Saturday, 3 November 2007

Tipping the Scales

I'm sure I'm not the only person that has done a Google search on their name! It's a bit of a vain thing to do, really, and there was a time when all that the results threw up were the escapades of my namesakes! (I even remember once reading the obituary of someone called Dean Atkins somewhere in the States!) It can be quite a sobering experience when all you find is nothing or your name on a database or some passing reference! But really it's just a little exercise in an idle moment to see where you turn up and in what way! It's not Google specific, of course. You can choose whatever search engine takes your fancy be it Yahoo or Ask or Lycos get the idea! Yes, it's vain. Very vain, indeed. But perhaps it's a natural gesture in a world where we try to be significant or stand out or stand up to be counted. And so when I type my name into that white bar on the screen I try to convince myself that this is just research or a little entertainment or a bit of self deprecating humour when all that is on the TV is Light Entertainment and Talent Shows that titillate. But really it's all rather vain. Yes, very vain. What little people we are!

Talking of little people brings me to the Gospel Reading for tomorrow (as I mull on my sermon) - that Sunday School Epic of Zacchaeus, the small man, being called down from the tree to take Jesus home for tea! The story has been the material for many a drama or children's song or simple lined drawings to colour with felt tip pens that didn't work and crayons that cracked, kept in a rusty tin in a cupboard that smelled of damp and biscuits (or is that just me?!) Yes, Zacchaeus was a small man, a short man, a man who couldn't see a thing when it mattered and who got swallowed up by the crowd and so climbed high to see what all the fuss was about. And in return he gets the honour of entertaining the one who has entertained the crowd. Suddenly this small man becomes significant.

I'm a bit worried about this trying to be significant but it doesn't stop us from trying. When we look at family photographs or party pics our attention diverts to our own face (or am I the only one?) We may be dissatisfied (or claim to be) with the way we look but really we are dazzled by ourselves, by our own significance or lack of it, whether it's catching our reflection in the shop window or being caught on camera. We are torn between loving and loathing ourselves when all that we need is something in between. Zacchaeus was just a member of the audience, trying to see what everyone else saw, trying to glimpse what everyone else had already grasped, an anonymous admirer or a curious member of the crowd. I love the phrase in the gospel when we read, 'But Zacchaeus stood his ground.' He didn't really care what people said about him or thought about him or (perhaps more pertinent in this day and age) wrote about him. It was his response to Jesus that mattered. We are little people, aren't we? Most of us are not and will never be well known or, well, famous (thank God!) but our significance lies in those words of the book of Wisdom: 'In your sight, Lord, the whole world is like a grain of dust that tips the scales.' (11:22). And if the whole world is just a grain of dust what does that make us? But in his sight and in his way we carry such weight and worth that we tip the scales but only when we are caught in wonder, when all we wish to see is Jesus passing by! And then, the scales will tip, as Jesus gazes up at us (yes, up at us! Isn't that amazing?!) and calls us down to where he is so that he may truly lift us up or, rather, be glorified in us and us in him.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

On your own Doorstep!

Over the last few weeks Sunday afternoons have become a time to do something different! Years ago they were, for me at least, a time for sleeping as I slipped into that soporific Sunday sensation - but recently two of my friends and I have slipped into the challenge of visiting places that at least one of us haven't been before! This afternoon was a late start and we found ourselves down the road at the Cardiff Barrage, watching the water rising, the gates opening and the bridges lifted open for yachts and boats to squeeze back into the Bay. Last week we were at Caerleon clambering around the Roman Ruins. The week before that we were at the museum at St Fagan's. You get the picture that all of these places are really quite local. Sometimes when things are so close we make less effort to experience them - after all, we can do it any time! Nearness sometimes means never!

There is so much on our doorstep - on every doorstep - and we overlook them so easily, so that visitors to the place where we live can often see more of our own neighbourhood than we have ever seen ourselves. Perhaps that's the difference between a tourist and a resident. Residents take it all for granted and tourists seek things out and ooh! and ahh! at the sights and sounds.

Perhaps it's much the same with our own lives. We can take it all for granted: our gifts and glad rags, the landmarks and beauty spots of our lives, the things to see and share. The Gospel Reading at Mass this morning was the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector with a lesson in humility. Humility, of course, has nothing to do with low self esteem or a lack of self worth. It actually means acknowledging all that is good and worthwhile in our lives and attributing it to God, whilst realistically realising that the failures and fallings are very often a result of own weakness. Mmm, now I wonder where we'll end up next weekend? Who knows! We could go as far afield as two streets away or into town or back down the bay. No matter how far we go, life really is quite interesting on your own doorstep!

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

From the Other Side

Quite a different day today. Thanks to a colleague who was unavailable I was asked to take part in a debate on Halloween for the BBC Radio Wales programme All things Considered with Roy Jenkins (to be broadcast on Sunday). I'm always fascinated by the workings of Radio and TV, getting behind the scenes of something we only see from the other side. Not many people get the opportunity, so I was glad to say yes. I joined three others in the debate: a retired Roman Catholic priest called Fr Ambrose, Elin, a Christian historian (on the phone line) and Ray, an evangelical minister. I suppose I was not surprised by much of what the latter said: I knew I would often be a hundred miles away from much of his belief system. After the debate the conversation continued, until we were politely kicked out of the studio! Apparently, so he told us and so the statistics go, there are more Christians on earth at the moment than there are in heaven. Which was was a discreet way of saying that among the millions and billions of people who have followed Jesus in the past only those who followed his belief system have been 'saved' and get in through those symbolic pearly gates. I asked him if I was saved? The answer was rather vague!

Sometimes vague answers are good, especially when talking about the life of heaven. We can get caught up so much with the whats and hows and 'what's it like' and 'how do you get there 'and 'what do you mean by that' and 'why do you say what you say!' But it was fairly frustrating (though peculiarly predictable) that the answer to my question to his specific statistics on my own salvation was vague, to say the least! It was, perhaps, an avoidance of saying what he really wanted to say to me. But who knows?! I don't see things from his side of things!

The 'born again' experience necessary to the salvation of which he spoke was an event in time, a specific moment of accepting Christ as Saviour. All well and good but it said nothing about the ongoing conversion that one experiences when following Jesus, that continuous dying to self. It omitted the gentle moulding and remoulding, the mistakes and meanderings, the seeking and searching, the being found and the gentle acceptance of the person we are - as well as the person God wants us to be. It missed out the mending of broken hearts that come from a lifetime of pain and sometimes too much pleasure. And so I find myself, right now, left with a rather vague and unsatisfactory spiel on salvation, trying to get behind the scenes of something we only see from our side and, even worse, trying to plough through it in three paragraphs! So am I saved? I suspect God has a little more patience and understanding than we often give him credit. And considering my own little life that's just as well.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Flicking through Prayer

I had a little treat today. I had £50 of book tokens to spend. I tried to spend them the other day but after half an hour of wandering aimlessly around Waterstones I left empty handed (apart from my two £25 tokens!) I guess I just wasn't in the mood for picking or choosing. Today, though, I was more amiable in my amblings and, clutching my bag, I wound my way from Waterstones to pick my way through the first of the books (finding myself, as I did, in O' Neil's for a quick Guinness and the first chapter). Reading, for me, is quite a sporadic occupation. I can read book after book after book, even at times finding myself having more than one book on the go, and other times I can go for weeks or months without turning a page. I have learned to be content with this: it's just the way I am!

It strikes me, too, that the way I read is often the way I pray. There can be times when prayer is like a page turner, an eager flick through the leaves that lie waiting to be devoured, craving the moments sneaked through the day when I can delve into those dark, deep, lovely moments of being alone with God. And other times it is laboured and languid, accompanied by little enthusiasm or devotion and sometimes missed altogether. I have learned to be content with this: it's just the way I am! Prayer is something that's so often spoken about and written about (I'm doing it now!) and read with eager longing, like looking through a cookery book, your juices flowing and craving the delights that lie within and which could so easily be brought to life with a little work and a few ingredients. The French priest Michel Quoist once wrote a prayer that contained the words 'so that all of life becomes prayer.' Yes, we do need those times aside, I know, those ordered, organised, ordinary times of flicking through the pages or delving into something deeper but it's only in order that the whole of life becomes prayer. Prayer is an attitude of life, a spiritual awareness and an openness to God that pervades and embraces the whole of our being. Not that the ideal of the latter should become an excuse for not going aside and getting down to the 'act of prayer,' of course. But there are many ways of prayer and many ways of praying, and the reason many of us find it so difficult is because we haven't recognised or acknowledged that what we are already doing is prayer in some kind of way.

So, back to me in the pub with a Guinness in my hand, flicking through the pages of my new book. It was a delicately human book and the words were beautifully spun, carefully chosen and fragile like a spider's web: the true story of a woman's heart breaking and finding her way through frustration and pain. They were only a few brief moments spent, snapped up from the busyness of the day, but there, for me at least, all of life had become prayer. And so, if I find myself intensely seeking out moments of prayer, pouring my way through words and silence, all well and good. And if I don't, then I have learned to be content with it: it's just the way I am!

Monday, 22 October 2007

It's Out Of My Hands!

The weekend is over and so is Access all Areas - an all day youth event at Rhondda Fach Sports Centre that we held on Saturday. Well, it's not quite over! I've still got the unloading of the van, the return of hired equipment and the unpacking and repacking of boxes before they become a mountainous obstacle in my hallway! In fact, over the last month, any visitors to my home have had to wind their way through an obstacle course of trunks and boxes and various other items - and at times it has been a job to even open the front door fully! I'm not the neatest or tidiest of people but being surrounded by such things does grate on you after a while and makes life that bit more difficult! The diocese has finally agreed to pay for some storage (an ongoing request for several years!) although I'm still waiting for the post to arrive in the hope that the documents I need to make this possible will be in my hands by this afternoon, and that by this afternoon the equipment will be well and truly off my hands! And that's a good thing!

Access all Areas was a good day, with lots going on - and the Sports Centre hall was a busy hive of activity. Most people seemed to enjoy themselves. It's really difficult to evaulate an event or initative that you have created and planned. Your expectations are so different from those attending. There is an image in your mind of how you want or think things should go and there is a danger of evaluating things in a despondent manner because it felt different or went different! Latterly, I have learned to be content with offering something and letting it have a life of it's own. I'm still a slight control freak but I am content, when the event is over, to be open to the possibility that the small seeds of something may grow out and elsewhere. Yes, it is important to evaluate and see where things could be improved but many things that grow and happen are just out of our hands! And that's a good thing.

It strikes me that this is the case for all of us but particulalry for priests. So much of what is done goes unnoticed and we never know the effects and fruits that grow from an encounter or something said or done. Our life can become cluttered with wondering what was the point of something or was there any worth in what we did or what we do. All good, from one point of view (including financially!) but from another, more personal and profound point of view, it's not really any of our business. So, today, I shall be content with unloading the Luton Van, returning the hired equipment, gathering up the fragments of a day's busy events, and let God do what he wants to do with whatever we have given him. And that's a good thing!

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

'In the Tender Compassion of our God...'

It's not my place, or the place of this blog, to spill too much out into cyberspace. I suppose with any kind of writing there has to be restraint and responsibility and that is certainly the case today. I try to write from things I've seen or heard or done - although, more often than not, I will have chosen a rather mundane matter in order to extricate something more, perhaps. Yesterday, of course, was the sentencing of Geraint Evans who killed Fr Paul Bennett (a friend of mine since I was young) and I wish to exercise restraint because so much is said and quoted and I would not wish to say anything without Fr Paul's family giving me any kind of permission.

As I sat in the court yesterday I was, of course, filled with many emotions and thoughts but this is not the place to share them. I had never been in a Crown Court before and so this was new territory, a new experience, tinged with the saddest of circumstances. I suppose I had expected it to be cold in atmosphere, a strange, distant place that exercised justice in a highly charged atmosphere. Perhaps I thought it would be clinical, a conveyor belt of cases to be carried on and carried out. But one of the things that struck me in the midst of the raw and disabling emotion around me was the way that justice could be delivered with such compassion, sensitivity and gentleness to the people involved in the case.

When people think about what we mean by 'God's Judgement' they think quite often of wrath and anger, a vengeful vacillation with bulging veins. And it's a mistaken one. Of course, there is anger in the hearts of people affected by acts of injustice and they do not disappear in a day, if at all. And yes, there is pain, that always leaves its mark, and people are left broken hearted - and the heart is not easily healed. But yesterday, amongst so many other things, I was struck by the Judge who was so sensitive to the feelings of the family and those he knew to be within the court. He was considerate and compassionate and I never once thought that this was a man going through the motions. Yes, there was the directness of his sentencing at the end which he delivered, of course, with deep seriousness, his words loaded with an emotion that expressed the seriousness of the crime. But I learned yesterday that the way of dealing with acts of injustice, and the way of judgement, can and should be done with tenderness. And I thank God for that.

'In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who live in darkness, under the shadow of death.' Luke 1:78-79

Monday, 15 October 2007

It's Raining Again!

I'm often tempted when starting to write my blog at this time of night to say 'It's been a long day...!' It's never because it's been a particularly long or even eventful day but just because I'm tired, I guess! Mind you, I'm always tired. I could, to coin a phrase, 'Sleep on the edge of a wet Echo!' which is a strange way of saying that I could sleep anywhere! I am often jealous of people who need little sleep or those people who are up bright and early, bright and sprightly to, as they are so intent on saying, 'Catch the best part of the day!'

The best part of the day, I think, is mid morning. It's still got the bright freshness of the morning without the languid feel of the afternoon when bodies and minds stumble into a tired, tiresome lull. I think that the Spanish have it right with their siesta. You can't beat a sleep in the afternoon! Mind you, we don't have the high sun as an excuse. Damn the weather! Which is what Michael Fish must have said several times through the last twenty years as we remember the anniversary of the great storm of 1987. He made a welcome guest appearance tonight as he returned to the BBC's Six O' Clock news to give the weather report. What am I doing?! It must have been a long day! I must have very little to talk about or report - I've ended up talking about the weather!

In fact there has been quite a lot that's happened today. The problem is that most of the stuff that we do becomes so routined or run of the mill that we can fail to see the miracle in the midst of the mundane. I have a friend who loves the weather. He is easily humoured by hurricanes and fascinated by fine rain! He would make a good meteorologist and knows far more about the weather than I would care to learn! But even something like getting on the inside of the weather reveals so many natural phenomena that usually pass us by and is then taken for granted. In fact it becomes, for us, something to complain about, an object of dissatisfaction. It's too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet! We're never pleased. What miserable people we are! I think we need a change! Oh, look. It's raining outside. Fine drizzle. The worse kind. So wet and damp and dark. How lovely!

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Church of the Past and the Future

I squeezed into the side aisle of the newly opened Church of St Teilo at the Museum of Welsh Life, the walls subtly lit and alive with delicate colours of lined paintings and the beautifully crafted rood screen with intricate carvings and bright reds and greens and golds. The church had been handed over by the Church in Wales to the Museum to be rebuilt stone by stone and renovated as it would have looked in the early fifteenth century. Despite the several altars there was little clutter, unlike many of our old churches that have been 'Victorianised' or gathered up the left overs of previous parishioners! There were no chairs - apart from those ordered by the people who needed them. I was pleased and privileged to be present at the opening of the church and there was a medley of bishops there including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of Wales and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff, as well as a few other dignitaries who took a more prominent position, unlike me squeezed against the wall! It's been a long (20 year) journey since the parishioners of Pontardulais handed their church over to the museum - but it was worth it!

In the morning I had been at The Feel Good Factory! No it's not an exclusive gym or a Family Centre with bouncy castle and ball pit but a church in the Cynon Valley converted into a community facility. The church community there handed the building over to a local Community Project. They still have their Sunday and weekday Masses there, except now they celebrate it in a clean, uncluttered, well lit building - a far cry from a few years before when it was dark, damp and in a bad state of repair. I was so pleased for them! It's been a long journey since the parishioners handed their church building over to the Community - but it was worth it!

So today has been a journey through the past and the future. Yet the church of St Teilo's at the Museum can teach us so much about our present and who we are, as the Archbishop of Canterbury reminded us in his speech. The stories of both places are intertwined, part of the rich tapestry of tradition and faith that makes us who we are. Meanwhile, I finished the day off in the pub for a (very) late lunch. It's been a full and varied day - and all worth it!

Friday, 12 October 2007

At Home with God

Well! What a disappointment! I've just heard that X Factor have been pulling a fast one! The stage in the series when the Judges take the finalists back to their homes for them to be mentored and further selected are not in fact their own houses at all! They're just rented! Apparently, though, this happens a lot. When you see celebrities reclining on their marble mantelpiece or walking in their garden in Hello or OK or any other celebrity magazine you wish to mention it's not necessarily the place where they live. A spokeswoman for X Factor said: "The contestants are invited to a house. We call them the judges' houses, not the judges' homes. Sharon had only just moved in to her new home and hadn't even unpacked so we couldn't have filmed it there. We have never said they are the judges' real homes and it has been this way for the past four years." Perhaps it takes the shine off it. After all, we are inquisitive creatures who like to peep beyond the net curtains and see how the other half live! That's how the paparazzi earn their wage and editors sell their newspapers - because it feeds the enquiring, inquisitive, invasive mind of most of us!

In the house of which I spoke yesterday - you know, the replica of Mary's house at Walsingham - we don't see the real thing - and nobody says it is! There is, of course, the holy house of Loretto - said to be the actual house of Mary transported by angels (stopping off at Germany along the way!) but Walsingham is a replica from Richeldis, the Lady of the Manor who had the vision to build a house and make a home. Perhaps the whole thing feeds our enquiring, inquisitive and invasive minds - not even Mary can get a rest from it! But, of course, there's more to it than that! There must be!

Beyond the net curtains (or voile or venetian blinds!) of our house is the place where we can be ourselves. Of course, there are many homes when people are not free to be themselves and where they live with fear or intimidation but there will be some small place somewhere where we will know who we are and, hopefully, be free to be ourselves. By visiting a place like Walsingham (or Loretto - though I have never been there!) you enter an intimacy, a small space where you can experience the domesticity of God, that down to earthness, where God invites us to be at home and get our feet under the table! There is always a thrill in visiting the homes of heroes and has beens, those people who have made their mark in the world and left their mark on us - be it writers, musicians, figures of faith or huge historical figures. Somehow you are in touch with them or feel closer to them or sense a small seed of something that gives a new perspective on their life. But in the end, we return to our familiar front door and enter the place where we live and it is there that we kick of our shoes, flick through the fascination of a thousand TV Channels or leave the washing up til the morning (or is that just me?!) It's there that faith is fostered and there that we meet God in the way we live our lives. And if we have been invited to be at home with Mary and Jesus, it's only right that we invite them to do the same!

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Water, Water, Everywhere!

Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink! Well, you can drink it but it may leave you ill! That was the case two years ago, anyway, when a recent magistrate's court case fined Dwr Cymru £60,000 after admitting supplying unfit water that left hundreds ill in North Wales. We take it all for granted, water. That is, until the next drought or health scare and then there's a panicked worry and we all realise how important it really is! I've just returned from Walsingham where I spent a few days with the Federation of Catholic Priests - one of four speakers (though the others were far more erudite than me!) It was a good time together and I enjoyed being part of a new group of priests on pilgrimage. At the heart of the Shrine is the Holy House, a replica of the house at Nazareth where Mary was greeted by the angel Gabriel and told that she had been chosen to be the mother of Jesus. The positioning of the original Holy House of Walsingham was marked by the miraculous flow of a spring of water. Don't worry, there's no contaminated water there: the water is clean and fresh and lovely.

Last year the water in the holy well become a rarity due to dry weather and droughts and people weren't allowed to draw freely from there. In another shrine, further away but closer to home, at Penrhys, the water has often dried up altogether or, even worse, been polluted by the passing vandal or idle layabout! Shrines and water seem to go together, more often than not accompanied with miraculous healings, a symbol of the overflowing Spirit who fills us and flows through our lives, a fountain of life, flowing up and within. Sometimes, though, life may feel as if it has dried up, or that our faith has failed to flow, or that our discipleship has experienced a drought. A case of water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink, maybe!

In the gospel of John, we read that 'On the last and greatest day of the festival Jesus stood and declared: 'If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture says, "Streams of living water shall flow from within him." He was speaking of the Spirit...' (John 7: 37-39). Mary's house in Nazareth didn't have water on tap, of course! But the Spirit of whom Jesus spoke is the same Spirit who overshadowed her and flowed within her, bringing to birth the things that had been promised, like water, fresh and clean and lovely. Visiting a place like Walsingham (and even Penrhys with it's more discreet divine presence, tucked behind a bus stop!) is always a good place to get drenched in the divine. As it happened, it poured down in Walsingham for most of the time. There was water everywhere! But that was nothing to do with the weather!

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Joy Riding in the Rhondda!

I've spent the afternoon with two friends driving around the valleys! It wasn't 'joy riding' although there was some joy in it! It was work in fact: delivering envelopes full of literature for the clergy of Rhondda and Merthyr, up to Glynneath and back across to Ynysybwl. Being from the Rhondda it's natural to slip into being there but this was a quick ride through, from one parsonage to the next, in case the clink of the gate or the flap of the letterbox arose an invitation from within and then we would never get through the journey - and I certainly needed to get home to pack for another journey I have to make to Walsingham tomorrow. The valleys have a life of their own: it's neither rural or urban. The mountains are a constant feature, so constant in fact that when living there you can forget they're there! And it can take some time away from the place to remember how majestic and grey and harsh and lush and beautiful and dramatic they are and can be. The valleys, of course, have seen a great change and the communities of yester-year have changed and mutated into something quite different. Some would say for the better, others for the worse but that's the same everywhere. Life goes on, communities change, places move on and people remain. As we journeyed through the Rhondda I could see the slight changes that have occurred since I was last there, even a few months ago: the beginnings of a new supermarket, the new hospital beginning to take shape in the place that once housed two large factories when I was a child. The valleys journey on!

Some people who live only a few miles from the valleys have never visited them - they think, in many ways, that it's another world! I remember once, when I lived elsewhere in Cardiff, that we had the Diocesan Conference in Aberdare on a Saturday morning and my neighbour, who was travelling with someone else, knocked my door as they were leaving. I was still in my dressing gown. 'Aren't you going?' they asked. Of course, I was! But it doesn't take an hour and three quarters to get there! Yes, some people think it is another world! We misunderstand so much and are so often misunderstood. Perhaps this is something that happens even between people who live in the same place. We make assumptions about them and don't understand them because they lead a different way of life or have different values or standards. A long time ago now, I once heard a priest from Uganda talk about the differences in culture he experienced in coming to live and work in Wales. He found it amazing that people didn't talk to each other when they were making a journey on a train or a bus . 'In Uganda,' he said 'we always talk to the people we journey with.' I must admit to keeping my head down on a journey to avoid allowing someone sit next to me or disturb my journey by engaging in conversation. Joy riding, for me, would be to be left alone!

Yet we Christians are so apt at talking about our faith as a journey, though we don't always live as if that is the case and we forget about our travelling companions. It' s much easier to avoid people! Maybe we need to talk to each other a bit more! On the road to Emmaus, Jesus engaged in conversation with the people he was walking with. In fact, he actively involved himself in what they were talking about and made it his business to shorten their journey - so much so that at the end of it they begged him to stay with them. They didn't know who he was, of course. They only discovered his presence when he disappeared from their sight. Wherever we are travelling, whatever sights we see and sounds we hear, there is always the chance to see new things, and hear new sounds and meet new people and have new experiences. It may not always make sense at the time. We may not always see the worth of it all but I'm sure at some stage and in some way we will discover something special: a new kind of 'joy riding!'

Friday, 5 October 2007

Who Knows what is to Come!

Cardiff is full of Kiwis! From the moment I picked up a coffee in the Bay this morning until the time I passed through the city centre this afternoon (to catch up on a few things) I couldn't help but bump into Kiwis! Yes, I have been working! But in between I was able to take a few minutes out! (I'm not one of these priests that say they haven't got a moment to breathe! What would be the point of that!) And as Cardiff prepares to host the Quarter Finals of the World Cup between New Zealand and France, the supporters have been trickling into the city to see...what? Who knows! The Competition has given a few surprises and who knows what is to come! There is one thing for certain: rugby has its high and lows, its high drama and melodrama, it's dramatic turns and its turn at drama. That's sport for you!

The Vatican, too, is getting into the sporty way of things! They are to sponsor a sports club affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, a Third Division Italian Football Team, AC Ancona, in order to promote sportsmanship in the game. Their aim is to cut ticket prices to encourage families, and combat racist remonstrations and abusive behaviour! Mind you, I would love to see a new signing in the guise of Uncle Joe (the Holy Father to the uninitiated!) in Midfield, a scene I can imagine fresh from Father Ted! I wonder how much the transfer fee would cost? That's sport for you!

Tomorrow we have our Diocesan October Devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham. Tomorrow we will remember and celebrate that moment when Mary said 'Yes' to God. It's such a small moment, a specific time, when she is propositioned by God and what does she do? She says 'Yes' to him! She doesn't really know what is to come. She has no idea how things will turn out. And only we, armed with retrospect can realise the highs and lows, the drama and melodrama that is to come. Yet she is able to 'Yes!' And that is the nature of vocation and discipleship. We agree to follow. We say 'Yes.' But, in reality, we have no idea what is to come or how things will turn out. There is one thing for certain: following Jesus has its high and lows, its high drama and melodrama, it's dramatic turns and its turn at drama.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Food that Makes Things Flow!

As I write, the TV is on in the background and I can hear the members of the BBC's Question Time Panel battling it out, giving their opinion, commenting on society and the issues of the day. I'm not actually listening to it and I don't even know who the panelists are or what they're talking about. I can simply hear the lull of impassioned speech, raised voices and the occasional applause as the audience offer its affirmation. There are so many solutions, so it seems, to the problems of the day, so many ways out, so many differences of opinion, so many people wanting to get it right and thinking they have the answers to any and all of the challenges that lie in the path of politicians and the public, a simple symposium to seek out answers and sway the way that things are going! I remember reading once that the definition of the word 'Symposium' was of Greek origin when men would meet together to eat, but primarily to drink, and then debate and deliberate with one another, plot and plan, or boast and battle it out with words as they reclined and ruminated over what was being said. It seems food and drink has the ability to make things flow!

This morning I was with Fr Ben at Teilo's School to celebrate a Teaching Mass, where we explored with young people the meaning of the Eucharist. The young people (Year 7 pupils, they were) were really good and got involved as much as they could, answering questions and singing the songs (new songs, too) with ease. One of the things we tried to get across to them was the meal aspect of the Eucharist, so easily forgotten. Gathered round the table of the Lord we tried to let the food and drink make things flow!

I love the image of the Beloved Disciple, in the Gospel according to John, reclining on Jesus' breast as they celebrate that Last Supper. It's such an intimate moment, and it's an intimacy that we experience ourselves when we celebrate the Eucharist, though it's so easily forgotten. The Eucharist can be celebrated in so many ways but whether it's a High Mass or a House Communion there is, and always should be, a familair holiness, when we are filled with awe but are also drawn into an intimacy with Jesus, as if we were ourselves reclining at table, enjoying his presence, leaning across him, as close as close can be. A place where there is love, such love, love that fills us and overflows the whole of our being, and where Jesus offers us his very self in bread and wine. Yes, food and drink has the ability to make things flow!

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Bile and Bad Liturgy

In a humorous typo the BBC News Web Site drew my attention to a line of religious mobile phone products launched from Monmouthshire, which included being able to download the 'Bile' for £6. I've seen similar mistakes on Service sheets where 'gin' has been substituted for 'sin' and 'bells' for 'balls!' That's what happens when you leaves things to the Spellcheck! At least it brings a laugh or a fleeting smile to the liturgy in hand! I have spent the day at a meeting of the Standing Liturgical Advisory Commission where those with eagle eyes can spot the odd typo, irregularity or grammatical error or, even worse, the unintentional theological inaccuracy!

The Commission works to an imposed timetable which means that things are not so much rushed through but I do get the impression sometimes that we don't always get the time to spend on the work that the liturgical text deserves. I'm a relative newcomer to the group and still finding my way and the group is full of gifted and experienced people. Most of the work, of course, is accomplished by individuals outside of the meetings and that was certainly the case today, again, when Catherine and Juliette tabled the results of their expertise and creativity, offering something original rather than rejigged text from somewhere else!

Of course, you can never please everyone all of the time and the trouble is that when you do try to please everyone you end up pleasing no one! But the liturgical text is only one half of the final product (that's an awful word, I know!) It's as much to do with the way the text is used and I fear that so many churches use the liturgy unimaginatively and with little sensitivity to what it's all about. I've seen it for myself, on so many occasions, and it doesn't really leave me with a smile on my face! I'm not a liturgical purist but when the liturgy of the church is celebrated in such an inadequate way it does fill me with a little bile which, by the way, you can get for a £6 download!

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

It's Nun too Easy!

Have you heard the one about the three nuns who fell out? No, me neither! But you can bet the punchline includes the word 'habit!' The word 'punchline' is also quite apt, mind, especially in the case of the convent being closed down in Italy because two of the three nuns left there found the Mother Superior so difficult. It's reported that they'd had enough and finally turned on her, scratching her face and throwing her to the ground. But the fight continues! Mother Superior has vowed to stay where she is, despite the intervention of the Archbishop and now the Vatican. So wait on the next news item as she chains herself to the convent gates or organises a 'pray in!'

The news item brings to mind a story that Cardinal Basil Hume once told in one of his books, of a young novice in a convent who was having a few difficulties. Mother Superior's answer was blunt and profound. 'Don't drag your cross, sister, carry it.' It's easy to see the funny side of the story from Santa Maria in Bari but there's a more important point, too. One of my recyclable school assemblies is to introduce (in a virtual way, of course) a number of different friends I have, each with different jobs: Sarah the teacher, Jon the homeless worker, Kate the computer programmer, Vivienne the children's doctor and Patrick the monk. The young people then have to organise them in order of who has the most difficult job. They invariably declare that the monk has the easiest 'job'! Of course, if that was the case our convents would be spilling over and our monasteries would have a queue to get in for surely, none of us in our right mind would go out of our way to make life difficult for ourselves! So why not be a monk or nun - it's easy!

But easy, of course, it is not! The story of the three nuns shows the frustrations of living together in community, the pure humanness that spills out and over into extreme behaviour and which becomes a caricature for gaps in the news. It shows, too, that none of us is perfect. St Benedict, the father of Western Monasticism, called his monasteries 'a school for the Lord's service.' In other words, we always go on learning - though I'm not sure he had in mind the playground fights and bites and the scratches succumbed in a school yard fight! Or maybe he did. Holiness is a natural thing. The easiest and the most difficult thing in the world. Which is why so many us get it wrong and so many of us make mistakes on trying to get it right. So, it's back to school for all of us, I think! Just keep your nails to yourself!

Monday, 1 October 2007

The Service of Sleep

It's been one of those days that have been quite productive. Some days I can be so engaged in busyness or preoccupation with this thing or that but at the end of the day have nothing obvious to show for it. Today, I think, I can look back and see some of the things that have been accomplished. But even then, when I start thinking about all of that, the loose ends of so many things start dangling before before my eyes. There is always so much unfinished business! There is always so much to do, and maybe a sleepless night of meandering thoughts lies ahead, with loose ends that lie close.

It's been some years now since I have regularly said Compline before going to sleep. There have been times when it has lulled me into sleep or provided a peaceful passing into the pillow. Compline is the completing hour: it puts an end and lays to rest the things that have past, the mistakes and misfortunes, the regrets and reflections. I love that prayer from Compline: 'At this evening hour your Son our Lord Jesus Christ lay in the tomb and so hallowed the grave to be a bed of hope for all who put their trust in you.' The going to sleep and laying to rest at night is an image of that final slipping into sleep and, as my former Incumbent used to say, 'Where there's death, there's hope!'

And so I think of those death bed words of St Francis who is quoted as saying, 'Let us now begin to serve the Lord, for up to now we have done nothing.' It's a rather humble and self deprecating departure (especially when you consider what he did accomplish in his life) but one that places himself totally in the hands of the Lord. It may sound as if he has some loose ends to sort out or, rather, that there is always more to do. But, for me this night it is, I think, about a giving of himself for service even when sleep finally comes. And so as I prepare to climb the stairs the service of sleep awaits! What a wonderful way to regard it, especially in a 24/7 world, where you can shop when you like and work when you want and party til the darkness passes. In fact, half way through writing this I received a phonecall from someone at 11.10pm. - a friend who called for a chat! But now that and everything else is behind me. It's been a busy day, one of those days that have been quite productive, I think, though one thing remains: so let us now begin to serve the Lord, for up to now we have done nothing. Ah yes, it's time for sleep. Goodnight.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

A Sobering Thought

Sunday is a strange day. Especially for me! Depending on what priests are sick or on holidays or what parishes have no priests at all, I can be in a number of different places to say Mass. Calls for cover have been few and far between over the last few weeks, and the few times that I have been asked I have been unable to oblige. So this morning, I was able again to concelebrate with Fr Graham at St Mary's. It was their Harvest Thanksgiving and in the centre of a small yet effective Harvest display was, as could be expected from a parish with a Real Ale loving priest, a can of Old Speckled Hen!

I'm not sure what happens to the children's harvest gifts presented at the altar at St Mary's. When I was young, they were sorted and delivered to the elderly and housebound, and I'm wondering now if that little can went anywhere or if it was just loaned for display purposes only! A few years ago Fr Graham wrote to Brains' Brewery, which is just down the road, to ask them if they would like to contribute some gifts to their Harvest display, since it was part of the local industry and production, something to be thankful for! Alas, for Fr Graham, there was no reply! Maybe, of course, they were too busy at the time sealing the deal on sponsoring the Welsh Rugby Team which, after their exit from the Rugby World Cup yesterday, is probably not the thing to mention! The coach, Gareth Jenkins, is now looking for a new job, after being given the elbow by the WRU and becoming the symbolic scapegoat for those who feel the faint lull of failure. Have a can, Gareth! The rest of us are!

Meanwhile, it got me thinking about what I would put in the centre of a Harvest Display. What symbolic gesture would I make? Not a run of the mill, we plough the fields and scatter Harvest Display but a thanksgiving for your own personal harvest. Not one of fruit or veg or tins of beans or flowers, salt and water. What if you had to make a Harvest display of your own life, or just the last year, thanking God for the fruits that have been produced? What would I have to show? It's a sobering thought!

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Beautiful Thing

I read today of the success of a first time author from Cardiff, Nia Wyn by name, who has written a book that I will buy and read. Blue Sky July is a book by a mother of a nine year old boy with cerebral palsy telling of their life together. It began as a diary of jottings that she made when she had to attend to Joe at night, and where she simply and lyrically expressed her thoughts and feelings. As I read the story on the BBC News website I was moved by some of the things she says but one thing sprang out. 'Tragedy,' she said, 'often has a way of connecting you more deeply with the world.'

We all have our fair shares of tragedy, some more severe than others, and sometimes it takes the tale of another's tragedy to put our own into perspective. But even if we don't have tragic personal circumstances, and life is great and problem free, we are still surrounded by the reality of suffering and sadness in the world, of situations that stagger or astound us or leave us feeling fed up or down hearted. Nia has shown how her 'traumatic journey' has also been full of hope and happiness, and now her personal reflections inspire others who are given a peek into her life with Joe, and hopefully help us connect more deeply with the world.

I have said, time and time again in sermons and homilies (and sorry for those who have had to listen to the same things time and time again!) that hardship and pain and tragedy can make us into two very different kinds of people. It can either make us into very bitter people: hard and sad and cynical. Or it can make us into beautiful people, compassionate and warm and loving. It comes at a price, of course. It comes with tears and pain and broken hearts but it does, as Nia puts it, connect us more deeply with the world. These kinds of experiences can leave us doubting or ready to desert a God we claim to be full of love. But somewhere, between the cracks of our lives, within the utter confusion and devastating, deranged and demoralising situations, we discover something that is beautiful and connects us more deeply with the world.

Friday, 28 September 2007

It's not so bad in the Market Place!

'Watch me stall for a minute, will ya love?'
And so, Deano Wicks bravely leaves his market stall in Albert Square to Stacey Slater, his market mate. Where's he going? Not to church, that's for certain, as a recent UKTV Food study has shown, which claims that up to 78% more people visited the 27 Sunday markets in Wales and England (which included Celyn in Flintshire and Riverside in Cardiff) than church services. Then, in a lightening strike, the Church in Wales retaliates. Anna Morrel enters the Market Place and presents the real figures and says it's just not true! The Riverside market attracted only 800 visitors and Celyn just 1,200. The Church in Wales’ own figures show a far more dramatic difference, with nearly 12,500 people going to church in the diocese of Llandaff and nearly 8,000 in the diocese of St Asaph, where Celyn market is situated. It looks like things aren't so bad after all!

Centuries ago, (Medieval times, I mean) many markets were held in the church yard and sometimes even in the church itself, a vibrant kaleidoscope of sound and colour. These days, much the same is happening. Churches are looking for ways in which the buildings they maintain can be opened up and used by the public in different creative and caring ways, to become a market place in a new way. In my former parish of Cwmaman, for example, the present priest, Fr David Way, has succesfully developed the building into a community facility and local heritage and environmental centre, all topped with solar panels. A few miles down the road, the parish of Ynysboeth have handed the building over to a Community Partnership for their 'Feel Good Factory' whilst keeping their own designated time slot for Sunday Mass. So, the market place isn't miles away from the life of the Church. Yes, there are fewer people going to church and, yes, we are in a missionary position, but mission and the market place are happy together, and if we make the most of it we might just look after one another's stalls! It looks like things aren't so bad after all!

Meanwhile, Deano returns to his stall in cheery, dreary Albert Square. 'Cheers, Stace, you're a star! What was that you wanted, love? A pound of tomatoes? Call it a quid, yeh. And I'll throw in a couple of onions for you! What's that, love? Yeh, been to church. St Mary's. They got a proper 'caf' down there and a gym downstairs and a community credit association and once a week they got a drop in centre and there's even a woman who can give you an Indian Head Massage!'
'Church sold out, has it?' askes Stacey, sharp and surly.
'Sold out? Nah, they're just making the most of the market place.'
It looks like things aren't so bad after all!

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Past Times and Pastimes

Imagine the scene. Jesus has just risen from prayer. He has spent all night in prayer in fact. He is tired but refreshed and he has some important things to do! So he sets about the task immediately. He needs to choose a few people as his disciples and not just any old disciples. Oh no! These are gonna be special disciples. Twelve in fact. In fact, twelve to be precise! These people will prove to be the foundations of the church, and play an important part in the post resurrection mission of Christ, sent out to share the gospel and oversee the growing Christian community. But before all of that they have a lot to learn and a long way to travel and the job is a tough one with great responsibilities. How does he choose? Does he have a Myers Briggs Personality Type test for them to complete or an application form with two references? Does he put them through some gruelling role play or ask them to go in front of a panel of experts who fire questions at them? Does he ask them personal questions? Does he ask them about their pastimes and their past times or their family life? Does he need to know their inside leg measurement or put them through a medical? Has he got concerns? Does he ask them if they're gay? How do you choose an Apostle?

The plea by some areas of the Anglican Communion have insisted that the Episcopal Church of the USA do not ordain any bishops who are gay. How will they know unless they are seen mincing down the aisle or wearing crops tops and dancing to Kylie Minogue? In other words, unless they fulfil all the stereotypes. In all this fuss about the consecration of Gene Robinson - has it occured to them that in their past times they may have had a few bishops who happen to have been gay. And not just those single men (and now women) who are gay and whom others have assumed to be celibate. What about the married ones? You know, those married men and women who are either gay or bisexual and are neither 'out and about' nor 'out and put it about.' And do they think that there will be no others? How do you choose an Apostle?

So back to Jesus. There he is, staring across the horizon, looking for men to join his band of pilgrims, men worthy enough to take the gospel message out and about. He sees a few that show potential but he stands back and pauses awhile wondering what they've got up to in their past times and wondering what their pastimes consist of. He hesitates. Maybe their a bit fruity, he thinks to himself. Or maybe, just maybe, he wasn't too bothered. And maybe, just maybe, he sees into their heart and sees them for what they are and knows what they can be. And maybe, just maybe, Jesus has a better idea on how to choose an apostle!

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Having a Piece of the Pope!

Clothes never go out of fashion, it seems, especially when you're a pope! The Diocese of Rome has been swamped with requests for relics of Pope John Paul II who have been offering small pieces of his white cassock. Things, however, got out of hand when reports suggested that pieces of the robe were available to buy. The Diocese quickly retaliated by saying that the relics have no commercial value and that it was sacrilegious to buy and sell them. "It's only a devotional object," they said. "It's useless to try to collect it or sell it on the internet because we will satisfy any request for this object." It appears that everyone wants a little piece of him!

Some people look on relics with suspicion and cynicism and often a disparaging amount of humour, poorly patronising. But Christians are human, too (a good slogan, methinks!) and with it comes the need for physical touches and reminders, something to have and to hold - whether it's a holiday souvenir or the hand me down of a loved one, long gone. And so to another Pope. In 1966 as Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI were saying their farewells on the steps of St Paul's-outside-the-Walls in Rome, the Pope slipped off his episcopal ring, which was given to him by the city of Milan when he was archbishop there, and placed it in the palm of Ramsey's hand who then slipped it on his own finger. He was visibly moved and later said, 'I felt vividly as if he was giving me a piece of himself.'

Which brings us to the giving of another in the actions of Jesus who, surrounded by his friends and familiar followers, gives himself in bread and wine. Yet even this act of self giving is denied its proper place in the life of some churches, who look upon the regular celebrations of the Eucharist by some with disparaging humour, poorly patronising. In the Eucharist Jesus gives us not just a piece of himself but the whole of himself, perhaps summed up so well in the words of Henri Nouwen who described the Eucharist as ‘the most divine and human gesture imaginable.’ Some things never go out of fashion: including the desire for more than we can imagine, a desire for the divine. Oh, yes, and those simple physical touches for us 'so human' beings.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Agatha's having nun of this!

Well, it's more nuns from me, today! Perhaps my ramblings in the last post were prosaically prophetic as I read today the news story of a Planning Application made to Tenby Town Council from someone who is opening a hotel converted from a convent. In addition to the change of use of the building he wants to erect a large sign of a topless nun outside. Well, she's not totally topless, just menacingly lifting her bodice to show a bit of flesh. Is it a joke? A little wickedness? A harmless piece of fun or irony? Who knows what is going through the mind of the applicant - but councillors aren't happy!

When I first read the story my mind went straight to St Agatha, a 3rd century saint from Sicily who was cruelly tortured and killed under the persecution of Decius. Part of her torturous ending included being sent to a brothel and then having her breasts removed, and in Christian iconography she is often shown holding a tray on which stands her breasts. A far cry from the post modern, post Christian iconography of a Pembroke business man!

But then clergy, religious, the church, Christians are all, for one reason or another, great targets for humour and why not? We're only human and are good material for caricature and satire and if we can't laugh at ourselves then we need to do some soul searching. Meanwhile, a topless nun outside a former convent? What can I say?! As Agatha was being maimed she is reputed to have said to her torturer, 'Cruel tyrant, do you not blush to torture this part of my body, you that sucked the breasts of a woman yourself?' Let's leave her have the last word, eh?

Monday, 24 September 2007

Space, Sea and Strange Nuns!

It's been an interesting week or two. Last night we held a Eucharist for young people at St Paul's Grangetown in Cardiff, using the BBC series Doctor Who to explore the figure of Christ. It was amazing the amount of interest and comment it created in the week before - some favourable, others critical, some curious, others comical! We were mentioned in various blogs and news forum, news sites and newspapers, not to mention radio and television and Fr Ben (the parish priest) even had an invitation to appear on the The Alan Titchmarsh Show (which didn't materialise in the end!). Actually, we were doing nothing new: just using popular culture to share the gospel and communicate with people in a language they understand. Nothing radical about that! There were 109 people there (quite a precise figure, I know!) of all different ages and I think it went well - but who am I to say?

This morning I was at the Bishop of Llandaff High School for an Assembly with year 10 pupils. Fr Ben was also taking an assembly in another part of the school and we were accompanied by Sister Jane Louise from Walsingham who has been spending a week in Grangetown as part of their parish mission. I love watching people's reaction to seeing a 'real' nun! A mixture of bemusement, surprise and curiosity as if some strange alien has landed in their midst. To a lesser degree, clergy get a similar response with stares and double takes. Mind you, is it really the collar the does that? This afternoon though, I slipped my collar out: I was delivering a PSE lesson in Radyr Comprehensive School on behalf of Bulliesout, an anti bullying charity, so I removed my collar so as not to confuse the young people! Or was it not to confuse me? Maybe a bit of both. I'm confused now!

On Saturday, at last, I visited the island of Flat Holm, sitting five miles off the coast of Cardiff. It's situated in the Parish of Cardiff where I live and Fr Graham (the parish priest) tries to get across to say Mass once a year with parishioners, though he hasn't been for several years: the crossings are often cancelled due to the weather and high winds. It was a great experience: we had an outdoor Mass to celebrate St Cadoc who often visited and stayed on the island in the sixth century. It was a still, warm day with no wind across the island and it was hard to imagine that the sea had swallowed a contemporary of Cadoc, St Baruc as he was returning from the island back to the monastery at Llancarfan. Mind, you I suppose he was sailing in a coracle not a boat carrying forty other passengers armed with packed lunches and cameras. His body was washed up at Barry Island: hence the place name, and when I was curate in the parish of Merthy Dyfan in Barry I could see across the channel from my flat to the island and had always wanted to visit but was one of the many little things I hadn't got round to.