July, heat, open doors and windows for a cool breeze. The gulls nested on a neighbour’s roof had been persistently noisy for days, with a penetrating, pugnacious squawk audible throughout our house.
In the 20+ years we’ve lived here, gulls have moved inland from their seaside haunts to nests across the town. We are not to call them sea gulls, just gulls now and they are a protected species.
Protection, though, doesn’t mean gulls are gentle, vulnerable birds. The opposite is true, with their reputation of noise, nuisance, attack. One woman’s head was bloodied in one attack.
These noisy, defensive swoops over our gardens were because this year’s chicks were growing up, now nearly as big as their parents but still squeezing out their pathetic, asthmatic, please-be-sorry-for-me cries. Agressive parents yelled their response through daylight hours.
Then early evening and the pathetic cry of a young gull in our small garden. There it was, a big bird unlike our robins, finches, tits or even woodpeckers. Its plumage was still a mottled grey-brown, unlike the deceitful white of grown gulls. This youngster could not fly. Or had forgotten. It must have glided from its roof-top roost to our small, dry, grassy area bounded by various shrubs and under an aged apple tree. Then got stuck.
Maybe it was too weak to try to fly. Maybe the chick saw it didn’t have the length or angle needed to make it skyward, so it walked around the garden, crying its pathetic cry, quite heart-rending.
The computerised answer machine of an animal welfare group was no help. One short-lived idea tempted me to catch the chick in a large cloth, carry it out to the street so that, if the parent gulls could help, surely they would. They kept circling, they didn’t try to help. Nature, I thought, should be left to take its course.
Then the chick discovered the side entrance. Well, if it wants to go out into the road, let’s help it. Side gate opened, off it toddled towards the road. Now it had space to take off, if it could. Or its parents could feed it and protect it.
A while later an ambulance drove past and went over the chick, I was told. A crew member picked it up and placed it on the ground at the base of a tree.
By morning, the chick or corpse had gone. Perhaps a fox, maybe a cat. Nature had taken its course. Such a short walk; such a short life.
Other gulls now circle with parents, flying lessons, hunting tips – who knows. They squawk less, seem less bothered by humans, until next year with new eggs and new chicks.
A particularly heavy viral infection, a bit like a cold, cough, sinusitis and lethargy all mixed in, gave me a Sunday morning at home to browse some email advertisements. One from Naxos records led me to listen to some choral pieces by Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen. Most were on YouTube, e.g. The Lamb – Arnesen’s setting of William Blake’s poem. Wow is an overused reaction, but I was so impressed with the musicality, the beauty, the calmness, the hope, the tender joy in God’s creation, the unifying consequence of being loved by our creator who, in Jesus Christ, became flesh, a little child, the Lamb of God, to take away the sin of the world, and renew right relationship in many directions.
What a gift! Thank you, Blake, Arnesen, Kantorei, Denver… Wow!
31 December, 2017
This is lightly-edited version of a sermon I delivered at my home church in October, 2016, based on the Bible reading: Proverbs 5:1-23
Why is adultery wrong?
To answer that, let’s look for a while at what the Bible has to say about sex. I think we will find simplicity in our current cultural context of diverse and confusing views—even within the church of Jesus Christ.
I must say I find western civilisation confusing and complex when it comes to sex and sexuality. We used to talk of a person’s sex—male and female— now of a person’s gender. It’s all about what one feels about oneself rather than biological realities. What was forbidden and hidden when I was young is now protected, promoted and even celebrated.
Couplings and decouplings, betrothals and betrayals, these are often the core of drama. At least there is recognition that sex is one of life’s most powerful forces.
Some foundation stones
Would you agree with these statements?
- God created everything, so everything belongs to God.
- As creator God knows what is best for us.
- God is love; God loves us; God has no favourites.
- So, when God speaks to us; he wants everybody to understand him.
- Lastly, God inspired the writing of the scriptures. so when we read the Bible, we should expect God to speak to us as we are. God does not make the highly academic his favourite. What is plain and straightforward is what we should understand.
Going Back to the Beginning
So, back to the beginning, Genesis. Lay aside the disputes over these chapters; rather, ask what is the plain and straightforward message you read about God and about people
The creation story starts with a planet in chaos; God brings order, such that the diverse forms of life he creates can thrive: plants, animals, sea creatures, birds. Lastly, God makes a man, Adam, breathing life into a body made of earth’s dust.
Adam is both lord and steward of all other earthly living creatures. But, among all those creatures no suitable companion is found for him. So, God makes a woman, a fit companion, a helpmeet, a co-steward. Man and woman are unashamed in their nakedness. They are told to be fruitful and to multiply. And God says they are made in his image.
Further, God declares (Gen.2:24), “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”
This plain, simple story tells us that God created sex to be the means whereby the human race was to grow and multiply. God defined marriage between one man and one woman as the context for sexual activity and expression. Sex brings physical, emotional and spiritual bonding.
In Adam and Eve we have the pinnacle of God’s creation; no other creature bears God’s image. The union of a man and a woman is God’s design, it brings the best for each other.
Affirmed by Jesus
Jesus affirms this when in Matthew19:5, he quotes the verse about a man leaving his parents and cleaving to his wife.
This description of marriage, then, precedes the formation of the Jewish race and religion. It comes before the formation of the Christian church. Marriage is a creation ordinance. So, it applies to all of the human race, no matter where they live, what religion they follow. God the creator defines marriage in this way.
I want to put it this way: marriage between one man and one woman for life is God’s ideal context for sexual activity. Anything else, of whatever kind, is less than the ideal, falling short of God’s glory, dishonouring God.
Now, let’s look at how this “ideal” gets on. Back to Genesis.
The next part of the story is the malicious question of the serpent to Eve, “Did God really say…?” The question lingered in Eve’s mind, grew into mistrust and led to sin, to the fall and to broken humanity—and now to a creation that groans under the weight of the consequences.
Immediately shame comes in. Adam and Eve know they are naked and try to cover themselves. Child-bearing will be painful, says God. The marriage relationship becomes imbalanced.
Yet, God’s grace is evident. He clothes Adam and Eve; he sends them out of the garden so they would not live in their fallenness for ever. That brings us to the end of chapter 3.
In Genesis chapter 4, we read of Cain murdering his brother Abel. Six generations later, Lamech has married two women. Not only is he a bigamist, defying God’s desires for marriage, Lamech is boastful and vengeful. We see the effect of fallenness on sex and marriage.
After the flood, God blesses the survivors, Noah & his wife, his three sons and their wives, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” God restates the place of sex inside marriage.
This strong force in our lives, designed by God, his invention, has to be constrained. The safest place, the best place, God’s intended place is within marriage: one man, one woman for life. That marriage is the intended place to bring children into the world and to raise them.
And after that? Later than Genesis…
After that there is a sobering set of stories about the abuse of God’s gift of sex and marriage, even by the patriarchs, by great kings.
Abraham sired a son by his wife’s handmaid. The family’s division and strife flow down to today’s Middle East.
Abraham’s nephew, Lot, lived in Sodom—a bad choice because a mob wanted to rape Lot’s two male guests, heavenly emissaries.
Lot’s daughters got him drunk so they could get pregnant by him. Moab and Ammon—the two boys conceived—were the ancestors of lasting enemies of the children of Israel.
Jacob’s deceitful uncle Laban got Jacob married to both his daughters. The rivalry between the two women led to Jacob siring children by the women’s servants—twelve sons and one daughter. The twelve tribes of Israel descended from the sons of one man by four women. Favouritism by Jacob led to jealousy and strife among the sons.
King David had several wives but snatched another man’s wife, Bathsheba. His guilt led to murder and discord among his sons.
David’s son, Amnon, raped his half-sister; David did not give the girl justice; he failed her, possibly calloused by his own sin. That failure led to division and rebellion by Absalom, Tamar’s brother.
Every time there is a Bible record of a person ignoring God’s ideal about sex and marriage, trouble follows.
Some people argue that because David’s heart was fully devoted to the LORD his God, God is not so interested in David’s polygamy. We should loosen up, they argue, about this century’s attitudes and practice towards sex and sexuality. But they forget the devastating consequences when God’s ideal is ignored.
Instead of that deduction, I would say how gracious God is. How gracious to honour David, to use him for God’s own glory, even though David patently did not achieve God’s ideal in sex and marriage. How gracious that the nation of Israel emerged from such a dysfunctional family! How gracious that Abraham is held up as a great example of faith!
Historical reality is that the human race has done pretty badly; God’s ideal remains ideal, but it’s achieved by few.
The Plain Meaning?
Where have we got to?
God invented sex. God’s ideal is for sex to be between one man and one woman who are married. This is where children should be brought into the world and should be raised in love and safety.
Last week a picture came into my mind. It was of a mountain peak clear in the sky but the lower slopes and valleys around were deep in mist.
Today’s confusing, contradictory world when it comes to sex and marriage is in the mist. As hearers and doers of God’s word, we should look to that mountain peak above the mist, above the confusion. God’s ideal for sex and marriage is what helps us decide whether or not an idea, a behaviour, a cultural pressure comes from God or not.
That ancient serpent’s voice can be heard in our generation—Did God really say….?
Back to the text
Proverbs 5 focuses our attention on adultery. And the Bible is honest: honeyed lips, smooth words from a woman seeking pleasure outside her marriage. And pleasure there is—as former vows are laid aside and the strong force of sex is unleashed. A new partner, new thrills, all hidden away and with the frisson of the forbidden. But, v22, new bonding turns into cords that bind; it’s tough to give it up.
This chapter’s advice is that prevention is better than a cure:
Your potential partner in adultery, says God, doesn’t think. At heart is not love and kindness, but cruelty. The path he or she has chosen leads to death of reputation, of relationship, of strength.
So, keep away, don’t go near the door of their house. Take a long-term view; remember the public shame, the fights, the losses.
The proper path, the pure way, is to remember the vows you took; drink clean water at home; keep your sexual energies within your marriage under the blessing of God. Remember how lovely your spouse was—and is—and stick to the path that does not end in death.
And remember: v21 God sees it all. God will hold to account.
It happens today
In the last bulletin from the Worthing Churches Homeless Project, I read the story of one man they helped. —— His wife’s new job brought her new friends. Things changed and the wife told him she had been sleeping with someone else. A single violent lashing out and he was banished from the family home. Depression, inability to hold down a job. An ASBO and being told to keep away. “The worst bit was when I saw my little boy and he was so sad and told me ‘now I don’t have a Dad.’”
The Guardian’s weekend supplements published an anonymous letter by an adult woman who had observed 15 years of unfaithfulness by her mother. What is often the strongest of family ties—mother to daughter—was shattered. Instead of love, there was contempt.
A Premature Bereavement
Jilly Cooper is a well known author. In 2013 her husband of 52 years died. She misses him all the time….but he wasn’t a perfect husband. At one point, he had an affair. The tabloids found out, and the other woman wrote a tell-all piece about it. It was, admits Cooper, an excruciating time.
“But in a way, she did me a very good turn, because if he’d died untarnished, it would have absolutely crucified me. But after her, nothing would ever hurt so much [again], because I’d already been through that hurt.”
Afterwards, she says, “although I loved him, I didn’t love him that completely. The Garden of Eden had been deserted. It was merciful of God, really.” (The Week 10 September 2016)
Those three stories really spell out for us today the same message as Proverbs 5.
One last thing: When that group of men dragged the woman before Jesus and told him she’d been caught in the act of adultery, Jesus finally spoke out, ““If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”” (John 8:7) And one by one they crept away. Jesus asked the woman, “Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Jesus did not say, “…without sexual sin…” The Greek word does not bear that connotation. “…without sin…”
We will rub shoulders with people moving around in the mist of current public opinion, we will do well to remember Jesus’s response to the crowd and to the woman—go and sin no more. It is not ours to condemn, to cast stones. It is ours to point to the mountain, to be channels of God’s love and grace to those seduced by honeyed lips; those discovering the bitterness and emptiness of living with less than the ideal God has so clearly and simply revealed to us.
I was always intrigued to hear varied uses of the English language during my travelling days. To hear in India that “the miscreant was absconding” translated into my British “the suspect ran away.”
Even now I notice differences: in UK we talk of New Year. My US friends say, “New Year’s.” I assume there’s an apostrophe there as they shorten New Year’s Day or Eve.
Then I came across so many web site articles headed “this 101” or “that 101.” Wikipedia has the answer:
In American university course numbering systems, the number 101 is often used for an introductory course at a beginner’s level in a department’s subject area. This common numbering system was designed to make transfer between colleges easier. In theory, any numbered course in one academic institution should bring a student to the same standard as a similarly numbered course at other institutions.
Based on this usage, the term has been extended to mean an introductory level of learning or a collection of introductory materials to a topic.
I love how language lives.
11 January, 2017
Wales is my home nation. I was born and lived in Cardiff, its capital city, until leaving for Swansea, deeper into Wales, for university. My first job was teaching in the English Midlands and I’ve never lived in Wales since. Apart from a few years in Seychelles, England has been home – two of my three sons are English, the other was born in Seychelles.
While I love where my wife and I live now, on the South Coast of England near the South Downs, going to Wales always evokes a sense of going home. After the border, usually crossed on the M4 motorway, the road signs are in both Welsh and English. The countryside is like nowhere else in the United Kingdom, hills, woods, rivers, greenery, the air.
Today our holiday near Brecon ends. We leave Powys’s gentle hills for the Downs. It’s been good to be here, to climb the local peaks and yesterday to walk old paths across bracken-covered plateaux used for centuries by sheep drovers taking their flocks to market.
Yes, Wales feels like home.
11 September, 2015
Firstly I have had the honour of being deemed unworthy to grace the public Internet by my ISP, whose safeguarding processes thought this blog was dangerous to young people. That took a few weeks to sort out. Now, at last, I can read my own blog.
Then, the blog hosting company must have put up a back-up version that lost my solitary 2015 post and rearranged date orders of older entries to what probably triggered my ISP’s actions. Well, are we back permanently?
I hope so.
13 January, 2015
The short answer is, “Yes.” I had put up all my previous blog entries using Joomla! and something nasty happened to kill it all off. So, I am trying out WordPress as this is a simple blog and probably will never grow any fancy bits.
For now I am working on retrieving previous posts and putting them up here.
So, if you are a reader or a visitor, you will see more very soon.
20 March, 2014
Mottisfont Abbey is a National Trust property about 5 miles from Romsey, Hampshire. It was a great place to meet two friends with whom our main contact has been Christmas cards and letters while they lived outside the UK for many years. The tea shop did good trade as we sat and swapped stories of the years.
The house itself focuses on the 1930s and early 1940s as the woman who gave it to the NT used to entertain writers and artists of her time, the artists being persuaded to leave paintings and drawings which now hang in various rooms. The upper floor of the house has been opened as a gallery. The timeless original illustrations of various Winnie the Pooh books being the current exhibit.
One small space, though, was given to a display of kites by John Browning. John uses leaves and other natural items to build the most beautiful and fantastical kites. I was taken by this one which looks more like a nature-based decorative piece than a kite.
Each kite is given that name only after John has flown it. He gets his creation aloft, hands the string to a companion, then photographs the new kite.
John’s long years as an industrial chemist help him devise new methods of turning leaves into the gauze-like skeletons he uses in his new designs.
Did you know that stinging nettles can provide a useful fibre to be spun into string?
20 August, 2013
Take the A27 from Arundel to Worthing, before Hammerpot turn left into Dover Lane. Drive slowly to reach a car park in a copse. Walk north, find the bridleway through woods and descend into the gallops.
A mile long, soft surfaced, uphill, muscle building gallop for racehorses trained nearby. One day it would be wonderful to see them, but on this the fourth or fifth visit none appeared.
After the long gentle ascent, a five-way intersection of bridleway and footpath. A panorama, north to the South Downs Way from Kithurst Hill to the descent into Houghton. West, the far side of the Arun valley. East – Harrow Hill and Blackpatch Hill north of Patching and Long Furlong.
Up the hill where ewes and this year’s lambs graze or doze, many black-faced, some speckled – reminiscent of Jacob’s dealings with Laban in the Bible’s book of Genesis.
Then along the side of a steep drop overlooking Lower Barpham, a big farm, perhaps, with Sussex flint walls and red brick, converted barn and stables in the lee of the hill.
Through extensive woods, from Michelgrove Park to Angmering Park.
Last week sun, today low cloud. Last week the promise of bluebell carpets, today bluebell carpets.
I love knowing places intimately, seeing where I have been before on other walks, admiring afresh familiar sights. The bible, in Genesis, starts with Adam who worked the soil and God who took walks with Adam. Maybe that’s where it all starts.
8 May, 2013