Friday, 27 July 2018


Travelling by road in my parishes has been interesting, to say the least, over the past few months. Potholes have been opened up in roads in every part of the land, due to a combination of poor investment in road maintenance and last winter's seriously wintry conditions.

My patch straddles two counties. Powys did temporary fills fairly quickly, and since then have done quite an impressive amount of resurfacing, in our area anyway (maybe we're just lucky, and other parts of the county haven't fared so well, I don't know).

Shropshire, however, seems to have done very little temporary filling. Many months ago, people came out and painted yellow lines around the worst of the potholes. Then, it seems, they sat back and waited for the pothole fairies to come and fill the holes, which of course, they didn't. Later, as new holes had appeared, people came out and painted white lines round these ones. And I think they had another go with the yellow paint after that. Drivers had resorted in some cases to driving down the middle of the road, while others swerved violently from side to side. The holes, for most part, remained unfilled.

My own personal bill came to £250, or thereabouts - the cost of two tyres. The first of these was damaged - I think - by a very deep pothole on the main A490 near Chirbury. I can't be sure, as I only observed the problem a few days later - seeing a bulge in the sidewall as I washed the car. By then, Shropshire Council had (somewhat surprisingly) filled that particular hole!

The second one went in a more spectacular way, on the lane between Chirbury and Priestweston. A huge hole has opened in the lane a little way short of Priestweston village, largely due to the heavy rainstorms we've had. A culvert has collapsed, it seems. I swerved to my right to avoid it. Many previous drivers had done the same, resulting in the erosion of the verge on that side, leaving some nasty rocks projecting out. One of those pierced my sidewall, there was a loud bang and I limped into the village, fortunately finding a safe place to put the car, and a parishioner with a phone to call the AA.

My car does not carry a spare wheel, and the stuff they give you to repair a tyre stood no chance with this sort of tear. The AA man, bless him, managed after several tries to close the gap with a nut and bolt, closing onto large washers on the inner and outer wall. He then accompanied me on my slow journey home, re-inflating the tyre on three occasions as we found places to stop. I could have been waiting many hours for a flatbed truck otherwise!

Our local County Councillor, Heather, organised a public meeting earlier this week at Priestweston Village Hall to test public opinion on the pothole situation - particularly as the Council's response to complaints and claims regarding "the big hole" has been to close the road, which is the main route into one of the less easily accessible villages on my patch. It is still passable, with care, as I proved the other day - but of course if any further damage had been caused I would have had no claim. Not that I have claimed - I was going to replace that tyre anyway by the end of the summer. I just want them to get on and fill the holes.

The senior officer who attended the meeting had to endure some stick; but he made promises that the work on most potholes would be completed within two weeks or so (a new machine has been hired in, and it will be based in our part of the county). Re-opening the road to Chirbury will take longer, because the culvert will require extra work. The best he could promise there was that work should be under way during August. We'll see. It's also worrying that substantial amounts of money have had to be diverted from the already shrinking fund for capital projects, to enable this work to be done. The pothole scourge is partly the result of inadequate capital investment, after all.

But it's clear that things need to be done better than they have been. It's certainly not clear to me why the people filling the holes should not themselves be allowed to identify what holes need filling, for example. And comments like "I can't fill that one, it's not on my list," are just ludicrous.  Meanwhile, the summer heat (combined with passage of heavy vehicles) has started to do serious damage to the road surface in some places, while holes that have been there since January remain unfilled.

I should mention that Powys apparently has the worst maintained roads in Wales . . . but on my patch they're better than the Shropshire roads.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

A Walk along the Canal

I had a very pleasant evening walk in mid-July along a stretch of the canal I’d not walked before. I parked my car by the turn from the main Newtown road towards Abermule, and walked the short distance toward the iron bridge over the river, turning just before the bridge to join the canal towpath and head towards Newtown.

Chiffchaffs and a song thrush were loud in the trees, and the surface of the canal was very busy with pond skaters and other water insects. River and canal are close to each other along much of this section, and the splash of the river was much in evidence. There had perhaps been a shower or two up country, and the river was higher than I’d expected after weeks of sunshine - though still not very high, of course.

Plants in flower along the canal included typical waterside plants like meadowsweet, marsh valerian, hemp agrimony, great willow-herb (also called “codlins-and-cream” for its attractive flowers, deep pink with a splash of cream at the centre), and marsh woundwort. Hogweed was also present, one of the plants at least as tall as me. “Is that one of those giant hogweeds?” asked one of a couple of walkers coming the other way. But no, it wasn’t, just the ordinary home-grown species, which can easily grow to five or six feet given the chance.

Giant hogweed was introduced (from Russia, I think) as a garden plant in Victorian times, and is notorious for causing skin rashes and other problems if touched. A couple of other introduced plants along the canal were Himalayan balsam, which is getting to be a problem along rivers, and Japanese knotweed, an annoying problems wherever it grows. I only saw one small stand of this. More common was creeping Jenny, a pleasing ground cover plant of the loosestrife family, which may well have been imported with garden soil when canal banks were being strengthened.

Walking along, I passed a pair of mute swans with five attractive and quite young cygnets. It may be that a previous attempt at nesting had failed, as I’d have expected them to be more fully grown by now. The canal was increasingly full of weed, with a good covering of bright yellow water lilies for much of the distance. I passed two locks in good condition, then a third that was derelict, after which the canal was dry.

Here was my destination, Pwll Penarth nature reserve, former sewage settling pools I think, and host that evening to an impressive number of mallards. Along the paths it was very dry, and I even observed a young oak tree completely dried up, with leaves the colour of parchment. Here and there the white of rough chervil (carrot family), and the purple or mauve of knapweed and burdock were evident. A reed warbler briefly emerged from the phragmites reeds around the pool. Magpies chattered as they hopped from bush to bush, and swallows and sand martins dived across the pool. 

And, by the river bank, a giant hogweed, flower heads the size of dinner plates and huge blotchy stems: a monster of a plant. I decided not to touch!

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Sermon for Sunday 8th July (2)

Based on "2nd Service" readings, from Jeremiah 20.1-11 and Romans 14.1-17 :-

You know, I do often find myself feeling sorry for Jeremiah. I know he moans a lot, so that in past generations anyone who tended to moan and complain might well be nicknamed Jeremiah. But he did have some cause to moan. He hadn’t really wanted to be a prophet, but he ended up being one anyway. Not a bad career move on the face of it, prophets could earn a good living, folk looked up to them, they had status in society.

But the words given to Jeremiah to say tended not to be the sort of hopeful, upbeat pronouncements people liked to hear. Where other prophets were saying to the king and his council, “Your plans are good, and God is on your side. Press ahead, you can’t go wrong!” - or words to that effect - Jeremiah was saying things like “Your plans are rubbish, and God has had enough of you; the kingdom will fall, and if you’re lucky you might get carted off into slavery and exile.” Not surprisingly, he wasn’t heard gladly.

No wonder then that Jeremiah spoke of having been duped! But the word he has is the word of the Lord, the word of truth, a word that would simply burn within him were he not to speak it. The work of a prophet is to speak for God, to speak his word as it is, for good or for bad. Prophets weren’t supposed to be augurists or fortune tellers, predicting the future, even though they might well be looking at what would happen next. The great prophets like Jeremiah were there to tell it like it is, to coin a phrase. And often to say that things can’t go on as they are.

So, says Jeremiah, I’ve been duped. People should be looking up to me. Instead they deride me and search for ways to do me down. But after he’s had his moan he goes on to say, “But the Lord is on my side, a powerful champion.” Moaner he might be, but he was also a man who kept the faith. God chose him as a prophet, as a true prophet against all the false prophets feathering their own nests, because of he was the kind of faithful man who could be trusted with the truth. However unpopular it made him, he’d speak it.

The Church is supposed to be prophetic. What does that mean? I suppose that we’re here to show the way to people, and to shine a light into the world’s dark places. That’s not always going to be a cheery and songs-of-praisy sort of a job. Sometimes we’ll have hard things to say, and if we have we need to say them and not hold back. So long as they really are God’s hard things, and not our own gripes. And so long as our own deeds match our words - since we’ll quickly be caught out and discarded if they don’t. People are on the watch for any slip we might make, just as they were with Jeremiah.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is different from many of his other letters. Elsewhere, Paul’s often writing to places he’s been, churches he’s had some share in founding, and people he knows. To Rome, though, Paul is writing to commend himself, and to make sure the church that is already there will accept him. So it’s much more a statement of where Paul stands, a manifesto for his mission you might say, than his other letters.

But that’s not to say he doesn’t spend some of his time and ink trying to put right those things he thinks might be going wrong. Deeds need to match with words, and maybe they didn’t always, even in the Roman church. “None of us lives, and equally none of us dies, for himself alone,” writes Paul. We need to be serious about belonging together if we’re serious about belonging to God.

So, says Paul, don’t fall out about stuff. Stuff like differences in the way we do things, differences in the way we see things. We won’t always all of us agree on everything. But it’s no job of ours to sit in judgement on one another. That’s God’s job, and we all stand under the same judgement, a judgement that’s guaranteed. We can safely leave the judging to him.

The boundaries between denominations are certainly not as strong as they were when I was little. We went to both church and chapel, and were looked on with some suspicion as being neither fish nor fowl, neither one thing nor the other.

But we do tend to still be very tied to our own church, building by building. I don’t understand why people who’ll drive twenty miles to visit their dentist won’t drive a mile down the road to attend church when there isn’t a service in their own. But there we are, that’s human nature, I suppose.

Still, it’s good that people are different. We eat different things, listen to different music, vote for different political parties, and mostly it doesn’t make that much difference. We can still be friends. We make space for one another, mostly. And we should never cease to listen to those we don’t agree with, because our own beliefs are tested when we put them against others. We best discern God’s word together too, sharing, challenging, being challenged, and also of course praying. I never trust anyone who claims to have their own personal hot line to God. One of the things I like about Jeremiah, by the way, is the way he and God are always falling out with each other. That makes him real. I do that too.

“Love divine” was the top ten hymn when I did a survey recently on my patch; but it’s sung to a lot of different tunes, and not everyone wanted the same one. Most people wanted “Blaenwern”, but there were some who preferred the John Stainer tune “Love Divine”. Chapel folk often sing it to the tune “Hyfrydol” which we use for “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus”. “If we sing it, I want it to the original tune,” said someone to me as we talked about it. “I bet you don’t even know the original tune,” I replied, and when I sang it to him he didn’t. Charles Wesley wrote the words to fit the Purcell tune “Precious Isle,” which was very popular in the theatres at the time, and Wesley thought it ought to have some religious words. These days he’d probably have been writing hymns to fit things like the Eastenders theme tune. Someone has, by the way. For the record, the guy who liked the original tune was thinking of the Stainer one.

Here’s the point, though: it’s the same love divine, whatever tune we sing it to. It’s the same love divine, whatever our tradition of worship. And of course I chose that hymn very deliberately. Love is what makes sense of it all. God loves all kinds of people who come to church, whether they make the sign of the cross and kneel a lot, or raise their hands in the air and dance a lot. More to the point, he also loves all kinds of people who don’t come to church - people who mean to but don’t get round to it, people who refuse to have anything to do with it, people who’ve been hurt by the church, as some have. God loves people who are out playing Sunday league soccer or home washing their cars or watering their cucumbers. I’m sure he’d like to see them in church, but he loves them anyway. They may not know he loves them or care all that much, but that’s where we come in.

For a prophetic church isn’t prophetic in order to look good, and to make sure in the process that everyone else knows just how bad they look. A church in mission isn’t doing it so we can fill our pews and pay our bills. It can sometimes come across that way, but what we need to be is servant churches in the image of our servant King. And prophecy and mission done in his name and after his example must rest in this simple statement: God wants people to know the truth, so we who have the truth mustn’t keep it to ourselves but need to be spreading it around. People may not always like what they hear, because no-one can sign up with Jesus without changing, without being changed. Nor can we, by the way. And no-one likes change.

But our motivation for mission is love - for live is God’s motivation all the way through. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son . . .” Are people hearing that from us? Are people seeing that in us? They need to; we mustn’t hold back. God’s word should be burning in each one of us just as it did in Jeremiah: not that we’re all quite called to do all that he did, but we are all called in some way to be part of the process.

Sermon for Sunday 8th July (1)

Based on the "1st Service" readings, from 2 Corinthians 12.2-10 and Mark 6.1-13 :-

Many people have speculated about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” What was it? A physical ailment, maybe a bad back, or hip, or knee? Was it perhaps malaria, not uncommon in the Mediterranean region at that time? Malaria keeps flaring up and coming back once you’ve had it? We sometimes use the phrase “thorn in the flesh” to refer to a person, someone who’s annoying to live with or maybe to work with. Wow - maybe some people are saying that about me? Anyway, could that be the problem? Did Paul have someone who aggravated him, and who he’d like to be rid of?

Personally, I’ve often wondered whether the thorn was some aspect of Paul’s life he’d tried to put right but found he couldn’t. Like my brother and his smoking. Often when we meet up he tells me he’s given up, but then next time we meet there he is, still puffing away. No tobacco this side of the Atlantic in Paul’s day, but was there some aspect of his character he wanted to change but always found he couldn’t. After all, in another letter he wrote, “The good that I want to do, I find I don’t do.”
So Paul, whatever it was really that troubled him, Paul wanted to be stronger than he was, but he’d come to understand that wasn’t going to happen - and that it would be in his own weakness and imperfection that the strength and wonder of God’s love could be revealed. There was only Jesus he could boast about.

Our Gospel reading today has Jesus sending his disciples out to prepare the way. His ministry is still in its early days, as he travels from village to village in his home district of Galilee. We might think the disciples are rather poorly equipped. They’re sent out with no money, no food, not even a change of clothes. What kind of mission campaign is this? Answer - one in which the missioners also have things to learn and discover. To speak of the Lord, they must also trust in the Lord. They themselves must be trusting in him utterly, completely, for everything.

And this is the example taken to heart by Francis of Assisi when he began his own personal ministry some thousand or more years later. He and the members of the order he founded of Friars Minor, or Little Brothers would also have no money, no pack, no change of clothes, as they journeyed around the villages of that part of Italy, and by doing so began a movement that spread worldwide. “In our poverty, we are rich,” he said.

“In my weakness, I am strong,” says St Paul. Or maybe, in my weakness, my Lord is strong within me. I generally worry more about the Church when it’s strong than when it’s weak. I worry more about rich and powerful churches than poor and struggling ones. With this proviso, though: the church may be small in numbers and poor in resources, but it needs to be big in faith, big in its trust in the Lord.

Like St Paul, and like the disciples Jesus sent out with no pack or second coat, we are in the service of truth, we proclaim the God of truth. My faith tells me this: the love of God is the ultimate truth behind everything I see and know. Love is what makes sense of my life. And I may be small, I may be vulnerable, and I may be getting on a bit, but the truth is no less true for that. Nor is it any less true because not so many believe it.

Father Brian D’Arcy was doing Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show the other day. I don’t hear him often, but he’s always worth hearing, and here’s something he said the other day: “Always treat with caution anyone who claims to be one hundred percent sure of what they believe.” Isn’t that the opposite of what you’d expect? Surely the more certain and sure the someone is in what they believe and preach, the better?

It may seem counter-intuitive, but I do think that faith is about living with questions. Here’s what Paul himself wrote: For now we see through a glass, darkly; then, we will see face to face. I believe in that “then” Paul looks forward to.

For now, though, I still have questions. Not long ago, someone asked me, “Can you prove to me that what you believe is true?” No, I can’t. I can’t prove it because to live a life of faith you have at some point to take a leap of faith; every step isn’t clearly marked. For one thing, good things don’t only happen to good people, bad things don’t only happen to bad guys; I can see that. Some of the world’s evils can be laid at the door of human greed or avarice or prejudice, but not all of them.

As a Christian I believe that evil has been defeated once and for all, that God’s love is triumphant, and that the place and time and event where this happened is Calvary and the Cross. But I can’t prove it. All I can say is that generations have lived this faith (Francis of Assisi among them), and that I’ll live it too. I may not always feel like living it, I may not always be good at living it, and we all have our thorns in the flesh. But it’s in the living, not through the spoken argument, that our faith becomes persuasive.

And that’s why Jesus sent his disciples out to do things, to heal and befriend and to listen and to forgive, to be compassionate and caring. He sent them to live the Kingdom faith and not just speak about it. Some folk they went to would see and hear and understand; others, perhaps would not, and some would even jeer at them. That’s the reality of mission. That’s what happens. “Take nothing with you,” Jesus had said. So the disciples had nothing to offer but themselves - and their Lord.

However good I may be at speaking and preaching the faith, it’s whether I live the faith that counts. And if my words and deeds don’t match up, however wonderful my words, it’s not going to work. To be blunt, if our message as a church really amounts to “Come and join us and keep our church going,” that’s not going to be enough. We need to inspire people, and to be inspired they need to see in us that what we have is worth having, and worth the living of it.

So here are a few points in conclusion: whatever the thorn was in Paul’s flesh, it wasn’t there to derail his ministry but to keep it real, to keep him on the straight and narrow. That thorn reminded him that he wasn’t Paul the superstar preaching himself but Paul the apostle, preaching Christ. To do that he needed to be humble and self-aware, to know that his own strength could never be enough, and to keep living the life of faith. And those disciples of Jesus? They may have seemed under-resourced when they were sent out, but they weren’t. God was with them all the way, and as they worked they would learn to trust him.

Like them, we go in the strength of the Lord and not in our own strength. Like Francis of Assisi and his band of “little brothers”, our mission needs to begin with service, with things done rather than things said. Think about that, because I’d like each church in this group over the coming months to be settling on one thing (or at least one thing) that we can do, that is within our strength and capabilities, to be of service where we are. And if you’re not sure, nor am I. And if you think you’re too small and weak, so do I. And so, I suspect, did those first disciples when Jesus sent them out on the road. So did Paul, with his thorn in the flesh - maybe that was the thorn in his flesh.

But you know, I think it may well be what God wants of us. And one last thing, a rule of my life. If you want answers, don’t go to the guy who’s got them all, or thinks he has; go to the guy who’s still got questions.