Saturday, 25 June 2016

Brexit - a new poem


To my slight surprise
the world still seems to be revolving,
the same sun, clouds, birdsong
as yesterday. Maybe
a different horizon,
a different road on which to travel.
“There may be trouble ahead,”
someone is singing - well,
I hope no-one was pretending it would be easy
whoever won the day. But hey,
we may be on a different road,
but it’s still the same people travelling,
my sister is still my sister,
my brother my brother.
In the end, I find
I don’t really care how you voted,
only that we’ll only get to where we want to go
if now we choose
to travel together.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Tolerance - a sermon for this Sunday

The other day I asked a friend to help me with something, not a big job, but it needed two of us. I wasn’t in a hurry at all, happy to wait until whatever was convenient for him. But his immediate response was, “No time like the present! Let’s get it done, then.” And we did.

To those who looked on sceptically - as some certainly did - Jesus hadn’t done much of a job assembling his disciples. Any rabbi would be expected to gather disciples, but what a rag taggle bunch this Jesus of Nazareth had got! None of them had the education and erudition you’d expect. They were fishermen, people of that ilk. What kind of disciple could you make from a fisherman?

In the Gospels we can read how some of them were called, and the common factor is this: these were the sort of people who were prepared to say “yes” straight away. For them there was no time like the present. That wasn’t true for everyone Jesus called. “Of course I’ll come, but can you hang on, I’m not quite ready yet” - that was their response. Their reasons for not coming straight away weren’t bad ones. If my friend had come up with something like that I’d have waited, I wouldn’t have minded. But Jesus demanded an immediate response.

He even comes across as a bit uncaring. He says some tough things to them. “Leave the dead to bury their dead”: what kind of thing is that for the Messiah to say? Though it could actually be that the man’s father was not actually dead, some people think - in which case he was saying, “I shan’t be free to follow you until after my father has died.” While that might make what Jesus said easier for us to accept, the challenge behind his words remains the same. In every matter there comes a crucial moment of decision; miss that moment and the thing never gets done at all. My friend was a friend indeed when he said he’d come straight away. I’ve got past history of never doing the things I don’t do straight away.

And then, how often we say we’ll do something, sign me up, when really we only want to look good, or maybe get the person whose asking off our back. But Peter and the rest of them came as soon as they were called> They dropped everything, just got going. And if they weren’t the brightest sparks in the box, they were what Jesus wanted, people who’d just get and do it.

Mind you, they still had a lot to learn. You can see that from the verses that began our Gospel reading. If you travelled from Galilee to Jerusalem, your most direct route would be through Samaria. But Jews and Samaritans were old enemies. Though they were from the same stock, and worshipped the same God, they kept themselves totally separate, and worshipped in different places and different ways. It’s sad but true that close neighbours can make the most bitter enemies.

So it would be strange for any Jewish teacher to send his people to a Samaritan village to get help and accommodation. Jews and Samaritans wouldn’t sit at the same table. Why would a Samaritan help a Jew to travel to Jerusalem? Samaritans believed it wasn’t a holy city at all, that Jews were worshipping in the wrong place. Maybe Jesus wanted to offer a hand of friendship, as he did by the well of Jacob in a story we can read in St John’s Gospel. Or maybe he just knew he could use the rejection he expected to teach a lesson to his disciples. Anyway, that’s what happened in the end.

The messengers were duly turned away; and when they heard about it, the most boisterous of the disciples of Jesus, James and John, wanted to call down fire from heaven to destroy the village. Remember their nickname - Boanerges, the Sons of Thunder - it was bound to be those two, really. Jesus would have none of it. They went on to another village. Jesus had presented the Samaritan village with an opportunity to be hospitable. He must have been sorry they didn’t do it, but even so, this was a matter for forgiveness, not retribution.

And so he taught his disciples a lesson in tolerance. One commentary I read on this passage calls tolerance a lost virtue. If that was true when that commentary was written, some fifty years ago, what about the world of today? I think tolerance has been in short supply over the past few weeks. And in general, though we may be more free these days to do our own thing and choose our own path, even to make our own truth, I’m not sure that our society has all that much of the tolerance we find in Jesus.

We have an “anything goes” society. That seems tolerant, but it’s tolerance based more in indifference than in mutual care. Of course there is still a lot of care and kindness about, and I thank God for it, but I also can’t help but feel that in some ways society is growing ever more fractured. If we don’t need to know our neighbours - and these days often we don’t - then we also don’t need to care too much about how they live. But that’s not really tolerance, but indifference.

The tolerance of Jesus is tolerance based in love. Abraham Lincoln was once accused of being too soft on his opponents. He should destroy his enemies, he was told. This was his answer: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Good words, but harder to live than they are to say. But that’s how Jesus saw that Samaritan village. They’d not been able to accept his offer of friendship now, but that didn’t mean the offer was withdrawn.

There’ll always be those who don’t share your views, those who see the world differently from how you see it. Even in church we don’t all sing from the same hymn sheet. I’ve found that when I’ve chosen hymns in a church I’m visiting, only to find them sung to different tunes from the ones I expected. St Paul wrote, “Our knowledge is partial.” That applies just as much to me as to the person I might disagree with or want to criticise or correct. As William Barclay wrote, “God has his own secret stairway into every heart.”

For when people disagree, the truth is not usually 100% on one side or the other, but somewhere between the two positions, however entrenched those positions may be. Jesus believed that the Samaritans had got it wrong about God, but so had his own people. When he did enter Jerusalem, the first thing he did was to cleanse the temple, to make clear to his own people just how much they were getting wrong.

I heard someone say last week, “I’ve had to live with the word brexit, but if anyone starts talking about braftermath I won’t be responsible for my actions!” But braftermath is upon us, like the word or not. We have to deal with the aftermath of the debate, and the fact that a decision has been made that one lot of people won’t like, while the other lot of people might be tempted to be triumphalist about it. It behoves both sides to be patient, tolerant and caring. Too much hot air has been expended already; and let us not forget that, whether you connect it to how the campaign has been conducted or blame the madness of extremism, one person has died.

We need to be clear about this: neither alternative was the truth; neither alternative had all the right on its side. For better or worse, there’s now a job of work to be done, that must be done for the sake of the whole, and that work begins with a process of healing and of toleration. There’s not been a single view across church folk in this debate: people have rightly come to different conclusions by thinking through the facts and testing them according to their Christian beliefs. Again, the truth lies somewhere in the space between us: only God sees all things as they are. And his call to us? There’s no time like the present. I hope that Christians take a lead in tolerance, and set an example of discipleship. A decision has been made. But we still need those who voted the other way, we still need to hear what they have to say, and we still need to remember that those who may seem to be our enemies contain within themselves, as do we, the possibility of being friends.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016


I shall be voting REMAIN on 23rd June because . . .

1) I am proud to be British, and I want to remain proud to be British. The Britain I am proud of is a place of tolerance, refuge, welcome, generosity and care for others, that played its part in encouraging and supporting, in our continent and our world, the highest standards of democracy, understanding, tolerance and peace. With very few exceptions, I have heard nothing from the Brexit side increasing and improving our positive contribution in the wider world; if I had I might consider it. Brexit seems to be about the nation I love becoming more insular, less tolerant, less prepared to give and to help; it seems to me it’s mostly about what we can get rather than what we can give. I am saddened and ashamed that our nation should be motivated by self interest and small-mindedness in this way. I hold my hand up as European as well as British - I don’t believe that’s an either/or. The EU is far from perfect, and reform is clearly needed, but as someone proud to be British I want our nation to be in there, rolling its sleeves up to contribute to an ongoing process to which we have a positive contribution to make, and within which we will find allies who share our vision.

2) Immigration is a real issue that deserves to be taken seriously, but it’s also a much more complex matter than some brexit supporters make out. Workers from overseas do benefit our economy, our health service, etc, and most people who come here do come to work and not to scrounge. We are not bound by the Schengen Agreement which does (or did until the recent crisis) allowed free travel across some internal European borders, so we have retained control of our borders within the EU. Outside the EU we may well have no more control than we do now, especially if we wish to retain access to the single market. Immigration from beyond the EU needs Europe-wide action; we might be less able to deal with this issue on our own than as part of the EU. And I am also mindful of the many British people who wish to live and work in the EU. These have included one of my children, which is why I now have a Polish son-in-law.
3) The UK retains a great deal of influence as a world power; we are in the G7, and have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, etc, etc. We presently punch above our weight as a nation, but it is at least arguable that an exit from the EU could reduce our influence on the world stage. While this isn’t in fact a big issue for me, and I would like my nation to get rid of some of its remaining imperialist trappings, the point is still worth making.

4) I am not convinced by brexit claims that the UK as a trading nation will do better unshackled from the EU. In the 1950’s and 60’s we still had an industry that we owned; now we are very dependant on multinationals. In the 1950’s and 60’s we still had (the remains of) an empire to provide a market for our goods (whatever their quality); now we don’t, and we were already struggling to sell what we make before we joined the then EEC. Case in point: look at what happened to our motor-cycle industry.

5) I find it hard to understand, as does most of the rest of the world, how we imagine we are going to negotiate free trade deals to replace those we have as part of the EU, at least without taking a great deal of time. And I wonder whether those multinationals whose investment in UK industry is so vital these days will be prepared to stay the course while we do all that?

6) There is virtually no doubt that our economy will dip if we brexit. Households will lose income, GDP will be reduced, imports will be more expensive, tax revenues will be squeezed. We are much more dependant than we used to be on our financial sector. While London will continue to be a good place to do international business, it will not be quite as good and as inviting as it is now, and Frankfurt and other financial centres will be more than ready to receive those who would rather be dealing within the EU. The simple point here is that there will be a cost, and everyone will share that cost. Some people will be happy to do that, they will feel it’s worth it in order to regain our sovereignty (whatever that means). They are entitled to that view, but I don’t share it.

7) There’s no doubt that the EU costs money, quite a lot of money, though in fact a very small amount of our national budget as a nation. Brexit campaigners have been very good at making the amount we pay (net) seem considerably larger than it really is, and they have also spent it on lots of different things, when in reality what we save by a brexit can be spent only once, if it all. It might need to be spent on replacing revenues hit by our leaving. It certainly can’t all be spent on, say education, or the NHS, or any other single cause.
8) Everyone, from Caesar to Charlemagne to Napoleon to Hitler who has tried to unite Europe has failed. And what does a united Europe do for us anyway? Well, thank you, Boris, for that one. Actually, some of those “united Europes”, in particular the Roman Empire, lasted quite some time and achieved a great deal that was on the whole good. But, leaving that aside, to compare the voluntary union of independent European states with the territorial ambitions of a Napoleon or Hitler was crass in the extreme.

In practice, the EU has helped ensure a European peace that we should be wary of taking for granted - and, while other international bodies have played their part in that, to belittle the contribution of the EU to peace in Europe would be wrong and dangerous. Recent years have witnessed the wholesale transition of the soviet bloc nations of Eastern Europe into thriving democracies; again, the result of changes and movements wider than the EU, but a process in which the EU has certainly played its part, and has significantly encouraged the development of these nations. If the cost of this has been partly borne by us, hasn’t it been a cost worth meeting, and a work worth doing? The EU has significantly improved human rights in ways that have directly impacted on us: the rights of working people have been developed and protected, along with positive impacts on personal and family rights and security.

9) Of course, one thing that is clearly true is that if we leave the EU, that will likely be the end of David Cameron’s political career, and there are many people who might be tempted to say “Hooray” to that. Frankly, though, for all the deficiencies of Mr Cameron, I’d rather him (for now, anyway) than Boris Johnson, his most likely successor.

10) To sum up: I am proud to be British, but I am also able to think of myself as European. I don’t think I have to make a choice between these two, and I think that I want the UK to continue to be involved in this experiment in working together that is the EU. Two things to add to that: (1) I would like the UK to stay united, and I feel increasingly sure it won’t if we brexit; and (2) I don’t buy into the “us versus them” argument peddled by the brexiters - every nation state in the EU remains a nation state, and all have their own concerns, hopes, agendas, which sometimes will be opposed to where we stand, and often will be close to our own views; only on a very few occasions have we not been “on the winning side” in Brussels or Strasbourg. So for me the positives about the EU outweigh the negatives, especially in a world that in many ways is becoming more chaotic, less ordered, less easy to read. A strong and united Europe can be a force for good in this world, and together can make strategic economic and political agreement and common cause with other powers, and provide ordered and principled criticism and opposition to others. I believe that being part of the EU provides a definite boost to our economy, a platform for negotiations that work to our good, and a financial market we can exploit; and that the EU supports a democratic consensus across the continent that we should be wary of taking for granted.

And one final and simple fact: once we’re out of the EU we’re out. There won’t be a way back in. If we remain in, the opportunity to leave in the future if the experiment really isn’t working is still there (whatever Mr Cameron might say about “once in a lifetime”). And that nice Mr Farage will still be there, to make sure we don’t forget it . . .

Friday, 17 June 2016


A sermon for this Sunday . . .

The New Testament reading we heard this evening was a story of deliverance, the healing of a man possessed not just by one demon but a whole legion of them. It’s a story that raises as many issues as it resolves - for one thing, it leaves me feeling distinctly sorry for the pigs themselves and for the farmers who owned them. I can only hope that their insurance policy covered acts of God. But it’s worth pausing to ask why Luke tells this story. Obviously because it happened and he knew of it; obviously to demonstrate the divine power and authority that rested in Jesus. But also to assure his readers that they, we, are offered the same deliverance and freedom and restoration as was the man possessed.

Now we may find it a bit of a challenge, to identify with the man who was delivered of all those demons. After all, he was so obsessed and possessed that he’d been thrown out of the community. That’s not how we’d see ourselves, but think again: there is a connection. This was a man beset by fear, and fear’s a big thing in every human life. We have lots of fears: we fear not achieving, not being accepted, not finding friends, we fear losing status, losing possessions, and we fear dying and death. That’s just to name a few - there’s a million more besides. So there’s a legion of fears around that could well possessed us, control our lives.

Fear is a boo word, isn’t it? - a threatening word, a bad word. And yet it’s also a positive word in church. As a child in Sunday school that confused me. The Book of Proverbs tells us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” So to “fear God” is a good thing, something Christians are supposed to do. As a minister I’d often edit the word ‘fear’ out of, for example, funeral services, because many of those hearing me wouldn’t understand the theology. Instead of “fearing God” I’d talk of “honouring God.” My version of  Psalm 130, for example, would be “the merciful goodness of the Lord endures for ever on those who honour him”, rather than “on those who fear him”. I wanted to use a more positive and understandable word, but maybe I did lose an important facet of its meaning.

For it may well be a good thing to “fear the Lord,” because that fear takes the place of all the other fears that otherwise control, damage and deface our lives. If we fear the Lord, we have nothing else to fear, all the other fears are shown up for what they are.

So that’s good, if we want it. Notice though in the story we’ve heard tonight, that as the one man is delivered from all those nameless and terrible fears, the community he came from is now so filled with fear that they beg Jesus to leave them. The man we have to call Legion since we’re not told his real name was so beset by fear that he had become terrifying both to himself and to others; but the rest of the villagers were living fairly comfortably with the lesser fears that controlled their lives. They didn’t want them challenged, and so they wanted Jesus to go away and leave them alone. As ever, I find myself asking where I am in this story. Am I like those villagers, not wanting Jesus to challenge and change me?

I remember once walking up a mountain path where at a certain point I had to cross a chasm. It really wasn’t that much more than a decent step from the one side to the other, but when you looked over the edge you could see it was an awfully long way down, fifty feet or more. It was quite scary - I don’t do heights and drops. I was tempted to give into my fears and turn back. One member of our group did just that, in fact. But I’m glad I did dare to cross.

But the villagers in the story didn’t dare. They preferred to live with their fears, so they sent Jesus away. Maybe the reason why Jesus didn’t let the man Legion go with him, but told him to go back home, was so he could persuade the villagers out of their fearfulness. A memory that pops into my mind at this point is our pet rabbit when I was a child. It escaped, and a whole world was open to it, full of grass and dandelion leaves and other good things. We couldn’t catch it. But after a while it went back to its cage, to its hutch, back to the prison in which it felt safe.

Perhaps that’s it, then: fearing God isn’t a safe place to be. Or it doesn’t feel that way. God is always more than we can imagine, his glory more than we can bear. And any attempt we may make to say “This is what God is like” must always fall short, the reality is far beyond us. Even if we say, as St John says, that “God is love” it’s not enough. This story shows us the love of God in action, love that works always to deliver, to set free, to open new ways. But when we speak of love we are limited by our understanding of human love, complicated as it is by liking, by desiring, by possessing and being possessed, by falling in love, all of which are less than the love divine we experience only in flashes.

Religion, sadly, does have a habit of (a) trying to define God, and then (b) falling out about it. Anthony de Mello tells the story of being asked by a blind man to describe the colour green. He told him it was soft, like gentle music being played. The next day another blind man asked him the same question, and this time he told him green was soft, like the feeling of silk or satin. Later he saw the two blind men belting each other over the head with bottles. One was shouting, “Green is soft like music!” while the other was yelling “You’re wrong, green is soft like satin!” It’s on such flimsy foundations that religious argument, dissention, division and even war is built. That’s what happens when we try to define God, rather than honouring and fearing God. In place of the real and mysterious God we substitute a flimsy image of our own devising, a little god to encourage and nurture the legion of all-too-human fears which we allow in to control our lives.

But here is one thing we can say, and agree on as Christians: God is like Jesus. And the God who is like Jesus doesn’t want to load us, with fears and cares and reasons to fight, but simply to love us, with a love that sets us free from fear. So St Paul wrote, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” Elsewhere he says that we are made children of God, with no more cause to fear, that we can put on Christ as a garment, at home and at peace in him.

Left to my own devices, I’m as bad as Legion, reduced to rootling about among the graves, among the stuff of time, the waste of human endeavour, the futility of an existence that’s heading nowhere. I’m held prisoner by both fears and desires: I worry about being found out, I worry about what others might think of me, I worry about whether I match up to expectations, whether I’m liked, successful, I worry about measuring up and fitting in. I need to be stroked, to be patted and praised, to be pleased and entertained. And in all of these I find chains that bind me. Chains we all share.

And sadly it’s true that left to its own devices, religion can be just another of those chains. We can be imprisoned by doctrines, we end up disagreeing over things we ourselves have made important and decisive. We make this or that statement about what God is like, and then fight about them. The truth is that we know nothing about God. God is by definition unknowable.

Religion is pointless unless it encourages and nurtures faith. And faith is misguided unless it is centred on grace and compassion and love. Knowing things about God is not the point; relationship with God is. It is as we call him Father and are simply still and expectant in his presence, it is as we fear him in that way, that he reveals to us that he is like Jesus, and that like Jesus he desires our freedom, our wholeness, and our peace. He offers us a one-to-one relationship with him that then fuels and enables and supports our relationships with one another. The key to that relationship is Christ, and the words he teaches us that begin “Our Father”. Here we have, like the madman by the lake, the chance to break out of our chains, and banish our fears, the demons that beset us. Here we can become aware of our true selves, discovering that we’re loved not because we deserve it or we’ve earned it, but because that is what God does. We are claimed by grace, by the forgiving and healing and restoring power that only Jesus offers. In him, and only in him, do we find our freedom.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Receiving grace, showing love . . .

My sermon, preached today at Marton and Trelystan parish churches, and at Arddleen Tabernacle PCW chapel . . .

Where little has been forgiven, little love is shown. A sentence from this morning’s Gospel reading. Last weekend and into the beginning of the week, before all the storms began, we had the sort of days where you could sit outside, or if not you could keep the doors wide open. Last Sunday I was remembering a communion service I took at the district church of Cristo Redentor, in the San Juan de Miraflores area of Lima in Peru. The service had been due to start at 7 pm, so by about twenty past seven I was beginning to get a bit agitated. “Shouldn’t we have started?” I asked the deacon. “No,” he replied, “there are not enough people here yet!” In fact some of the congregation had gone to an event at the cathedral, and they were a little late getting back. But we began, with the double doors to the little church wide open to the street, and people wandered in and joined us as the service went on.

I mention this because it would have been a bit like that at the house of Simon the Pharisee. The meal to which he’d invited Jesus would have been eaten in a room open to the street outside, and that was partly the point. It would reflect well on Simon, that he’d invited this new preacher to be a guest at his house; so he wanted people to see it, and maybe even to stop and listen.

Having said that, I don’t suppose he’d reckoned with the woman, a woman of dubious character who may have been Mary of Magdala herself, who not only stopped but wandered in; and not only wandered in but began to act in a manner that was certainly not in accord with the strict rules that governed such social occasions. For a woman to be present at all would have been strange. For a woman to have her hair down would be almost scandalous. For a woman to be anointing this man’s feet and washing them with her tears, and drying them with her hair . . . Simon must have been mortified. And how come this great and perceptive teacher hadn’t cottoned on to what kind of woman this was?

Not all the Pharisees were fierce opponents of Jesus, not at this stage in his ministry anyway. Some of them were very interested to know more about this new teacher, and Simon may have been one of them - in which case, he must have been quite perplexed. Or maybe he had invited Jesus in the hope of trapping him into saying something heretical or subversive, in which case he would have been rubbing his hands together with glee. Either way, he had a lesson to learn.

I came across a quote the other day, which reads: “Be like Jesus. Spend enough time with sinners to ruin your reputation with religious people.” Well, this story is a good example of that. My theory, for what it’s worth, is that in fact Simon the Pharisee’s eyes were opened, and he became a follower, a disciple - but that’s based on nothing more than the fact that we are told his name.

Friends give. Two words that express a fundamental truth. It’s been well said that to have a friend you must be a friend: to surrender yourself to the other person. I suppose there are degrees to that surrender, and therefore degrees of friendship; not every friend is a best friend. Simon’s initial invitation to Jesus hadn’t been one of friendship. It was all about Simon, all about Simon looking good, being the first to get this interesting new teacher into his house. He’d done very little to welcome Jesus and to make sure he was comfortable - it was all about getting on with the show.
And then in comes this woman, this notorious woman. “Simon,” says Jesus, patiently but firmly, “she could not and would not be doing this unless she really wanted to get rid of her old life and start again. More than that, her heartfelt prayer for forgiveness has been heard, and answered. What she is doing is her thank-offering for what she has been given.” The unsaid coda to that is, perhaps, “Simon, you have been forgiven little - not because you don’t need forgiveness, but because you haven’t asked for forgiveness.”

And therein is Simon’s wake-up call, which perhaps he heard. Being a Pharisee, he was totally hooked on keeping every detail of the Law, a Law that had been broken down into many many detailed rules, one to cover every action, every decision, every event. To keep the Law is to be pure, to have merit, to be worthy of heaven; or is it? The way of the Pharisees had consigned God to a bit part, a spectator’s role. All God had to do was to look on and approve, as these holy people kept his Law to perfection.

Jesus tended to do better with sinners, people who knew how horrible they were and didn’t want to be like that any more. The sheer abandonment with which the woman anointed Jesus and wept over his feet must have caused scandal and consternation to those who looked on, but she was giving, simply giving, in a way Simon hadn’t managed to do at all. And that maybe he learned from.

Some years ago I went with friends to a meeting in the quite palatial setting of Darlington Street Methodist Church in Wolverhampton, to hear the American evangelist Nicky Cruz. You may well know his story, but briefly, Nicky Cruz was born in 1938 in Puerto Rico, and at the age of about fifteen sent to live with family in New York. He soon ran away from home and established his credentials within the gang culture of the day, becoming the leader of the notorious Mau Mau gang. A young preacher named David Wilkerson had felt called to take the Gospel to these gangs, and he spoke to Nicky Cruz, whose reaction to this attempt at conversion was a very serious threat to kill David Wilkerson. But the preacher didn’t give up, and Nicky Cruz came to realise just how fundamentally he hated the life he was living, and yet he was trapped in that life and not able to escape. The patience and persistence of David Wilkerson led eventually to Nicky Cruz and several of his gang members being converted. At the age of 77, Cruz still travels the world telling his story, and working for Christ.

David Wilkerson, who died in a car crash five years ago, told the story in one of the best selling Christian books of the last century, “The Cross and the Switchblade”, while Nicky Cruz also wrote his own account, “Run, Baby, Run”. There are many stories like this, of people who came to know Jesus in situations of degradation and despair and self-hatred, who perhaps couldn’t know Jesus until they reached the point where they could fall no further. John Newton’s greatest hymn, “Amazing Grace” tells the same story. As does the woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee.

I sometimes wonder why it is that we as Church fail in mission. The words we have are words of life and truth, so how is that every heart is not instantly persuaded? It’s not a new problem. Jesus told the parable of the sower in response to it - the seed still has to be sown, in order that some of it at least can grow and be fruitful. So maybe we fail because we don’t speak, seed isn’t being sown as it should be. But it’s also true that in a world that is as comfortable as ours is, here in the safe and wealthy west, no-one much is looking for forgiveness, no-one much is aware of need. A nod to God from time to time is as much as we need, if that.

When David Wilkerson first told Nicky Cruz that Jesus loved him, the response he had back was a threat to kill him, which would not have been the first murder performed by the Mau Mau gang. Wilkerson’s response was to say that if his body was cut up into a thousand pieces and laid out across the street, each piece would still love Nicky in the name of Jesus. There is true Gospel fervour; there is a person in whom Jesus was alive. The spirit more of the woman who just came in and gave than of Simon the Pharisee who - up until that point anyway - really wanted mostly to look good himself, and so was careful to ration what he gave. So where are we in this story, where am I? Challenged, I hope. Let me just leave you with two lines from a song that came into my mind: “The Spirit lives to set us free - walk in the light.”

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Notes from the Feeders - Jackdaws

When Jackdaws get onto our fat ball feeder, as they have in some force today, they can strip it in no time. There's plenty of food around for the birds just now, and I'll keep the sunflower seed feeders going, but I think it's time to close the fat ball feeder down for a couple of weeks. I've nothing (much) against jackdaws, but when they come in gangs the smaller birds are driven off and don't get a look in. And I'm not made of money . . .

A friend mentioned to me today that he has a real rarity on his patch . . . very exciting news. Sadly, I can say no more, about either what, or where. My lips have to be sealed. At some time in the future, when it is safe to do so, I hope I may be able to post a picture.

It's always interesting to see birds ganging up to mob possible threat species. Today, travelling down to Newtown, I saw jackdaws (again) furiously mobbing a lazily circling red kite. The kite would probably have presented little real threat, but they clearly weren't going to take any chances.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Notes from the Feeders - Oystercatchers

Our garden is very busy indeed just now. Greenfinches were feeding their young yesterday, and there are a couple of very querulous blackbird youngsters about. This morning a couple of young robins turned up; they seemed already quite adept at feeding themselves. Our blue tits are no longer flying back and forth to the nest box, so I imagine the young there have fledged, though we missed the event. The parents are visiting the fat ball feeder and then flying back into the woodland behind, so that I think is where the youngsters are, probably in the ivy that grows thickly around an old telegraph pole there.

I had to go down to the livestock market this morning, and was interested to find a pair of oystercatchers strolling about as if they owned the place. They seemed totally unfazed by our presence, and made no attempt to take flight. I also found a large piece of oystercatcher egg shell. Was this brought by one of the parent birds from a nest site? Is that nest site actually within the livestock market, or perhaps by the river which is not far away? Or was the eggshell evidence of a failed nesting attempt? Sadly, that is not unusual, oystercatchers being ground nesters and often choosing rather vulnerable situations.

Later, also at the market, I glimpsed a painted lady butterfly. These cannot survive a British winter (or for that matter, winter anywhere much in Europe), so they migrate to us from North Africa. Numbers are very variable, but sometimes you can get a "painted lady summer". Maybe this year will be one. I walked along by the river, where sand martins were busy, then back along the canal towpath, accompanied by damselflies throughout.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Nature Notes - Glorious June

Summer turned up early this year, at least in this part of the country - not so good in London, or, indeed, in Paris as I write these words, but some remarkable early June weather just here. Whether it will last into July, and perhaps we have the barbecue summer someone always promises, remains to be seen.

But it’s probably one of the reasons why our garden has been so busy. I’ve never seen so many birds, and they’ve been eating me out of house and home. That’s partly because the local blackbirds have learned the trick of perching on our fat ball feeder, and, boy, can they get through it! They look quite ungainly, and flap their wings a lot, but they manage it. As do the local house sparrows from over the road. They don’t normally come into our back garden much, but they love the fat balls.

I decided to not fill that feeder for a few days, just to quieten things down and encourage some of the regular users to look elsewhere for food. But when I did refill them, it took no time at all for the birds to return. I had a nuthatch on the feeder by the time I got to my back door, and when I came out again a few minutes later with a cup of coffee, the blackbirds and house sparrows were there in force.

The fine weather has also increased the number of insects in our garden. These include a lot of bees, I’m glad to see. We’ve added a second and rather larger insect hotel to our garden this year, with a combination of bamboo pipes, wooded bits and pieces and shavings that will provide suitable habitats for a range of insects, some bee species among them. Our first one was well used last year.

Ann found an unusual ladybird the other day, and imprisoned it under an upturned glass so we could identify it. Perhaps it was one of the harlequin ladybirds, a large immigrant species that is - sadly - feeding on some of our native ladybirds. But no, this rather attractive orange ladybird with yellow spots is a leaf-eating ladybird which seems to lack an English name, but rejoices in the Latin name of Halyzia 16-guttata. It has sixteen spots (you might have worked that out), and is associated with woodland, especially if there are sycamore trees. My book tells me that it was thought to be rare in the UK; not here, it isn’t. I quickly found another two in our garden.

We’ve also had quite a few bright orange-red cardinal beetles, which are quite free flying and regularly visit flowers. They look at first like flying ladybirds, before you realise that this is a much longer insect. The larvae live under the bark of fallen trees.

And then, on a particularly warm and sunny day, we were visited by a ruby-tailed wasp. This is a small insect only about a centimetre in length, but remarkable in colour - the body is a vivid metallic blue, with the abdomen a bright ruby red. There are several closely related species of this wasp, whose larva is parasitic on other wasps and solitary bees. More insects next month, if the fine weather keeps up!

Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Widow of Nain

A sermon for this Sunday . . .

This morning's short Gospel reading shows us Jesus engaged in a very real situation of life and death. As he and his disciples enter the small town of Nain, they encounter all the drama and tears of a funeral procession. And what happens next causes such a stir that the story was spread far and wide.

Some scholars think the boy wasn’t really dead, but in some sort of catatonic trance so that he appeared dead. So what, is my response: what difference would that really make to this miracle event? The important thing about this remarkable story is this: that in how he reacts, Jesus shows us something vital about the nature of God. Perhaps we can trace in this story some sense of what St John meant when he wrote that though no-one has ever seen God, Jesus has made him known among us: as God's only Son, the nearest to the Father's heart.

That's a lovely phrase: "the nearest to his Father's heart" - but many of the philosophers of those times would have been shocked at the very idea of a God with a heart capable of feeling. Their argument went like this: to feel for someone, to feel happy or sad or sorry for them, is to allow that person to influence you, and if you are influenced by someone then that person is somehow in a higher place than you are. Put simply, they are in that small sense greater than you. But no-one can be greater than God, not even for a moment. To feel emotion is an expression of human vulnerability, but God can’t be vulnerable. Emotion is weakness; God cannot feel it.

That’s how some of the Greek philosophers thought. But the Gospel stories provide a very different view, of a God who is like Jesus. And Jesus is vulnerable, he feels for others, and in this chance encounter with human grief and tragedy we see him react with compassion and sympathy to a woman in need, we see him feeling something of her pain.

For Luke tells us that Jesus was "moved to the very depths of his being" by what he encountered there. That’s what the original Greek implies - Luke uses the very strongest word possible, to describe how Jesus reacted to the child and his mother. So this is what we Christians believe God is like. We can’t believe in a God who is apathetic and unfeeling, because in Jesus we see God’s compassion and mercy the divine heart allowing itself to be vulnerable to our tears and our needs, as the son of God takes the road that will lead to the cross.  The God of Jesus is the God whose whole nature is love.

Our other reading this morning shows us Paul getting things wrong about God. In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul writes about his young self. He was Saul in those days, and he was the zealot, the keenest student in his class, wanting so much to serve God, but serving a wrong idea of God. Not the impassive, immovable God of the Greek Stoics, but God the law-giver and rule-maker. Well, that is God: he does indeed give law and make rules, but he does it with  purposeful intent:  the commandments he gives us are intended to ensure and enable our love for one another as his people.

Sadly, for many of the Pharisees - the strict sect among which Paul had been educated and trained - respect for the Law had become a "rules for rules' sake" understanding of what God wanted from his people. The Law was given to help us love and serve and care for one another; but for them the Law was about dividing those in God's favour who kept the Law, from those outside God's favour who didn’t or couldn’t keep the Law. What might they have made of the woman at Nain? They might well have looked for a reason for the tragedy: someone must have broken God’s Law, that’s why the woman and her son to have earned God's disfavour. But Jesus simply responded to the woman's need; her plight had touched his heart.

So compassion didn’t have much of a place in Paul's life while he was still Saul, before he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. He was full of zeal for the Lord, he wanted to serve him, he was striving for holiness, but none of this connected in any way to the heart of God; and the only way God could break through was to strike him down and leave him blind; only then could the eyes of his heart be opened.

But the Damascus road changed Paul from a persecutor of the Church into its greatest apostle. And in the Church he helped to build rules still exist, for you have to have them in any human organisation, but rules and laws need to be doing what they’re supposed to do: helping people live together in community - with compassion and service, in a way that will be a witness to the world of the God of love.

If only that were true of the Church as we see it! Too often the Church is closer to Saul the Pharisee than to Paul the apostle of Christ. If we get too hooked on rules and laws and traditions and rituals, love gets squeezed out of the picture.  Our intentions may be good, and like young zealous Saul we want to serve, but we can lose touch with the heart of the one who calls us. He is the God we see in Jesus, the God who makes himself vulnerable to us, and offers himself in love for us, the God who feels to the very depths of his heart our need and our weakness, and our rejection and scorn.

Many years ago I was taught in Sunday school that you must “seek God in the morning, if you would find him through the day". Everything we do begins with our seeking the heart of God, and allowing him to reach us and to speak to us, making ourselves vulnerable to his heart of compassion. Ministry based in this will be true to the mind of Christ: loving, compassionate; and with a heart to be moved by human need.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Notes from the Feeders - Siskins

Last winter was a good siskin winter - here anyway - and at times we had thirty or forty in the garden. They are lovely birds to watch, very agile and quite attractive, small finches not much more than blue tit size and just as good at making use of the feeders. They were with us from soon after Christmas, and then later in the winter they were joined by a few lesser redpolls. We saw our last redpolls a month ago, but a few siskins have stayed around, just as they did last year. We probably have a couple of pairs, and they were around this morning. Last year they certainly must have bred close by, as just for a while we had young birds. By the end of the summer any siskins we might have had have moved on, and we don't get to see them again in the garden until winter is well under way.

These were actually photographed in our previous garden, just up the road . . .

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Notes from the Feeders - Youngsters

As well as the young blackbirds (see yesterday's post), we've had a few other youngsters around. On Sunday, for example, the garden was filled all of a sudden with young coal tits, and we've also had young great tits examining the feeders. No young robins yet, though the pair we have are very busy ferrying food to somewhere not too far away.  The only nest I know the location of is the blue tit nest in our nest box not far from the feeders. The parent birds are frantically trying to gather large amounts of food, and are back and forth constantly, so there's clearly a large and growing brood! The birds fly straight from the box into the wood (or sometimes to the feeders), with their characteristic looping flight. It's rare that they fly straight back, though, preferring to perch on a cable nearby or on the lamp fixed to the corner of that wall, and have a good look round before nipping into the box. In another week or so the garden will be inundated with young birds, which need to learn quickly the survival skills they need, as life out there can be dangerous, and many will not live through their first year.