larger species  aren’t agile enough to use to their advantage.

Coal tits are just as agile, but don’t seem to do as well at all. I wonder why. They are about the same size as a blue tit, and I imagine they have a very similar diet. Coal tits are very definitely at the bottom of the pile as regards bird feeder pecking order, and only manage to sneak in when other birds have their backs turned. Their strategy is to zoom in, grab a seed and zoom away - and in fact they will hide most of these seeds for later use.

Blue tits show a particular antipathy toward their close relative the coal tit, and I’ve observed them - again, like the robin - flying almost the width of the garden to tackle a coal tit and turn it away from the feeder. I presume once again that it’s because they have such similar needs, in terms of diet and habitat. They can’t help but be competitors.

Recently, I’ve also noticed a similar interspecific conflict between blackbirds and song thrushes. Song thrushes have declined considerably in recent years, so I was pleased to find one beginning to visit us regularly through the latter part of the winter just gone, and into this spring, when in fact there is clearly a pair - good news! But a song thrush has only to hop onto our lawn for it to be attacked by blackbirds. Closely related species, again, with song thrushes a little smaller than blackbirds, and more specific as regards diet.

There are many more blackbirds than song thrushes in our gardens, and it may be that - if what I’ve observed is replicated nationwide - song thrush decline might have to some degree have been assisted by this blackbird/song thrush conflict, even if the primary reasons for decline lie elsewhere as I expect they do. Blackbirds will anyway be assisted by being more generalist feeders. Some have even managed to use our suet feeder. They don’t do it very well, wings flap wildly and then the bird sort of falls off back to the ground - but they do manage to win their morsel of food.

A sermon for Pentecost

Thomas Alva Edison once said, “Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” In other words, it’s a general truth that the initial breakthrough is only the first step in a long process.

You could look at the first Christian Pentecost as a crucial breakthrough: suddenly, as if out of nowhere, comes the gift of the Holy Spirit. The story in the Acts of the Apostles attempts to describe the indescribable; how can you describe being clothed with power from on high, and filled and over-filled with joy and delight? You can’t. Luke speaks of wind and flame - mysterious and uncontrollable forces. People saw the disciples out on the street and thought they must be drunk on the new wine of Pentecost, which is one of Jewish harvest festivals. And maybe in a way, new wine was indeed the cause of it all - just not the new wine the scoffers in the crowd imagined, instead an experience beyond language, for the disciples and also for those who saw and heard them.

But this immense spiritual high was only a first step. Jesus had told his disciples that the Spirit of truth would lead them into all truth. So Pentecost is not only an event, it’s also a process, a process of discovery and enlightenment, a process of apostolic formation. We may experience the Spirit as either fire or dove, and both are valid. The Spirit can be  the tempest wind that throws the windows open, but she can equally be the gentle breeze that quietly breathes new life into our hearts. The Spirit is God's personal touch upon us, and that’s different for each different person.

Holy Spirit may come as storm wind or as gentle breeze, but the Spirit always comes to bring power and joy. And the Spirit  stirs up those gifts within us which form a foundation for building the Church: not only joy but also love, peace, and things like patience, kindness, self-control and gentleness that enable us each to be Christ-like ourselves and to be Christ-centred together as a community of faith.  

On that first Christian Pentecost the Holy Spirit fell in full force upon the disciples; but their joyful preaching that day was still only a first step. They had much still to learn, to discover, and to experience. It took time to realise that this gift could be received by those who were not Jews as well as those who were. When you read the Acts of the Apostles you discover a community founded in the Spirit that all the way through the book is still receiving the Spirit, and still learning what it means to have God present in power among them and within them. Still learning too just what their Lord was calling them to do in and for the world. That first Day of Pentecost didn’t answer all their questions in one go, wonderful and life-changing though it was. In fact it probably raised a few new ones.

Simple statement: the Church must continue to be Pentecostal. The Church was founded in the Spirit, and it must be always open to the Spirit. That word Pentecostal usually describes a particular and quite narrow definition of Church; for me that’s never enough. To be Pentecostal is not to be some particular style of Christian, but just to be Christian, open to the God who isn’t only out there, in heaven or in some mysterious place of glory, nor is he only in here, in the pages of scripture or of history. To be Pentecostal is to believe in God in us, in God's empowering presence in my own life and yours. In my case it hasn’t ever been quite the rushing wind and tongues of fire that we read of in Acts chapter 2. But I certainly can think back to times when I’ve felt God’s presence and power (times too, if I'm honest, when I’ve tried to push him away). 

I do thank God for the times when his love has broken through the protective shell I’ve erected of selfishness or fear; these are times when the penny drops, when eyes are opened, when I've understood what God is calling out of me more deeply and clearly. So you could say that the work of the Holy Spirit is to bridge that decisive gap, the eighteen inches or so that separate mind from heart. Billy Graham once called those eighteen inches the most important mission journey.

Jesus said that the Spirit of truth will lead us into all truth. This isn't the truth of book-learning or lecture halls, this is the truth of emotional engagement, truth not only known in mind but also felt like a fire in one's heart; and Pentecost is a celebration of the truth that possesses us, and claims us as its own, a celebration of God in breakthrough mode, empowering a little group of disciples to begin the mission that would be worldwide, and that continues to this day. 

As long as the Church remains prayerfully open to this wild and unpredictable Holy Spirit, to God as wind and flame, to God as gentle dove, to God as comforter, to God as disturber, that breakthrough mode persists; things happen, new disciples are made, great works are done. But when the Church prefers to keep God under lock and key in however beautiful a shrine or safety box, the fire of that breakthrough day fades away, and the Church becomes a thing rather than a movement. But of course, what has happened again and again through history is that when the Church gets jaded and old and no longer going anywhere, the Spirit breaks through again in renewal and revival, and people rediscover the joyful Pentecost awareness of God as love, God not just as a doctrine or philosophy, but as a truth that dances within us. We have had ten days of a wave of prayer, or at least that’s what the archbishops called us to be doing. How hard were we praying? And were we praying for the filling of our churches, or, more honestly and Pentecostally, for people to encounter God for themselves, to meet with Jesus, to be filled with his love? Maybe at last the time is right for the Spirit to move again across our land.

Friday, 6 May 2016


A sermon for the Sunday after Ascension Day :-

I thought I might spend some time with you today musing on the Christian ministry of waiting. For I think there’s a real and valid Christian ministry of waiting that ties in with the theme and story of this Sunday, the Sunday that falls between Ascension Day and Pentecost. Today we think back to the friends of Jesus waiting in Jerusalem; waiting, as their Lord asked before he left them, for the gift he would send upon them. We think of them waiting for the Holy Spirit, waiting too for the call and summons that would launch the Church, that would send them out to do mission, that would begin their story and ours of active and apostolic mission and ministry across the world.

Waiting: “I seem to spend all my life waiting,” said one of the women at the stop as we waited for the bus from Shrewsbury to Welshpool last week. I don’t often catch the bus, usually I’ve got my car, so it’s a sort of waiting I don’t do very much. She obviously did it every day. There were other people waiting that day in other ways and for other reasons. Along the street there’d been some kind of accident or disturbance which had resulted in a shop window being broken. I’d passed a young policeman waiting there, standing in the gutter facing the shop, keeping an eye on things I suppose until his mate came back in the car. I’d also passed a motley crew of urban beggars; they were also waiting, sitting at one end of the footbridge across the river. Theirs was not a very purposeful sort of waiting, but I suppose waiting was a way of life for them, waiting without much reason and with little reward. Maybe it was one of their number who’d broken the shop window. If so, maybe he’d at least get a bed for the night, albeit in a police cell.

So how would a Christian ministry of waiting be different from other kinds of waiting? Well, the first thing to say about the disciples waiting in Jerusalem was that they were waiting prayerfully. They were waiting purposefully. And they were waiting joyfully. Their waiting wasn’t just empty time, but preparation for what was to come. They had seen Jesus go from them, but what they saw on the hillside wasn’t only departure, it was also coronation. And now they were waiting to be commissioned into the service of their King.

My son came up to visit last weekend, and we found ourselves talking about one of the last times I was down in London with him. We’d met in Borough Market in London, near Southwark Cathedral. John had come from work, but I’d been at Southwark Cathedral to attend a service within which new bishops were being consecrated. And thinking back now, that service was itself a conscious act of prayerful waiting, as is every service of ordination or consecration or commissioning. On one level it’s about people being given jobs to do, or maybe people being accorded a new status in the Church. But there’s more than that going on. We’d been calling on God to send his Spirit upon these two people who, within all the ceremonial stuff, were being called and commissioned into a new and demanding role - that of being shepherds to God’s people, and leading and preaching and serving and loving according to the call of Jesus and after the example of Jesus and in the name of Jesus. And, as at every service of that sort I’ve been at or taken part in - ordaining a new minister, welcoming a minister into a new charge, baptizing or confirming new Christians or new members of a church, all of us there were drawn to reflect on our own call, and on the presence of God, of his Holy Spirit, in our own lives. All of us were being drawn to wait on God.

One title given to the Holy Spirit is the Comforter. But God’s Spirit is as much Disturber as Comforter, for he’s not soothing us into a holy huddle but turning us round to point us out into the world. The Church Spirit-filled won’t be inward-looking and all tied up with its own affairs. If we’re waiting on God we’re surely waiting, like the first disciples, for a change of mind and heart and vision. God calls us to love our neighbours as ourselves, whoever and wherever that neighbour may be.

Years ago I remembering listening to the then Bishop of Coventry talking about what in Germany is called Nagelkreuzgemeinschaft, and in this country the Fellowship of the Cross of Nails. It connects Coventry and Dresden, it connects Britain and Germany, but more than that, it seeks to be an agent of reconciliation and peacemaking globally. The Bishop described how his wartime predecessor, standing in the burnt-out ruins of the old cathedral in Coventry, the ruins that still stand next to the new church, said: “Those who did this thing must become our friends.” The first cross of nails was formed out of three medieval nails found on the floor of the cathedral; it became a symbol of hope – of the Christian hope that by God’s grace and his power within us, even bad and tragic and hurtful things can be turned round and used for good.

The Spirit is not to be contained by human borders. The friends of Jesus waiting in Jerusalem were fishermen and ordinary folk, not travelled people, but they were about to launch into the unknown. The story of the Ascension ends Luke’s Gospel of Jesus and begins the Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s ‘Gospel of the Holy Spirit’, where he tells of the Spirit releasing the good news of Jesus Christ from its Jewish setting out into all the world.

Christian Aid Week is just around the corner, starting next Sunday, and it is itself a witness I believe to the way in which a Spirit-led Church will dare to cross borders and make friends. Those who this Christian Aid Week will be distributing and collecting envelopes door to door, or standing on the street with a collecting tin, or organising some special event to raise funds but also to tell stories - if we’re doing any of this we’re showing the world how Christians care for our neighbours.  Remember the question Jesus was asked: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ He replied by telling the story of the Good Samaritan, of a man who reached across the boundary, the division, the enmity between one kind of person and another. My neighbour is anyone; anyone who needs my help, my support, my vision, my love. Their need puts them in my power. I can help, or I can walk away. I know what the Samaritan did. I know what my Lord would do. The disciples in Jerusalem were waiting for new vision, and waiting to see the world – and to recognise their neighbour - through the eyes of Christ. We should wait and pray for the same vision.

But there’s a sort of waiting I’m all too prone to, that I need to confess to you. Maybe in fact you share my problem. There is that waiting which is about putting off the evil day when you’ve to start doing that thing you really don’t want to, or when you have to begin that job you fear might be too big for you. ust now at home, it’s my decking. It’ll be a big job, so I think: better not to start yet. Time’s not right. I need a week of good weather. I need the loan of my son-in-law’s power washer. I need . . . actually what I do need is just to get on with it. And that applies just as much to the spiritual tasks I find reasons to postpone. For all their uncertainties, the disciples waited in hope, waited with a deep desire to get on with things. There was nothing of the avoidance tactic in their waiting.

A few months back I was listening to a talk given by a youth worker from the Church of South India. She was very young herself, and full of enthusiasm and commitment. She talked about the 150 evangelists that were at work in her remote, poor and very rural part of India, travelling from village to village, but finding it hard. So they were equipping all of them with bicycles. So far they had fifteen; only 135 to go. She was very excited about that. Her church was very poor, and there wasn’t much chance they’d be able to raise enough money to buy all the bicycles they needed, but she was sure they would arrive somehow, because she was sure this was what God wanted.

So for now they were waiting, waiting for help to arrive from friends and partners. But what struck me as she spoke was that just because you need to wait doesn’t mean you don’t also make a start. And for the young woman who was addressing us and for her co-workers back home, the fact that they’d been able to make a successful start was all the assurance they needed that they’d be able to finish the job.

A week today is not only the start of Christian Aid Week but also the Day of Pentecost. Today we wait on our King ascended into heaven but at the same time always with his people. We  wait on his promised gift of the Spirit. May we wait prayerfully and purposefully, may we wait with confidence and hope, may we wait with enthusiasm, wanting to make a start, ready to offer ourselves in the service of our Lord and in his mission of love to the world.  Lord, lift our vision, and help us to wait with the hope of a better world in our hearts. Renew us in eager faith and in mutual love. And as we see what you would have us do, help us to begin now, but always to expect more. Amen.