From walking the nature reserves to caring for Creation

When I mention to Christian friends that I visit the local nature reserves, I sometimes get a response that leaves me slightly wrong-footed. They may say something like, “How good it is that you can get out into open and worship God there!”. It’s a lovely thought, and I do do that occasionally – but when I go watching wildlife, I’m primarily focussed on watching wildlife and not on worshipping God.

It’s quite hard to pray when there’s a photogenic egret just in front…

The reality is that I find it far easier to worship God when I can focus on doing just that, and not being distracted by other things. Otherwise the praying can be a bit like “Lord, I just want to commit to you… hang a sec, Lord, an egret’s just landed in front of me, where’s my camera, back in a mo…”

The more I watch wildlife, though, the more I realise that I can’t ignore the global issues that affect the animals and birds themselves. A small example was given in my recent blog post about Great White Egrets, but it’s a far bigger problem.

The latest information from the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission is that 13% of bird species, 25% of mammals, 33% of reef-building corals, 34% of conifers and 41% of amphibians are threatened with extinction. There are a range of issues that contribute to these depressing statistics: three major ones are pollution, invasive species and global warming. So what should we do about it?

Vine growing up the side of one of the church’s buildings in Martley; we also had one in Wichenford that grew through from next door.

Although global warming has been widely known about for thirty years, I have to admit that my response then was somewhat bone-headed. I even tried to be a Climate Change denier. My argument was that we really don’t know enough about the Sun’s behaviour and its effect on the Earth to rule it out as the cause. This was a weak argument at best and has since been ruled out – but what eventually convinced me was that it’s not just global warming that’s the problem: there’s atmospheric pollution, for example, which is itself a major cause of global warming. It’s effectively the smoking gun. (I remember the discussion that made me wake up to this, and wish I’d had the guts to admit it.)

Despite realising the seriousness of global warming and related issues for at least twenty years, I have to admit that until recently I haven’t done much about it, apart from using energy-saving light-bulbs and driving a fuel-efficient car. Getting married to Jen has made a substantial difference in that area – she’s much more naturally conscientious than I am about acting on what she believes in. We’ve therefore recently decided to adopt a flexitarian diet, which is designed to be environmentally sustainable without going vegetarian. A major part of it is to reduce the amount of red meat that we consume: animal products (and especially red meat) have a much bigger environmental impact than plant products.

Last autumn, I did a series of talks here called ‘Eyes on God’s Creation’, which was intended to be a follow-up to the wildlife weekend back in June. One of the talks was on climate change, for which we had a really good outside speaker. To my surprise we had half the numbers for that than for the previous two talks. While I was reflecting on this afterwards, one person seemed to put her finger on it: climate change makes us feel bad – that we ought to be doing more than we are – and we tend not to like hearing it.

This has led me to begin to write a Lent course on Creation Care. The purpose of Lent is to look at those areas of our lives that are not pleasing to God: if it makes us feel bad, well, that’s part of the reason for the season. While we’ll often do Lent in a way that’s quite personal – which is really valuable and important in itself – looking at environmental issues forces us to see ourselves as part of a society that is causing global ecological problems.

There are several challenges: to make the course relevant environmentally, while being accessible and not too stodgy; and to engage with scripture in a meaningful way that isn’t contrived. We’ll have to see how well this works!

Reflecting on the “Eyes on Wildlife” weekend

The “Eyes on Wildlife” weekend (from June 15 to 17) was great fun, and many people seem to have enjoyed it.

Friday evening in Burtle Village Hall was a sell-out for the evening with Dominic Couzens, the well-known wildlife writer, who came to speak about “Birds Behaving Badly”. We’d expected to hear about bird behaviour, and there was plenty of that – what we hadn’t realised was how entertaining a speaker he is! He soon built up a good rapport with the audience.

We had a meal with the talk, and the combination worked for a relaxed and enjoyable evening. The first course was lasagna, after which Dominic did the first part of his talk. After dessert, and before the second half, I asked Dominic about his faith, and he gave us a really genuine and honest description of his journey: he’d been an atheist at school but it was the friendship of people at the Christian Union that made a real impact shortly after he arrived at university.

Dominic Couzens (front right) fielding questions at the Village Hall after a great talk and supper. Photo: Henry Routley

We learned a lot about bird behaviour! As an example: we learned that at a rookery in windy weather, the dominant birds took shelter low in the trees. However, in fine weather they perched higher up… so they weren’t pooped on by birds above them!

Huge thanks to the Burtle team for this led by Rosemary Tucker and ably helped by, amongst others, Jane Ponsillio, Rosie Tilbury and Sue Ball. Chris Mockridge also brought the audiovisual equipment.

Throughout the weekend, the photographic exhibition ran in Shapwick Church. Much as I like taking bird photos myself, the ones on display were in a different league – they were outstanding! The main displays were provided by Carl Bovis, James Cawte, Dan Hargreaves, Kim Hemmings, Chris Hooper, Andrew Kirby and Colin Lawrence. Their generous contributions were very much appreciated. Several of the photographers arrived on the Thursday afternoon and there was some enjoyable banter flying around: some of them had known of each other via Facebook forums but hadn’t previously met.

Some of the photographers who were exhibiting: Carl Bovis, Colin Lawrence, Andrew Kirby, and Chris Hooper, with Alison Everett who did so much to help make the event happen.

The wildlife photography exhibition just before opening time

For me, one of the most notable photos was one of a stoat running on ice at Greylake: Carl had seen it in the undergrowth, and had set his camera in expectation that it would run out. When it did, he was ready. From this I learned that the ability to anticipate what an animal will do next is a really important skill to learn!

Stoat on ice, by Carl Bovis

Another favourite of mine is an extraordinary action shot by Chris Hooper of two territorial grebes chasing each other. The intensity of the moment is highlighted by the open beak of the chasing grebe and the plume of spray to the left. Chris told me that the grebe fleeing wouldn’t give up and kept going back for more encounters!

Grebe chase, captured by Chris Hooper

The cafe that ran alongside the exhibition was a major part of its success. As Carl Bovis put it, it was due “no doubt in no small part to the delicious cakes on offer for visitors!” Light lunches were served, as well as fresh coffee, tea, scones and cakes – all of which helped to create a relaxed ambience.

Very many thanks to the Shapwick team led by Helen Wade, who was assisted by a large team, including Sue Sellick, Rosie Tilbury and Mary Tucker, as well as Rosemary & Chris Hargreaves, Brian Tilbury, Ann Cattermole, Jan Jones, Ken Wade, Kirsty Sellick, Jo Wright and my wife!

The café and exhibition in full swing

Some wildlife encountered at Muddy Church by the Decoy Lake!

On the Saturday afternoon, we had a Muddy Church – an outdoor variant on Messy Church. Over twenty primary-ages kids came with their parents. Fiona Livesley, our inspiring and indefatigable leader, had devised a really good set of activities for the children as they walked through woodland and meadow to the Decoy Lake. There, we had a picnic, before descending on the Decoy Hide in force – fortunately there were no birders there to disturb at the time!

Children and parents head towards the Decoy Lake on Shapwick Heath

There was an early start on Sunday for a couple of dozen folk, for a bird walk led by Alison Everett. We saw several Great White Egrets – now a regularly breeding colony in the Avalon Marshes having first bred only three years ago – and several Great Crested Grebes with their chicks. After the walk, we went for a full cooked breakfast at the Ashcott Village hall.

Freda Prime and Margaret Trimm and their team in Ashcott produced the full cooked breakfast for 24 on the Sunday morning, which would be a notable achievement for most people, except that it doesn’t quite beat the 70 to 100 they’ve cooked for at the Ashcott Big Breakfast!! They then hosted the evening at the playing field. Many thanks also to them.

The weekend concluded with two Celtic-style services, at Chilton Polden in the morning and on the playing field in Ashcott in the evening. There were two guest speakers: David Maggs, the diocesan environment adviser, and Caroline Pomeroy, the Director of Climate Stewards, both of whom encouraged us to think about and act on our responsibilities for climate and the environment. Rowena Steady led the music beautifully in the church services, and was joined by Andy Savage and the rest of Polden Praise in the evening.

One of the best aspects of the weekend is that it has been a great team effort of the Polden Wheel churches, and I’m indebted to the many who gave so much of their time and energy. I need to give a special mention to Alison Everett, an avid birder herself, who gave many hours for each of the events, particularly the exhibition and the bird walk, and her practical support has been invaluable.Her dedication to the weekend has been exceptional and greatly appreciated.

I hope the teams and all those who’ve visited enjoyed the weekend as much as I have!

Miles from Texas in Shapwick

It was halfway through Miles Pike‘s concert when I thought, “how on earth did we manage to get a singer this good here in Shapwick Church? For his first ever concert in the UK?!”

In practical terms it happened the following way. Some years ago, the pastor of Harvest Church in Street, Dylan Thomas, went to the Stamps-Baxter School of Music in Nashville, Tennessee where he met Miles for the first time, discovering that he was a very gifted singer with an unusually wide vocal range. It was Dylan who invited him over here to do a tour in the UK. Nigel Steady (whose wife Rowena leads our music group Polden Praise) realised that there was an opportunity for an event in Shapwick church, and set about organising it.

Shapwick Church was full for the Miles Pike concert

Miles sang a range of songs from traditional hymns, through modern worship songs, to some that he himself had written. The one which has stiuck in my mind the most was the finale, called “The Son Of A Carpenter”, which was a powerful and moving story from the perspective of the man who became the thief on the cross, who recognise that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. This was a wonderful composition that was truly the climax of an exceptional night in Shapwick Church.

Miles singing in Shapwick Church

As well as singing, Miles also spoke about the nature of the gospel and of Christianity. He managed to combine winsomeness with directness, which is something which is done all too rarely: I felt that this sprang out of the depth of his own personal faith which meant he was authentic in what he was saying.

Miles & Martha, with Rowena and Nigel Steady, Jan Jones, Jen, and Martha’s mum Jill.

As he’d appeared at cafe church in the morning, Jen and I had the prviliege of hosting him and his wife Martha for lunch. They are a lovely couple and very easy to chat with. It was great to hear how they had first met at music school: for Miles it was love at first sight, followed by four years of enabling Martha to recognise that they were meant to be together! A couple of days later we were invited round to Dylan and Liz’s house (unfortunately Jen missed out as she was in London), where Miles cooked a great chilli con carne followed by a traditional poundcake.

Miles & Martha at Dylan & Liz’s house (with Adam Smith on guitar)

They are off to Sweden for a few days and back in the UK for some more concerts in the area from the 22nd to the 24th of September, and I’d highly recommend anyone with the opportunity to go to do so. You won’t be disappointed!

Miles Pike’s website is here:

A great New Wine – with a tragic postscript

Jen and I spent a week at New Wine a couple of weeks back, and had a most enjoyable time. We camped with the church in Walton (the next one east of Ashcott), and we were warmly welcomed by the team there. Richard & Sharon Knight were the hosts, and we really enjoyed getting to know them, as well as Mike & Karly Robertson, Hannah, and the children and young people who were with them.

The main Bible teaching in the morning was given by RT Kendall. He’s now 82, and first made his name as a preacher at Westminster Chapel where he was the senior minister for 25 years. For me it was refreshing to have a top-quality Bible teacher doing the morning slot: in previous years, speakers have been a bit too light on the Word in their eagerness to be inspiring.

RT Kendall at New Wine

Each of his sermons were masterpieces: and, as we discovered, many had been honed by being given multiple times over the years! These were the topics he spoke on:

  • The importance of ministering in the Word and the Spirit: too often churches prefer one or the other, when we actually need both.
  • The way God answers our prayers depends upon our readiness to receive his answer: we think we’re ready for God to bless us, but often we’re not.
  • The need for total forgiveness in our relationships: this is usually a long process, as we root out the anger and resentment in ourselves.
  • A twofold talk on the importance of tithing – giving God the full 10% of our income – and the importance of being thankful to God. God often blesses the tithing so that our 90% goes further than the original 100%.
  • A look at the end-times based on a radical interpretation of the parable of the ten virgins.

Alister McGrath at New Wine

One of the strengths of New Wine is the wide variety of seminars that take place during the day. It was great to see Alister McGrath being invited to do two of them. He remains an outstanding contributor to the science & faith field, although I sometimes feels he’s a victim of his own success. His pre-eminence gives him a ready market but I’m left feeling he’s not quite reached the breakthrough that could make a lasting contribution.

Gavin Calver at New Wine

One speaker I’ve not heard before, but rather wished that I had, was Gavin Calver: a very gifted communicator who’s also highly intelligent. He was speaking about the need to be confident in the Gospel despite our living in an age of great uncertainty. For example, the word of the year for 2017, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘post-truth‘: the idea that personal feelings are more important than absolute facts. (The definition in the OED is a little subtler in saying that the idea relates specifically to the shaping of public opinion). But, as Calver was pointing out, as Christians we believe in absolute truth and it’s over-riding importance (eg that Jesus really is the risen son of God).

In his second seminar, Calver gave ten tips about how we share the story of Jesus more. Here are three of them:

  • We must not change the substance of the gospel or water it down because we think doing so will make it more palatable.
  • We need to pursue holiness – to stand out from the culture: how we behave differently as Christians speaks volumes to others.
  • We’re all witnesses. Telling the story of Jesus should not be left to a few specialists but should be done by each one of us.

It was a most enjoyable week: inspiring and refreshing, and made even more so by the community of Walton church with whom we camped. The tragic postscript is the sudden and unexpected death of Mike Robertson, whose cheerful and friendly personality helped to make us feel so welcome. He leaves behind his wife Karly and two primary school-aged children. We pray that they will experience the depth of God’s love in this most difficult of times.

Freshly expressed rural ministry

I recently went to an outstanding conference run by the rural team within the Fresh Expressions movement. It was exciting to be among a group of church leaders who are in similar contexts to the Polden Wheel, and who are thinking of new ways of doing church to engage with wider groups of people.

The first day focussed on several stories of rural Fresh Expressions. One of the most inspiring ones came from a remote part of the Scottish borders. Back in 2007 the parish acquired a new vicar, Bill Landale, who challenged the congregation to think about church in new ways. When they did a community survey, they found that, although people were interested in spiritual things, they didn’t think that traditional church would help them, so the idea of doing a Fresh Expression was born. Meanwhile, Bill identified the person he wanted to lead the new project – a guy called Alistair Birkett, a local farmer who at that time was part of another church. After a year and a half they launched Gateways Gathering, aimed at children with young families: it’s similar to Messy Church. They eventually grew to a point when they recognised there was a need for something more for the adults – so, two years ago, they launched Gateways Fellowship, which adopts a cafe church approach. The video below tells their story.

One of the prayer stations used in Outdoor Church

The highlight of the second day of the conference for me was being introduced to Outdoor Worship by Sam and Sara Hargreaves. There are a number of variations of this overall idea, each aimed at different potential audiences. For example, Forest Church seems designed to engage with New Age and pagan spiritualities, whereas Outdoor Worship may connect in a more straightforward way to families with young children (exemplified by Park Church in Luton). One of the key values is that outdoor worship is not merely doing indoor worship outdoors, but is doing something different that relates to the outdoor environment.

As the conference had an overall theme of ‘Dying to live’, one of the activities for us was to look at the invertebrates living on dead wood. As we looked at all the creepy-crawlies I re-connected with my inner child… I was still tearing bark off rotting wood while everyone else had moved onto the next bit, and couldn’t stop myself interrupting Sara in full flow with “hey, there’s a millipede here!”. That was probably the moment when I realised that Outdoor Worship was something I should explore further!

Outdoor church lends itself to some thoughtful prayer stations.

The theme of the conference was ‘Dying to Live’. The basic idea was that we may need to let some things die in order for new stuff to take root: part of Alistair and Bill’s story encapsulated that, and the dead wood – living creatures connection in Outdoor Worship also worked well. Having said that, the theme didn’t really capture the essence of the conference. The mood was more one of optimism and enthusiasm as we were able to explore different ideas: ‘dying’ didn’t really feel like a major part of it!

I also really enjoyed connecting with other church leaders. Early on, I sat next to Scott from Somerset, so I started with ‘Hi, I’m Rich, which part of Somerset are you from?’. Scott replied ‘I’m from a village called Curry Rivel’. At this point I recognised an important connection, and said ‘ah, your wife had coffee with my wife last week’! The networking aspect of the conference was invaluable: it was great to be able to meet and chat with others who are in rural ministry, and to be able to learn from other people’s experiences. I particularly valued a chat over lunch with Matt Timms from the New Wave church in Perranporth, which connects with the surfing community there: he reminded me of the value of prayer walking, and of not being afraid to try some experiments, some of which might fail.

It was great to be able to worship without having to be responsible for it in some way!

When I arrived I had high expectations of this conference, but was a bit worried I was being unrealistic: but actually the conference far exceeded those expectations! I’ll probably be booking in for the next one rather early.

Refreshment or burnout?

Jen and I have just been to an excellent Pastoral Refreshment Conference, an annual event at Hothorpe Hall in Leicestershire. It’s run by Living Leadership, an organisation which aims not only to train pastors, but to enable them to be able to sustain ministry over many years.

It’s an issue I’m passionate about because I’m all too aware of how often ministers burn out or fall into serious sin. For example, at a well-known Anglican church over the last twenty years, two associate ministers had to leave because of depression, two others through having affairs, and then the senior pastor had to leave, also because of an affair. I am convinced that ministers need to be living healthy, balanced lives – and failure to do so impairs our witess to the good news of the gospel, which is at the heart of what we do.

Mark Meynell, the speaker at the Pastoral Refreshment conference.

Mark Meynell, the speaker at the Pastoral Refreshment conference. (source)

The speaker for the conference was Mark Meynell, who was an associate pastor at All Souls, Langham Place. Jen had heard him speak regularly and had found his preaching to be particularly helpful. Then after some years Mark admitted that he had been suffering from depression throughout his time there, and some time after that resigned from his job.

Jen and I missed the first talk on the Wednesday evening (we were late!), but heard the evening session when Mark talked in detail about his depression. He described what it was that had triggered it, and how he coped (or didn’t) with the aftermath. It was a powerful session because he didn’t give easy answers, and shared honestly about the bleakness and blackness of the hardest times. (His blog describes some of this experience here).

At one point the next day, as Mark was describing the reality of being in depression, I wasn’t entirely sure how he was going to pull the series through: after all, the conference was about ‘refreshment’ rather than ‘depression’! I need not have feared because his talk on the final morning was both refreshing and very challenging. He didn’t join all the dots, but he’s writing a book that probably fills a few of the gaps.

Inferring somewhat, at some point Mark took a step of faith to believe that the gospel is true, even though he didn’t have the right feelings. A key verse for him is from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, “we live by faith, not by sight” (here) – in other words, if it’s true, it doesn’t matter what we feel. What the New Testament doesn’t offer Christians is an easy, struggle-free life – and Paul certainly doesn’t, either. When he talks about “light and momentary troubles” (here), he’s downplaying the ordeals that he describes in detail elsewhere (such as imprisonment, floggings and shipwrecks: here).

Towards the end, Mark played us a song by Steven Curtis Chapman which expressed his own battle after heart-rending tragedy.

After returning from the conference I came across a very moving interview with Chapman himself, a year and a half after his own tragedy. It’s a very powerful testimony (so much so that one of the interviewers struggles with his own emotions).

One of the most refreshing aspects of the conference was the willingness to tackle a difficult subject. The more healthily pastors can talk about issues like depression, the more easily we’ll be able to assist those going through similar experiences – but also, the more we’ll be enabled to take preventive steps for ourselves.

What’s the most important aspect of the gospel?

As we approach the Easter season, I am reminded of a question that I was asked some years ago, by John, an interviewer while I was in the application process for ordination. Without intending to, I completely bamboozled him with my answer.

The question was outwardly straightforward: “What’s the most important aspect of the gospel?”. I’ve since discovered that this is a fairly standard question for ordination candidates to be asked, and there are a number of basic answers, depending upon your theological preferences – none of which I gave.

For example, I could have focussed on the events around Christmas (in theological language, the incarnation, when God became man in Jesus). Without this, the other extraordinary events of Jesus’ life could not have happened. 

Or I could have looked at the events of Good Friday: through Jesus’ one, perfect sacrifice of himself on the cross, for our sake, Jesus opened the way for each one of us to have a living and active relationship with God. Everything else is a bonus.

The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, which may be the site where Jesus’ body was taken, and from which Jesus rose from the dead. (Photo © Philip Benshmuel; original here)

Alternatively, I could have chosen Easter, which celebrates the resurrection: the fact that Jesus rose bodily from the dead: the crowning triumph of Jesus life on earth, when he showed that he had defeated both sin and death.

Instead I said, without hesitation, “the fact that it’s true, that’s what’s most important about the gospel”.

“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” spluttered John, “the fact that it’s true, is that all you can say?”

My point was that the gospel is based on historical fact – most particularly as recorded  in the four reasonably-independent biographies known to us as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – rather than upon myth or legend, or some esoteric knowledge that only the chosen few have access to. I’d be tempted to answer the same way today.

However, if I’d answered the question the way John wanted me to answer, I’d choose Easter and the Resurrection. This is the defining event of Christianity: it’s the miracle that trumps all the others, where even death itself was defeated. All four gospels climax with it and provide evidence for it. The incarnation may have paved the way for it, and Jesus needed to go through the one perfect sacrifice on the cross for it to happen, but it’s the resurrection that is the greatest triumph of all.