Who has pottered by this way, then?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Table

The Table

'Twas the night before Christmas
And all through a stable
A man was attempting
To construct a table.
In spite of his skill
At the carpentry trade
His tools on a workbench
In Nazareth were laid.

The manger in which
All the fodder was scattered
Seemed solid enough
And that was what mattered.
For that was the main thing:
A solid, safe cradle
Was needed in case
Of a birth in that stable.

But Joseph got busy
And lashed up some poles
And some planks with some rope
That he'd found by the foals
And managed to make
A table, quite steady
And sturdy enough
In case baby was ready.

The night passed and
Jesus was born in that place.
The table lay, unused,
But stood, just in case.
Visitors came
And were slightly perplexed:
When attempting to use it,
Young Joseph got vexed.

The point of the table
Was not clear to them;
Was not clear to Joseph
Nor all Bethlehem.
But Joseph was certain,
Could feel in his gut,
That a table was key
To events in this hut.

The women said, "Typical!
Building and fussing, and
Making that thing
While Mary was pushing!"
Joseph, however, stayed
Faithful and still,
Content in his knowledge
That this was God's will.

Joseph had heard
The right message, it's true
And acted upon it
But hadn't a clue
That his timing was out:
No table required
For the birth of God's son
Whom the shepherds admired.

But the Body and Blood
Came to earth on that day
In that stable
In the form of a babe in the hay.
And the table came later.
It bore bread and wine.
When Christ died for all
It remained as a sign.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Advent, week 1. A story reflected.

December 1st: God sent the angel Gabriel to visit a young woman.
Her name was Mary.

As we drove home along the slow, undulating, winding B roads it really was pitch black outside. The kids were just about asleep and my wife was nodding off in the passenger seat beside me. Suddenly there was a presence over my shoulder outside the car, barely visible in my peripheral vision. You take your eyes off that road at your peril in daylight, let alone late at night....

December 2nd: She was scared. She had never seen an angel before.

...and yet I allowed myself a glance out of the side window. It was a snowy owl, wings outstretched and keeping pace with the car as we both swooped downhill. It could only have been ten feet away, possibly less, and the sight was magnificent: such grace and beauty in flight. I woke the rest of the car and told them to look. They all managed to catch sight of the owl before it banked off into the fields. We all felt we had seen something very special.

December 3rd: Gabriel said, "Don't be afraid. You are very special to God."

When we got home, not long after, as we got ready for bed, my youngest child told me, "That was awesome, Daddy. It was like something magical. Or in a film, like CGI.". I agreed. I think we all dreamt of silently swooping, enchanted owls that night.

December 4th: "You will become pregnant and give birth to a Son. 
You must name him Jesus."

The following morning, I was still thinking about that owl. I was convinced it hadn't been there by coincidence but had actually been flying alongside us for fun. That may sound odd, I know, but somehow I had the idea that the owl had been playing with the car. Having seen its lights perhaps it decided to race us, or just fly alongside to keep up with us, or even perhaps watching out for anything scurrying and tasty caught in our headlights. In any case, a game of sorts. How amazing that a creature with its own life, concerns and things to do should have crossed paths with us in this way.

December 5th: "He will be called the Son of the Most High God."

Surrounded by the more obvious signs of nature and creation as we were, living in a very small rural community among grazing fields for sheep and horses, woodland, pheasant habitat, crop fields and delicately babbling becks, it was easy to take the natural world around us for granted. This is true wherever you live, familiarity breeding if not contempt, then certainly complacency about the beauties, conveniences or facilities around you. Life out here has more of the beauties than conveniences or facilities for sure, but even so, every place becomes ordinary to some extent once you live there. The owl had brought me a message though by reminding me of what wonderful things there were to see if I'd only stop and consider them: creation itself is an act of incarnation, of God revealing something of himself to us.

December 6th: Mary asked, "How can this be so? I am not married."

I was a little confused in my reasoning about this: I knew that God was not only evident in the kind of nature we see in the countryside. Indeed, the countryside is as man-made a landscape as any city. The whole of creation is testimony to its creator. And, that aside, God is not defined merely in terms of the wonder of the world. That is merely a symptom, a sign of the person of the Creator God. But still, that encounter on the road late at night had touched me, and I could only go on what this gliding, beautiful messenger had put in my heart. I knew the message was that, not only is God our Creator. The advent message rings true: God Is With Us.

December 7th: Gabriel answered, "With God, all things are possible."

Somewhere, elsewhere, in the middle of a city, perhaps someone else was being similarly touched and prodded by the Almighty using a pigeon, a rat, the swirling of litter in an alleyway, the ringing of burglar alarms or silent raindrops creeping down a window. Who knows?
But the messenger I saw that night on the road told me clearly that God is alongside us. He is out there whether we know it or not and has made it his business to allow us to share a journey with him, even if it means taking our eyes off our own road a little.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

In conversation with a weekday church visitor.

"So, are you the vicar, then?"

"No, I'm the churchwarden."

"Nice church. Do you have to be here while it's open to the public?"

"No, we just leave it open during the day so people can visit. I just happened to be here checking on the boiler."

"Seriously? You just leave it open?"

"Yes. It'd be a pity to have it only open on Sundays."

"Definitely. That's really good. Lovely building. How old is it?"

"Well, bits are 14th century, a lot is 17th century and there are bits added from pretty much every century inbetween. And there's a cross from Saxon times in the graveyard too."

"Right. Must cost a lot to keep it going."

"Yes, heating costs an enormous amount. And if there's anything wrong with the building itself, you have to have an architect in and specialist craftsmen to even make the windows watertight."

  *visitor pops 50 pence in the collection box*

"Is the vicar in?"

"He doesn't actually live in the church."

"Where is he then?"

"I really don't know: he could be at a hospital visiting one of the very sick old folk from one of the four parishes he covers, or at a meeting which, given our location, might well be up to an hour's drive away, or he could be at the local school doing assembly, or something else there as he's a school governor, or he may be discussing a funeral with the relatives of someone who's recently passed away, or taking a confirmation class at the local secondary school - the list is pretty long."


"Do you want me to put you in touch with the vicar?"

"Oh no, I just thought it'd be nice to see him here. You know, as I was taking photographs."

"I'm sure he'd love to be thought of as photogenic."

"Well, where I'm from in Leeds we just don't see vicars out and about. Not like here in the countryside."

"What makes you think we see them out and about any more than you you do in the city?"

"Well, no reason I suppose. I just assumed it'd be like the vicar of Dibley out here. Nice and relaxing out in the countryside, full of posh retired people and rich folk. Must be like that really?"

 The churchwarden sighed deeply, electing not to reply. Smiling, he said, "I'm afraid I have to be going. Just before you arrived I found out the boiler's packed up and I need to go and sort that out so our happy band of worshippers won't be too cold this Sunday. Our Diocese thinks we're as rich as you do, so I'm not sure we can actually afford to fix it and keep up with what we're supposed to send them every month. Shame really, as most of us here love the idea of supporting inner city ministry too. This beautiful old building just eats all our money, though."

"I'm glad it's here though. And that it's open."

"Me too. It's a witness to all those centuries of worship here. And to God being in the midst of this little, out of the way place for all those years too. Though I wonder if the mere presence of these ancient stones is enough. Surely I didn't become a Christian to be a mere curator of ancient monuments? But God will use us where we are, as we are - or as He will transform us, if we let Him, I'm sure."

"I guess."

"God bless."

"You too."

Monday, November 28, 2011

CSI Camberwick Green, not Camberwell Green

Picture the scene: a small, rural school, Sunday morning in autumn. A small group of people turn up wearing woolly hats pulled over their ears. First one, then another vaults over the walls of the school playground. Another passes a sledgehammer over the wall. Children shout encouragement to the people who are now inside school grounds. Phone the police? No... just some parents of kids who attend that school turning up at the weekend to install some large new piece of play equipment (a wooden tractor and trailer, since you ask) bought by the parents' association. They were offered entrance to the school grounds via a door or gate but declined. It is obviously far more fun to vault over the walls (then have your kids hurled over after you). I used to live in one of the more crime-ridden, "stabbier" parts of South London and can imagine how things might have played out had parents vaulted their way into a playground at the weekend armed with sledgehammers. Much more fun to be had in villages, y'know.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rural ministry

Rural ministry is where:

  • Small is often not only beautiful but a 'given'.
  • The church is often the Last Public Service Provider Standing.
  • Being curators of an ancient monument (the church building) is hard to see as an honour, rather than a bottomless pit of time, money and effort at times.
  • The prayerful stillness (if seldom silence) of the church building reminds you that its purpose is as a place to be sent out from as much as to gather with others in.
  • Incognito travel is never possible.
  • Opportunity is there to serve the community, but there are possibly as many agendas for how this is to be done as there are members of the congregation.
  • A church can make a significant impact on its community, especially with other services being more distant.
  • The church buildings somehow still feel as though they truly belong to the community - even to those who never pop in.
  • Keeping the congregation warm can cost more than your parish share.
  • The community served by a church probably has a small voice on its own, but our networks can amplify them to make their needs heard, if we are able to work co-operatively internally and externally.
  • Ancient stones are a witness in themselves.
  • We are often the custodians of the village's story through our records and our continuity.
  • Loving our neighbours is a necessity as well as a Gospel imperative: the village is your peer group and you're stuck with each other.
Please do add to this very partial list of my ruminations with your own thoughts...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sunday evening poetry corner

Revival Came

Revival came:
Not in a cascade of noise and praise
But quietly, unseen, uncelebrated.
It came, heralded not by Alleluias
But by tears and sighs.

Revival came:
Not in tongues of flame
Or dramatic outpourings,
But in shared silence, tear-stained vigils;
In listening, rather than explaining.

Revival came:
Not through feeling holier
Nor suddenly being on Cloud Nine,
But in being known, accepted
Warts and all, even in despair.

And revival came:
Not in a noisy battle or struggle,
Nor through a sudden mass-revelation
Of deep things suddenly understood;
Revival came heart by heart, one by one.

Revival came
As Love stared into the darkness,
Stood and wept into another's wounds
And washed as it wept
And healed and cleaned and comforted.

And revived.

The cost of living

The Anglican archbishops Rowan Williams and John Sentamu, along with eighteen bishops, are backing amendments to the government's welfare reform bill to be tabled by John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds in the House of Lords, it is reported in today's Observer:
In an open letter in Observer, they say the Church of England has a "moral obligation to speak up for those who have no voice". Their message is that the cap could be "profoundly unjust" to the poorest children in society, especially those in larger families and those living in expensive major cities.
I'm glad to read about this. After the initial ambiguity of the church's response to the Occupy protesters outside St. Paul's Cathedral in London, it is good to see the C of E getting its story straight. And, indeed, this should be just the kind of issue the church can get straight: defending the poor, the marginalised and the voiceless should be its home turf in terms of issues. My only question is about the last phrase of that quote from the Observer article: "especially... those living in expensive major cities."

Now, I am not disagreeing that major cities are indeed expensive to live in. Been there, done that, do not need convincing. My only concern is that, as ever, the impact on the poorest children in rural areas is overlooked. Many teachers, health professionals and members of the clergy whose work involves rural communities will tell you that they come across the same levels of poverty and need as their colleagues in urban areas. The problem with rural poverty is that it's spread very thinly throughout the country. Numbers of families living in poverty is lower than in urban areas (around 1 in 6 adults in rural areas, compared with 1 in 4 in urban areas). That said, if the rural poor were all gathered together, you'd have a fair sized city of 3.5 million people (half a million more than the population of Wales, a city with just under half the population of London according to last year's government population estimates.).

If such a city with such levels of need were to exist in this country, you'd like to think its needs would be considered and its needs would not be so easy to overlook. So I hope that the excellent Bishop John Packer, in presenting his amendments to the Lords does find space for a few words acknowledging the very real (and often rather different) needs of the invisible rural poor, as well as the obvious needs of those affected by these reforms in our cities.