Friday, 23 June 2017

Mission and Fear . . .

I came across a lovely story the other day about a little lad watching his mum, the minister’s wife, get the supper ready. “Nip into the pantry and get me a can of tomato soup,” she told him. “I can’t,” he replied. “It’s dark in there and I’m scared.” “It’ll be all right,” she told him. “There’s really nothing scary in there. And anyway, Jesus will be in there with you.” So the little boy walked hesitantly to the pantry door and looked inside. It did seem awfully dark in there. He leaned round the door and said, “Jesus, if you’re really in there, could you hand me out a can of tomato soup, please?”

Fear is one of the most basic of human emotions; from the very earliest moments of our lives we learn to fear. And that’s a good thing. If we didn’t feel pain and fear we’d be incredibly vulnerable; we simply wouldn’t be able to keep ourselves safe - or those around us. Heroes like the fire-fighters who faced danger so heroically as they tackled the dreadful blaze at Grenfell Tower in Kensington - these guys were not fearless, though that’s a word we sometimes use. They were as full of fear as anyone else would have been going into such a tragic and dangerous situation. But they were able to overcame their fear, and that’s what bravery is. How did they overcome their fear? Certainly not by under-estimating the seriousness of the task and the danger involved; they knew what they were going into. But they were well trained, well equipped, highly motivated, and with colleague support they could trust.

Fear is a good and necessary thing, but if fear gets the upper hand it disables us. That’s as true when we think of living out our faith as it is for anything else in life. The Bible shows how fear is part of our fall from grace. Adam and Eve hide from God the cool of the evening because, having eaten from the tree, they have learned to be afraid. Fear and sin are connected; fear disconnects us from a good and loving relationship both with God and with one another.

We encounter much to fear in our everyday lives: fear of illness, of poverty, of failure. We fear what we don’t like or understand. We may fear the other person, the one who looks different, speaks a different language, or dresses or worships differently. We fear those we think might wish us harm. Fear feeds into worry, tension, anxiety, stress; fear feeds into political extremism, religious isolationism, intolerance. A study in the United States of five hundred people found that among them they had 1,800 different fears. The media often help stoke up a culture of fear; the internet certainly does.

Fears left un-dealt with and uncontrolled can box us in, they hold us captive, leave us vulnerable to extremist voices. Fear can have a devastating impact, it can unbalance our perception and the decisions we make. The religious leaders at the time of Jesus were themselves transfixed by fear. Some of them at least were looking for the coming of God’s Messiah; but their minds were closed to Jesus, they failed to recognise him. These were men of God so boxed in by the fear of change, so afraid of losing their power, their status, their influence, that they conspired to kill the man whom God had sent.

Fear is designed to protect us; left unchecked, however, it can paralyze us. But John tells us that “perfect love casts out fear”, so what if we could cast out those fears that disable us? A repeated message as we read the Easter story is “Don’t be afraid.” We are called to be resurrection people: people who trust that Jesus is who he says he is, who trust in the reality of resurrection, and from that trust find the courage to place ourselves into his hands. Our fears won’t be magicked away, but we will find strength to overcome them, to work through them. Jesus promises that when we turn to him he’ll be there to strengthen and guide us. Life can be tough, and sometimes like Jeremiah we may feel that the whole world’s against us. But our Lord lives: we need not fear.

Today’s reading from St Matthew is part of his account of Jesus sending his disciples. Jesus warns them it’s going to be tough out there. They’ll face opposition - but, says Jesus, “Don’t be afraid of those who seek to harm you.”

This passage provides pointers to how we can ensure that our own ministry and mission isn’t disabled by fear. Firstly, we must be realistic, see things clearly, measure things up. In mission expect difficulty and allow for opposition; mission’s about telling good news, but not everyone will hear it gladly. Christians may sometimes expect God to prevent the sort of bad things from happening to us that might happen to other people. But real life’s not like that: look back through the pages of Christian history, look in the Gospels or the Acts of the Apostles: see how people doing God’s work face suffering and tragedy like anyone else. Real life includes a measure of pain and difficulty, there’ll be disappointment and even tragedy: but real life is where we’re called to minister and witness. Neither we nor the first disciples Jesus sent can be immune from the bad stuff that happens in our world. And some bad things may be the direct result of following Jesus.

The second thing I want to say is our faith is in the God who is, not some God we might choose to fit in with how we feel. In other words, God has sovereignty. Verse 28: Jesus tells the disciples to fear not the things they might have to face, but “the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Our Christian worship, service and mission bears witness to the greatness of God: his might and majesty are beyond our human reckoning, and yet he seeks us out and calls us to serve him. To focus on God helps me not to be egocentric, not to place myself at the centre of my own universe, but to see me as I really am. Fear is stoked up by excessive focus on ourselves. But God has power over all things, even over death itself.

Paul wrote: I belong no longer to myself, but to Christ. So a third thing to say is that we recognise that we God’s children and he loves us. Jesus says: “Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” God loves us as his own; as Paul again writes: If God is for us, who then can prevail against us?

So fourthly, we must not keep quiet about what we believe: we should go public in confessing our faith and doing God’s will. In verse 31 Jesus says that “anyone who acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge him before My Father in heaven.” Faith needs to be put to work: our holy task is to be builders of the kingdom, and to do this we need to keep ourselves focused on Jesus and his work of salvation, not on our own fears. That’s not to say those fears aren’t real. Bad things do happen; Christians in many places face persecution. Even here faithful witness is a challenging thing to do. But if our mission is cross-centred and cross-shaped, we’ll find, like a fire-fighter going into a blazing building, that we’ve got the tools to do the job.

So mission should be cross-centred: focused on what Jesus has done for us, on the cross where our sins are lifted from us, and the way to life is opened. At the cross our greatest fear is already defeated. And mission should be cross-shaped: at its heart should be the vertical of the cross, communication between me and God, God and me; perfect love casts out fear, and prayer is the spring of that love, that we are constantly seeking God’s presence, wanting to hear his word. Its expression is the horizontal of the cross: not just me and God, but us and God, in a fellowship of ministry and mission in which we look to each other, support each other, are in communion with each other through our communion with Christ. But the horizontal goes further than that: mission is done when we are reaching out to serve in the world.

For, as Archbishop William Temple famously said: “The Church is the one institution that exists primarily for the sake of those who are not its members.” Mission is fundamental to the work of the Church, and it involves its every member; I don’t mean we all have to stand on soap boxes on street corners, or go from house to house as doorstep evangelists - though some of us may be called to do those things. But all Christians are enrolled in a kingdom movement whose aim is that our world might be a better and more loving and peaceful place - a more Godly place. Our task within that movement is to build kingdom values where we are, where we live, where we work, where we have our being. That’s what we see Jesus sending his disciples out to do - they weren’t going out there to preach long sermons, they weren’t going to harangue people, they were to heal, console, forgive, lift up, to change lives for the better; and then to say: “The kingdom of God has come close to you.”

We’ll not manage that if we’re hooked on, paralyzed by, our fears; but nor can we do it by foolishly thinking there’s nothing to fear. If the world’s all right as it is, and there’s nothing to fear, then there is no mission task. But there is of course: we can see that the world is not how God wants it to be. We can see that he has work for us. But we have the antidote to fear; we have the equipment we need to get on with the job. We are resurrection people, and we already know how the story of our lives will end. We can say with confidence that because our Lord lives, we too will live. And in saying that we can overcome our fear, because we know that the future is in his hands: that my future, your future, is in his hands. Life is worth the living, the work is worth the striving, simply because he has died, and yet lives. Rejoice: the Lord is King! That, as Charles Wesley knew very well, is where mission begins.

Monday, 19 June 2017


Bullfinches in my garden today.  Father flew to the feeding station, and began to feed on sunflower seeds. Young one followed him, and perched on the top of the feeding station, making piteous noises. Young bullfinches have to same coloration, more or less, as the mother, but without the black cap. Mother then duly appeared, and joined father in feeding. Junior continued to cry. A second male appeared, and was immediately chased away by father. He had another try, and was again repulsed. Meanwhile, junior flew to the bars of our squirrel-proof feeder (the only seed feeder we use through the summer, along with a feeder stocked with fat chunks, very popular just now with the young blue tits), and tried fluttering his wings, only to receive a very stern "Gertcha!" from father, who went back to stuffing his own crop. I imagine junior is exactly that, the last one of the brood not to have cut the apron strings, and needing to be taught that now it's sink or swim.

The other male reappeared, flew straight at the feeders, thought better of it and veered past, to perch on our ornamental hawthorn. I thought he's head for the cherry, where our bullfinch pair spent a happy evening yesterday, along with sundry blackbirds, picking off the ripening berries. But no, back again he flew, and this time father decided to do some serious seeing off, so they both disappeared, with mother soon following.

That left junior, who sat on the top of the feeding station for a while longer, then descended to feed on the ground underneath, seeing off a rather handsome male chaffinch in the process - which suggests that he's got a bit about him, after all. But he certainly hasn't got the hang of the feeder. He did have a go, but then a big family party of blue tits appeared, and he couldn't compete. I was watching all this from our potting shed cum summer house, just a couple or three yards away. Who needs the soaps?

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Kite, etc

. . . my most recent "Nature Notes" column:

I was going to write about this year’s fledglings, which are everywhere in my garden as I write, with hoards of little coal tits and a brood of bullfinches my particular favourites. There are so many, and they seem so without fear that even the grey squirrels are put out by them. Squirrels expect to have control of the bird feeders whenever they choose to raid them. The birds are supposed to move away, but these young birds don’t. The squirrel I was watching climbed the pole from which the feeders hang, to look in amazement as the birds just continued to flutter and feed as though he wasn’t there, before eventually admitting defeat and descending.

But while parking cars for the Welshpool Air Show at the Livestock Market my eye was caught by a superior flying display - a red kite, which was about all day. It was a blustery sort of day, and the kite was totally expert in manipulating the wind, soaring, gliding, dipping with negligible effort, spreading its long wings and twisting its body in flight with amazing suppleness. At times there were two, so they were presumably nesting locally - I hope so, anyway.

Birds of prey never linger long in one spot without attracting opposition. Jackdaws were nesting, probably somewhere by the canal, and whenever the kite strayed too close to their comfort zone, they were up and about, mobbing him, and driving him back across the market. Even small birds will mob raptors and other birds seen as possible threats - I’ve seen songbirds mobbing a sparrow hawk, which would normally have been happy to make a meal of any of them. But in such cases they can probably tell that the hawk isn’t in hunting mode, and so not a direct threat, and out in the open (and in numbers) they probably have the ability to annoy it without being at too much risk themselves.  Mobbing in numbers will tend to confuse and disorientate a possible predator, as when the black-headed gulls at Llyn Coed y Dinas lift noisily as one to drive off a passing heron or greater black-backed gull.

In this case, the kite allowed the jackdaws to see it off, drifting back over the market area without paying them too much regard. It probably won’t have been much of a real threat, and the mobbing came across as something done for form’s sake rather than as a real emergency response. Red kites are mostly carrion feeders, and jackdaws are mostly hole nesters, so their eggs or young will have been safely out of reach anyway.

It was when the kite found and picked up a bit of carrion (roadkill, probably) that it became the target of a serious and concerted attack, which came from two directions. It lifted up with something dangling from one talon, and immediately there was a buzzard on the scene, pushing up from below and trying to tackle the kite. From above appeared a lesser black-backed gull which swooped repeatedly at the kite’s head. In an aerobatics competition I’m sure the kite could have beaten either of them, but against both at once it was up against it. The morsel was dropped as the kite made its escape, but I didn’t see which of the two attackers got it.

Saturday, 10 June 2017


Let me begin by reading R.S. Thomas’ poem, “The Bright Field”:

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

I think that’s a very wonderful piece of poetry; should I call it religious poetry? Maybe I shouldn’t, since Thomas had a somewhat ambivalent attitude to organised religion, for all that he spent his life in its employ as a parish priest, and a faithful one. But he was a man of great faith. As a poet his mind and heart were always ranging more widely, to touch on the hard lives of his people, on the shortness of our time, on the gap between the hopes we have and the prayers we make, and the little we understand or achieve. So it’s a poem of faith, certainly, a faith that struggles on, that persists, that is held on to, however hard the paths we walk.

Why read this poem on Trinity Sunday? Partly because I’ve just found it and like it, but also because poetry is a way in to what this day’s about. We celebrate what a Christian doctrine: that God’s reveals himself to us as Father, creator, as Son, redeemer, and as Holy Spirit, God inbreathed, the inspirer of faith. But don’t imagine that that’s the whole truth, the last word about God. Poetry reminds that doctrines like “Trinity” are just us trying to express what is utterly beyond us.

Trinity’s not the end but the start of the journey; faith is a dynamic thing, a process of constant discovery. God isn’t a thing to be defined and measured, but a constant dancing presence somewhere just outside the perimeter of our understanding, and yet somehow within us as well.

The doctrine of the Trinity arises from our awareness that the one God we worship makes himself known to us in different and distinct ways; and those who first devised the creeds we say were led to speak about different persons. Not different and separate people: but Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct and different persons who together are one God. They’re not three gods, but one; for Father, Son and Holy Spirit cohere together, and are part of each other.

One image of the Trinity is of a triangle, lines linking the three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. In the one we had as a lectern fall in one of my previous churches, the three sides of the triangle bore the legend “non est” - so the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and so on. At the heart of the triangle was a circle, labelled “Deus” (God), and lines connected that circle to each point of the triangle, these lines bearing the legend “est” - so the Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God.

That’s a nice try, but it doesn’t say enough. Another symbol of Trinity I’ve seen shows the triangle as before but with a circle intersecting the sides, a circle carrying arrow symbols to denote movement. So the lines are static, separating the three persons, making clear that the Father is not the Son, and so on, but at the same time the circle demonstrates the three persons in constant fluid motion, belonging to each other, in a constant interplay of love, so that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not fixed at the three corners, but also moving between, among, within each other.

Does all of this make sense? I hope it doesn’t, really. We may take the shamrock leaf as a symbol of Trinity - three leaflets making one leaf; or ice and liquid water and steam, different and yet all water. But no symbol really says enough. Trinity, God three in one and one in three, remains a mystery, however we try to explain or visualise it.

Which, for me, is where that poem comes in, among others I could list. One reason I enjoy poetry so much is that it’s an inexact science, in which what the poet writes is understood and interpreted in different ways by different people. That’s not to say that some get it right and others get it wrong, but that the act of reading or listening to a poem is itself part of the creative process that brings the poem to life. The pearl beyond price in the parable of Jesus and the poem by RS Thomas is a mystery; we may not fully understand what we’ve found, but we know we have to have it, at whatever cost.

Looking again at the image of a circle within a triangle, we see that trinity isn’t a static thing but something dynamic: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in relationship with each other that is all movement. And we should be reminded that doctrine is not important for its own sake; it isn’t the list of things we believe that matters, but the relationship we have - our relationship with God, and that relationship reflected and expressed in our care for one another, and our creative, useful and loving reaching out to the world. Jesus tells us that, like him we can call God our Father and pray to him in those words. And he offers us the Holy Spirit, the active presence of divine love to spark our fellowship, inspire our love, and enable our response, our praise and our prayer.

Trinity isn’t God sorted, defined, neatly boxed and labelled, but God the mystery of love inviting us in, saying “be part of this.” And isn’t that the pearl the poet finds? - a love that is personal to each of us, a love that creates all, conquers all, enlivens all, a love for all the world.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Pentecost 2017

On this bright morning, with the churchyard grass dotted with cinquefoil,
the old church bells missing one, ringing five, but still lovely to hear,
ringing in Pentecost, the old Whit Sunday, these days more red than white,
I wait awhile outside the door, just to taste again the freshness of late Spring
or early Summer, just to enjoy the brightness that is still there in the green.
But today I am robed in red, and not only for the Spirit; again, there is news of death,
of innocent blood spilled, of indiscriminate damage done in the name of Allah.
Or not, certainly not. Only the old false gods demanded libation of human blood.
We stand in silence, and a prayer is said. “Come down, O Love divine,” we sing.
The God who is love, and who chooses never to be other than love
is not served by those whose minds and faces are twisted by hate, nor by those
who have moulded them so, who manipulated their minds, and destroyed their souls.
But nor will he be served if we answer hate with hate. We may feel safer
if we let that happen, we may leach away some of the anger from within us
(or would we be only feeding it?), but love divine demands of us
the risk of human love, love that speaks all languages, that crosses every boundary,
that holds nothing back. “#Turn to love” said the heart in the poster, brown taped
onto London Bridge. And we must: for if we hate, the men with the knives will have won.
If we go on loving, daring to love, insisting on it, then they can never win,
not on this bright morning, not ever. So thy will be done, amen, thou Love divine.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Jackdaws and others (including Crow)

There's quite a crowd of jackdaws round our way just now, and they've taken to coming into our garden and attacking the fat feeder, which dispenses dollops about the size of a wine-bottle cork and is very popular with the woodpeckers and the house sparrows. The jackdaws keep all of them away and are rather messy and untidy in the way they attack the feeder. One at a time is all right, but when there's three or four together as there were today it's a bit tiresome.

Crow doesn't like them, either, and they will attack him if he shows his face. So he skulks in his tree and hopes they don't notice him. Jackdaws are colonial nesters, but they don't really co-operate with one another, and will steal nest sites from each other, sometimes evicting eggs or nestlings to do so. I think ours are nesting in the wood behind, though I have noticed them prospecting our neighbour's chimneys. At Minsterley our chimneys had to wired to prevent jackdaw access. A friend had a scare when a fully grown jackdaw chick came down the chimney in a cloud of soot and proceeded to rampage in terror around his lounge.

Blackbirds will also have a go at this feeder, by the way. As with the jackdaws, there is much fluttering of wings: it's not a very gainly pursuit. But it's an easy and cheap meal.

Here's a picture of Crow.  He took to visiting our patio every day for a while, but now mostly he stays in his tree.

Sergeant Pepper

I'm trying to be more disciplined, and to post something every day . . . but I was just too late getting back in last night, so this is what I would have posted yesterday . . .

Fifty years since Sergeant Pepper! This is the album that arguably changed everything, or at any rate it changed quite a lot. It was a remarkable achievement that had in its time a considerable impact on the world of popular music, and for that matter still does today.  It was certainly one of the significant steps that helped cement popular music as a serious art form, and no longer just "entertainment".

All I can really comment on, though, is its impact on me, at that time a somewhat green and naive sixth former at a small boarding school in the Midlands. Looking back, I'm a little amused at just how little we knew about life, for all that we tried to present ourselves as young men of the world. I guess we were aware of the existence of hallucinogenic drugs, but Woodbines and black coffee were pretty much the limit of our experience, as we listened to "Sergeant Pepper" in the dubious comfort of our rather ramshackle sixth form study. Even the village fish and chip shop was considered morally dubious, as I recall.

I was, therefore, especially susceptible to this strange new record, with its window into a world very different from mine at the time, but which, at the age of sixteen, I couldn't wait to become part of. Whenever I listen to it, each song sparks into life some particular memory, not so much of places, people or events so much as of how I felt at the time, of the dreams and longings we had. But they are all positive memories. I've always been a Beatles fan - not to the exclusion of other bands and singers, nor for that matter of other types of music, but the Beatles had been there throughout my adolescence, the musical backdrop to some times of utter misery and genuine pain, but also to my hopes, expectations and dreams, to the first confusing experiences of sexual identity, to the first breathtaking goes on that fairground ride called love.

And now, this! It's not my favourite album; it's not even my favourite Beatles album, which is, for the record, "Revolver". But it remains a (maybe the) pivotal moment in popular music, and in me. And fifty years on, as I look back and listen again, the sheer eclecticism of it all still thrills me, as does the fact that here was something that no-one had really ever done before. I'm reminded, too, that some of those dreams and hopes I had never did get achieved, and time is getting short. I'm not yet ready to stop . . .