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.