Friday, 31 March 2017

Something understood

31st day of Lent

MARCH 31st 2017

In George Herbert's poem 'Prayer (1)', we are given 27 different word pictures of prayer.

There are echoes of the exotic in his imagination. The poem drips with beauty and metaphors to stretch and pull our understanding. 

Famously, perhaps, the poem ends with two words: prayer is 'something understood'. The emphasis, perhaps, is on 'something'. 

Anyhow, just before that, Herbert paints an exotic picture as 'the land of spices'... In the weeks running up to Holy Week, spices take on a somber meaning, as we remember how Jesus was anointed with £30,000 of nard in preparation for his burial, and then his body was wrapped in 100lbs of spices purchased by Nicodemus. Prayer as lament and sorrow in the cave of spices may take us on a different journey altogether than perhaps Herbert was imagining...

Another of his word pictures are of prayer as a 'bird of paradise'. Perhaps one of the most beautiful and exotic of all birds is the peacock. The image in today's blog comes from a close up of a peacock I saw recently at Moseley Old Hall near Wolverhampton. The stunning colours, the iridescence of blues and greens and purples, catch your breath as the bird shimmers through the 17th century gardens. Prayer is not always about words. You might say that prayer is rarely about words. When such a beautiful bird moves it is a picture of grace and ridiculous joy. 

Today, we have welcomed a new creature into our lives. Ethel is a beautiful border collie-cross who is incredibly nervous and flighty. She is about two-years-old and has come across the seas from Ireland. She is a lot smaller than Jess and seems to us to be quite fox-like! Still, she rounds us up like we are her personal flock of sheep when we walk with her on an extended lead. Somehow walking around the woods these last few months has felt quite lonely, even with family or friends. It has been an unexpected joy to have discover again the old paths through the woods. Our own little bird of paradise may not have plumage, but she is embodies gentleness and is full of life. To celebrate, we had a very spicy curry tonight! Something understood.

Thursday, 30 March 2017


30th day of Lent

MARCH 30th 2017

This tree is like gossamer silk, a veil of silhouetted outlines against a clear evening  sky. With the sun dipping below the horizon, the clarity of these lovely branches reminded me of a thin and delicate veil. And then, a passage from 2 Corinthians 3, came to mind, inspiring this short poem.

that's how the future is;
veiled by the tissue thinness
of the skeins of time
like scales covering our eyes.


that's how our understanding is;
veiled by prejudice and misconception
and the accumulated hurts and wounds
of harsh living through time.


that's how our soul is;
veiled by possessions weighing heavily,
and holding us back 
from holding out the open palm.


that's how our truth is;
veiled by the shame of our lies and half-truths
and imaginings that seem to cling yet are
as transparent as a film's negative held to the light.

Yet we, when we turn to God,

are invited to trust the breath of the Spirit
to gently blow away these veils.

For where the Spirit of God is, there is freedom.
And all of us with unveiled faces, says St Paul
can begin to see the glory of God, 
as if looking in a mirror - seeing our true selves
perhaps for the first time.

For, a veil was once torn,
one dark Friday afternoon.
Unveiled, divine love
took on a crucified form,
stripped and striped for our transforming.

May we trust in the loving, searching, gaze of Christ.
May we trust in the gentle kindness of the Spirit.
May we trust in the magnificent re-creation of the Creator.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Day of reckoning

29th day of Lent

MARCH 29th 2017


There is a crown of beech trees at the top of the hill leading up to the Barclay Road entrance of Warley Woods. There used to be five tall friends. Now there are four. Storm Doris took care of one of the group, unceremoniously slicing off the top-heavy canopy of the proud tree. Now, we see its stark form, as a reminder of the power of storm winds and the fragility even of formerly strong boughs. 

Today will go down in human history for two reasons which will only be judged wisely and generously by the march of time. 

Article 50 has been triggered and the UK and Europe have two years to separate as legal and political entities. This stark fact is beginning to sink in for us all, just as the stark skeleton of the formerly proud tree reminds us of a time when it was a flourishing beech. Will our departure trigger a further diminishing of the European project? Will more of our lovely beeches succumb to more winds?

President Trump has signaled the beginning of the un-stitching of the coalition of nations who signed the Paris Agreement to slow down the catastrophic warming of the planet. His most recent presidential order will lead to unfettered fossil fuel use in the United States. Will other countries now turn their backs on the agreement, emboldened by Trump's untrammeled politics of self-interest? Will any of our lovely beeches survive into the 22nd Century? Will life itself?

History teaches us that empires rise and empires fall - and yet the Kingdom of Jesus continues to blossom and bloom in a million ways, a billion ways, each day. Our vocation as humans is to bear God's image and not delegate to idolatrous powers the huge responsibilities we bear. As we prepare to carve out a new way of living - politically and legally - as a nation, may we not duck our responsibilities to care for the planet nor duck our responsibilities to create networks which give life to all creatures and the natural world across this delicate beautiful blue planet.Can selfless love counter self-interest? If self-interest is the only vote-winner, can it yet be enlightened by love?

Tuesday, 28 March 2017


28th day of Lent

MARCH 28th 2017


This morning's dense mist shrouded Warley Woods. And the two close oaks in the meadow were damply cloaked, like everything else. But these twinned companions have always had a special feel to me. Their branches intertwine in a permanent embrace, so that they almost seem to be one. At some angles, when the trunks merge into a single pillar, they indeed do become like one tree.  

There are probably many older trees on Warley Woods. There are probably more beautiful trees too. But when I walk passed these oaks each day, I think of the word faithful. 

In the psalms, God's character is constantly referred to as faithful. In Psalm 26.3, the poet describes the paths of the Lord as 'steadfast love and faithfulness'. In both Psalm 36.5 and 57.10, the steadfast love of God 'extends to the heavens, you faithfulness to the clouds'. Today, the clouds of God descended to us, heaven came down to earth. 

In another metaphor on this theme, the psalmist in 85.10-11, says: 'Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground and righteousness will look down from the sky.' These two trees' embrace may lead us, in our imaginations, to call one 'righteousness' and the other 'peace'. Or maybe, another day, we can call them 'steadfast love' and 'faithfulness'. What do you think? What are the names you might give to trees that withstand the batterings of the storms of life and the test of time.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Three prayerful friends

27th day of Lent

MARCH 27th 2017


The willow outside my study window is now begin to weep young leaves from its cascading twigs and branches. It is a beautiful tree. It shields and protects and, in summer, creates a veil of dappled sunlight. Around its base is a crown of daffodils. The willow doesn't only weep leaves, over time it weeps its tendril-like twigs and branches all over the place. It guards a very mossy lawn which is now developing into a gentle prayer labyrinth, whose outline is accentuated by carefully laid out piles of slim branch spears collected through the winter. Its weeping nature is an aid to prayer. The Weeping Willow is generous with its 'tears'.

This prayerful patch of ground is guarded by another rather fine and unusual mature tree, called a Tree of Heaven (left). This originates from China and has very much fewer leaves and is a very much later bloomer. I don't expect to see any sign of greenery much before the middle of May. While the willow humbly pours down its tears, the Tree of Heaven's worshipful branches lift up to the skies. Both were planted by a former vicar of St Hilda's who loved his gardening. Revd Canon Jack Pigott and his wife Iris had nine very happy years serving Warley Woods. They were the first to live in the vicarage, built in 1965. So it fell to them to plant trees and lay out the garden. We live in the shadow of their imaginations. I wonder if they were able to envisage then how their generous gift of trees would shape and enclose the landscape that we now know? 

When we moved into the vicarage on a very cold and snowy day in early February 2009, we welcomed the bare trees which surrounded us like an enfolding family. As we got used to the back garden, we could not but help admire a third tree planted by Jack  - a Blue Atlas Cedar (right). This very fine specimen originates from the high and stark Atlas mountains of the Maghreb of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. You could not imagine a bigger contrast than that of a traditional English vicarage garden and the majesty of the 13,000ft peaks of North Africa!

Our Blue Atlas has a prayerfulness all of its own, with ever uplifted arms which sway gently in the breezes or stand peaceably in the still blue sky days of summer. It is a tree to be greatly loved, I feel. I can often just get lost in time gazing at it from the kitchen window while making a cup of tea. The kettle could go cold as I stand fascinated by its wave-like movements. 

As we got used to the garden, we realised it was a mixed blessing. For the cedar was too big really for the plot. It would be more at home on Warley Woods. It leached the soil of goodness and made it difficult (despite our best efforts) to grow any decent vegetables. And the trees which we initially welcomed as enfolding friends also became serried sentries who blocked out a lot of the sun.  

But these three trees teach me much about prayer. How sometimes we can't help but weep our prayers; sometimes we can only praise in our prayers; sometimes we can get lost in our prayers. Weeping, heavenly and blue - these three sentries have inspired many prayers. Long may they do so.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Tree of Life

24th day of Lent
MARCH 24th 2017


There is a most magnificent beech tree on the edge of the Waseley Hills. It has a girth of about 12ft or 13ft and it stretches up into the sky to a height of 60ft or so. And, as is sometimes the case with beech trees, the root system above ground is just very powerful. On a beautiful blue-sky afternoon, this beech seems not quite yet ready to stir out of winter into the new promise of life awaiting it in spring. Beech trees do tend to wake up a little slower than some of their cousins. The weeping willow outside my study window is already showing signs of coming into leaf. And the blossom on black thorn bushes is now quite full. But this beech is still quite skeletal in the upper reaches, though, at the same time, muscular. It is unrivalled on this hill. It seems to stand a sentinel on the brow looking out west across the M5 and the hills rolling down into Worcestershire. 

I wrote yesterday about the hands of Jesus stretched out in extremis for humanity. What I see in this tree (all trees) is an upward-stretching silent sentinel, a beseeching beech. Psalm 134 is one of the 15 Psalms of the Ascent which are said by pilgrims as they climb up to Jerusalem on their way to the Temple. 

'Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD, 
who stand by night in the house of the LORD!
Lift up your hands to the holy place,
and bless the LORD.
May the LORD, maker of heaven and earth, 
bless you from Zion.'

It has probably stood on this prominent spot for more than 150 years - way before the M5 was carved through the valley. May it continue to stretch up to heaven by night and by day.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Extreme love

23nd day of Lent
MARCH 23rd 2017


I have been thinking about Jesus and extremism. And I have been thinking about how extremists want to create huge gaps in society, huge divisions that tear us apart. And I have been thinking about how this is so counter to God's will: how Jesus' incarnation was entirely about drawing us close to each other and to God. How Jesus was sent to create a bridge, a bridge that is spanned by his hands on the cross held out in extremis.

It was the extremes of Jesus' body that were pierced for our transgressions. As he hung on the cross it was of course his whole body that was wracked with pain; but it was his hands and feet that were pinned to the wood. This was pain being carried in the extremities of his body.

As I think about the extremists that are seeking to inflict pain on so many people through their violent acts, I think about Jesus' hands and feet and his being stretched out on the cruel cross. Somehow, Grunewalde's most excruciating image of Jesus crucified seems to me to be the one painting that explores the agony of Jesus as he bears the pains of our world. This painting comes from the Isenheim Altarpiece painted in 1516 at a time when the Monastery of St Anthony was treating sufferers of the plague and skin diseases. The image of the crucified Jesus is pitted with the plague-like sores of sufferers. And it brought great comfort to those who suffered because they could see how Jesus identified with them and understood their afflictions. 

Grunewalde is famous for another extraordinary painting of Jesus. It is of Christ resurrected. Apart from the rather obvious incongruity of a very blond Jesus, it is the very opposite of the crucified image. There is freedom in the extremities, there is movement rather than rigidity, there is colour rather than grim plague-ridden skin, there is wholeness yet still the marks of the wounds. Jesus hands are being held up almost as if to say, 'You cannot pin me down, you cannot box me in, you cannot contain me or kill me, you cannot keep or control me - I am the alpha and the omega.' Extreme love. 

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Love your enemies 2

22nd day of Lent
MARCH 22nd 2017


Today a man died. He was a man of violence. He was an extremist. He took four people with him and injured 40 more. 

Extremists seek to pull people with them away from a central, everyday, normality.
Extremists don't want us to hold together.

So as we open up our church on Saturday we want to, in a very small and normal and un-extreme way, to help people hold together. 

And we believe that a man of peace who suffered at the hands of violent extremists - they who believed death was the answer - is the one who calls us to hold out a light to others.

Yesterday was a day for prayer for Northern Ireland. Today is a day of prayer for London. Every day is a day of prayer. For it is the normal, holding-together, response of un-extreme Christians and Muslims. Prayer for those whose lives were so marred and devastated by terrorism. Prayer for peacemakers. 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Love your enemies

21st day of Lent
MARCH 21st 2017


Today a man died. He was a man of violence. He was a man of peace. He died with blood on his hands. He died as a friend of enemies. He was Martin McGuinness. One half of the 'Chuckle Brothers' - the other half was the implacable defender of Ulster, Ian Paisley. 

It is a day for prayer. Prayer for those whose lives were so marred and devastated by terrorism. Prayer also for a changed Northern Ireland. Prayer for peacemakers. Footsteps to peace have taken years of painstaking effort. And today it is still fragile. There are still walls, called 'peace lines' in Derry /Londonderry and Belfast. There are still huge suspicions between both sides. Yet, the sight of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness sharing power, sitting besides each other, chuckling, is surely one of the most extraordinary fruits of peacemaking. These photographs come from the Antrim coast in Northern Ireland, which we visited last year. They are from Portrush, where the Giant's Causeway is a truly magnificent and mysterious landscape. A most beautiful country. A place and people who deserve peace as much as we do. May Martin McGuinness rest in the peace of God and the forgiveness of God. And may those harmed and marred by violence find peace too.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Springing up to Eternal Life

             ST PHOTINA'S DAY
MARCH 20th 2017


Today is St Photina's Day. Who, you might ask, is St Photina? Little known in the Western church, she is said to be, according to the Orthodox church, the woman who met Jesus at the well in John 4.

If you ever read the stories of Jesus in the Gospels, you might often be left wondering about what happened next?

When Jesus arrived at Photina's well, he was thirsty. He asked her for a drink. And out of that request came a most profound life-changing experience. 'Come and meet the man who told me everything I had ever done,' she tells all her neighbours and relatives. 

What happened next? She becomes a courageous teller of her story. 
Her story-telling courage led her to leave her home town (modern Nablus, in the West Bank) and all the way to Carthage, in Tunisia. There she came to the notice of the Roman authorities. She was eventually taken prisoner and taken to Rome, where, in AD64, she was martyred for her faith by Nero. Her way of life - which sprang from that encounter with a thirsty Jesus at the well - led to her death. Her death was by being thrown into a well.

The picture above is an Eastern orthodox icon. The cross-shaped well reflects the costliness of her life bound with the costly life-giving death of Jesus. 

I wonder, how many other unnamed women and men of the bible have stories that are known by our wise brothers and sisters from the Eastern church? Perhaps you would like to look for them!!

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Giving and gaining


MARCH 15th 2017 

In the Hot Potato suppers we have been looking at Archbishop Justin Welby's Lent book, 'Dethroning Mammon'.
The book looks at the way in which the forces of acquisitiveness and dehumanising systems (which is partly to do with the power of money) can control us and shape our thinking. What we can measure, we value. What we have, we consider ours.

Today we got to the chapter that begins to overturn attitudes to do with giving: he suggests that giving is gaining.

His biblical template for giving when it seems irrational, makes no sense at all, is Nicodemus; he who came to Jesus in the darkness to ask him hard questions, is the one who looks after Jesus' body at his death. Not only that, he lavishes great riches by caring for his body with 100lbs of spices. He had nothing to gain. It was, however, the most beautiful of acts which he and Joseph of Arimathea did for Jesus when all seemed lost that Good Friday evening.

But Welby says this is precisely the kind of giving - irrational, beautiful and with nothing to gain - that turns Mammon on its head. Giving is never about 'what is in it for me?', which is a process of 'exchange and equivalence'. Giving is about pure generosity and abundance. I leave you with this quote: 

‘What we gain when we give comes in many forms. First of all, when we give, we recognise, both implicitly and explicitly, that life is not a process of exchange and equivalence, but of abundance and generosity. Exchange and equivalence is a zero-sum approach, the notion that what I give I lose to your gain. It implies a closed system. Abundance and generosity implies an open system, one in which the creative power of God is ever active, so what we give we gain. Mammon wants us to believe the books always have to balance out in the end – that whatever you have I can’t have, and vice versa… Mammon is good at arithmetic, and balancing the books, but very bad at divine economics... in divine economics, where there is abundance and generosity, there is no zero-sum approach.’

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Forty thousand sunrises


TUESDAY MARCH 14th 2017 


In January 1907 - 110 years ago - a little church was planted in Rathbone Road.
It was the Mission Church of St Hilda. 

It was the initiative of the new bishop of Birmingham, Charles Gore. He was a pioneer prelate. He had visited the area a few months before and had noticed huge changes even in January 1907. So many homes had been built. Bearwood was spilling up the hill towards Warley Woods. Edwardian terraces were now being planned in Barclay Road. And from that site in Rathbone Road, it was clear that the building out from Birmingham was only going to continue. A church was needed to serve the people. 

It is easy to forget: our church once did not exist.

It was planted in Warley Woods by people of vision.

The Smethwick News Telephone - what a wonderful name for a newspaper - reported Bishop Gore's text in their Saturday edition of February 2nd 1907. The reporter summed up his sermon thus: 'He knew case after case where congregations and churches had grown up out of a tiny mission church and he hoped they would grow up into a great and rich congregation - rich, not in numbers, but in spiritual gifts, and zeal and readiness to help themselves.'

We would do well to attend to his prophetic words. We are still here 110 years on. He preached on a text which urged that we would go, like Paul, out to people to tell them that forgiveness of sins is for them and that they have a place 'among those who are sanctified by faith in Jesus'.

The sun rises. The sun sets. Faithfulness continues day after day. The sun has risen and set 40,220 times since then (give or take the odd leap year). Something to thank God for (and leap up and down a bit). Our PCC tonight began with a skipping competition as the Brownies in the next door room in the hall had a skip-a-thon for charity. I wonder what Bishop Gore would have thought had he been there to witness the latest members of St Hilda's prayerfully set priorities for the mission of our church for 2017-18? Would he have joined in the skipping?

Monday, 13 March 2017

Going, going,,,


MONDAY MARCH 13th 2017 

We are on the way out of the EU. Mrs May will trigger Article 50 in the next week or two and so the negotiations will begin nine months after that historic referendum. Nine months: some pregnancy. 

And at the same time, Scotland may well vote to split the UK before Brexit happens in 2019 - and this has come as a complete surprise, a reverse elopement. Nicola Sturgeon wants a divorce with the rest of the UK in order to grow a new relationship with Europe.

We live in extraordinary times. We also live in the worst of times.

Sitting on our sofas watching the news, we are confronted with what happens when politics does not work at all. From our political difficulties, our thoughts and minds are pulled away from the plushness of the Houses of Parliament across thousands of arid miles to the drought-hit, war-torn, provinces of South Sudan and Somalia. 

These are places where politics by another means - war - is disrupting the lives of millions of people. Three million have fled the warlords in South Sudan, leaving slaughtered family members behind. Many who have made it into Uganda are women and children, courageous women who have left behind the bodies of their slaughtered husbands and sons. Many more millions are besieged in cities and towns in Somalia. Cholera stalks the lands. But simple supplies of clean water and grain are saving lives. 

And then, we are taken to the Netherlands, where a nation divided votes in a couple of days time. It has a choice between a poisonous politics of backward-looking hatred and something more hopeful yet somehow with less momentum. 

Where is the hope? Where is a sign of another narrative?

A group of young people from 70 nations stood with their flags in front of Buckingham Palace today to signal the start of the Commonwealth Games' torch run across 140,000 miles linking every competing country. Sporting rivalry can bring hope. Young people can show us a better way.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Sister Moon


SUNDAY MARCH 12th 2017 

This evening the moon was full and beautiful over Warley Woods. Here in this image it seems to be caught in the upper branches of the tall beech trees at the top of Barclay Road. Sister Moon is what St Francis called it, in his Canticle of the Creatures:

Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor,
and all blessing.
To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praise be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.

In the light of the moon things can seem simpler and radiant. As a child I used to love to run in the moonlight, for it felt like I'd become more fleet of foot. Somehow it was liberating. It felt like I was flying, even. When something is beyond our control - like the moon and the sun - it is easier to have an attitude of letting go and letting be.

I have been thinking about the song of that name. Paul McCartney wrote 'Let it be' in the days running up to the break-up of The Beatles in 1970. It was the title of their last album and was released a month after he decided to go solo. In the song he tells of his mother, Mary, coming to him speaking the wisdom of 'letting things be'. He tells the story that his mother, who had died 10 years earlier when he was just 14, came to him clearly in a dream when he was in a state of great anxiety about the future. The dream brought him a state of tremendous peace. John Lennon reportedly hated the song. He thought it had Christian undertones. McCartney said fans could read what they wanted into the lyrics - many thinking that 'mother Mary' is Mary mother of Jesus.

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be.

And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be.

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

In the moonlight, perhaps you could whisper prayers of wisdom. Ask the God of all things to have control. Let it be, let it be, let it be.

Well dressed



It has been a day off. Simple pleasures; a good breakfast, a little walk, an afternoon watching England beat Scotland handsomely, time hunkered down.

It is in the ordinary things that we often find greatest thankfulness. George Herbert, poet and priest, wrote of prayer in a whole series of word pictures in his wonderful poem Prayer. In one such run of phrases he describes prayer as 'heaven in ordinary' and 'man well dressed'. 

In Paul's letter to the church in Colossae, he suggested something ordinary and radical in one and the same sentence. He suggested that we 'put on' or 'clothe ourselves' in the character of Christ.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. (Colossians 3.12)

As we dress for ordinary days or extraordinary days, may we find this kind of well-dressed character becomes habit, not just an act.

Here is Herbert's poem to reflect upon. It is a feast for Lent.

Prayer, the Church's banquet, Angels' age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days'-world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices, something understood.