Saturday, 29 December 2018


I’m very fond of ducks. Well, who wouldn’t be? They are lovely and often mildly comical, birds, and they’re often much easier to see and to get close to than other birds.  The Gloucestershire poet F.W. Harvey’s poem “Ducks” is a personal favourite of mine. He wrote it I think around the end of the First World War, in which he won the DCM while serving in the Gloucestershire Regiment, and was later captured, spending the remainder of the War as a POW. His poem begins “From troubles of the world I turn to ducks . . .” Well, so do I - I can sit happily and watch them dabble.

Not all ducks dabble, of course. Mallard and teal dabble, upending in the water to feed on plant or animal matter just below the surface. Their bills are well adapted to filtering out tiny morsels of food from the water. The biggest bill is that of the shoveler, which looks ridiculously big on the bird, especially in flight, but is a brilliant tool for filtering up food as the duck pushes it along through the water.

Other ducks dive, the two most commonly seen being the tufted duck - the drake is black and white with a crest that always looks to me like a poorly Brylcreemed comb-back - and the pochard, with a russet red head, light grey back and black breast.

And then there’s the wigeon, the drake of which also has a reddish head and grey back, but the  head is perhaps more chestnut in colour and with a pale gold crown. These are unusual in that they come out of the water to graze on grass.

All these species can be found in the UK all year round, but there are many more of them around in winter. Wigeon can sometimes be found in very large numbers, for example. In summer they are confined to Scotland and the north of England, but they will be found much more widely in winter, and there will always be at least a small group at Llyn Coed y Dinas, for example. Other ducks like pintail, goldeneye and gadwall will also turn up in the winter, though in smaller numbers, while the more goose-like shelduck, once confined to the coast, is now quite often seen well inland.

Sawbills are another kind of duck, with thinner bills with serrated edges (hence the name) that help them to grab fish. The two that breed in the UK are the red breasted merganser and the goosander. Goosanders were not found in these parts until quite recently, but now they are a familiar sight on the river, and I’ve seen one on the little lake at Powis Castle. They’re big: males have a dark green head and a red bill.

Not all ducks quack. It’s the (female) mallard that makes the sound most people associate with ducks. But here again is F.W. Harvey: “As for the duck, I think God must have smiled a bit / seeing those bright eyes blink on the day He fashioned it. / And he’s probably laughing still / at the sound that came out of its bill!”

A sermon for the Sunday after Christmas

 . . . using the "second service readings" i.e. Isaiah 61, Galatians 3.27 - 4.7 and Luke 2.15-21 :-

“Through faith you are all children of God, in union with Christ Jesus.” Those words were written by the apostle Paul to the Church he helped to found in Galatia; they were originally part of his letter just to them, but they’ve become part of our New Testament scripture because they apply not just to the Galatian church but to every church, and to all who’ve been baptized. All who are baptized are brought into union with Christ.

Or at least, potentially so. As with every other gift, it’s what we do with it that counts. Let’s think about Paul himself for a moment or two, though. Paul had had a good Jewish upbringing in what seems to have been a strict and observant Jewish family. He was schooled as a Pharisee, for which he would have been sent to Jerusalem. There he learned how to apply to the whole of life, to every daily action and decision, the demands of the Law of Moses. Purity was very important to the Pharisees, and all good Jews were very aware of the special status they had as God's chosen people, and very anxious to preserve and protect that status and purity in the potentially difficult situation that Paul’s family would have experienced, of living as Jews within what was a Gentile city, Tarsus in what is now central Turkey. Within his daily morning prayers he would probably have prayed words like these: 'I thank you, Lord, that you have not made me a Gentile, a slave or a woman.'

In those early days he was still called Saul. As a young man in Jerusalem he became aware of a group within the Jewish community who claimed the Messiah had come and had been crucified. The idea of a crucified Messiah was horrifying. It flew in the face of everything Saul believed. He would have been appalled and disgusted at what this new group of followers of Jesus were saying. They needed to be stopped. And so Saul became a zealous  persecutor of the followers of this new way. Until, that is, Jesus himself broke through.

In his letter to the Galatians, it seems that Paul is taking that familiar prayer and turning it right round completely. For none of those old distinctions between people matter any more. They’ve all been taken away, for all are now one in Christ.

The writer of the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, Luke, was one of the most faithful companions of Paul. We can’t be sure, but he may well not have been a Jew by birth. If so, he was the only one of the Gospel writers not to be. All the Gospel writers have their own particular themes, and an important one for Luke, as he tells the story of Jesus, is the breaking down of barriers. It's Luke who tells us about shepherds coming to worship by the manger. And shepherds were very much looked down on. The work they did prevented them from participating in observant Jewish life; yet it’s to these people that angels first bring the good tidings. Maybe that’s because they were the only people still up and about, but I think there’s more to it than that!

Luke also tells us that Jesus was brought up properly within the Law of Moses; all the right things were done for him as the Law required. But, though the message of God’s salvation comes from the Jews, it is not merely to the Jews. It will go out into all the world. To everyone, Gentile and Jew, man and woman, free man and slave, the door of God’s love is opened. And that, of course, includes us.

So last Tuesday we celebrated the birth, but today we need to go on to think about what that birth means: what it meant then, and what it means now. To us a child is born, to us a son is given. But how does this gift make a difference to you and me? How is the world changed, by God sending his Son to be born among us?

The prophet Isaiah wrote: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me.” These are wonderful and startling words that are both divinely inspired and intensely personal. In his writing Isaiah suddenly switches from relaying the words of God to saying in the first person that the Spirit is upon ME. You can almost see the flash of light: NOW I see what I have to do, and what message I have to share. It’s about a great Year of Jubilee, which needs to be proclaimed and acted out. The Year of Jubilee is something we can read about in Leviticus - it’s the fiftieth year in which debts are cancelled and land is returned to its original owner: and the reason why that happens is to do with being the people of God, and knowing as God’s people that we belong together, and that all that we have, and the land we hold, is actually his. It all belongs to the Lord. We are merely stewards, and it’s out duty as stewards to use what we have in accordance with what our Lord requires.

So Isaiah calls for a Year of Jubilee that will bring justice for those are depressed, downhearted, and imprisoned, and freedom and comfort for his people. And in all of this God will be glorified. Jesus read this passage to the people of his own home town, and declared, 'Today, in your hearing, these words are fulfilled.' But the very fact that shepherds were told the good news at the time of his birth points ahead to what will happen.

Although, as I’ve said, shepherds were outsiders and looked down by the religious elite, shepherd is also one of the great titles God claims for himself, perhaps most beautifully in the 23rd Psalm - but also in, for example, the Book of Ezekiel. And Jesus will claim the title of 'Good Shepherd'; he told his disciples that 'the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.' Shepherds are there to serve, to guide and to protect - that’s the job they do; and in the process of doing that job they may well need to risk their own lives. God's anointed Messiah is anointed both to serve and to suffer. The task before him is nothing less than the setting free of all God’s people: their salvation and restoration. And to achieve this the Christ will lay down his own life.

It was realising this that changed Saul the persecutor into Paul the apostle. And for us? If we celebrate Christmas without seeing what this child will grow up to do, we only have half the story, or indeed less than that. The road begun at the crib must lead to the cross: it’s all one story. And that cross, as Paul came to understand, is what brings all people together. The divisions perpetuated by the Law are removed: everyone has an equal right to stand in God's presence.

And to stand as his children. In those days a child, however well born, had no authority over his own life until he made the transformation to adulthood that for a Jewish child would be bar-mitzvah, becoming a son of the Law, or for a Greek child the ceremonial cutting of the long hair of childhood to make him a full member of the patria or clan, or for a Roman child the day on which his childhood toys were offered to the god Apollo, to show he was now a man and had put away childish things. Paul writes to the Galatians that will now they’ve been only children, but in Christ they’ve been given the status of sons. So the challenge now is to grow to full spiritual adulthood.

A similar question for the Church today might be 'Are we talking about Jesus, or living with him?' Are we engaged in the work Isaiah the prophet proclaimed, which Jesus took as his manifesto?  Do captives find release here, do the broken hearted find healing, is there oil of gladness to replace the tears of those who mourn?  On New Year’s Day the Church commemorates the naming and the circumcision of Jesus, which was done by custom on the eighth day after his birth. The name 'Jesus' in fact means 'The Lord saves';  and if we are Jesus people, then his name becomes ours, and so does the work he does. Shepherds came to worship a baby; the man he grew to be calls us to travel with him, to make space for the needy, to be a church for all: he is love born among us, so may his love flow through us, lighting new lights of love for the salvation of the world.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Yesterday's Sermon, for the 1st Sunday of Advent.

One of the most widely disregarded thirty mile an hour limits in this area is the one on the main road through Forden. I do try to slow down to thirty there; I’m not a slow driver, but to be honest I do always try to obey speed limits wherever they may be. Mind you, it’s not easy to do that through Forden - it’s a wide road so you feel as if you’re going really slowly, while other road users wanting to go faster, do tend to push you and put you under pressure.

So the other day when I drove through, it was a surprise to me to find everyone going along very tidily indeed - slowly, even. As I rounded the bend, the reason was easy to see: a police squad car was neatly parked face on to the road, more or less opposite the chapel. I think that’s the first time I’ve seen the police take any interest at all in the traffic flow through Forden. If he was, even - he might just have stopped there for his lunchtime sandwiches, for all I know.

In general, when people know they’re going to be inspected, they put a bit of extra effort in. I’m happy for most people who might call on me to find our house in its normal warts and all state of play. We’re not the most tidy and organised household, nor ever will be. One of my aunties has been known to call on us without much notice, but that’s all right - she can take us as she finds us. But there's another who’s a different matter. I’d need notice of a visit from her, because we and our house would need to be on our best behaviour.

In our gospel reading this morning, we find Jesus talking to his disciples about the turbulent times around them. In those days, many people believed the end might come at any moment; and wars, earthquakes, floods, anything might be a sign of the approaching end. People always do try and read the signs, of course; if we can work out what’s going to happen next, we can be better prepared.” If I could prove that the day of judgement is next Friday, I bet you’d be awfully good right through till then.
To be honest, if the day of judgement is next Friday, I’ll be as surprised as anyone. Jesus told his disciples to recognise the signs for what they are, the marks of a fallen and crumbling world that will at some time come to an end; but they don’t need to get hooked on reading signs, they don’t need to second guess what they see, or find meanings that aren’t there.

To go back to my drive through Forden, there won’t be the equivalent of a clearly marked police car to remind us to start being good. People are always supposed to drive through Forden at thirty, whether or not there’s a squad car there. Christians are always supposed to be good, whether or not they think that God is watching them. (He always is, by the way - which makes the fact that I’m generally far better behaved when I’m wearing my dog collar than when I’m not, just a bit ridiculous.)

So Jesus says to his disciples, “Be on your guard; do not let your minds be dulled by dissipation and drunkenness and worldly cares so that the great day catches you suddenly like a trap.” Unlike the more serious of my aunties, I doubt God minds that much whether my house is tidy; but I'm sure he does mind whether my soul is tidy and whether my life is tidy. He wants to be sure my heart is in the right place. So that’s the sort of alertness and watchfulness he needs from us; not watching for signs and portents so much as being watchful of ourselves and disciplined; and alert to every opportunity that comes our way to show and share God’s love, to lend a helping hand or a comforting arm.

There are quite a few places in the Church year where we’re reminded what being a disciple involves; but in particular before the two great festal seasons of the year, Christmas/Epiphany and Easter, we’re given times for being penitent and prepared. Lent still gets taken seriously, but Advent maybe less so. People quite often call today Advent Sunday, as if Advent were a single day, or a week at best. But it’s all four of the Sundays leading up to Christmas, and the weeks between. A time to get ready.

One reason why I generally drive through Forden at thirty even when people around me and behind me would like to go a bit faster is that I’ve done advanced driver training. If you think you wouldn’t know it from the way I drive, you should have seen my driving before! Anyway, advanced drivers should pay full attention to all the rules and signs of the road. And they’ll aim to be as prepared as they can be for anything unexpected ahead.

Advent, like Lent, is designed and intended to help us progress from everyday disciples to the advanced version. But that only happens when we use the season as it’s intended. When I joined the Institute of Advanced Motoring,  that on its own didn’t make me an advanced driver. I needed also to read the book, with all its helpful tips and diagrams and illustrations, and to get some hands-on experience with an advanced driver, which wasn’t always easy; after all, some of the time he was fairly bluntly telling me where I was going wrong, and challenging the decisions I made.

It’s clear from today’s Gospel how Jesus wanted his disciples to progress to being advanced disciples. The medieval writer Thomas a Kempis called this “the imitation of Christ”. Our holiest duty, he argued, is to build into our own lives as much as we can of the example Jesus sets us of faith and love and service and duty and sacrifice. We need to allow his example to challenge the bad habits and the failures to act that otherwise might go unnoticed.

Well, I may be an advanced motorist, but I’m not a perfect driver: I still have plenty to learn, and I don’t always get it right. That’s also true for advanced disciples - though we’re working at being better followers of Jesus, we won’t have become super saints - nor ever will in my case at least (I don’t presume to speak for you). But the message is: start small, but do start. It’s Advent: use it. Do one extra thing, say one extra prayer, read one extra piece of scripture, draw one little bit closer to Jesus.

And don’t do it as a penance, as an attempt at piety or to fit in with the solemnity of the season; do it as a positive endeavour - part of the process of getting ready, not only to celebrate Christmas but also to take faith, believing, Church and Jesus seriously in your life; giving God the place he desires.

We need to be ready for inspection at any time. That’s what Jesus said to his disciples. There won’t be a marked car, or a phone call to say that my serious auntie is going to call by next Friday. And anyway, Jesus doesn’t want his folk only to be disciples when they think they’re being watched; or to be fitted in around the edges of the important stuff in their lives. In a few weeks, we shall sing those lovely words of Christina Rossetti, “In the bleak midwinter” - “What I can I give him, give my heart.” I hope I can use Advent to help me be ready to sing that not just as a lovely bit of poetry or a favourite carol, but as a personal prayer.

Bird in the Mist

We have reached a moment, a point of decision;
I have searched for the words to give form to my feelings,
to give sense to it all, to make the thing complete,
but I left only fragments laid aside, 
each one too hard, too sweet, too harsh, and not enough.
They do not fit together,
the truth is somewhere else. And I cannot speak,
I cannot write; instead, I find myself
in the early morning, the grey mist and the dew,
where the new light is strange and beautiful,
and nothing is clear, but everything possible,
waiting to be, under a widening sky.
And there is a bird, half-glimpsed at best, with
grey feathers softening into the grey of the morning:
a bird flying upward, her wings spread bravely, lifting away.
Remember the times that are there to be remembered,
the bright days, the warm days; then
watch as the light strengthens, and the day begins,
and know that the bird in the mist 
is returning to the sun.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Kingship and Mission

A sermon to be preached tomorrow at Marton, Leighton and Corndon Marsh . . .

When the Common Lectionary was introduced, the last Sunday before Advent was given the theme “Christ the King”. That’s a good note on which to end the church year. This Sunday used to be kept as Bible Sunday, which has now been moved to the last Sunday in October. It was a time to preach about world mission, and I’m still going to do that in this sermon. This coming Thursday is the Day of Intercession for the Missionary Work of the Church; and Friday is St Andrew’s Day, of interest not only to Scots and Russians who claim him as their patron saint, but also to missionaries. Andrew is called the first missionary of the Church, since St John tells us he went to find his brother Simon Peter and brought him to Jesus.

So I want to link kingship and mission, and I’m going to begin with an image popular in the heyday of missionaries in pith helmets and baggy shorts - that of the Christian as a soldier enlisted in the service of God. It’s a New Testament image, but it was made a great deal of in the great days of world mission, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. This was the time when hymns were written like 'Soldiers of Christ, Arise' and 'Onward, Christian Soldiers'.

Of course it was also the era of colonialist expansion, and that’s one reason to feel a bit uncomfortable when we sing those hymns today, though on the whole I don’t. “Hymns Old and New” has expunged all warlike language, so that “Christian Soldiers” become “Christian Pilgrims”. There’s nothing wrong with singing about Christian Pilgrims, but it’s a different image, telling a different story. The image of the Christian soldier still has power, and we shouldn’t shy away from it. Soldiers have courage, owe allegiance and follow orders; they’re dutiful, disciplined, and ready to risk their lives.

Pontius Pilate would have understood all of that; as a Roman governor he probably had a background in military service, and he’ll certainly have known the calibre of the troops under his command. He’ll have known a lot about kingship, too. As the emperor’s man he could claim all the honour due to a king in the charge he’d been given. But he didn’t understand this king. “Are you a king, then?” he asked in frustrated puzzlement.

“King is your word,” replied Jesus. But Jesus had said a lot about the kingdom as he taught the people. In those days, kingdoms were as much about allegiance given as geographic boundaries. Yes, a kingdom was the area of land held by a king, but it was also the people who accepted his rule, nobles and commoners who paid tribute and owed allegiance to him.

The kingdom of God is about allegiance. It doesn’t have geographic boundaries. It’s wherever people’s actions, attitude and behaviour prove they’re serving their heavenly King. Its marks are such things as healing, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation. People taking risks and living generously in the service of their King. People seeing how Jesus does it, and then doing their best to do the same. Like the disciples after the first Christian Pentecost, they’ll be crossing all kinds of human boundaries; it’s like Jesus told Pontius Pilate: his kingdom is not of this world. A kingdom like that can and must take root anywhere and everywhere. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is recorded as saying to his apostles 'Go, make disciples of all nations' - those are their standing orders, to use a military term.

If we don't like the image of soldiers of Christ, our reading from the Revelation of John gives us another important word:  priest.

Those who follow Jesus and serve him are to be a kingdom of priests. So what’s so special about a priest? Well, priests are called to be a link between the people and God, and between God and the people. Priests are called to speak and do God’s word so the world gets to hear it, and to speak for the people to God, and to pray for those who need praying for, including those who can’t or won’t pray themselves. But that’s not just my call; this is what God’s calling everyone in his Church to be - we’re to be go-betweens and servants. In the things we say and do and in the way we live we’re to bring people to know, right where they are, the saving and transforming love of God.

I spent three happy years working for USPG, one of the oldest missionary societies, founded by a son of these parishes, Thomas Bray. More than three hundred years ago, the first missionaries of his new society crossed the Atlantic to serve congregations in the new colonies of America. And ever since then, USPG has been encouraging and resourcing world mission. You might think of missionaries as Christian soldiers going courageously with the Gospel into new and perhaps dangerous situations; you may think of them as priests, going out to serve and pray and teach. But the stories of their courage and devotion are the real deal.

In our changing world, mission still happens, but maybe not in quite the same way it used to. In our Diocese the links we have with Tanzania and Nuremberg and elsewhere are about belonging and journeying together, doing mission together: so we receive as much as give, and we welcome as often as we send. That’s true for USPG and the other mission agencies too. USPG might send a priest from Brazil to work in Angola, or a Filipino teacher to serve in South Africa. In the a rich variety of modern practice, mission is now from everywhere to everywhere.

Over the years I’ve been privileged to visit mission projects in Brazil, Peru, Tanzania and Palestine. In each of these places I came across some amazing stories of faith. I also found people working with and ministering to people who really do live on the edge: in shanty towns in Brazil and Peru, on the wrong side of walls and check points in Palestine, and in places of poverty in Tanzania, where resources and opportunities are few. And that’s where mission should be, I guess, because we serve a king who revealed his glory in just those kind of places: on the edge of things, and among vulnerable and hurting people whom others often excluded.
“We have a King who rides a donkey, and his name is Jesus,” the children in school will sing around Easter time. Jesus showed his hand most clearly when he rode into town on that donkey. There was a prophecy that God’s chosen one would do that - so Jesus was certainly declaring himself as king - but by choosing that prophecy he also showed the crowds what kind of king he would be. “I am among you as one who serves,” he told his disciples. “So the greatest among you will be the one who is servant of all.” So we’ll serve him by being like him. We’ll serve him by taking his example to heart. God’s kingdom is declared wherever in our troubled and broken world Christian folk are doing that, wherever we’re following the king who chose to ride a donkey, the king with time and good news to share with the poorest who came to him. This world’s kings and kingdoms will fail us; if they don’t fall in battle, they will fall to the ravages of time. But we have a different king, and his doesn’t follow the rules of this world. It’s a kingdom that grows in secret; it’s a kingdom the takes root anywhere; it’s a kingdom that grows heart by heart.

Nature Notes . . . Frosty Mornings and Winter Birds

My contribution to local community magazines for November . . .

I find I don’t much care how cold it is in winter, so long as the air is still. It’s the wind I don’t like! A good frosty day can be great walking weather, and the crunch underfoot is far better than the slurping sound of mud sucking at your boots.

Cold frosty days are really tough for wildlife, though, and we do need to make sure we provide for the birds and other creatures that visit our gardens. As long as we’ve lagged our pipes, we have water on tap, but hard frosts mean there’s nothing for birds to drink or to wash in. If you have a bird batch, keep it ice free and freshly supplied with water each day, and the birds will be very grateful! You can get some anti-freeze additives these days that are designed to be added to water put out for birds, without being harmful to them. I’ve only seen them, and haven’t used them, so I don’t know how effective they are, but I imagine they could be useful.

The winter thrushes, redwings and fieldfares, have arrived in some force. Driving over the top of the Long Mountain a week or two back, I simply had to stop the car and watch as wave after wave of fieldfares swept across, bouncing in and out of the hedges either side of the road. Redwings have been in our churchyards in some numbers, tackling the berries. When I had a big vicarage garden I used to get them there too, but these days the weather has to be really hard before I see them in my back yard!

Quite a few blackbirds and mistle thrushes also arrive as winter visitors, so you’ll see more of them in the winter than through the rest of the year. But the bird I’m hoping to see this year is the bright and exotic waxwing. These starling-sized birds arrive in some numbers every winter from their Arctic and sub-Arctic breeding grounds, but in some years you can get a lot, and some experts are speculating that this could be a “waxwing winter”. That’s when you start to get them this far west in the UK (“our” birds having mostly travelled from Finland).

They arrive and travel in flocks, and are quite distinctive, a pinkish buff-brown in colour, with a prominent crest and a black band across the eyes. The throat is also black, and the very tip of the tail bright yellow. The name comes from the red tips to its flight feathers that look like blobs of old-fashioned sealing-wax.

Waxwings love rowan berries, and this year we do have some in our garden, so who knows? But the place to see them these days is (would you believe) supermarket car parks. That’s because these are usually planted with good berry-producing bushes, just the kind of things waxwings love. So if you see a load of people with binoculars in the car park of your local Tesco or Morrison’s, look out for a mob of pinky-brown birds with crests!

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Such great stones

The Western Wall in Jerusalem, sometimes called the Wailing Wall, is pretty much all that’s left of the great temple built by Herod the Great. But even though all that remains is the retaining wall of the platform on which the temple was built in about 20 BC, you can still get an idea of the immensity of the original. Visitors will see the huge blocks of white stone, superbly cut and precisely fitted. Some of the stones of the temple itself were more than 60 feet long, and higher than the tallest man. It was a building project so big that the temple was still not entirely complete when Jesus and his disciples were there to see it.

But just a few years later all that mighty building lay in ruins, along with the rest of Jerusalem, following the Jewish revolt against Rome. In its place the victorious Romans raised the city of Aeolia Capitolana. 

We don’t know exactly when the Letter to the Hebrews was written, but probably Herod’s temple was still standing, since the author of Hebrews writes a lot about the rituals that took place there, rituals which had to be repeated day after day, unlike the one perfect and complete sacrifice made by Jesus.

He writes that God’s salvation can’t ever come from the empty rituals and repeated sacrifices done by the temple priests; our salvation is achieved, and God’s saving love made known, only by the blood of Jesus, only in the one true sacrifice he has made, the perfect victim offered by the perfect priest. it is this that has opened the curtain, once and for all. Those who first read Hebrews will have known what curtain he meant: the veil that closed off the Holy of Holies in the midst of the temple. Only those priests who had performed the required ritual cleansing were allowed to enter the veil. But when we read the Gospel stories of the events of the first Good Friday, we find that as Jesus dies on the cross of Calvary, the veil of the temple was torn in two. 

For at the moment of crucifixion all that separated God from his human creation was set aside, in a once and for all act of love. This is the very heart of our Christian faith - that we’re saved by God’s decisive action, and not through our own goodness or achievements, or by the keeping of any law. This is the unique insight of our faith.

“Tower and temple fall to dust” to quote from one of the hymns we sing. When the disciples saw those huge stones, the temple must have seemed the pinnacle of human art and achievement; how could something so immense not stand for ever? But of course it would fall. Nothing built by human hands can stand for ever; all we have and all we are will fall to the ravages of time.

What Jesus said was that not one stone of the temple would be left standing on another. The disciples were shocked and alarmed. When will all this happen, they asked. People are asking the same sort of thing just now, in the political turmoil in which our nation finds itself. What’s going to happen next? Where will it all lead? And those who try and read the signs and interpret the future are working flat out. When will it all happen? Well, Jesus never actually answered that question when his disciples asked it. What he did tell them was to take great care. "Don't be deceived”, he said. “Don't be deceived by those who come claiming my name and my authority, but who would lead you astray."

I think that Jesus is telling us not to fix our minds on what will happen or when it will take place. After all, he says that “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.” It’s been rightly said that we can’t re-live yesterday and we can’t guarantee tomorrow. Now is all we have. Of course, not to think at all about the future, or care at all about the past would be foolish. But the essential time of decision is now; no-one should put off till tomorrow what can and should be done today.

Human history is littered with the remains of thrones and dominions, empires that would last for ever, thousand year reichs.  The Romans employed soothsayers to look into the future - their techniques included sifting through the entrails of chickens, which I suspect was hardly less accurate than our modern efforts using think tanks and focus groups and computer models.

How much time do we really have? A couple or three weeks ago, when we put our clocks back, I was once again reminded just how many clocks I own. Wristwatches, clocks on mobile phones and computers, on the cooker, in my car, and of course on shelves and window ledges and bedside tables. Or do they own me? I worry about being late, maybe missing my bus or train or plane. We are I think prisoners of time, only too aware of the clock ticking away. I may carefully measure out the time, the only bit of it I really have is this moment, now. And then this one. And then this.

An African priest once told me, “You Europeans have clocks, but we Africans have time.” But maybe this hour at God's table on a Sunday should be about time and not clocks. Here we replace the clocks that enslave us with the eternity of God. Christ promises to be with us when we break bread in his name; he invites us to meet with him creatively as the present moment connects with the timelessness of heaven. As we meet at his table we’re brought into the presence of his all-embracing and self-offering love. 

And when we respond, when we offer ourselves to him, and set aside our own ideas about how the future should or shouldn’t be, his grace begins a building process in us. Jesus calls us to build a living temple, not made from huge blocks of stone, but from what we are together in Christ. From mutual service, from our regular meeting with Jesus, from our openness to his love. Mere stones and mortar won’t form a temple worthy of his indwelling Spirit. But the plans for the temple he desires are here for us to read, and then to build; and on every page we find the imprint of the cross.

Friday, 16 November 2018


Bone-weary, parched and dry,
lost on a desert road:
thorns tear my shabby robes,
while duty’s dismal load
holds nothing to reveal his face,
nor speaks to me of healing grace.

With living waters, Lord,
refresh my soul from death;
be brightness to my eyes,
restore my failing breath:
draw from my lips faith’s sweeter lays,
disturb my drabness into praise.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Pulling Weeds for Grandad

We were pulling weeds for grandad, on a bright and sunny day,
hunting down the cabbage rows, a mix of work and play:
we’d feed the chickweed to the chickens, thread the daisies into chains,
then get stung by little nettles, find a dock to soothe our pains;
there were pansies, fumitory, shepherd’s purse and pimpernel,
and clocks on dandelions which we blew but didn’t tell,
and at the end of one long row a poppy, bright and red
stood proud among the cabbages close by the rhubarb bed.
I reached to pull it out, but then my grandad raised his hand:
“No, let the poppy stay there, lad - for in another land,
amid the mud and waste and blood, all those long years ago,
when all around was dark and drear I saw the poppies blow.
Their red stands for the sacrifice of those who died too young,
the sweethearts left unmarried and the love songs left unsung.
I’m lucky, I came through it all, I’m here to tell the tale,
but I will not forget those days when all our hopes were frail,
nor friends who fell there at my side, who never made it home.
So wherever I’ve been working, and whatever roads I roam,
I’ll never pull a poppy up, I’ll always let it grow,
for the poppies on the battlefields those many years ago.”

Steps Towards Reconciliation

The meditation presented at Chirbury Church last night, using material made available by the C of E for use this year, with some additions and adaptations.

‘Steps towards Reconciliation’:
A monologue interspersed with words and music

Music  - Welcome and Introduction:                 

[Opening Music  -  "Call of Wisdom" Will Todd]

Welcome. Tonight we mark the centenary of the war that many hoped would end all wars, with a meditation on the theme of reconciliation. Reconciliation requires an honest ‘truth telling’, and the text we use tonight honours the fact that we may only be able to take steps towards that goal. There are seven steps :
Firstly, the need to remember and to look back honestly;
then the voicing of regret and loss;
thirdly that we recognise the humanity of the other, the enemy;
fourthly, that we admit the need first to change our own viewpoint;
then, fifthly, accepting our differences,
sixthly, agreeing to walk together;
and finally, the seventh step, that we come to share a vision.
Each of the ‘steps’ is linked by an imagined monologue, in which, perhaps, a British soldier is speaking to his opposite number in the German army.

An opening prayer:                                                                                   SLIDE 2

O Lord, our maker and our strength,
from whose love in Christ we can never be parted
either by death or defeat:
May our remembrance this day deepen our sorrow
for the loss and wastes of war,
make us more grateful to those who courageously gave their lives
to defend this land and commonwealth;
and may all who bear the scars and memories
of conflicts, past and present, know your healing love
for the sake of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

The first step: the need to remember and to look back honestly.

Monologue:                                                                                                 SLIDE 3

‘The petals fall and we walk away…But if there is to be any reconciliation, then we must circle back, return to that place where the mud clung to our boots and we shivered, afraid, with enemy fire deafening our ears. We had each other in our sights, you and me, and we cursed to mask the stench of death as we lobbed the grenades and canisters of gas. I could not, would not, picture your face. But, yes, I knew, all right. I’d seen the wounds, raw and bloody red.’

Reading: Wilfrid Owen, Strange Meeting                                          SLIDE 4

Earth’s wheels run oiled with blood. Forget we that.
Let us lie down and dig ourselves in thought.
Beauty is yours and you have mastery,
wisdom is mine, and I have mystery.
We two will stay behind and keep our troth.
Let us forego men’s minds that are brute’s natures,
let us not sup the blood which some say nurtures,
be we not swift with swiftness of the tigress.
Let us break ranks from those who trek from progress.
Miss we the march of this retreating world
into old citadels that are not walled.
Let us lie out and gold the open truth.
Then when their blood hath clogged the chariot wheels
we will go up and wash them from deep wells.
What though we sink from men as pitchers falling
many will raise us up to be their filling
even from wells we sunk too deep for war
and filled by brows that bled where no wounds are.

 The second step: lament – the voicing of regret and loss

Monologue:                                                                                                 SLIDE 5

‘There will be a time, a little distant from now, before the memory totally fades, when we must face the ugliness and disfiguring brutality of war. ‘Oh God!’ we cry, but the sound of our voice is lost in an empty sky…. But evil will be faced, words will wither on the tongue, and we will feel a silent scream deep inside. Such waste, such horror! ‘How did this happen! Why, oh, just why was it allowed to go on and on in its industrial madness – shattering the landscape, razing the town to rubble, and cruelly tossing broken lives aside. The silent cry is irrepressible, and we search here and there for words to voice our complaint: “How lonely sits the city . . . How like a widow she has become  . . . She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; Jerusalem is a wilderness . . . Arise, cry out . . . Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord.”
[Lamentations, words from Chapter 1 and 2]

Music:                                                                                          SLIDES 6,  7,  & 8

 ["Agnus Dei" from "The Armed Man" Karl Jenkins]

The third step: recognising the humanity of the enemy

Monologue:                                                                                                 SLIDE 9

‘Is it possible for us to meet? Do we have the courage to face each other, to look each other in the eye…Can we meet, as those twins who were enemies from the days when they were in the womb? Can we recognise our kinship, the bond of our shared humanity? With trepidation we take a step towards each other, not knowing what resentments, what recrimination remain in the dying embers of the residual guilt, the anger and the hurt that linger in our hearts. Like Jacob, we walk towards our brother, not knowing just how it will be when we meet. But we will meet, and when we do I will see myself in you, and you will see yourself in me.’

Biblical Reading: Genesis 33, reading from the first verse:

Jacob looked up and there was Esau coming with four hundred men. He divided the children between Leah and Rachel and the two slave-girls. He put the slave-girls and their children in front, Leah with her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing low to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.

Esau ran to meet him and embraced him; he threw his arms round him and kissed him, and they both wept. When Esau caught sight of the women and children, he asked, ‘Who are these with you?’ Jacob replied, ‘The children whom God has graciously given to your servant.’ The slave-girls came near, each with her children, and they bowed low; then Leah with her children came near and bowed low, and lastly Joseph and Rachel came and bowed low also.

Esau asked, ‘What was all that company of yours that I met?’ ‘It was meant to win favour with you, my lord,’ was the answer. Esau said, ‘I have more than enough. Keep what you have, my brother.’ But Jacob replied, ‘No, please! If I have won your favour, then accept, I pray, this gift from me; for, as you see, I come into your presence as into that of a god, and yet you receive me favourably. Accept this gift which I bring you; for God has been gracious to me, and I have all I want.’ Thus urged, Esau accepted it.

Music ["Thou Knowest, Lord" Bob Chilcott]                                            SLIDE 10

 The fourth step: the first resolve, ‘we must change’

‘This is the imperative of remembrance, the outcome of honestly facing our former enemy. We might protest, and say that it is for them to change. But it isn’t just them. It’s too easy to speak of us and them, to pass the buck and to duck our responsibility. We can’t just load the guilt onto someone else. No, honesty makes its demands. And If I truly recognise myself in you, and you can see yourself in me, then we must both change. For Christ’s sake, I say, I should no longer see, or feel, or think in the way that I did. If I could, just for a moment, see things as you see them, then perhaps, and only perhaps, I could come to act differently.’

Music ["Adagio for Strings" Samuel Barber]                                              SLIDE 11

Biblical Reading: 2 Corinthians 5, verses 16 to 20:

With us, worldly standards have ceased to count in our estimate of anyone; even if once they counted in our understanding of Christ, they do so now no longer. For anyone united to Christ, there is a new creation: the old order has gone; a new order has already begun.

All this has been the work of God. He has reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has enlisted us in this ministry of reconciliation: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer holding people’s misdeeds against them, and has entrusted us with the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors. It is as if God were appealing to you through us: we implore you in Christ’s name, be reconciled to God!

The fifth step: accepting our differences

Monologue:                                                                                         SLIDE 12

‘There is much we share, but in the end, you are not me, and I am not you. This much I now see. So how should I respond? My first word has to be ‘sorry’. But it’s such a heavy, weighted word. It rolls so effortlessly off the tongue, but what a freight of meaning it has to carry! How can it be said? The word just carries too much. But perhaps if we were both to say it, and say it together, then perhaps the word will be heard, the apology will be spoken, received and reciprocated. ‘I am sorry, so sorry’, we cry, ‘sorry for it all.’ There! It is said, and by being sincerely said, the crushing weight is lifted, and we can start to move on.’

Music: ["Lacrimosa" W.A.Mozart]                                                       SLIDE 13

The sixth step: resolving to walk together

Monologue:                                                                                                 SLIDE 14

‘You promised to help me, and now I must reciprocate… there will be tasks to share, but first let’s share the stories. Tell me again, where were you from? Where, again, was home for you? Where would you like to travel now? Could we, you and I, journey together, could we keep our feet in step and step out together? Let this be our resolve.’ 

Poem: German Prisoners - Joseph Lee:                                               SLIDE 15

When I first saw you in the curious street,
like some platoon of soldier ghosts in grey,
my mad impulse was all to smite and slay,
to spit upon you, tread you ‘neath my feet.
But when I saw how each sad soul did greet
my gaze with no sign of defiant frown,
how from tired eyes looked spirits broken down,
how each face showed the pale flag of defeat,
and doubt, despair and disillusionment,
and how were grievous wounds on many a head,
and on your garb red-faced was other red;
and how you stooped as men whose strength was spent,
I knew that we had suffered each as other,
and could have grasped your hand and cried, “My brother!”

The seventh step: shared vision - ‘a new heaven and a new earth.’

Monologue:                                                                                                 SLIDE 16

‘In what you said I heard another voice, and what I tried to say in a faltering way was to give voice to that other voice. The voice calling us to see. “Open your eyes, cries the voice, open your eyes to see who you could be; open your eyes to see what the world could be. Look out and see, look out and see a world rightly ordered by the mercy, the peace and justice of the eternal Word. The Word that was in the beginning, and that Word that, in the end, will call us home together.’

Biblical Reading: Revelation 21, reading from the first verse:     SLIDE 17

I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had vanished, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice proclaiming from the throne: ‘Now God has his dwelling with mankind! He will dwell among them and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There shall be an end to death, and to mourning and crying and pain, for the old order has passed away!’

The one who sat on the throne said, ‘I am making all things new!’ (‘Write this down,’ he said, ‘for these words are trustworthy and true.’) Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water from the spring of life as a gift. This is the victors’ heritage; and I will be their God and they will be my children.

Prayer:                                                                                                          SLIDE 18

Lead us, good Lord, from death to life, from falsehood to truth.
Lead us from despair to hope, and from fear to trust.
Lead us from hate to love, and from war to peace.
And so let peace fill our hearts, our world, our universe.  Amen.                                                                                                           
[Music - "For the Fallen" Douglas Guest]