O valiant hearts

OValiantHeartsWithMusicRTFThe Civic Service on Remembrance Sunday 2014 at S Modwen’s Church, Burton upon Trent

 Micah 6: 6-8. Matthew 5: 1-12

Monday evenings this summer saw me glued to the box, watching the training of Marine Commandos. We glimpsed them, we glimpsed their trainers, many fresh from Afghanistan, and we saw how duty and tough love are agents of transformation. It made me wonder what our future is likely to be, shaped increasingly nowadays by ‘rights’ and indulgence.

It was remarkable to witness as training went on how these men come together in the service of something bigger than themselves. They learn that individuality is subservient to the common good. They learn that their own preferences and desires count for nothing when it comes to the well being of the unit. They learn comradeship. When one of them fails in an exercise there is none of the derision that I suffered in PE classes at school (I was and remain physically inept) but instead a remarkable level of encouragement and support.

It’s people and attitudes like this that we honour today.

Think about the men in the trenches a century ago. Maybe they signed up seeking excitement, maybe they were bored, maybe they had a sense of service, or maybe they were escaping desperate circumstances. Just like today’s commando trainees. Think how dreadful life was in the trenches. And death. And yet, despite this—or perhaps because of it, for there’s nothing quite like adversity to bring people together—we witness the comradeship and intimacy that develop, and we see it in ex-servicemen and -women.

Now think of the women and men who served in the Second World War, in the Gulf War, Ireland. Think of those serving at this moment: Afghanistan, the Middle East, and more. Think of servicemen and women who suffer in peacetime as a result of idiots who think they know better than everyone else. Think of those that are injured physically and mentally. And think of their families.

It is people like this that we honour today.

We’re not here to honour politicians who appear to indulge in playground games like ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ or ‘you can have my soldiers if I can be your friend’. We are not here to condemn service chiefs who make the best decisions they can given the information they have at the time—or who have decisions imposed on them. We’re here to remember those who learn to their cost about justice, and mercy, and humility. That is what the first reading is about. And in the second reading we hear that only when we have emptied ourselves of selfishness can we begin to glimpse the kingdom of God—which is not about life after death, but about what life could be here on earth, as it is in heaven.

However much historians might proclaim the stupidity of the First World War, one cannot deny the evil that was confronted in the Second. Fighting evil is necessary, so long as we remember that every evil act begins as a thought in the mind—and that such evil thoughts are in your mind and mine as well as in the mind of the Dictator. It’s worth remembering too that nowadays a UK military presence often serves, in the words of the second reading, ‘to show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight.’ Selflessness replaces selfishness. That, brothers and sisters, is what Resurrection is about: we can all rise to the selflessness of eternal life if we put aside selfishness and ego.

My son and his family live in the United States. I’m always struck at US airports how military personnel are invited to board first, and how at shows and public events the military are applauded. Americans respect their military all year round. This week we show our respect for those who learnt the hard way that selflessness, not selfishness, is the way. It would be good if we could remember this message in the other 51 weeks of the year, every year, and in every moment of our lives. Before it’s too late.

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Ugly bug prayers

1409307203767_wps_14_BN2XBP_Colorized_transmisThere are calls for prayers to end the Ebola curse. Cathedrals do it, churches do it, even educated fleas do it. So what’s it all about? What are they asking for?

That the Lord will strengthen sufferers to bear what must be borne? Fair enough I suppose. We need to relax into allowing the processes of nature to take their course.

That the Lord will zap the viruses because they are less important than people? Are not viruses ‘creatures of this earth’ just like us? Why should viruses suffer more so that we suffer less? Do viruses suffer?

That the Lord inspires medical scientists to come up with a cure or a vaccine? If they don’t or can’t, does that mean they haven’t tried hard enough, or that they were not properly tuned in to the Lord’s radio frequency?

That the Lord intervenes to solve the problem somehow? Good luck with that.

On the way to Texas, a lightning strike over Bristol (damn the place) caused us to return to LHR where we were welcomed by fire engines and ambulances. They kept us on the plane, fed us, did the necessaries, and then we took off again to arrive 6 hours late having breathed recycled farts and each other’s germs for 16 hours. What was the Lord telling us, do you think? Possibly as a result, SWMBO and I now have viruses attacking our respiratory tracts. There’s a wire brush going back and forth in my trachea.

Will someone pray for me? I can’t do that—it would be very un-C-of-E. Will someone pray for the viruses concerned? As others have said, hunger kills more people than Ebola, but dealing with Ebola is more important because rich people can die from it.

Pass the sherry, darling.

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This sanctuary of my soul

Great_Mass_in_C_minor_(Mozart)_p1We were in Hugh’s truck on the way from San Antonio to Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country. A day out. Muzak was oozing from the speakers. Quite without warning Mozart’s C minor Mass Kyrie began. I can’t quite find words for the effect it had on me at that time in that place, but it was something like being jolted by an electric shock in an instant into the fullest sort of life imaginable.

‘This is the best thing he ever wrote.’

‘They used it in A Very British Coup, with Ray McAnally.’

‘There’s a bit in the Sanctus that quite bowls me over.’

‘Doesn’t it all?’

University Methodist Church, San Antonio

University Methodist Church, San Antonio

The following Sunday we were at the local church. Plush, wealthy, comfortable, striking modern stained glass, acolytes in albs, candles to gladden my heart (yes, Methodist candles!), a lovely two-manual mechanical action organ by Rosales of Los Angeles—and they let me play it. The church orchestra featured. I must say, though, it was rather like a diet of honey both musically and theologically. Not soporific exactly, but certainly tending to make me wonder if I was in Stepford.

The contrast between the two musical experiences was remarkable. Mozart electrifies, muzak stupefies. Mozart—that Mozart in particular—exposes in an instant that central vacuum in my being that longs to be embraced. It tears apart the layers of ‘show’ that collect like dental plaque. It brings home to me, yet again, that all ‘this’ is vanity. It explains, yet again, why my best sermons are written under the influence of music, for it’s not long before whatever comes through the headphones bypasses conscious hearing and unlatches the sanctuary of my soul. The sad thing is that it is so expensive of emotion and self that I don’t do it often enough. My kingdom is an inner kingdom.

I was 13 when I first heard Patrick Hadley’s I sing of a maiden. ‘However long I live’, I thought then—as now—’I shall never be able to produce anything quite so concentratedly beautiful.’ I wonder what it felt like to be Patrick Hadley—actually, quite fun by all accounts, for there are lots of stories about him. I wonder what it felt like to be Mozart.

Posted in A great future behind me, Inner kingdom | 4 Comments

Fair perceptions

S Modwen's in the background

S Modwen’s in the background

Today I blessed Burton’s Statutes Fair. A 600-year history I gather. The Mayor spoke, I blessed, children from Holy Trinity School prayed and cut the ribbon, and I splashed a lot of Holy Water about. There was no need of this actually, for plenty of the natural stuff was dropping as the unstrained quality of mercy.

On my way to the ‘green room’ beforehand I bumped into the President of the Showmen’s Association of Great Britain who pointed to the showmen’s prayer on the back of his card. I was wondering what I would say at the grand opening, having left my preparation in the hands of the Holy Ghost, and so this was a gift from heaven. ‘Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous’ Albert Einstein is reputed to have said, so this happenstance must prove that there is a God and that she was listening to my concerns.

The quote about coincidence is also attributed to Lauren Pederson, of whom I had not heard. Is it another name for Einstein? or vice versa? I wonder if Lauren and Albert were ever in the same room at the same time. Would that have been coincidence?

Anyhoo, back to the plot. The circus owner, who had himself been President of the Showmen’s Association, told me the story of how that prayer came to be. At an Association meeting in Rome, members were told gather in a certain place at a certain time. They were taken in a bus with police escort to the Vatican and in due course issued into the Presence. Lengthy and enthusiastic conversations ensued, and the chain of office much admired by His Holiness. That is where the prayer comes from, a product of Pope John Paul II.

Chatting to civic dignitaries after the Fair blessing, I was sounding them out about increasing the profile of S Modwen’s in the town, and how best to make it known that the church was at the service of the town and everyone in it. After all, the building is in the Market Square, and it’s a real shame that it’s locked most of the time. The dignitary was sympathetic and helpful, but agreed that we are up against the widely held perception that the church as a whole was standoffish and stuck up. The same thing was said to me in similar circumstances in Portlaoise about the Church of Ireland.

I remember the first time that it really dawned on me that perceptions were often more important than facts, because it’s perceptions that we have to deal with. It was at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland when a colleague and I were discussing some issue that was causing great student unrest. My colleague was holding to facts, while I said  facts didn’t much matter because what we had to counter were widely held perceptions.

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

 We have work to do.

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Preparing for harvest

Last_Judgement_Sinai_12th_centuryA homily for Proper 22, Trinity 16, Year A Isaiah 5:1-7. Psalm 80:7-15. Philippians 3:4b-14. Matthew 21:33-46

Here is the prophet doing what prophets should do: speaking unpalatable truths. Here is Jesus doing what Jesus so often does: speaking unpalatable truths.

The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

The Lord provides the means for the vineyard to grow good grapes. But it’s a bad harvest of wild grapes and so the vineyard is destroyed. The Lord provides the ingredients for the Kingdom of God. How do you respond? The Lord gives life. How do you respond? It’s up to you.

A gift is only a gift if you accept it as a gift. You have to stretch out your hands to take what is on offer. You have to respond. You have to act. Refusing to accept, refusing to act, amounts to rejecting what’s on offer. We throw the gift back in the donor’s face. We exclude ourselves from the generosity. Jesus talks about people being excluded from the Kingdom. The Lord does not exclude us, but by our standoffishness and refusal to dance to his invitation, we exclude ourselves.

I’ve been here three months now. A quarter of a year. I’m wondering how best we can thrive in the next decade or two. How best can we serve the town? Let us imagine that Our Lord comes here. What does he find?

  • He finds that a church built in his honour is locked most of the time.
  • If he comes at a time when the building happens to be open might see people who in world terms are reasonably well off. He might wonder how they serve the people of the town who are less well off.
  • He might notice that people seem to communicate with smiles that often hide inner sadnesses that they feel unable to speak of.
  • He might wonder how we tell each other of our deepest darkest fears, to allow the transformation of ‘the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory’.
  • He might notice that the building is a temple to the past.
  • If he comes to a PCC meeting, he would hear that much of the energy and interest is with money, and with keeping the building looking as it did in the past.
  • He might wonder why all decisions are made by older people for a future that few of them will see.

Let us imagine that Our Lord now looks around Burton.

  • He might see a lot of people sitting alone watching a flickering box in the corner of the room.
  • He might see people at night around the church injecting fluid into their veins.
  • He might see men and women hitting each other.
  • He might see children being hit, and still going to school the next day.
  • He might see young people’s bodies being exploited for the sexual gratification of those who should know better.
  • He might see people knocking on Vicarage doors for food and drink, and sleeping outside in boxes.

Our Lord might look at all this, and look at us here in this building, and think, ‘ah, they come for spiritual refreshment so that they can go out into the world and be my ears, my eyes, my hands, my feet, and my mouth, to heal the sick, to free the captives, to tend the poor, to bind the lame, and to restore creation.’

Or would he? Would he hear moaning and criticism and Chinese whispers? Would he think that we come here simply to keep us happy in the prisons that we have made for ourselves, ‘inclosed in our own fat’? Would he perhaps think that our coming to this church for an hour or so once a week was a hobby like going to the gym, the golf club or the sewing circle?

We have some serious thinking to do about the future. At this time of year we know well enough that the harvest is plentiful only if the ground has been disturbed and seeds have been planted. Leaving things as they are means that soil becomes more and more stale, with the inevitability of death.

I would like to set up a Survive and Thrive group to get going with planning. Not a group that talks, drinks tea, and complains about the Vicar, but a group that gives serious consideration to what this church and church community must do, and how to do it. If you wish to serve on this group, write your name on the sheet at the back of church. I hope that someone might offer to convene this group—it needs to be run by someone other than me.

Vicars come and go, and initiatives and planning for the future have to come from you rather than be imposed by me. I’m embarking on trips to other town churches nearby to see how they do things. Stoke, Wolverhampton and Birmingham are fixed, and Tamworth and Derby are possibilities. If any of you would like to come along, please see me afterwards.

We have been given all these ‘talents’. What shall we do with them? The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom

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Living on borrowed food

importship_406Harvest Sermon 2014 by Mr Rod Prince

Can you remember where you were on 22 November 1963? Or 11 September 2001?

Where were you on 7 August 2014? It was not a notable day in most people’s diaries. It probably went unremarked. Nevertheless, it was an important date for the UK. If the UK relied solely on the food it grew, then supplies ran out on that day. The National Farmers Union have stated that despite our farmers being better placed to produce more food than at any time in the past our ability to feed ourselves has dropped 2% every year since 1991 to just 60%.

National problems and their solutions begin with individuals. Not only can we consume more locally grown food but we can also cut back on the food we waste in staggering quantities. Here are some figures: About 50% of the total amount of food thrown away in the UK comes from our homes. We throw away about 7 million tonnes of food and drink and more than half of that we could have consumed. Wasting food costs the average household £470 a year rising to £700 for a family with children.

If we stopped wasting food the benefit for the planet would be equal to taking one car in four off the road. The foods we waste the most are fresh veg (not if you grow it!) salad, drink, fresh fruit and bakery products. We throw away more food than packaging in the UK every year.

Before you become too depressed, the good news is that between 2007 and 2012 avoidable food waste reduced by 21%. Is there a link with the economic downturn?

To keep us going from 7 August until the end of the year we bring our food, out of season, from across the globe. Two years ago I played a game with some children at a harvest festival service. I told them that I had planned a valentine’s dinner for my wife. Being a child of the 70s it was prawn cocktail, roast lamb and an exotic tropical fruit salad washed down with a bottle of Australian wine. The prawns came from Bangladesh, the lamb from New Zealand and the exotic fruit salad from all over the globe. We went through the menu and they guessed where it came from and the distance from the country of origin to the UK. To reach my dinner table the food in the meal had travelled a total of 50,000 miles or twice round the circumference of the earth.

In “A picture of Dorian Gray” can be found the following quote “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Supermarkets bombard us with adverts and bogofs. Turn on the TV and it won’t take you long before you know the price of the bargains in store for the week. We know the price of everything from bread to strawberries but do we know the value of food?

This year our village Parish Council opened an allotment for the village. It is easy to see them as just another amenity, a place where people can indulge in a hobby, but the allotment movement throughout the country plays an important role in raising awareness of the value of locally grown food. As with so many activities in life it is not until you have undertaken it for yourself that you appreciate its value. If I offered the people on the new allotments twice the amount of produce in return for their home-grown produce I’m not sure that many would accept. When you invest something of yourself, your time, your care, your backache into growing some of your own food you begin to look at the food you buy in a different way. You begin to value not only the produce itself but the labour of those who produced it.

Harvest reminds us of the value of creation, its beauty, its fragility, its bounty and of our total dependence on it for our wellbeing. Harvest reminds us of the value of food; its importance in providing, not only essential nutrition but for promoting healthy relationships within families and communities. Harvest reminds us of the value of those who produce food for us no matter where they are in the world; of our dependence on them for our basic needs and their dependence on us for a just reward for their labour. Fair Trade is not about food it is about ensuring a right relationship with our brothers and sisters around the world. Harvest reminds us of our dependence on the grace of a loving, bounteous God who has provided enough resources for all; a God who creates, sustains and cares; who brings us into life and is there for us in the life beyond life.

Christians are called to live a life that rejects that assertion from Oscar Wilde. We are called, not to know the price of anything but rather to acknowledge the value of everything and everyone.

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Let earth and heaven combine

MichaelA Homily for St Michael and All Angels 2014 by Fr Phillip Jefferies

Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it! Genesis 28: 10-17. Revelation 12: 7-12. John 1: 47-51.

The Old Testament is often not a nice place to be. And Jacob, the younger twin son of patriarch Isaac, and Rebekah his scheming mother, are hardly nice people. Isaac, father of Esau and Jacob, could have been in the original Specsavers advert … the myopic shepherd who can’t distinguish between the sheep and his sheepdog and shears the lot. Isaac should have gone to Specsavers: with the connivance of Jacob’s mother he blesses Jacob instead of the older twin Esau, so Jacob gets Esau’s inheritance.

Jacob is not in a good place. Physically, he’s alone in a barren wilderness with only a stone for a pillow. Morally his position is woeful. However, Jacob has this glorious dream: a ladder reaching up from the cold and isolated place, where he is, up to glory of heaven. And on that ladder is a two-way traffic: angels going up, and angels coming down—and that is important to note. The ladder isn’t a way of escape, but provides, rather, an enrichment of the place where Jacob finds himself—enrichment with the angels of God, no less.

What angels do is announce the presence of God. Greek angelos = a messenger. You might think that they would get a pretty good press; there is, after all, that beautifully poetic description of Gabriel in the carol (The angel Gabriel from heaven came, his wings of drifted snow, his eyes of flame). Simon Barnes, in his The Bad Bird Watchers’ Guide begins with the robin, and describes its natural habitat: Christmas cards. We might give the same natural habitat for angels … or look in the north nave of S Paul’s, over there, at the glorious Archangel Michael, his wings spread wide, his lance striking home. He shall defend thee under his wings and thou shalt be safe under his feathers: his faithfulness and truth shall be thy shield and buckler! What could be more welcome, what could be more attractive?

But not so fast. What angels consistently generate in those to whom they go, however, is not safety—far from it: it is fear.

Mary, above all, is greatly perturbed by Gabriel’s annunciation. The archangel had to encourage her not to be afraid, as did the leader of the angelic choir that appeared to the shepherds watching their flocks by night. At the other end of the gospels, the various visitors to the empty tomb are thrown into turmoil and fear by the presence of these emissaries of God, these ambassadors of heaven; just as Jacob was in the Genesis story.


Jacob is between a rock and a hard place. Not just physicallycold, alone, with rocks for his head and his feetbut personally, for he has yet to face his elder brother whom he cheated, and suffer the consequences of his actions. Jacob has to face the truth. The ladder between heaven and earth is not an escape route from his situation, but it provides a sign that heaven will come down to him, and the truth will somehow set him free.

This hard-headed and down-to-earth understanding of the meaning of angelic presence belongs to a non-tacky celebration of our faith. God knows, there’s enough of the other: the sickly sweet escapist religion within easy reach, encouraging us to climb up, up and away from the rock and the hard place into the fluffy clouds of never-never land. But, this is not the land of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree; and, as the reading from the Book of the Revelation reminded us, there is war in heaven anyway, just as there is in all of us.

What we have to do is grow up in our faith and into confrontation with the truth, just like Jacob, and see that his ladder has its feet set firmly on the earth, not for escape, but so that angels can descend. We find our salvation where we are: the glory of heaven comes to earth – as it always has and as it always will.

Let earth and heaven combine, Angels and men agree, To praise in songs divine The incarnate Deity, Our God contracted to a span, Incomprehensibly made Man. (Charles Wesley)

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