Wednesday, May 30, 2012

beyond words

This picture was taken just a few short years ago at my cousin Howard's wedding to his lovely wife Ruth.

On the left is my Uncle Michael, then my Aunty Joyce, Aunty Judith and finally on the right my Dad. Four siblings together. I took the picture.

Joyce was the first to go. Michael died two years ago now. Today my Dad called me to say Judith has passed away.

Life is sweet and fragile and glorious and precious. We have this gift and share it with one another, and bless and damage each other in roughly equal measure, hoping the blessings win out in the end. So often we fail to tell those close to us that the blessings triumph, and that we are grateful. So often, they know, and are more blessed by us than we realise. They forgot to say so too.

That my cousin Howard, whose Dad died the best part of twenty years ago, has now lost his mother, and that my Dad now has no brother or sisters leaves me beyond words. I've spoken to both and can't remember a thing we said. I hope they know how much I love them both.

I'm the one with the public faith around our family. That doesn't give me answers. It gives me someone to wipe my tears, listen to my sorrow, and show me that hope has not gone though those we love are here no more. I believe in a God who loves people. Loves me, loves my family on days like these, and sits with us as we don't know what to say or do. Hope traces rainbows through the rain, because when we hold his hand, we somehow understand we hold the hand that also carries those who have gone before to a life that we cannot imagine. We simply cannot imagine.

But we can hope, even if the hope remains, for now, beyond words.

Monday, May 28, 2012


I had an op on my back in February.

Last week, the lump I had removed re-appeared, re-covering the same area that was so viciously cut and torn out four months ago. The healing took weeks. The unhealing, hours.

To be fair I was told the problem might recur. It has a name. I looked it up just now & recoiled. The stories I read were worse than mine. I had the lump maybe two and a half years before the op. Others talk of much longer. And of several ops. And several recovery periods. There's a one in four thousand chance you have this too. Last week, thanks to this problem, I discovered pain the like of which I have never known.

I almost headed to A&E (the ER for US readers) for a quick resolution; the medical centre opted for horse drugs instead. Feeling groovy & in pain was, in retrospect, the better call. The pain is subsiding.

And through it all, I work. I had three days off, but worked from home as best as I could for most of those days. I had reports to do; or, rather, one big one. It still needs finishing. Most of my job involves reconnecting with people, and if I can't travel, I can't do this. This is the worst kind of thing to be stuck with for this kind of work. For any kind of work. The doctor I saw said, "I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy". I tried to think of who my worst enemy might be. He followed that observation up with, "it's an awful thing to have hanging around your neck". I replied that I'd prefer to have it hanging around my neck to where it actually is.

I'm not sure that's true.

Our bodies are wonderful things. Curious, fragile, glorious, fearless. Beyond price and able to make us feel quite worthless.

"How are you?" I have been asked a hundred times today.

Better than on Friday. Not entirely myself. Recovering.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

one more once

One more once. It seems I'm either writing something controversial or marking the passing of a friend these days.

Nothing controversial here.

Byron Jones was a one-off. The kind of bloke who made me look tall. A genuine Big Band enthusiast - so much so he formed his own, and kept it running for, oh, thirty years. Give or take. He knew what he liked (Stan Kenton. Anything by Stan Kenton.) And what he didn't. (Glenn Miller. Everything by Glenn Miller.)

Though for the past few years, Malcolm Jenkins softened old Byron up, and his band played some excellent Miller arrangements... I think Byron even secretly enjoyed them. Sometimes...

He loved that band. He loved it when it would up & swing & punch you in the gut. When it would get a Basie number just right. When a soloist would find the groove - Jeff Salter, Gareth Roberts, Gethin Liddington, Emily Beck. You'd see him purr.

Like all true Big Band leaders, he never quite liked singers, which was my association with the band (I was also a failed pianist with them - one rehearsal was all I got). Though Henry, the wonderful Henry Newman, was a lifelong friend, and forgiven many things for the glories of that tone of his.

Byron would typically introduce a song with an anecdote, a witticism, a cryptic comment. And then hum a few bars that gave him the tempo. Regulars would know what was coming from those little vocalisings. Flight of the Foo Birds always has Byron's voice on it whenever I hear it; and I can hear it now.

George Wilson got me a gig with Byron. George was Byron's drummer for many years, and an unfailing support to Byron and Merle, who is much in our thoughts today. There are very many that will miss this wonderful man - and his music, his humour, his occasional obstinacy and strange ways, his very personal taste and his championing of a musical form that needs champions like this. Running a Big Band is hard work. Byron made it seem like anyone could do it. That's a master at work, that is, right there.

Now he's with the angels. Humming a few bars. Counting them in. And they're swinging...

Monday, May 14, 2012


The Church of England Evangelical Council today published an irenic, finely argued, biblically articulate monograph on the issue of same-sex marriage. Well, that's their description...

I am certainly awarding them marks for very high class self-publicity!

What the statement did was re-state a familiar position: though it does so very well, and breaks it down into five points.
1. Love is at the heart of all we do (but that doesn't mean anything goes)
2. The Church is subject to the Scripture & can't just re-write it when it's a problem
3. Marriage in the Scripture is one man, one woman, exclusive of all others, for life, with children usually attached. This is God-ordained so the state can't alter it.
4. True faith leads a holy life - sex in a marriage context, abstinence otherwise, no exceptions, repentance possible.
5. The Church is the place where God's people live by God's word; if people change the rules on marriage, they break his word & this is a reason to see them as beyond fellowship.

Full text here.

In the introduction, and in the many commendations from many good people, there is much said about how this is a very full & helpful statement about the traditional, Anglican, evangelical position on marriage. Irenic. Finely argued. Biblically articulate. There is room made to include gay and lesbian people in conversation.

But I have a question.

(Just one?)

No really, just one. It goes to methodology.

Now - before I get there, I need to make a disclaimer. Because I know many people who read this blog, and I can only imagine many of the rest of you, and I don't want anyone to think I am (in what follows) being pastorally insensitive. Please - what comes next is an exercise in rhetorical logic. I am doing this to demonstrate a fundamental - fundamental - flaw in the CEEC's document which is nowhere addressed in their document today. I made this point in a video recently. I make it again now.

In ethics, everyone wears blinkers. There is no level ground. The only level ground there can be is to understand that there is no level ground. We all have life experience and that life experience shapes how we handle Scripture. There is within humanity a normal predisposition to be more understanding to "people like me" than to "others". Seeing this sometimes helps us remember grace. Grace is good.

So my question, my one question, to the authors of the CEEC document on marriage & same sex marriage on St Matthias Day is -

What about divorce?

You see, if I apply to divorce everything that is applied in this document to the issue of same-sex marriage, then this is what I find.

"I hate divorce" Malachi 2.16. Men weep because God does not accept their offerings; why does he not accept them? Because they have divorced the women God joined them to. They have been faithless. So he has rejected them.

"Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery". Matt 5.32 Jesus speaking. Couldn't be clearer. Only one exception, and it doesn't include rape or abuse or neglect. It certainly rules out anyone marrying anyone who has ever been divorced. Once married, always married (unless the partner dies, obviously).

In Matthew 19 Jesus goes further. He rams home the point, using the Genesis language about being "one flesh", adding his own take about "what God has joined together let man not separate," and then in 19.10 the disciples are so wowed by this they say perhaps it's better never to have married. Jesus' reply?

Be married & have all that comes with it, or be a eunuch. Be single & celibate. And he's not giving a friendship consolation for gay people here, as I've heard put forwards, this is what's on offer if you have been divorced. This is the only offer that exists if you have been divorced.

So I presume that all the people that signed up to the CEEC document, because they want to see the letter of the law administered, without context or explanation admitted on homosexuality, want the same on all issues surrounding marriage. I presume that you allow no discussion on divorce, but hold to the traditional and plain understanding of Scripture on Divorce, and not a softened approach as society has forced on us over the last 40 years, as is pointed out has happened over same-sex issues.

Fulcrum. St Mellitus. New Wine. The Bishops there. St John's Nottingham.

Is this right?

Love is at the heart of what we do - but it doesn't mean anything goes. We can't just re-write Scripture when it's inconvenient. Marriage in the Scripture is one man, one woman for life. For life. True faith leads a holy life - sex in a marriage context, but abstinence outside that. We'll look for ways of promoting friendship to help, won't we? The Church is the place where we live around God's word; if people won't do this, we will break from them. Over divorce, obviously, and all those so-called churches that allow people to re-marry just to satisfy carnal urges when the Scripture places such a clear and better path before them, really aren't places we want anything to do with.


Just in case I have made my point...

Perhaps we bring grace back into the room. Perhaps we allow that when we understand a person, we allow them to live. And we don't break fellowship because the church is not about breaking fellowship but following Christ in all our fallenness with his hand helping us. Raising us. We are endlessly obsessed with the specks in one another's eyes; but love actually means appreciating there are the odd logs in our own. And grace allows our speck-laden friend to help us take out the log so we may be blessed by them and then we may actually bless them in return, and not simply curse each other across fences and walls and barriers and pain.

The Scripture does say all these things on divorce, but it also speaks of healing. The Scripture does speak about certain homosexual acts, but it also speaks about the value of people. All people. Ethics is sometimes an imprecise sport, but when it becomes an exclusive passtime, we have made ourselves too much the focus.

The CEEC statement is clear, but incomplete. As all such statements are. I don't mean to be awkward, but I do want the church to be better than this.

the cost of freedom

Free speech costs.

The conservative religious blogger who goes under the name of Archbishop Cranmer has been charged by the Advertising Standards Agency for promoting the Campaign4Marriage.

Regular readers know how much I dislike C4M.

However - I dislike anyone who rejects freedom of speech far, far more. We are a modern democracy, and our right to be different from each other whilst respecting each other all the while was won by men and women who died in battle. Tyrants in quangos, and people who think there is a "right to not be offended" on any side of any debate need to remember this and start valuing people as people.

There is no freedom if everyone - everyone - is not free. We win no battles if in the winning we make new slaves. Progress is not won by altering who loses. Christian faith is the ultimate humanism - it raises up all people. That is why we should be at the front of every equalities fight - but not at the cost of belittling somebody else.

The National Secular Society are supporting the Cranmer Blog. Good for them. They get this point in spades. Bravo. Here is a link to the Archbishop Cranmer blog about the incident & his current stance.

I oppose C4M - I find them not Christian enough; but I support their right to advertise, & also frankly to oppose me! I hope all of us would rather be wrong than only be able to be heard because those who disagree with us have been silenced. I don't want to live in a place where there is a prohibition on ideas, even if some ideas are uncomfortable; that's not the traditions of this country. We oppose violence and hatred, not disagreement and diversity.

ASA - shame on you. If you have caused this man to spend a penny on legal advice (and it seems you have) pay him back. I'd happily take C4M adverts on my site (and those of any other cause with which I disagree) in order to help pay his legal bill, because I'm a Christian, because I'm British, because I'm a human being.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


My dear friend Ian Masson has died today, following complications that arose after brain surgery. 

He was a member at St Catherine's in Pontypridd, and more than that - parish secretary, server at the 11am, and faithful servant to many, many people in that place, quietly getting on with godliness so that everyone else could have the limelight.

He used to read this blog regularly, as well as pay remarkable attention to my sermons. I once reported a joke by a cousin of mine: "Iron Man is a film; iron woman is a command". Ian emailed back - 
I just told Sam the 'IronMan...' definition you mentioned, and she said I was dicing with death.....(!) at least, I'm not bruised - yet...
Sam was the remarkable heart & soul of his life. His faith was at the core of his being; but he was a quiet man, and seemed often almost reclusive. And then came Sam. Suddenly, Ian blossomed. He came alive, and we saw things we never knew. He brought his baking to church (and often there was extra for me of that tarte tatin or the lemon sponge); we now got to see his dry humour, and the twinkle that lived under the surface upped and dwelt in full view. It's so sad they didn't have longer together; it's so wonderful they had what time they had. It changed Ian's life.
I could write many stories. Honestly, all I want to do is say this: I am grateful that he was my friend. The photo here is from an evening when I was ill, and Ian & Sam sat with me & blessed me more than words can say by their kindness. Such is a friend. I know he knew what this surgery could mean, and I am sadder than my words can convey. But Ian was a godly man, someone for whom the Scripture in Matthew 25 was written - 'Well done, good and faithful servant".  

We pray blessings and comfort and hope upon Sam through these days; and dear Ian for you, rest in peace, and rise in glory.  


Life has its ways. 

In the days leading up to Ian's funeral the trouble which I had with my back earlier in the year, leading to an operation in February, recurred. It was enormously painful. I literally couldn't drive five minutes, never mind five hours down to South Wales. On the day of the funeral, a beautiful, sunny, warm day, my dad came over from Accrington to Leeds to get me to the medical centre for treatment.

So at two in the afternoon, when I knew everyone was gathered to say their farewells and take their leave and celebrate their love and Ian's life, I took time to join them in prayer from a distance. Someone sent a text to say how much Ian thought of me. Right back at you. 

I shall be down that way at some point and as with so many friends there through the years I shall find the spot that now marks his passing and again apologise for my absence at the funeral. And again thank him for his presence in my life.  

Liane Carroll, Leeds University, Review

Liane Carroll breezed onto stage at the Riley Smith Hall & within seconds had the entire sell-out crowd roaring approval. Her musical presence is huge, far larger than her physical size (which was the subject of much self-deprecating humour) and she dominated the evening with a glorious voice and more - a stunning musical grasp of songs old and new which worked its inevitable magic on everyone present.

We began with a gloriously joyful This Must Be Love which segued straight into Old Devil Moon ("I couldn't work out how to end the first one"). Words & improvisations melded into one without ever losing the ability to convey passion. Liane never simply dazzles in that pointlessly showy manner of TV talent shows. You can't take your eyes off her, and you never feel she has violated the core of music with which she is so endlessly creative. Tom Waits Take Me Home was transformed, plaintively beautiful, but believably a jazz standard.

By herself, a piano, a mike, a spotlight (though a couple of lads from the band doodled along in one song) Liane was superb. The first half was pretty nigh perfect.

The second half saw the Leeds University Union Dance Band join her on stage. The band played a few songs to begin; Liane had talked them up before the break - and quite right too. For a a student band this is a first rate outfit. An occasional unevenness in the saxes might have been down to splitting the tenors either side of the altos, but five trumpets is always a thrill -especially when played this well. The guy who played the wonderfully old-school solo on Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me was a joy: so many young players are all technique & no style, and this lad had genuine big band style and plenty of it. However - the glory of this band is the trombone section. Any professional big band anywhere would take this section. Creamy, mellow, punchy when needed, all four sounding richly as one - I simply can't remember hearing a sound like that for ages. Fantastic. The band is playing at the North Sea Jazz Festival this summer. Go see them, especially for the trombones.

Liane came back, and her material was unfortunately a bit patchy. It was clear that we were seeing the product of compromise - which often happens when a guest singer performs with a band like this. Some of this material was well known to her; some of it was seat of the pants. The free-flying glory of the first half was gone, but the joy of the band & her unrelenting good humour kept the evening high-octane and high-value entertainment. I think very few other entertainers could have done half so well.

Highlights? Orange Coloured Sky, Almost Like Being in Love. I would love to hear her have a go at Harry Connick's Come By Me after more rehearsal; this (of all the second half songs) was surely best suited to Liane's style, but it fell sadly flat. Shame - it's a great piece, and it wasn't quite the only moment we realised how ad-hoc the evening was.

However - don't let that detract from the show. It had rough edges, it had brilliance. The brilliance won. At the end, we demanded an encore, and then stood to cheer as the stage emptied. I'd go again tonight if they repeated the show. And probably tomorrow too. Five stars.  

Friday, May 11, 2012

searching for Barry

So what does the appointment of Barry Morgan, Archbishop of Wales, mean for the Crown Nominations Commission as it seeks to find Rowan William’s successor as Archbishop of Canterbury?

First things first: anyone on the commission can’t be elected to Canterbury. So Wales won’t have two ABCs in a row. Barry has a mixed profile in Wales – lots of people there think very highly of him, and lots don’t quite see it that way; on the whole, it’s probably a good thing he’s not in the running. He would divide English opinion more sharply than Rowan has!

Without doubt Barry is one of the more liberal primates of the Anglican Communion. He is passionately in favour of women bishops, and was fairly devastated when Wales did not vote for this measure a couple of years back. He is also very clearly pro-gay rights, though I’ve quizzed him on this at some length & it seems to me he shares a lot of liberalism’s standard double-standards on this issue – which is to say that at times liberals appear to be happy for gays in the church to exist slightly in hiding (just get on with it, people don’t need to know). I always want to say – if it’s right, why should anyone hide? People are people, or they aren’t. Make your mind up & be 100% clear on this for the sake of those who are actually around here & now - it's not just a matter of theory. Or maybe I wanted to challenge him to be more liberal than his role allows him to be!

Character wise, I'd say Barry is feisty. He does not suffer fools gladly, which is a bit rough when you work for the church of God. On the other hand, he doesn’t hold grudges. You might get both barrels fired at you, but then friendship is restored. I rather like this about him; I find it godly. There is, in my experience, little ‘side’ to his nature. I'm told he can be a consummate politician, but I’d say he prefers to be up front and if needs be to be petulant or brash – and then to pray and have a cup of tea with you. This is life; life without running sores.

There are running sores, of course. His faith is deep and true and passionate. But Barry is a theological liberal by conviction, temperament and practice. And so he really, really doesn’t get evangelicals at all. At all. To be fair, most evangelicals don’t get Barry; they hear his incendiary media remarks (“I’d happily ordain a gay bishop”) and go off the deep end, without listening to where that comes from or noticing that he spends far, far more time urging Christians to commit themselves to Christ, to prayer, to sharing their faith, to deeper discipleship and to honest worship of God. Barry & evangelicals tend to have a hate/hate relationship that in my experience was totally uncalled for.

My experience. As an evangelical working in Barry’s diocese, we had our differences. He put a rocket under me more than once. I replied in like manner to his face. That’s how it worked between us, and it did work – as I say, he never held a grudge, and nor did I. I found him to be a wonderful, godly, good man. When I was ill & needed help, he stepped in. Personally. Caringly. Financially. It pained him that he didn’t get me; we talked things through at great length, and what I genuinely believe we did have was a deep respect for each other.

So what does Barry’s appointment mean for Rowan’s successor? Well, I wouldn’t hold your breath for a George Carey clone; unreconstructed evangelicalism is hardly going to be his primary port of call.

It would be easy to imagine Barry might look for someone in his own image; like many liberals, there are times he gives off the air that if only people were more educated, we’d all understand & life would be so much better for everyone.

That’s not just a liberal problem, though, is it?

Part of me would not be at all surprised if it was his natural inclination to try to find a thoughtful, liberally minded, reasonably intellectual candidate as his ideal. Rowan-lite. But that really doesn’t do Barry justice at all. That’s the caricature.

I’ve said it already – he’s a good, godly man.

He prays. He cares. He takes things very seriously, and carries responsibility with a great sense of godly duty. His words are not just words. There is always something of the RS Thomas within him, something of the Celt that the English simply fail to comprehend. It loves the unloved and rails against the unlover. This is a deeply biblical liberalism that is critical and pastoral and able to punish itself at surprising moments. Or to be selfish. It is a very human humanity.

I do not think his appointment will be what many think it will be; as of course Rowan’s was not; for the same reasons. He’s very Welsh, you know.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


Today marks 10 years that Matt & I have walked together. I have no idea how many miles we have actually walked over that time - I can't imagine! For sure, as we've travelled, he's never been far from my side.

Like me, a Lancastrian, Matt was actually born the day after I moved to Pontypridd. I found him on a trip to Blackpool. He walked out of the house, leaving his previous owners behind, and that was the sign. Anyone who knows him knows how rarely he will go with anyone he doesn't know; but that first time we met he walked with me.

Several friends thought I'd made a strange choice - my previous dog was the life and soul of the party; Matt was scared of the party. He was pitifully nervous in those early days. He just needed to be loved.

Together we discovered every inch of the park, the forestry, the hills, the roads & the lanes. He abhorred water, but loved the beach. The openness of the sand always appealed to him; but the noise and the simple wetness of the waves kept him at a safe distance from the surf's edge. Eventually he learned to paddle. Now in old age he even enjoys puddles! 

Matt has always helped me make new friends. Sitting outside pubs in the summertime encourages people passing by to comment - "Isn't he handsome!" I am always generous in my reply: "The dog's not bad either". And thanks to Matt I have got to know several vets very well.

He loves travelling, leaping into the car to see where we will go next. He loves coming home even more, knowing that at the end of an adventure, it's just him & me again, safe in our house. Likewise, he welcomes guests with a smile & a wag, especially if he knows them well. And his smile & wag grow even stronger as they go again... He is the definition of a "one man dog", and I am the lucky one man. 

Sometimes I wish the rest of you could see what he's like when you've all gone. He only really becomes himself when it's just the two of us. And then I quite enjoy that there is something no-one else gets to see, one of life's little innocent pleasures that belongs purely to me.  
He was totally silent, I mean completely mute at first. I had to teach him to bark. These days his eyesight is pretty poor, and his hearing all but gone, but he still has a great voice. Not that he uses it often: he never did. He'll speak when he's especially happy; or when he's especially excited; or when he wants a treat, or there's chicken in the kitchen & I haven't noticed...
And he never, never wanders far from me, often finding the least bit of space in order to snuggle up to me and remind me he is here. Man's best friend. My dog, my companion. My Matty.

Ten years. I am grateful for every day of them. And Matt is old, and he has his illnesses, and how many more days there will be is known to God but not to us. So I am grateful for this day, with all my heart.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

how many times?

I tell a story sometimes, about someone I had to forgive. The forgiving took a long time, and I only realised it had happened many years later. It took me by surprise when I finally understood how deeply the forgiving had happened.

But in between times - O there was some wrestling. And since then too, if I'm honest. Many times. Does that mean it hadn't really happened? Had I just had a brief moment of calm in the midst of life's natural storms?

No. God works his truths out within us, if we let him. But life throws stuff at us. Memories surface. Events mirror events, and emotions play their tricks. And then we come face to face with what is real: that either the past lives, or it has died. Forgiveness allows death to die and life to live. That is why its rhythms beat right at the heart of Christian faith.

Luther, when facing temptation, would cry out - "I am baptised!" and in that cry would declare that he had died to sin and been raised to a new life in Christ. Just so. We, who are forgiven, have died to holding on to sin, and have been raised to bestowing forgiveness with the freedom with which we have received the same.

Forgiveness is, like all things, a choice; even when it's a no-brainer we maintain the right to act like the brainless! But Jesus places before us both the option and the strength to choose something better. He doesn't leave us alone. "Forgive," he tells the disciples gathered for fear behind locked doors in an upper room, simultaneously breathing on them the Holy Spirit lest they think he means them to try to attempt this trick without the aid of someone greater holding their hand all the while.

Choose life. Choose the hand that strengthens. Choose it again, for again we need it - over the same darned issue. And again. And again. And -

And then we think we need to forgive again, but actually, it has gone. In fact, we simply need to let go. To understand that this 'thing' is in the past. It has died. Hold a funeral, watch the coffin descend, walk away, hold a party, and let the cycle of forgiveness turn from mourning to dancing. There will be moments when you catch your breath ('How many times O Lord?') but in reality the truth has moved on. Death has died. Now we live. To use Corrie ten Boom's picture, God cast the thing we so struggled with into the sea and put up a sign saying 'No Fishing'. And so we shouldn't consider hiring a boat, just to check...

I am reminded of all this, this week. And I'm not hiring a boat, though I have been thinking about it, just to make sure.

Some things aren't perfect in this life, and sometimes temptation comes in the form of trying to tart up the broken with sticky tape and paint, when actually it simply needs to be called 'broken' and allowed to be left. No point putting lipstick on the pig; it's still a pig.

We are not in control of everything. But we know One who is. So we should act faithfully; living as obedient, gracious and as holy a life as we can, and asking for forgiveness as often as we must along the way. God will make all things new in his time and in his way. We should let go, forgive, seek & accept forgiveness, let the mistakes of the past die and the wonders of today live.

How many times?

Just enough, thanks be to God.