Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Tree Creeper

A tree creeper in our garden today feeding on the ground under the feeders and in the undergrowth nearby. Its movements along the paving slabs under our feeders were just as mouse-like as when it's climbing the trunk of a tree - jerky, so that it almost seems to be in one place, then another, without seeing the movement between the two.

It was snowing steadily, and I'm reminded that on the only other occasion when I've watched a tree creeper foraging and feeding on the ground it was also snowing.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

A Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Lent

There was a story in my paper last week about South Korea; not the Winter Olympics, but about people there choosing to be sent to prison for a week or so: a secure establishment, into which they’re processed as prisoners, given a prison uniform, locked into a cell with basic facilities, and kept pretty much in isolation. Yes, it’s another crazy Asian idea, designed to deal with the stresses and strains of work and daily life: it is, I suppose, a kind of retreat, though it sounds a bit tougher than most of the retreats I’ve been on.

One of the particular features of the prison environment for these guys in Korea is that all electronic devices are removed from the them as they’re checked in. That must be tough! The other day at a family party I glanced across at my sister and three of her daughters; there they were sitting together but each one busily tapping at a mobile. I was about to make a mildly disparaging remark when I looked round to see that my wife and daughter were doing exactly the same. These days, wherever we are, and whatever we do, we have media on tap. I don’t really understand streaming and stuff, but - given the right number of megabytes at your disposal - you can have pretty much anything or everything that Hollywood or Bollywood or Abbey Road or Muscle Shoals or Broadway have ever produced, right there at your fingertips. Maybe these days - with so much media on tap - we’re less able to cope with being alone than any of our forebears.

But I think it’s every bit as important as ever it was, that we take time to be alone. And retreats, fasting, even a prison cell in Korea, can help us to do this: to think things out for ourselves, to remake contact with the real self behind our public face, to discover our own perspective, make up our own mind, and  choose our own way, rather than having all of that formed for us. Fasting is good for me, however I choose to do it; I used to think of Lent as a chore, but now I regard it as a blessing.
These days we mostly think of fasting purely in terms of food. Many modern diets use the word fasting, like the one where you fast until six pm and then just have a light meal to end the day, on two or three days each week. That one works quite well, by the way, in my experience. But really, fasting is a whole lifestyle change, and it has less to do with food than with time.

Time: these days we have lots of spare time, and lots of choice as to how we spend it. Religion, or I should say churchgoing, is seen as one spare time occupation among many, and it’s easily crowded out by the others. Despite all my best efforts, church doesn’t seem to compete as entertainment. Should it be competing though? If churchgoing is a spare time occupation, what does that say about how we relate with God?

In my childhood days, while not everyone gave things up for Lent, I always felt that everyone thought they ought to. The fast of Lent was part of our culture and tradition, like Ramadan within the Muslim community. Some time ago, a Muslim colleague was asking me some rather searching questions about how I kept Lent. I muttered something about giving up chocolate and reading the Archbishop of Canterbury’s designated Lent book. He shook his head gently and said, “And you’re a minister!”

But then again, to fast in an overly serious and ostentatious way isn’t necessarily good. Jesus didn’t seem to think so: we read of him condemning the Pharisees because they liked to pray on the street corners, where people can see them pray, and they would make their faces unsightly with ash so everyone would know what they were doing. So as one of our Ash Wednesday readings we have Jesus saying we should fast in secret, so that only God will know we’re doing it. Old Testament prophets complained that though the people were keeping all the feasts and the fasts, their lives didn’t match up to what God really wanted. Micah tells us how to be: “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

However we keep the fast, we shouldn’t be doing it just to tick some kind of religious box. God doesn’t want us to fast, or at least not just for the sake of fasting. Our fasting should be purposeful. Prophets of old pointed out that fasting without thinking about why you do it just makes people bad tempered and grumpy, without changing their hearts one bit. The fast of Lent isn’t about how we get through these forty odd days, it’s about what we’re going to do with the rest of our life.

Even spending a week in a Korean gaol probably means that at the end of the time, though you might come out feeling healthier,   de-stressed, and more truly yourself, once you’ve gone straight back into the tyranny of work, of the media, of the mobile phone, of the rat race, you’ll be back to square one in no time. I think it’s likely to be a very temporary fix.

A temporary fix because those who do it aren’t wanting or expecting anything more: it’s a break from the rush and tumble, but that’s still the life they choose to live. I think Lent has a different challenge from that. Lent encourages us to make faith and belief central rather than spare-time in our lives. Like Abraham, whose whole life was changed by the promise God made him, even though he found it hard to believe to begin with. Like Jesus, who tells those who go with him they must take up  their cross to do it.

Peter tried to shout Jesus down when he told them about the suffering and death that lay ahead for him in Jerusalem. I imagine the others felt the same: their Lord was the Messiah, God’s chosen one, and Jesus was saying sounded to Peter like defeatist talk, like giving up before he started, as though all these plans that surely must work because God was behind it all, would instead fall apart and come to nothing. “You mustn’t say such things!” he protested.

No, Jesus tells him, your way is the way of the world. What Jesus is doing is not the way of the world, as he heads for Jerusalem. There’s nothing short-termist or superficial here, nothing that just looks good on the outside. In fact, the events themselves, when we reach them, will look to Peter and the others like the most dreadful loss, their teacher completely and utterly destroyed. Their hopes destroyed with him.

But Jesus has not gone to Jerusalem to secure the temporary release of some people from the rule of the Roman Emperor; He is going there to take on death and defeat it once and for all, to lift from our shoulders the deadening impact of sin. Love without limits and life without limits, is what the cross stands for.

I quite enjoyed that story from Korea. I wouldn’t want to do the same: I’ve spent one night of my life in a police cell, and I’m in no rush to repeat the experience. But in reality all of life is a prison; to be earthbound is to be unfree - as the words spoken on Ash Wednesday remind us: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But those words are followed by these: “Repent and believe the Gospel.” Like Abraham, we have been given a promise, and it’s the promise of the cross. “Take up your cross and come with me,” says Jesus. Anything else is a temporary fix at best, and even religion is no more than a temporary fix if we keep it as just a spare time hobby. Those fierce prophets of old told the truth when they said, “Unless you do it with your whole heart it’s not worth doing at all.” But Jesus says this to us, and makes this promise: my cross is life and light: live in me, and I will live in you. Amen.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Being a Disciple: "Jesus Comes First"

The first of my series of four Lenten talks after Compline . . .

“If anyone comes to me and does not place me above his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

This is a very hard piece of scripture, and the original Greek can be translated more harshly than the version we’ve just heard, for the literal words have Jesus saying, “Anyone who does not hate his father and mother, et cetera”. But the Aramaic language and thought pattern that Jesus would probably have taught and spoken in didn’t use comparatives in the way we do: the idea of liking one thing more than another, or placing one thing above another, would always be expressed in terms of hating the one thing and loving the other. Even so, it’s a tough ask. Jesus says, “Place me above all those things, all those people that society, community, even the bones of your own body, insist should come first.”

And we know and have heard so many sad stories of cults and sects where adherents are brainwashed into abandoning their families, and erecting a barrier against those who were once their closest friends. It’s the stuff of many a TV drama, and one of the ways in which religion is often portrayed as a negative force.

And yet it does need to be true. We do need to put Jesus first. The great teacher, artist and philanthropist John Ruskin wrote, “He who gives God second place in his life gives him no place.” Again, hard words, and of course we all do it, in fact, and often with every good intention. I’m reminded somehow of the arrow prayer that goes, “Lord, thou knowest I must be busy this day. If I should forget thee, do not thou forget me.”

Putting Jesus first is hard; and our failure to do this should be the beginning of every confession, I think. But when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he means it to be a full-time occupation, and a serious journey. But here’s the point. Here’s what makes what I’m saying different from the divisive and exclusive cults that do so much damage to the vulnerable. Jesus calls us to put him first, to serve him, to do his will - but where does he then send us to do this, and how do we do it? One or two of us may be called to some special work. A few may even enter monasteries or become hermits.

But most of us he sends right back to where we are, into our own home situations, into our own communities, back to our own friends. To work with him there to make his name known and his love felt in the everyday of our own lives. True discipleship doesn’t separate us from our loved ones, it sustains, enriches and enhances our love for them, as we share and show Christ’s love for them.

A story, not from Christianity but from Hinduism, but the moral is apt. In the early morning, before the sun has yet risen, a young man rises from his bed, dresses in simple robes, and prepares to leave his home. He can hear the sleeping sounds of his wife and children, but knows he must leave them. It is time, he has decided, to heed the call of God he has heard for so long. Quietly, he opens the door, steps out and onto the still dark highway, and starts on his journey.

Back in the house, where his wife and children still sleep, God sighs. “Why is it that so many people who dream of finding me and serving me leave the place where I am in order to search for me?”

Monday, 19 February 2018


My first sermon of Lent 2018 :-

Who am I? I recall a man in a film, asking just that question in the first reel. I have no memory of what the film was, or frankly even whether it was actually any good, just this opening scene where this guy’s woken up after having been laid out by some kind of blow to the head. But it was a serious and important question: he no longer knew his own name, or indeed anything about himself. The film followed the events in which he began to piece together his past, and in so doing began to rediscover himself.

We do know who we are, pretty much. If we happen to catch our reflection in a shop window while out shopping in town, we can recognise who it is we’re looking at. Only the more intelligent among our animal cousins seem to be able to do the same: apes, monkeys, elephants perhaps. My brother’s dog had had some sort of bad experience involving a large black dog when very young, and as a result really hated large black dogs. What he didn’t realise was that he himself was a large black dog, so when he saw his own reflection in a mirror he recognised it only as yet another nasty big black dog out to get him, and reacted accordingly. That wouldn’t happen to us, not recognising our own selves in a mirror - or if it did, people would say we’d lost our mind.

Knowing who we are is fundamental to being human. We know what we look like. We're all ears suddenly if we hear someone mention our name. We know the stats: our date of birth, our family histories, who our friends are, what we do for a living, probably our sort code and bank account number, certainly our phone number and postcode. But how well do we really know ourselves? How able are we really to see ourselves as others see us?  More to the point, how able are we to see ourselves as God sees us? And anyway, what things really define us as who we are? What we own, or the clothes we choose to wear? The kind of home we live in, or where we take our holidays?  The sort of company we keep, or whether our job or profession is high in status?

Today, as Lent begins, we think about Jesus going into the wilderness. In Mark’s firm and forceful language, Jesus is driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. He needed to be there, this was something that had to be done before his ministry could begin. In the wilderness he would wrestle with questions about identity and purpose. This was the place to confront things, to sort things out, to get the focus and the balance right. In other words, the wilderness was a place for self-assessment, self-understanding, and to tackle the big issues of recognition, purpose, call.

Recognition, self understanding: I’ve known of people who have had multiple personalities - a major psychological disorder in which, in a very real sense, the person no longer knows who he or she is. Fortunately, that is a rare and unusual condition; but in a sense it’s an extreme form of something that’s true for all of us: we are all in a way more than one person. How I’m defined depends on who’s doing the defining, what the situation is, and what my role is in that situation. I’m one person at home, but not quite the same person at work; as a father, a son, a brother, a friend, a colleague, I play different roles; as a consumer, a voter, an earner, a contributor, I’m judged, perceived, measured and valued in different ways, and subjected to different pressures.

Do you remember 'The Office' on TV? I was never a great fan, but I did see it from time to time. As a sitcom it illustrated and to a degree satirised what happens when people who’d probably behave quite differently in other areas of their lives are required to conform to the very particular norms, conditions, expectations and customs that operate within the rather tightly confined network of people that is an office community. Maybe one reason why I didn’t watch it much was that I’ve worked in offices, and often it felt a bit too near the truth to be entirely comfortable. I’d sit there squirming in shared embarrassment at some of the antics of David Brent, as he tried to cope with it, to manipulate what little power he had and look good within the norms of office life.

Jesus went to the wilderness to separate himself from those whose expectations and assumptions would, throughout his ministry, place conflicting and confusing pressures on him; his task out there was to discover who he really was, as opposed to what other people might say he should be. To do that he needed to be on his own in his Father's presence. Only then could he identify and deal with the voices that would try and drag him off course. He needed to be away from the hustle and bustle of a world in which we're so often denied the freedom to be our real selves because the system forces to conform and fit in, now with this, now with that.

As we keep Lent we recall that time of testing and sorting out. If Jesus needed to do it, we surely do as well. As Lent begins, my question is: “Who am I?” How well do I really know myself? How can I separate what I’m supposed to be, and what I’m supposed to do, as a disciple of Christ, from the myriad different demands on me, the myriad different images of self to which I’m asked to conform?

I read a while back about a parish priest somewhere who decided that he and his church folk should give up everything for Lent. I don’t mean sweets, chocolate, booze, and fags. They gave up all the churchy things they did: the committees, organisations, clubs; even the Mothers' Union stopped meeting, even the choir ceased to practise. Instead, they spent time reading, studying the Bible, and just waiting on God. By the end of Lent they hoped to be able to see more clearly which of all the things everyone was so busy at really needed to be done, and which were just a waste of their time and energy.

He and his congregation had chosen a quite radical way to make prayerful spaces in their lives in which to focus on the stuff that really mattered, what God was calling out of them, what God was wanting them to be and to do as his church. And in the process the vicar had a real sense of rediscovering himself, and gaining a fresh insight into who he was to God, and how God could use him.

I’m not sure I’d manage to do what he did. It must have taken some courage, and I’m sure some people didn't understand what was being done. I’d be afraid people would label me as lazy and uncaring and disloyal. But if couldn’t do all of it, maybe I should do some of it. To give things up for Lent is really only worthwhile in a spiritual sense if it’s part of a wilderness project. You give things up to make space to take things on, and to do things better, and to rearrange the priorities in our lives.

So I need to be asking: what can I do this Lent to make sure I’m praying more, reading more, and for that matter probably also resting more? I need more silence and stillness in my life - for all of us, modern life is generally too noisy. God speaks with a still small voice, we need to be quiet if we’re to hear it. He doesn't force his way in, he waits for us to open the door to him.

So who am I? Who am I this Lent? I hope I can find out - out of all the hundred thousand different ways of being me that the world pushes, tugs, cajoles, tempts, harangues me into taking on - which is the real me, how can I find and fix and identify the me God wants, the me God is calling? I hope I can make the time and space I need this Lent to discover myself, to draw closer to God, and to prepare myself to worship and praise him not just in the hour on a Sunday but in everything I do. This is a precious resource for us, this season of Lent, as the forty days in the wilderness was for Jesus: God is calling us now to learn his ways, to share his love, and to serve him better.

Saturday, 10 February 2018


Sermon to be preached at St Mary's, Trelystan, on the Long Mountain.

It’s a different world up here. There’s a lot more weather up here than there is down below, for a start. The snow settles more readily, and stays around longer. Mountains and hilltops generally are isolated almost by definition. If people are up there it’s because they’ve chosen to be, or have to be. There’s no passing trade. That’s part of what makes this church special. It would be a great place to come to for a quiet day, for a time of recuperation, a time to change tack, to draw breath, and maybe to pray more deeply and with greater feeling than we can manage down at sea level. From the cartoon image of the holy man seated on his slab of rock somewhere in the Himalayas to the reality of pilgrim sites of many faiths in many parts of the world, mountains are held in high regard as places of prayer and stillness, places close to heaven.

Jesus regularly escaped from the busy streets and lanes where so many people wanted a part of him, to pray in the stillness of the hills. The crowds that followed him everywhere must have left him hardly able even to catch his breath, let alone pray. And he needed to pray. Think of that, by the way. If Jesus himself needed to pray, how come for many of us prayer becomes an optional extra, or the spiritual equivalent of the fire button behind the glass, to be broken into and used only in dire emergency?

Today’s Gospel begins with Jesus going up a mountain to pray, not just to take time away from the crowds, but to make himself ready for what was coming next. He had set his face towards Jerusalem, and he knew what awaited him there. His disciples didn’t. They imagined an easy victory for God’s Messiah, and thrones for everyone. But Jesus knew that the victory he would win would cost everything he had to give.

So he climbed the mountain to pray, taking with him the inner circle of his disciples, Peter, James and John. The mountain on which these events probably took place – Mount Hermon - is these days topped by church buildings, and reached via a steep and winding road. Tourists and pilgrims travel up it in Mercedes taxis driven like the wind by fiercely moustached Bedouin taxi-drivers, who hold the franchise. Having ascended that way, I have to say it lacks the spiritual impact of a gentle walk into the clouds. But there are peaceful corners in which to sit quietly and pray, once you’re there.

But when I read today’s Gospel, my imagination does not take me to the Mount Tabor I visited in the Holy Land, it takes me to Cadair Idris. One slightly snowy day in November, twenty years ago now perhaps, I took time out from a clergy retreat at Abergynolwyn to climb as far as I could up Cadair before the fading light forced me back down. That day I had the mountain to myself except for a buzzard or two; the clouds were backlit by the late autumn sun, and that great sweep of ridge above me was magnificent. It was a real spiritual high, and that’s why I can’t help but imagine Peter and the others kneeling on Welsh moor-grass and heather, as they shield their eyes from the transfigured brightness of their Lord.

“It’s good that we’re here,” says Peter. But they couldn’t stay there. They had just a momentary glimpse of glory – clouds, by the way, almost always stand for both mystery and glory in the Bible – just one moment of being almost blinded by the light. Then their blinking eyes see that their Lord the same as he was before, with robes and sandals stained with the dust and grime of the road they must rejoin. For it’s time to get on with the journey.

The disciples go with Jesus back down the hill, back into the real world. Was what they’d seen just an illusion? I prefer to think that for a moment they’d seen through the veil that mostly blinds us, a bit of the glory that’s really always there, a glimpse of their Lord as he truly and always is. Research suggests that many people, maybe even most people, are prepared to admit to having what we might call ‘spiritual experiences’: moments when everything seemed brighter, clearer, holier than normal, moments when something was suddenly understood, times when heart and soul were suddenly lifted. Often people have felt that sort of thing on a mountain, and that doesn’t surprise me one bit. But such experiences are only momentary; we can’t stay there, and we can’t live only for those extraordinary times. We can’t stay on the mountain-top, for there’s a world down there, and that’s where we’re supposed to be, that’s where we’re called to be.

Christian witness and pilgrimage may include such special experiences from time to time, but that’s not what we’re really about. What matters is the love we share along life’s dusty road, the care we offer in the muddle and grime of every day. Spiritual highs are wonderful not for themselves but because they help us get on with living and loving down at ground level. For a moment the disciples saw Jesus transfigured and talking with Elijah and Moses, the two great heroes of the faith. And they were talking about where he was going next, and what he was going there to do. The road at the bottom of the hill would take Jesus to Jerusalem, and to Calvary. And the glory Peter and the others glimpsed up there would be revealed once and for all there: on a Friday in Jerusalem, and on a different hill, as the man who had travelled there to lay down his life in love to save the world, hung and died on a cross.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Cae Post and Hullcoins . . . a sermon

I was sad to hear about the decision to close the Cae Post recycling depot at Trewern. This is a time when arguably we need to be doing more and more recycling rather than less. For Cae Post losing their kerbside contract with Powys County Council was clearly a major blow. I do recognise the financial constraints under which our councils have to operate these days, but I still think that that was a significantly wrong decision.

I remember visiting Cae Post many years ago. One of the younger members of my then church, a lad with some mild learning difficulties, had got a job there, and someone I sang with was involved in management, and showed me round. I have to say that the amount of rubbish thrown out by the average person, family, household these days is truly staggering. You only realise that when you see so much  of it all piled up together. At Cae Post recyclable items were sorted and baled for transfer elsewhere, and this created employment opportunities for people who might have struggled to find work elsewhere. So that for me made Cae Post a resource that shouldn’t be judged - nor should it stand or fall - on strictly financial terms.

In my spare time I pick litter. I don’t go out as often as I should, but as the days get a bit longer I aim do at least one pick per week. Not much of what I pick gets recycled, sadly, nor does much of what’s put into litter bins in street. That’s not financially viable, so it ends up as landfill. We invented money, but now money dictates how we live. Money can close down community projects, and it can even help poison our planet.

That planet is our theme today. It’s the only one we have, and although we might dream of travelling to others, and doing that looks straightforward enough on Star Trek, the reality is that if we don’t look after this planet we’ve nowhere else to go. And we share this planet with other living things, that aren’t just there for us to enjoy, but by their health or otherwise provide an indicator of our own health and our own future.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God.” John’s great inspiration was to identify Jesus Christ as the creative word spoken by God by which - in Genesis, chapter one - all that is made was made. We are the product of that spoken word, and we human beings in particular are by that word made in the image of God. By that we mean that we are sentient, aware, creative. We know things, we can interpret, plan, invent, love. We can imagine the future. Unlike other living things, we know about life and death.

Being made in God’s image, we’ve no excuse not to be God-like ourselves in our care for what he made. Now we may think we’re being God-like in the way we dominate the world, bridge mighty rivers, raise up high buildings, flash messages instantly from continent to continent, or use giant machines to gouge out forests and quarry the earth - or for that matter, to build weapons that, if once used, could lay the whole world waste.

But there’s nothing God-like about that. That’s just throwing our weight around. God’s Word enters what he has made, becomes part of the human story, to show us what being “made in the image of God” really requires of us. The Kims and Trumps of our world may crow about the size of the nuclear buttons they can press, but what’s far more God-like is to put our arm around the shoulder of a grieving mother, or to feed a hungry child, or to wait and watch beside a hospital bed. When we light lights, when we restore balance, when we give time, when we care.

I was driving not long ago in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, a quiet lane miles from anywhere, when I came across a council truck. Two men were loading onto it what looked like most of a kitchen, dumped into a hedge bank in the countryside. I couldn’t help but reflect that if half the effort that must have gone into taking all that stuff out there in order to dump it miles from any place had instead been spent on doing something charitable, our world could be so much nicer.

Easy for me to say. Maybe harder to do. I know I take the easy option or make the selfish decision far too often. That’s one of the reasons why we Christian folk are supposed to take time to pray. Not in order to present God with our list of wants and instructions, but to re-tune ourselves into his creative will, and to re-awaken that bit of us that is made in his blest and loving image. The Christian challenge is to be like Jesus, which is what Jesus asks of us when he says, “Follow me.” He doesn’t just mean ‘trail along behind me’, but listen, watch, take note, see what I do - and now go, and do the same.

So what does it mean for me, for you, to be like Jesus, where we are? This is the Divine Word by whom all things were created. We too are called to be creative, lovingly creative, in the way we balance and prioritise and live our lives.

Hull was in the news last week, mostly because of the Banksy mural that appeared on a disused bridge. Hull was our city of culture last year, of course. But Hull was also more quietly in the news last week because of Hullcoin. You know about Bitcoin? Well, Hullcoin is a virtual currency that’s designed to reward people who volunteer. They can be given Hullcoins in return for their voluntary work, and at shops and businesses involved in the scheme their Hullcoins can buy them money off the usual price of things. Not everyone needs this, of course - but some volunteers are themselves poorly off, maybe they help out because being unemployed they’ve got time on their hands. It’s a nice thank-you, and a recognition of the way in which we depend on each other, if where we live is to be a balanced and healthy place.

Our world here is I think a poorer place for the loss of Cae Post. Maybe that couldn’t be helped. But we’ll be poorer still if we lose what Cae Post stood for: care for the environment allied with care in the community, care for one another. We’ve just this one planet, which we’ve borrowed from our children; we’ve no second home. We can’t afford the luxury of poisoning our own well.