Saturday, 25 February 2017

Some Thoughts About Fasting

A sermon for this Sunday (New Street United Church) :-

I remember going into one my local schools when I was still in full time ministry to take school assembly in the first week of Lent - and being really quite surprised to discover that none of the children seemed to have given up anything for Lent. They knew something about Lent: that it began on Ash Wednesday, and that people ate pancakes on Shrove Tuesday to use up the rich food they couldn't eat in Lent. But no-one seemed to have thought about giving things up.

We haven't really done ”giving up things for Lent” this year, said one of the teachers later in the staff room. But when I was the age of those children giving up things for Lent would have been something we at least thought about as children, whether or not our teachers did it as a theme or project.

One year Ann and I were visiting Istanbul during Ramadan, and I have to say we were quite impressed by the way they kept the fast. It reminded us of how Lent used to be kept, but often isn’t really, any more. I do try to keep Lent seriously, but I’m not always all that good at it. This year I’ve decided to use Lent as an opportunity to lose some weight, by giving up some of the things that aren’t good for me and trying to take a bit more exercise.

But I’m aware that that in itself isn’t a Lenten fast. That’s just me on a health kick, or me making an attempt to keep in my present size of trousers. The fact that I’m looking for sponsorship, and that the money I raise will go to charity goes some way towards making it more of a Lenten fast, but it still doesn’t compare with the Lenten fasts of old. For although they involved giving things up, they were chiefly about drawing nearer to God. Fasting in Lent is about developing ourselves as disciples, and clearing out some of the stuff that gets in the way. Jesus in the wilderness was challenging the temptations that would be there throughout his ministry, and tuning his mind to his Father’s voice.

Well, I wish people took Lent more seriously, like we used to. And not just for old time’s sake: when we keep Lent as a fast, we’re consciously imitating the example of our Lord in the wilderness; it’s an opportunity to draw close to him, and like him to make a choice for God over the things of the world.
Don’t we sometimes say, “Well, it's the way of the world,” when we want to justify what we do or what we join in with? As though if everyone’s doing it that makes it all right. Lent is a chance to consciously not do that. We have forty days to put away the things of the world, the things we own or value or desire or are tempted by, that can become petty gods in their own right. Not to just going along with what everyone else does but to choose God’s way instead.

Having said that, I suppose when I was a child fasting in Lent was itself going along with what everyone else was doing. You gave up things for Lent because that’s what everyone did, and it’s what Mum and Dad told me I should do. So in that sense it wasn’t my own personal choice. In Isaiah chapter 58 we read that God doesn’t want us to fast just because we’re supposed to and that’s what the rules say. To fast has to be my own personal decision and desire. It’s not about outward observance, it needs to be a matter of the heart.

So a real fast is a swim against the stream. It’s tough. We fast to control our own desires, and make space to hear what God is saying to us, and so we can say yes to him. That’s what Jesus was doing in the wilderness: taking time aside before he began his ministry of teaching and healing and proclaiming the kingdom: time to face up to the temptations that would always be there, time to be sure he could master them right from the start. So he went away from the world to focus his heart and mind on his Father’s will. Indeed, scripture tells us he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and the word in Greek is a strong one, almost “he was thrown into the wilderness”.

So Lent for us too is about following where the Spirit leads us - in giving things up, and also in taking things up; it’s about disciplined spiritual exercise, it’s about facing up to things. And that’s important and necessary for Christians, by no means an optional extra. It’s fundamental to the task in hand, of following Jesus, of speaking, working and witnessing for him. Temptations are always around us; and temptation is an insidious thing, it’s rarely blatant or obvious.

Think about Jesus in the wilderness, you’ll remember the temptations he faced there. He wasn't being tempted to do things that were obviously bad. That’s not how the devil works, not at his most effective anyway. Jesus was tempted to sort out his own comfort first, he was tempted to opt for short term options, to take short cuts, and he was tempted to seek popular acclaim. Were these bad things? Why not feed yourself and other hungry people? Why not dazzle people into faith, why not go for political power? Think of the good you could do. The temptations Jesus faced didn’t look evil; why not choose your own way, work for your own success, do your own thing? But they would have taken him away from the path he had chosen, of doing his Father’s will, in obedience and service.

If sin came clearly labelled as such, it might not be so hard to resist. But sin is often all too plausible. We persuade ourselves that the ends justify the means, or perhaps that a degree of collateral damage is acceptable. It isn’t and it never was. The Bible word for sin, “hamartia” in Greek, is actually about missing the mark. A bit like throwing a dart and missing the number you’re aiming for. Unless every part of what we do is praiseworthy in God’s sight, then sin has crept into our lives somewhere. Two linked phrases in the Lord’s prayer are, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done.” The one requires the other.

A real fast is a fast with no cheating. In my schooldays, we used to walk out to the park surrounding a big country house maybe a couple of miles away from our school. It was an easy enough walk, and there was a lake in the park that was good to swim in. We knew that on the high gates that led up to the house there were notices saying 'Private - No Trespassers.' So we didn’t go that way. Along a lane nearby there was a fence we could climb that didn’t have any signs telling us to keep out. So if we had been challenged (we never were) we could always claim we didn’t know we were trespassing.

But we knew we were, really. When fasting it isn’t enough just to look good. We might impress our friends, but God sees into the heart. Fasting is about getting right with him, being honest with him, and not just looking pious. If it’s not the real thing, it’s not worth doing. My Lent fast this year will I hope save a notch on my belt; but I need also to control the things within me that lead me away from true obedience to God, so along with giving things up I shall be taking things up: I hope to be more prayerful, more aware, maybe take on some new commitment this Lent. I intend to read, to listen, to reflect.

In forty days of testing Jesus overcame the plausible voices that might have tempted him away from his Father’s will. His life expressed to the full his Father’s love, a love he shares with us and offers to the world. A love to motivate our serious keeping of Lent; fasting is our gift of love back to God, our response to the love in which we know we are held.

And all of that begins on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. In the service I’ll be attending I’ll hear the words 'turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ'. And that's it. Not a divine entrance exam - we’re already citizens of heaven, but my small but grateful gift of love, in response to God’s boundless love; in fasting I need to be giving myself, in obedience, in discipleship, and in praise.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

On Having Fallen (2)

My poem, published in my collection "The Angel on Next Door's Drive", based on the section from Mother Julian quoted in my sermon :-

I stumbled on my journey home, confused as the shadows lengthened,
and, looking back along the grey and darkening road,
I stood alone, my head bowed low,
to sense God meet my questioning sadness
with His blest word of grace.

It seems He allows us to fall so much harder and more painfully
than ever we did before,
having given ourselves at His call,
having been so quick and eager in our desire to serve.

And how easy then it is
for those of us who are not very wise
to imagine at the time of falling
that all that we have done has gone to nothing,
that having fallen here so hard, no-one could ever rise.  And so I thought;
and yet it is not so.

For these are words I found in my heart:  that here we need to fall,
need also to be aware of that falling;
for had we not fallen we should not know
what so much we need to know -
we should not know how weak and wretched in ourselves we are.
And neither should we know as a reviving warmth in our heart
our Maker’s true and marvellous, His own transforming love.

For in the heaven to come we shall truly see
and we shall know for ever
how through this life we bear the marks of our grave and grievous sin,
bear them as stains we could not clear;  yet we shall see in spite of this
how His love for us remained at all times
unharmed and undiminished - that for all our dirt and sin, even as we lay helpless in the ditch,
we were never less valuable to Him.

And so it will be
that through our experience of this falling,
we shall gain a knowledge great and wonderful
to sustain us - we shall know this for sure:
the love we have in God, He holds for us for all eternity.

And here is love
which cannot and shall not be broken by our sin;
here is love for ever strong to save, and - praise Him - all-sufficing.
In our fractured humility, and for all the sharp heart-pain of our falling,
we shall find ourselves upraised and lifted high, ever to be
held firm and sure and safe within His arms of grace.

For, as I paused in thought beside the road, these are the things I learned:
that I am nothing of my own, yet have everything in my God;  and
though we may fall, and may be allowed to fall,
yet our heavenly Mother
cannot and shall not permit Her child to die.
And praise be to Jesus, almighty, all wisdom, and all love:
may His name on lips of sinners, upon these lips of mine,
be now and forever blest!

On Having Fallen

A sermon for tomorrow, which I shall preach at Chirbury :-

Six years ago, almost to the day, I preached my last sermon as a canon of St Asaph cathedral. I was reminded of that the other day when at a family do I was chatting with my cousin Julia, who lives near Bala and is a member of a choir that sings there now and then. It wasn’t a particularly happy memory; two weeks after preaching that sermon I had resigned from my parishes and as a canon, and begun a journey that almost took me away from church and faith altogether. Looking back over the text of my sermon that day, I could sense again the pain I was feeling then. Now I know that God hadn’t finished with me, nor had I finished with the church, but back then it felt as though I was standing on the edge of a cliff.

Actually I love cliffs, and I’ve stood on some pretty big ones in my time - the mighty Cliffs of Moher in the west of Ireland, and the incredibly high Cabo Girao, the second highest sea cliffs in the world, on Madeira. I’ve walked cliff paths in Pembrokeshire and Cornwall, and I hope to do some more while I’m fit enough. I’m fairly confident of my own ability not to fall; what I hate to see is anyone else standing on a cliff edge, I’m always so worried that they might fall. On the telly, I have to turn over or turn off.

And on that day at the cathedral, it felt as though I were looking at myself from outside, looking at this figure, myself standing on a cliff edge, and terribly afraid that he would fall. The back story of how I got to that place is for another time; but of course I did fall. And amazingly, instead of being dashed on the rocks below I found myself caught and borne safely by angels - but I couldn’t begin to know then that that would happen.

I began my sermon that day with the story of a lady I saw regularly on hospital visits. Mair was suffering from dementia. She was always busy, always agitated, worried she might have lost someone for whom she was searching. It took a while to realise she was really looking for herself, maybe a younger memory of herself: so sad that she was looking for someone she could never find.

Dementia takes many forms; and I was sad and challenged to see a mind so troubled in a person whose body despite her age was still quite strong. But something about Mair felt not so remote from how many of us are. Her dementia was an extreme form of something all of us spend time doing: searching for ourselves.

Christians believe we’re made in the image of God, as we read in  Genesis, chapter 1, verse 27: “God created human beings in his own image: in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” In Matthew’s Gospel, a few verses before the reading we heard this morning, Jesus says, “Your own goodness must know no bounds, just as the goodness of your heavenly Father knows no bounds” - or, in another translation, “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

But where will any of us find perfection? When we come to church we begin our time of worship by saying words that recognise our imperfection, our inability to be the self we’re supposed to be: we confess our sins. We measure ourselves against the commandments, love the Lord your God, love your neighbour as yourself, and admit that we’re found wanting.

The Pharisees with whom Jesus contended aimed for perfection in their keeping of the Law of Moses. They carefully interpreted it to fit every situation, but in reality they had turned it into a tool to conspire with imperfection and massage it away. The Law as they interpreted it set limits on how well one had to behave, on the amount of good one had to do, and on the circle of in and out: who is your neighbour, and who you don’t need to care for.

But it isn’t about rules, said Jesus to his friends. There are no boundaries or limitations to being good. You twist God’s Law into something else if you use it to make goodness achievable. You may manage to fool yourself into thinking that keeping a list of rules can make you perfect; but it doesn’t.

We meet here not because of our own goodness but because of the generous grace of God. We meet for this communion meal at a table we can’t set ourselves, to share food we ourselves can’t bless. But God calls us here. I may search all my life and never find myself, but thankfully I’m not the only one looking. A week on Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, when once again we’ll be reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. There’s a chill to those words, but the words that follow, “Repent and believe the Gospel,” assure us we’re not alone in our quest: dust and ashes we may be, but we’re also made by God and claimed now by his grace.

A verse from a communion hymn goes: “though dust and ashes in thy sight, we may, we must draw near.” Why? Because God sees more in me, and in you, than the mere dust and ashes of our mortal selves. He weeps over our imperfection, but he also sees us as he made us to be, and he loves that possibility in us. Some words from scripture: John 3 verse 16 - “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but should have eternal life.” I’m not the only one looking. Psalm 139 verse 1: “O Lord, you have searched me out and you know me - you discern my thoughts from afar.”

And our two New Testament readings this morning are both rich with positivity and affirmation: Paul writes to the Romans about his own imperfection and theirs, about his own struggles, and theirs, but as he does so he assures them with these words: “I reckon that the sufferings we now endure bear no comparison with the glory, as yet unrevealed, that is in store for us.” We mess up and get things wrong, miss out on the good stuff we could do. Life is a struggle and sometimes it gets us down. But God never gives up on us; that’s something Paul knew better than most. God in his perfection meets with us, uses us, and dwells within us, makes us his temple, and destines us for glory.

And back to the words of the Sermon on the Mount, and our Gospel reading today: “Consider the lilies of the field, how God cares for them.” We are worth so much more than mere flowers, so if they are cared for and loved, how much more shall we be, despite ourselves. We have no cause to be anxious, and every reason not to be dragged down by the petty worries of this life. We may feel lost at times, but we are precious, always, in the sight of God. All we need is there for us already. In Christ we find renewal, we are made a new creation; through him who is the King of love, we who in falling lose ourselves are lifted up, are known and loved and found.

Some closing words, from Mother Julian of Norwich: “Sometimes God allows us to fall further and harder than ever before (or at least it seems that way to us). When that happens, we (who are still so foolish) feel as though we have accomplished nothing, that all our spiritual journeys have been delusions. But this is not reality. We need to fall sometimes - and we need sometimes to feel our failure. If we did not, we would not know how weak and exiled from our true selves we are, nor would we truly understand how much our Creator loves us. When we reach heaven, we shall see clearly how terribly we separated ourselves from God - and how, despite that, divine love for us never diminished, nor did we ever become less precious in God’s eyes.”

Friday, 10 February 2017


My nature notes for the month ahead . . .

We’ve seen most of our usual winter garden birds through the season. At the time of writing this, the goldcrests I mentioned last month are still with us, having obligingly showed up as our count for the Big Garden Birdwatch at the end of January. The one bird expected but not glimpsed on our patch over the winter is the tree creeper, but we continue to hope.

Siskins, lovely little green and yellow finches, arrived as usual around the middle of January, with numbers gradually building up. Usually it’s after about three or four weeks of seeing siskins that we start to notice a few streaked brown birds of similar size joining them. A careful look through the binoculars reveals that the bird has just a little smudge of red on the forehead, and we know the redpolls have come.

To be precise, the finches we see are lesser redpolls. There is a slightly larger bird, the common or mealy redpoll, which visits this country from the continent in winter, and some scientists (and one of my field guides) describe them as the same species. But ours are the smaller, darker resident birds. In summer the male redpoll is a handsome bird, with a pink breast and a black chin to go with the red forehead, a pink rump also; but in winter plumage there is less pink to be seen. The female lacks the male’s pink breast and rump. The remainder of the plumage is streaked brown and buff, with two quite prominent buff wing-bars. Like other small finches, the tail is forked, and the overall impression is of a neat and well-proportioned little bird. Redpolls are, like siskins, acrobatic, often hanging upside down from twigs and branches in order to feed, with conifers, alder and silver birch being favourites.

Redpolls are found in the UK all year round, and breed across much of the country where there is suitable habitat. They are woodland birds by and large, feeding on seeds, and found also in grown-up hedgerows and large gardens.  Often, several pairs will nest quite close to each other, building a somewhat untidy cupped nest in small trees like silver birch or in bushes, gorse being a favourite. The nest will be lined with hair and thistledown, and incubation of the four or five eggs is done by the female.

Both parents share in the task of feeding the nestlings, which fledge after about two weeks in the nest. The parents will continue to feed them for a while after fledging. Young redpolls are completely brown, lacking even the red forehead of the female adult.

I am always pleased to see them in our garden, but they don’t stay long. One or two siskins nest near enough for us to see young birds in the garden through summer, but here we only ever see redpolls for a few weeks towards the end of winter. But you can see them through the year at RSPB Lake Vyrnwy or Ynys Hir, or at the MWT’s osprey project reserve near Machynlleth.


A first outing last night for my talk on "The Poetry of Flowers" - at Carno Garden Club, reading poems by Clare, Wordsworth, Roethke, Rossetti, Edward Thomas and others, plus a few of my own, this one included :-

I had forgotten I had planted corms beneath a shading tree
on that Friday in September when you came to visit me,
with the summer almost over, and the shortening of the days,
and the news you had to give me of the parting of our ways.

That winter was a long one, with the ground hard under frost,
and the cold north wind sang mourning songs for all that I had lost;
every day so dark and dismal, every vista sad and grey,
what need for light or colour with you still so far away?

Till a day dawned bright with birdsong, and a new warmth in the sun,
and a new hope in my heart, as if I’d only just begun;
I stepped into the garden, and it was a joy to see
the crocus, gold and purple, flowering underneath that tree.

Through all the winter world, beneath its dark and sombre skies,
her shoots had grown in secret, like a love that never dies;
her early alleluia, bright with shining drops of rain,
my promise of the spring, and that you’d soon be back again.

Tough Words and Grace

(Matthew 5.21-37)

Matthew is the first of the four Gospels in our Bibles. Have you ever wondered why? Well, one reason is that, back in the Second Century when the books of the New Testament were first being collected together as what the Church calls the Canon of holy scripture, most people thought Matthew’s Gospel had been written first. Modern Bible scholars wouldn’t agree, and today’s it’s generally accepted that Mark is earlier than either Matthew or Luke, and that both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as one of their source documents.

But Matthew’s Gospel is also placed first out of the four because Matthew was thought of as speaking with special authority, especially as regards his great theme of Old Testament prophecy being fulfilled in Jesus. It’s no surprise then that Matthew’s Gospel should be the first book to follow after the books of the Old Testament. The importance Matthew had in the early Church can be seen in the fact that his Gospel is quoted more than any other New Testament book in the writings of the time.

Matthew sets out his Gospel in an interesting and very organised way. One thing he does is to place the teaching of Jesus mostly together in one place, in what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus sits down and begins to teach at the start of chapter 5, beginning with what we call the beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” And when Jesus finally comes down from the mountain at the beginning of chapter eight Matthew has given us three chapters full of our Lord’s teaching. He goes on to tell us how the people were amazed at the teaching Jesus gave them, because it was new and fresh, it wasn’t like the teaching they received from the scribes. Unlike them, Jesus taught them with authority.

But some of the things he said were pretty tough, including the verses we’ve heard this morning from chapter five. Anyone who nurses a grievance is as much under the sentence of law as a murderer; any man who looks lustfully at a woman is as guilty as if he had committed adultery. And just before he says these tough things Jesus has told the people that, “To get into heaven you must prove yourselves to be far better than the scribes and the Pharisees.”

On the whole, Jesus had more success with sinners than he had with religious folk. People who knew they were sinful, people condemned by others as sinful, listened to him. The scribes and Pharisees, who devoted themselves very carefully to not being sinful at all, and were widely applauded and looked up to, were appalled by him. These were the great keepers of the law - or so they thought. They had reduced religion to the mere keeping of the Law - the letter of the law. But you can keep the letter of the Law without keeping the spirit of the law. The scribes and Pharisees were anxious to be seen to be getting it right; Jesus, on the other hand, said that to be truly right with God you must be right in the heart.

That’s a constant theme of his preaching, being right in our heart. And the tough teaching in these three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel is part of that. Jesus is making clear that if we want like the Pharisees to earn our way into heaven, we have to be perfect; we can’t afford to make a single mistake. The Pharisees were aiming for perfection, so they did their best to keep every last point of the law. But all they were really doing was fooling themselves. They might have looked the part, but what was really going on inside them? It’s what happens inside us that matters, says Jesus, not what we look like on the outside.

One special thing about the Christian faith is that as Christians we discover that in the end being perfect doesn’t matter. Why doesn’t it matter? Because we are saved through the grace of God - through grace and only through grace. We’re not saved because we deserve it, we’re not saved because by trying really really hard to be good we’ve built up lots of merit points; no, we’re saved by grace. And what do we mean by that word grace? We mean that God never ceases to love what he has made. And as we set ourselves - as of course we should - to live faithfully, and to praise joyfully, and to serve lovingly - we do this not to earn ourselves a place in heaven, but as a thank offering. For a place is already prepared for us, and the door already stands open.

So Jesus uses tough words to get a simple but profound message across to those who were listening: be honest about yourself, know you can’t make it on your own, but know also that you are valuable, you are loved, you are treasured, and you are saved. We’re quite good, most of the time, I know: but we need to know that quite good, most of the time, isn’t good enough for heaven. Only Jesus is good enough for heaven, but he opens the way to us: he is the King of love, he is the Shepherd who dies to save his sheep.

And now I want to finish by taking a second point from this morning’s reading. Jesus talks about the practice of swearing an oath to guarantee that the promise you’ve made is going to be kept. And he tells the people they must do that no longer. They should be so clearly honest and straight that their simple yes or no should be enough on its own.

That should be true of course: if we’re serious about being God’s people, other people should be able to rely on us to do what we say we’re going to do, to pay what we say we’re going to pay. We shouldn’t need any oath to guarantee that. We should be the sort of people whose word can be relied on.

But I think Jesus has a deeper point to make here too: something about the way we use religion to serve our own ends. There’s nothing new in the exploitation and misuse of religion, but sadly there does seem to be an awful lot of this around in the world today. It depresses and angers me, and it’s a scandal and offence, when religion is used to twist hearts and minds, to exalt one group above another, to promote hatred and violence, or to grab at personal power and status and wealth. The Dalai Lama has said, “If the faith you hold doesn’t lead you to practise kindness, then the god you serve isn’t real.” Jesus is real: the image he presents is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. To be a disciple of his is to set ourselves to be as like him as we can be. That’s what he means when he says “Follow me.” How sad that some who claim his name and his authority are still ready to preach bigotry and hatred, and to sow seeds of division.

Jesus says, “Do not swear by heaven, for it is God’s throne; do not swear by the earth, for it is his footstool.” And I think that when he says that he is warning us not to make selfish and worldly use of things that are holy. Religion used for worldly ends is religion divorced from God. Everything Jesus says in the teaching we read in Matthew is said to move us away from empty and formulaic religion and into a faith that is about relationship, about love responding to love, and light reflecting light. So that we know our own smallness and insufficiency, our own weakness; but at the same time recognise the holiness of God.

Holiness is about otherness, about a degree of glory, an intensity of light, that is beyond our reaching and imagining, except for this: that God has reached out for us, and that he gives us place and identity and a promised home within his love; and that through the perfect love made incarnate among us in Jesus we who fall so far short of perfection can find life and light and hope.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Water Rail

Ann and I had a shortish visit to Llyn Coed y Dinas, our local nature reserve, today in the pouring rain. There wasn't a great deal about, in particular not the bittern that had been there, but it's about a week since anyone reported a sighting. There were good numbers of mallard, teal, tufted duck, along with a contingent of wigeon and a dozen or so lapwings. A single cormorant shuffled about on one of the floating islands, and a carrion crow startled me a bit by seeming to walk on the water. I guess there must have been something just below the surface he could walk on. He had a good splash, not something I'd have wanted to do in that weather! A couple of lesser black backed gulls drifted about, and an anonymous small brown thing flitted through the reeds and away before there was any chance of identification. I had hoped to see snipe and the water rail I'd been told was about, but none were visible and our fingers were going numb, so Ann and I decided a warm cup of chocolate (hers) or a pot of Earl Grey (mine) would be in order, and we prepared to go. But a guy who'd entered the hide maybe five minutes before suddenly said, "Quick, over here!" - and there, below the side window of the hide was the water rail, just feet away and beautifully marked, pecking about in the scruffy vegetation near the water's edge. These are notoriously shy birds, not usually very easy to see; I've never been as close to one as today. We left soon after, and the tea was good too.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Shutling's Low

A brief journey up into the Peak District today - nice day for it, if cold. I was there to visit someone, so didn't do anything strenuous. I enjoyed the rugged scenery though, including the conical hill Shutling's Low, which I recall climbing with friends at just this time of the year (though some time back), and the dour gritstone walls and buildings along the lanes. This being the area around Three Shires Head, there were also some very open views, particularly over onto the Cheshire Plain. I drove back through Flash and onto the Buxton to Leek road, just to revisit areas I've known of old. The light was fading by then, but we kept a fair amount of light till after half-past five. Somewhere in the Blackshaw Moor area I noticed a guy walking along dressed in T shirt, shorts and sandals; it had been sunny, but the temperature gauge in my car was by this time registering 2 degrees. Clearly, they're a hard lot up that way! I recall, by the way, that when we ascended Shutling's Low we overtook a guy on a mountain bike who was hardly moving at all despite pedalling frantically in some ultra-low gear. He was doggedly insisting on not dismounting! He did rather speed past us on the way down, mind you. My other memory of that walk was the line of muddy boots against the outside wall of the pub in Wincle, ours included.

Saturday, 4 February 2017


A lovely day today, but jolly cold to start with. Unusually, the ground was wet from a night's rain while roofs were white with frost. I did my best to wash a car well covered with ice, to discover it's also well covered with little bits of tar, no doubt the product of several runs to Shrewsbury and back of late. They are renewing the road surface, working overnight with road closures, and the road is open through the day but with a temporary road surface. I shall not buy a white car next time (remind me of this - I hadn't intended to last time).

We have a new water meter; the old one is obsolete, apparently. The guy who came was Polish I think, young, pleasant. "It won't take long," he said. "The meter will be under the kitchen sink!" It is indeed under the kitchen sink, I told him - but unfortunately it is also under the kitchen floor. I led him to our undercroft, through the squeeze hole at the back, and showed him where, through another squeeze hole that would take him under the kitchen floor, he could find the meter. It's a bit tight, and you basically have to lie on your tummy, but there is at least an electric light immediately over the meter. Bless him, his enthusiasm was quite undimmed. "No problem!" And there wasn't; twenty minutes, and he was on his way.

Friday, 3 February 2017


Just thought I'd post a picture of our garden (or a corner of it) nine months ago.
Not long till it's like that again!

Light to the World

A sermon for this Sunday . . .

Here is what Jesus says to his disciples, when he tells them he wants them to be lights to the world: “A city that is set on a hill top cannot be hidden.” Those would have been quite familiar words, I think, to those who heard him. Jewish teachers and preachers would have used a phrase like ‘light of the world’ quite a lot. It would have been used of Jerusalem itself, for this was famously a city built on a hill-top, and the holy city, was to be a light to the nations, so that people from across the world would be drawn to it. And the same phrase, ‘light of the world’ would have been used of a great and respected teacher: we find noted rabbis described as ‘lamps of Israel’.

This was also a phrase used of Jesus himself. Last Thursday the Church marked the feast of Candlemas, recalling how old Simeon in the temple, on seeing the child Jesus, recognised him as the one born to be ‘a light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of his people Israel,’ words sung at evensong as the anthem the Nunc Dimmitis. And Jesus uses the same phrase of himself: in St John’s Gospel, chapter 9 verse 5, we find him saying, “For as long as I am in the world, I am this world’s light.”

Now that surely means that when Jesus tells his disciples to be ‘lights to the world’, he is saying, “Be like me, and take a full share in my ministry.” Last Sunday at Chirbury our Candlemas service ended at the font; Candlemas is traditionally one of the occasions in the Church year when we think about our baptismal promises which are about discipleship, setting ourselves to follow. When a child is baptized (or an adult, indeed), we give a candle, with the words, ‘Shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God the Father’.

To the glory of God the Father. A great Jewish rabbi might be a lamp of Israel, but the light with which he shines is not his own.  We shine as we reflect the light of God, not seeking our own glory, but giving glory to the one to whom it rightly belongs.

And people will be drawn to the Holy City, says the prophet Isaiah, not by its own glory but by God’s glory. “God lit the lamp of Israel,” as a Jewish proverb said. Israel was called to be radiant with the glory of her Lord. We sometimes use the phrase ‘radiant with joy,’ perhaps of a bride at her marriage; as people of God we as disciples are called to bear a joyful witness to God, and to be radiant with a joy that is kindled by the love of Christ within our hearts.

In 2 Corinthians chapter 4, Paul writes: “The God who said, ‘Out of darkness shall light shine’ has caused his light to shine in our hearts, the light which is the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” He goes on to say, “We have only earthenware jars to hold this treasure, and this proves that such transcendent power does not come from us, but is God’s alone.”  Our faith should be visible; here is where the mission of the Church begins. And light is a positive force to make life better and richer, safer and more beautiful. A city set on a hill-top can’t be hidden - but what should the effect of its shining be?

Here are three things that occur to me, beginning with this: a city shines in order to confront and challenge. The self-governing city states of old needed to be visible enough to challenge and subdue the opposition of rivals. Christians are called on to be a prophetic presence in the world, and that may mean an unsettling presence. Light exposes and reveals what is dark, what people might prefer stayed covered up. As Christians we don’t have a ministry of being uncritically nice in the world; we are called to a ministry of knowing exactly what we stand for, and who we stand for, and being unafraid therefore to stand against what’s wrong in the world. Light does not accommodate darkness, but challenges it and drives it back. Where the world is dark, where love is denied and need goes unnoticed, where hurts are unhealed and the weak are exploited and abused, and where we are thoughtless and careless in our use of the world, there’s a need for more light.

So light shines to expose and reveal and correct. But the city set on a hilltop must also shine with confidence. We know that we stand in a good place. To be bold in standing against what’s wrong in the world, we must also have confidence in the rock on which we stand.  Where we are built Christ himself is our chief corner stone - where better could we stand? As we stand firmly in this faith, meeting our Lord in prayer and praise, in the study of his word, and in openness to his Spirit, we shall shine with his light.

And if we’re shining to challenge, and shining with confidence, we shall thirdly be shining with the light of charity and care. We’re here not for ourselves but for others. Jesus never said, “Shine as a light to the church,” he said, “Shine to the world”. Shine as a guiding light to those who need to find their way, and as a sign of healing and renewal to those whose hearts are broken. The light with which we shine is the light of charity.

Charity can be a misused word, I suppose. Christian charity should never be a gift made from what we might have left over at the end of the day (and perhaps a grudging gift at that). In scripture the word charity is always used of love in action. Charity is love without boundary or fear, love that seeks to transform and change what without it will be cold and dark and sad. And charity is the foremost of the gifts of the Spirit, and therefore the essential mark of the Kingdom which Christ came to proclaim. Only when the Church is living in the Kingdom and seeking to establish Kingdom values in the world can it truly claim to know its Lord.

So we’re to shine with challenge, with confidence and with charity. And it’s in charity that those other two things are based. In our love for others we prove and proclaim the truth of who we are and what we believe. For all the Law is summed up in these words: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself.” Shine as lights to the world; for a city set on a hilltop cannot be hidden.