Tuesday 23 December 2008

Christmas Greetings

Wishing You a Very Happy Christmas
And All the Very Best for 2009

from Joc and Marty Sanders

Commissioned by the Churches Advertising Network, this Nativity scene by Royal Academy Gold medal winner, Andrew Gadd will be displayed on over 1000 bus-shelters across Britain this Christmas. It depicts the holy family, with halos, in a dark bus shelter. The shepherds and wise men are replaced with fellow passengers waiting for a bus. Some are watching the nativity intently; others appear oblivious and are checking the bus timetable and flagging down a bus.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

The Birds

I've been very remiss about blogging the garden - I shall have to make a new year resolution to do better! But I am led to correct matters now by the amazing sight from the window of my upstairs study which could be a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's movie with Tipi Hedron.

A large mixed flock of Starlings, Jackdaws and Rooks has descended on my neighbour's stubble field - there must be several hundred, even a thousand birds in total. Every now and again something disturbs them and the flock rises up to wheel in the darkening light like clouds of smoke. I wonder what it is that disturbs them - two cars have just gone past without any response. And I wonder what they have found to feed on - worms and leatherjackets no doubt.

Suzanna put up her bird-table and fat balls weeks ago now, and as always it seems as if every tit and finch in the County has come to be fed. We can lie in bed and watch them through the bedroom window, which is a lovely way to start the day. She has started a sketch of them, and bought a bird identification sheet to help her get the colours right. If it comes out well I shall scan it and put it up here.

It is interesting to note the changes in frequency in species year to year. This year Greenfinches and Chaffinches are scarcer than usual - perhaps the immigrants which swell the winter numbers have yet to arrive. We have the usual Blue Tits and Great Tits, but they are outnumbered by an inordinate flock of Coal Tits - perhaps they had a very successful breeding season despite all the rain. We occasionally see a pair of Gold Finches. But the star of the show at the moment is a single male Blackcap - I hope his mate is somewhere. Elsewhere in the garden we have the usual Wrens, Robins, Blackbirds and Thrushes, but no sign yet of the Redwings and Fieldfares.

Back in August we had another visitor, a Sparrowhawk. She hunts along the hedge regularly, but this time she managed to fly into the greenhouse and couldn't find her way out. I managed to trap her in a corner with my hand, and Susanna took this photo (sorry for the poor quality) before I released her outside, apparently unharmed. Rather exciting - I've never had a Sparrowhawk in my hand before, such a beautiful creature!

Ah, suddenly as the light goes, the Starlings and Rooks have risen up for the last time to go to their night roosts, and all is still again!

Wednesday 10 December 2008

A View from the Pew - A Christmas Carol

View from the Pew is a series of articles I am writing for Newslink, the Diocesan magazine for the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe. This one appeared in the December-January 2008-9 issue.

By the time you read this it will be the joyful Advent season, and we shall all be looking forward to the delights of Christmas - at least I hope so! I like advent, the anticipation, and I like Christmas, just as much as I did as a child. Even if the festival has become too commercial, even if I give out that it starts far too early, I wouldn’t want to be a Scrooge and say ‘Bah, humbug!’ In Advent we anticipate the extraordinary grace of God’s incarnation. Christmas is a day to rejoice in the miracle of our Saviour Jesus Christ’s birth. But I don’t think Christians should be po-faced – Christmas is not only a religious festival, but also a human celebration - a celebration of our relationships, our families and friends, and our common humanity. I intend to celebrate, God willing, by enjoying all the traditional merriness and jollity of Christmas – the carols, the mince-pies, the parties, giving and receiving presents, feasting on turkey and plum-pudding, cards and phone calls to far flung family - as well as Church on Christmas day.

But as one fortunate enough to enjoy all these things, I must also take to heart the message of Charles Dickens much loved tale A Christmas Carol. Because in Ireland, this year as in other years, many hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens are too poor to be able to enjoy them. The statistics are stark. You can find them on the web site of Combat Poverty www.cpa.ie, the state agency established in 1986 to advise the Government on poverty policy. Its functions are to be moved back into the Department of Social & Family Affairs, where I pray its voice will not be muted.

300,000 people in Ireland live in consistent poverty
Over 700,000 people live on weekly incomes less than the official poverty line - €220 for a single person, €510 for a family of four. No less than 300,000 are living in consistent poverty. Do you know what consistent poverty means? I had to do a bit of research to find out – see the side bar. The Mid-West region within our own diocese has at 10.4% the highest rate of consistent poverty in the country. 30% of those in single-parent families are in consistent poverty. Over one third of those in consistent poverty are children. What kind of Christmas are they likely to enjoy?

One thing we can be sure of is that more and more people are falling into poverty: unemployment is climbing; people unable to pay mortgages are losing their homes; fixed incomes from pensions and savings are falling; and food and energy are much dearer than a year ago. St Vincent de Paul reports that calls for help are up 40% on last year.

The causes of this shocking poverty are surely as varied as each individual family. There are places like Moyross and South Hill in Limerick, euphemistically described as disadvantaged communities and blighted by the desperate criminality of a few, where deprivation and poverty are transmitted from one generation to the next as if by a virus. But most of the poor live alongside us in our own nice communities, yet almost invisible. Underlying causes include unemployment, low pay, old age, disability, long-term illness, early school leaving without qualifications, single-parent families, addiction, and homelessness. But these abstract words conceal the real stories of the people involved, which are often quite harrowing. Here is one I heard recently from a member of St Vincent de Paul:
A teenage boy, in great distress, came looking for help. With no father, his mother is dying of cancer, and he has given up his apprenticeship to nurse her and look after the younger children. They are living on social welfare and he can hardly make ends meet. He has no money to buy little presents or Christmas treats. He desperately wants to make this Christmas special, because he knows his mother will not see another.
Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol
In A Christmas Carol Dickens deals with the themes of social injustice and poverty. The misanthropic miser Ebenezer Scrooge undergoes a profound experience of redemption, as he is visited on Christmas Eve by the three Ghosts of Christmas Past, of Christmas Present and of Christmas Future. He becomes a new man, shocking his nephew Fred by his transformation. He sends the biggest turkey in the butcher’s shop anonymously to his downtrodden clerk Bob Cratchit. He donates generously to charity. He becomes an adopted uncle to Bob’s disabled son Tiny Tim. And he gains happiness and a reputation as a kind and generous man who embodies the spirit of Christmas in his life. It is a deeply human story, but also a deeply Christian one.

Scrooge redeemed treats Bob Cratchit

Our Christian duty is surely to advocate and work for the changes required to create a more just and caring society, one more like the Kingdom of Heaven. And we can expect support from people of all faiths and none, for it is not just Christians who share this objective.

Relieving poverty - St Vincent de Paul and Protestant Aid

But those in consistent poverty cannot wait, they need help now. I feel I should be as generous as I can afford and give that help as an extra Christmas present, to either The Society of St Vincent de Paul (www.svp.ie) or Protestant Aid (protestantaid.org).

Both organisations do excellent work, giving help regardless of religious or ethnic background, after evaluating the need. St Vincent de Paul has been in Ireland for 164 years and welcomes members from the Church of Ireland. Through a network of over 9,500 volunteers and 500 staff it expended €35 million in 2006 on assistance to individuals and families and other charitable activities, such as holiday homes, housing and youth clubs. Protestant Aid is older but smaller. Started in 1836, it helped over 1,200 individuals and families in 2007, distributing over €577,000 in charitable giving. I recently talked to someone who experienced their help as a child and is eternally grateful. You can find out more about their work on the web, and donations can be made easily by credit card.

May you and yours have a very happy Christmas, and as Tiny Tim says,
God bless us, every one!

Monday 8 December 2008

Death creeps in like a thief

My daughter Lucie gave me the bad news when I phoned last night. Simon, her partner Tim’s brother, has been killed in a fall from a building in Penang in Malaysia. I never met Simon, but knowing his family, I am certain he was full of life and love. He lived in Thailand with his wife Mena, but had gone to Malaysia to renew his passport. They had no children. The whole family is in shock of course, made worse by being far away and not knowing just what happened. Delayed by the closure of the airports in Bangkok, Tim and his parents Betty and Andy fly out to Thailand tomorrow, to mourn with Mena and his friends and visit his grave. His sister Sarah, with small children, must stay at home.

I phoned and spoke to Andy last night, to offer sympathy – I hope I did not intrude on their grief. How can one find words to console a parent who has just lost a child? It is impossible. All I could do was to listen to his pain and assure him they are all in our thoughts and our hearts. I pray that they may find some consolation from their sad visit.

The old formulas that we still repeat no longer resonate. It is not possible any more to console ourselves and others by saying that we will all meet again in heaven with Jesus and be happy together ever after. How can we say today with conviction, in the words of the Apostle's creed, that we believe in ‘the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting’ ? I am certain that God, like a loving Father, keeps us safe and does not desert us, but I am driven to reinterpret the words in a modern metaphor. Our lives are surely like threads in space-time. What matters is the love we give and receive, as our individual threads touch and intertwine with others. To the God of love, outside space and time, we just are; our threads are complete and made beautiful by love. We are born, we live, and we die; but he loves us for the love that we show, and forgives our failures to love when we repent. Our resurrection and life everlasting are outside time and space.

As I write this, I am working on next Sunday’s sermon on this text, from Paul’s 1st Letter to the Thessalonians:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

It must be so hard for Simon’s family and friends to reconcile Paul’s words with his untimely death. But let us pray without ceasing that as they emerge from their grief they may rejoice in his life and give thanks for his love.

Monday 24 November 2008

We must learn to live more abundantly with less!

Two readers have been kind enough to forward me great links, on the problems of consumerism, which I want to share with the rest of you.

The first, sent by my good friend Les Bertram, is this excellent 'Thought for the Day' by Alastair McIntosh, given on Radio Scotland on 22 October. You can listen to it here. He is a Quaker, Professor of Human Ecology at the University of Strathclyde, and there is a lot of interesting stuff on his website. I am looking forward to reading his latest book "Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition", which I've ordered from Amazon.
Good Morning

This month has been a critical one in the history of our nation, one that historians will look back on as a cultural watershed.

Our faith in money has been shaken and earlier this week Gordon Brown promised a “central mission” of doing “whatever it takes” to spend a way out of the economic black hole.

At the same time and almost lost amongst the economic headlines, the UK Government took a courageous step towards tackling dangerous climate change. It now matches Scotland’s aspiration by having raised from 60 percent to 80 percent the target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.

But setting targets is the easy bit; achieving them is harder. And there’s the rub. Both the economic bubble now bursting and global warming have one driver in common: consumerism. Our conundrum is that we need more consumption to save the economy, but less to save the planet.

Spending our way out of a recession is therefore only a stop-gap measure. It’s methadone for our planetary heroin addiction.

We simply feed the habit if we think that today’s problems can be tackled at conventional political, technical or economic levels. If we’re redefining our “central mission”, we must press further.

Technical fixes are certainly part of the solution. But I’d put it to you that the deep work must be this: to learn to live more abundantly with less, to rekindle community, and to serve fundamental human need instead of worshiping at the altars of greed.

The crisis of these times is therefore spiritual. It calls for reconnecting our inner lives with the outer world - an expansion of consciousness. And that’s an opportunity that we neglect at our peril, for as I once heard an old Quaker woman say, “It is perilous, to neglect one’s spiritual life.”

The second, sent to me by my daughter Amy, is a link to a fine US website

Do take a few minutes to watch the video you will find there, about 20 min long, in which Annie Leonard explains simply and clearly the problems with our civilisation's unsustainable over consumption.

The message of both, in Alistair McIntosh's words, is that we must learn to live more abundantly with less!

Saturday 22 November 2008

A View from the Pew - Judging the Budget

View from the Pew is a series of articles I am writing for Newslink, the Diocesan magazine for the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe. This one appeared in the November 2008 issue.

The morning before
I am writing the morning before Brian Lenihan’s first budget as Minister of Finance. We all know it will be harsh, because government spokesmen have been continually telling us so for weeks. No doubt they are managing our expectations to limit the political fallout. Dire it may be, but if it is kinder than they have made us fear, we will all heave a collective sigh of relief.

Our public finances have been badly mismanaged, I think. Government funding has relied far too much on the speculative property bubble, which has now burst. The sharp reduction in stamp duty and other property related receipts, the slowing economy, and increasing unemployment have led the Department of Finance to forecast a deficit in 2009 of €13.3 billion, 7 per cent of GDP, unless drastic action is taken. Plans must be changed to reduce the deficit. We must expect the budget to raise taxes, cut services and defer plans for desirable new infrastructure and services. And I do not think these changes will be temporary. The fact is we can never return to the unsustainable property boom which artificially buoyed exchequer receipts. Revenues must be found from elsewhere or necessary services will be cut. The global financial crash can only make the Government’s difficulties worse, but I do not believe their denials that the deficit is home grown.

But now is not the time to assign blame and punish the guilty – there will be time enough for that in years to come. Now is the time for those responsible to take the hard decisions on behalf of us all. Let us pray that they are also the right decisions. I do not envy Brian Lenihan today.

On his way into Government Buildings Brian Lenihan said, ‘The Budget will stabilise the economy and inject confidence into the financial system, while also looking after vulnerable people.’ I like the bit about looking after the vulnerable. Jesus tells us, ‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.’ It is our collective, Christian duty in these difficult times to look after the vulnerable, so I pray that Brian Lenihan will live up to his confident words. Please God, he will look after the vulnerable in our own society, the poor, the disadvantaged, the unemployed. But please God he will not forget the very poorest of the poor in the developing world.

Overseas development aid – an Irish success
For me, perhaps the biggest test of his budget will be how he deals with overseas development aid. It is to the credit of successive Governments and to the Irish people that we have so expanded development aid in recent years. Like all rich countries we have promised to increase development aid to 0.7% of GNP to achieve the UN’s Millennium Goals agreed in 2001, which include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. Ireland has made a public commitment to achieve this by 2012. And unlike many other countries we have been delivering on our promise. Since 2001 Irish development aid has grown from €250 million to €870 million. We are now the sixth highest per capita donor, giving 0.54% of GNP in 2007. We are on track to achieving the target of 0.7%.

This table published by the OECD, showing how countries compare in aid to the poor world in 2007, makes interesting reading. The five leading countries that already exceed the target are all from northern Europe. Apart from Luxembourg, they are historically Lutheran – could their faith tradition have influenced their generosity? The USA is the largest absolute giver of overseas aid, but at 0.16% of GNP, its per capita performance can only be described as niggardly.

Of course these statistics do not tell the whole story. They are for official development aid, from state sources, and exclude private giving, for which it is difficult to find comparable statistics. Perhaps because of generous tax relief, experts believe that private US citizens give as much again as their government – but that would still leave them way down the league. How does our Irish private giving compare? I don’t know the figures, but I suspect and hope we too are privately generous. Nor do the statistics allow for how effectively the aid is used. Some decry aid as useless – I am thinking of a mean-spirited columnist I choose not to name – but aid does help poor people. And Ireland has developed an international reputation for using its aid well.

So what will the budget bring? Will Brian Lenihan live up to his promise to look after the vulnerable? Will he at least maintain the current percentage level of overseas development aid? We will soon know.

The morning after
It is now the morning after the budget. Like everyone else I’m sure, I am struggling to get to grips with its implications. It is indeed harsh. The pain will be felt by all of us through a combination of tax and duty increases and service cuts. Government supporters would like us to accept this as a patriotic duty, but there is a lot of anger around, as I detected chatting to people while doing the messages.

What about the promise to look after the vulnerable? I looked at the website of CORI – the Council of Religious of Ireland - to see their analysis. They say, ‘Our overall conclusion is that Budget 2009 failed to protect the vulnerable in the manner or on the scale required.’ They welcomed the increases for social welfare recipients – the only group to gain in the budget - while criticising the failure to fully cover the rising costs of food and fuel for poor people. They also criticised asking the working poor to pay the 1% income levy and the failure to increase child benefit. These are perhaps reasonable criticisms. But I think we should acknowledge that quite a lot was done in the budget to protect the vulnerable in our own society, even if we would have liked more. Perhaps the budget deserves half a cheer for this.

What about my own key test, protecting Ireland’s overseas development budget? This has been cut by €7million to €891 million for next year, but because GNP is expected to fall, this actually represents an increase to 0.56% of projected GNP. We remain on track to meet the 0.7% target. We continue to live up to our promises to the poorest of the poor, despite the economic difficulties. It really is remarkably good news, worth a full cheer at least!

If you agree with me, why don’t you write to a government TD to tell them so? When they do something right, they should be congratulated, to encourage them to do more of it in future!

Thursday 6 November 2008

A View from the Pew - Greed and Fear

View from the Pew is a series of articles I am writing for Newslink, the Diocesan magazine for the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe. This one appeared in the October 2008 issue.
Panic on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange

We seem to be living the ancient Chinese curse at the moment – “May you live in interesting times!” Humankind is buffeted by a myriad of crises, including global warming which I touched on last month. Now we are faced with a global financial collapse and a domestic recession.

The bad news in the financial markets comes faster each day. This time last year people of modest means in the USA found they could no longer pay their mortgages, their houses were foreclosed, house prices dropped, and construction screeched to a halt. Mortgage lenders, and banks they had sold their interests on to, began to worry about bad debts: the ‘sub-prime mortgage crisis’ entered our vocabulary. In March this year, investment bank Bear Sterns was sold for a pittance to prevent bankruptcy. In early September, the US government took over loan guarantors Fannie May and Freddie Mac to prevent their collapse. Two weeks later investment bank Lehman Bros went bust, another, Merrill Lynch, was taken over for a song, and insurance giant AIG was nationalised.

The contagion has spread around the world. Banks are writing off bad loans and will not lend to each other for fear they will not get the money back. The shares of the biggest UK mortgage lender HBOS have plummeted in recent days, and it may go under. Personal consumption has ceased to grow and investment has dried up. The world’s real economy is falling into recession. Oil and other commodity prices are falling, and unemployment is rising.

At home in Ireland, the building bubble has burst: house prices have been falling for a year, mortgages are hard to get, construction has crashed, and thousands of building workers are unemployed. Government finances have lurched into the red, and bank share prices have fallen to a third of what they were a year ago.

Where will all this end? I haven’t got the foggiest idea, but I would be pleasantly surprised if the coming recession is much easier than the Great Depression of the 1930s, about which I heard my parents talk. Alan Greenspan tells us this is a ‘once in a 100 years’ event. And it gave me no confidence to hear the CEO of the Irish Banking Federation on Primetime warn maverick economist David McWilliams that ‘loose comment is not helpful’. Confidence in the future is what sustains markets, and I don’t see much about. Should I start to fear for my pension and my savings?

How should we respond to all this as Christians?

First, we must pray for the very many people who will be feeling the pinch over the coming months and years. Our prayers will remind us of our Christian duty and God will guide us in our response. Second, it is our duty to protect the poor and the disadvantaged who are always hit hardest in a recession. This means both arguing for public policies to help them and supporting them with private charity if we can. Christ enjoins us to love our neighbours as ourselves. Our neighbours live not just in Ireland, but all over the world. It would be all too easy to say that ‘charity begins at home’ and ‘let the divil take the hindmost’, but that is not Christ’s way.

The cause of the problem, I think, is old-fashioned, sinful human greed. Banks borrow at low interest and lend at higher. Greedy depositors look for the highest deposit rates. Greedy banks make loans at the highest loan rates they can get. Greedy individuals borrow money to buy things they cannot afford. Greedy businesses leverage their own funds with borrowed money to improve their rate of return. All this works well enough so long as all parties accurately assess the risks of default. But when they don’t, the whole edifice starts to crumble – that is what we are seeing now. But risk taking has been built into the whole system as if it is a positive thing: the more risks, the higher the returns, and the higher the bonuses handed out to finance professionals.

If we want to avoid the periodic crashes to which the capitalist system seems prone, then, as Christians who understand the power of original sin, we must support those who call for stronger regulation to reduce greedy risk taking and allow the system to function.

But what if the problem is the capitalist system itself? Even if it were possible to regulate its excesses to avoid crashes, perhaps capitalism leads inevitably to the over-consumption which is degrading our God-given planet. The whole system depends on usury: lending money at interest. Paying interest requires economic growth, which drives consumption. But for Christians from the early Fathers up to the Reformation, and for Muslims to this day, usury was always forbidden. This is what St. John Chrysostom has to say on it:

"Nothing is baser, nothing is more cruel than the interest that comes from lending. For such a lender trades on other persons' calamities, draws profit from the distress of others, and demands wages for kindness, as though he were afraid to seem merciful. Under the mask of kindness he digs deeper their grave of poverty; when he stretches forth his hand to help, he pushes them down. . ."

Have the Fathers and the Muslims got it right? Perhaps we should also think again about how we organise our economy.

Friday 26 September 2008

View from the Pew - Climate Change

View from the Pew is a series of articles I am writing for Newslink, the Diocesan magazine for the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe. This is the first one, which appeared in the September 2008 issue.

What a summer: the rain incessant and the sky so grey and dismal! The garden is a mess: the potatoes are rotting in waterlogged soil, the tomatoes won’t ripen, and the flowers are drenched and battered. But these concerns are trivial compared with the trouble the weather is causing others. Think of all those poor souls whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed in the recent floods, particularly those in Newcastle West. Think of the farmers with crops to harvest whose year’s work looks at this moment likely to be for nothing. May the Lord strengthen them to overcome their losses, and may He show us what we can do to help them.

We have had a very wet summer and early autumn, the second in a row. I looked at the records from Met Éireann’s Birr weather station, the nearest to me. They show that July rainfall was more than one and a half times average, and by the 19th, August rainfall was more than twice the average for the whole month!

All this got me thinking about our changing climate. Should we blame the bad weather on global warming? I looked at the report by Met Éireann and UCD entitled Ireland in a Warmer World. It says:
Autumn and winter seasons will become wetter: increases in the range 15-25% towards the end of the century. Summers will become drier: 10-18% decrease towards the end of the century. Regional details remain elusive, due to the large uncertainty in local projections.

Summers drier? Well not this year anyhow! But we must be careful not to confuse climate with weather. Climate is a long term, statistical notion. We have had wet summer weather before, and two wet ones in a row is not particularly unusual – perhaps just unlucky!

But we should see the bad weather as a wake-up call, I think – a message from God that we interfere with His world at our peril. Global warming is a fact, say the scientists. Average temperatures are rising; the polar ice caps are melting; carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are higher than they have been for at least 30 million years. A few dispute the extent to which this is due to human activity, such as burning coal and oil, and cutting down the forests. But there is a wide scientific consensus that we humans are the cause, as reported by the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change. And this stands to reason: in the last 150 years we have burned 500 thousand million tons of carbon; the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is just half of that; and the well understood greenhouse effect explains the rising temperatures. I am convinced. Unless we change our ways as a species, there will be big, and probably very nasty, consequences for our children and grandchildren.

So how should we respond to this as Christians?

Surely not by withdrawing into an inner world of the spirit, as God’s world suffers about us. He has made us in his image, given us a glorious Garden of Eden, and placed us in it, to till and keep it. The damage we have been doing to the world is due to our sinful natures, our greed and selfishness, but Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Our task, surely, is to repent of our sins and work to save His creation.

I was pleased therefore to see that the bishops gathered for the Lambeth conference addressed the global warming issue. Chris Rapley, a former director of the British Antarctic Survey, now head of the Science Museum in London, and an eminent scientist who was my neighbour years ago but with whom I have lost touch, gave a keynote address which received a lot of attention. And the ‘Reflections’ document summarising the Indaba discussions has this to say:

If we say that “The earth is the Lord’s…”, we must be prepared to live as if that is true! We can not misuse a gift from the Lord. If we are to call ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ, we must be prepared for radical discipleship by “living simply, so that others may simply live.” Safeguarding creation is a spiritual issue. Climate change is posing questions freshly for us about our attitudes toward creation, technology, sustainability for a future, and justice for all people. This is a discipleship issue not something we might possibly do. When others see that we Anglicans take the issue of environment seriously, they may be drawn to work alongside us, and in so doing they may see the Good News of Jesus Christ proclaimed in action.
That is what the bishops say, and please God they will give us the leadership we need, but what are we ordinary folk in the pews to do to live up to this vision?

I don’t know the answers, but I feel sure we should talk about it more in our diocese, in the pages of Newslink, in our diocesan committees, and in our parishes. Here are a few thoughts:
  • We must as individual Christians, as disciples, walk more lightly on God’s earth. We in the rich world do not need to keep up with the Joneses by consuming more and more, and driving ever bigger vehicles. We must relearn the old spiritual values of living simply. It is a holy thing to live simply, as our Lord did, and we should rejoice in imitating Him!

  • We must take every opportunity to pray for the natural word, for the web of life of which we are part, and for those who make decisions on how to respond to climate change. We should add them to the prayers the prayer book enjoins us to pray in our public intercessions. God does not need our payers of course, for He knows our needs, but we need them, to remind us constantly of what is important!

  • As parishes we must consciously strive to run our affairs to reduce our carbon footprint, and protect our environment. My own parish for instance has carried out an energy audit to see how best to reduce our energy usage and carbon emissions.

What do you think? Write to Newslink and let the rest of us know!

Thursday 31 July 2008

It's raining, it's pouring ...

I'm looking out over Suzanna's labyrinth garden, and as I write this it is pouring. Not stair-rods, but a steady downpour, and it's being doing it for hours.

It feels as if July this summer has been extraordinarily wet, as wet as last summer, which seems to contradict the forecasts of the climate change experts. I looked at Met Éireann and UCD’s report Ireland in a Warmer World, which says:

Autumn and winter seasons will become wetter: increases in the range 15-25% towards the end of the century. Summers will become drier: 10-18% decrease towards the end of the century. Regional details remain elusive, due to the
large uncertainty in local projections.

Summers drier? Of course, they are forecasting what will happen over decades, two summers in a row don't make a climate, and we're talking averages over the country. But it made me wonder. So I checked actual figures for the Birr Met station. They confirm that June and July 2008 have been somewhat wetter than usual, but nothing like so wet as 2007. Temperatures have been close to average. But interestingly solar radiation in July this year is much lower than average, whereas it was close to normal last year - I think that means July has been unusually cloudy.

Contrary to my perception, it is cloud that is the real feature of this season. And I can see the results in the garden. Plants that like a bit of sun, like dahlias are rather late. The tomatoes and cucumbers in the polytunnel are pathetic. And Suzanna's hot peppers in the greenhouse are barely surviving.

The big success this year is Suzanna's salad leaves, which she is growing in pots barricaded with chicken-wire. Another is the peas, which we are eating almost every day, despite the depredations of the hares. The latter seem to have left us, thank God - I haven't seen any for a week or more, though I can still see the forms they made in the meadow. The potatoes are also eating well - we have tried the first Pink Fir Aple, confirming my opinion that they have the best flavour of all, though we have yet to sample the Belle de Fontanay.

Another casualty of the season seems to be the butterflies. Earlier on we had plenty of Holly Blues, and the browns don't seem to mind the cloudy conditions, but there are almost no Vanessids - I haven't seen any Painted Ladies or Red Admirals, just an occasional Small Tortoiseshell. Rather disturbing, though since they are immigrants from the continent I expect they will bounce back next year.

Monday 30 June 2008

First Fruits

The Summer is racing past me - it's the last day of June already, and I haven't blogged the garden since the last day of May. O mea culpa, mea maxima culpa! So what has June brought us?

We have been tasting the first fruits of the harvest.

We ate the first of our own new potatoes two nights ago, a fine variety called Charlotte, and they are very good. From now on we should be able to eat our own potatoes until the end of autumn at least: first the Charlotte, then an old early variety we brought back from France called Belle de Fontanay, and finally the main-crop Pink Fir Apple, knobbly but with an incomparable flavour. I can't wait.

We've also been able to pig out on raspberries for the first time, which is my favourite fruit - much better than strawberries to my taste. I foolishly neglected the soft fruit bed since I planted it six years ago, and allowed goat willow seedlings to grow up, saying to myself that the raspberries and red and black currants wouldn't mind, because they are woodland plants in nature. But this year the willows reached a good 12 feet and I have learned my lesson: without human intervention this garden would revert to Shannon-side willow scrub in less than ten years. I cut the willows down to the ground, and the fruit has instantly responded, though we won't get decent black currants till they fruit on the new wood next year, and I shall be constantly pulling the shoots from the willow stumps for years to come. The birds got the red currants, so I suppose I have to consider installing a fruit cage.

We've been doing well on globe artichokes too, really just an excuse to eat butter of course. I've had enough to give away. They are a mixture of green and purple grown from seed by Suzanna, so they are all more or less spiny and need to be trimmed with a scissors before eating. I must try to scrounge a root or two of the proper old variety without spines that my father used to grow when I was a child. The recent gales have been strong enough to blow some of the plants over despite their stout stems, so perhaps I shall try to pickle some of the small heads as the Italians do.

But the finest fruit of the season is my new Grandson Jonah!

Last weekend Suzanna and I flew to London to meet him for the first time. He is a little dote! At two months he is already half again as heavy as his birth weight; he constantly tracks the world around him with his lovely blue eyes; he is starting to enjoy making noises and playing games; and he is a very happy little chap, which is a great tribute to my daughter Ellie and her husband-to-be Darren, who are clearly wonderful parents. God bless all three of them! We also went with Ellie to show him off to some of my oldest and dearest friends from Cambridge, with whom I shared a flat in Ladbroke Grove all but 40 years ago. What warm welcomes we had, what wonderful teas, and what a pleasure to see my old friends holding the baby of the baby they had held when we all were young, what seems so short a time ago!

I offer this prayer of thanksgiving, adapted from the Prayerbook:

God my loving Father
maker of all that is living,
I praise you for the wonder and joy of creation.
I thank you for the life of Jonah,
for his and Ellie's safe delivery,
and for the privilege of being a grandparent.
Accept my thanks and praise
through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

When we got back from London, though, I contemplated murder. The hare had returned with leverets while I was away. They had eaten all the young French bean plants, and they were just starting in on the peas. My neighbour Geof has the same problem and is almost in tears about it. I searched the web for advice. The New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture says that night shooting is the only effective control, but I don't have the heart for that. Other sites say fencing with chicken wire is the only defence. A company in England markets a spray caller Grazers, but their Irish agent has not responded to emails - I shall try to order some on the web. Every time I see a hare in the garden - several times a day - I run out shouting and waving my hands in an attempt to frighten it into a more sharing disposition. Meanwhile ever practical Suzanna has been to the hardware merchant and built chicken-wire fences around her raised beds and salad pots.

The rest of the graden is looking very well, particularly the rambling roses. 'Neige d'Avril' is frothing over the patio arch, alongside 'Goldfinch'. The extraordinary petals of 'Veilchenblau' fade from an intial purple to violet grey beside shocking pink 'American Pillar'. Pink 'Belvedere', named for the great house near Mullingar in West Meath where it originated, is just starting by the gate, where it always attracts admiring comments from passers-by. I think I have finally identified the lovely repeat-flowering noisette I got from my mother as 'Champney's Pink Cluster', bred in America in 1811, though it might be it's child 'Blush Noisette', introduced in France in 1817.

Saturday 31 May 2008

May blossom fading

Already it's the last day of May, and I see that I haven't blogged the garden since early April - the May blossom is fading and my clout has been cast! The excuse is that Susanna and I have been away, despite last year's oath that never again would we desert our garden in April or May.

In early April I rushed to rotivate the vegetable beds, before we left for France - a tough job since they lay fallow last year. Charlotte and Pink Fir Apple potatoes went in, with broad beans and old reliable Kelvedon Wonder peas.

We took the car on the Celtic Link ferry to Cherbourg and joined the Irish Tree Society in their visit to the Paris area. Guided expertly and charmingly by Mme. Maïté Delmas from the Jardin des Plantes, we saw many grand gardens and fine trees, but to my mind none finer than the Domaine de Segrez in the enthusiastic company of the owner and eminent botanist M. Franklin Picard, who had added many rare species collected on his travels to a mid C19th arboretum. From there we took off by ourselves, visiting friends and reaching as far South as Limoux. The poor little car was groaning with cases of wine when we got back, including Monbazillac, Cahors and Blanquette de Limoux!

On our return three weeks later, the potatoes were just poking their noses out, and the broad beans were doing well; I was disappointed that the pea germination was sporadic - mice I suspect - but planted some more. I cultivated a third of Susanna's raised beds and she planted more peas, dwarf French beans, shallots, onions, garlic and beet - the other two thirds remains to be tilled. And I planted out a row of climbing French bean Blue Lake grown in peat pots by Susanna - incomparable flavour - and two rows of potatoes bought in France, Belle de Fontanay.

Then we left again for Germany, Leipzig, for Susanna's PhD Viva: the only place the external and internal examiners could get together was in the margins of a Conference there. My clever pearl beyond price sailed through of course, and will shortly be Doctor Susanna! Afterwards I took her on a long weekend in Berlin, so changed since we were last there shortly after the wall fell.
On the Sunday I worshipped in the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche on the Ku'Dam. The original neo-gothic church was destroyed by allied bombs in 1942. Alongside the shattered tower which has been left as a memorial, a modern church has been built; in it a beautiful golden statue of Christ hovers in front of blue stained-glass windows. The moving service was a Confirmation, administered by a woman pastor Dr Cornelia Kulawik.

The Blue Lake peas were eaten to the ground when we got back, and I think I know the culprits - the hares! They are still in the garden, and there are leverets too, though I can hardly believe the latter are the result of the tryst Susanna and I witnessed in early April as they are too big. One was hiding in the long grass of the wild-flower meadow, body to the ground and ears pressed flat, completely still even when we walked only feet away from it - very sensible, since I have also seen the Kestrel hovering in the vicinity.

Everything of course is bursting out now. The limes in the Alley are all in leaf, even the very late one which I think is Tilia cordata - and not T. platyphyllos as the others are. The young oaks grown from acorns harvested in the botanical gardens are reaching for the skies - they are all peculiar hybrids, and planted too close to each other and to other trees, but we need their shelter. I have at last planted out the young long-needle pine Pinus x holfordiana which we bought last autumn at Westonbirt, where the hybrid was first raised around 1904.

The wildflower meadow is in full blow, and I am delighted with it. The meadow buttercups are spreading well, the yellow rattle seeded from Carney Commons is putting manners on the coarse grasses, the birds-foot trefoil, vetches and red and yellow clover are putting on a show, and the Ox-eye daisies are just begining, though fewer than in previous years. It is showing its value for bio-diversity, as there are several different bumble and solitary bees working the flowers assiduously.

It looks too as if it will be a good year for butterflies. There were plenty of Orange Tips, and I have seen Greenveined, Small and Large Whites, as well as a few tatty Speckled Woods and Small Tortoiseshells. There seem to be more Holly Blues than usual which is nice - the caterpillars of this spring brood feed on the flower buds of Holly, but those of the 2nd autumn brood on the flower buds of Ivy - I must check our young hollies for them.

And Susanna's labyrinth garden is a picture, already full of colour and interest. One of the standard Wysterias flowered for the first time this spring - a beautiful scent - and the green-yellow-and-red Parrot tulips I gave her for her birthday made a particularly exotic splash. The David Austin roses are just starting, beautifully set off by the lavender, and the Russell lupins are giving vertical accents. Interestingly, the Magnolia stellata is showing a second flush of flowers on two lower stems, which have a pink flush and wider petals than the earlier flowers: I wonder if the plant is grafted, but if so, we are getting two for the price of one!

Oh may the Lord be praised for the beautiful place we live and for the glorious variety of his creation!

Wednesday 2 April 2008

Déjeuner sur l'herbe

An exciting day. Just as the Taoiseach was announcing his resignation (not before time), Susanna and I were behaving like voyeurs, watching the neighbours making love on the lawn!

As I was waiting for the press-conference to start, listening to RTE on this machine, what should I spot through the window, bounding through the Labyrinth beds, but a hare. Not our usual demure greyish resident hare, who is a good neighbour - almost a lodger - of whom we are proud, despite her partiality for crocuses, and latterly scabious, but a larger almost ginger creature. Susanna called me to watch him as he broke cover on the Lime Alley.

And then we saw the two of them. Our demure resident is definitely female! They were at it. Repeatedly, though each tryst was quite short. He was enthusiastic, and she was up for it, though I think he must have been a bit rough, judging from the little tufts of fur I discovered later. And then we spotted a very much smaller hare loitering not far away - a teenager perhaps, excited to see the grown ups behaving oddly?

Later on our demure resident disappeared, very sensibly, because a second big ginger fellow appeared. The two guys were not at all friendly, racing after each other, and scrapping - Susanna saw them box a bit, but I missed that. Jealousy over a woman is a terrible thing to watch. Neither one would back down, but eventually they disappeared into the distance in the next field.

I fancy this would be the song of our demure resident, in the words of the Song of Solomon (no one can persuade me it's about anything but sexual passion!):
I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.
As a lily among brambles,
so is my love among maidens.
As an apple tree among the trees of the wood,
so is my beloved among young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house,
and his intention was love.
Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples;
for I am faint with love.
O that his left hand were under my head,
and that his right hand embraced me!

We look forward to seeing leverets in the near future!

Monday 31 March 2008

Sixty Years Young!

My 60th birthday has come and gone!

I’d expected a quiet one, but Susanna had been plotting behind my back. “The courier is here”, she called. And when I opened the door there were my daughters Amy and Lucie, with their partners Ben and Tim, and my grandsons Cal and Gabe. I was taken completely by surprise - but what a lovely one! Among the presents they brought were a framed collection of happy family photos, and a CD of birthday greetings from them, from my other children Elinor and Barnaby who couldn’t be there, and from old friends, with more photos, and movies, and singing. Replaying it now by myself brings real tears of joy to my eyes - what a silly, sentimental old man I have become!

We were joined that evening by my brother Tom, with his wife Lucy and my nieces Hetty and Sophie, for a great family dinner, with a turkey hand-reared by a friend, and scrumptious birthday cake. And we played games: Are you there Moriarty?, Cahoots, and Holiday Planning. Over the meal Tom and I reminisced about our grandparents, in the presence of my grandchildren: if they were listening, they were hearing memories of their great-great-grandparents, from people who knew them. The continuity of memory that runs in families is amazing, and I think a very valuable thing, rooting us securely in a shared history.

Our gardens are often like that too. So many of the plants in our garden have an ancient history that I treasure. The tiny daffodils that have just flowered are an old cultivar of Narcissus minor from the Pyrenees: I got it from my mother, but it came originally from her Devenish grandparents' house Clonteem in County Roscommon, so I know it as the Clonteem daffodil. The balsam poplar, just coming into leaf and scenting the bottom of the garden, is a baby from my parents’ one, which in turn grew from a branch broken off her tree in Adare by Cousin Marjorie. “Here Lucie, stick it in the ground and it will grow”, she said: it did for her, and it did for me too. Other plants came from friends, or we have grown them from seeds or cuttings collected from beautiful places we have visited. They are now joined by a cherry (Prunus mume 'Contorta' I think) given me by Tom and his family for my birthday. A whole treasury of memories, rooting Susanna and I in our own landscape.

Despite the wind and rain, spring is bursting out all over in the garden. My birthday breakfast was scrambled eggs with our own asparagus from the polytunnel. There are tadpoles in the pond, so the frogspawn had been fertilised. Magnolia stellata (a house-warming present from a friend) is in full bloom, and M. 'Leonard Messel' is just showing pink. The first scarlet tulips are looking gay in Susanna's labyrinth garden. And the blackthorn has come out, so the fly will be up in a calendar month. How exciting it all is!

The theme of last Sunday’s readings was faith: the faith in Jesus the risen Christ confessed by Thomas who we wrongly call Doubting; the faith boldly proclaimed in public by Peter on the day of Pentecost; the faith passed down from the Apostles over the generations to us, which by the grace of God we will pass on to our children and grandchildren. It is a great gift from God which firmly roots us in the family of Christians of every place and age.

Tuesday 26 February 2008

The Gardeners & The Hare

My very talented cousin Heath Rosselli has painted this fine diptych portrait of Joakim and Susanah in the garden. The Lime Alley and the wild-flower meadow are behind us, and if you look very closely you can also see a portrait of the resident hare!
We are really delighted with the painting, though the quality of the photograph does not really do it justice. I know it's rather self-indulgent, but I thought regular visitors might like to see an image of the garden I write about.
Heath lives near Bury-St-Edmunds, Suffolk. You can see more of her work here. She is also a Church of England Lay Elder at All Saints, Worlington - the equivalent of a Reader with us - though she doesn't look old enough for such a fierce title!

Saturday 23 February 2008

A brisk Spring walk

Only a few days ago we were back in winter’s grip, with freezing fog decorating everything with hoary rime. But at last its spell has been broken, and I seem to have woken from hibernation to begin putting manners on the untidy garden, which I have so neglected since November.

I’ve started to push back the hedges and shrubberies, though much still needs to be done. Glyphosate has been applied to the overgrown vegetable garden, which I didn’t cultivate last year, in readiness for digging and rotivating. If I’d tackled these jobs when they should have been done they would only have been half the work! The mower hospital has fixed the broken clutch cable and sharpened the blunted blades, and as soon as I collected the machine yesterday I made a start on the main paths and the croquet lawn.

The later purple and white crocuses are making a fine splash down the lime alley, though the slightly earlier yellow ones were a disappointment this year. When I checked, I found most of the new leaves and buds had been eaten down to the ground. My suspicions were confirmed ten days ago when I spotted the resident hare grazing where they should be. And I suspect he has barked one of the young walnut trees, given us by a friend who grew them from seed. It and its twin are now protected with ugly curly plastic guards, but I fear the barked one may be a goner. The hare has made a form among the Verbena bonariensis seedlings in one of the yew beds. He (or she – I can’t sex a hare at a distance!) gives Susannah and me so much pleasure that we don’t mind putting up with the little damage he does. I also notice that one of the limes in the alley has been used as a scratching post, and some species tulips I planted in the wild-flower meadow have been grubbed up: I’ve never heard of hares grubbing in grass, so perhaps this was done by a visiting badger – I have been told of a sett not far from here - I rather hope so!

Yesterday Susannah came rushing in from feeding her birds in great excitement: she had found a big mass of frog-spawn in the small pond on the patio. We have had frogs in the garden since we came here, and when I strim the wild-flower meadow in autumn I always dread the occasional splat as one gets in the way, but we have never had spawn before. When I went out to look I could only see the one frog in the pond, a female I think by its size. I do hope at least one male had been there earlier to fertilise the eggs, so that we will have tadpoles! Susannah’s birds must be the best fed in the county, and have been entertaining us all winter from the kitchen window. This morning I was delighted to see a charm of goldfinches. They were feeding on peanuts, which is unusual because they are specialist seed eaters, and we rarely see them on the bird table.

Spring started in January like a toddler, but has already moved into a brisk walk. The snowdrops are almost over, I can see the daffodils nodding as I write, Spring Snowflake (Leucojum vernum) is in full blow, and the Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’ by the front door has bright pink flowers on bare wood – the latter is badly named I think, because for us at least it never flowers in autumn. Spring will be racing around like a ten-year-old by Easter!

Easter is so early this year, March 23rd, before my birthday which is unusual. I was born on Easter day. According to my mother, God bless her, I caused the nuns tending her to miss Mass, and I’ve been a trouble ever since! In fact Easter will not fall on March 23rd again until long after my death in 2160. The earliest day Easter can possibly be is March 22nd, which last occurred in 1818, and will not do so again until 2285. Easter will be very special this year!

Wednesday 2 January 2008

When is kissing out of fashion?

When the gorse is out of blossom!

But then the gorse blooms 12 months of the year here in Ireland, as I was reminded as I drove country roads on New Years Eve. We Irish seem to have become very kissy people in recent years - which I think is lovely - so this made the perfect justification for kissing all the ladies at the New Years party in the Club later on! It was a very civilised affair, bring-a-bottle and a dish to share, plenty of chat with old friends and new, and great jollity. 2008 is off to a good start.

A cousin sent me with his New Year wishes this BLUEBEAUTY link with amazing photos of our planet Earth from space. If you have Powerpoint, click on the link, open it and click on the screen to see the slideshow. If you don't, you could try this link, but the Powerpoint version is better. As a Buddhist, he says it has a spiritual message: we are but an infinite speck on an infinite speck, so nothing should be taken too seriously! As a Christian, I agree that it has a spiritual message, but a rather different one I think. I see in this delicate jewel the traces of a loving Father-like God, through whose creative power we humankind have evolved. He has endowed us with this bountiful planet to meet all our needs. He has made us in his image to be souls: moral beings knowing right from wrong; with cleverness to understand creation; and with free will to use it for good or evil. We must take it all very seriously I believe. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't enjoy a good party, as they did at the wedding in Cana of Galilee! As in so much else, Jesus shows us the way, and the Spirit sustains us!