Saturday, 25 March 2017


Today is Mothering Sunday, often called Mothers’ Day; for my nephew who manages a hotel, one of the busiest days in the year for their restaurant. My mother gets cross if I haven’t managed to find a card for her that says Mothering Sunday instead of Mother’s Day. She likes to keep to the traditional name, but it isn’t just that. Today isn’t just about being thankful for our own mums, whether they’re still with us or not, it also celebrates mothering in many different forms, our responsibility for one another, and the work we do to guide and protect one another, and the love we share.

Many of our best loved hymns celebrate God’s gift of love, and some of them we’ve sung this evening. St Paul’s wonderful words in I Corinthians 13 tell us that love is the best and most enduring thing we can possess; St John reminds us in several places that love is of the very nature of God; in 1 John 4 verse 16 we read “God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” The word mothering speaks of a human love that reflects the love of God, a love that will cherish, nurture, build and transform.

Stafford is my home town, and my brother’s recently enrolled me in a Facebook site called “Stafford Remembered”. I’ve spent more time than I should at my computer keyboard lately looking over the fascinating old pictures posted there, and shared memories. Things from way back in my childhood became sharp in my mind as old photos triggered them. A picture of the old Stafford Market reminded me of a time when I can’t have been more than four years old. It was a Saturday, and I’d gone to town shopping with Mum. We were going into the market, through the arcade of shops in the old market entrance.

I was supposed to be holding on to the handle of my brother’s pushchair, but I let go. Town was fun, and I wanted to look around. Some of the windows in the arcade were very reflective - so I stopped to look at myself and pull a few ugly faces. Maybe if I made a really ugly face I might crack the window - Mum used to say that an ugly face would crack mirrors. But then I remembered Mum saying that if I pulled a horrible face I’d stick like that if the wind changed, so I stopped.

I stopped and looked around; and Mum and the pushchair with my brother in it were nowhere to be seen. And suddenly all the people around me seemed very big and strange. Ahead of me were the doors into the market hall. Mum must have gone in, but I couldn’t see her. It was all so crowded. I can still remember the feeling of panic, and I think I probably started to cry.

Whether Mum heard me crying or just noticed I wasn’t there I don’t know, but suddenly there she was. So I stopped crying, though I soon started again when Mum told me off. What she said was, “Don’t you ever go off again like that!” That seemed unfair when really she’d gone off and I'd stayed where I was! (Though I know what she meant.)

So there’s one memory of mothering. I’ve plenty of good memories of course: being cuddled and loved, getting presents, going to nice places, and things like being allowed to scrape out the mixing bowl when Mum made cakes on a weekend. But I do also remember getting into trouble and being told off when I was found out, and maybe being sent to bed early. And that is also mothering, because mothering involves both love and guidance, and guidance requires discipline and correction, from time to time at least. To love someone is to want the best for them, and that sometimes needs some hard words.

Tough love, I suppose. But mothering is also tough on the person doing it. It involves sacrifice; sometimes to provide for others you must do without yourself. One old man I used to visit years ago used to tell me how in hard times his mother would claim she’d already eaten at suppertime, when in fact she was doing without so that everyone else could have enough. Paul writes of love that “there is no limit to its faith, its hope, its endurance.”

So for me Mothering Sunday commemorates not only our actual mothers but all the ways in which we experience a love in our lives that conveys and reflects the love of God: a love that protects and provides, that nurtures and disciplines, that helps us to become ourselves, and that encourages us to grow, to discover and to dare. Love that is costly and sacrificial, that reaches our and gives what can hardly be afforded; and love that allows us to find our own wings, and to make our own way, that doesn’t imprison us, but sets us free.

The greatest of all symbols of love is the cross, for it is at the cross that Jesus shows us most fully what divine love is. The sacrifice he makes there both convicts us of our sin and liberates us from the sentence of death our sin brings upon us. On the cross Jesus gives all he has, all he is, and even as he hangs there dying he continues to care for those dearest to him.

Mothering Sunday is worth more than a card and a bunch of flowers. I’m so grateful to those who’ve mothered me over the years, not only my own Mum but many other special people. In their love I’ve been helped to discern and discover the love of God. I hope I can play my part in doing the same.

Random Thoughts

Yesterday nationally was a day of reflection on the events at Westminster earlier in the week, including the question of why it is that people should be radicalised into what is a perversion of the true tenets of Islam. For many, including the attacker last Wednesday, this radicalising process began in prison, something that needs to be more fully understood I think.  I find myself reflecting on this simple truth, though - that for every cruel and perverted act of terrorism there are hundreds of acts of heroism, self-sacrifice, simple kindness; and the reason by many of these go unreported is that this is so fundamental to what it is to be human that we more or less take them for granted.

The terrorist turned peacemaker Martin McGuinness has been laid to rest. This was a flawed man in many ways, and I can understand those who, like Lord Tebbitt, continue to mistrust him and his motives. But others who have met him and know him have noted the completeness of his conversion, the genuine closeness between him and Dr Ian Paisley in government, and his espousal of policies that have helped poor Protestant communities. Whatever his initial motivation, the peace process in Northern Ireland could not have begun without his active involvement, and for that we must be grateful, while hoping that from the present situation of political uncertainty in the province a new phase of collaborative government soon emerges.

Brexit will have an impact on that, of course, as on much else, and the trigger will be pulled by Mrs May next Wednesday. I remain firmly of the opinion that the UK should have remained in the EU, and angry that a simple vote after a deeply flawed campaign (on both sides, admittedly) will bring us out. My feelings now though are "let's just get on with it". I regret our disengagement, but it's not the end of the world. We now have to press on and find new ways of still being part of Europe, and of working creatively with the nations of the EU and those beyond. I have my doubts about the ability and competence of the present administration to achieve this, and am aware too that there are parties within the EU who will want to in some way "punish" the UK for leaving; but I hope and pray that goodwill and a constructive attitude will prevail - or at any rate, an honest assessment of the extent to which we and the EU still need each other.

On a lighter note, our garden was full of siskins this morning. We won't keep these delightful birds with us much longer, especially as the weather brightens and warms up, though one or two pairs will breed locally - we generally get a few young birds looking in through the summer. It's a real joy to see them, though they like most finches are messy eaters and leave quite a mess under our feeders.

I've been taking pictures of some of our spring flowers, so here's one to finish with . . .

Friday, 24 March 2017

Great Spotted

It's time this blog had another go at being a daily record. I had an interesting day yesterday doing chaplaincy at Hereford Cathedral. It's such a lovely building, and visitors receive a very friendly welcome. A lot of folk from around Ely and Cambridge were there yesterday, and I met others from Leicester, Birmingham, Kent, and a family from Australia. Prayers of course focused on the sad events in London on Wednesday, and on victims of terrorism and violence in so many parts of our world. Unusually, and perhaps because of London, the cathedral was completely still for every occasion of hourly prayers.

Back home for a good practice with Guilsfield Singers. Only two more weeks till our concert on 8th April. We need to sell every last ticket to stand a chance of breaking even, so I hope we do. The pieces (Stainer's "Daughter of Jairus", Parry's "I was Glad" and the Schubert Mass in G) are lovely. A few of us wandered across to the King's Head afterwards - Peter H has a plan to make this a regular occurrence, I think.

Although this is really my Thursday blog, I'm writing it on Friday morning, and I've just been out to replenish the feeders in our back garden. Sharp and cold - and in the cold air, a sudden drumming. I've heard our local great spotted woodpecker drumming at the other end of our road (or, to be strict, the woodland we back on to), but he clearly has now found a good sounding branch in the great oak more or less just behind us. When he is drumming from somewhere that close, it is an incredibly loud sound! And it will carry a good long way. The bird itself flew to the smaller oak immediately behind us, then off in to the back woods. Great spotted's are regular visitors to the fat chunks in one of our feeders, and a couple of local blackbirds have obviously been watching, because they are giving it a try now, and succeeding, albeit in a rather clumsy fashion. I can't imagine them drumming, though (not would it be possible, as a woodpecker's head and bill are specially structured).

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Red Kite

(A poem in progress)

Brindley’s canal follows the contours
through a mix of greys and browns, yards and workshops,
half hidden behind tangled branches,
under a sky the colour of stovepots, the sun well hidden.
A spit of rain across my face has the feel of December
though the calendar tells me that it’s April.
Nothing much moves; the fishing sites along the towpath
are all deserted.  Blackthorn blossom on a stretch of scrubby hedge
is discoloured, dirty, the petals past their sell-by.

Those yards and buildings still in use
all look the other way, this canal is no longer relevant.
And many of them are merely derelict, shabby remnants
of the days when industry still meant bashing metal.
A cat stalks across one yard, intent on something I can’t see.
My eye is caught by a flash of yellow - coltsfoots,
rushing into flower well ahead of their leaves,
poke their scaly stems up through brick dust,
defiantly insisting that even under these clouds it has to be spring.

Up ahead of me a tangle of metal: pipes and girders
are twisted and turned to create a lattice tower,
seeming almost to touch the clouds; at their base
the bright green of the new growth of nettles.
Whatever this thing was, it no longer functions:
the adjoining buildings are roofless. But then, out of nowhere
it seems, a lifting, rolling, tumbling life force
in a russet red to defy the dark and grime of this day:
a kite, display flying for the sheer hell of it.

Or so it seems to me; the length of each wing amazes,
the fork of the tail, the way the bird tumbles
through the lattice, seems to be just falling, then recovers,
lifts back, sweeps away, banks round, returns.
I for my part cannot move. In the remains of old industry,
a new and dancing endeavour; and, as if in answer,
the clouds shift and in a burst of sunlight
the twisted metal itself catches fire, seems to dance.
Then all is still; but somewhere, a robin sings.

Sunday, 19 March 2017


When we did the Big Garden Birdwatch in January our star bird was the raven (well, join star bird with the goldcrest, perhaps. We had hardly started our hour when there was an immense commotion, which turned out to be a fight between a raven and two carrion crows who clearly believed it to be trespassing on their space. For a moment or two twigs and branches were flying about in all directions in the great oak just behind our garden.

I’ve written before about the crow family - we get them all (apart from the chough, which is found along coastlines, and the hooded crow, the carrion crow’s northern counterpart, which doesn’t stray this far south). Carrion crows and jackdaws are always around our garden, generally in groups of three or four or so, though the other evening at sunset quite a substantial band of jackdaws came across, chattering away.  Magpies are often about, jays much more rarely, though one was standing on our shed roof one morning as I opened our curtains. Rooks are country birds, so not regularly to be found on our estate, but sometimes wandering past.

But we do get ravens, and I’m delighted at that, since they aren’t really town birds, even though you may well associate them with the Tower of London. Despite its reputation as a bird of ill omen, the ravens at the Tower are highly valued; if there are not at least six ravens in residence, the monarchy will fall, or so it’s said. They are pinioned birds, but even so they do occasionally stray off, and one had to be sacked for eating TV aerials.

In reality, wild ravens are birds of wild places, resident in mountainous regions and nesting on cliffs, and in quarries. They rarely stray far from their breeding range. However they were historically much more widespread, and it was human persecution that drove them into the wilder parts of our land. There are signs now that they are spreading. They eat carrion but also take small birds and mammals, and will forage for eggs, insects, small reptiles - they have a varied diet.

Ravens usually nest on ledges, but will sometimes build a large untidy nest high in a tree. They raise one brood, and start early in the year, building in February. There are four to six eggs, incubated by the female while the male keeps her supplied with food. The chicks fledge in about five to six weeks.

Ravens are very black, and very big. They are the largest perching bird species, and are found in many parts of the world. In flight, they are recognised by their large and fingered wings, and their diamond-shaped tail - and by their high flying and love of thermals. I recently saw one high above our garden, soaring with buzzards, who now and again attacked it in a desultory way, a turning of the tables perhaps, as buzzards themselves are often mobbed by smaller crows and jackdaws.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Woman at the Well

Some thoughts for this Sunday (Holy Trinity, Leighton, and Newtown Methodist Church) - Lent 3:

Well, another week of changing shapes and shifting alliances in the world of politics. We’re ready to begin the formal process of leaving the EU; some folk are rejoicing, while others are horrified and feel disenfranchised and ignored. As expected, the SNP have called for a new referendum on independence; as expected, Mrs May has said no. I doubt there’s much stomach for indyref2 among the Scottish electorate, but maybe the SNP does have a point: the ground has changed. Meanwhile Sinn Fein’s new leader is calling for a new vote on the unification of Ireland, though I presume someone has to form a government in Stormost first. Is the break-up of what we hoped might remain a United Kingdom just round the corner? And will right-wing popularism start winning polls in Europe?

Immigration has been the fuel for much of this. It’s a growing cause of concern across much of the world, and certainly has been here in the UK. It was probably the decisive factor in the Brexit vote - certainly Mr Farage thinks so. Alongside that, there are growing ethnic and cultural tensions in most societies, and they’re being exploited in some places of power, by the current resident of the White House, for one. Wherever different peoples dwell in the same land there’ll be tensions I suppose, especially when language, skin colour or religious faith divide them. Many of the minority peoples of our world experience persecution: I can think of the small Hindu and Christian minorities in Pakistan, the tribal Karen people in Burma who even under the new democracy still seem to get a raw deal, Coptic Christians in Egypt, Muslims in the Philippines, Christians in Indonesia. Just a few from a very long list.

Religion was a big factor in the simmering tensions that existed between Samaritans and Jews at the time of Jesus. They were close neighbours who worshipped the same God and claimed Abraham as their father. But they worshipped in different ways and different places. They wouldn’t even share the same drinking vessels. The boundaries between them were very real, and taken very seriously. But in today's long gospel reading we see Jesus cross that line.

In fact he crossed more than the line of race and religion; his disciples would have been shocked to see him talking to a woman, alone and unchaperoned, even before they realised that she was a Samaritan. And I imagine that if they'd known about her many marriages and her unconventional household they'd have been appalled at that too.

The traditional collect set for today speaks about 'the way of the cross'. (I’ll use it as part of our intercessions.) The Way of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem traces the traditional route of the journey of Christ through the streets and the jeering crowds to Calvary. But we can think of Jesus walking the way of the cross throughout his ministry - an unsafe and unconventional journey on which he challenged the accepted status quo. He didn't teach in a safe and conventional way. He didn’t teach like rabbis were supposed to teach; and he made time for the sort of people no good rabbi would even look at, let alone teach.

In doing this he faced risk: on his journey, the risk of being misunderstood, rejected, and held in disrepute. And at the end of the road the risk of the cross. But only when boundaries are crossed and barriers forced open can things change for the better. Only when prejudices are challenged can things change for the better. Good won’t triumph over evil until people expose that evil, speak against it, take action to prevent the damage and heal the wounds, reach out to those who are denied justice. But too often too many of us simply let things be.

It can be uncomfortable to open yourself to others, to relate to, speak to, listen to those whose cultural choices, beliefs and ways of living are different from your own, maybe challenge your own; but Jesus shows us the way of the cross, which is inescapably inclusive.  Human fear, ignorance and self-interest put up barriers, but Jesus walking the way of the cross breaks them down. The way of the cross exalts our shared humanity over the barriers of race or culture.

But of course we’re not even united as Christians, so we’ve got a distance to go I guess. Christ’s call to serve him, sealed in the baptism we share and the supper he gives, demands unity as the basis for our Gospel mission; but historically we have let differences of order and interpretation and theology - and issues of politics and power - break his Church apart.

“Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it to be none other than the way of life and peace.” Words from today's collect. Jesus offered the woman by the well living water,  and she was keen to have this special water, because naively she thought it might save her time and effort, she wouldn’t have to go traipsing off to the well with her bucket. St John's Gospel’s full of people who interpret spiritual gifts in very worldly ways.

Jesus didn’t offer real water, but he does promise real life and real peace. The woman hoped for an easier life. What Jesus offers may n fact make our lives harder in this world: his way is the way of sacrifice, which means letting go of things we hold dear, letting go of the entrenched positions and set opinions that make us who we think we are. To go with Jesus we have to take up a cross, we have to take the road of risk and service. But this is the way to life and godly peace: to stay where we’re comfy is to miss out on that.

Jesus told the Samaritan woman that his people, the Jews, worshipped with understanding, while her people “worship what you do not know.” But true worshippers, Samaritan or Jew or whatever, are those who worship in spirit and in truth. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth. I’ve always been wary of the rules and liturgies and doctrinal formulations of organised religion, for God is more than mere religion. God is love, and God is found by those who seek him in love. And true religion is more than joining a club: it’s about relationship - a living, loving relationship with God: relationship that leads us into, and requires from us, a living, loving relationship with one another.

For Jesus the Jew, the Samaritan woman had got it wrong (as he told her). She worshipped what she didn’t know. But he still made time for her: she was still worth speaking to, and he still had a message for her of hope and love and acceptance. Those who we think have got it wrong are still worth a hearing, for they are sisters and brothers within the love of God. And when someone else gets something wrong, don’t assume that therefore you yourself have got things right, or at least, not completely. We’ve always more to learn, further to travel. Mission begins with listening, and requires humility. We can’t give unless we’re also open to receive, we can’t teach unless we’re also open to learn.

So I’m sad when I see religion being either defensive or triumphal, and I’m sad when I see religious people wanting to stay safely behind high walls that they themselves have built. For that’s not the faith Jesus calls us to in today’s Gospel; that’s not the faith he himself modelled in this encounter with the Samaritan woman. His is a faith to break walls down, to open ways to dialogue, his is a faith that is provocative, adventurous, and ready to be involved, actively engaged with people where they hurt, where they have needs, where they have questions, and even where they make demands.

The way of the cross requires that we take risks and engage with the other, with the person who is different from us. It requires that we do mission, and that we share what we have. But while we certainly have something to teach and to share, to do it well we need also the humility that allows us to listen and to learn. Mission is effective when those who do it are themselves open to change and challenge. To walk the way of the cross is to walk as a vulnerable pilgrim. But also to walk with confidence: for in Christ we have found the way of life, which he offers as a blessing for all to share.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

In The Desert

My sermon for tomorrow, Lent 1, at All Saints' Parish Church, Middletown :-

“Forty days and forty nights thou wast fasting in the wild.” Today, on the first Sunday of a forty days of Lent which very conveniently began on the first day of the month, we read of Jesus being led by the Spirit into the desert, into the wilderness, to be tempted there by the devil.

I don’t know what your image of a desert might be; I was looking the other day at as aerial photograph of a man and his camel crossing the Arabian desert. They were tiny figures in a waste of sand that was utterly beautiful but also very scary, for there was nothing else in sight, no landmark to find the way, no place to find food, no place to take refuge.

So deserts are scary and dangerous, but in scripture the desert has a more positive role: it’s a place of testing and of renewal, and what happens there is useful and necessary. We sometimes speak of desert experiences, or wilderness years. If they happen to us we don’t feel very blest. My desert experiences over the years have been times of intense spiritual dryness, times when prayers just seemed to bounce back at me, times when I felt alone and unsupported; so not good times, even in retrospect. But looking back I can see how being tested in the desert often did begin something new in me: tough times, but I came out of them spiritually stronger, more aware, and more sensitive.

But I’d never have chosen to go there. They were crisis points, painful times I wouldn’t want to see again. Today we recall Jesus going deliberately into the wilderness. He didn’t have to go, he wasn’t there by chance or by mischance, though we are told he was led there by the Holy Spirit. So it was a place he knew he had to be, and the Greek word we translate as “led” (by the Spirit) is a very strong word - but even so, Jesus was in the desert because he chose to be.

And he chose to go there because he needed that time of testing, to arm himself for the spiritual battle that would be there throughout his ministry. Before he did anything else he had to identify, isolate and deal with the temptations that might otherwise lead him astray.

Does it seem strange to you that Jesus of all people needed to do this? Surely the Son of God would have it all sorted from the start? But Jesus the man is truly and fully one of us, and like us he was tempted. The Lord we praise and follow may be God’s only begotten Son, but here in the Judaean desert all his majesty and might are laid aside. He is completely one of us, except for this: right from the start he will be entirely focused on the will of the one he teaches us to call “Our Father”.

So this morning we’ve heard again the story of how Satan tries to turn our Lord away from the path of obedience, something you can be sure he went on doing wherever Jesus was. But in these forty days in the desert Jesus acted decisively to confront the pressure, and get the measure of his opponent. When he emerged from the desert he was ready for the task.

Temptation is something that’s always there when we’re trying to be good Christians. And temptation works on us by placing something - an ambition, a desire, something coveted or envied - where God should be in our lives. It’s like an itch: hard to resist, but when you do give in to it the relief never lasts long. All you do is start the itch up all over again, and in the end the damage done to our spiritual selves can be hard to repair. So when we pray: ‘Lead us not into temptation’ (or, in one modern version of that prayer, ‘Save us from the time of trial’), I hope we really do take those words seriously; temptation is a serious matter.

Jesus deliberately allowed himself to be led into temptation, so that in the desert he could isolate the chief temptations he’d be facing throughout his ministry, and beat them down. In Lent our task is to reflect his determination - this is a time to look for growth, root out the weeds, face up to things; it’s a time to be serious about temptation and what it does to us. But let’s not be at all negative about Lent. It’s a time of blessing and opportunity: God’s gift to us - a desert time of fasting in which we can isolate our own most dangerous temptations, and beat them back.

So we should make good use of Lent, like Jesus in the desert. It’s not just about giving something up. It’s about dealing with the things that have too big a place in our lives. It’s about getting serious about who controls us, about what God wants from us, and the stuff that stops us responding to him as we should. It’s our chance for a really good spiritual spring-clean, not just so we feel better in ourselves, but so we can better serve our Lord, be more tuned in to his will, have cleared out the rubbish that gets in the way of that.

The thing about the temptations Jesus faced in the desert is how plausible they were. Was it bad to turn stones into bread? Think of the hungry mouths you could feed, not just your own! Was it bad to do some crazy thing that would dazzle people into faith? Isn’t anything that would win you disciples worth a shot? Was it bad to go for political power, to want to rule over the kingdoms of the earth? You’d surely do a better job than those who already had that power!

Temptations are plausible. Most of us don’t want to do bad things, so we’re not tempted to do bad things, just tempted away from doing good things: something that’s harder to spot, and harder to beat. That’s why we need this holy season.

Jesus might have done a lot of good if he’d gone along with the devil. He might well have lived a lot longer, and he  might still be remembered as a great leader whose rule was a golden age. But in truth his life would have been an abject failure, for he’d have let himself be turned away from the way of the cross; and the true and decisive victory of love over sin and death that was his task and his destiny would never have happened. He won in the desert a victory that was the vital precursor to the victory he’d win on Good Friday, the victory of the cross.

You and I are marked with the sign of that cross, so Lent is our time to take seriously what being marked with a cross should mean. It’s about the necessary discipline of faith; it’s about what I need to learn and receive as a disciple of Jesus, and what I need to do and to give as an apostle for Christ. Here is the simple question that begins my keeping of Lent: where, truly, is my Lord in my life?

Friday, 3 March 2017


A poem I wrote in January, nearing the end of its revision process . . .

On a morning of hard and brittle brightness,
with a chill to the air that waters the eyes,
I venture forth as I must
 to check the greenhouse heater,
when my eyes are caught by a new white,
cleaner than the silvery rime,
half concealed under a leafless shrub.
And yes: the green-fringed steel helmets
of our first flowering snowdrops
have somehow broken through
the tumbled frosted leaves left there from autumn.
We are here, they say, we are here,
shining their defiance to the cold crystal sun.
It is a matter of some astonishment;
to be honest, I had forgotten the bulbs were there.
We are weeks away, really, from spring,
but here is an early wisp of its resurrection breath.
Everything else is still playing dead,
but this gentle plant chooses to bloom regardless,
green and white, white and green:
sweet as a drift of snowflakes,
and yet hard as a bag of nails.